Immanuel in Isaiah and Matthew
We are accustomed to reading the Bible backwards. That is, we have tended to assume that the New Testament provides all the clues we need to understand the Old Testament. As a result, we tend to read the Old Testament in light of what we understand about the New Testament. However, most of the time we are not really even reading the Old Testament in light of the New Testament. We are actually reading the Old Testament in light of much later highly developed doctrines and systematic theology seen through the eyes of 21st century Western perspectives. We tend not to take seriously the deep roots that most of the New Testament has in the thought world, symbolism, and theology of the Old Testament.
In most cases the Bible needs to be read forward. For whatever reason, God has chosen to reveal himself within human history in incarnational ways, amid all the messiness of human existence. Since Scripture bears witness to that self-revelation from within that flow of history, it seems more faithful to the nature of God’s revelation to read the Bible forward. That is, rather than using the New Testament and early Christian doctrines as interpretive lenses for the Old Testament, it might be more faithful to Scripture to allow the Old Testament to provide us with some interpretive tools for the New Testament. And rather than using categories from outside the Bible, from Greek philosophy for example, to interpret the New Testament witness, it might give us more insight into Scripture to use the categories and thought world of the Old Testament to help us understand the New Testament.
This does not mean that we try to read the Old Testament as if the New Testament does not exist. If nothing else, we Christians will always read the Old Testament as Christians since, to paraphrase Paul Harvey, we know the rest of the story. Nor does it mean that the NT will add no meaning to the Old Testament witness. If that were the case there would be no need for the New Testament at all. But it does mean that we should try to understand the Old Testament message, in all its historical and cultural particularity. This then becomes a basis for understanding how the New Testament communicates its own witness to God’s new revelation of himself in Jesus, who is the Christ, against the background of the Old Testament witness to the same God.
There are many levels on which we can and should do this. One of the most important avenues is understanding the historical and cultural background of the biblical text, in both Testaments. Another is to understand how concepts and ideas are communicated through the use of certain terms that have sometimes radically different meanings when taken from Greek into Hebrew (backward) then they do if heard from Hebrew into Greek (see The Hebrew term "Perfect"). Still another is understanding the radically different ways the Israelites conceptualized and spoke of the world and human existence compared to how later Greek philosophy conceptualized reality (see Body and Soul: Greek and Hebraic Tensions in Scripture). Yet another is to understand central and crucial theological concepts of the Old Testament that are explicated not in terms of propositions but in terms of the unfolding story, and how those concepts are incorporated in sometimes subtle but significant ways into the New Testament confessions (see Nazareth and The Branch: Matthew 2:23 and Interpretation of the Old Testament).
A good example of this last aspect can be seen in Matthew’s use of a passage from Isaiah 7:14:
1:21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." 1:22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 1:23 "Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us."
We are all familiar with the passage, a favorite Advent and Christmas reading (in The Revised Common Lectionary it is used for the Fourth Sunday of Advent in Year A). From this, when blended with our systematic formulations of the Doctrine of the Virgin Birth, it is easy to assume that Matthew is dealing with the Isaiah passage as a prediction of the virgin birth of Jesus. Yet, this approach leaves the Isaiah passage without meaning for well over 700 years until Jesus was actually born. It also ignores the context of the passage in Isaiah 7. It may also be that we have imposed an emphasis on Matthew that is not at all what the Gospel itself does with this quotation from Isaiah. If we look more carefully at the passage in Isaiah, we not only will gain better insight into the meaning of Isaiah 7:14 in context, we might be able to grasp more deeply what Matthew is telling us in the Gospel.
7:14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: the young woman is with child and is about to give birth to a son, and she will name him Immanuel.
The historical context of Isaiah 7 (and 8) is explicit since that chapter begins with a datable reference: "In the days of Ahaz son of Jotham son of Uzziah, king of Judah." Most chronologies of the Old Testament place the reign of King Ahaz of Judah from about 735-715 BC (see Israelite Kings Chart).
The immediate event it describes is a planned attack against Jerusalem by a coalition of "King Rezin of Aram and King Pekah son of Remaliah of Israel." This Syro-Ephraimitic coalition, as it is known, was an attempt to forge alliances among the nations of the area to withstand an impending invasion from Assyria to the north (see Pekah and the Syro-Ephraimitic Coalition). Pekah, king of the northern Kingdom of Israel, had tried to get Jotham, Ahaz’ father, to join the alliance against Assyria. Pekah stood in the immediate path of the Assyrian invasion if they marched south. However Jotham had refused to join and so Pekah, with the help of Rezin king of Aram (Syria), had decided to send an army to Jerusalem to replace King Jotham with a puppet king who would agree to their demands to join the coalition (Isa 7:6).
However, before the plan could succeed, Jotham died and left his son Ahaz to face the crisis. While apparently the coalition did manage to lay siege to Jerusalem with considerable loss of life (2 Chron 28:1-15) Isaiah and 2 Kings both tell us that the plan failed (7:1).
Most of the rest of Isaiah 7-8 deals with the weak and vacillating King Ahaz who is terrified at the prospect of an invasion from the coalition (7:2) and seems willing to do most anything, including making alliances with Egypt or even with Assyria, to secure his own position. It is into this crisis around 735-734 BC and the weakness of Ahaz that the prophet Isaiah brings his message in Isaiah 7-8.
