Chapter 5: Ahaz

The Politics of God and the Politics of Man
by Jacques Ellul

Chapter 5: Ahaz

2 Kings 16: 1-20

1 In the seventeenth year of Pekah the son of Remaliah, Ahaz the son of Jotham, king of Judah, began to reign. 2 Ahaz was twenty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned sixteen years in Jerusalem. And he did not do what was right in the eyes of the Lord his God, as his father David had done, 3 but he walked in the way of the kings of Israel. He even burned his son as an offering, according to the abominable practices of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel. 4 And he sacrificed and burned incense on the high places, and on the hills, and under every green tree.

5 Then Rezin king of Syria and Pekah the son of Remaliah, king of Israel, came up to wage war on Jerusalem, and they besieged Ahaz but could not conquer him. 6 At that time the king of Edom recovered Elath for Edom, and drove the men of Judah from Elath; and the Edomites came to Elath, where they dwell to this day. 7 So Ahaz sent messengers to Tiglath-pileser king of Assyria, saying, “I am your servant and your son. Come up, and rescue me from the hand of the king of Syria and from the hand of the king of Israel, who are attacking me.” 8 Ahaz also took the silver and gold that was found in the house of the Lord and in the treasures of the king’s house, and sent a present to the king of Assyria. 9 And the king of Assyria hearkened to him; the king of Assyria marched up against Damascus, and took it, carrying its people captive to Kir, and he killed Rezin.

10 When King Ahaz went to Damascus to meet Tiglath-pileser king of Assyria, he saw the altar that was at Damascus. And King Ahaz sent to Uriah the priest a model of the altar, and its pattern, exact in all its details. 11 And Uriah the priest built the altar; in accordance with all that King Ahaz had sent from Damascus, so Uriah the priest made it, before King Ahaz arrived from Damascus. 12 And when the king came from Damascus, the king viewed the altar. Then the king drew near to the altar, and went up on it, 13 and burned his burnt offering and his cereal offering, and poured his drink offering, and threw the blood of his peace offerings upon the altar. 14 And the bronze altar which was before the Lord he removed from the front of the house, from the place between his altar and the house of the Lord, and put it on the north side of his altar. 15 And King Ahaz commanded Uriah the priest, saying, “Upon the great altar burn the morning burnt offering, and the evening cereal offering, and the king’s burnt offering, and his cereal offering, with the burnt offering of all the people of the land, and their cereal offering, and their drink offering; and throw upon it all the blood of the burnt offering, and all the blood of the sacrifice; but the bronze altar shall be for me to inquire by.” 16 Uriah the priest did all this, as King Ahaz commanded.

17 And King Ahaz cut off the frames of the stands, and removed the layer from them, and he took down the sea from off the bronze oxen that were under it, and put it upon a pediment of stone. 18 And the covered way for the sabbath which had been built inside the palace, and the outer entrance for the king he removed from the house of the Lord, because of the kings of Assyria. 19 Now the rest of the acts of Ahaz which he did, are they not written in the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Judah? 20 And Ahaz slept with his fathers, and was buried with his fathers in the city of David; and Hezekiah his son reigned in his stand.


Elisha is dead. We pass now to the kingdom of Judah and we find Ahaz, whom we might describe as the exact opposite of Jehu. We have said that everything Jehu did stood under the sign of ambiguity. Unfaithful even in his faithfulness, fulfilling God’s design but putting himself in God’s place, legalizing prophecy, Jehu is a man whose words are also those of duplicity. In contrast, Ahaz is a man whose choice is single. There is no ambiguity or difficulty about him. He has no concern for God at all. There is thus no tension, conflict, or confusion. He is all of a piece, but on the bad side. He has chosen idolatry in all its forms. His vocation is exclusively political. And during the sixteen years of his reign in Jerusalem, the prophetic word of Isaiah, confronted by the silence of the king, falls in the void and seems to be useless.

Compared with what has gone before, the situation is a new and surprising one. Ahaz and Isaiah are two men who practically never meet. We shall see later that when God wants to send help to Ahaz, the latter ignores the promise and goes his own way. The king obviously does not believe when God orders him through Isaiah: “Ask a sign of the Lord your God.” He does not want to ask anything from God, to receive anything from him, to owe anything to him. And he finds an ironical pretext for refusing: “I will not put the Lord to the test.” In fact he is convinced that God is nothing and can do nothing (Isaiah 7:10-12). This refusal of Ahaz is a mark of his whole reign.


