Text: Isaiah 7:10-17
Moreover the Lord spoke again to Ahaz, saying, “Ask a sign for yourself from the Lord your God; ask it either in the depth or in the height above.” But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, nor will I test the Lord!”
Then he said, “Hear now, O house of David! Is it a small thing for you to weary men, but will you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel. Curds and honey He shall eat, that He may know to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the Child shall know to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land that you dread will be forsaken by both her kings. The Lord will bring the king of Assyria upon you and your people and your father’s house—days that have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah.”
I have to tell you that I am kind of geeked out about this passage of Scripture. Studying it this week blew my mind, and I learned all sorts of stuff that that I had never heard of before. Sounds geeky, right? So I apologize. But I hope that you’re about to get geeked out too.
Why do I say that? Isn’t this a pretty traditional passage that we’ve all heard before? Maybe. But what I found was that there was much more to the story. You see, when Isaiah made the Immanuel prophecy, he was giving a word of judgment to King Ahaz. It was a prophetic rebuke to a king who was unwilling to hear God. “Hear now, O house of David! Is it a small thing for you to weary men, but will you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign” (Is. 7:13-14). So, it would seem, that this sign would need to be something that Ahaz and his companions could see. The problem with that is that Jesus doesn’t show up for another 700 years.
So what’s going on here? Well, we will try to show how the Immanuel prophecy was indeed about Jesus, but it was layered. It was a prophecy of judgment when it was given, and it really was a mystery. This prophecy meant that God was coming, but it meant that Ahaz would not experience that as blessing but rather judgment. He wouldn’t understand what was going on. Ahaz would not see the kingdom come. Indeed, he would see his kingdom fall.
The Nature of Isaiah’s Job
To understand Isaiah 7’s prophecy, you need to read the whole passage. Remember, chapter 6 of Isaiah is where Isaiah has been called by God to be a prophet. In that call, he was told by God that his prophecies would not be heard.
Go, and tell this people:
“Keep on hearing, but do not understand;
Keep on seeing, but do not perceive.
Make the heart of this people dull,
And their ears heavy,
And shut their eyes;
Lest they see with their eyes,
And hear with their ears,
And understand with their heart,
And return and be healed.” (Is. 6:9-10)
Then Isaiah asks, “Lord, how long?” (vs. 11). God answers:
“Until the cities are laid waste and without inhabitant,
The houses are without a man,
The land is utterly desolate,
The Lord has removed men far away,
And the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land.
But yet a tenth will be in it,
And will return and be for consuming,
As a terebinth tree or as an oak,
Whose stump remains when it is cut down.
So the holy seed shall be its stump.” (Is. 6:11-13)
That was Isaiah’s job. Later on he is told to bind up his prophecy and make sure that it’s at least halfway concealed (Is. 8: 16ff). He was promised that his ministry would result in what looked like failure— the judgment of his own people and the destruction of his land. And chapter 7 is the beginning of that very ministry.
The Historical Context of the Immanuel Prophecy
The Immanuel Prophecy is one of the first prophecies Isaiah actually makes, and he makes it to the king. Isaiah 7:1 explains the historical situation. “Now it came to pass in the days of Ahaz the son of Jotham, the son of Uzziah, king of Judah, that Rezin king of Syria and Pekah the son of Remaliah, king of Israel, went up to Jerusalem to make war against it, but could not prevail against it.” What we see is that the king of the northern kingdom, that is Israel, has actually allied with the king of Syria to attack Judah. The background for why this is happening is found in 2 Chronicles 28, but the short answer is that it was divine judgment for Ahaz’s wickedness.
Isaiah first prophesies relatively good news. Even though Israel and Syria are plotting against you, he says, “it shall not stand nor come to pass” (Is. 7:7). But this is conditional. It depends upon Ahaz’s faith, “If you will not believe, surely you shall not be established” (vs. 9). In the Hebrew there is a play on words, with the word for “believe” and the word for “established” sounding alike. Because of this, some translations have put it this way, “if you will not stand firm in faith, you not stand at all.” Ahaz will be spared, but he must have faith.
And that’s where the Immanuel prophecy comes in. Isaiah follows up this introduction with a command, “Ask a sign for yourself from the Lord your God; ask it either in the depth or in the height above” (vs. 10). The prophet tells the king to ask God for a sign of confirmation for this prophecy. But how does Ahaz respond?
Ahaz does something that’s very wicked, but something that tricky. He uses the appearance of righteousness and piety as a way to disobey God. “I will not ask, nor will I test the Lord” (Is. 7:11). What a response!
