“Immanuel”Categories: Iron sharpens iron
But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). (Matthew 1.20-23)
Surely there is no Old Testament prophecy more clearly explained in the New, or more widely known by Christians today. These lines are cherished and repeated just about every time Jesus’ birth is discussed. But how much attention is given to the text in which they appear, the seventh chapter of Isaiah?
At the source, we find a surprisingly earthly setting for the first time these words were spoken. The king of Judah, Ahaz, is concerned about the national defense, since the kings of Israel and Syria to the North have joined forces to attack Jerusalem. God has sent Isaiah the prophet to tell Ahaz, “do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint because of these two smoldering stumps of firebrands” (Isaiah 7.4). God says of Syria’s and Israel’s plan, “It shall not stand, and it shall not come to pass” (Is 7.7). He offers a sign to assure him these words are from God. Ahaz politely refuses, but God insists:
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted. (Isaiah 7.14-16)
Well, that was weird. There’s our prophecy, which tradition, common sense, and the Gospel of Matthew tell us is about Jesus, and yet it’s difficult to make sense of it in context. God seems to go from talking about a very simple physical concern on the part of the king of Judah, to making spiritual predictions about the eternal salvation of mankind through the Messiah, and back again, nearly giving us whiplash.
In fact, it’s worse than that. Let’s look more closely at verse 16: “For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted.” Since these events occurred around the year 735 BC, and Jesus wasn’t born for more than seven centuries afterward, what kind of lame and useless “sign” is this for Ahaz? God is trying to give him confidence to trust one prediction…by making another prediction that no one involved can possibly live to see fulfilled? How is this helpful?
It isn’t; but that’s not what God intended Ahaz to get out of this prophecy. Let’s pretend, for a while, that we don't know about Jesus yet, and Matthew hasn’t told us the interpretation of this prophecy. Now, it begins to fall into place. God is addressing the simple, earthly situation right in front of the prophet and king. The king struggles to believe his kingdom can withstand the attack from the north, and God reassures him through a more readily visible sign: a young woman becoming pregnant in the near future as predicted, and giving her son the extremely appropriate Hebrew name, “God is with us,” or Immanuel. The promise is that, before this child is old enough to know right from wrong—within the first few years of his life—the threat from Syria and Israel will fizzle out to nothing, and the nation of Judah will have plenty to eat, even luxury foods like curds and honey.
That’s something Ahaz can actually observe: a young woman turning up pregnant just after Isaiah said it would happen. Then, at each step along the way, when the sign is confirmed the king may have greater and greater confidence in God’s promise to protect Jerusalem from this attack. It’s not a virgin birth in this case, but a maiden who would not be expected to conceive in the near future, hence the impact of the sign.
But now we must drop the pretense—we do know about Jesus, and the virgin birth, and Matthew’s explicit interpretation of this prophecy in reference to Christ. So what? Is God not smart enough, or complex enough, or a good enough organizer to give a dual-purpose prophecy? Why should that surprise us? He did it with the promises he gave Abraham in Genesis 12, which were fulfilled in part through the nation of Israel, but in fuller measure through the church. He also did it with the prediction that after Moses’ death God would raise up a prophet like him (De 18.15), which was fulfilled in part through Joshua and the prophetic institution that continued throughout Israel’s history, but in fuller measure though Christ. He did it with the covenant he established with David, saying that his son would “build a house for my name” (2Sa 7.13). This saw its first, and smaller fulfillment in David’s son Solomon, but a far greater fulfillment in the Son of David who built the church.
Rather than sowing confusion about what prophecies must mean or couldn’t possibly mean, we should first acknowledge that God is better at this than we are, and open our minds to consider the likelihood that he’s got bigger and better things in mind than we’d have ever imagined. God is great! Let’s honor and revere him, giving thanks for his promises and watching for their fulfillment always.