An ancient Bible story serves up a warning to Christians in the current political campaign.
Sometimes when we read the Old Testament, we read ancient stories that seem to have no relevance to us today. So we shelve them away out of our consciousness. But sometimes–and now is one of those times, in my opinion–those ancient stories come keenly alive.
The Old Testament passage I am thinking of is Isaiah 7-12. These five chapters may be hard for an uninformed reader to follow, even though they contain some of the most beloved prophecies that we read in our Christmas services every year. But if you read them in their historical context, they speak of something much more sinister than Christmas tinsel.
The chapters deal with a national crisis that hits the kingdom of Judah under the reign of king Ahaz. Two of Judah’s neighbors, the kingdoms of Aram (centered in Damascus) and of Israel (centered in Samaria) have joined forces to invade Judah. Their intention is to overthrow Ahaz and install a puppet on his throne.
Faced with this deadly peril, Ahaz searches for a savior for his kingdom. He looks at the far-off but mighty Assyrian empire centered in Mesopotamia. Assyria is a powerful military machine and has subdued vast portions of the Middle East. Ahaz contemplates inviting its emperor to come to his rescue. That emperor will bully Aram and Israel into submission.
As Ahaz contemplates this course of action, God sends the prophet Isaiah to the king to warn him not to do this. Instead the prophet calls upon Ahaz to place his trust in God. If so, in a couple of years, Aram and Israel will no longer be threats because they will no longer be kingdoms.
As a seal guaranteeing that this will happen, Isaiah announces that God will give Ahaz a sign. He declares this sign in a passage that has reverberated through the 2,000 years of Christian history:
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. (Isaiah 7:14)
Christians have read this passage as a prophecy of the birth of Jesus. In an extended sense, the New Testament so reads it. But in its original context, it was meant to be an assurance to Ahaz to place his trust in God’s care.
Despite repeated words from the prophet, Ahaz ignores this word from God. He does invite in Tiglath-Pileser III, emperor of Assyria. Assyria invades, annihilates the armies of Aram and Israel. Judah is saved, but also now serves as a vassal of Assyria.
Under Ahaz’s son, Hezekiah, Judah seeks to re-establish its independence, political and spiritual. This provokes another Assyrian invasion that ravages the land. Judah’s cities are razed to the ground, their populations slaughtered or carried into exile, while the Assyrian king gloatingly boasts of his prowess in the carvings on his steles and palace walls.
Jerusalem survives only by the skin of its teeth. God directly intervenes for its salvation. But under Hezekiah’s heir, Judah becomes thoroughly submissive to Assyria, even being required to install the religious images of Assyria’s gods in the Jerusalem temple. Judah remains under Assyria’s thumb until the Assyrian empire suddenly collapses in 612-609 B.C.
Ahaz invited in the devil. He saved his throne and his life, but at the cost of corrupting Judah’s political independence and spiritual identity. He ignores the word of God that comes to him through the voice of Isaiah. He chooses political expediency over trust in God.
How An Ancient Story Comes Alive
How does this ancient story come alive for me today? By nature, I am reluctant to bring religion into politics. Often this ends up besmirching the name of God. But as I watch the current campaigns under way for the presidency, I am constantly reminded of this ancient Bible story and its warnings.
One of the striking features of the current Republican campaigns for the Republican nomination is the fervent support many Christians are giving to Donald Trump. This surprises many observers, including myself, because Trump seems to manifest many features that are at serious odds with an orthodox Christian lifestyle and morality.
One can hardly imagine someone who in his swaggering speech and values exemplifies less the spirit of Jesus. Trump trumpets the supreme value of winning, whereas Jesus teaches his disciples, If any one would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all. (Mark 9:35)
So why are so many Christians throwing their support to Trump? I have asked myself that question. And in reading political commentators on the campaigns, I’ve noted that repeatedly observers report that many Christians in America feel under siege. They feel they are being attacked by the dual enemies of secularism and liberalism. The political leaders they elected cannot protect them. So they are looking for a strong arm to come to their protection.*
Trump promises to be that, saying he will protect Christianity. So they are flocking to an alliance with this seemingly strong arm, trusting that he will not turn on them in the end.
When I read news reports like this, I think of Ahaz and his appeal to the Assyrian emperor. An ancient story is repeating itself.
And so the preaching of Isaiah speaks to us again. In the words of the prophet:
For the Lord spoke thus to me while his hand was strong upon me, and warned me not to walk in the way of this people, saying: Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what it fears, or be in dread. But the Lord of hosts, him you shall regard as holy; let him be your fear, and let him be your dread. He will become a sanctuary, a stone one strikes against; for both houses of Israel he will become a rock one stumbles over—a trap and a snare for the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And many among them shall stumble; they shall fall and be broken; they shall be snared and taken. (Isaiah 8:11-15)
Instead the prophet calls upon Judah to place its trust in its Lord, as he and his family will do:
I will wait for the Lord, who is hiding his face from the house of Jacob, and I will hope in him. See, I and the children whom the Lord has given me are signs and portents in Israel from the Lord of hosts, who dwells on Mount Zion. (Isaiah 8:17-18)
As Christians ponder where to give their support in this campaign, I ask them to read again and ponder this ancient story. For I fear that those Christians who look upon Donald Trump as the great savior and protector of Christianity are inviting in the Assyrian emperor into their land of Judah. The consequences for Judah were fatal in the end, politically and spiritually. They may likewise be for the cause of American Christianity today.
* One of those observers is the conservative opinion writer Charles Krauthammer, who wrote a column titled “Donald Trump: Defender of the Faith,” published in The Washington Post, on March 3, 2016.