Saturday, December 6, 2014
Unto Us a Child is Given, Part 1, The Sign
All Scripture quotes are from the New King James Version, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1984. Whenever LORD is all caps, the actual Hebrew is the name of God, usually pronounced and spelled Yahweh or Jehovah in English. When written Lord, the word is Adonai, meaning Lord, our Lord, or my Lord. [...] signifies my editorial addition.
Mary did you know that your baby boy would one day walk on water?
The prophet Isaiah lived in Israel approximately seven centuries before the birth of Jesus Christ. He had a long ministry, covering the reigns of four kings of the little nation of Judah. During the reign of the third king, Ahaz, he had a most remarkable vision of a special child that would be born in his lifetime. That child would be a sign to Judah that the Assyrians of northern Mesopotamia would not totally vanquish Ahaz’s kingdom. Assyria would not succeed in breaking into the city of Jerusalem, plundering its wealth, and marching tens of thousands of citizens off to captivity as they did to other nations. But before we look at the whole panorama of this vision leading to the great statement of Isaiah 9:6, 7, we need to review the back story in chapters 7 and 8.
This third king departed from the religion of his fathers, preferring instead to worship the gods of Syria and Assyria. However, he was still the king of the House of David, and God was not yet ready to punish all of Judah for their transgressions. Northern Israel’s time of judgment was close. One of Isaiah’s assignments from Yahweh was to warn them that if they didn't change their ways, Assyria would surely come down and take them captive in a most brutal manner. The time for mercy for Northern Israel was about to end forever.
The Assyrian threat wasn't on King Ahaz’s mind as he left the city one day (perhaps around 730-725 BC). Northern Israel and its neighbor Syria had decided to join forces and attack Judah. Everyone in the southern kingdom trembled at the thought. Ahaz’s “heart and the heart of his people were moved as the trees of the woods are moved in the wind.” (7:2)
Isaiah writes that he and his son, Shear-Jashub, met Ahaz one day as his entourage was leaving the city. The Bible doesn't actually say whether Ahaz was alone or with a group of people, but most kings of the day rode with a well-equipped guard of 50 brave soldiers. The king himself would have been dressed in fine garments and would be riding in a chariot covered in gold or perhaps on a horse fitted with the finest saddlery. The sound of hooves, the huffing of horses, the clatter of weapons, the cloud of dust, all would have come to an abrupt halt in the face of the old prophet standing in the middle of the road.
Isaiah assured Ahaz that the Syrian-Israeli threat would dissolve before they could do harm to Judah. By 721 BC, the Assyrians would drive south with a huge army and scrape the northern kingdoms of Israel and Syria off their lands like a razor. The two conspiring kings [Pekah of Israel and Rezin of Syria] would be captured, and the people of northern Israel would lose their identity as tribes of Israel. The territory in the center of the region, often referred to as Ephraim (an ancient tribal name), would never be called that again. Ahaz was challenged to ask God for a sign that this would be so. Ahaz undoubtedly hated Isaiah. I can imagine him thinking, “I am not going to play this old man’s game. He never has anything good to say about me.” So he answered, “I will not ask, nor will I test the LORD.” No doubt the honor guard smirked just a little at such a wily answer.
Isaiah shot back, “Hear now, O house of David! Is it a small thing for you to weary men, but will you weary God also?” Isaiah has suggested two things here. First, Ahaz is not very popular with his people in Judah. Second, he is not very popular with God. Isaiah then offers an astonishing sign.
Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and [she] shall call his name Immanuel.
Can you imagine Ahaz's response to that prediction? A young woman? A child? O please, move aside old man!
There are two words in the above passage that we must examine. The first is alma, translated here as ‘virgin.’ Alma is an ambiguous word usually translated by today’s scholars as ‘young woman’ or ‘maiden.’ The unambiguous Hebrew word for virgin is bethulah. However, alma is never used in the Old Testament to refer to a married woman, so hundreds of years later, Jewish scholars who translated the Hebrew scriptures into Greek used the specific Greek word for ‘virgin.’ Matthew quoted the Greek version (called The Septuagint) when he wrote his Gospel about the birth of Jesus. Since the birth of this child was supposed to be something of a miracle, the Christian translator of the NKJV felt he had good support to use the word ‘virgin’ for the mother of the special child.
The other word is Immanuel, meaning ‘God With Us.’ This child will be given two names. One name will reflect the danger of the days to come, the other will be a promise of God’s divine protection. Isaiah went on to describe to Ahaz what the near future will be like even after the Israeli-Syrian conspiracy collapses. The child Immanuel will grow up eating curds and honey because even in Judah, men will fear to go to the fields to sow and reap. Instead they will keep a cow and a couple of sheep nearby for milk and cheese (7:21). They will gather honey from bees that chanced to swarm in the fallow fields. Sheep and oxen will roam freely in overgrown pastures. But, before the child is very old, “the land you dread will be forsaken by both her kings [Pekah and Rezin, the king of Syria].”
In Chapter 8, Isaiah describes how the LORD instructed him to take a priest and a recorder (Uriah and Zechariah) as witnesses when he approached “the prophetess,” the chosen mother. Scholars today insist that this woman was undoubtedly Isaiah’s wife. Furthermore, say they, there is no doubt that the child was conceived in a normal manner. Fine. Believe it however you will. What we need to look at in the verse is the deliberate ambiguity. Isaiah uses a word that means “approach, draw near to.” He does not say, “I knew my wife,” or “I went into to prophetess.” Nor is the woman named as his wife. She is not named at all. Why wouldn’t the name of this woman matter if Isaiah named the priest and the recorder? She is the mother of a holy child! We don’t know where she lived, what tribe she was from, or whether she was married.
You say, “Of course she was! Don’t even suggest this was a virgin birth.” Maybe it wasn't, but her status as a married woman is veiled here, and so is the specific detail of how the child was conceived. The ambiguity was is no oversight. She is supposed to be veiled in mystery, because this whole event will repeat itself in about 700 years in the future. This little mother is but a shadow, a precursor of a young virgin who will live way in the future.
Judah would not totally escape Assyria’s assault. Comparing the king of Assyria to the flooding Euphrates River, Isaiah wrote, “The king of Assyria and all his glory; he will go up over all his channels and go over all his banks. He will pass through Judah, he will overflow and pass over. He will reach up to the neck (Jerusalem, the capital of Judah); and the stretching out of his wings will fill the breadth of your land, O Immanuel” (8:7, 8).
In spite of the fact that Isaiah seems to have dedicated the land of Judah to Immanuel, we don’t hear of that specific child again until 8:18: “Here am I, and the children the LORD has given me. We are signs and symbols in Israel from the LORD Almighty, who dwells on Mount Zion” [Jerusalem]. The eighth century BC Immanuel did not become king, prophet, judge, or general. It was not the person of the child, but the miracle of his conception that was the sign of God’s miraculous deliverance for Judah.
Biblical and inter-testamental accounts, as well as Assyrian records, verify that the king of Assyria took Syria and northern Israel captive and took captive tens of thousands of citizens from Judah, but was not able to breach the walls of Jerusalem. To find out exactly why Immanuel’s conception and birth was so important that a wicked king’s retinue was stopped on the highway, watch for Part 2 of this post.