Descended for Sinners: Immanuel, God With Us

Isaiah 7:10-14, “10 Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz: 11 ‘Ask a sign of the LORD your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.’ 12 But Ahaz said, ‘I will not ask, and I will not put the LORD to the test.’ 13 And he said, ‘Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also?’ 14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.

King Ahaz is in political turmoil. The two kingdoms to the north, Syria and Israel, have decided to form a coalition against Ahaz. They want to remove Ahaz from the throne and put a puppet king on the throne. Isaiah promises in 7:8 that the coalition and the two kingdoms which form it, Israel and Syria, will suffer a devastating defeat. In 722 BC, Assyria conquered, took captive, and even replaced these kingdoms with their own people (cf. 2 Kings 17:24). Syria and northern Israel disappeared off the map geographically and ethnically. God’s promise to Ahaz proved fully reliable. Yet, Ahaz doubted God’s ability to deliver him from this coalition. This is why Ahaz is warned in 7:9b, “If you are not firm in faith, you will not be firm at all.” Ahaz’s unstable faith would bring instability to his entire kingdom. More closely, Ahaz’s refusal to trust God would destabilize his entire life. 2 Kings 16:1-9 tells us that Ahaz had put firm faith in Assyria, sending them gold from the Temple in order to bribe them to attack Syria. With the entire nation, Ahaz had no trust in God: “the heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind” (Isa 7:2).

Despite Ahaz’s foolish bargaining with Assyria, the Lord promises the deliverance for which Ahaz yearns desperately. In order to render trust from Ahaz that God’s promises are firm and reliable, the Lord tells Ahaz that he can ask for any sign he can imagine. As in Joshua’s day, Ahaz might ask God to make the sun stand still. Or, he may pray for assurance as Moses did, “Show me your glory.” Even better, he might find a fleece and ask that it be made wet and everything else left dry as Gideon had. Instead, Ahaz feigns sincerity by alluding to Deuteronomy 6:16, “You shall not put the LORD your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah.” Ahaz pivots to hypocritical religion to mask his unbelief.

The Lord God’s unrelenting grace to Ahaz is put on display in 7:13. Because faithless King Ahaz refused to take the initiative, the Lord God, the faithful King, takes it for him. He announces to the entire Davidic dynasty that Ahaz will receive a sign. A virgin will conceive and give birth to a son named God-with-us (“Immanuel”). The birth of this boy will carry with it the desperately needed message to a faithless and weak-in-the-knees Judah: God is with you.

7:15-16 elaborate the timing of the promise: “15 He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16 For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted.” In other words, the birth of the promised child would precede the defeat of Israel and Syria. Strikingly, Matthew 1:23 records the angel of the Lord citing Isaiah 7:14 to Joseph as a prophecy of Jesus’ virgin birth.

Was the promise delayed? No. Did Isaiah get the name wrong? No. How are we to understand this promise that became the most famous prophecy in the entire Bible? The simple answer is that there is a double fulfillment. Although we are not sure who the child was or who his mother was, we believe that a child was born during Ahaz and Hezekiah’s day that pointed as a sign that God was with Ahaz and Judah and against northern Israel and Syria. We can assume that the child’s mother was a virgin when the prophecy was made and presume that she married then conceived after the promise but before the destruction of Israel and Syria. God’s promise to crush these two kingdoms proved true in 722 BC. Although the language is not used, I find it most helpful to view the first child born during the 8th-century b.c as a type of Jesus. A type is a repeated pattern in a person, place, or institution that gains a greater fulfillment through time. Thus, when the angel cites Isaiah 7:14 in explaining the situation to Joseph, the angel is saying, “Joseph, this kind of thing has happened before. Remember when Ahaz received the sign of a virgin birth? Mary’s birth is similar to that but much greater. While this child will carry the name Immanuel (God-with-us), he will also carry the name Jesus (Yahweh saves).” If all that confuses you, there are other ways to view it. The point, however, is that God foretold through Isaiah the prophet how Jesus would come into the world: through a virgin birth. And that is exactly how it happened. Mary conceived by the Holy Spirit, not by Joseph. God is faithful to his promises.

Why does all this matter? Romans 5:12 tells us that every son of Adam is born with a sin nature: “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.” In order for Jesus to be a perfect sacrifice, he had to be sinless and born without a sin nature (cf. Hebrews 4:15). The virgin birth enabled the son of God to take on humanity without partaking of its sinful nature. This is the story of Christmas. That God sent his sinless Son into the world to save his sinful sons out of the world. This is the great promise of the Gospel that requires an equally great response. Isaiah 7 warns us to not waver in our faith lest life around us crumble. This Christmas, will you reflect on your life? Is your faith placed solidly in the virgin-born son of Mary, the God-sent Son, and Savior of the world? From nearly the beginning of time, the Lord promised a Savior who would come to crush the head of the serpent, redeem mankind, and turn back the curse to a restored creation. Isaiah 7:14 is just another iteration of the greatest promise ever made and fulfilled:

Further Reading: Genesis 3:1-15; Matthew 1:20-23; Matthew 2:1-6; 1 Peter 1:19-20.

Family Connection: Ask your children, “What is a promise?” Help them as they try to explain. Have them provide examples. Then ask them, “What is the greatest promise God ever made?” Guide them to the answer, “God’s greatest promise was to send Jesus.” Then explain to them how God promised over and over again to send Jesus and how the coming of Jesus is great news because it offers us hope in our sins and demonstrates to us God’s faithfulness to keep all of his promises.

Craft Idea: Draw with your children an angel and a cloud. Write the words of Matthew 1:23 on the cloud while your child colors the angel. Then, punch holes in the angel and cloud and string the cloud under the angel. Then, hang the angel on your Christmas tree to remind your children of God’s promises.