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Salvation Through Judgment: The Sign of Immanuel

December 20, 2015 Speaker: Jeff Jones

Topic: Sermon Scripture: Isaiah 7:10–7:17

Outline

  1. Introduction: Terror and Tribulation
  2. Temptation and Trust
  3. The Tyrant’s Test
  4. The Tablet of Testimony
  5. Turning the Tables
  6. Twice the Tale

TEXT

Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz: “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.” And he said, “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted. The Lord will bring upon you and upon your people and upon your father's house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria!” (Isaiah 7:10-17 ESV)

INTRODUCTION: TRIALS AND TRIBULATIONS

Let’s start by imagining a certain land, a nation. I’ll describe it to you. It’s a society founded on God’s law. Its constitution is an epic work that was unique in history. The worship of God, for many years, was an integral part of the life of this community. For the longest time, most of the people of the land would have said they served the Lord.

For generations, godly principles defined the life and politics of this land. Before the current administration, the leadership was pretty good. Not perfect, of course. But for the last few governments, under their rule, the land prospered. The worship of God was, until recently anyway, still respected by the government.

All that’s changed now. There’s new folks in charge. There’s a new approach to governance. A new philosophy of leadership, a new political culture. A different approach to religion. And, there’s problems. Terror and tribulations. Fear has gripped the land. Forces of darkness are gathering, growing in strength. Enemies are rising. In Middle Eastern deserts, in the towns of Syria, around Damascus, wicked men are taking up arms, promising the destruction of their way of life.

The threat is no longer a distant, faraway thing. It’s come home. Not long ago, down to the south, there was a brazen attack that shocked the land. And there have been others. Blood has been shed on the streets of the land’s own cities. The government’s forces don’t seem up to the task of keeping the people safe. The enemy has the initiative. And they are building alliances with other, like-minded, wicked and violent people. The people hear the news and they tremble with fear. Their leadership doesn’t seem up to the task, feckless and inexperienced. They don’t give the impression that they know what they’re doing.

This land we’re exploring is facing terror and tribulations. So, what land is this? The United States, maybe? Canada? Alberta, even? No, actually. What I’ve described is, as best as I can determine, the setting and the national mood of the Kingdom of Judah, in the eighth century B.C.
Young king Ahaz now reigns alone on the throne. The four kings before him—Jotham his father, Uzziah, Amaziah, and Joash—were pretty good kings, even though Joash and Amaziah didn’t end well, and Uzziah made some pretty boneheaded mistakes. But they all, in the opinion of the biblical writer, “did what was right in the sight of the Lord” for the most part. Almost a hundred and ten years of rule that was generally pleasing to God. Now, though, terror has come to the land. Ephraim, the northern kingdom of Israel, has struck a bargain with Syria, their old enemy, and they are coming to conquer the land and, literally, terrify it (Is. 7:6). It is a time of terror and tribulation.

I think it’s a demonstration of just how timeless and relevant the Bible is, even the Old Testament, that you can look at a passage like Isaiah 7, and find ourselves reflected in its pages. Our rulers aren’t Davidic kings, but they’re self-interested politicians too. The people of our lands aren’t children of Abraham, covenantally bound by the Law of Moses, but they’re sinners too. I was going to say our enemies today aren’t Syrians, but actually at least some of the jihadis who threaten our way of life today actually are from the very region that threatened Ahaz in his day. And so the message of this text, the warning and the hope in these verses, are very much for us today.

TRUST AND TEMPTATION

This prophecy we’ll be looking at today comes at a time of war. The northern kingdom of Israel has allied with the king of Syria (Is. 7:2), which came as a shock to Judah. For the most part, Israel and Syria were bitter enemies. Judah by this point had grown accustomed to the conflict between Israel and Syria, and actually counted on it for its own security. Neither Israel or Syria could really afford a major invasion of Judah by itself. Judah was a mountain nation, with lots of natural defences. The amount of troops and time needed to conquer Judah would make either Israel or Syria vulnerable to attack by the other. But now they’ve buried the hatchet, and they can now commit everything they have against Judah—they don’t have to worry about protecting their own flanks. Judah is at war on two fronts.

