Who is LORD's Immanuel? (Weekly Reflections)

Who is LORD’s Immanuel?

Mount of GodI trust that I am speaking for a great number of God-fearing people when I say that from time to time all of us tend to wonder if our lives are in harmony with God’s perfect will for us or if we have strayed from the straight and narrow. These trying thoughts come flooding into our lives especially during the moments of crisis or difficulties of any kind. Thus, for instance, when we start a new venture, branch off on our own, begin an independent ministry or business endeavor, we want to be sure that what we are doing is in line with the LORD’s plan for our lives and serves to please Him first and foremost! When times of distress, sickness, loss and financial hardship knock on the doors of our homes, we are prone to question whether the LORD and His gracious presence have abandoned us.

In our today’s reflection for the upcoming Sabbath, I would like to examine together with you a biblical case, in which not just an individual or his family puzzled over God’s involvement in their lives, but an entire nation questioned God’s goodness and protection over them! By combing through historical and theological details of that life-threatening situation we will also be enabled to see one of the most well-recognized names within Christianity in its proper context. Our sincere hope is that your understanding of the concept of “Immanuel” is deepened and broadened tremendously as a result of our today’s presentation! So, prepare yourself for being astonished and enlightened!

The Name “Immanuel”

Baby JesusCountless Christian churches today have the Name “Immanuel” as part of their congregation’s title. This Name is known all over the world and is at the center of many Christmas carols and multiple church hymns. The inspiration for this phenomenon comes from a biblical text of the New Testament found in the Gospel According to Matthew. “This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. . . All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).” (Matthew 1:18,22-23) - As is correctly pointed out in the Greek text of the Gospel, the composite word “Imm-anu-el” stands for “with us [is] God” in the original Hebrew language (עִמָּ֥נוּ אֵֽל). Thus, it is more a phrase than just a word.

For billions of the faithful within the Christian Church, the Name Immanuel is counted among the most persuasive proofs that Jesus is indeed the Second Person within the Divine Godhead, indeed God Himself, incarnate in human flesh! I, for one, believe that the title “Immanuel” is fully applicable to the baby born in Bethlehem around 2000 years ago and that it describes Israel’s Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth! The question of whether this name signifies that Jesus was the Second Person of the Most Blessed Trinity, incarnate in flesh is an altogether different matter indeed! In order for us to understand what the Name truly means, we have to go back to the original prophecy contained in the scrolls of Isaiah and discover the keys to unlocking the mystery of this powerful Name! Are you ready?

The prophecy that Matthew cites as applying to Jesus of Nazareth is taken straight from the Book of Isaiah. The “Old Testament” prophet used this particular Hebrew construction just three times in all of his writings. All three instances of this phrase are found close together in the chapters 7 and 8 of that beautiful prophetic book. All of them are part of Isaiah’s oracle concerning the City of Jerusalem and the nation of Judah. Through a careful study of this phrase in its proper historical and theological context we will avoid many customary theosophical pitfalls, clumsy misinterpretations and fanciful spiritual applications that are so often part of Christian exegesis! When all three instances of the word "Immanuel” are viewed and understood as part of the same potent prophecy, the meaning of the phrase and its prophetic significance become crystal clear!

The Middle East in the Year 734 BCE

Prophet IsaiahOur joint quest for the true meaning of the enigmatic Name of “Immanuel” will take us to the epicenter of an almost ceaseless struggle between the first and only monotheistic nation on the face of the Earth and the polytheistic neighbors surrounding her on every side. The location in which the historical narrative takes place is the Middle East in the year 734 BCE. Please, turn with me to the 7th chapter of the Book of Isaiah: “When Ahaz son of Jotham, the son of Uzziah, was king of Judah, King Rezin of Aram and Pekah son of Remaliah king of Israel marched up to fight against Jerusalem, but they could not overpower it.” (Is. 7:1) – At the time of this story the people of Israel are found divided into two semi-hostile nations living side by side. The split happened right after the death of King Solomon, sometime around 931 BCE and was occasioned by the ever-increasing idolatry and apostasy among the Ten Northern Tribes of Israel.

