Bible Exposition

The Question of Christmas

by Chris Pennington

nativity scene with baby Jesus

The story of the Old Testament is in a very real way the story of Christmas.

From the opening chapters of the Bible, God promises to send the Christmas child. And every turn of the Old Testament story concerns that Promised One.

If God can keep His Word, He is God. If He can’t, He is a fraud like all the other supposed “gods.” The question of Christmas is “Can you trust the Word of God?” Will God keep His Word to the line of the Messiah, to the House of David?

Isaiah 7 holds one of the most famous Christmas passages in all the Bible. At first glance, it isn’t a very “Christmassey” story. But on closer examination, the passage asks the question of Christmas: “Can you trust the Word of the Lord?”1

Historical Backdrop

Isaiah 7 opens with a siege on Jerusalem. Ahaz, the king, hears the news of Israel and Syria attacking him and his heart shakes “as the trees of the forest shake before the wind.”

To understand the enemy Ahaz faced, you need to know about three key events. In short, Ahaz had inherited a decades-long hostile relationship with Israel and Syria, had recently suffered a tremendous loss (120,000 soldiers—including his own son!), and had only returned to Judah by an incredible act of God.

Decades-long hostile relationship

First, Ahaz inherited a hostile relationship with Israel and Syria, which God started during Jotham (Ahaz’s dad’s) reign. 2 Kings 15:37 (emphasis mine) recounts the history:

In those days the LORD began to send Rezin the king of Syria and Pekah the son of Remaliah against Judah.

Recent crushing defeat

Second, by God’s action, Ahaz recently suffered a huge defeat to Syria and Israel, losing 120,000 of his soldiers in one day (including his son, his commander, and his second in command) and was captured along with 200,000 others from Judah (2 Chronicles 28:5, emphasis mine).

Therefore the LORD his God gave him into the hand of the king of Syria … [and] the king of Israel.… [They] killed 120,000 from Judah in one day, all of them men of valor, because they had forsaken the LORD, the God of their fathers. And … Maaseiah the king’s son and Azrikam the commander of the palace and Elkanah the next in authority to the king. The men of Israel took captive 200,000 of their relatives, women, sons, and daughters.

God’s protection and return of Judah

Finally, God acted to spare Ahaz’s life and return him to Judah through Oded, an obscure prophet (2 Chronicles 28:9–15). Israel listened to Oded long enough to return Ahaz with supplies before quickly changing their minds and returning to capture Ahaz once again (2 Kings 16:5).

It’s no wonder Ahaz and Judah were so terrified of the approaching armies!

Divine Assurances

When God approaches Ahaz through Isaiah the prophet, He has one message for him: “It shall not happen” (Isaiah 7:5–9). God pictures the “fierce” Syrians and Israelites as burnt out campfire logs already past their prime (Isaiah 7:1–2).

God makes it clear that neither Syria nor Israel will replace Ahaz as king. He goes one step further, promising that Israel will cease to be a distinct people group within sixty-five years, a destruction which is well-documented in the Old Testament (Ezra 4:2).

God is clear. He would protect Ahaz unconditionally. Ahaz need only be firm in his faith (Isaiah 7:9).

Assurance Rejected

God so often condescends to us! Here, knowing Ahaz’s fear, God tells the king to “ask a sign” as a proof of God’s faithfulness to His Word. He puts no restrictions on the sign, promising to answer anything as deep as the grave or as high as the heavens (Isaiah 7:11). God was offering an assurance of Ahaz’s own choosing!

God is asking Ahaz the question of Christmas: “Can you trust the words of God—especially when they seem impossible?” How does Ahaz respond? With false piety and control-freak levels of manipulation.

Unbeknownst to us, Ahaz had already manipulated his situation and skirted God’s help for another’s. 2 Chronicles 28:16–19 records that after returning from his captivity in Israel, Ahaz called upon Assyria for help instead of turning to God. He had taken the situation into his own incapable hands.

You may not realize it, but Assyria is like the Galactic Empire in Star Wars. They were beyond evil and were on the verge of brutally taking over the entire known world. And yet Ahaz turns to the Assyrians, offering a tribute that would eventually require the very gold in the temple to suffice (2 Kings 16:7–8).

The Sign of Christmas

When Ahaz refuses to trust the word of God, God offers his own sign. However, instead of directing it to Ahaz, God gives a sign “to the house of David” (Isaiah 7:13–14).2

The “house of David” is a shorthand for the Messianic promise given all the way back in Genesis 3:15. God is picking up the scarlet thread of the Old Testament, the promise of Messiah, the Christmas child, and telling the Messiah’s line to listen.

It’s as if God says, “Here’s the definitive proof that I’ll keep my promise to you: look at the virgin birth.” It is God’s for-all-time sign of his own trustworthiness. Like the prophet will say in Isaiah 46:9–10,

…I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose’…


I have clear memories of a circus visiting my town when I was a little kid. I remember because every night I’d look out and see the huge spotlight rotating across the clouds from miles away.

The virgin birth, the Christmas story, is God’s spotlight. You can see it from anywhere in history and it illuminates one truth: God keeps his Word!

The answer of Christmas is “you can trust God’s words to you!”

Most people (dads included) don’t like the feeling of helplessness. They don’t like their backs up against the wall and so have a lot in common with Ahaz.

Christmas is our annual reminder that when all seems lost, when God’s promises seem too hard to fulfill, when God seems distant and absent, God will keep his Word. Is any word of God too difficult for him to accomplish? Christmas sings a resounding, “No!”

Resist the urge to manipulate for control or make your own plans. Instead, lead your family to rest in the promises of God as you look on the Promised One in the manger this Christmas.


  1. Isaiah’s prophecy is punctuated by two historical events: Syria/Israel attacking Judah during the reign of Ahaz (Isaiah 7) and Assyria attacking Judah during the reign of Hezekiah (Isaiah 36–37). Both historical events focus on a key point of decision in the exact same location (the “end of the conduit of the upper pool on the highway to the Washer’s Field” cf. Isaiah 7:3; 36:2). Each king must answer the same question: “Can you trust the Word of the Lord?”

  2. If you care to know, I’m of the opinion that God offers two signs in this passage, the virgin birth to the House of David and the sign of Shear-jashub to Ahaz (Isaiah 7:3). The first is a sign of God’s promise and the second a sign that God would protect Ahaz from Syria and Israel but punish him with Assyria. Note the change between plural and singular “you” throughout Isaiah’s prophecy in 7:11 and following as he switches between talking with the House of David and Ahaz personally.

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