Why this alliance? Why the war? Syria and Israel were themselves gripped by terror. Back in the days of Ahab, 853 BC, Syria and Israel had joined forces to successfully stop Assyria at the north Syrian town of Qarqar. Now, more than a hundred years later, Assyria is rising again. Rezin and Pekah, kings of Syria and of Israel, want to re-create the alliance. However, Judah, led by Jotham and probably Ahaz, refused to join their alliance (cf. 2 Ki. 15:37). Isaiah 7:6 tells us that Rezin and Pekah’s response was to try regime change in Judah, replacing David’s line with the “son of Tabeel.”

Now, the situation is dire. Second Kings 15:37 tells us the war had begun even before Jotham’s death. Ahaz was probably reigning as king alongside his father at first. By the time of Isaiah 7, Ahaz now reigns alone, the war’s been raging for years, and it isn’t going well. The noose is tightening around the nation of Judah. Second Kings 16:5 tells us Jerusalem is besieged. Verse 6 gives the grim report that Syria has retaken the town of Elath—Judah’s southernmost town and its only port to the Red Sea. Syria’s troops not only crossed the entire country but they cut off any hope of supply from the sea.

What will Ahaz do? Those of you who remember our First Kings series will probably remember Solomon’s failure. God made Solomon the wisest man on earth. Yet Solomon began trusting in that wisdom itself, not the God who gave that wisdom. Solomon became a pragmatist. He looked to diplomacy, to strategic marriages to secure his kingdom. These pagan entanglements led him away from God. The ultimate result was the division of the kingdom and the sacking of Jerusalem by Egypt in the time of his son Rehoboam.

Ahaz was confronted with the same choice. He saw the dark clouds on the horizon, heard the drums of war, and was filled with fear. Was Israel’s God really in control? Or are the people of Judah on their own? Would he trust God? Or succumb to the temptation of human wisdom and diplomacy?

THE TYRANT’S TEST

That’s the choice, and God gives this tyrant a test to force him to commit, one way or another. Isaiah, chapter 7 verse 3 tells us, confronts Ahab with a message from God. Two messages, actually. The verbal message, the words God gave him, is found in verses 7-9. God tells Ahaz that even though these kings have come to bring terror, “It shall not stand, and it shall not come to pass.” He can trust God. Rezin rules Damascus, God says—not Jerusalem—and the son of Remaliah, Pekah, rules Samaria, not the City of David. Their plans to rule beyond their bounds will be thwarted. In fact, Ephraim will be shattered within sixty-five years. Ahaz, by contrast, is at risk of shattering himself—that’s why God warns him, “If you are not firm in faith, you will not be firm at all.” Ahaz is called to trust the promise of God, called to believe the prophecy Isaiah gives.

That’s the verbal message. But there’s another message, very literally standing in the background. Isaiah brings his son, “Shear-Jashub,” to the meeting (Is. 7:3). His name is the second message. It means, “A remnant shall return.” That is a much more ominous way of telling Ahaz the same thing. God is trustworthy. He will preserve his people Israel and the throne of David. But God is perfectly willing to bring this salvation through judgment. God will keep his promises by way of a remnant, preserved through calamity. In other words, God, through Shear-Jashub’s very presence, is saying, “Trust me. And if you don’t, I’ll save the House of David anyway, but only through judgment.”

Salvation through judgment. The theologian Jim Hamilton has argued that this concept is central to all of Scripture. Remember this idea. Salvation through judgment is central to this passage. We’ll come back to it again, and again. Because that’s what Isaiah 7 is about. And—that’s what Christmas is about. Salvation through judgment.

That’s the promise, and the warning. Trust God, or give in to temptation. That’s the choice Ahaz faced. Trust God in faith, and lean on him. Or, ignore God, treat him as untrustworthy—and watch God show himself trustworthy by preserving a faithful remnant through judgment. Isaiah doesn’t directly tell us what Ahaz decided. But Second Kings 16:7 does: “So Ahaz sent messengers to Tiglath-pileser king of Assyria, saying, “I am your servant and your son. Come up and rescue me from the hand of the king of Syria and from the hand of the king of Israel, who are attacking me.”

