A fulfilled prophecy fulfilled once more
Jesus’ came, a Messiah to save his people from the curses which arose when Israel went adrift. As Matthew moves on, however, to describe Jesus birth, he begins to establish a context for this salvation. Whilst Matthew choose to echo the naming of Ishmael, through his account of Joseph’s angelic encounter, he now chooses to claim Jesus’ birth as a fulfilment of Isaiah’s, “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel” (Isa 7:14, NKJV)1. Here is another name with implications that can fail to catch our attention, for, in the time of Isaiah, Immanuel anticipated a recurrent pattern of events, having its root in the experiences of Noah and the birth of Benjamin. Now Matthew, by quoting Isaiah, seeks to call attention to the recurrence of that pattern in the First Century.
Immanuel means ‘God with us’ and many theologians, not to mention the senders of innumerable Christmas cards, cherish this God-given name as a prediction of Jesus’ incarnation. Yet, whilst one may argue that Isaiah’s words ultimately pointed to that, Matthew’s intended audience would have understood Isaiah’s words quite differently.
Immanuel was a sign for King Ahaz of Judah (Isa 7:10), a king whose reign (2 Chr 28:1-27, 2 Kgs 16:1-16), spanned the period 743 to 715 B.C.E.2 Thus, Isaiah’s predictions were for a time that lay some seven hundred years B.C.E3. Furthermore, they were Isaiah’s opening gambit, the start of a much longer prophecy that concerned an Assyrian invasion that took place, as predicted, during Ahaz time (2 Kgs 15:29). Matthew was quite right, however, to claim fulfilment of this already fulfilled prophecy, as can be appreciated by exploring further the significance of ‘God with us’ and the context of Isaiah’s words.
During Israel’s wilderness wanderings, the infant nation twice reached the threshold of Canaan and faced the task of occupying it. On the first occasion, they forgot that God was with them, letting the mere idea of giants and mighty strongholds defeated them. Forty years later, on the threshold of crossing the Jordan, it fell to Joshua to overcome the spectre of that earlier defeat. A right attitude would be key to conquering Canaan, so Moses encouraged his protégé with the words “Be strong and of good courage”, “He will be with you” and “do not fear nor be dismayed” (Deut 31:6,8, NKJV). Joshua in turn addressed the people, “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and of good courage; do not be afraid, nor be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” (Josh 1:9, NKJV)
Generations later, King David, having provided the materials and manpower for a temple, knew that his son Solomon still faced the challenge building it (1 Chr 28:6, 21, 29:1-9). Once again, because of a right attitude, God with him was the only sure guarantee of success. So David drew upon Moses’ counsel to Joshua, encouraging his son with the words, “Be strong and of good courage, and do it; do not fear nor be dismayed, for the Lord God—my God—will be with you.” (1 Chr 28:20, NKJV). The temple built, Solomon inaugurated its worship during the Feast of Tabernacles, symbolically placing God’s presence at the centre of Israel’s national life by installing the Ark of the Covenant within the temple’s holiest part (2 Chr 5:4-5). As smoke filled the structure (2 Chr 5:11-144) and fire from Heaven consumed the sacrifices (2 Chr 7:1), God’s approving presence blessed their festivities. God was in the midst of them and Israel could demonstrably claim that they had ‘God with us’. On that day, Solomon, recognising the temple as evidence that God had been with previous generations, blessed his people with the words ‘May the Lord our God be with us, as He was with our fathers. May He not leave us nor forsake us’ (1 Kgs 8:57, NKJV).
The two sides of ‘Immanuel’
After the civil war that divided Solomon’s legacy, Judah clung, with somewhat intermittent determination, to the traditions of David and the laws of Moses. Their leader’s confidence, that God was with those who did so, becomes clear as Abijah’s Judah faced Jeroboam, King of Israel. Jeroboam had come under the religious influence of the surrounding nations and this liberality, claimed Abijah, would be his downfall, for Judah had preserved the traditions of Moses faithfully. “Now look, God Himself is with us as our head”(2 Chr 13:12 NKJV) was Abijah’s taunt. And they meant it, for Judah’s belief in ‘God with us’ rendered even Jeroboam's subsequent ambush insufficient cause for fear. They responded with a shout of triumph (cf. Phil 1:28), whereupon Heaven noted their attitude and they prevailed (2 Chr 13:18). From Abijah’s experience, ‘God with us’ might seem a cause for hope and confidence, a kind of inbuilt guarantee of victory. Yet, Abijah's experience hints at another factor in the equation, an attitude of faithful obedience.