Isaiah’s message was one of patience and trust in God. It is a theme that will be repeated throughout the book of Isaiah (cf. 40:31)
Take heed, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint because of these two smoldering stumps of firebrands, because of the fierce anger of Rezin and Aram and the son of Remaliah . . . It shall not stand, and it shall not come to pass. (7:4, 7)
It is important to note that this first message from Isaiah to Ahaz was accompanied by a child, Shear-jashub. He was a son of Isaiah, whose name means "a remnant shall return." The idea of a remnant preserved by God in spite of horrible endings of history is an important theological theme in the Old Testament. It first appears in the Joseph story in Genesis (45:7), and recurs at significant crisis points throughout Israelite history (2 Kings 19:30, Isa 10:21, Jer 23:3, Ezra 9:8, etc). It is a promise of hope in the face of impending historical catastrophe. While there is no specific point made here in Isaiah 7 about the child, it is obvious that his mention here, especially with such a significant name, was part of the message of Isaiah to Ahaz. And the fact that the names of two successive children in these two chapters did play significant roles in Isaiah’s message clues us to an important part of the theology at work in these chapters.
This is not the only time that a prophet’s children had become part of the prophetic message. A few years earlier, Hosea had used the names of his three children to bring a message of warning and repentance to the people of the Northern Kingdom (Hos 1:3-9). We need to note that it was not the children themselves that carried the message for Hosea, but their names. In fact, a play on their names, and a reversal of their meaning, introduced and summarized the entire message of the book of Hosea (Hos 1:10-11).
It seems likely, then, that we are dealing with a technique of prophetic communication, and that the three children in Isaiah 7-8 served the same purpose. This is even stated clearly in 8:18:
See, I and the children whom the LORD has given me are signs and portents in Israel from the LORD of hosts, who dwells on Mount Zion.
And here, as in Hosea, it was the names of the children that carried the prophetic message.
Apparently, Ahaz was not too receptive to the prophetic word (7:13). So Isaiah continued with the "sign" of a second child, which leads into the well-known passage in 7:14. At this point, we will avoid dealing with the issues surrounding the traditional translation of "virgin" (see Isaiah 7:14 - Translation Issues). It has been such an emotional issue that it tends to sidetrack all other considerations in interpreting this passage.
Instead, let’s focus on the rest of the passage that unfolds around this second child. We must admit that this child is not specified as Isaiah’s child. However, since the first and third children here are Isaiah’s, and the text specifically mentions Isaiah’s children as "signs in Israel," the explicit mention of this second child as a "sign" seems to suggest that this is likewise Isaiah’s child. However, the text does not say that directly and we do not have to make that decision to hear the rest of the passage.
The rest of Isaiah 7 is concerned with explicating the meaning of this child as a "sign." We need to take seriously that the meaning of this sign-child given here is related entirely to the immediate crisis of the imminent threat from the Syro-Ephraimitic coalition and the impending Assyrian invasion. First, there is a time frame given for unfolding events.
7:16 For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted. 7:17 The LORD will bring on you and on your people and on your ancestral house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah--the king of Assyria."
Traditionally, the time for a child to know the difference between right and wrong is about the age of twelve. Even in modern Judaism, this is the age of Bar and Bat Mitzvah, where a child becomes accountable under the Torah. In other words, this verse says that within twelve years the King of Assyria, not the Syro-Ephraimitic alliance, will utterly devastate the land. Ahaz is worried about the wrong threat!
What Ahaz eventually did was appeal to the King of Assyria for aid in dealing with the Syro-Ephraimitic coalition, stripping the gold and silver from the temple as tribute to pay for his assistance (2 Kings 16:7). That would only give the Assyrian king an excuse to invade and annihilate the Northern Kingdom and make Ahaz and the southern kingdom of Judah a vassal king and people subservient to Assyria (2 Kings 16:8-9). That unfolded with the destruction of Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom, in 721 BC, roughly within the time frame given by Isaiah here. Ahaz lacked the faith to trust in God and instead placed his trust in armies and alliances. He was more concerned with saving his own position than he was in preserving his nation and his people as God’s people. He ended up losing both.
And yet this second child had served as a message of hope to Ahaz and the people, part of the prophetic message. His name, Immanu-el, means "God is with us." This has been a crucial, indeed central, confession about God throughout the Bible. In various forms, "I will be with you" has always been a promise of God to individuals and to his people when they are faced with circumstances that they cannot overcome on their own. This promise of the presence of God in the midst of crises and fear is a central confession about the nature of the God of the Old Testament.