A first and important aspect of Ahaz is set before us in the statement: “He walked in the way of the kings of Israel. He even burned his son as an offering [he probably offered up his firstborn son in sacrifice].” Now this statement is obviously referring to what the previous chapters call the sin of Jeroboam, since this characterizes the ways of the kings of Israel. Omri, Ahab, Joram, Jehu and all his sons committed the sin of Jeroboam. We must now try to see what this implies, since it is of great importance in the case of Ahaz, king of Judah. If we turn to the story of Jeroboam (1 Kings 12), we see that this leader of the people rises up against the lawful king, Rehoboam, the son of Solomon. He organizes a kind of coup d’etat. But he is expressly obeying what the prophet Ahijah told him. In this famous scene the prophet tore his mantle and gave ten parts to Jeroboam representing the gift from God of ten of the tribes of Israel. Thus Jeroboam was chosen by God to achieve his own purpose. But there is always an “if”. . . “If you will hearken to all that I command you, and will walk in my ways, and do what is right in my eyes.. . “(1 Kings 11:38). This is what Yahweh says. Jeroboam, then, breaks with the lawful kings and founds the kingdom of Israel. But then he makes two bulls of gold and says to the people: “Behold your gods, 0 Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Israel” (2 Kings 12:38). Now this has given rise to a misunderstanding. Many commentators have thought that the king set up an idolatrous cult at Bethel and Dan, a cult of false gods. The sin of Jeroboam against the Lord is that he leads Israel into worship of the bull. But this does not seem to be the real point.

Too much stress has been laid on the story of the bulls. Specialists agree that these were not images of the deity or of other gods than Yahweh, but rather a footstool for the invisible deity. They were not idols of Yahweh but an attribute. Essentially the problem is no more than that of the choice of Jerusalem as the only cultic site. This Deuteronomic idea, however, simply cloaks a more profound reality. For the celebrated cult at Bethel and Dan is in fact the cult of Yahweh.

The cult of Yahweh is maintained but with a visible representation. Jeroboam remains faithful to the one Lord, but he gives him a face. There is, then, no theological or liturgical change. Israel is in the right way. This is confirmed by the distinction often made between false gods and the sin of Jeroboam (which also yielded in time to other cults). Thus Joram overthrows the altars of Baa!, Ishtar, and the gods introduced by Ahab, but he retains the way of Jeroboam. Jehu himself, as we have seen, restores everywhere the worship of the true God, but he also commits again the sin of Jeroboam. This is also confirmed, as we shall see later, by Ahaz himself, who proceeds to do at Jerusalem what Jeroboam did in Samaria, although without setting up statues of bulls. What was, then, the sin of Jeroboam?

One is naturally reminded of the permanent idolatry which drives Israel to fertility gods, to the bull as the force of reproduction. This was already a temptation in the wilderness. But the sin of Jeroboam is more precise. Two complementary elements should be kept in mind. He made graven images of creatures to represent God, thus transgressing the second commandment. He then led the people to worship elsewhere than in the temple at Jerusalem and to offer sacrifices elsewhere than on the great altar of Solomon. But this still does not seem very convincing to us. Some would question whether the two precepts at issue even existed in the days of Jeroboam. In any case, the actual concentration of worship in the one temple, and possibly the law as we now know it, might well have belonged to a later period.

More important and decisive is the fact that Jeroboam set up priests who were not Levites (for perhaps these seemed to be too revolutionary for him) but were simply mediators of any type. Now this denotes rejection of the symbol which God selected to remind Israel incessantly of his intervention and election by pure grace. This is undoubtedly true.1 Yet even this does not exhaust the significance of the sin of Jeroboam.

For if Jeroboam’s reform results in the canonization of the cultus, it is also, as finely shown by Neher, a reaction against the cultural influence of Phoenicia. In choosing high places like Bethel and Dan, the king is protesting against Phoenician customs which were becoming widespread in Israel. He aims to restore the patriarchal customs of Israel. This is also the motive which leads Jehu to maintain the two shrines. Thus the actuality of Jeroboam’s sin is very complex, for there is intermingled in it an authentic fidelity. And this enables us to justify what might seem to be paradoxical, namely, a discussion of the sin of Jeroboam in relation to Ahaz, who has nothing

