And Will Call His Name Immanuel
As so often happens, Judah is in the midst of a crisis. The place where God’s people live is not only a land which has been promised to them, it is also a cross roads. Trade routes to the north and south, to east and west meet here. So the land which has been promised to God’s people is also a strategic objective for all the great powers around them. God deliberately chose the smallest and the least or all the nations to be his people. And God gave them this land. And as such, living where they lived, they were vulnerable.
Their king, Ahaz is standing at the end of the aqueduct that carries vital water into the otherwise dry city of Jerusalem. He is in the most strategically important location close to the city. From there Ahaz is contemplating the current situation, when Isaiah approaches him and announces:
Look the young woman is with child and shall bear a son and shall name him Immanuel. . . 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.
Isaiah is doing what people would normally expect a prophet to do. He is foretelling the future. He is acting as a kind of soothsayer for the king of Judah in Jerusalem. We have quite rightly grown to understand that what prophets do is far more than predict the future. The words of prophets we known are far more “forth-telling” than they are “foretelling”. They speak the truth about God, and as such their words always have an everlasting quality about them. But on this occasion Isaiah has a quite specific message for King Ahaz, that is applicable to the immediate situation which he and God’s people living in Judah find themselves in. Isaiah brings to Ahaz a word from God, a promise, that current crisis will pass.
Judah is under pressure. It is being squeezed by a much more powerful kingdom that is some distance away, and being squeezed by its immediate neighbours’ reaction to that kingdom. To the east Assyria is on the rise. It is becoming a great empire. It is swallowing up the smaller kingdoms around it. Now Assyria is looking for unrestricted access to the Mediterranean, to Egypt to the south-west and Asia Minor to the north-west and to the profitable trade routes that run through those places. Judah’s location once again is making it vulnerable to the ambitions of its larger and more powerful neighbours. Assyria has become an immediate threat to the kingdoms of Aram-Damascus, Ephraim (which is what Isaiah calls the other half of God’s people, Israel) and to Judah itself. To answer this threat the kings of Damascus and Israel have formed an alliance against Assyria which they want Judah to join. Ahaz does not want Judah to join in an alliance with its long-time rivals Damascus and Israel. As a result of Judah’s refusal, King Rezin of Damascus and King Pekah of Israel are preparing to attack Judah. As they are preparing to that, the Philistines see their opportunity and Edom breaks free from Judah’s rule So Judah is about to be attacked from three sides: by Israel from the north, Damascus from the east and Edom from the south This story is not perhaps one we know in particular. But its outline is familiar enough. This is history and politics, playing out in exactly the way they always have and always seem to do.
Isaiah speaks into the specifics of this geopolitical situation. His message here feels strange to us. He is doing what we have learned to avoid thinking prophets do. He is foretelling the immediate future. He as acting as a royal advisor. He is being the king’s soothsayer. He is making Ahaz a hopeful offer from God which is intended to guide the king’s policy in the current moment.
At the heart of this prophecy, and as we shall see later, the reason why our attention falls on it now, is the sign which God offers as guarantee of what is being promised. Isaiah offers the king a specific sign from God:
Look the young woman is with child and shall bear a son and shall name him Immanuel.
There is a you woman, who is evidently known to both Isaiah and the king. She is possibly the wife or perhaps the daughter of either of them. Whoever this young woman is, she is already pregnant. She will have a son. And she will give him the name: Immanuel.
The names that are given to children in the Bible often carry great significance. This name means literally: “God with us”:“Im” with, so “immanu” with us; “El” God. Isaiah reminds the king that God is with “us”, that is with Judah and Jerusalem. The sign and especially the child’s name are intended as a reminder of God’s special care for his own chosen people. And he offers God’s promise. By the time this child is eating solid food the current threat against the kingdom will be lifted. In a very precise time-frame the threat against Judah’s independence from Israel, Damascus and Edom will have ceased. The young woman is already expecting, so that must be less than nine months. Add the time it takes a baby to be weaned, so another six to nine months. What Isaiah is saying is that in less than 18 months the challenge which is currently facing Judah and its king will be gone. This is prophecy at its most specific and most particular At which point we might be asking ourselves what does this mean to us. What interest should we have in 2,500 year old geopolitical manoeuvring. Why would we read this. And why would we read this on the last Sunday before Christmas
Of course prophecy, even when it is this specific, retains a permanent relevance. The prophet speaks the truth. And in particular the prophet speaks the truth about God. When the king is first offered a sign from God by Isaiah he declines the offer. He says:
I will not ask and I will not put the Lord to the test.