Since the days of Moses, it had been clear that how the nation experienced ‘God with us’ depended upon their attitude. The prophet, whilst reassuring Israel that God would go with them, had used the blessings and curses of the Covenant of Moab (Deut 28:1-68) to clarify what that involved. When the people behaved as if God was with them, with trust, honour and obedience, then they could have confidence in divine favour and support. However, when their actions belied the fact that God was with them, by accepting the judgements of men, espousing other gods, or trembling with fear, then, Moses assured them, they would find that ‘God with us’ had very different implications. ‘God with us’ would try to woo them back and, if that failed, then ‘God with us’ would warn them of their folly, yet ultimately, if they still refused to listen, then ‘God with us’ would pronounce judgement against them and act to preserve the way to the tree of life (cf. Mic 3:11-12).
A sign for a king
When Isaiah prophesied the birth of Immanuel, it was as part of a word from ‘God with us’ to a wayward monarch, whose actions denied that fact, for Ahaz’ had already experienced a succession of military failures, attributed in scripture to his adoption of the syncretistic ways of Israel (2 Kgs 16:1-2)5. Losses of territory to the Philistines, capture of people by Edom, and catastrophic defeat at the hands of Rezin and Pekah (the King of Aram and the leader of the Northern Kingdom), had all served to weaken Judah6. Thus, Ahaz was already presiding over a crumbling kingdom when the news arrived, of an alliance between Aram and Samaria. As both had defeated him when working on their own, he faced a seemingly impossible situation. The reaction of Ahaz’ Judah (Isa 7:2) provides a stark contrast, that of Abijah. They still claimed ‘God with us’, yet they quaked like tree leaves in a breeze!
Despite the fear and dismay of Ahaz' people, , ‘God with us’ sought to woo them back by reassuring them, using Isaiah to deliver Ahaz a message that amounted to ‘don’t fear Aram and Samaria, for their days are numbered’. Tthere was an important caveat, however, “If you do not stand firm in faith, you shall not stand at all.” (Isa 7:9, NRSV). In other words, unless Ahaz was willing to put his faith in the God of his forefathers then his power and influence would continue to evaporate. The prophet concluded by instructing Ahaz to ask for a sign. No matter how high or deep, if a sign would restore Ahaz’ confidence, God was willing to give it. However, the king's mind was set and his response, “I will not ask, neither will I tempt God” (Isa 7:12), deliberately twisted Moses’ Law into an excuse for ignoring God’s direct command (Deut 6:16). Ahaz knew what Isaiah’s God required but, despite his predicament, he refused to consider that solution. This obstinate display failed to impress the Lord, leaving Isaiah to deliver a divine rebuke - God would give Ahaz a sign, it would be the birth of Immanuel (Isa 7:14)
The birth or Isaiah’s Immanuel was a sign, given to a leader who knew what God required of his people, but had chosen not to lead them down that path. Matthew, by claiming fulfilment of the birth of Immanuel, depicts Jesus birth as such a sign to Herod. Immanuel, however, was a sign with implications that Matthew’s readers, if they understood Isaiah’s prophecy, would have surely understood.
The prediction of Immanuel’s birth falls within a discrete sub-section of Isaiah (Isa 7:1-12:6), known to scholars as the ‘Book of Immanuel’7, within which Isaiah uses carefully structured text to warn of the events that would befall Judah during the infancy of the child (Isa 7:14-8:17). To get its message across this structure is prepared to take liberties, as it transcends even the boundary between prophetic word and narrative aside, first portraying a prophetic picture (Isa 7:14-8:2), then using structured thematic repetition to link that with a second passages (Isa 8:3-8:17), thus providing a dual witness to its message8. The statement at 8:17, that Isaiah and these children are signs, marks the end of this extended poetic parallelism.
