Immanuel

The king of Judah is panicked, and all Jerusalem with him (Isaiah 7).

Judah has been invaded by the combined armies of Pekiah, King of Israel, and Rezin, King of Aram. They have come against Jerusalem and are besieging it, but they cannot conquer it. But they’ve spooked the whole city. Everyone is scared, and the hearts of the people and the king shake like the trees of the forest shake when the wind blows.

Israel and Aram are unlikely allies. Since the days of David and Solomon, Israel has been periodically at war with Aram. Rezon king of Aram was one of the adversaries, one of the satans, during the reign of Solomon, and Elisha anointed Hazael as king over Aram as part of Yahweh’s judgment against the northern kingdom of Israel. An Aramean arrow killed Ahab, and Ahab’s son Joram was founded in battle with the Arameans.

Now these two old enemies have allied against a common enemy. Assyria is the rising power to the north and east, and Israel and Aram believe that if they combine their efforts they can push back against Assyrian power and preserve their independence.

The alliance would be even stronger if Judah would come in alongside, making a three-stranded cord that would not easily be broken. But King Ahaz of Judah is not willing to join the resistance. In fact, he is more inclined to ally with the Assyrians than with Israel and Aram.

So Israel and Aram invade. Their goal is not merely to intimidate Judah and force them to join. They want to afflict the land, break through the walls of the capital and “king a king” in Jerusalem, put in a puppet king who will bring Judah into the alliance, the son of Tabeel (v. 6).

It’s not merely that Ahaz is under threat. The entire Davidic dynasty is threatened by the invasion. The goal of the invasion is to replace Ahaz with another more cooperative king, and throughout the passage, the “house of David” is almost a distinct character in the drama. It’s the heart of the house of David that quakes and quivers when the news of the invasion reaches Jerusalem (v. 2) and it’s the house of David that receives the sign of Immanuel.

Isaiah agrees that Judah is threatened, and that the house of David is at stake. But the threat that Isaiah sees is not the threat that Ahaz sees. In fact, the threat from Israel and Aram is tiny, miniscule, hardly worth mentioning. Isaiah’s initial words to Ahaz are full of reassurance.

Aram and Israel come into the land breathing fire, trailing smoke, like some great storm, like the glory of Yahweh raging across the plain. They come like fire-breathers, snorting smoke through their nostrils as they come.

But Isaiah talks about them dismissively. They aren’t fiery; they’re smoldering firebrands, like bits of wood that have been plucked out of a fire. They don’t form a real glory cloud. They just sputter with a little bit of smoke before they go out. It’s like the Wizard of Oz – lots of smoke and bluster, but the man behind the curtain is old and feeble.

There are more with Judah than with those who stand against them. Isaiah gives further reassurance to Ahaz by urging him to reason through the situation. The Arameans have a head city, and that city is Damascus; the city of Damascus is head, and that head is Rezin. So too, the nation of Israel has a head city, Samaria, and the city of Samaria has a head, the son of Remaliah.

Ahaz is supposed to draw the conclusion: the nation of Judah has a head city, Jerusalem, and the city of Jerusalem also has a head. Ahaz is not supposed to think of himself as head. He’s supposed to remember that there is another King, an eternal King in Jerusalem, King Yahweh of Hosts.

Between the heads of Damascus and Samaria and the Head of Jerusalem, there simply is no comparison. Isaiah has seen the king, high and lifted up, on His throne in the temple. He really is a glorious King. The smoke of His glory fills the temple; He is surrounded by seraphim, snakes of fire, living lightning. When His nose burns, He consumes everything before Him. When He comes, it’s not just a firebrand, smoke and light show. He’s the real deal, a real King. And He’s the head of Jerusalem.

So, the message to Ahaz is, relax, guard, do not fear, be calm, and do nothing. Wait and see what King Yahweh of hosts will do. Trust Him.

The threat from Aram and Israel is tiny, miniscule. It is not worth getting all panicked about. It will be over soon. But there is another threat.

