Dr. Benjamin J. Williams
A Peaceable Kingdom in a Time of War
When I teach or preach from the book of Isaiah, I usually begin by giving the listener these instructions:
Pretend you are not American. Imagine being a relatively small or medium-sized nation caught between dueling superpowers. Imagine lacking the strength of arms to determine your own destiny. Imagine that instead of striving for greatness and success, your goal is simply survival.
Now you are prepared to read the prophecy of Isaiah to the people of Judah.
I have also had people walk out of my class on Isaiah, complaining that the story had nothing to say to them—that it is either too complicated or too specific to history to mean much today. I’ll admit that portions of Isaiah and much of the Old Testament seem to be speaking to someone else. I mean, that only seems fair. Every word of Scripture was written for me, but not a single word of Scripture was written to me. All of it addresses someone else’s life and problems, so maybe I should just be glad when it does have a word for me, and then I can patiently endure reading the bits that seem to speak to someone else.
Recently, however, I was asked to teach Isaiah online to the students of the Ukrainian Bible Institute. For three weeks, we worked through the text together, and it became immediately apparent that they did not have to imagine anything at all. They were living out the political drama of Isaiah.
I do not mean that Isaiah predicted in some way the Russian invasion of Ukraine. I do not believe that the events in Ukraine today are somehow unique harbingers of the end times. However, I do believe that what makes prophecy so uniquely powerful is its ability to transcend specific conflicts and speak to many different moments in history, as if Isaiah was looking over our shoulders and speaking directly to us.
“In the days of Ahaz the son of Jotham, son of Uzziah, king of Judah, Rezin the king of Syria and Pekah the son of Remaliah the king of Israel came up to Jerusalem to wage war against it, but could not yet mount an attack against it. When the house of David was told, ‘Syria is in league with Ephraim,’ the heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind” (Isaiah 7:1-2).
This passage is so specific. It does not speak in cryptic riddles to be decoded and applied to historical concerns. It names the players in the drama. Very little is left to the imagination here. And yet, it does not only speak for the sake of Ahaz.
I have never been invaded, and I have never feared invasion. But my Ukrainian students were walking among ruined buildings and listening to drone explosions. And so, just as Isaiah once traveled to the upper pool on the highway to the Washer’s Field, he also traveled - by way of written text and the blessing of a Zoom classroom - to Kyiv.
“And the LORD said to Isaiah, ‘Go out to meet Ahaz, you and Shear-jashub your son, at the end of the conduit of the upper pool on the highway to the Washer’s Field.’” (Isaiah 7:3).
Judah’s Isaiah was also Ukraine’s Isaiah. He would do all the talking. I felt like Shear-jashub, just along for the ride, unaware of what God was up to as he spoke by Isaiah to someone else.
“And say to him, ‘Be careful, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint because of these two smoldering stumps of firebrands, at the fierce anger of Rezin and Syria and the son of Remaliah.’” (Isaiah 7:4).
Speaking to King Ahaz, God did not deny the peril that Judah faced. In fact, he confirmed that it was worse than anyone knew.
“Because Syria, with Ephraim and the son of Remaliah, has devised evil against you, saying, ‘Let us go up against Judah and terrify it, and let us conquer it for ourselves, and set up the son of Tabeel as king in the midst of it” (Isaiah 7:5-6).
Not only were Judah’s enemies preparing for war, but they also plotted to topple the government and set up their own puppet regime.
God is not unaware of our troubles. He is equally as compassionate towards our problems as he is certain that our schemes will not fix them.
God’s message by Isaiah was to be careful at this time. Fear can be a powerful motivator. Fear is the enemy of faith. Much of the book of Isaiah is a warning against trotting out fear-based plans to survive rather than trusting in God. Ahaz turned to every nation he could find looking for an ally, but all he found were half-hearted friends, broken promises, and hidden agendas.
Instead, God offers his promise. “It shall not stand, and it shall not come to pass.” (Isaiah 7:7).
I wish I could have given my students the sure promises of Isaiah to Judah. However, even here, I had to remind myself that Isaiah was not writing to the Ukrainians specifically, no matter how applicable it seemed. I could not promise them that Russia would falter or that Ukraine would endure.
Setting that aside, I do believe the hope of Judah remains for them and for us.
“For the head of Syria is Damascus, and the head of Damascus is Rezin. … And the head of Ephraim is Samaria, and the head of Samaria is the son of Remaliah.” (Isaiah 7:8-9a).
When we face either national or international political intrigue, God asks us to recall that “the head of Syria is Damascus.” That is to say, that dreadful nation or entity we fear the most is still just a power born of earth. On its throne is a mere mortal man destined to die. The despots of the earth may be dreadful men, but they are still men. None of them reigns from a throne in Heaven, omnipotent and dwelling in unapproachable light. These tyrants are mere parodies of the reality of God and His rule.
Thus, the final warning of Isaiah turns out to be for us after all: “If you are not firm in faith, you will not be firm at all” (Isaiah 7:9b).
The wars of humankind depend on the strength of arms, but a still greater war continues for the hearts and souls of people. It is a war fought not with flesh and blood, but with faith (Ephesians 6:12). Our enemies, whether named or nameless, have no power in Heaven and therefore can have no lasting victory on earth.
I have no prophetic knowledge of what will come to pass in Ukraine. For that matter, I have no prophetic knowledge of what will come to pass in America. But the head of Damascus is merely a mortal man named Rezin. The head of Russia is a mortal man named Putin. And the head over all things remains Christ Jesus our Lord (Ephesians 1:23).
Please pray for the people of Ukraine and the students of the Ukrainian Bible Institute.
Dr. Ben Williams is the Senior Minister at the Central Church of Christ in Ada, Oklahoma and a regular writer at So We Speak. Check out his books The Faith of John’s Gospel and Why We Stayed or follow him on Twitter, @Benpreachin.