“Glory to the Newborn King!”

UZZIAH AND YAHWEH

 In his prime, King Uzziah of Judah was one of the greatest rulers Judah ever had—until his greatness lead him to arrogance, and his arrogance lead him to sacrilege, which cost him his health and, more significantly, his ritual purity. Uzziah trespassed into the temple, was struck by God, and finished his life in isolation as a leper (II Chronicles 26:16-21). As the head of Judah, Uzziah’s physical and ceremonial sickness reflected the moral decay of the nation (Isaiah 1:5-6). Though every Davidic king was the anointed of the LORD – a little “m” messiah – they were all disappointments. It was clear that even the relatively decent Uzziah was no savior. But in the year of Uzziah’s death, Isaiah the prophet was granted a vision of the True King:

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of his robe filled the temple…” (Isaiah 6:1)

The familiar scene is full of seraphim (“burning ones”) with six wings, who serve as the court attendants of the Lord. Dazzling enough themselves to look at, even they must shield their faces from the greater glory of the God they serve. The voices of these seraphim calling “Holy, holy, holy” shake the threshold of the temple, and Isaiah the prophet is unable to bear it:

Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of Hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5)

The contrast between King Uzziah and King Yahweh could not be more drastic. Uzziah is  weak and sick—cut off from Israel because of his uncleanness. Yahweh is overwhelming, and transcendently holy and glorious—cut off also, because in his holiness he dwells in unapproachable light.

AHAZ AND YAHWEH

Skip ahead some years (but only one chapter in Isaiah) to Uzziah’s grandson, Ahaz. Ahaz had no redeeming qualities. He was one of the most profoundly wicked kings in Judah’s history. Among his transgressions are burning his son as a offering to pagan gods (II Kings 16:3), exchanging Yahweh for the Assyrian king Tiglath-pileser by naming himself the latter’s “servant and son” (II Kings 16:7), and seeking to cover his faithlessness and fearfulness with a thin cloak of godliness (Isaiah 7:12).

By Ahaz’s time, Assyria’s ascension on the world stage had created a foreign policy crisis for Judah. Syria and the northern kingdom of Israel had formed a defensive league and were trying to take out Ahaz and install a king friendly to their cause so they could join Judah to their alliance (Isaiah 7:1-6). Ahaz’s heart “shakes” at this threat (Isaiah 7:2), the same word that described the shaking threshold in the temple in Isaiah’s vision (Isaiah 6:4). Faced with the option of either becoming a full vassal to the Assyrian beast—losing independence but gaining security—or standing firm and trusting in Yahweh, Ahaz inclines toward the first option. This is in spite of the fact that the eternal God, through Isaiah, promises deliverance for Ahaz in accordance with the Davidic covenant. Ahaz is king in Jerusalem after all. Yahweh tells Ahaz to not fear the conspiracy his neighbors are plotting:  “Do not let your heart be faint… It shall not stand, and it shall not come to pass… If you are not firm in faith, you will not be firm at all” (Isaiah 7:4, 7, 9). Even when offered a sign of assurance, Ahaz refuses, hiding his distrust in the Lord under a mask of piety:

Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz, ‘Ask a sign of the LORD your God; let it be as deep as Sheol or high as heaven.’ But Ahaz said, ‘I will not ask, and I will not put the LORD to the test.’” (Isaiah 7:10-12)

Once again, the contrast between the human king and the divine king could not be more clear. In Uzziah we have a good king, if a flawed one, and also a weak and dying leper. In Ahaz we have a wicked king whose “shaking” heart will not even let him bank on God’s direct assurance of deliverance. Uzziah, like all mortals, will die. Ahaz, like all sinners, will choose fleshly security. Through it all, God is Judah’s true king – transcendently holy, eternal, unchanging, faithful, and powerful.

HUMAN KING OR DIVINE KING?

 This contrast highlights a tension that runs unresolved through the Old Testament. God has promised that David’s throne would be forever (Psalm 89:27-37), but isn’t God himself Israel’s true king (e.g., I Samuel 8:7)? It is clear that the kings who sit on David’s throne are beset with weakness—if not wickedness. At the same time, the direct and unveiled  presence of Yahweh is overwhelming. God knows we need a king who is near to us and who can sympathize with our weaknesses, but who is himself without sin.

And then comes God’s reply to Ahaz. Refusing the sign of assurance that God offers, God goes on and promises a sign anyway – one that will come to pass when Ahaz is long gone:

Hear then, O House of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14).

In Isaiah chapter 9, we hear more about this son:

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this” (Isaiah 9:6-7).

God’s people need a king who is like us and near to us, but who will not fail. That is what we have in Jesus. At Christmas, we celebrate the coming of King Yahweh in human form—born as a child, born “unto us”—for us and for our salvation. A king from the House of David, fulfilling God’s covenant promises, resolving in himself the tension between the flawed kings of the Old Testament and the true, transcendently holy and glorious King of Isaiah’s vision. The Christmas hymn gets it exactly right:

Christ, by highest heaven adored
Christ the everlasting Lord
Late in time behold him come
Offspring of the virgin’s womb
Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see
Hail the incarnate deity
Pleased as man with men to dwell
Jesus, our Emmanuel
Hark the herald angels sing
“Glory to the newborn king”

~Charles Wesley, 1739~