Within the two strands, the conception and naming of Immanuel finds its parallel in the Lord’s instruction to Isaiah to ‘approach’ a prophetess and to call the child thus conceived Mahershalalhashbaz (‘Swift to plunder, quick to spoil’), for, after announcing a birth, each passage then guarantees the threatening kingdom’s demise before the child arrives at a certain developmental stage. Thus, before Immanuel was old enough to choose between right from wrong for himself, the land of the two dread kings (Pekah and Rezin) would find itself forsaken (Isa 7:15-169), before Mahershalalhashbaz was able to string simple phrases together, Ahaz could expect to see the wealth of Damascus and Samaria carried away (Isa 8:4).
The passages continue in step as they both announce an invasion. The first assures Ahaz that the Lord would summon Assyria, who would then swarm over the land like a plague of flies (Isa 7:17-19, cf. Exod 8:21-2)10. The second also portrays Assyria sweeping over the land. This time, like the Euphrates bursting its banks (Isa 8:7), it will flood onward over a Judah that God ironically describes as Immanuel (Isa 8:8)11.
Thus far, commentators have often noted the similarity between these passages12. It has even led some to conclude that they refer to the same child. However, at the thematic level the equivalence continues beyond this point. The idea of a failed rebellion forms the next link. The picture of slavery or exile (epitomised by forced shaving) in the first passage (Isa 7:20) aligns with the literary images in the second that evoke the crushing of a rebellion, the aforementioned shaving being a likely outcome of such rebellion. The second passage calls distant nations to observe a people who prepare for war but are "shattered", a nation who make plans but see them thwarted (Isa 8:9-10). There is an ironic reference here back to Moses’ instruction, to be bold and strong rather than trembling and dismayed (Deut 31:7-8, Josh 1:9), for the Hebrew uses the same word for ‘shattered’ and ‘dismayed’13. For many commentators Judah is the source of this shattering and frustration of plans, the Assyrians, however, were in the practice of claiming that if a nation broke (i.e. shattered) its vassal agreement then that nation’s deity would desert it14. As Judah must have, by the time of this invasion, become an Assyrian vassal state, I prefer to interpret this passage as describing God’s instrument, Assyria, shattering Judah just as Judah had shattered their agreement with God (Isa 10:5-6). I find support for this approach in the explanation that the failure of plans and shattering (of verses 9-10) would not be, as the Assyrians liked to claim, because their victims God had deserted them, but precisely because their God was with them, literally Immanuel (Isa 8:10)15.
After predicting the shattering of plans, both passages then draw on themes from the Song of Moses
(Deut 32:1-43). This makes perfect sense, for the Song, coming hard on the heels of Moses’
"be bold and strong" advice to Joshua (so intimately tied up with the concept of God with us in Deut 31:23), speaks about God setting the boundaries
nations (Deut 32:7-9) and punishing Israel when it rebels (Deut 32:19-25). Both topics are
appropriate to Isaiah’s message for, in response to Judah's rebellion, God was about to cause His servant,
Assyria, to sweep across Palestine, re-setting boundaries in the process.
The first strand, harks back to the song whilst drawing upon the contrasting experiences of Able, the livestock grazer who enjoyed God's blessing (Isa 7:21-23), and Cain, the man who cultivated the land and was rejected by God (Isa 7:24-24). It has the faithful enjoying an abundance of curds and honey (Isaiah 7:22), just as the Song of Moses envisages faithful Israel feasting on honey from the rock and curds of cows (Deut 32:13-14, cf. Job 20:16-17, 29:6). By contrast, it envisages the best vineyards and the fine gardens reverting to the briar and the thorn, for the Assyrians will be ‘Swift to plunder, quick to spoil’. The choice to focus on destruction of vineyards probably being another allusion to the Song (see Deut 32:32-33).