This is something that clever sinners do. It’s something that sinners who want to keep up the appearance of religion do. They come up with an argument why they cannot do the right thing. We’ve seen this with King Saul. Samuel asks him why he disobeyed his order to utterly destroy the Amalakites, their king, and all of their livestock? Saul had defeated the Amalakites, but he spared the king and the best livestock. He then pretended that he had done a good thing. “Blessed are you of the Lord! I have performed the commandment of the Lord” (1 Sam. 15:13). Samuel replies along the lines of “Oh yeah, well then why do I hear all of these sheep still alive?” Saul then makes up a fake religious justification, “the people spared the best of the sheep and the oxen, to sacrifice to the Lord your God” (1 Sam. 15:15). This was a lie, but it was a way to keep up appearances. Samuel’s response is famous, “Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice” (1 Sam. 15:22).
This is the sort of things the Pharisees loved to do too. They had all sorts of religious reasons to dishonor God. That’s why Jesus says to them, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! Because you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, and say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets’” (Matt. 23:29-30). Worst of all is Judas, who actually tries to rebuke the woman who anoints Jesus with oil. “Why was this fragrant oil not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” (John 12:5). Sounds pious right? Except John goes on to give us the real explanation, “This he said, not that he cared for the poor, but because he was a thief, and had the money box; and he used to take what was put in it.”
So king Ahaz’s problem is that he is a proud legalist who does not want to submit to God but does want to look like a good religious person. “Oh I could never ask for a sign from God. That would be putting Him to the test.” And that sounds half-right, because the Scriptures do tell us not to put God to the test (Deut. 6:16, Matt. 4:7). But it’s one thing for a sinner to try to make God prove something to him. It’s another when God commands you to ask for a sign. If God wants to give you added prove, then He can. You should say, “Thank you.” Ahaz rejects this offer because he is actually a rebel. He does not want God’s help because he does not want to be in God’s debt.
And so the offered sign moves from a promise of rescue to a prophecy of judgment:
Then [Isaiah] said, “Hear now, O house of David! Is it a small thing for you to weary men, but will you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel. Curds and honey He shall eat, that He may know to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the Child shall know to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land that you dread will be forsaken by both her kings. The Lord will bring the king of Assyria upon you and your people and your father’s house—days that have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah.” (Is. 7:13-17)
The promise of the virgin birth was therefore a sign of doom. The two kings were the kings of Israel and Judah, and the coming days were going to be bad news. Judgment was here.
Who is Immanuel?
So, given all that, what does “Immanuel” mean? A distant prophecy doesn’t seem to fit the context. How would the virgin birth of Jesus, some 700 years down the road, serve as a sign of condemnation against King Ahaz. And doesn’t it sound like the child will be born soon, that he will be an infant when the Assyrian invasion comes?
Well, there have been many theories about this. The majority opinion among the Jews is that King Hezekiah is being prophesied. After all, he will be the hero a little later on in Isaiah. But there are huge problems with this suggestion. First, Hezekiah was not born to a virgin. The Jewish response is that the word for “virgin” really just means “young woman,” and that’s its own debate, but most translations have retained “virgin” for good reason. When the word means “young woman,” it still means it in the sense of youthfulness. Thus virginity would have typically been associated with that. When the Jews translated Isaiah into Greek, what is called the Septuagint, they choose a translation which definitely means “virgin.” There’s also the problem that a non-virgin birth is hardly a miracle. Ok, so a young woman gets married and then gets pregnant. What’s the big deal? How is that earth-shaking?
Another big problem is that Hezekiah was already born when Isaiah made this prophecy. If you read the history in 2 Kings, you see that Ahaz reigned for 16 years (2 Kings 16:2). Hezekiah is the very next king, and it says that he was 25 years old when he became king (2 Kings 18:2). So even if Isaiah is making this prophecy in the very first year of King Ahaz’s reign, Hezekiah is already 9 years old. He cannot be the promised son.
Another suggestion is that the son is Isaiah’s own son. Isaiah already has one son, and that son’s name has a prophetic meaning—literally “Remnant shall return” (Is. 7:3). In chapter 8, it appears that Isaiah has a second child (Is. 8:3), and he also has a prophetic name. Even more than this, the text connects this son to the Immanuel prophecy, at least partly. “Before the child shall have knowledge to cry ‘My father’ and ‘My mother,’ the riches of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria will be taken away before the king of Assyria” (Is. 8:4). This seems like a match. But not so fast. Isaiah’s wife is not a young woman, and she’s definitely not a virgin. She already has at least one child. And this line about the child being young is not an exact quote of Is. 7. It’s close, but it’s not exactly the same. And this child of Isaiah’s sure seems to pass from the scene quickly. We don’t hear about him after chapter 8, and we keep getting more prophecies about a miraculous child who will be born and set up a kingdom. So the rest of Isaiah leads us to believe that there’s more to the story.
