In the seventh chapter of Isaiah, there is an exchange between the prophet Isaiah and the king of Judah, Ahaz. Isaiah comes to the king and says, “Ask a sign for yourself from the LORD your God; make it deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” To this the king responds, “I will not ask, nor will I test the Lord!” (Isaiah 7:11-12). On the surface, this seems like a completely humble thing to say. The king is but a man, and would it not be wrong to test God? If God says he’ll do something, is it not man’s place to just accept it?
In fact, when I read this passage, I cannot help but be drawn to the temptation of Jesus where Satan tells Jesus that if he is indeed the Son of God, he should jump from the height of the temple, “for it is written, He will command His angels concerning you; and on their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not strike your foot against the stone” (Matthew 4:6, quoting Psalm 91:11-12). To this Jesus responds, “On the other hand, it is written, you shall no put the Lord your God to the test” (Matthew 4:7, quoting Deuteronomy 6:16). If my interpretation of this interaction between Jesus and Satan is correct, it seems to me that what Jesus is saying that one should trust in what God says and should not deliberately go about doing things just to prove God is telling the truth. In some twisted way, if God could be manipulated by us like that, we would have control over God. And that would in fact be a sin of pride on our part, the belief that we can control and manipulate God to our will.
So, if testing the Lord is something that is sinful and contrary to the will of God, then why when Ahaz declares he will not test the Lord does Isaiah say “Is it too slight a thing for you to try the patience of men, that you will try the patience of my God as well?” (Isaiah 7:13) The prophet then goes on to tell Ahaz that he will get a sign anyway, and it is the passage we are familiar with that declares a virgin will give birth. But I want to consider why does God seem to get mad at what appears to be a perfectly valid thing to do: to not test God.
Perhaps from Isaiah’s response you can begin to see there is something a little different from Ahaz’s no testing God and Jesus’s not testing God. Isaiah declares that Ahaz is attempting to try to patience of God. This does not sound like a person who trusts God. Ahaz is declared to be a man who rather chooses not to answer God for some reason.
If you back up to the beginning of chapter 7, you’ll find the context in which this request for a sign is given to Ahaz. We find that the kings of Aram (Syria) and Israel have ganged up together to make war on Judah. And it says that when Ahaz heard of this alliance against him “his heart and the hearts of the people shook as trees of the forest shake with the wind” (Isaiah 7:2). Clearly, Ahaz was afraid at his prospects to fight a war against the combined forces of the two other nations.
It is in this backdrop that God tells Isaiah to go to Ahaz with a message. “Take care and be calm, have no fear and do not be fainthearted because of these two stubs of smoldering firebrands… [who say] ‘Let us go up against Judah and terrorize it’… thus says the Lord God, ‘It shall not stand nor shall it come to pass… If you will not believe, you surely shall not last” (Isaiah 7:3-9). And it is with this prophecy to Ahaz that God then asks Ahaz to ask for a sign.
God is asking Ahaz to trust in him, and to verify that Isaiah’s words are truly from God. But when Ahaz says, “I will not ask, nor will I test the Lord,” it is not from a position of humility that he states this. But Ahaz has already determined that God is not capable to do what he said, so he won’t even bother asking for a sign. So when given a chance to confirm the word of God, Ahaz rejects it. Ahaz, even though he puts it in pious language, has already dismissed the possibility that God can do what he says. God is not asking for Ahaz to test him so much as God is asking for Ahaz to allow himself an opportunity to believe in him. Ahaz does not want a sign, Ahaz does not want to be convinced, Ahaz does not even want the possibility of being convinced. He’s, as strange as it might seem, more comfortable in his fear of the two kings and the certainty of that, than he is in opening himself up to having faith in God.
Many people today reject God in a similar way. They won’t even give God a chance to prove that he is God, and that he is capable of what he says he is capable of. We are told in 1 John 4:1 to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.” It is not wrong to test and see if something is truly from God or not. There are in fact a lot of good reasons to test, because there are false prophets in the world. Not everything is from God. What is dangerous, though, is never giving God a chance to prove himself in the first place.
As Paul says in Romans 12:2, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.” If we renew our minds away from this world, we can prove (test, discern) the will of God. But that can only happen if our minds and hearts are open to God in the first place.