Ahaz tells a pagan overlord, “I am your servant and your son.” Think about that for a minute. This is no mere diplomatic letter. This is a confession of faith. “I am your servant.” Solomon, in First Kings 3:7, described himself as God’s servant. Ahaz, descendant of Solomon, God’s servant the king, proclaims himself servant of a pagan lord. “I am your servant and your son,” says the descendant of David, who God once told in Psalm 2, “You are my son. Today, I have begotten you.” Ahaz turns his back on his master and his father in heaven, and he gives his soul into the hands of a pagan tyrant.

Isaiah’s prophecy was a test, and the tyrant has failed.

As if the language alone didn’t make it clear, Ahaz then goes on to very literally put money where his mouth is. The very next verse, verse 8 of Second Kings 16: “Ahaz also took the silver and gold that was 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.” It wasn’t enough to confess his faith in Assyria with his lips. He then goes and robs the house of God to pay his new lord a bribe. Just like in Rehoboam’s day, the Temple of Yahweh is stripped of its glory—only this time, it’s the son of David himself who ransacks it.

God is gracious, however. He gives Ahaz another chance. Isaiah is sent to him again, with an incredible offer. Isaiah 7, verse 11: “Ask a sign of the Lord your God. Let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” Ahaz is given a blank cheque by the God of the universe. Anything you want as a sign. You’ll get it. What a promise!

It’s also very cunning. The offer of a sign is a reminder that Ahaz needs to trust in God—and that Ahaz needs to dissolve his alliance with Assyria. The offer of a sign is a form of inducement—it’s designed to force a resolution, one way or another. Ahaz thinks he’s clever, though. “Oh, I couldn’t possibly ask for a sign!” he says. “That would be testing the Lord!” Like Satan in the wilderness eight hundred years later, he appeals to Scripture to justify rejection of God. Ahaz fails to recognize that he, not God, is being tested here.

And, for a second time, the tyrant fails the test.

God will have none of it. “Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” (Is. 7:13-14)

How many times do we hear this verse, especially at Christmas? But have you ever stopped to think that this verse, this promise, this sign, is a sign of judgment?

Has it ever crossed your mind that the promise of the child Immanuel is actually a firm commitment to judge a sinful people? Flip back just one chapter, to Isaiah 6. What kind of message is Isaiah given to say? “Go, and say to this people: ‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand. Keep on seeing, but do not perceive. Make the heart of this people dull and their ears heavy and blind their eyes, lest they turn and be healed.” How long is Isaiah to do this? “Until the land is a desolate waste.”

See, Isaiah 7 doesn’t stand on its own. It continues chapter 6. It is the very first demonstration of this hardening, this judgment, in action. The very sign of Immanuel itself is a promise of salvation through judgment. Indeed, the very words of the prophecy were given as a rebuke to the king of God’s people. The son’s name will be “God With Us.” In other words, Ahaz can send to Assyria all he wants, but God isn’t going anywhere. Profess your loyalty to pagan gods all you want, strip my temple down and give its treasures away—I’m not going anywhere, God tells him. God will keep his promises despite even the faithlessness of his people. But the die is now firmly cast. The tyrant failed the test. God’s salvation is still coming, God’s salvation is sure. But now, because of this failed exam, this will be salvation through judgment.

THE TABLET OF TESTIMONY

Let’s look at this sign for a moment. A virgin will conceive, and a child will be born. That’s the sign. Then, a promise. Before the child is old enough to know good from evil—while still very young, a couple years of age—Syria and Ephraim will be destroyed.

