Why did God tell King Ahaz to ask for a sign?

Q. Why did God, through Isaiah, instruct King Ahaz to ask for a sign? It reads like God was weary with Ahaz for not asking. Do you know why?

We tend to think of asking for a sign as a negative thing because of Jesus’ statements in the gospels that, for example, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign.” But this refers to asking for a sign from God as a condition of belief or obedience, or as proof that God is really present with us.  On other occasions God offers a sign, or even invites us to ask for one, as a token and pledge that He will keep a promise, and as evidence that He is already at work to fulfill it.

Jesus himself refused to ask for a sign as a condition of belief and obedience when the devil tempted him to throw himself off the heights of the temple to prove that God would rescue him.  To reject this temptation, Jesus quoted what Moses said in Deuteronomy:  You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”  Moses was referring to what the Israelites had done in the wilderness when they reached a place where there was no water and asked, Is the Lord among us or not?”  In other words, the Israelites were making the miraculous provision of water there a condition of their continuing belief and obedience.

It may appear that Ahaz is simply following this same principle, because he also says, “I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.”  But most interpreters agree that this is actually just a pious excuse, because Ahaz wants to continue on the course he has already chosen–not to trust in the Lord, but to make a military and political alliance with Assyria, which will require him to worship Assyrian gods instead.

God sends Isaiah to assure Ahaz that he can trust Him instead, and God even offers to let Ahaz ask for any sign he wants (“let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven“) as a token and pledge that God plans to deliver him from the nations that are invading. But Ahaz declines, and that is why God is weary with him.

We see God offering this same kind of sign in other places in the Bible as well.  For example, when King Hezekiah (Ahaz’s son, but a good and godly king) was ill, God promised him through Isaiah that he would recover.  Isaiah offered, referring to the royal sundial, This shall be the sign to you from the Lord, that the Lord will do the thing that he has promised: shall the shadow go forward ten steps, or go back ten steps?”  Hezekiah chose the much more remarkable sign of the shadow going backward, and it was granted.

So we today should be on the lookout for any “sign” God may be offering us in token and pledge that He will fulfill His promises to us (including matters of individual guidance that we have received), and as evidence that He is already at work to this end.  Perhaps we may even feel the freedom to ask for such a sign–not as a condition of belief or obedience, but as confirmation that we have heard correctly and are hoping and working for the right things, in cooperation with God’s purposes.

(This, I believe, was the nature of the sign that Gideon, for example, asked for using a fleece of wool.  He was already actively involved in the mission God had assigned to him; when God granted this sign, it was simply to confirm the instructions and strengthen Gideon in his obedience.)

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

10 thoughts on “Why did God tell King Ahaz to ask for a sign?”

  1. Thanks for helping me to understand this particular passage. I couldn’t understand why of all people, Ahaz, would be offered a sign. Thanks for the clarity.

  2. There’s a typo in this answer:
    “Ahaz chose the much more remarkable sign of the shadow going backward, and it was granted.”
    It should be “Hezekiah” and not “Ahaz”

    1. Isaiah’s prophecy had both a near-term fulfillment and a long-term fulfillment. The near-term fulfillment was that a royal wife of Ahaz would have a son, meaning that the dynasty of David could continue, despite the threat of invasion and conquest by foreign countries. The prophecy was that by the time that child was old enough to know right from wrong, the invasion would be turned back. And that prophecy was fulfilled in the few years ahead. The long-term fulfillment was that a child would be born into the line of David who was literally “God with us,” Immanuel. That fulfillment came when Jesus was born. The Bible tells us that this happened “when the time had fully come,” that is, when God knew it was the right time. We need to be confident in God’s wisdom about the timing. But even before that, people could put their faith in the Messiah as the one who was to come, as we today can put our faith in him as the one who has come.

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