Isaiah is the book containing the oracles of Isaiah, the son of Amoz, who was called by God in the year in which king Uzziah died (Is. 6:1; 740 BC) and those given by his disciples during and after the Babylonian exile, possibly as late as 520 BC As Prof. Roy Gane, the principal contributor of this quarter’s SS lessons, points out, there is a gap of 150 years between the historical references in Chapters 1 to 39 and Chapters 40 to 66 (Lesson 8, p.161; While pointing out the length of time covered by the circumstances of the various oracles, he does not draw the logical conclusion to this fact). Besides the length of time in which the oracles were at home, it must also be noticed that the text has several problematic sequences and interruptions. For example, the appearance of Leviathan, the fleeing, twisting serpent and the dragon of the sea (Is. 27:1) is a distraction, and the announcement that in 65 years the 10 tribes of the kingdom of Israel would vanish is an inaccurate editorial interruption (Is. 7:8).
Several hands were involved in the writing of the book as events followed their course. The final editors knew that after the return of the people from exile, a son of David was not on the throne of an independent nation. The promise made to David and “his house” was, therefore, prominent in their minds (2 Sam. 7:8–16). Jerusalem had received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. Her iniquity had been pardoned (Is. 40:2). The claim is that The Mighty One of Israel, who forms light and creates darkness, who makes weal and creates woe, is the Lord. He is behind all these things (Is. 45:7). He is the only true God. All the others are just idols of wood and stone (Is. 44:9–20; 45:5–7; 46:6). The main agenda of Isaiah is to show that the Holy One of Israel, who severely punished His people, is also the faithful Redeemer (the nearest of kin) who will restore the fortunes of Israel (Is. 43:14) and of a descendant of David (Is. 9:7).
All the prophets presupposed that God is a God of justice. In His world retributive justice works. “If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword” (Is. 1:19–20). “Tell the righteous that it shall be well with them, for they shall eat the fruit of their deeds. Woe to the wicked! It shall be ill with him, for what his hands have done shall be done to him” (Is. 3:10). Isaiah sees the Exile, first announced in 5:13, as a demonstration that what God predicts comes to pass. The promised punishment had taken place; therefore, the full re-establishment of the throne of David was guaranteed. Expectations were high that the return of the exiles to the land, made possible by Cyrus, the anointed of the Lord (Is. 45:1), was the beginning of the restoration of an even more glorious Promised Land for the benefit of all nations (Is. 2:1–4; Mic. 4:1–4). Retributive justice works.
To understand the lesson for this week, Chapters 7 and 8 must be taken together, as well as the whole of Isaiah. The narrative says that Isaiah and his son She’-ar-jush’ub (“a remnant shall return,” the name tells it all) had been sent to tell Ahaz, the grandson of Uzziah, “Take heed, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint because of these two smoldering stumps of firebrands” (Is. 7:4). Pekah, the king of Israel, had asked help from Razin, the king of Syria, to conquer the kingdom of Judah, and thus rule over all the territories of the kingdom of David. God tells Ahaz that the plan of Pekah and his ally “shall not stand, and it shall not come to pass” (Is. 7:7). God’s plan is for a son of David to rule in Jerusalem, and the kings of Israel belonged to several warring dynasties. God is telling Ahaz to trust in Him. As a self-fulfilling prophecy, God’s urging comes from a negative perspective: “If you will not believe, surely you shall not be established” (Is. 7:9). To help Ahaz to trust God, Isaiah adds, “Ask a sign of the Lord our God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven” (Is. 7:10). Ahaz rejects the invitation, and God is upset because He has been snubbed. So, God turns the tables and gives a sign to Ahaz. While the sign Ahaz was supposed to ask would have brought about a confirmation of God’s power to protect him, the sign God gives Ahaz brings to light how He sees those who keep solemn assemblies (Is. 1:12–14), grind the face of the poor (Is. 3:15), take bribes to deprive the innocent of his right (Is. 5:23), and trust on the help of Assyria to flourish. The sign God gives is: “a young woman shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Immanuel (Is. 7:14). In other words, a girl will lose her virginity and the son of an unknown father is the sign of Ahab’s misconception of reality. He and the people see themselves as Immanuel. They think they have God on their side. But God is against them. As a result of their lack of faith, the inhabitants of Judah will live like nomads following a minimal herd (a young cow and two sheep) eating fermented milk and wild honey. The land where they are afraid of their two northern neighbors will become a field of ruins (Is. 7:21–23).
