First thing to note is that I’ve already studied the 2 Nephi version of this broken up into three separate posts. I am grateful for these seasons past, because they are still available to me in my current struggles.
Efforts to understand the historical context of this chapter sheds much light on the state of affairs and the significance of the counsel given. King Ahaz and the house of Judah (Jerusalem) had as their concern the kingdoms of Syria and Ephraim, which had joined forces together to come up against Judah. The real threat however for Judah was not these “smoking firebrands” (or fires that are without flames and just consist of smoldering embers). The real danger lie beyond in Assyria.
Surely the Lord God will do nothing save he first reveal his secrets to his servants the prophets. Listening to how Isaish words the impending danger of Assyria, the Lord is given credit for allowing the bondage that is about to come to Judah. 2 Chronicles 28:19-27 details what was happening with king Ahaz of Judah, and why the Lord saw it fit to bring him into bondage.
New day, I’ve sat here for a few minutes now wrestling with the context of this amazing prophecy that seems to be utterly out of place. Here is the king of Judah worried about two minor adversaries that seem to be the whole of his concern. Isaiah invites him to request a sign of God, but Ahaz, not out of righteous respect, refuses to ask a sign of the Lord.
(There is an experience from my mission that always comes to mind when I reflect upon these things. Those that are afraid to “prove the Lord” often lack the confidence of their own conscience in the presence of God. This because they are hiding in sin. This was Ahaz.)
So Isaiah gives the king a sign, the sign of the coming Messiah, born of a virgin into poverty. Isaiah’s commentary is even more condemning of the king. He says that in poverty, the Messiah will be able to “know to refuse the evil, and choose the good.” (vs. 15) Isaiah is not mincing words here, for he repeats that phrase again in the next verse, and ties it together with the king’s initial concern:
For before the child shall know to refuse the evil, and choose the good, the land that thou abhorrest shall be forsaken of both her kings.Verse 16, emphasis added
There is the sign and the reason why Judah is about to fall captive to a much bigger oppression: you are devoid of knowledge to refuse the evil and without the capacity to choose good.
An interesting side note: does poverty enable one to see clearer in terms of choosing good, and knowing to reject the evil? Isaiah is suggesting as much.
Know to Refuse the Evil, and Choose the Good
In his precise choice of words, Isaiah is teaching us also the lopsided reality of the plan. It’s not an equal choice between good and evil, lifestyle preferences, and the such. Wisdom is to know to refuse evil. The power of agency and our freedom is to choose the good. There is no strength, victory, or freedom if we choose evil. Freedom comes in knowing what evil is and being empowered to reject it when the temptation comes calling.