Focus on Christ Meditations: 4. The Mystery – of a child
Isa 7:14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel
In searching out the ‘pre-history’ of Jesus we need to note that the prophecies in the early chapters of Isaiah (Ch.7 & 8) and there is mystery shrouding both of them. We have seen previously how the apostle Paul spoke of the ‘mystery of Christ’ and it is only when we come to examine the prophecies that are applied to Jesus that we see they are shrouded in whole areas of confusion or uncertainty. In the previous study the mystery was why such a small town such as Bethlehem should be chosen over the greater city, Jerusalem. Confusing for the wise men, and confusing for those who sought to understand the prophecies.
To understand this and understand something of the mystery (or confusion), we need to see the historical context. It is a time of turmoil and when Isaiah first went to him with his son (7:3) it was to encourage Ahaz. The kings of Aram and Israel (the northern kingdom) had already come against Jerusalem and failed. Let’s see what follows:
The Historical context: First see Isaiah’s family: “the LORD said to Isaiah, “Go out, you and your son Shear-Jashub.” (7:3) and that name means ‘a remnant will return’. See also the role of Ahaz, king of Judah (the southern kingdom). The Lord tells Isaiah to encourage him, (see 7:3-9) and at the end of it says, ask for a sign of confirmation (7:10) but Ahaz refuses (7:11). It’s almost like he says, I don’t need any sign, I can handle it, they failed to take Jerusalem once, I can deal with them.
It is into this unbelieving context that the Lord speaks, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” (7:14) Well that sounds good, God being with us, especially when it continues, “He will eat curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right. But before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste.” (Isa 7:15,16) That is even better, these present two antagonists will be destroyed.
If it stopped there that would be fine but instead it goes on to warn that the King of Assyria will be the one who deals with them but he will also come and deal with you! (7:17-25) The confusion here? You haven’t spotted it yet? This child is somehow going to be an indication that God is with them, but the end result of God being with them is that they are (after the initial worries about the first two kings are removed) going to be judged and the land destroyed.
The Second son: Now when we move on into chapter 8 we find the Lord telling Isaiah to name his next son, ‘quick to the plunder, swift to the spoil’ which would speak of destruction and he adds the same words we saw in 7:16 “Before the boy knows how to say `My father’ or `My mother,’ the wealth of Damascus and the plunder of Samaria will be carried off by the king of Assyria,” (Isa 8:4) which explains the name. This is followed by a long prophecy against Judah, so twice has this word come – a double sided word, one side removing the present threat and the other side bringing an even bigger judgment. So is ‘Immanuel’ (God with us) good news or bad? It depends were you stand before God.
The ‘Virgin problem’: But there is another problem. We find Isaiah a) has one son, b) brings a prophecy about another but born of a virgin (a young girl, previously unmarried), and then c) has another son by ‘the prophetess’. I have split these things out to remind us that there are three events here. The vagueness of this situation has led scholars to wonder if his first wife died and then he took anther wife, a prophetess, who then bears the second child; how else could the second child be born from a virgin, a young girl, previously unmarried? The two prophecies (7:14-16 and then 8:1-4 on) clearly link the two sons but we are still left with confusion about ‘a virgin’ because Isaiah’s family life is not spelled out in more detail. Isaiah is quite clear about it, however: “Here am I, and the children the LORD has given me. We are signs and symbols in Israel from the LORD Almighty, who dwells on Mount Zion.” (Isa 8:18)
The Immanuel aspect: So, was this prophecy about ‘Immanuel’ something to do with the Messiah? Looking at the context it is purely historical, applying to Isaiah’s day, but then we come to the New Testament and Matthew is quite specific. Joseph is serious stressed that his betrothed appears to be pregnant and it is only a God-given dream that allays his fears. As a commentary to this Matthew writes, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”–which means, “God with us.” (Mt 1:22,23) Huh? Where did that come from? The Isaiah ‘Immanuel prophecy’ was all to do with judgment and Matthew now applies it to the coming of the Son of God because Mary IS a virgin in the full sense. Does Matthew see that that which appeared almost bizarre in Isaiah’s day, a warning of judgment, is now a message of mercy and grace? Or is there more?
In the excitement of Christmas we tend to think of Emmanuel or Immanuel as a lovely picture of God coming, but after Jesus was born an elderly prophet who met them at the Temple declared, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.” (Lk 2:34,35) In other words the ministry of this child will be two edged. For those with hearts open to God, he will lift them, but for those who remain hard-hearted, stubborn and rebellious, he will be the means by which God will judge them and bring them down.
Isaiah’s Immanuel was all about judgment and yet (and here we go back to 7:3 and his first son’s name) the ultimate end would be salvation for the faithful remnant. Suddenly we get a bigger picture: the mystery of Immanuel and the virgin is that the Messiah will come to bring both blessing and judgment. At Christmas, we tend to focus only on the former but the bigger picture says, no, it is both! There is both hope and warning here and we would be wise to heed them both.
To reflect upon: in thinking about the coming of Jesus, do we hold this balance of blessing versus judgment, which all depends on those who receive or reject him? How might that affect the way we think of others?