Your life is good, until something goes way wrong. You’re injured, or flattened by a sudden illness. All the plans you made for a special event go up in smoke, and you don’t know where to begin to start over.
You do something terrible, or people think you did, and you can’t imagine how you’ll face anyone again. You lose confidence in yourself. You feel worthless, not needed by anyone, not wanted by anyone.
In these times, you feel desperately alone. You feel like there is no one you can turn to for help. In these times, what you need is the assurance that, in fact, you are not alone, because God is with you.
That’s what the name Emmanuel means. It means, “God is with us.” It’s one of the titles of Jesus that we are looking at during Advent to prepare ourselves for the coming of Jesus. To see how God is with us as Emmanuel today, and how God has been with others over the ages, we’re going on a trek through history. This is a bit roundabout, so stay with me.
We begin about 750 years before the birth of Jesus. The kingdom founded by King David has split. The Southern Kingdom, called Judah, has its capital in Jerusalem. The Northern Kingdom, called Israel, has its capital in the city of Samaria. The two small kingdoms are constantly at each other’s throats, and they’re both threatened by the giant kingdom of Assyria.
Here’s a paraphrase of how the prophet Isaiah tells the story in the seventh chapter of the book that bears his name.
In the days when Ahaz was king of Judah, the king of Aram allied with the king of Israel to mount an attack Jerusalem. When word of the alliance got out, the heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake in the wind.
Then the Lord said to Isaiah, “Go to Ahaz and say to him, ‘Do not let your heart be faint because of these two smoldering stumps of firebrands. Their plot against you will not succeed. You must stand firm in faith.’ ”
Ahaz wavered, so Isaiah said: “Ask a sign of the Lord your God, any sign you like.” But Ahaz, the pious fraud, said, “I will not put the Lord to the test.”
Then Isaiah said: “Is it too little for you to weary mortals that you must weary God as well? Whether you want it or not, the Lord will give you a sign. See, the young woman is with child. She will give birth to a son, and she will name him Emmanuel. By the time he eats solid food and knows how to refuse evil and choose good, the lands of these two kings whom you dread so much will be a desert” (Isaiah 7:1-16).
The first sign of Emmanuel is to Ahaz, king of Judah. Ahaz is afraid that an alliance of two kings against him spells doom. God offers him a sign that he has nothing to fear from them. The sign is the son of a young woman. Who is she? Probably the wife of Ahaz, or possibly Isaiah himself. Why name him Emmanuel? Because it’s a prophetic sign name. It means “God is with us.”
Isaiah is really into prophetic sign names. At least two of his sons bear them. One is named Shear-jashub. His name means “A remnant will return.” That’s apparently a reference to the future devastation of Israel by Assyria.
Another son is named Maher-shalal-hash-baz. Can you imagine his mother calling him home for dinner? His name means something like “swift to the spoils, swift to the prey.” Here’s the interesting part: When God tells Isaiah to give the boy that jawbreaker of a name, God says, “Before the boy knows how to say ‘mommy’ and ‘daddy,’ the spoil of Aram and Israel will be carried away by Assyria.”
That’s very similar to the sign of Emmanuel, isn’t it? God says that by the time Emmanuel is weaned, the threat that Ahaz fears so much will evaporate. And how does Ahaz react to the sign? Apparently he just shrugs and goes on his way. He is not remembered as one of the brighter lights among Old Testament kings.
One important thing to note here is that the story has no interest in, and says nothing about, the virginity or non-virginity of the mother. The Hebrew word means simply “young woman.” The prophecy assumes that she gets pregnant the usual way. The prophecy is about her son; it’s not about not her.
One more thing to note, before we move on, concerns the nature of prophecy. Biblical prophecy is not about predicting the future. A prophet does not gaze into God’s crystal ball to predict future events in any deterministic way. Rather, inspired by God, a prophet speaks a word “on target” to his time and situation. The prophet says, “This is what God thinks of current events, and this is what God is going to do about it.”
Prophets pronounce a word of judgment or a word of promise. God’s word to Ahaz was a promise that the threat he feared would evaporate. It’s a promise illustrated by the birth of a boy with a name that affirmed the promise: Emmanuel, God is with us.
