Summary: God telegraphs what He does well in advance if anyone will listen.
Immanuel, God is with Us
As we approach the Christmas season, we start to think about Jesus coming to earth as a baby in a manger in Bethlehem. We remember the nativity stories in Matthew and Luke. We remember the words from the Apostle John, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” But things were written about this coming Christ child hundreds of years before He came. In this morning’s passage, this prophecy about the coming Christ was uttered well over seven hundred years before He was born. Matthew quotes from verse 14 in this morning’s passage to show that Jesus was the fulfillment of these words of Isaiah. Although Isaiah was not the only prophet who telegraphed to the world of the coming Jesus, some of the more memorable ones are contained in the 66 chapters of the book.
Exposition of the Text
There is much discussion among scholars about the way to interpret prophecies. Many say that a prophecy has to make sense to the people who heard it in the day it was uttered. This would mean that this Emmanuel prophecy would have had to have been fulfilled in the life of Ahaz to be legitimate. However, we would be immediately presented with a problem. If this prophecy had a local significance in the times well before Christ, how could it legitimately be a prophecy about the birth of Christ?
There is of course a fallacy in the approach of saying that a prophecy must mean something to the prophet and that it has to have fulfillment in the near future in relation to the prophet. A prophecy means what it means in the mind and purpose of God, a God to whom a thousand years is but a day. Human beings have no right to tell God what to do, and when and how He can do it. If God says something through a prophet which doesn’t happen for a thousand years or more, what is that to God?
1 Peter 1:10-12 tells us that the prophets themselves were clued in to the coming of Christ at least in part. And Jesus in John tells us that Christ was revealed to Abraham some two thousand years in advance. The Bible contains many prophecies which were fulfilled hundreds of years later, even in the Old Testament. So to say that an uttered prophecy cannot speak to a situation which would not occur within the life of the prophet is wrong.
Having said that, when we look into this particular text, we do seem that a sign was given to King Ahaz which implies that it would happen within his lifetime, and that the birth of a child named Immanuel would occur who would be a sign of Judah’s deliverance from Israel and Syria. So let us look at this text historically and see what it may have meant in the days of Ahaz.
The context of this passage was an invasion of Judah by raiders from the Northern Kingdom of Israel and Syria. Ahaz is recorded in Chronicles as having been a wicked king unlike his father Jotham and Uzziah. The response of Isaiah to Ahaz when Ahaz refused to ask for a sign shows that this was a correct assessment. Ahaz’s disobedience was wearisome to the Lord. So when Ahaz refused to ask for a sign, God said that He would provide the sign himself. A young woman would become pregnant and have a child, apparently a woman known to Ahaz. The child would be named Immanuel which is Hebrew for “God is with us.” This was to be a sign that before the child was able to be weaned that the two oppressing kings would be gone and Judah would have deliverance. This would be a great act of grace on God’s part as Ahaz and Judah were rebellious and wicked and did not deserve the Lord’s intervention at all.
If this was all there was to this prophecy, it would have had meaning to the people of 780BC. But of what further value would it be except for students of history of how God dealt with a faraway nation with names which are hard to pronounce some 2800 years ago. The best that could be said is that the God who was willing to show grace to them might also speak words of grace to us. Wonderful! God was with Judah? What does this mean to us?
I am not denying that this prophecy had an initial fulfillment in the days of Ahaz. The prophecy of Isaiah was fulfilled as a sign of a greater fulfillment in the time of Jesus. The God who rescued a wicked and petty king in a small nation on the world’s stage of that day is the same God who used this as a signpost of a much greater deliverance. It would not just be a little nation, but the child who was to be born would be the means of delivering people from all the nations of earth. It would not be a deliverance which would be no more than a temporary reprieve. Isaiah was already prophesying of Judah’s captivity. In fact, the name of his son “Shear-Jashub” (a remnant will return) was a sign of this captivity and also of a future deliverance for a remnant which was greater than this reprieve.