On the Words to Ahaz:
“Ask Thee a Sign”
(Part I of II)
Advent Homily of St. Bernard of Clairvaux
“And the Lord spoke again to Ahaz, saying: Ask thee a sign of the Lord thy God, either unto the depth of hell, or unto the height above. And Ahaz said: I will not ask, and I will not tempt the Lord.” (Isaiah 7:10-12)
WE have heard Isaiah persuading King Ahaz to ask for a sign from the Lord, either in the depth of hell, or in the above. We have heard the King’s answer, having the semblance of piety, but not its reality. On this account he deserved to be rejected by Him Who sees the heart, and to Whom the thoughts of men confess. “I will not ask,” he says, “and I will not tempt the Lord.”; Ahaz was puffed up with the pomp of the regal throne, and skilled in the cunning words of human wisdom. Isaiah has therefore heard the words: “Go, tell that fox to ask for himself a sign from the Lord unto the depths of hell.” For the fox had a hole, but it was in hell, where, if he descended, he would find One Who would catch the wise in his cunning. Again: “Go,” says the Lord, “to that bird and let him ask for a sign in the heights above,” for the bird hath his high nest; but though he ascend to heaven, he will there find Him Who “resisteth the proud,” and trampleth with might on the necks of the lofty and high-minded. Ahaz refused to ask a sign of that sovereign power, or that incomprehensible depth. Wherefore the Lord Himself promised to the house of David a sign of goodness and charity, that those whom the exhibition of His power could not terrify, nor the manifestations of His wisdom subdue, might be allured by His exceeding love. In the words “depth of hell” may be not unfitly portrayed the charity “greater than which no man hath,” that Christ should at death descend even unto hell “for His friends.” And in this God would teach Ahaz either to dread the majesty of Him Who reigns in the highest, or to embrace the charity of Him Who descends to the lowest. Grievous, therefore, alike to God and man is he who will neither think on majesty with fear nor meditate on charity with love. “Wherefore,” the Prophet says, “the Lord himself shall give you a sign.”(Isaiah 7:14)–a sign resplendent alike with majesty and love. “Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a Son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel, which is interpreted, ‘God with us.'” O Adam! flee not away, for God is with us! Fear not, O man, nor be afraid to hear His name; it is “God with us.” With us in the likeness of our nature; with us for our service and for our profit. For us He is come as one of us, passible like unto us.
It is said, “He will eat butter and honey”; as if to say, He shall be a little one, fed with infant’s
food. “That he may know how to reject evil and choose good.” As in the case of the forbidden tree, the tree of transgression, so now we hear of an option between good and evil. But the choice of the second Adam is better than that of the first. Choosing the good, He refused the evil; not as He Who loved cursing, and it came upon Him; and He would not have blessing, and it was far from Him (cf Psalm 109:17-18). In the prophecy that He would eat butter and honey you may notice the choice of this little one. But may His grace support us, that what He grants us the power to understand He may likewise enable us to explain!
Editor’s Note: In part II, St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s homily continues with his interpretation of the spiritual imagery of Isaiah’s prophecy.
Art: Bernard of Clairvaux, as shown in the church of Heiligenkreuz Abbey [German language site] near Baden bei Wien, Lower Austria. Portrait (1700) with the true effigy of the Saint by Georg Andreas Wasshuber (1650-1732), (painted after a statue in Clairvaux with the true effigy of the saint), Georges Jansoone, 1 June 2006, own work, PD-US copyright expired, Wikimedia Commons. Virgin at Prayer (Madonna at Prayer), Giovanni Battista Salvi (Il Sassoferrato) 1609-1685, undated, PD, Restored Traditions, used with permission.