After Isaiah’s encounter with Ahab at the conduit of the upper pool, he delivers a message about another invader. This one is going to be more dangerous, more destructive by far than the Armeans and Israelites. The anti-Assyrian alliance is not going to work.

Ahaz, Judah, and the house of David are threatened by the powerful king of Assyria. Armies will come into the land like a swarm of flies from Egypt, another Egyptian plague, but this time a plague on Judah rather than on Egypt. When Yahweh sent His people into the land, He sent hornets before them to chase away the Canaanites; this time, He’s whistling for bees, the bees of Assyria, and they’ll settle in every crevice and ravine in the land. Judah has become Canaanite, and so Yahweh is driving them out before the stinging bees.

Assyria will come like a razor, to shave off all the hair, all the glorious crown, of the people of Judah. Yahweh is bringing Assyria in like a rented razor. He’s going to shave off the hair from the head and feet and even cut the beard. He’s going to reduce Judah to a slave, shorn of all glory.

The king of Assyria is going to deplete the land. Instead of large flocks and herds, a man will have a single heifer and a pair of sheep. Instead of bread and wine, which require cultivation and relative peace and security, the people who remain are going to live on remnant food, curds and honey, the food of the land, but the primitive food of an undeveloped land, the honey that the bees leave behind when they depart.

Vineyards will turn to briar patches, and the land will be so full of human briars and thorns that no one will dare go through the land without bow and arrow. Three times in the final verses, Isaiah predicts briars and thorns, the land turned over to cursing, the garden land turned to wilderness.

Isaiah’s message is, Don’t worry about Aram and Israel. If you want to worry, worry about Assyria.

That’s hardly reassuring, but it’s not the heart of Isaiah’s message.

Like Ahaz, Isaiah knows that the house of David is threatened. He knows that the land of Judah is afflicted. But the threat doesn’t come from Aram and Israel, and it doesn’t fundamentally come from Assyria either. The main threat to the house of David is the king who sits on David’s throne. The one who is really afflicting the land is not Aram or Israel or Assyria, but Ahaz, the Davidic king (v. 16).

Ahaz’s problem is not a political failure. It’s not that he hasn’t played the political game sufficiently. His failure is ultimately a failure of faith. Isaiah 7 passage is about faith.

The end of verse 9 has been called one of the main statements about faith in the entire Old Testament. Yahweh threatens to remove Ephraim, shatter Ephraim so that she is no longer a people, within 65 years. That is a warning to Ahaz. If he does not believe, does not trust, he too will not be founded.

The connection between faith and the stability of the kingdom is clearer in the Hebrew, where both verbs in the last clause of verse 9 come from the same root. Ungrammatically: If you do not have faith, you will not be faithed. If you do not trust, you will have a trustworthy foundation. If you are not sure of Yahweh, you will not be assured. If you don’t stand in faith, you won’t stand at all (NIV). Faith is the only way to be well-founded.

Verse 9 alludes to the promises to David, using the verb that Yahweh uses elsewhere to describe the certainty of David’s throne. Yahweh declares a covenant with David, and swears that He will “establish your seed forever.”

Clearly, faith is not mere assent to a creed or a doctrinal formula. Faith is not a Panglossian assurance that everything is going to turn out OK in the end. Faith is not hope in our power to put things right. Faith is not hope that present trends will continue.

Faith is confidence in the midst of crisis, but confidence pointed in a particular direction. Faith means trusting King Yahweh when it looks as if King Yahweh has checked out. Faith is a political virtue. Faith means renouncing political alliances and entrusting the fate of the nation to Yahweh and His promise.

Faith is the opposite of fear.

The threat to Judah is not Aram and Israel, or even Assyria. The threat is the faithlessness of her king. If Ahaz wants to see those promises to David realized in the immediate circumstances, he has to trust Yahweh, trust Him and give up fear, trust Him and do nothing, trust Him and get out of the way to see what Yahweh will do.

