“Hear then, O house of David! … Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Imman’u-el.”
When Christians read this verse of scripture, our imaginations are immediately drawn to the story of the birth of Jesus. And why not?
As the Gospel of Matthew (1:18-25) narrates the story of Jesus’ birth, Isaiah 7:14 is the text quoted by the “Angel of the Lord”. The Angel appears to a confused Joseph in a dream to explain the bizarre set of circumstances surrounding Joseph’s betrothed, Mary. Clearly, for some portions of the early Church, the word from Isaiah to King Ahaz hundreds of years earlier was predictive of the advent of Messiah in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
Interestingly enough, when read in its context, Isaiah’s oracle to Ahaz is not a comforting one. The birth of Immanuel will not usher in a time of peace, but of desolation. The coming of “God-with-us” will signify the fulfillment of God’s judgment upon Judah and the surrounding kingdoms and empires. By the time “God-with-us” is old enough to “know how to refuse the evil and choose the good” the decimation of Judah will be complete — “all the land will be briers and thorns” (Isaiah 7:24b).
What are 21st century Christians to make of a 1st century disciple’s selective quoting of a text written centuries earlier? Does Isaiah 7:14 actually refer to Jesus? Or does it only relate to some unknown child who was born shortly before the death of the kingdom of Judah?
However we understand this cryptic sign, “God-with-us” is not simply the sentimental vision of a cuddly infant in the arms of his mother. “God-with-us” is not Divine permission for business as usual. “God-with-us” is the birth of a new world and the death knell of the old. “God-with-us” marks the overthrow of human kingdoms and the advent of the Reign of God. “God-with-us” is at once a terrifying comfort and a comforting terror.
O come, O come, Emmanuel!
Postscript: I re-post this four year old reflection on Isaiah’s words on an evening when a town in Connecticut has been torn apart by the horror of a mass shooting in an elementary school. For those children and adults who lost their lives today; for their loved ones who are left to bear the pain of grief and loss; for those who are troubled to the extent that violence seems the only answer; and for a society that cannot seem to find its way to positively address the complexities of the common good, we pray even more fervently: “O come, O come, Emmanuel.”