A Sign Fulfilled

This coming Sunday is the 4th Sunday of Advent and includes the traditional gospel passage from Matthew in which we encounter the “annunciation” of Jesus’ birth to Joseph. In yesterday’s post we considered the scriptural context, especially Matthew’s extensive references to the Old Testament passages and imagery presented in the genealogy. Today we want to consider Matthew’s use of Isaiah 7:14 which happens to be part of the first reading on this same Sunday:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign: the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel (Is 7:14)

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means “God is with us.” (Mt 1:22-23)

In the Christian understanding, we are called to see the prophecy given centuries before to King Ahaz now come to messianic fulfillment in Jesus. Ahaz was the great-great-grandson of Saul, the first king of the tribes of Israel. Ahaz reigned as King of Judah (“the southern kingdom”) in the mid-to-late 8th century BC. His name (˒āḥāz) is a shortened form of names such as Ahaziah and Jehoahaz, “the LORD holds.” These names probably reflect confidence in God’s imminent presence, as in Ps 73:23, “I am always with you, you hold (˒āḥaztā) my right hand.”  In a post later this morning we can go into more details about King Ahaz, but here’s a summary: he was a rotten king and not a man of God. He relied on the power of Assyria rather than the power of God.

In this context, it is easy to see why the prophet Isaiah views Ahaz as one who lacks faith and trust in God, and in this way the king becomes a symbol of the people of God, who is the face of the Assyrian threats are becoming a people who also lack faith and trust in God.  The king and the people depended upon an ideology of the Davidic dynasty as the sign of their “covenant” with God. Their ideology professed a sublime confidence God would protect his chosen king and city…no matter what. This ideology can be seen in Psalm 46:1–4:

God is our refuge and our strength, an ever-present help in distress. Therefore we fear not, though the earth be shaken and mountains plunge into the depths of the sea . . . The Lord of hosts is with us; our stronghold is the God of Jacob.

Such a profession is easily made when there is no immediate danger. Faced with an actual invasion, however, “the heart of the king and the heart of the people trembled, as the trees of the forest tremble in the wind” (Isa 7:2).

Isaiah offers Ahaz a sign to assure Ahaz that if he remains faithful to God and trusts in the power and ways of God, then Ahaz’s reign will remain firm.  The king knows that to ask for a sign means he must give up control and trust God.  Isaiah proceeds to give it even when the king refuses to ask for it. The sign is that a young woman/virgin will bear a son, Emmanuel, who will be “living on curds and honey (a reference to Isreal) by the time he learns to reject the bad and choose the good” (7:15).

What, then, is signified by the birth of Immanuel? The birth of a child is perhaps the most universal and enduring symbol of hope for the human race. The newborn child does not contribute to military defense or help resolve the dilemmas of the crisis, but he is nonetheless a sign of hope for a new generation. The prophet predicts that he will reach the age of discernment, however bad the times may be. Even if cultivation becomes impossible, people will survive on curds and honey. Moreover, they can recall a time at the beginning of Israel’s history when such a diet was seen as a bountiful gift of God. Isaiah prophesies that the vineyards, worth thousands of pieces of silver, will be overgrown with thorns and briers. This would be a loss to the ruling class but not necessarily to the common people. The demise of the vineyards might mark a return to a simpler lifestyle, in which Israel and Judah would be less wealthy, but also less torn by social oppression and less entangled in international politics.

Isaiah’s advice to Ahaz, then, is to wait out the crisis, trusting not for miraculous deliverance but for eventual survival. The prophet probably feels that there is no need to fight against Syria and Israel, Assyria will take care of them. Sending for aid to Assyria is probably also unnecessary and would bring Judah directly into subjection. In the meantime Judah might be ravaged and reduced to near wilderness, but life would go on, and the society would be purified in the process.

Ahaz, of course, does not follow Isaiah’s advice. He sends gold and silver to the king of Assyria and becomes his vassal. Damascus is destroyed. Samaria survives only because a coup puts a new king on the throne, but even then it survives for a mere decade. The politics of Ahaz seem to work well enough for the present, but Isaiah would surely hold that they do not go to the heart of the matter.

The figure of Immanuel in Isaiah 7 is a symbol of hope in weakness, of new life in the midst of destruction. When early Christianity read this passage as a prediction of the birth of Jesus, it implied an analogy between the two births. In the Gospels, too, a birth in inauspicious circumstances was nonetheless taken as a sign of the presence of God.

Image credit: Dream of St Joseph, c. 1625–1630, by Gerard Seghers | Kunsthistorisches Museum |Public Domain

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