The northern territories, occupied by the Ten Tribes of Jacob, came to be known as the Kingdom of Israel, alternatively called Ephraim, with their capital City of Samaria. Their neighbor to the South was the Kingdom of Judah, with its capital in Jerusalem. In approximately 734 BCE Israel, (the northern kingdom), and Syria, (also called Aram), formed a military alliance in defiance of the growing power of Assyria. In response to their presumptuous actions, Assyria, (located in what is now Iraq), began to strategize an approach from the east against King Rezin in Damascus (Syria) and his co-conspirator King Pekah in Samaria. Realizing that their defense position would be that much more difficult and precarious should the southern kingdom of Judah be against them in this war, they decided to launch a preemptive strike against Jerusalem and to replace King Ahaz of Judah with a puppet ruler.

Such was a true historical context of Isaiah’s verses in a nutshell. Let us continue with the text itself: “Now the house of David was told, “Aram has allied itself with Ephraim”; so the hearts of Ahaz and his people were shaken, as the trees of the forest are shaken by the wind.” (Is. 7:2) – People of Judah, called the house of David in this verse, are well aware of the murderous plans formed against them by the Ten Northern Tribes and their allies from Syria, and are shaking in their boots as a result.

The faithful prophet finds Judah’s king at the Upper Pool, perhaps during his inspection of the city’s water supply in anticipation of a siege. “Then the LORD said to Isaiah, “Go out, you and your son Shear-Jashub, to meet Ahaz at the end of the aqueduct of the Upper Pool, on the road to the Launderer’s Field. Say to him, ‘Be careful, keep calm and don’t be afraid. Do not lose heart because of these two smoldering stubs of firewood—because of the fierce anger of Rezin and Aram and of the son of Remaliah. Aram, Ephraim and Remaliah’s son have plotted your ruin, saying, “Let us invade Judah; let us tear it apart and divide it among ourselves, and make the son of Tabeel king over it.” (vv.3-6) – Together with his son, whose name in Hebrew means “a remnant will return,” Isaiah hastens to deliver a message of hope and salvation to the king and his people from the LORD God of Israel!

By this time the Syro-Ephraimite coalition has already devastated some of Judah’s territory. Being unwilling and unable to trust in the Holy One of Jacob, King Ahaz hastily concludes a pact of non-aggression with the powerful monarch of Assyria, placing his hope in a human power rather than in the Almighty God! Isaiah’s message is intended to lessen the fear of the Judean king and call upon people to trust in their true Deliverer: “Yet this is what the Sovereign LORD says: “‘It will not take place, it will not happen, for the head of Aram is Damascus, and the head of Damascus is only Rezin. Within sixty-five years Ephraim will be too shattered to be a people. The head of Ephraim is Samaria, and the head of Samaria is only Remaliah’s son. If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all.’” (Is. 7:7-9) – The oracle shows that the two saber-rattling enemies of God’s Holy City of Jerusalem will not succeed in their treacherous plans, provided that the people of God stand firm in their faith. Ahaz’s stubborn refusal to walk humbly and faithfully before the God of Israel and Judah’s trust in human strength rather than in the arm of the Creator, do not bode well for the country, though!

A Sign from the LORD

In His goodness and out of genuine pity for the plight of His people, the LORD continues to plead with them! “Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz, “Ask the LORD your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights.” But Ahaz said, “I will not ask; I will not put the LORD to the test.” (vv.10-12) – A sign from the LORD would serve as a proof that Isaiah’s prophecy was genuine and had come from the right source. Ahaz’s rejection of God’s sign may come across as a testimony to his humility and piety. We are given to understand, however, that his refusal is prompted by his unbelief and stems also from his confidence in Assyria’s help.

“Immanuel” # 1

Baby of Isaiah 7:14Isaiah becomes more and more frustrated with King Ahaz and delivers a stunning prophecy that contains the first mention of the famed word “Immanuel”: “Then Isaiah said, “Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of humans? Will you try the patience of my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” (Is. 7:13-14) – The text of the New International Version (NIV), which I use in this study, sounds pretty familiar to all those who have gone through the Bible at least once in their personal devotional times, doesn’t it? All the passages containing this title have been thoroughly polished by the Christian translators of the Bible to avoid any possible snag or glitch in the way the text may sound. Therefore, a few textual remarks are in order at this point of our reflections.

First, the Hebrew word that is invariably rendered as “virgin” in all of Christian translations, does not necessarily mean a woman who has never been intimate with a man. More often than not, the Hebrew term used in Isaiah 7:14, “עַלְמָ֗ה” (pronounced “almah” and read from right to left), may simply denote a young woman of the childbearing age! You may be amazed, but the same Hebrew word “almah” appears in the Book of Proverbs 30:19 and refers to a young adulterous woman! She is clearly not a virgin, since the verse immediately following the one containing “almah” in it says: “This is the way of an adulterous woman: she eats and wipes her mouth and says, ‘I’ve done nothing wrong.’” (v. 20) In fact, whenever the writers of the Hebrew Scriptures want to emphasize the actual virginity of a maiden, they use a completely different word of “בְּתוּלָ֕ה", (pronounced “betulah”), every single time!