whatever to do with the sanctuaries of Bethel and Dan, who celebrated the cultus at Jerusalem, and who did not have a statue of the bull set up. Nevertheless, it seems to us that he is rightly said to have followed the errors of the kings of Israel, errors that are always summed up in the sin of Jeroboam. Furthermore, it does not seem that the actuality of this sin is tied to a given representation or place. On the contrary, the text shows what is meant: Jeroboam said in his heart, “Now the kingdom will turn back to the house of David; if this people go up to offer sacrifices in the house of the Lord at Jerusalem, then the heart of this people will turn again to their lord, to Rehoboam king of Judah. . . “(1 Kings 12:26-27). This is the reason why Jeroboam makes the golden calves and orders that the people should not go to Jerusalem to worship Yahweh but worship him instead at Bethel and Dan. This is even more remarkable if one grants, as is quite possible, that the two calves were situated in frontier towns to the north and south of the kingdom. Yahweh was apparently instituted the political guardian of the borders of Israel. Jeroboam’s aim was to keep the people at home, to stop them from crossing the frontiers, to avoid all contacts with the enemy. He thought that if Israel continued to make constant journeys to Jerusalem it would succumb to the prestige of the capital, regret the division, and want to return to Rehoboam. The aim, then, was to maintain the separation of God’s people, to safeguard the independence of the new nation. The men of Israel must not go to Jerusalem. There must be a new capital of Israel with all the attributes of a capital. There must be a God of Israel worshiped in Israel, for at this period the national and perhaps the territorial character of God was still the current sentiment. If the people of Israel was to remain an independent national entity, it had to believe that its God, Yahweh, was not attached to the territory of the two tribes but had his dwelling in Israel too. In other words, the sin of Jeroboam was precisely that he made theological and religious decisions regarding the true God for political reasons, thus subordinating the spiritual life of the people to political necessity, orienting its worship, not to another lord, but according to the demands of politics, seizing control of the revelation of God, playing the role of the prophet in order to distinguish the true God. “Behold your gods. . . who brought you up out of the land of Egypt” (1 Kings 12:28). It is thus the state which sets its seal on both the truth of revelation and also the conditions in which the people will hear and worship. But when the state does this, it is for political motives. What we have here, then, is not an idolatrous state but a political power which creates a state religion or which uses the truth of God, the revelation of God, and the work of God for political ends. It subordinates the will of God, not to its own will, but to the greater good of the nation or the state. It integrates God’s work into the imperative of a realistic policy.

The great aim of Jeroboam was the security of the kingdom of Israel. To achieve this he took the necessary material steps. He built cities and forts, Shechem and Penuel.2 But he also took spiritual and psychological steps. We see here the intentional and deliberate establishment of a national religion in the service of the state and for the purpose of unifying national sentiment. There is nothing at all “primitive” about this. It is just what we do too. Every modern state thinks that it should establish in the same way a full-scale religion which will serve to unite the people and make it loyal to the political power, integrating the church so that it will be “national” and will fill this same role.

The sin of Jeroboam, which is repeated by all the kings of Israel and by Ahaz, is not the result of a primitive view of the deity. It is rather the result of an enduring political necessity. A state is insecure unless there is a state religion. Politics demands religion as an ally. But Jeroboam’s problem is that the pure revelation of Yahweh cannot be integrated into politics. It cannot be exploited in this way because it is the fact of the living God. Hence the revelation has to be transformed into a religion that can be exploited. The Lord of heaven and earth, whom no man can see without perishing, has to be transformed into a golden bull. Certainly it is still God who is worshiped. But he is worshiped in the form of a bull. And the striking thing is that the nations round about also worship bulls. To be sure, what is signified is not the same. But what signifies is. Bulls are a sign of fertility, of reproductive force, of wealth, of happiness. But is not this true of Yahweh too? Cannot the two be combined? May not the symbols of the nations be used to represent the God of Israel, since the symbolism is the same? If so, two things are achieved at a single stroke. Loyalty is maintained to the God of Israel, and reassurance is given to the people, which is constantly looking aside to the efficacious gods of others. Once again we are directly concerned here. Our golden calves are money, the economy, communism, capitalism, science, history, the state. All these are supposed to grant us happiness in virtue of their abundant creative force. These calves, too, are in the hands of the state, which uses them as a religious power to promote ultimately its own grandeur and the effectiveness of its policies. This is the sin of Jeroboam which Ahaz introduces into Judah.


At a first glance Ahaz does not seem to have the same motives, since he is not trying to prevent contacts between Israel and Judah. But this was only a casual motive, as we have seen. The deeper aim remains. At issue is the power of the state, and the use of religion to achieve it. Ahaz is in serious straits. He is attacked by a coalition of Damascus and the kingdom of Israel. These want to set up in Jerusalem a monarchy of the Canaanite type. Ahaz must defend both his monarchy and his state. When the coalition is known, God, who always takes the initiative, addresses Ahaz through his prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 7:1-9). His message is: “Do not be afraid; do not let your heart be troubled; you will not be defeated; only believe.” God is in truth the Savior of Israel, and the prophecy is to the effect that if you do not believe you will perish. This is God’s appeal to his people and its king. It is both a summons and also a threat, and yet it is first of all a promise, a guarantee that “it shall not come to pass” (7:7).

Ahaz, already a rebellious king, is in the great patience of God called to faith yet again. But Ahaz is panic-stricken. “His heart . . . shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind” (7:2). Furthermore, he does not want to listen. He has already reached his decision. There is for him no question of turning to the protector of Israel, to the Lord. In his eyes God is no longer the master of the nations, the one who holds in his hands the destiny of his own and every people. The only place for God is in a political combination as the object of the national religion.