It’s one thing to promise a sign. It’s entirely something else to have that sign come to pass. This child Immanuel, this child of promise: who is he? As Christians, it’s very easy to jump ahead to the New Testament and see Jesus fulfilling this prophecy. Some interpreters think that Jesus was the only fulfillment. That is, this prophecy was entirely for the future; Ahaz was intended simply to trust that a sign would come at some point in the future. I’m not convinced. The sign and the prophecy are two distinct things. The prophecy was that these two enemy nations would be destroyed. The sign was God’s proof that he was able to keep his word and bring that prophecy to pass. We know from the text itself that Israel and Syria were defeated only a short time later. Why, then, give a sign many hundreds of years after the prophecy it was supposed to support happened? The very point of giving the sign was to show Ahaz that he could trust God to fulfill the prophecy.

Some interpreters, especially Jewish ones, have recognized that Ahaz had to have seen this sign in his lifetime, and so they conclude that his son Hezekiah was this child. After all, Hezekiah reversed pretty much all of Ahaz’ wicked decisions, cancelling the alliance with Assyria, restoring the temple, and fighting idolatry. However, I think this is unlikely too. The early church father Jerome pointed out that Hezekiah had already been born at this point and would have been too old.

The best option, I think, is to continue following the text itself and see where it takes us. That brings us to chapter 8. Isaiah, after delivering this prophecy to Ahaz, gets a tablet. He writes on it, “Belonging to Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz.” It’s a dark and foreboding name. “The spoil speeds; the prey hastens.” In other words, this name means impending violence and death.
So this tablet will belong to someone bearing this name. Isaiah then goes and gets “reliable witnesses” to sign off on this tablet, witnessing what it means. Who are these witnesses? What makes them reliable? This Uriah is a very interesting choice. Turn back to Second Kings 16 for a moment, verse 10. Syria and Israel have already been defeated, so we know that this story in Second Kings takes place a few years later than Isaiah 7 and 8. Ahaz is in Damascus to meet Assyria’s king—more on that in a moment. But while he’s there, Ahaz sees a pagan altar. It’s probably for an Assyrian deity. He probably sees an opportunity to prove his new loyalty to Assyria. Not content to simply strip the Temple of Yahweh of its treasure, he decides he’d like to start adapting its worship. So he sends a copy of the altar to the Jerusalem Temple’s high priest—a man named Uriah. The very same Uriah who witnesses this tablet in Isaiah 8. What kind of man is Uriah? Verse 16 of 2 Kings 16 tells us: “Uriah the priest did all this, as King Ahaz commanded.” He’s faithless. He doesn’t stand up for the proper worship of God. He’s one of Ahaz’ yes-men.

What makes a spineless and functionally pagan priest a “reliable witness”? He’s a hostile witness, an enemy of God. It’s not in his interest to confirm the truth of this sign, to witness what Isaiah is doing. So, this Zechariah fellow is probably similar, a false prophet or a compromising priest. This tablet with the funny name on it is a tablet of testimony against Ahaz and everyone who supports him.

So Isaiah not only promised a sign to Ahaz; he then went and got two witnesses as well. That should sound familiar—this is legal procedure, in both the Old and New Testaments. Charges are being brought. This sign, again, is a sign of judgment. Isaiah then “goes to the prophetess” and she conceives and bears a son, who is given this dark and gloomy name (Is. 8:3-4).
My view is that this child is the first and immediate fulfillment of this sign. This is the sign given to Ahaz. Now, some of you are probably wondering, “Wait a minute! The sign was that a virgin would conceive and bear a child, right? But this was no virgin birth!” That’s true. But looking just at the Old Testament context here for a moment—we’ll get to the New Testament for a moment—the Hebrew word here doesn’t strictly mean “virgin.” It actually means a young woman of marriageable age. Now, when Matthew quotes this text, he uses a Greek word that literally means an actual virgin. But we haven’t got to the New Testament fulfillment yet. The Hebrew word is broader than the Greek word, and so this conception in no way violates the prophecy. What I think happened here is that Isaiah’s first wife, the mother of Shear-Jashub, passed away. When Isaiah gives this prophecy to Ahaz, this second woman, this prophetess, is still unmarried, even a virgin. Isaiah then takes her as his wife. The miracle here, in this initial fulfillment, isn’t the birth itself—unlike that of Jesus. The miracle here is the timing—remember, the sign was that a child would be born and be only a certain age when these enemies of Judah are defeated.

