Word Study: A Sign אות


Isaiah 7:11: “Ask of thee a sign of the Lord they God; ask it either in the depth, or in the height above?”

God spoke to Ahaz through His prophet saying: “Ask.” The Hebrew word is she’ol which means to consult, interrogate. This is followed with a methegh connecting a Lamed and Kap indicating that Ahaz was to consult for himself . This methegh clearly says that Ahaz is not asking God for a sign but he is to consult himself a sign. In other words Isaiah is telling Ahaz, before you ask for a sign from God, better think about it first. Then if he decides to ask for a sign he is to ask for it either in depth or in the height above, whatever that means.

The word sigh is ‘oth which means communicate. This is a military word which in its Semitic root means to communicate by a signal. Before the development of radio, communication in the battle field was done by signals. This type of communication was carried out by many cultures. The native Americans are said to have communicated by smoke signals. In Africa they communicated by drums. Ships would communicate with each other with flags. Even today a pitcher in baseball communicates with the catcher through a hand signals. Soldiers in a covert operation will use hand signals. All this is ‘oth, a communication that is not really verbal, but more of a sign that is very esoteric, that is understood by only those for whom the sign is given.

So when Ahaz was instructed to consider whether he should ask for a sign, he was considering whether to get a direct message from God meant only for him. He decided he would rather not get a sign. I don’t blame him. I was talking with a guy yesterday who was in Viet Nam and he told me how they were In Country and on a seek and destroy mission. His Sargent, who was off in the distance, gave him a sign or signal. He immediately obeyed it but all the time he was thinking, “Why didn’t I trip or look away when the signal was given, then some other poor slob would have had to perform this operation and I could plead ignorance.” You see that soldier knew his Sargent so well, that he knew that sign was for him and there was no mistaking what his Sargent wanted him to do. This was a signal worked out between this soldier and his Sargent so if the enemy observed the Sargent they would have no idea what he was signally his soldier to do. Once more the Sargent even worked out a signal which indicated which one of his men he was signally so the old boy could not pin it on someone else anyways.

So Ahaz knew if God gave him a sign, it would be for him and he would be obligated to obey. Who could not want a sign from God? Well my friend said he dreaded that sign from his Sargent and was hoping he would not give it. Once given, he was stuck. The thing about an ‘oth or sign is that it is limited and if you do not pay close attention you might misinterpret the sign or if it is sign you do now want, you might moll it around in your head and make up your interpretation, which would be less risky and then plead a lack of understanding later if you got it wrong. Ahaz knew that he could not play that game with God so he decided he would rather not have a sign. But Isaiah said that God would give him one anyways. Now that doesn’t make sense. If God gave him a choice as to whether he wanted a sign or not why would God give him one anyways once he refused. The answer to that is that God gave a sign that was not entirely esoteric or meant for Ahaz alone but one meant for everyone and every generation, the sign of the coming of the Messiah. “Ok, Ahaz, you may not want a personal sign but I still have to give a sign for all the future generations and unfortunately there is a message for you wrapped up in it if you care to listen.”

Strange that God tells Ahaz to ask either in the depth or the height. What the blazes does that mean? Then in the next verse Ahaz says that he will not consult nor will he tempt the Lord as his reason for not accepting the sign.

The sages teach that when God told Ahaz to ask for himself a sign, He was telling Ahaz to consult an oracle. That might be another reason Ahaz refused a sign. To consult an oracle borders on divination, which in Deuteronomy 18:10-13 is strictly condemned. Such practices carry stiff penalties and Ahaz was not about to press his luck, which may explain why he said he would not tempt God.

What about this depth and height business. I was reading in ancient Jewish literature recently and found something very interesting. The sages teach that Scripture gives two signs. The sign of the depth. This is from a human standpoint, the casting of lots as Joshua or the fleece of wool like Gideon. That cop who did not pull you over for speeding, has to be a -sure sign of something.

What made Ahaz skittish about seeking these signs was that by his time there had developed many abuses to this method of seeking God’s guidance that became not signs but forms of divination. Some of these practices involved, shooting an arrow into the air and observing it’s patterns and seeing if it made the shape of a Hebrew letter. Checking patterns in water of a goblet to see if it formed a Hebrew letter, or tossing bones and observing the patterns for Hebrew letters or reading palms and trying to detect Hebrew letters in the palm of one’s hand. This would have been the paleo script which could easily be misconstrued as letters verses the square script which would be much more difficult to determine from a random tossing of bones or sticks.

The ancients believed, as many orthodox and Chassid Jews believe today, that God dwells in each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Each letter has it’s own personality, each letter is a representation of God, a name of God. The Hebrew letters are signs, wonders which lead to a deeper understanding of God, deeper wisdom and knowledge and that they themselves are the substance of prophecy. That is why the Jews read the Holy Scripture in it’s original language for they believe that the words carry the power of God. That is why when the scribes would copy the Torah not a letter could be missing, erased, smudged or even touch each other. If so the whole scroll was consider invalid.
This might be still be another reason Ahaz was reluctant for a sign as the tossing of dice was not that reliable if he sought a sign of the depth.

He could ask a sign from the heights which the sages teach was the Urim and Thummim or consulting a prophet, like Isaiah himself. That was more reliable and I already went into why that was not a viable option for Ahaz either.

The point of this is that if you are seeking a sign from God, follow Isaiah’s advice to Ahaz, search your own heart first as to whether or not you really want a sign from God. You may not like what you find out if you do.

One thought on “Word Study: A Sign אות

  1. The way I resolve the seeming contradiction between “Do not put the Lord your God to the test _as you did at Massah_” (Deut. 6:16) and the various junctures where God asks his people to “test” him (or simply give signs) is to realize there are at least two different kinds of tests here. One is asking for the Lord to strengthen belief (“Lord, I believe! Help my unbelief!”), which the Lord actually invites us to do. And Jesus furthermore assures us that the Lord will not give out snakes (bad things) when his children ask for eggs (good things). The other is to test God be refusing to believe after all the evidence God has generously given.

    As usual, those who wish to make a great show of piety cite the command and abstain from asking God for anything, thereby putting their self-sufficient righteousness above faith’s reliance on grace. Ahaz chooses to take this route, and ironically violates the selfsame command by disbelieving and refusing God.

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