One of my favorite books to study is the Bible. Yet no matter how many times I read it, I am constantly coming across the "hidden side" to stories that I have read or referenced all my life--facts that hide in plain site right there in the text.
Read a few verses before or after a text. Check one of the cross-references listed in the study Bible. Try to do both, and you you will be taken deep inside the culture; your eyes will be opened to the "hidden side."
For example, one of Christmas's most cherished quotes was first delivered beside a water pipe. No angels sang, no shepherds watched. A king was there, but he was none too happy with the Christmas message.
The king was Ahaz, father of Hezekiah, a king who divided his loyalties between Yahweh and King Tilgath-Pilesar of Assyria. The prophet, as we all know well was Isaiah, the proto-Christian voice of pre- and post-exilic Israel.
If you read biblical encounters of prophets and kings, you figure out the prophetic modus operandi pretty quickly. Prophetic visits aren't announced or arranged. The best encounters--Moses with Pharaoh, Elijah with Ahab, Nathan with David--occur when prophets just 'show up.'
And that's what Isaiah did one day in 735 B.C., surprising Ahaz as he inspected the pools of Jerusalem. Ahaz wasn't preparing for a message from God, he was preparing for war. The kingdoms of Israel (Ephraim) and Damascus (Aram) had united against Judah. Ahaz had done two things to secure his throne (neither of which involved prayer): he had requested aid from Assyria, the superpower, and he had fortified his defenses. The aqueducts, which brought water into Jerusalem's pools and fountains, would be among the first defenses to be attacked during a siege.
Driven by divine order, Isaiah took his son, "Remnant will Return" (you have to feel for offspring of prophets in the Bible--modern-day celebrities having no corner on bizarre baby names). Isaiah met Ahaz at one of the pools.
His message was benign: "[This invasion] will not take place, it will not happen," he told King Ahaz (Isaiah 7.7). Yet Ahaz didn't respond: no praise, no thanks, no offering...no worship.
Maybe he didn't hear Isaiah and his son. "Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz," the story continues, "Ask the Lord your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights" (verses 10-11).
I imagine that Isaiah was pretty brusque at this stage. Ahaz had just been given a prophecy that would certainly seem to be "glad tidings of great joy." Peace in Judah had been confirmed by God.
Ahaz didn't want a sign. "I will not ask; I will not put the Lord to the test," I have things under control--thanks but no thanks.
This is pretty surprising, considering Ahaz's superstitions. Later his son, Hezekiah, would ask for a sign--the sun retreating down a sun dial. But Ahaz was in every way superstitious and pagan. For example he
- carved Hezekiah's sun dial into the Temple steps, much to the dismay of God-fearers like Isaiah
- erected two golden horses at the east-facing entrance to the temple, modeled on those harnessed by the sun god every morning
- built a pagan altar inside the Temple, modeled on one he had seen on a royal visit to Assyria
To put it succinctly, he had most certainly put the Lord's mercy to the test.
Isaiah erupted--but his eruption ties in with the Christmas story. In the face of this vacillating, idolatrous king of Judah, Isaiah threw the Christ child.
Perhaps if this king didn't "get it" (and how many kings--or presidents--or representatives--ever really do), then a good king would come from the most unlikely of places.
"Will you try the patience of my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel" (7.14)
Before there was a Joseph or a Mary, before angels appeared to shepherds or a star lighted the way for wise men, there was a king, checking his water supply, who ignored some pretty good news from a very great prophet.
It's still pretty good news today.