The sensible thing to do according to Ahaz was to appeal to the greatest power in the Orient, Assyria. But some arrangement had to be reached with the Assyrians. Money and gifts might help (v. 8), but these were not enough. In the Orient Israel’s claim to be the people of God was well known, as was also its claim that Yahweh could not be compared to any other. The religious exclusivism of this God was common knowledge. This provided the ground for accommodation. Ahaz went to see the king of Assyria. There he made an accurate model, an “image” (the very word Genesis uses when it says that God made man in his own image), of the altar which Tiglath-pileser had had set up in Damascus after capturing the city, and he ordered that an exact replica of this altar should be set up in the temple at Jerusalem. Now this altar was in reality an altar of the god Hadad.

Uriah the priest did as he was told, and then the king celebrated the praises of the Lord on the idolatrous altar (which was undoubtedly adorned with calves). He offered there the burnt offering, the libations and the peace offering. He instructed the priest that from now on all sacrifices should be offered on this altar. Then “in honor of the king of Assyria” (v. 18) he changed “the covered way for the sabbath and the outer entrance for the king.” His aim was to please the king of Assyria, to gain his friendship, to assure him of the loyalty of the king of Judah. This is why he brought in all these Assyrian symbols. What clearer pledge could there be than the adoption of the religion of this powerful ally? What he did is just the same as what was done by those who, seeking the support of Hitler, adopted the Nazi doctrine of the state and anti- Semitism. It is what is being done by those who, relying on the U.S.S.R., espouse the cause of communism. Ahaz’s objective is the same as that of Jeroboam but with a slant to foreign policy rather than domestic policy as in the case of the king of Israel. There is the same exploiting of a god who is useful to the state, who can be an instrument of policy, who is like the gods of men so far as his significance is concerned. Ahaz does not even seem to have had the same problems of conscience as Jeroboam. The latter wanted to remain faithful to Yahweh. His attitude was as follows: “Fundamentally, in the worship of the heart, in the authenticity of faith, we are looking to Yahweh even though it be under the form of a bull, for obviously our attachment is not to the sign as such.” Ahaz has no such scruples. He just fashions a religion that will please the Assyrians. He adopts the sign without worrying about what is signified. He sets up a god like that of the nations, identifying Yahweh with the Assyrian god. What matters is the sign which is given, the setting up of a replica of the Assyrian altar. And to mark the break many acts are performed indicating the evacuation of God. The treasures dedicated to the Lord, the precious things and temple utensils, are given to the king of Assyria. Then Ahaz destroys the great altar set up by Solomon. He cuts off the frames of the stands, takes away the ornaments, and removes the altar to a distant place (vv. 14, 17). He pulls down the sea from off the bronze oxen, the basin of purification, and puts it on a pediment of stone, probably to one side. One point especially should be noted: “The bronze altar which was before the face of the Lord he removed from the front of the house” (v. 14). Now this undoubtedly means that the altar in question was up in the front of the temple, but one can perhaps catch a spiritual sense too. This was the altar which God had chosen to be in his presence, and when the king removed it he was removing God’s own presence. This altar was not to be in the Lord’s presence. Yet appearances had to be kept up, for the people of Judah clung to its God, the God who had been revealed to it and who had chosen it. Just as Jeroboam claimed: “Behold your gods . . . who brought you up out of the land of Israel,” because it was the true God he wanted to worship, so Ahaz keeps up appearances, observing all the ordinances laid down by Yahweh. He retains the priests, not setting up a new clergy. He also retains the rites, the sacrifices, the burnt offerings, the morning and evening offerings. So far as the people of Judah can see, nothing has changed. Only the form of the altar has been altered.

Now we are always prone to say: “What matters is faith. What matters is the contribution of true faith to these rites and offerings. The rest is empty form. . . .” In reality, however, this is just an easy way out; it is self-justification. The altar which Ahaz destroyed was decreed by God no less than revelation. The temple had been built according to the order and model given by God. It is not a matter of trying to find out whether this was a true revelation or command or was only presented as such, for two factors have to be taken into account. First, the directions are given in Holy Scripture, and we have to take this seriously even if we do not take it absolutely literally. Then in the days of Ahaz it was commonly believed that the directions were direct revelations of God, and what counts is the intention of Ahaz in relation to this belief. His attitude is the same as that of Jeroboam. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob will be retained, but his orders and ordinances will be ignored and altered. He will be worshiped and served in another way. In reality, however, he will be made to serve our way. There is in fact an altering of the revealed God himself, for the revealed God gives himself to us in a specific form. Nor are we at liberty to change this form in relation to God, for God himself has selected the form. It is a constant temptation to think, in the interests of utility or convenience, that the form God has taken in self-revelation is of no importance. But when we take liberties with the form, we are really taking liberties with God himself. Ahaz changes the revelation when he changes the signs of the revealed God. By changing the order that God has set up, he renounces God himself. He transforms the living God into an idol, the wind of the Spirit (who chose to reside in the temple of Solomon) into a utilitarian religion. For Ahaz the really decisive thing is what is of value to maintain the independence of the people of Judah, to save it from destruction at the hands of the invaders from the north. Some concessions may surely be made to this end. Again, we have here an enduring problem. The nation has to be saved, and so some of its values may be abandoned, for if they are not, the nation itself will go down and then everything will be lost. Primum vivere! Dirty hands! This is not just a modern question. In fact, however, a Judah which denies its God no longer has any reason to exist at all. Imitating the Assyrian, Judah might just as well die. Its truth has perished before its life.