Second, the word for a young woman featuring in Isaiah’s prophecy has definite article attached to it. Every speaker of the English language understands that whenever a definite article “the” is attached to an object, it speaks of something that has been mentioned before and is well known to the listeners. This way, the “virgin” spoken of in Isaiah’s prophecy is the young woman of a childbearing age, whom all the listeners of Isaiah’s voice know quite well!

Third, the customary rendition of the text as including a verbal clause “shall conceive and give birth” is inaccurate and, indeed, misleading! I was stunned when I first discovered that the Hebrew text of Isaiah 7:14 does not use any verb to convey the idea of the child’s conception and birth. The text uses the adjective “pregnant” and participle “is about to give birth” or, even more accurate "is giving birth" instead! Therefore, if one is faithful to the text, one is enabled to see that the prophecy does not say that a young woman shall conceive and give birth, supposedly in some future time, but states that the maiden in question is already pregnant and is about to give birth! Once again, this textual and grammatical information puts the prophecy in its nearest historical context of king Ahaz and Jerusalem of old!

Fourth, the name “Immanuel” given to the child means “With us [is] God” and is appropriately symbolic of what Isaiah has been trying to get across to his stubborn audience all along: “God is with us, - do not be afraid! Stop putting your trust in human agencies such as Assyria or Egypt!” Listen to the continuation of the oracle: “He [the child] will be eating curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, for before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste. The LORD will bring on you and on your people and on the house of your father a time unlike any since Ephraim broke away from Judah—he will bring the king of Assyria.” (Isaiah 7:15-17) – In other words, the Kingdom of Judah and its capital City of Jerusalem will be spared by the LORD (He is with them) and will be delivered from the cruel hands of the Syro-Ephraimite alliance in a very near future, - even prior to the time when the child’s comprehension of what is going on around him is formed! The phrase “Immanuel”, therefore, is not primarily the name of a child per se, but a statement of the fact that the LORD has not abandoned His people and is still “with them.” That’s what the phrase “Immanuel” truly means in this context!

We would also do well to consider a rabbinic rationale for rejecting traditional Christian interpretation that this passage applies to Jesus of Nazareth born in the first century CE. According to the text of the Scriptures, the birth of the child named “Immanuel” is supposed to be a sign to a vacillating King Ahaz and trembling people of Judah. The sign is something manifestly visible, isn’t it? Thus the birth of a baby-boy in Bethlehem, more than 700 years after Ahaz’s own time, would prove little comfort and provide no sign whatsoever either to him or those living in Jerusalem in the 8th century BCE! What do you think?

Predictably enough, the history bears out the veracity of the oracle declared by God’s trusted servant. Just as Isaiah had predicted, the coalition of Syria and the Northern Tribes of Israel came to nothing! Pekah was assassinated by his successor Hoshea, and Damascus fell to the Assyrians in 732 BCE (just two years after Isaiah spoke his fateful words). Hoshea would ultimately lead another revolt against Assyria, causing Samaria to be razed to the ground in 722 BCE. Both kingdoms were totally shattered! How precise are God’s prophetic predictions!

In light of all this, allow me to reiterate what my personal position concerning this and other biblical prophecies is. The oracle contained in Isaiah 7:14 has its immediate historical fulfillment in the time of King Ahaz and the war with the Syro-Ephraimite coalition. Isaiah’s prediction concerns a perfectly human baby, born in the hills of Judah sometime around 734 BCE. I also happen to believe in unison with Matthew that it can also apply to the baby born in Bethlehem more than 700 years after Isaiah spoke it! What would that make Jesus of Nazareth? – A Second Person within the Christian pantheon or the anointed Messiah of Israel whose birth signifies that God is with His people?

So far we have seen the first instance of the Name “Immanuel” as it appears in its scriptural context. We shall now turn our attention to the other two mentions of this word. Seeing all three instances of this name in their biblical setting will serve us as the principle of triangulation serves in topography and GPS navigation. According to this principle, three specific landmarks or points of orientation, whether found on the ground or fixed in space, provide a navigator with a great degree of precision in tracing his course!