What this means is that Ahaz and his officials, including the high priest of God’s own temple, not only are told in advance that God will defeat Israel and Syria—they are given a sign to make clear that this defeat was because of God, not because of Ahaz’ alliance with Assyria. God has proven what he promised: God is with us. If there were any doubt, that’s why Isaiah prepared the tablet. That tablet bears testimony against Ahaz and his faithlessness. That tablet bears testimony of God’s faithfulness. And that tablet bears testimony of coming judgment.

THE TABLES ARE TURNED

Remember that dark and foreboding name. “The spoil speeds. The prey hastens.” Those trustworthy words began to be fulfilled. The child was born. Israel and Syria, with their armies committed to battle against Judah, their supply lines overextended deep to their south, their defences weak, were suddenly overwhelmed. The Assyrians attacked from the north. Damascus fell. Syria was conquered. Israel’s armies were shattered, and king Pekah is assassinated. Hoshea, the new king, sues for peace and bends the knee to the Assyrians. As Ahaz hoped—and more importantly, as God promised—the two nations fell before little Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz was old enough to eat curds and honey.

God kept his promise of short-term, earthly salvation. Despite Ahaz’ hopes, it wasn’t because of his diplomatic cleverness. The tables are turned. In fact, Isaiah is given another prophecy, starting in 8:5. It seems that Judah was congratulating itself about Syria and Israel’s defeat, taking great pleasure in their fall. Isaiah comes to crash their party. He tells them, “Because you have refused the water of Shiloah that flows gently” – that is, they’ve rejected God’s way, God’s terms—“and rejoice over Rezin and the son of Remaliah,” God is bringing a bigger and far more dangerous River. See, there was more to the promise of a sign and salvation. In chapter 7, Isaiah prophesied a land overgrown with briers and thorns, a land whose agriculture had been destroyed. A land emptied of all but a remnant. It didn’t happen right away, but it began here.
Israel and Judah both lost their independence. Assyria now ruled over both nations. As God promised in Isaiah 7, he whistled for the bee in the land of Assyria. Thousands of Assyrian troops flooded the land, taking hostages, securing vital roads. God hired a Razor from beyond the River—in the ancient near East, when you said “The River,” it meant the Euphrates river. This king of Assyria, God’s razor, “shaved” the land. Assyrian control meant that these subject nations now had to pay tribute, taxes. Protection money. And the price of Assyrian “protection” was steep and harsh. Back to Second Kings 16 for a moment, and we get an idea. Verse 8 already told us about the “present” Ahaz sent to Assyria, the treasures of the Temple as well as money from his own store. Look ahead to verse 17 and 18, after Assyria’s intervention. Ahaz is cutting frames off of basins and oxen off of the sea. Why does he do this? The oxen, the frames—that’s a lot of bronze. It’s valuable. From the context, it’s pretty clear to me that he’s melting it down and sending it to Assyria. The burden demanded by Ahaz’ new lord is heavy. The fact that both Israel and Judah each rebelled against Assyria within a generation of the Assyrian invasion proves how heavy the burden was. And when that happened, Assyria destroyed virtually the whole land, all of Israel’s cities, except for the “head” city of Jerusalem (2 Ki. 18:13). The flood of the Euphrates reached right up to the neck, exactly as Isaiah predicted in 8:8.

Assyria’s rule was not just a financial and economic burden. It’s a humiliation. Isaiah’s prophecy makes this clear. Assyria’s king is a “razor” described as shaving the head and hair of the feet, and even the beard. This was a picture of mourning, or shame, or both. Judah would be made a spectacle. The last thing I’ll point out from Second Kings 16 is this. Ahaz called for help in the first place to avoid being humiliated by Rezin, king in Damascus. How sad and pitiful that, when the Assyrians come and do what he asks, Ahaz is forced to make a trip to Damascus anyway, and bow down before a pagan king there. Sure, a different king, but the humiliation is the same.
God has turned the tables on this wicked king. Ahaz rejected God and trusted in his own cleverness. Now the very people he looked to for help, the very king he chose to serve rather than Yahweh, humiliates and impoverishes him, strips him of his independence, turns him into a petty provincial governor. Ahaz refused a sign from God, probably out of fear of embarrassment, and God gave it anyway—and now that sign, and the tablet of testimony that proved God’s trustworthiness, proved Ahaz wrong and foolish.