If, on the other hand, he acts in panic and fear; if he tries to cut deals and jockey for power and play the power game, if he tries to manipulate and control things to fix them – then Judah is genuinely in danger, because the the house of David has turned from King Yahweh to another way, turned from the faith that founds the dynasty to another god. If he fails to trust Yahweh, the house of David is truly threatened, because the house of David will have fallen into apostasy.

This is the context for the Immanuel promise. This is the context for the celebration of Christmas. What does the promise of Immanuel mean in this context?

We need to pay attention to the interchange that leads up to the sign. Through the prophet, Yahweh offers Ahaz a sign. I’ll move heaven and earth, He says; just tell me what to do. I’ll turn the shadow backward on the stairs; I’ll make the sun stand still; I’ll make Sheol open and swallow down the Aramean army; I’ll make a new star appear in the sky that will lead the Gentiles from the East. Tell me what you want, and I’ll do it. Anything.

Ahaz refuses. Oh, he gives his refusal a pious gloss. “Don’t bother, Lord. I’m fine. I don’t need your sign. Just fine without it. Don’t tempt the Lord your God, I heard Jesus say.”

But this is just another act of unbelief, another sign of Ahaz’s lack of faith. When Aram and Israel come through, he panics, shaking like a leaf in the wind. He doesn’t trust Yahweh to take care of it. And when Yahweh offers a sign to confirm His promise, Ahaz doesn’t want it. He thinks he can go it alone. He thinks that his policies and politicking will work. The refusal is a test of Yahweh’s patience as much as Ahaz’s panic and fear.

This exchange sets our expectations for the sign that Yahweh does give.

First, Yahweh gives a sign to a king who doesn’t want to receive a sign, a king who has already refused to specify the sign that Yahweh offered him. Yahweh gives a sign anyway, but this means that the sign is a response to Ahaz’s unbelief. It is not so much a sign that signifies judgment; the sign itself is a judgment, a judgment on the king of the dull heart. Isaiah meets him at the conduit, like Moses met Pharaoh at the river – because Ahaz is like Pharaoh, a man with a hard heart.

Second, when we see this context, we are led immediately back to Isaiah’s commission in the previous chapter. Isaiah was sent to preach to a people whose ears were heavy, whose eyes were smeared over, whose hearts were dull, and his message was going to make their hearts duller, their eyes blinder, their ears heavier. Seeing, they do not see; perceiving, they do not understand. The first example of this kind of obscuring, parabolic prophecy is Isaiah’s prophecy to Ahab.

So, we should expect the prophecy to be obscure, elusive, even misleading to Ahaz. It’s no accident that commentators and scholars through the centuries have puzzled and puzzled over this sign, asking all sorts of questions that the text doesn’t seem to answer. Who is this woman? Who is the father, if there is one? Who, above all, is the child?

The sign raises questions because it’s supposed to. It’s a sign to a king who doesn’t want a sign, a sign to a king with a fat heart and heavy ears. Isaiah is like the spirit who puts a lying spirit in the mouths of Ahab’s prophets. He’s like the spirit that lures Ahab to his death, and his prophecy is also a lure to Ahaz.

We can’t ask, “What does the Immanuel sign mean?” without asking “What does it mean to Ahaz?”

The birth of a child is frequently reassuring in the Bible. Isaac’s birth is a sign that Abram’s family will continue, but more deeply a sign that the promise of God to Abram will be realized. Ahaz is facing the possible end of his dynasty, and Yahweh’s sign is about a child being born. Ahaz would surely take that as a sign of the continuation of the Davidic dynasty. Syria and Israel want to remove the Davidic king and replace him with the son of Tabeel.

The sign of Immanuel says that they won’t succeed. A son, a royal son, will be born. Ahaz’s line will continue, and, more importantly, Yahweh will show His continuing, persistent, eternal commitment to David. The promise is contained in His name: Ahaz can be certain from the birth of this child that Yahweh, the God of Israel, is with us!