The Mercenaries of Assyria . . .

Assyria vs JerusalemPrompted by King Ahaz of Judah’s reliance on the Assyrian help, Isaiah presents him with the truth of an unenviable plight of all those who place their hope and confidence in anyone but God. “In that day the LORD will whistle for flies from the Nile delta in Egypt and for bees from the land of Assyria. . . In that day the Lord will use a razor hired from beyond the Euphrates River—the king of Assyria—to shave your head and private parts, and to cut off your beard also.” (Is. 7:18, 20) – Isaiah informs the king that although Jerusalem will survive the Assyrian invasion, the rest of the land will be reduced to near starvation.

To reinforce the import of his message on the mind of Judah’s king and its people, Isaiah is given another oracle to deliver. We are now in Isaiah 8: “The LORD said to me, “Take a large scroll and write on it with an ordinary pen: Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz.” So I called in Uriah the priest and Zechariah son of Jeberekiah as reliable witnesses for me. Then I went to the prophetess, and she conceived and gave birth to a son. And the LORD said to me, “Name him Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz. For before the boy knows how to say ‘My father’ or ‘My mother,’ the wealth of Damascus and the plunder of Samaria will be carried off by the king of Assyria.” (Is. 8:1-4) – The name of Isaiah’s prophetic child “Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz” means “quick to the plunder, swift to the spoil.” Both the birth of the boy and his name are designed to confirm the earlier prophecy that Isaiah gave to the king and his officials at the conduit of the Upper Pool by Jerusalem.

Notice a stunning correspondence between the text of Isaiah 8 and the preceding passage in Isaiah 7:14. Both passages speak of a boy’s birth as a sign of God’s help to the beleaguered Judahites. The names contained in both texts are highly symbolic and serve to convey the truth concerning Judah’s pressing enemies of Syria and Ephraim – they will be destroyed. In both instances the prophecy is expected to be realized within a very specific timeframe, namely before the child is able to comprehend simple things of right and wrong. There is a strong reason to believe that one of Isaiah's sons, perhaps the child symbolically called “Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz,” is one and the same with “Immanuel.” The names are symbolic and are designed more to impress the truth of God’s abiding presence among the people of Judah than to name a child! Do you really think that Isaiah would aflict his child with a name like “Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz”? I am sure he had a normal, everyday name as well! But in addition to his “normal” name, Isaiah’s son would also serve as a living reminder of the time when God made a short work of Judah’s enemies, hence “With us [is] God” and “quick to the plunder, swift to the spoil.”

The LORD of Israel leaves no stone unturned in letting His people know that both Syria and Ephraimite kingdom are going to be swiftly destroyed: “The LORD spoke to me again: “Because this people has rejected the gently flowing waters of Shiloah and rejoices over Rezin and the son of Remaliah, therefore the Lord is about to bring against them the mighty floodwaters of the Euphrates— the king of Assyria with all his pomp.” (Is. 8:5-7) – This oracle is a sharp rebuke to idolatrous practices of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, instituted by Jeroboam after he stole the Ten Tribes from the rightful successor to Solomon’s throne. He undermined Israel’s monotheism and brought God’s curse on the heads of his followers. For that sin, Assyria will be commissioned by God to disperse the idolatrous people among the nations of the Middle East.

Immanuel # 2

Speaking about the Assyrian arrogant invasion of the Northern Kingdom, Isaiah also states that its king will presume to trample on the land of Judah as well! I trust you are able to see that the prophecy found in Isaiah 8 is but a continuation of his oracle in chapter 7. As we all know, the division of the biblical text into chapters and verses is a much later development and is quite often artificial and unnatural. Isaiah 7 through 8 is a single unit speaking with a single voice and addressing the same issues! We have now come right up to the second instance in which the phrase “Immanuel” appears in the text of Isaiah. Please, listen closely: “It will overflow all its channels, run over all its banks and sweep on into Judah, swirling over it, passing through it and reaching up to the neck. Its outspread wings will cover the breadth of your land, Immanuel!” (vv.7-8)

Under God's WingsIn any Christian Bible translation, these verses look as if the same theme of Assyrian invasion of Judah is developed until the very end of verse 8. That is not the case, however! There is a very clear grammatical separator between the events described in verse 7 and the first half of verse 8, (remember that there was no division into chapters and verses in the original Hebrew text), and the final portion of verse 8. Thus, the words ending with “reaching up to the neck” speak of Judah’s pitiable suffering during the Assyrian occupation. The words that start with “its outspread wings,” however, tell a completely different story! What does the Hebrew text really say?