The second strand presents a warning not to follow the way of the people, but to fear only God (i.e. to be led by Him and reject foreign gods), and therefore not to be fearful of the Assyrians and terrorised by them (Isa 8:11-13) for God will be a holy place for those who fear Him (Isa 8:14a). This reflects the Song of Moses's picture of God protectively encircling the faithful (Deut 32:10) who are led by Him alone (Deut 32:12). The experience of God as "the rock" then becomes a central theme (Isa 8:14), just as it is in the Song (Deut 32:4, 15, 30-31, 37). ‘God with us’ becomes the rock that makes the rebellious stumble and a snare to trap them (Isa 8:14-15, c.f. Deut 32:29-30).
Finally, each strand ends with a section that speaks of the faithful preservation of the prophet’s testimony as a witnessed document. In the first, God requires Isaiah to write Mahershalalhashbaz down and then take faithful witnesses (Isa 8:1-2). In the other, God instructs Isaiah to wrap up the testimony of warning and to seal it amongst God’s disciples, i.e. faithful witnesses (Isa 8:16).
To summarise the above, Isaiah 7:1-8:16 provides two perspectives on a single message: The birth of a child would provide a sign; before they reached a certain age the feared enemy would be gone; the regional superpower would move into the land to crush the people’s rebellion and the rebels would feel the consequences of failure; although God would oppose the plans of the unfaithful, a loyal remnant would survive; arrangements were therefore required to ensure the preservation of a reliable witness to the prophet’s words.
Ahaz failed strategy
The scriptures, when combined with other Assyrian sources, allow one to get some idea of how rapidly the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy unfolded16. Ahaz, having turned his back on God and still fearing the anti-Assyrian coalition, plundered the House of the Lord and sent a present to Assyria, accompanying it with a request for assistance (2 Kgs 16:7-8). However, his strategy, for coping without God, backfired, as the Assyrian ruler Tilgath-pilneser III, far from supporting Ahaz, gave him more trouble (2 Chr 28:20-21). It appears that Assyria interpreted Ahaz’ ‘one off’ gift as an acknowledgement of weakness and the acceptance of tributary status. When the Assyrian army swarmed southward just like Isaiah’s overwhelming flood both Samaria and Damascus had fallen, by 732 B.C.E., leaving Tilgath-pilneser free to ‘remind’ Ahaz of his new status. Assyrian records indicate the annexation of the majority of Pekah’s northern Israelite territories at that time, together with the recognition of Hoshea as king in Samaria over a dramatically smaller kingdom. If the Assyrians followed their standard procedures then they would have emptied most of Samaria of its affluent individuals and indigenous nobles, leaving the indigenous workforce in place, but under a new, pro-Assyrian, management17.
The link between the prophesied conception of Immanuel and the prophesied Assyrian invasion is clear. Therefore, unless we naïvely consider in isolation a text that has wider repercussions, we must accept that Matthew, by citing part, was alluding to the whole of this prophecy.
Clearly, Matthew was not implying that the birth of Jesus heralded another Assyrian invasion (the literal interpretation). Nor could he be suggesting that, though the players differed, the plot remained the same. For, during Jesus infancy King Herod died and Rome imposed direct rule, whilst in Isaiah’s day Ahaz did not die and the Assyrian’s did not impose direct rule. What Matthew saw replicated, was not the characters or the plot, but the spiritual dynamics. Isaiah was prophesying the birth of a righteous remnant amidst his apostate nation in anticipation of an overwhelming flood.
The traumatic events of the eighth century B.C.E. came upon the already tattered remnants of David’s kingdom like a fiery conflagration, its flames forcing the descendants of Jacob to decide their loyalties. Thus, after bringing his predictions, Isaiah went on to identify the two factions that competed for the people’s hearts (Isa 8:19-20). On the one hand, were those who espoused foreign gods, relied on incantations, called up spirits and consulted the dead on behalf of the living, on the other were those who turned for guidance to God’s law and relied on the testimony of godly prophets.
Competing worldviews divided the sons of Jacob, just as a shepherd divides sheep from goats (cf. Matt 25:31-46), whilst the fate of Samaria served as a stark backdrop to their choice. The goats, of which there were many in Pekah’s Samaria, claimed ‘God is with us’ yet lived lives inconsistent with that claim. The sheep, however, comprised a flock that faithfully followed ‘God with us’, a holy remnant epitomised by Isaiah and his ‘children’ (Isa 8:17-18). The sheep found that God was with them as a good shepherd, providing for them and sheltering them. However, the goats discovered that ‘God with us’ could mean something quite different (Isa 8:9-10), their bitter lesson learned through crushing defeat as enemies dragged them into the gloom, darkness and anguish of exile (Isa 8:20-22).