TWICE THE TALE

You likely came this morning, saw the text, and expected more of a festive Christmas message, rather than an Old Testament history lesson. But it’s so important to understand why this prophecy was given in the first place, and who it was given to. We can’t properly understand who Jesus is, or what he came to accomplish, if we ignore his own Bible, the Old Testament. But, on the other hand, Jesus has, indeed come. And his coming changes everything.
Ahaz saw this sign, this Emmanuel child, fulfilled in his day. But it was only the first fulfillment. And it was an incomplete fulfillment. There was more to the prophecy, more to the sign, than just this sign of Isaiah’s child and the destruction of Israel and Syria. Looking at the context, if Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz were the only fulfillment, there’s a number of unresolved issues. Israel is still in the land, for one; there is no “remnant” yet. The “fly” from Egypt has not yet come—it’s just the Assyrians for now. Egyptians came later—Israel’s new king, Hoshea, soon sends messengers to Egypt, leading to Israel’s destruction by Assyria (2 Ki. 17:4). And Egypt, a few generations later, tries to pass an army through Judah, leading to King Josiah’s death in battle (2 Ki. 23:29-30). But this hasn’t happened yet. The full devastation of the land has not happened yet.

Even the name Immanuel is used in a way that suggests something more. When Isaiah first gave the prophecy, the name was referring to the child. But once Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz is born, in chapter 8, Isaiah then addresses Judah—the nation—as Immanuel (Is. 8:8). So while Isaiah’s son served as the sign, the idea of Immanuel wasn’t firmly tied to him. Indeed, the fact that Israel is addressed as Immanuel suggests that this is a royal title—because in the Bible, as goes the king, so goes the land. The idea of “federal headship.” Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz, though he signified God’s presence, did not himself have the authority, the right, to stand on behalf of the people.

Furthermore, Isaiah isn’t done prophesying about a child. The northern kingdom of Israel’s defeat, and eventual destruction, are terrible news. But in the very next chapter, chapter 9, God promises that the land of Zebulun and Naphtali, part of Israel, now “in contempt,” will be “made glorious” (Is. 9:1). These northern tribes, which followed the ways of the nations, which were destroyed by the nations, will one day be called “Galilee of the nations.” They will see a “great light”: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given. His name shall be called Mighty God, Prince of Peace” (Is. 9:6,7).

The birth of Isaiah’s son certainly signified that God was with Israel. Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz did fulfill the prophecy, but just as a placeholder. Isaiah himself makes this clear. This child was not, himself, “God with us.” He was not “Mighty God.” He was not the “Prince of Peace.” He did not dwell in Galilee. Isaiah’s sign had been given and fulfilled, but only in part. Something was missing. I think the Jews recognized that. 150 years before Christ, the Jews translated the Old Testament into Greek. And when they translated this passage we’re looking at today, they chose the word parthenos, or “virgin,” for the mother of this child. Matthew, writing under divine inspiration, uses this word as well. There was more to the prophecy, a narrower focus. Twice the tale. God still had a sign to give.

That’s what brings us to the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 1. I’m not going to cover this text in detail, because my understanding is that Clint is taking a closer look at it on Christmas Eve. But I do need to point out Matthew’s approach to the Old Testament. When he quotes Old Testament passages, when he provides proof texts, he’s meaning more than just the actual verse he copies. Matthew, to use a modern phrase, isn’t “quoting just a Bible verse.” He’s quoting a whole context, a whole passage. That’s what he does in Matthew 1:22-23 when he quotes this very prophecy about Immanuel from Isaiah 7, and tells us that it is fulfilled in the birth of Jesus.
The verse about the virgin conceiving and the boy being named Immanuel is, for Matthew, just the tip of a much bigger iceberg that he wants his readers to remember. He’s reminding his readers that this sign was given in the face of foreign oppression. That it was given to a stubborn and wicked people. That the sign had so much to it that its meaning was not exhausted or fulfilled in Isaiah’s day. That the sign was much more than a few verses in chapter 7, but included everything from the promise of Israel’s hardening in chapter 6 to the blessing of Galilee and the great light and the promise of a child being born and a son being given in chapter 9. The very passage that we have only scratched the surface of this morning.

