“Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel.” With these famous words, the venerable King James Version of the Gospel of Matthew heralds the birth of Christ (Matt 1:23). Long before these words were applied to Jesus, though, they were delivered by a particular prophet to a particular king whose kingdom seemed to be on the verge of collapse. The prophet was Isaiah, and the king who seemed destined to lose his kingship was Ahaz, ruler of Judah.
Who Was Ahaz?
The name Ahaz is a shortened form of names like Ahaziah and Jehoahaz, which mean “The Lord holds.” Ahaz ruled over Judah from 742–727 BCE, and accounts of his reign are preserved in 2Kgs 16, 2Chr 28, Isa 7, and various Assyrian annals. While it is difficult to reconcile all of the events they describe, we can piece together the basics of his story and some of the dilemmas he faced.
At the heart of Ahaz’s dilemma stood the menacing empire of Assyria. Under the brutal emperor Tiglath-pileser III, Assyria’s domination of its neighbors had reached crisis levels. The nation of Aram and the northern kingdom of Israel wanted to stem the tide of Tiglath-pileser’s advances by launching their own war against Assyria. When the southern King Ahaz refused to join their cause, Aram and Israel invaded Judah and threatened to replace Ahaz with a king more to their liking. The king was caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Fighting mighty Assyria was a fool’s errand, but not joining the fight might get him killed all the same.
What Was Ahaz to Do?
The prophet Isaiah’s counsel to the king came in the form of a sign: “The young woman [ʿalmah] is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel” (Isa 7:14). Although the Hebrew word ʿalmah can refer to a virgin (as the Septuagint, which Matthew followed, understands it), the term generally refers just to a young woman of marriageable age. It seems likely that the young woman here is Ahaz’s wife and that the son she would bear was the future king, Hezekiah (“Immanuel” in Isa 8:8 certainly refers to Hezekiah). The prophet’s word of comfort was that Ahaz would not be deposed by Aram and Israel; his line would carry on in a soon-to-be-born son. Ahaz just needed to trust in God’s protection.
Unfortunately, Ahaz chose a different path. He appealed to Assyria for help, saying, “I am your servant and your son. Come up and rescue me” (2Kgs 16:7). He even sent gold and silver from the temple as tribute. While Assyria did come and defeat Ahaz’s northern enemies, this rescue came at a cost. Judah became essentially an Assyrian vassal, and Ahaz’s son Hezekiah would be saddled with the consequences of this arrangement. Perhaps as a condition of serving Assyria, Ahaz also introduced foreign religious practices into the land (2Kgs 16:18). This, in particular, earned him the ire of later biblical and postbiblical authors. The account of Ahaz’s reign in the Deuteronomistic History (2Kgs 16:1-20) focuses its retelling mainly on condemning Ahaz’s illicit worship (vv. 1-4, 10-20), a pattern followed by the Chronicler as well (see 2Chr 28). Drawing upon the Chronicler’s version of events, the Talmudic sages highlight Ahaz as the very model of sustained wickedness (Meg. 11a) and suggest Ahaz’s troubles were meant to produce repentance but only produced ruinous idolatry instead (Sanh. 103a). Some modern historians offer a more sympathetic picture of Ahaz, suggesting Ahaz’s submission to Assyria may have actually saved the nation whereas Hezekiah’s rebellion nearly destroyed it. Given the great power and destructive bent of the Assyrian empire, it may be that no king of Judah, Ahaz included, could preserve the nation unscathed when Assyria decided to act.