This spiritual dynamic brings a deeper significance to Matthew’s words, implying that Jesus, like Immanuel, was a sign to his generation (Luke 11:30), a sign that the sons of Jacob had to decide whom they would follow. Against a backdrop of Roman oppression, Jesus and his disciples claimed that, like Isaiah and his children, their group enjoyed the favour of ‘God with us’. As for those who either refused to accept this claim or considered that increasing foreign influence was beneficial ‘progress’, well, God was with them so they knew what to expect.
The picture I have painted is not quite the Immanuel of our Christmas cards. Yet, I believe that Matthew would have recognised my sketchy portrait. His was not our shallow later-day conception. For him ‘God with us’ was given substance by the dimension of history and Immanuel was as much about a person’s attitude as about God’s location.
Matthew’s First Century Immanuel may have been God incarnate, but he was also a profound reminder that alongside ‘God with us’ came ‘Swift to plunder, quick to spoil’, that when claims of ‘God with us’ accompanied inappropriate behaviour, disgrace and suffering ensued. Hence, the appearance of ‘God with us’ in an unclean land anticipated an invasion where, like a devastating flood, a superpower would sweep across the land, humbling its arrogant rulers but leaving the faithful to find God’s presence in the wilderness. The advent of Immanuel was a moment to choose sides, accompany words with attitudes and attitudes with actions. Through his birth, ‘God with us’ witnessed against apostate religion and provided a wake up call for those who had no fear of God. Through his life, ‘God with us’ divided the Jewish nation, becoming the rock that tripped the arrogant whilst sheltering a faithful flock. For Matthew’s peers the choice was clear, with an overwhelming flood on its way, they could eat curds and honey in Jesus’ camp or suffer ‘Swift to plunder’ with the rest.
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1 Isaiah’s word does not strictly mean virgin but described a young women who was usually in that state.
2 Walter C.Kaiser Jr., A History of Israel, (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1998), 371-375.
3 W. S. Caldecott & S. J. Schultz, “Ahaz,”ISBE, 1:76-78. In particular 77.
4. This echoes the events of Exodus 40:34-35. For the protective role of the cloud see Leviticus 16:13.
5 He may have married into the royal family of the Northern Kingdom (relations with Pekah had been good until Judah began to infringe on their territorial interests in about 738 B.C.E.).
6 Kaiser, A History of Israel, 371-375.
7 R. F. Youngblood, “Immanuel” ISBE, 2:806-808, in particular 806.
8 Such re-statement through parallelism follows the fundamental legal principle that every important matter should be established by two or more witnesses (Deut 19:15, 2 Cor 13:1)
9 Young children are not sinless (Ps 58:3) but they lack understanding (Isa 7:16), so, being under the authority of their parents, they come under their spiritual covering, allowing parents to atone for their child’s sin on that basis (1 Cor 7:14). If a child refused to accept their parent's authority, the outcome was death, which, for extreme cases, Mosaic law took literally (Deut 21:20-21)
10 I have not tried to distinguish Judah and Samaria as, in the Lord’s eyes, both were part of ‘the land’.
11 Rejecting the gentle waters of Shiloah (Isa 8:6), the pool of Siloam into which the Gihon spring flows, in favour of Rezin, suggests an undercurrent in Judah of rejecting Jerusalem (cf. 1 Kgs 1:9) in favour of Syria.
12 Youngblood, “Immanuel” ISBE, 807.
13 Swanson, “3169 חָתַת,” Dictionary of Biblical Languages.
14 Matthews, Chavalas, and Walton, The IVP Bible background commentary, Isa 8:10.
15 Such an outcome is suggested by Deuteronomy 28:63.
16 Kaiser, A History of Israel, 362-363.
17 This three-stage procedure involved tributary nations suffering a progressive loss of freedom each time they rebelled (Kaiser, A History of Israel, 358).