Joseph, like Ahaz, a descendant of David, is betrothed to this girl Mary. He finds out, before the wedding, that she’s pregnant, and he knows the baby isn’t his. He draws the obvious conclusion and prepares to divorce her. Joseph, like Ahaz before him, then receives a message from God: this baby is from the Holy Spirit. Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife (Matt. 1:20).
Joseph, like Ahaz, faces a painful choice. Trust, or temptation. Believe the word of God—and live with the embarrassment and awkwardness of living with a woman considered an adulteress by the community, raising a son considered illegitimate. Or, take the easy and human way out, divorcing Mary anyway, going along with the community’s assumptions, and preserve his earthly dignity and reputation. It’s fitting that this second and final fulfillment is given to a man who, unlike Ahaz, responds willingly and self-sacrificially to God’s call.

Matthew, more than Isaiah, underlines the fact that this is a virgin conception. This is not like Isaiah’s second son with the prophetess. Jesus is entirely different. Like only one other man in all of history, Adam, Jesus had no earthly father—which is vital, because he is the second Adam. Like Adam, he is the head of a new human race. Like Adam, he rules over a new creation. But unlike Adam, when terrors and tribulations come, when the awful choice between trust and temptation is placed before him, when he is tested, Jesus succeeds.

Jesus is Immanuel—God with us. Literally. Jesus is God incarnate, the eternal Son of the Father, the second person of the Trinity, eternally begotten by the Father. Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz was only a sign that God was with his people, but Jesus actually and truly is God with his people. Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz could never be called “Mighty God,” but Jesus absolutely can, and is. Jesus brings a great light to the people. Jesus blesses Galilee with his presence. Jesus is indeed the Wonderful Counselor and Prince of Peace.

He fulfilled all the things left wanting in Isaiah’s day. But—and don’t miss this—Jesus also fulfilled again the things that already had been fulfilled at first in the Old Testament. Jesus, too, came to a people with hardened hearts, like in Isaiah 6—it is no coincidence that Matthew himself, in chapter 13, quotes the very terrifying promise of a hardened and stubborn people that comes immediately before our passage in Isaiah 7 (Matt. 13:14-15). Jesus fulfilled that too. And after this final sign of Immanuel, the land is destroyed again, this time by Romans and not Assyrians.

This is the sign of Immanuel. A child is born to us. God is with us for salvation—through judgment. That is the meaning of Isaiah 7. It’s the meaning of Isaiah 6 through 9. Indeed, it’s the meaning of the entire Bible. It is certainly the meaning of Christmas, even if you won’t hear that most other places. If you take nothing else from this morning, you should take that: Jesus Christ, Immanuel, God with us, has come to save us from, and through, judgment.

APPLICATIONS

I remember a song many years ago by a band from Newfoundland. One of the lines went, “I want to be... consequence free...” I can’t think of a better summary of the spirit of this age than that. Especially at Christmas, the last thing people want to think about is the consequences of sin. That’s why the company Christmas party all too often leads to debauchery, I think. Even Christians don’t stress this enough. Christmas is, indeed, good news. That’s why we celebrate. But Jesus is good news because of the bad news, and that bad news is that God is angry at sin, and at sinners, and will allow neither to endure.

