December 2021

December 2021

The Sign of Immanuel

As the Christmas season approaches, one of the Old Testament passages we most often hear is that which is cited by St. Matthew in his Gospel: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14). As St. Matthew himself explains, the name Immanuel means “God with us” (Matthew 1:23). This is a straightforward prophecy of the world-changing event that we celebrate every Christmas: the birth of Jesus, who is quite literally God with us, from the womb of the virgin Mary.

Attentive students of Holy Scripture, however, will find that the Immanuel prophecy in Isaiah 7:14 is rather less straightforward than it seems when the verse is treated in isolation. Immediately after the familiar words, we have this cryptic statement: “He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good” (Isaiah 7:15). What?! What is Isaiah talking about?

The strangeness of the Immanuel prophecy has led to all sorts of strange ways of explaining it, particularly by scholars of the Bible who do not themselves believe the Bible to be the Word of God. Some think the name “Immanuel” means not that the child is God with us, but that the child is a sign that God is with us. Some imagine that the “virgin” is not a young woman who has never known a man (Luke 1:34), but a young woman who has just married (perhaps Isaiah’s own wife?) and will conceive in the natural way. Some suppose that the child spoken of would be born soon after Isaiah delivered his prophecy, and that it had nothing to do with the birth of Jesus some seven centuries later.

What do we make of all this? Certainly there is more to the Immanuel prophecy than first appears. But when we study the prophecy as a whole seriously and in the fear of God, we end up at the same place we began, but with deepened understanding and appreciation: Jesus is God with us, born of the virgin Mary on Christmas Day, as foretold centuries beforehand by the prophet Isaiah.

Let’s set the stage for the Immanuel prophecy. Two kings to the north of Judah, King Rezin of Syria and King Pekah of Israel, have joined forces against the southern kingdom of Judah. Their goal is to besiege and overcome the city of Jerusalem, kill the descendants of David, and replace the Davidic dynasty with a puppet king of their own choosing. King Ahaz of Judah learns about this and panics. He makes a secret decision to send messengers to the King of Assyria bearing lavish gifts stripped from the Jerusalem temple, in hopes that the mighty Assyrian empire will come to his aid and deliver him from Syria and Israel.

In the midst of all this, Isaiah comes to King Ahaz and reminds him that he is descended from David and has the promise of God that the line of David will never die out until a descendant of David reigns on the throne of Judah forever. Ahaz, though, refuses to believe this. He has already turned away from the God of his father David and embraced heathen worship, and he would rather rely upon a visible human empire than upon the invisible LORD his God.

The LORD makes one last attempt to reach the heart of Ahaz and win him back to faith in the living God. He sends Isaiah to make a proposal to Ahaz: Choose a sign, any sign, no matter how miraculous, by which the LORD can give you the assurance that what He has promised will come to pass, the attack from Syria and Israel will fail, and the house of David will remain secure. But Ahaz refuses. His trust is in Assyria, not in his God.

It is to this unbelief that Isaiah responds with the Immanuel prophecy: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that 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. 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 7:13–16). The prophecy goes on at some length, and I would encourage you to read it for yourself. The gist of it is that in the time it would take for a boy to be conceived, born, and reach the age of discretion, the threat that Ahaz fears so much from Syria and Israel will have been neutralized, but in a terrible way: through the very Assyrians on whom Ahaz has relied in place of the LORD his God. The Assyrians will lay waste to Syria, and in the decades after that will actually destroy the kingdom of Israel. They will even devastate the land of Judah itself, and Judah will never again regain its former prosperity. In fact, by the time Jesus is born and reaches the age of discretion, He will have to eat the food of poverty (curds and honey), because Judah will have been devastated by Assyria, Babylon, Persia, the Greeks, and the Romans—all as a direct consequence of King Ahaz’s unbelief.

There is so much more to this prophecy. If you would like to learn more, I invite you to join us for our Adult Bible Class this month, where we will delve into the major prophecies of Isaiah. For now, rejoice that God was pleased to predict the miraculous birth of Jesus so long before it actually took place. In the midst of His judgment against unbelieving Ahaz, He gave a promise to the believing people of Judah, that God would be with them in His Son Jesus, to deliver them not only from earthly empires, but even from sin and death. May this bring you much joy and peace this Christmas season!

God's Blessing to All This Christmas Season!

Pastor Neuendorf