Ahaz, then, is swayed by what will help to save the people. He fashions a religion similar to that of his allies. He does this for political reasons, and his political calculations finally prove to be right. The king of Assyria agrees to come to the aid of this loyal ally. He captures Damascus, leads its people off into captivity, and puts its king to death. But in face of this Assyrian victory and the success of Ahaz, it is all the more impressive to recall the prophecy which Isaiah is issuing at this very moment against the Assyrian (Isaiah 10:5-19). At the very summit of his glory, the Assyrian is marked out for destruction. And the unheard of thing is that Ahaz is the occasion of this judgment. The Assyrian has become the persecutor of Israel at the request of Ahaz, and God will take up the cause of Israel.

In a fairly short space of time the Assyrian is condemned to vanish. A further point to be noted here is that at this juncture Isaiah seems to be playing the part of a traitor to his own people. He speaks for the enemy, attacking his people’s allies. He does so at the very moment of his people’s victory, of its deliverance, of an incontestable political success.3

Furthermore, the war against Judah heralds the imminent end of the Northern Kingdom and the captivity. Ahaz enjoyed a political success, but what was there now in common between the ten tribes of the North and the two of the South. How could they be any longer the twelve tribes of the chosen people? And what had brought about this unpardonable war, the unleashing of the Assyrian by Ahaz, which would finally bring about the deportation of the people? The answer is Jeroboam’s sin, which had been to put politics first and to maintain the independence of the new nation, and the sin of Ahaz, which was also to put politics first and to use political means, without consulting God’s intention, to save the Southern Kingdom, Jerusalem, the temple and the symbol of God. Thus the kings pursue their politics without bothering about God’s will. Their politics, however, can only imply conformity to the world, to the world of nations, and they carry this conformity even to the point of trying to bring Yahweh into the political game. What led to this unpardonable war was putting politics first, obsession with politics, the pursuit of politics above all else. Now Ahaz, like Ahab, was a good politician. He was successful. And we may note once again how free from prejudice the authors of the stories are. They are not afraid to show how strong and victorious the enemies of God were. Irrespective of the spiritual price which had to be paid, the price in truth and the price in love, Ahaz conformed the revelation of God to the world, and he was successful. He sought above all things efficiency at the human level, and he was successful. This reminds us again of Jehu. He, too, wanted to succeed. But he did so in order to accomplish God’s will. In effect we have seen that his concern to be effective led him to complete betrayal. He, too, committed the sin of Jeroboam. He, too, put political action first. We thus have two contrasting examples, a king who is concerned about God’s will and wants to keep step with God, and a king who has no regard at all for the Lord. Yet in spite of the great difference, these two kings are on the same plane. If they had met they would have hated one another. Nevertheless, they are alike in their concern for success and their readiness to put politics first, even though the one believed in God and the other did not. Their likeness was certainly not a happy one.

It was in these circumstances that Isaiah made his extraordinary prophecy (7-8). The prophet carried God’s promise to the king and offered to back it by a miracle. The king, however, refused this. Then Isaiah accused and challenged Ahaz. The king had tried God’s patience, and because of him all the house of David would be punished. Ahaz himself was rejected as king. But man’s unfaithfulness cannot shake God’s faithfulness. Hence the prophet declares: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (7:14). God with us. God will keep his promise in its entirety. Then in a strange passage Isaiah speaks of a “conspiracy” of God (8:11-15). The point is that even though Ahaz is still alive God has proclaimed another king on the throne of David, who eliminates descent from David according to the flesh, and substitutes the true son of David, Wonderful Counselor, he who is to come, but who is already announced in the time of Isaiah, present with Isaiah himself and the children Yahweh gave him.4 The political sagacity of Ahaz, then, is too great. It gets in the way of the fulfilment of God’s gracious purpose to establish the universal and saving kingdom of Immanuel, God with us.