This at first sight seems like the appropriate response. The king knows Deuteronomy and he knows it says there:
Do not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah. (Dt. 6:16)
But it is not piety which leads the king to reject the sign which Isaiah. He rejects what God is offering because he thinks he has his own solution. He is intending to answer the threat from Israel and Damascus and Edom be seeking an alliance with the rising power in the region: Assyria. Ahaz is choosing to fight fire with fire. The king is aiming to play along with Assyria’s ambitions and hopes to gain something over his immediate neighbours whilst avoiding the full force of the threat which Assyria itself presents. This is very much politics as usual. And it doesn’t need us to be geniuses at political strategy to see that this is a risky path to to take. Fighting fire in the end almost always produces a bigger fire. What is stop Assyria having accepted Judah’s help against Israel and Damascus, simply swallowing Judah up as well. But this is the path which the king is determined to take. And so he refuses the sign from God. But he is given the sign anyway:
Then he [Isaiah] retorted: “Listen, house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of mortals? Will you also try the patience of my God? therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign.
And it is here that we arrive at a truth about God which gives Isaiah’s prophecy lasting significance. It is not the actions of the king which will determine the destiny of God’s people. As Fred Pratt Green’s hymn still puts it: “It is God who holds the nations in the hollow of his hand.” (Singing the Faith 705) Isaiah articulates to Ahaz a faith which we still hold. That the ultimate destiny of history is determined by God. Human freedom, which Ahaz exercises here by choosing his own policy for Judah, human freedom is exercised within the setting of the work of God. The hope which Isaiah expresses to Ahaz, is the same hope which Christians continue to hold, both for themselves and also for the world as a whole. It is the same hope which Paul expresses when he says:
We know that all things work together for good for those who love God. (Romans 8:28)
So that whilst this is a very specific message, addressed to the particulars of a moment in Judah’s history, it is prophecy. And as prophecy it speaks the truth about God, and says something about the everlasting character of God.
And yet, none of this is why we would read these words on this Sunday. And I suspect few if any of us were aware of the political machinations that lie behind Isaiah’s words when we first read them. When we read of the sign which Isaiah promise we hear something quite different.
Isaiah is the New Testament’s favourite book from the Hebrew scriptures. As the first Christians explored and tried to understand what they were experiencing with Jesus, the place they turned most often was to Isaiah. And the first Christians had a distinctive way of reading the Bible and prophecy that marked them out as different from everyone else who was reading the Bible at the time. They used what has been called a “fulfilment reading”. When they thought about Jesus, they looked for the places where who Jesus is and what Jesus does has already been spoken of as characteristic of God in the Hebrew Bible, especially in the prophets and the psalms. In a way they were taking what Isaiah and the others said to be a prediction that finds its truest fulfilment in Jesus. When the first Christians thought about Jesus they remembered these words from Isaiah:
A young woman is with child and shall bear a son.
It is said: Anyone who thinks history repeats itself isn’t paying attention to the details History doesn’t repeat itself but it does rhyme. The promise which was made to Ahaz in the specifics of the time he was living through re-emerges in the birth of Jesus. Above all the first Christians recognise, and we still acknowledge that Jesus lives into the name which God promised Ahaz: Immanuel. Jesus is God with us. Which of course is why we might choose to read Isaiah’s prediction of ancient global politics on the last Sunday before Christmas. But just as the specifics of the prediction made to Ahaz say something generally true about the nature of God. So taking that prediction and applying to the larger action which God is taking in Jesus tells us something about the particulars of how God acts. In contrast to the young woman who was evidently known Ahaz and Isaiah, but whose name we do not know, we do know who this prophecy speaks of when we are thinking about Jesus. These words apply to Mary. She is the one who has conceived and who bears a son. As it happens he is given a different name, though still one which is profoundly meaningful: Jesus. Literally: “He saves!” Yet the older title, Immanuel, is equally applicable to Mary’s son. Looking into Isaiah’s words what the first Christians saw, and we still see, is God taking the initiative and God acting at the immediate and most personal level. God moves towards the human race. It is God who acts to save us. But God does so in the intimately human setting of the birth of a child. An occasion that in almost all circumstances brings hope, even when those circumstances are as desperate as displacement and squalor like the birth of a child in a stable far from home.
I have already had reason to quote Martin Luther King Jr. once this Advent, when he said: “The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.” God is working his purpose out, on the grandest scale. God works on the scale of history and nations and global politics. But God is not remote, like the rulers and politicians who appear to be in control of those things. All our destinies are ultimately in God’s hands. But God is not an abstract principal. God is not a general trend. God’s activity, his being with us, is particular and it is immediate And God’s action is at the most human and personal scale. God is present in the birth of a child and the care his mother gives him. And God is is present in a million small and particular instances like that. Each of them in the own small way bending the arc of history towards justice. The two parts of God’s being with us in, both the global and the personal, occur together in one instance: Jesus who was born, Immanuel, to a young woman. Jesus who is Saviour of all the world. God is with us!
And Will Call His Name Immanuel by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0