On this Fourth Sunday of Advent, just 3 days away from Christmas, our reading from Isaiah 7 doesn’t seem very Christmasy. Oh, it does if we focus only on verse 14 and the way our Gospel reading for today interprets it (Matthew 1:18-25). But if we read our text in its context, there’s no hint of shepherds keeping watch out in the fields by night; there’s only the enemy camped out at the very gates of Jerusalem. If we want to get the full meaning of this famous prophecy, we can’t skip right over to its New Testament fulfillment. We need to hear it as its first listeners heard it. Then we can grasp its deeper and wider meaning for our day.
The earlier verses of Isaiah 7 set the scene. Those days in 735/734 were a time of war and fear. The southern kingdom of Judah was under attack by a coalition of the northern kingdom of Israel and the Syrians. Those two unlikely allies had come together to fend off an attack by the rising power of Assyria, which was gobbling up countries to its west and south on the way to the seaports of the Mediterranean and the riches of Egypt. Judah had refused to join their alliance, preferring instead to attempt a treaty with Assyria. But now the combined armies of Israel and Syria have besieged Jerusalem during the reign of Ahaz, a part of the Davidic dynasty.
Judah and particularly Jerusalem was literally shaking with fear; “the hearts of Ahaz and his people were shaken, as the trees of the forest are shaken by the wind.” So, as God always does when his people are afraid, God speaks a word of reassurance in verse 4. “Be careful, keep calm, and don’t be afraid. Do not lose heart because of these two smoldering stubs of firewood,” the two kings of the opposing armies. They threaten to ruin you, but it won’t happen. In fact, in 65 years (verse 8), that northern kingdom “will be too shattered to be a people.”
Then God names the issue here—faith. In whom will you trust in this time of international strife and domestic danger? Will it be the walls of Jerusalem, your tenuous alliance with Assyria, your political skills and military might? Or will it be Yahweh your covenant God who has shown himself faithful for centuries and now promises to save you? “If you don’t stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all (verse 9).”
That is the context of our text and its wonderful promise of a virgin getting pregnant and giving birth to a son who will be called Immanuel. God’s promise of the destruction of the northern coalition was a bit hard to believe given the situation in which Ahaz and his people found themselves. So God offered something to strengthen their faith, the very thing we often ask for when we aren’t sure we have heard God correctly—a sign, visible proof that the Lord has indeed spoken. “Ask the Lord your God for a sign,” and don’t skimp on what you ask. Go big, ask for anything “whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights.” I want you to trust me, so let me prove it to you with a big sign.
But Ahaz was either too discouraged to ask or his faith was already in the Assyrian ploy, so he refused to ask for a sign. He covered his lack of faith in Yahweh by quoting Yahweh’s own law back at God. “I will not put Yahweh to the test (Deut. 6:16).”
That’s when Yahweh exploded, or rather when Isaiah spoke for Yahweh in explosive words. “Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of men? Will you now try the patience of my God also?” God has had it with you unbelievers. But instead of walking away, God gave his people a sign that has stood through the ages—not just something as deep as Sheol or as high as heaven, but something that would join the depths with the heights. “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel.”
To say that this promise has been controversial is a colossal understatement. The controversy swirls around the word “virgin.” In the Hebrew it is the word almah, which means simply a young woman about to be married. The idea of being a sexual virgin is not necessarily at the heart of the word. However, the Latin version of this text (the Septuagint) uses the word parthenos, which definitely means a young woman who hasn’t had sex yet. That is certainly how Matthew understood Isaiah 7:14 when he applied it to Mary and Jesus.
So, some scholars say this is merely a promise for Ahaz and his people in 734. Isaiah was talking about some young woman in his time, maybe Ahaz’s young wife, maybe Isaiah’s own second wife, or maybe just some young woman walking past at the time. That contemporary almah would give birth to a son and that son would be proof that God is indeed with his people, even in a terrible time like this. Thus, he will be called Immanuel, God with us.
No, say other scholars, it is crystal clear from the New Testament that God is talking about the birth of the Messiah here in the fullness of time. The parthenos interprets the almah, giving the deeper meaning of that ancient promise. Even as that child in 734 BC proved that God was with his embattled people, that child in 4 BC proved that God is always with his people, and will save them from their sins.
It is clear from the rest of our text that God meant this promise for his Eighth Century people first of all. Verses 15 and 16 basically say that before this child goes on solid food, while he is still eating “curds and honey,” the northern alliance will be “laid waste.” And that’s exactly what happened when this sign child was only 2 years old. Or as another interpretation of verse 15 has it, before this boy reaches the age of discretion (“when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right”) the land will be so devastated by war that people will have to eat subsistence food like yogurt and honey. With either interpretation of that poetic phrase, this text is intended initially for Ahaz and his people.
But that wasn’t all God had in mind. Indeed, the way Matthew uses this prophecy is very instructive for how we deal with all of God’s promises. Matthew says that the Virgin Birth of Jesus “fulfilled” the word of the prophet. He filled it out, made it full. You never know the full meaning of God’s promises until you see them in the light of Christ, because as Paul put it, “no matter how many promises God has made, they are all ‘Yes’ in Christ.” (II Corinthians 1:20) We often cannot see Christ in the original promise, as Ahaz and even Isaiah surely didn’t here, but God was always pointing ahead to the grand fulfillment in Christ.
In a time of war and fear, God gave his Old Testament people a simple sign to assure them that their God was with them even though the northern coalition seemed invincible. In another time of international turmoil and internal danger, God gave his New Testament people a grand sign to assure them that God was with them, even though Rome seemed almighty. That sign still stands for us today, in a time of war and fear when leaders jockey for power and enemies are at the gates and we don’t know whom to trust. Elizabeth Achtemeier said it well: “the people of faith know that earth’s petty powers will never have the last word. After all, Jesus Christ was born when Caesar Augustus ruled, and Caesar is now dead, but Jesus Christ lives.”
So, rather than squabble over a word, let us trust the One who fulfilled the word of the Lord. When it is hard to trust God in impossible situations, let us look to the sign of a Virgin who gave birth to a Son who was in every sense of the word, Immanuel, God with us. Even she thought it was impossible (“how can this be?”), but God assured her, “With God nothing is impossible.” Advent is a call to faith when Christmas seems a long way off. We don’t have to ask for a sign to help us believe. He has already been born.
Signs are essential to life in this world. A red octagon tells us that we need to stop for cross traffic or we will get in a wreck. A black and white rectangle with an arrow warns us that traffic is going in only one direction on this street, so don’t turn into it. The green signs with white lettering overhead inform us where we are in a city and what highways are coming up. A blue sign with an H shows us the way to the hospital, while a sign with a picture of an airplane indicates where the airport is. Try to picture a city without signs and you will see how necessary they are to peaceful cohabitation. In a confusing world filled with conflict, one sign stands above the fray to show us that God is with us and wishes us “peace on earth.” Jesus is the Sign of God’s loving involvement with his world.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 22, 2019
Isaiah 7:10-16 Commentary