This study of the sign of Immanuel and of Isaiah 7:14 is a continuation of yesterday’s post. You can read Part 1 here.
At the time when Judah was besieged by Pekah, king of Israel, and by Rezin, king of Syria, God sent his prophet Isaiah with a message of hope to Ahaz and to the whole population of Jerusalem:
Then the LORD said to Isaiah, Go out to meet Ahaz, you and your son Shear-jashub, at the end of the conduit of the upper pool on the highway to the Fuller’s Field, and say to him, Take heed, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint because of these two smoldering stumps of firebrands, because of the fierce anger of Rezin and Aram and the son of Remaliah (Isaiah 7:3-4).
Isaiah’s message to the king was that he should be firm and be calm. He should not be afraid and should not lose heart on account of what those two kings were planning against him. Isaiah also said: “ It shall not stand, and it shall not come to pass” (Isaiah 7:7).
The Lord was giving Ahaz every assurance possible that Jerusalem would be protected, that the city would be safe, and that the invasion would not succeed. One thing, and one thing only was required of Ahaz: he had to trust and believe that God would be with him and with the people of Jerusalem.
Isaiah told the king: “If you do not stand firm in faith, you shall not stand at all” (Isaiah 7:9). Ahaz had to believe in God’s promise of salvation. He had to stand on God’s promise in order for him to stand his ground against his enemies.
But Ahaz refused to believe in God. And the reason for his refusal to believe in God is not found in the book of Isaiah, but it is found in the narrative of 2 Kings. In 2 Kings 16:7-8 Ahaz’s refusal to trust in God is made clear:
Ahaz sent messengers to King Tiglath-pileser of Assyria, saying, “I am your servant and your son. Come up, and rescue me from the hand of the king of Aram and from the hand of the king of Israel, who are attacking me.” Ahaz also took the silver and gold found in the house of the LORD and in the treasures of the king’s house, and sent a present to the king of Assyria.
The reason Ahaz refused to trust in God’s promise of deliverance was because he was already committed to trust in the army of Assyria to deliver him from his adversaries. By rejecting God’s protection and by paying tribute to Tiglath-pileser, Ahaz became a vassal of Assyria and this relationship would bring tragic consequences to Judah.
The words, “I am your servant and your son” imply that Ahaz made a covenant with Assyria, a covenant of vassalage in which Ahaz became subject to Assyrian annual tribute. The present Ahaz sent to the king of Assyria was protection money, thus committing Assyria to fight for Judah.
A few years later, when Hezekiah was king of Judah, Isaiah was confronted with a similar situation. When Hezekiah was planning to revolt against Assyria, Hezekiah sent ambassadors to Egypt asking for help. At that time, the Lord spoke through Isaiah and said:
Alas for those who go down to Egypt for help and who rely on horses, who trust in chariots because they are many and in horsemen because they are very strong, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel or consult the LORD (Isaiah 31:1).
In seeking the help of Egypt, Hezekiah did the same thing that his father Ahaz had done when he sought the help of Assyria.
After Ahaz refused to accept Isaiah’s words, the Lord decided to give him another promise of protection and deliverance. So, God sent Isaiah back to Ahaz again to assure him that if he believed, Jerusalem would be delivered.
Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz, saying, Ask a sign of the LORD your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the LORD to the test. Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For 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 7:10-16).
Notice several important things in this oracle. First, the sign is for Ahaz and his military and political leaders: “Hear then, O house of David.” Second, when Ahaz said that he would “not put the LORD to the test,” he rejected divine protection not because of piety or religious concern, but because he had already made a political arrangement with Assyria.
Third, and the most important, the sign that God was giving to Ahaz was to assure him, the royal house, and the people of Judah that God was with them to deliver the city from the hands of their enemy.
The prophet said to Ahaz:
The Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For 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 7:14-16).
There are four important things about Isaiah’s oracle that must be emphasized in any interpretation of the text:
1. “The young woman is with child”
2. “Shall name him Immanuel”
3. “For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good”
4. “The land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted”
Notice again that the sign of Immanuel was given to Ahaz and to the house of David. Thus, in order for the oracle to have any meaning to Ahaz and to the people who were being threatened by Israel and Syria, the oracle of Isaiah and the sign of Immanuel had to be fulfilled in Ahaz’s days.
This is made very clear in Isaiah’s oracle: “For 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 7:16).
And Isaiah’s oracle was fulfilled in Ahaz’s time. In the days of Ahaz, this is what happened to Pekah:
In the days of King Pekah of Israel, King Tiglath-pileser of Assyria came and captured Ijon, Abel-beth-maacah, Janoah, Kedesh, Hazor, Gilead, and Galilee, all the land of Naphtali; and he carried the people captive to Assyria (2 Kings 15:29).
And in the days of Ahaz, this is what happened to Rezin:
“The king of Assyria listened to [Ahaz]; the king of Assyria marched up against Damascus, and took it, carrying its people captive to Kir; then he killed Rezin” (2 Kings 16:9).
Both kings who threatened Ahaz and before whom he was afraid, were killed by Tiglath-pileser, their nations were carried into exile, and Jerusalem was delivered, just as God had promised and just as Isaiah had proclaimed.
If the sign of Immanuel was for Ahaz and if the sign of Immanuel was fulfilled in the days of Ahaz, how then is Isaiah 7:14 and the sign of Immanuel related to the birth of Christ and to the words of Matthew:
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 1:22-23).
The answers to these two questions will be the subject of the final post on the sign of Immanuel.
Studies on Isaiah 7:14 and the Sign of Immanuel
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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