Unlike its Christian renditions that are purposely vague and inaccurate, the Hebrew text speaks boldly about God’s protection over Judah and her people. It says: “But there will be the outspreading of His wings over the entire breadth of your land, O Immanuel!” (author’s translation). The meaning is very straightforward and logical: “Although you will see the Assyrian army at your gates, the protective cover of the LORD’s wings will be over you to deliver you!” Incidentally, the image of God’s wings is a frequent biblical metaphor for His protective care over His children! The Second Book of Kings relates how Assyrian King Sennacherib and his colossal army were decimated by the Angel of the Lord by the walls of Jerusalem and fled the battlefield in dishonor!(II Kings 19) God is always faithful!

The Jewish Publication Society renders the text thus: “But with us is God, Whose wings are spread as wide as your land is broad!” Instead of Christian “Its wings,” the text points squarely to the LORD God of Israel,(“His wings”), whose message Isaiah is so desperate to get across to his wavering countrymen! Why are Christian theologians and translators playing with my Bible? Have they no fear of God whose Word they are tempering with?

Have you noticed that when understood correctly and in accordance with the Hebrew text of the Bible, the title “Immanuel” is applied to the people of Judah in this verse? This fact dovetails with a divine precision with what we have discovered so far concerning the name "Immanuel”! The only thing left for us to do is to uncover the third usage of this Name in the text! I say “uncover,” precisely because it has been camouflaged by those who have been shamelessly playing with the sacred text of the Bible!

“Immanuel” # 3

Peaceful JerusalemIsaiah’s oracle continues with more assurance of God’s aid to His people. All the nations lifting up their hand against God’s anointed ones, including Syria, Ephraim and Assyria, are promised to be destroyed: “Raise the war cry, you nations, and be shattered! Listen, all you distant lands. Prepare for battle, and be shattered! Prepare for battle, and be shattered! Devise your strategy, but it will be thwarted; propose your plan, but it will not stand, for God is with us.” (Is. 8:9-10) – The exact same title “Immanuel” appears in the scriptural text for the third time now, but is conveniently masked in our English-language translations! Unlike the two preceding cases, in which the same Hebrew phrase is translated by means of the well-known “Immanuel,” this one simply states “God is with us.” Why is that?

Perhaps, it is because this passage, when viewed in connection with its two precedents within the same prophetic oracle, conveys the same message, namely: “Fear not my people, Judah, for God is with us!” All three of them are designed to assure the Judean king and his subjects that the LORD won’t allow their enemies to triumph over them! All three instances are a sort of “battle cry” or a simple statement of faith and fact: “God is with us.” When understood properly and within their scriptural context, do these three instances of the name “Immanuel” convey to you the idea of God’s becoming incarnate in a baby? To be honest, - they don’t! Since Matthew quotes directly from Isaiah, the meaning of his “Immanuel” is the same as that given to the title by the original prophet! Does the Church’s doctrine of Trinity have any more legs to stand on?

When all is said and done, the mighty prophet of God draws the bottom line to his oracles. Get a load of this stunner: “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.” (Is. 8:18) – Our earlier assertion that one of Isaiah’s sons, perhaps Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz, is the immediate fulfillment of the promised “Immanuel” is confirmed in the mouth of the speaker himself!

Let us summarize a few cardinal points of our Sabbath reflection:
1) The central message of chapters 7 and 8 of the Book of Isaiah is the message of faith and hope in the LORD God of Israel. He is the faithful Deliverer of His people!

2) The Name “Immanuel” is designed to prop up people’s faith in God’s being with them, - hence the meaning: “With us [is] God.”

3) The prophecy has an immediate application evident to King Ahaz and to others in the City of Jerusalem. Although Christ’s birth is part of the oracle, the prophecy’s pressing concern is to encourage the beleaguered city and sustain the faith of Judah.

4) The name “Immanuel” has no connotation whatsoever that its bearer is a second, third or nth person of a divine pantheon!

5) Just like the name of a boy born in the City of Jerusalem 734 years before common era signified the LORD’s gracious presence among and deliverance for His covenantal people Israel, so did the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah of Israel, was an occasion to celebrate “God with us,” who sent His Messiah and Lamb!

Do you still believe in Trinity and many other interesting Church notions? Is it not the high time to come humbly before the Only Living God, the Holy One of Jacob!

Happy Sabbath

Have a Happy and Joyful Sabbath!