All this leads us to consider in this context the problem of efficacy. It is at once very true and yet over-facile to say that the Holy Spirit alone is efficacious. The Holy Spirit is efficacious in the realm of creation, both the original creation and the new creation at the end of the age. He is also efficacious in individual life and in history, where he creates facts and situations and initiates chains of actions. He is efficacious in the sphere of redemption; it is he who makes the work of Jesus Christ actual and living for the individual. He is efficacious in giving effect to what men do when they are oriented to God and try to express revelation. He activates our prayers and preaching and works. In all this there is no intrinsic logic, no closed system, no automatic action. The effect of our acts in these areas springs from God’s free decision but it is not independent of our own will and work. God does not act arbitrarily. He does not act alone in human history or intervene ex nihilo. God makes his will known to us. It is in doing this will of God that we may enjoy the intervention of the Holy Spirit as the presence of the living God so long as our accomplishment does not finally put God’s will in our possession. The Lord lets us know under what conditions he is prepared to intervene but without our having any guarantee that he will do so, without anything automatic about it, without God being magically tied to it. Now the Holy Spirit who alone gives effect to our life and action is free and sovereign. We are thus completely uncertain as to the possible consequences, and this rules out any calculation or foreknowledge of the future of our acts and our history.

From another angle this acknowledgment of the Holy Spirit forbids any investigation of efficacy as such, as if the Holy Spirit did not exist, as if means alone were enough and we had to find the most efficacious means (which is always possible, since it is true that our means have their own efficacy). The magicians of Pharaoh could do the same miracles as Moses. Yet that which has its own high degree of efficacy should not become legitimate in our eyes for that reason. It is not enough that a means be effective for us to employ it. We must not subordinate the choice of means to intrinsic or specific efficacy.

The effects of the Holy Spirit are of two classes. There are mysterious spiritual effects which we cannot measure and which are found both on earth and in heaven. These are totally his (the birth of faith, the effectiveness prayer) and will appear visibly only at the end of the age. But this is not the only action of the Holy Spirit. It is a evasion to want to restrict our vision to these effects alone, just as it is a defeat to accept the world’s view that we are reduced to this mysterious, hidden, spiritual life. The Holy Spirit also produces effects that are temporal, visible, and concrete. These abound in both the Old Testament and the New. They are effects inscribed on the material world (miracles), on the body, on the moral life (the results conversion), on psychology, on sociology. These temporal effects are inexplicable apart from the Holy Spirit in spite of man’s ever new pretension that he can explain every thing on a purely human level (e.g., the history of the church and the origins of Christianity). But here the action and efficacy of the Holy Spirit are integrated into the nexus of the psycho-sociological causes and effects which are their basis, occasion, and expression. As a result the action of the Holy Spirit changes in some sense the course of the world and history without itself alone being history, without making history a mere progression to God or the good, and yet also, reciprocally, without being limited conditioned, or explained by history. Man is thus summoned to participate in one or other of the actions of the Holy Spirit, in the totality of the work of God. He is summoned to provide the basis for the divine efficacy. In these circumstances, what are the conditions of the efficacy of Christian action? First, it must be an action governed by its objectives, which are themselves subordinate to the end. This seems simple and obvious, but in effect man is much more controlled by his means than his ends. He is much more involved in a causal process. The previous action governs that which follows much more strictly than the project or the ideal. He is conditioned more by the culture to which he is subject from infancy than by the value he seeks to realize. And the more important, demanding, and efficacious means become, the more decisive they are in the choice man makes. He chooses what the means actually allow him to achieve. Now in the perspective of faith it cannot be thus. The objectives to be achieved today are the universal knowledge and enjoyment of the gospel. The end is the coming of the kingdom of God. Everything else must be subordinate, whether at the level of objectives—happiness, science, art, etc.—or at the level of the end—justice, liberty, and peace. The choice of means must be strictly controlled by this perspective. The means must be compatible with the objectives and the end. They must conform and be of the same nature. Hence the gospel cannot be spread by violence or propaganda. If these means are selected, some success may be enjoyed, but it will not be that of the gospel. For the Holy Spirit will give true power and efficacy only to means which are in exact agreement with the actual content of the gospel. There must be intercommunication of means and end if the Holy Spirit is to use our means and invest them with his power. But regard should also be had to the fact that the end is already present in the world, that it is not the result of our activity, that it is here already as a secret force, both evoking and also provoking our means. We have to be obedient to the end, not as a goal to be reached. and which we may possess, but also and at the same time as a given fact, something already there, a presence which, is active too. Thus hope is an actual reality which makes the ultimate future present and active. Hope actualizes the last days, the eschaton, just as faith actualizes the time when Jesus Christ was on the earth as God with us.