Fast forward 800 years. Jesus has been dead 40 or 50 years, and the writer we know as Matthew is poring over the scriptures while piecing together the story of Jesus. He’s writing a gospel, and he’s looking for texts that show how Jesus fulfills God’s plans for Israel. But he has a story that has no parallel in the ancient texts.
The story is about a virgin named Mary, who is engaged to a man named Joseph. Before they come together as husband and wife, she gets pregnant. Joseph determines that he will not expose her to public disgrace, but will quietly dissolve the marriage agreement.
Then he has a dream. An angel of the Lord appears to him says, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:18-21).
The Old Testament knows nothing of any virgin birth – at least not in the original Hebrew text. But in the relatively recent Greek translation known as the Septuagint, Matthew finds the solution to his problem. The Greek version of Isaiah chapter 7 reads like this: “Look, the virgin will conceive and give birth to a son…”
It’s a bad translation. It’s so bad a translation it even gets the verb tenses wrong. Isaiah says the young woman is already pregnant; the Greek version says the virgin will become pregnant. Matthew surely knows this, but the prophecy fits his story too well to ignore. It implies something special about the manner of Jesus’ birth, but more importantly it foreshadows who Jesus is. Jesus is Emmanuel. Jesus is “God with us.”
So Matthew reports: “All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us” (Matthew 1:24-25).
When Matthew says that Jesus’ birth “fulfills” the prophecy of Isaiah, he’s not saying that Isaiah predicted the birth of Jesus. He’s saying that an ancient prophecy of Isaiah finds new meaning in the birth of Jesus.
He’s saying, “Look, this is just like Isaiah – only better!” A child is conceived in Mary through the power of the Holy Spirit. His name is Jesus, meaning “God saves.” In Jesus, the symbolic name Emmanuel becomes real because Jesus really is “God with us,” and he really will save us.
Again, let me say that Isaiah never predicted a virgin birth. If he had, he would have looked pretty silly when it didn’t happen when he said it would, and wouldn’t happen for another 750 years.
Matthew is reinterpreting an ancient prophecy to make it relevant to his time and situation. He does that a lot in his gospel. Time after time he says that something Jesus does “fulfills” a prophecy. It’s not that any prophet predicted that Jesus would do this. It’s that a prophet pronounced a promise from God, and Jesus fulfills that promise. Jesus gives the promise new meaning. Whatever the prophet’s saying meant in its original context, it finds new meaning in the life and ministry of Jesus.
Here’s another example from Matthew. After Jesus’ birth, Mary and Joseph flee with the baby to Egypt, fearing the wrath of King Herod. When they hear that Herod has died, they make plans to return home. Matthew comments: “This was done to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son’ ” (Matthew 2:15)
That’s a reference to Hosea 11:1, where the prophet quotes God as saying: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” It’s a reference to God liberating Israel from bondage in Egypt. It’s a reference to the past, not to any future event, and it’s certainly no prediction of the future. But Matthew quotes it, as if to say, “See, just as God once called Israel out of Egypt, now look: God is calling God’s son back home from Egypt.” Matthew quotes it to say, “Just as God was faithful once long ago, God again was faithful here.”
In the same way, we can appreciate stories of God’s faithfulness long ago, and be encouraged by them today. Whatever Isaiah’s prophecy meant in the time of Ahaz, Matthew found new meaning in the prophecy in the time of Jesus. And we today can continue to find new meaning in this and other ancient prophecies. We can find new signs of promise and hope in these words today.
After all, remember Jesus’ last promise to his disciples, as recorded in Matthew 28:20: “Remember, I am with you always.” That’s the promise of Emmanuel. Whatever our circumstance, God is with us, whatever our failing, whatever our need, God is with us.
Now we recognize that this promise is no panacea for everything that ails us. This is not a promise that God will bail us out of every jam or keep us from all harm. It is a promise that God is always there for us. And it does not seem that God intervenes directly in our lives. Most often, God works through other people. They are the angels in our lives.
I am thinking specifically now of a young man who is dear to me. He has had a recurring health problem. Just last week, through the intervention of one doctor, he will get to see another doctor, a specialist who may be able to help him. Surely, God is with him. No flutter of angel wings. No announcements from on high. Just one person doing what is best for another. Isn’t that the way God normally works in our lives? Isn’t that the way God is usually with us?
May you be comforted in knowing that whatever is wrong, God is there, one way or another. Amen.