All of this has led other people to say that this prophecy must not be literal at all. The “birth” must be a reference to the land having birth pains before some major “delivery.” Again, in chapter 8 we see a sort of play on words with “Immanuel.” There “God with us” is not a person but a social event. But this doesn’t satisfy either. It would be entirely subjective. It also doesn’t satisfy because we have the New Testament. In Matthew’s gospel we are told what this prophecy means. Jesus is our Immanuel (Matt. 1:23).
Jesus is Our Immanuel
So, given all of that, what’s going on here? How can it be that Jesus is Immanuel? Listen again to Matthew’s gospel:
An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.”
So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying: “Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which is translated, “God with us.”
Then Joseph, being aroused from sleep, did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and took to him his wife, and did not know her till she had brought forth her firstborn Son. And he called His name JESUS. (Matt. 1:20-25)
Now, you can see that Matthew himself makes the connection to Isaiah. “all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet…” We can also see that the name “Immanuel ‘was not a literal personal name, since they were also commanded to name Him Jesus. “Immanuel” was symbolic and prophetic. The purpose was for everyone to know that Jesus was “God with us.”
We look to this today and understand the incarnation. And we are right to do this. John’s gospel especially brings out the point that “the Word became flesh” (John 1:14) and “the Word was God” (John 1:1). Jesus is Immanuel, and Immanuel really is God with us.
But if we consider the origin of this name in Isaiah 7, we can also see that “God with us” is a fulfillment of prophecy. It carries the double meaning of deliverance for those who believe and judgment upon those who do not. God has shown up, and He is bringing about His sovereign purposes.
But how does this solve the rest of the challenge of Isaiah 7? How does Jesus’ birth, so many centuries later, prove condemnation for Israel and Judah, and how does it say anything about the Assyrians?
The answer will come if we think prophetically and remember what Isaiah was doing. Isaiah was supposed to prophesy something that his audience wouldn’t be able to receive. He was speaking in something like a parable, and the point of his prophecies were to make their hearts dull, their ears heavy, and their eyes shut (Is. 6:10). He was giving them just enough to condemn them.
This is one reason that the New Testament calls the gospel the revelation of a mystery that’s been locked up for a while. Paul says that the gospel is “the mystery which has been hidden from ages and from generations, but now has been revealed to His saints” (Col. 1:26), and “we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God ordained before the ages for our glory, which none of the rules of this age knew; for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor. 2:7-8).
Isaiah is not so much “revealing” but “concealing.” He’s letting the people of God know that God is speaking to them, but he’s also letting them know that they don’t hear God and cannot hear God. It’s judgment.
And what he’s saying with the Immanuel prophecy is that the promise of the kingdom and the messiah will indeed come, but that it will not come until after the land is forsaken by its kings, until after the Assyrians conquer, and ultimately not until the rest of Isaiah’s prophecies. After all, chapter 7 doesn’t really wrap up and end. It keeps going into chapter 8 and onwards. It keeps going into chapter 8 and 9, where we hear more about this promised son, and then throughout chapter 11, which also talks about a family line establishing a kingdom, and ultimately throughout the end of the book. “Immanuel” will come, but He will not come in a way that Ahaz will like. God will keep His promises, but His people will have to be patient. They must “wait on the LORD” as it says in chapter 8, and they must watch all of their best-laid plans come to nothing.
The hope of Israel is coming, and it did come in Jesus. But it wasn’t when they expected, and, ultimately, it wasn’t what they expected. Isaiah did exactly what God wanted Him to do, and we see both salvation and judgment in the coming of Christ, in God with us. Since Israel did not stand firm in faith, they will not stand. And yet God will keep His promise all the same. When we are faithless, God is faithful.
What we see in all of this is that God is indeed with us. But “God with us” is not limited to our expectations. Indeed, “God with us” is God with us. He comes in His timing and with His judgment. We must stand firm in faith.
Christmas is all about salvation. Jesus has come, after all those years. Jesus did come. God ransomed His people and set them free from exile. And yet He did this by way of judgment and conviction. He showed us our faithlessness, how we tried to do it all ourselves and find a better way. And He showed us our foolishness, how that all came to naught.
We need to humble ourselves so that we can receive God on His terms, as He chooses to reveal Himself. This requires patience. This requires faith.
Let us pray.