There the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. (Isaiah 7:14)
“She will give birth to a son and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” 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 1:21-23)
I’ve been working my way through Isaiah recently and read this passage—familiar to Christians—again tonight. How many times have I heard this passage quoted? Countless. And yet the significance, texture, genius and hilarity of this passage struck me anew.
Let me explain.
Despite what I was taught growing up, this passage in its original context (in Isaiah 7) is not anticipating the events that we celebrate at Christmas. When you read Isaiah, the words of Yahweh through Isaiah to a Judean king named Ahaz (7:10-13) seem to be pointing to a baby fathered by Isaiah who is going to symbolically named Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz (8:1-3).
Say that five times fast. For that matter, say it one time fast.
It means “Quick to the plunder, swift to the spoil.”
Why on earth would this child represent “God with us”?
How does “Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz” mean “Immanuel”?
Well, Isaiah and his symbolically-named children are signs (8:18) that Yahweh will not let the kingdoms of Ephraim and Aram (7:1) destroy the kingdom of Judah (7:7-9; 8:6-8). The enemies of Judah will be conquered, plundered and spoiled—quickly and swiftly. Before Isaiah’s child even knows the difference between right and wrong (7:14-16). And Yahweh is sending a king to take care of this business—the king of Assyria (7:17).
Isaiah is going to have a son who will be a sign that God is with his people and is sending the king of Assyria to conquer their enemies.
Wait. I thought this was about Jesus.
Well it is.
It’s just the Bible is more textured, nuanced and brilliant than we want it to be. We’re impatient and want a prophecy that will sail through the centuries, landing with incredible precision in a brilliant firework display on Bethlehem.
Instead, what we get is more like a hurricane landing in the arrival of Jesus and the gospel of Matthew drawing our attention to how every nook and cranny of Israel’s history has begun to overflow from the monsoon.
Matthew—the only gospel-writer who quotes Isaiah 7 in regards to the birth of Jesus—points to all kinds of passages in the Hebrew scriptures that Jesus is “filling up” (which perhaps better captures the sense of the Greek word). According to Matthew, Jesus is filling up, filling out and overflowing Israel’s story.
His very person is filling up and taking up the identity of God’s son Israel (Ex 4:22, Hos 11:1, Matt 2:15) who was meant to be blessing to the entire world (Gen 12:2-3, 18:18, 22:18) but who continually rebelled against his father (Hos 11:2).
The events of his birth are filling out the pain and sorrow of Israel’s long suffering in exile (Jer 31:15, Matt 2:17-18) and thus hinting that Yahweh may be returning them from the land of the enemy (Jer 31:16-17) and establish a new covenant with them (Jer 31:31-34, Matt 26:28).
The words and work of Jesus overflow a darkened land of rebellion, exile and death with the clear dawning light (Isa 9:1-2, Matt 4:14-16) of the coming kingdom of peace, justice and righteousness (Isa 9:5-7, Matt 4:17).
What we have in Jesus is a fantastic flooding of Isaiah 7. Back then there was a child called “God with us” who served as a sign that a coming king would plunder the enemies of God’s people to save them. Now—in Jesus—we see a child who actually is Immanuel (Matt 1:23, 18:20, 28:20), who actually is the true King himself (27:37, 28:18), who actually has plundered the enemies of God’s people (12:29) and who actually has saved his people (1:21).
Hurricane Jesus does that.
He fills up, fill out and overflows everything.
Israel’s long story. Obscure passages in the prophets. The church. The willing heart. This season. Every season. Every moment.
The season of Advent celebrates the landing of this Hurricane, its sustained winds even to the present day and its coming landfall again.
Absolutely, entirely, hilariously good news for all who want to be flooded.