Hope is a power which is neither psychological nor of the order of a project. It is not a sentiment that impels us to risk certain things. It gives us no reason to employ such means. It is the presence of the power of the sovereign Christ, of the Christ who is already sovereign and active. This is not of the order of means that are effective. But beyond hope there is also the efficacy, hidden from us, of the kingdom of heaven which is present in the world, mysterious, discernible by none but God. This kingdom of heaven is also at work and its orientation is to the future coming of Christ; it inclines the world to the kingdom of God. And this kingdom of heaven is no longer dependent at all on our means. It is. It has its own nature and law, of which the parables in Matthew give us some idea. It is planted by God in the reality of the world. It intervenes by its own decision. Here again we are in the presence of an efficacy which escapes us. In truth it is God who mysteriously and with no visible miracle impels the world towards its fulfilment. Efficacy, then, is as it were the resultant of our means (to which the Holy Spirit gives power), of hope (to which the coming lordship of Jesus Christ gives power), and of the kingdom of heaven hidden in the world. As for us, we can act only at the level of our means. But if our responsibility is total here, this does not have for us the implication either of excessive confidence, of despair, or of the need to choose the most effective means while using others sparingly. If, however, means cannot be invested with power except as they are congruent with the gospel, we are always obliged to raise the question of “why” and “for whom.” If, after a searching criticism in this light which screens out anything not pertaining to the “who,” our choice of means is determined by its end, it is in the will of God, and one can say, not only that it will bring results, but also that these results were prepared in advance, that God assigned its value in advance, that it enters into the meaning of the ultimate truth of the world, and that it thus shares its efficacy. But in this choice, we must not do what Ahaz did here, i.e., use the means which make possible the attainment of an objective quite apart from their effects on the order of truth and love. The implication is that we cannot separate our objectives from the person of Jesus Christ. Peace and justice (and the independence of Israel for Ahaz) have no importance or value in themselves. They are not objectives to be attained in isolation. They have no meaning except as Jesus is the prince of peace, the sun of righteousness, except as Israel is the people of God. Thus any true proclamation of the gospel will entail work for peace, although pacificism both doctrinally and ethically makes no sense and is not intrinsically a serving of Jesus Christ.

This problem of efficacy has, however, another aspect. In Scripture efficacy is always found as a relation. It is the relation of man to God. Man sees that he is relative to God. The relation is that of man as he is first in communion or even union with God. Man’s will is in congruity with God’s plan. This means that the first step in efficacy is at the level of personal unity. It is when man rediscovers awareness of his authenticity that his action receives an efficacy annexed to it. But on the basis of this personal union all efficacy implies intervention in the historical nexus. There is thus a relation with the state of the world as well. No action can be effective if it is abstracted from the state of the world. This implies a true insertion in history, a continuous and permanent insertion. It seems to me that in this consideration of efficacy the Book of Kings shows us the importance of persistence, of permanence, of renewal, of innovation pursued patiently in the multiplicity of agents and workers. No action is conducted from beginning to end by a single man or means. No one man, not even Elisha, can bear sole responsibility, neither the one who acts nor the one who imparts true efficacy (lest any man should boast, as Paul says). In effect each has to take up his own task and each at his own level has to be responsible for some accomplishment in the conditions already sketched, but the general plan is beyond our vision. As regards effects and results, then, each must rest content with the Lord’s promise. Results are promised if we keep to our own level and use the appropriate means. But we cannot ask for more than a promise (such as that made to Elisha and fulfilled after his death). We must not hurry on the fulfilment (Jehu) nor must we appropriate the results, laying hold of them, making them ours, and taking them out of the hand of the Lord (Ahaz). But again, we may say, if all is promise, all is continuity too. Because we cannot ascertain any evident or visible results, we may not stop and rest. If the efficacy of the man of God comes to a halt, all is lost. Jeroboam ruined the kingdom of David. If Apollos had not watered, what Paul had planted would never have grown. Every Christian, then, is strictly accountable, just as there must be continuity in prayer and continuity in effective action. When a Christian quits, he annuls thereby all that preceding Christians have been able to do. Efficacy is written in the history of the church as well as the world. It implies that everyone play his part in the life of the church and be prepared to carry on whether or not there is any tangible proof of results.

If, however, everyone is responsible, we must also realize that it is not for us to organize this continuity nor to institutionalize it. We have to exist in. . . . It is this existence which ensures and guarantees both the efficacy and the continuity. We come back to this renouncing or to profiting by the effects or fruits of the actions of the Holy Spirit (the lepers); we can never take possession of them. If Christian action is effective, the effects or fruits are gathered by God and collected by him alone. None of us can boast of them. None can have an individual part. None is the supreme agent of efficacy. Elisha with his word unleashes a Hazael or a Jehu and then withdraws, no longer controlling the situation. But finally we have also to realize that this efficacy will never be evident to the world. The action we attempt will always be regarded by the world as a failure, and the more so the more it is authentically faithful. We cannot be successful or show the church to be effective in the world unless we adopt the world’s criterion of efficacy, which means adopting its means as well.