And the sign is not just about the birth of a child, but about his growth and the invasion. He will eat curds and honey – in context, the food of refugees and the remnant. Israel and Syria have devastated the land, and the only thing left is curds and honey. But this child will eat and learn to refuse the evil and choose good. He will be another Solomon, who discerned good and evil by the wisdom Yahweh gave him.

Before he comes to that point, before he is old enough or mature enough to reject evil and choose good, then the land of the two kings will be forsaken. This sounds like an age of accountability, but is more likely a reference to the child’s accession to a throne. Before he takes on royal responsibility to judge, the land will be forsaken.

Ahaz no doubt takes this as an assurance that the lands of the Arameans and Israelites will be devastated, by Assyria, which is what Isaiah does prophesy in the next chapter, about another child, the son of Isaiah: “before the boy knows how to cry out ‘My father’ . . . the wealth of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria will be carried away before the king of Assyria” (8:4).

It all sounds reassuring, and is meant to, but then verse 17 abruptly intervenes.

The assurance turns to threat. Perhaps Aram and Israel will be eliminated, but that only leaves room for the flies and the bees to infest the land. That only means that Yahweh is ready to pick up his rented razor, the razor of Assyria and strip off the glory of Judah.

Either this is a radical change of direction, or the initial prophecy is not quite as reassuring as it seems. Isaiah is like the spirit volunteering to lure Ahab to his death, and perhaps he is giving a prophecy that sounds encouraging but serves only to harden Ahaz’s heart even more. Everything that Isaiah says is double-sided.

The child will be Immanuel. That sounds good, and it is, God coming near to be with us. But God is a consuming fire, and proximity can be dangerous too, especially to unbelieving kings like Ahaz.

What will happen before the child gets to the age of reject evil and choose good? It sounds as if the kings who threaten Judah will be destroyed, but that’s not the only way to take it. Verse 16 uses the singular word “land” and says it’s the land “you afflict.” Ahaz is doing the afflicting. That land will be forsaken of her two kings. Judah will be forsaken of two kings.

Which two kings? Judah always has had two kings – the Davidic king and King Yahweh. Before he rises to the place of rejecting evil and choosing good, the two kings will forsake the land of Judah. There will be no Davidic king, and Yahweh Himself, King Yahweh of hosts, will leave the land desolate. Immanuel is a sign of Yahweh’s presence, also a threat of His abandonment.

This sign, ambiguous and puzzling in its time, sets Judah and the Davidic kings off on a quest.

Early in 1 Kings, when the Northern Kingdom first breaks from the house of David, a man of God from Judah confronts Jeroboam at his altar and predicts that the altar will be defiled and destroyed. He even names the one who will defile it – Josiah. And we read on and on in Kings, and Josiah doesn’t show up. Kings of Israel keep doing the sin of Jeroboam that made Israel sin, but where is Josiah?

As this section of Isaiah continues, the sign expands and grows, outgrows the immediate context and threat. The figure of Immanuel merges into the figure of the future Davidic King, the child who is born, the child upon whose shoulder the government is set, the child who will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace, the child who will rule on the throne of David and establish is with justice and righteousness forever (9:6). He will be the shoot from the stem of Jesse whose Spirit-inspired reign would bring righteousness and peace (11:1-10).

All through the centuries, this sign has been set out before Israel, before the nations, because the future of the Davidic dynasty is the future of nations. All through the centuries, Israel asks, Where is Immanuel? Where is the promise of His coming? When will God be with us? How long, O Lord, how long?

We know the answer. This sign, so ambiguous and puzzling to Ahaz, a sign to a hard-hearted king, this sign has come to pass, so that what was spoke by the prophet would be fulfilled: Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel, which translated means, God with us. This sign has come to pass, the virgin has borne God as man, and called His name Jesus, for He shall save His people from their sin.

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