To Immanuel, the people who say to themselves “God is with us” but fear Syria and the northern kingdom of Israel, God gives a pointed message: they have refused to live from the “the waters of Shiloah that flow gently [the water of the Gihon spring was what made possible to live on Mount Zion], and melt in fear before Razin and the son of Remaliah (Pekah); therefore, behold, the Lord is bringing up against them the waters of the River (Euphrates), mighty and many . . . and it will sweep on into Judah, it will overflow and pass on, . . . and . . . will fill the breadth of your land, O Immanuel” (Is. 8:5–8). God had given Ahaz the opportunity to request a sign of His power within the whole universe, from the depths of Sheol to the highest heaven. Ahaz’s dis-belief, as he was warned, brought about his dis-establishment. His lip service to God was called to account. “Take counsel together, but it will come to nought; speak a word, but it will not stand,” The claim that God is with them is denied by their behavior. God is against them (Is. 8:10). Clearly the son born of that girl in not worthy to be called “Immanuel.”
Under the circumstances, God gives Isaiah specific advice, “Do not call conspiracy all that this people call conspiracy, and do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread” (Is. 8:12). The text gives no details as to what is described as conspiracies but makes clear that conspiracy theories are based on misplaced fears. In fear of an invasion from his neighbors, apparently Ahaz had been seeking help from Assyria on the basis of conspiracy theories. That those who pretend to have God on their side concoct conspiracy theories based on lies is a fact supported by much historical evidence. Conspiracy theories work on people who fear what they do not control.
Unfortunately, the recent history of the United States has made the power of such theories quite evident. For the last five years, Alex Jones’s InfoWars.com has been dishing out one conspiracy theory after another, and their effectiveness among Christians has been harvested by the president of the nation. After the Congress of the United States on January 6, 2021 certified the voting of the Electoral College, in spite of a deadly insurgency instigated by the president to prevent Congress from voting, 66% of the members of the president’s party still believe that the November 6, 2020 presidential election was rigged. Representatives in Congress are now being sanctioned for making accusations based on proven misinformation. Conspiracy theories based on lies are the tool used by those who manipulate the fears of people.
It is a painful embarrassment to admit that the growth of the Adventist Church has benefited from the propagation of conspiracy theories whose reliability is being discredited by history. Members of the church are seduced by charlatans who abuse their misplaced fears to exercise power over them either to ride their megalomaniac dreams and/or benefit financially. David Koresh and his Mount Carmel followers and Christopher Hudson and readers of The Forerunner Chronicles are the most prominent examples, but they are not alone. Members of the church regularly give evidence that conspiracy theories work. The popularity of conspiracy theories among us do not support claims of being a messianic people, of being Immanuel.
Fear is a natural and legitimate sentiment. Exploiting the fear of others with conspiracy theories to support one’s own purposes is the utter rejection of the commandment to love your neighbor. God concludes His advice to Isaiah with the words, “But the Lord of Hosts, him you shall regard as holy; let him be your fear, and let him be your dread. And he will become a sanctuary, and a stone of offense, and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel” (Is, 8:13–14). The sad reality was that both the Kingdom of Israel in the North and the Kingdom of Judah in the South had become corroded by hypocrisy. violence, injustice, and the popularity of conspiracy theories. Isaiah gives good reasons for fearing The Mighty One of Israel. According to him, God can be a vengeful, angry terrorist whose wrath and fury causes havoc (Is. 1:24; 2:21; 5:25; 10:5). Given the ambiguity of fear, the ultimate question is, What or Whom do you fear? The way to resist the allure of conspiracy theories is to test the “facts” used to support it. In the age of “information” overload, Wisdom calls for a sober assessment of the reality in which we live and who merits our fear. The message of Isaiah is clear: The people who have their fears misplaced and are seduced by those promoting themselves pretending to have God on their side prove that conspiracy theories work. Those who fear the Lord of Hosts testify that retributive justice works, as Isaiah clearly does.
All biblical quotations are from the RSV.
Herold Weiss is professor emeritus of Religious Studies at Saint Mary's College, Notre Dame, IN. His latest book is The End of the Scroll: Biblical Apocalyptic Trajectories.
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