As the world sees it, action which is faithful to God will always fail, just as Jesus Christ necessarily went to the cross. Such action always leads to a dead end. It is always a fiasco from the standpoint of worldly power. But this should not worry us. It does not mean that our action is in truth ineffectual. Efficacy measured in terms of faithfulness cannot be compared at any point with efficacy measured in terms of success.

This is again what the Book of Kings teaches us when it shows us that good and faithful kings were regularly defeated and the glorious monarchs were men like Ahab and Ahaz. These successes, this efficacy as it would be called from man’s standpoint, and especially in our own society, will never amount to anything more than the approval given by the world, by society, to certain acts or means. It is the stamp of a group of men, a social body. But if we do not believe that society is good and right, this approval proves nothing except that the action is in conformity with the world. It does not mean at all that the world has changed; quite the contrary. Each time the people of God becomes effective according to the world’s criteria, this only implies that society has absorbed our action and is using it to its own ends and for its own profit. This is the way it is between Ahaz and the king of Assyria. The efficacy we think we have is simply a power in the world’s service, for the perfecting of its own being, for its better organization. The kingdom of Judah was merely a fulcrum in the general policy of Assyria, a base for the conquest of Egypt. This was what the efficacy of Ahaz finally amounted to. In contrast, the efficacy we seek can only be that of a radical alteration of the world and society. It is the efficacy of event as opposed to institution, of tension against the accepted line, of nonconformity. In sum, it is an efficacy which stands opposed to that of the world. Yet it is no less real. It is the efficacy which shatters unanimity, the efficacy of heretics and sectarians. Nor is this negative, for the positive simply cannot exist without it.

Furthermore, in the efficacy which is granted to us by the Holy Spirit there can be no question of securing the approval of the world or its conformity to us. Israel did not have to aim at other nations becoming Israel. Jehu saw this clearly, and so too did David. We have simply to be, and we can only be a question put within the world and to the world, a question invincibly confronting it. This is our efficacy. It is the efficacy of the question, a question which society and sociological movements cannot assimilate. Israel and the church have never been efficacious except to the degree that the world has been unable to assimilate them. This is a vocation of the people of God incomparably more authentic than “service” or “works.”

It is not at the level of works and their results that this efficacy may be seen; it is at the level of inassimilability. Whenever the church thinks it has succeeded and become great, it is to that degree unfaithful. The adulteration of the church by power, e.g., its social conformity in the Middle Ages, corresponds precisely to the action described here, namely, that of Ahaz. Our only guarantee of efficacy is the achievement of nonconformity. But this is a vocation one cannot take up alone. One can do so only in correlation. One can fulfil this vocation only in relation, as we have tried to show above. In fact it means existing as the incarnate presence of the Wholly Other and at the same time “in-existing” in order that the Wholly Other should not be concealed by our obstinacy, by our worldly efficacy, by our intentions and pretensions. For this incarnate presence of the Wholly Other at the heart of the world is itself our efficacy. In the last resort this is the only thing that cannot be absorbed, resorbed, and assimilated by the world. No matter how strong our resolve, our means are still the means of the world and they will always participate to some degree in the world. They thus have a hold over us. Society has great power of absorption. Even Solomon could not resist being an oriental monarch when he used the means appropriate thereto. Only the presence of the Wholly Other at the heart of our action cannot be assimilated by sociological forces. It alone is the guarantee of our independence. It evades both society’s grip and also our own. The Wholly Other refuses to be used either by the world or by us. In his sovereign freedom, however, he has willingly agreed to go along with us if we will accept his efficacy (which means faithfulness). As we shall soon see, he agrees to go along with Hezekiah. This is our sole efficacy. Since incarnation is at issue, it is the efficacy which leads us, in our relation with the world, to the following challenge: “How can we be the question that God puts to the world?” Elisha was this question unceasingly; Joram, Jehu, and Ahaz were not.


  1. On the sin of Jeroboam cf. especially Vischer, Les premiers prophètes, p. 391; Neher, Amos, p. 190; von Rad, Theology, I, 58.
  2. For a discussion of this work, see my study of the city in the Bible (The Meaning of the City; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970).
  3. The date of the prophecy is obviously open to discussion. All the victories to which the text refers are between 738 and 722 B.C. (during the reign of Ahaz) apart from that of Carchemish in 717 B.C. This was after Ahaz and it has led some to argue that the prophecy was later too; if so, what is written above does not really belong to this context, but the main point is not affected.
  4. On all this cf. the admirable analysis of W. Vischer, “La prophétie d’Emmanuel et la te royale de Sion,” Études théologiques et religieuses, 1954.