A virgin shall conceive and give birth to a son. Why was that necessary? I already described Jesus as like Adam, the head of a new human race, over a new creation. Why was that necessary? Because Adam didn’t trust God, Adam gave into temptation, Adam failed the test. Adam rebelled against his God and so all of us, every one of us, are sinners as a result. We continue his sin and we bear his guilt. You. Me. Every man, woman and child in this room. All of us take after Adam. All of us, by nature, distrust God, all of us are drawn to temptation, all of us fail the test. We need a new Adam. We need to be born anew, to become new human beings.
Salvation is necessary because of sin. The human problem isn’t that we’re mostly good but not quite there yet. Our problem is that we have, like Ahaz, told God, “No, I’m good. I got this. I don’t need you,” using the very breath of life God gives us to say such things. Our problem is that we have, like Ahaz, tried to reject his rule over us and substitute it with earthly powers: money, or political power, or sex, or influence, or beauty, or popularity. And as we’ve already seen, God won’t put up with that. God’s in charge, not us. If we reject his authority, as Ahaz did, God’s just going to put us in his place and carry out his plans anyway. But that rebellion has consequences. God is a judge. Isaiah 6 shows us that God will tolerate no sin before him. Appear before God covered in sin and guilt, and the sheer terror you will feel will be the least of your problems. The God who sent the Assyrians to level the cities of his own chosen people will not ignore your own sins either.

If you don’t trust in Jesus Christ, please listen to me. I’m so glad you’re here. You’re most welcome here. But you are in terrifying danger. Jesus came to save us not merely from ourselves, and certainly not from difficulty or stress or stuff like that. Jesus came to save us from God, who will destroy you in eternal hell if you insist on doing things your way. God’s judgment is coming, and this sign, this virgin-born child, is a sign that humanity is broken and needs to be made new. If you don’t belong to Jesus, you need to cry out to him. Believe him, and trust him, and follow him. If you don’t know how, come talk to me, or to others here. This room is full of men and women who know the Gospel and can point you to Jesus.

If you do trust in Jesus Christ, if you are a Christian, this truth is for you as well. Judgment is coming—that should remind us of the urgency of our task. Our family, our friends, our neighbors, those far off need God with them. They need the salvation that only he brings. But how will they hear without a preacher, without someone to tell them where to look, who to trust? Judgment is coming, and this needs to motivate us to action, to outreach. In the next few days, many of us will see family and friends who don’t know the Lord. Let this be a call to strap on our armor and join the fight—rather than running away from it. It’s Christmas. Don’t pass on this opportunity. Let’s encourage one another and pray for one another as we celebrate and proclaim Jesus publicly.

Judgment also reminds us to hold this world with a loose hand. The child of Isaiah 6 was promised curds and honey—like Jesus in the New Testament, we are reminded that God will care for his own. He will provide. But that child of Isaiah 7 came into a world of suffering, lived in a land laid waste, dwelt among a people exhausted by war and wracked with grief and suffering. The Christian life is not an easy one. It was never meant to be an easy life. If this Immanuel child, both in the Old Testament and New, lived in the midst of judgment, was acquainted with suffering, then don’t you dare believe the lie that Christianity means worldly comfort and wealth and prosperity. God may give you those things, but not because you’re a Christian, and being a Christian is no ticket to the treasures of this world. Rather, it is a promise of suffering with Christ.
Finally, God being with us to save through judgment reminds us where our hope really is. Our hope is not earthly peace and prosperity, any more now than it was in Isaiah’s day. So what is our hope? It’s in the very name of this promised child. Immanuel. God with us. Matthew understood that. Look where he quotes this prophecy—right at the beginning of his Gospel, chapter 1. That’s the starting point of the story of Jesus Christ on earth—God has come. God is with us. It doesn’t end there, though. Matthew not only begins his Gospel with Immanuel; he ends his account with Immanuel. Immanuel is Matthew’s story, beginning to end. Look at the end of the Gospel of Matthew. Chapter 28. The Great Commission. What does Jesus say? What is he saying to you? To me? To us all? His last words? What are they? This is what he says, praise God: “Behold, I am with you,” he says (Matt. 28:20). I am with you. Always. To the end of the age. God with us.

This, friends, is our hope. God with us. Our hope is that when terror and tribulation comes, when temptation rises, when testing arrives, when the forces of darkness assemble and the floodwaters are rising, when family lets you down and hurts you, we are not alone—for God is with us!