It is the promise to Isaac when he wants to return to Egypt in a famine (Gen 26:3, 24). It is the promise to Jacob as he flees for his life from Esau, and later as he returns to face him (Gen 28:15, 31:3). It is God’s promise to Moses as he questions his ability to lead the people out of Egypt (Ex 3:12). It is the promise to Joshua as he assumes leadership of the people from Moses (Josh 1:5, 3:7). It is the same affirmation throughout the Old Testament, to God’s people as they prepare to enter the land (Num 14:9,Josh 1:9), to Barak as he faces Sisera (Jud 4:9), to Gideon as he faces the Amalekites (Jud 6:12), to Saul as he prepares to become king (1 Sam 10:7), to David as God promises him a dynasty forever (2 Sam 7:9), to exiles as they face an uncertain future (Isa 41:10), to Jeremiah as he faces opposition and death (Jer 1:19), to the discouraged community who had returned from the exile (Hag 1:12, 2:4). The affirmation is celebrated in Israel’s worship and prayers (for example, Psa 46:7). The idea carries into the New Testament as the assurance of God’s presence is given to the frightened maiden Mary who is with child (Lk 1:28), to the early church facing an uncertain future (John 14), and to Paul the missionary facing hardship and persecution (Acts 18:10).
So, Isaiah evoked that theology here in dealing with Ahaz, using the name of this second child as the confession that God will be with his people once again in this particular crisis. Isaiah continued the message to Ahaz with the name of the third child (8:3). The message was much the same, that the Northern Kingdom and the Syro-Ephraimitic alliance would be destroyed by the Assyrians because they had failed to trust in God. The message was a clear warning to Ahaz that if he followed the same path, the same judgment awaited the Southern Kingdom.
At the conclusion of this message to Ahaz, Isaiah used the term immanu-el twice more, but not in connection with the child. In both places, it is no longer the name of a child, but an emphasis on the theology of "God with us."
In 8:8, "Immanuel" refers to the nation of Israel. It is a confession that these people are the people that God has been with and will be with. The second use of the name in 8:10 is usually translated in English versions:
Take counsel together, but it shall be brought to naught; speak a word, but it will not stand, for God is with us.
The final phrase "God is with us" is the exact phrase in Hebrew as the name Immanuel in 7:14 and 8:8. This was the climax of the prophetic word at this time to Ahaz. Because of God’s presence with his people, there is hope and possibility beyond the immanent doom that Ahaz envisioned and that was proclaimed for the Northern Kingdom because of its apostasy. This is the heart of the theology of the name of the second child.
It is this theology of the name of the child that lies behind Matthew’s use of this passage in Isaiah. By linking Jesus with the concept of Immanuel in Isaiah he is making a theological connection about the mission of this child in the world. For Matthew, it is far more than just the use of similar language. He plugs into one of the most fundamental affirmations of Old Testament theology, the idea of the presence of God, "God with us." This particular confession about God usually occurs in contexts in which God’s people face some obstacle or challenge that they cannot accomplish on their own. To that insufficiency, God’s word is always, "Fear not. I will be with you." It is a formulaic way of expressing the theological concept of God’s enablement of human inadequacy (see Underdogs and Earthen Vessels). In other words, it confesses what Paul says in different language in Philippians (4:13): "I can do all things through him who gives me strength."
For Matthew, this is a confession, not about the virginity of Mary or the prediction of the birth of Jesus 735 years before it happened, but about the very nature of the Incarnation as "God with us." It is a confession about who Jesus is, and why his birth is momentous.
It is interesting that as much as we talk and sing and discuss Jesus as Immanuel, he is never actually called by this name outside this one verse in Matthew. The name Immanuel (or its Greek form Emmanuel) never occurs anywhere else in the Gospels applied to Jesus. In fact, the name never occurs elsewhere in the New Testament.
Yet, Matthew does use the concept of "God with us" in one other place in his Gospel. Matthew’s Gospel ends with the Great Commission, calling Jesus’ followers to make disciples of all people (Matt 28:19-20; Luke’s equivalent is the "witness" passage at the end of Luke connected with Acts 1). Thus, the concept of "God with us" becomes a key theological structure for the entire Gospel of Matthew since it brackets the story of Jesus at the beginning and end.
28:19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 28:20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age."
This is the mission of the "church" in Matthew, to make disciples, to proclaim the teachings of Jesus and incorporate all people into the ecclesia, the present manifestation of the Kingdom of God.
We can almost hear the disciples and followers of Jesus gasping in disbelief and asking, "How can we do that? How can we make disciples of all nations." It would be the same kind of question raised by Moses as God commissioned him to lead the people out of Egypt (Ex 3:11): "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?" God’s answer was: "I will be with you" (Ex 3:12).
It is at this point Matthew uses the idea of "Immanuel" a second time in his Gospel, not as a name for Jesus but as a confession of the nature of God as revealed in Jesus who is the Christ. He assures them of his continuing presence in the church: "I will be with you always." In other words, Matthew has not only linked the affirmation of God’s presence with the people in the crisis of Isaiah to the Incarnation (1:23), he has also linked the mission of the church not only backward to the Incarnation but also forward to the ongoing presence of God with the church (28:20).
Matthew’s message is this: the same God that has always been with his people throughout their history, and who has revealed himself as present in the world in Jesus the Christ, will continue to be present with the church as it carries out its commission of incorporating all people into the present and coming Kingdom of God! And he communicates that message by drawing on Old Testament theological ideas in a quotation from Isaiah 7:14. I’d say that is a rather masterful use of the Old Testament for theological confession!