At Christmas we are used to hearing about the “sign of Immanuel” and that the “virgin will conceive a child.” Rarely does a Christmas sermon look back to the original context of the Immanuel passage. But Matthew may very well have intended his readers to remember the context of Isaiah 7:14 when he quoted it as fulfilled in the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.
Early in the career of King Ahaz of Judah, he was threatened by two larger kingdoms to the north, Israel and Damascus. Isaiah 7-8 and 2 Chronicles 28 connects Ahaz’ idolatry to the attacks from the King of Aram and the King of Israel. It is this threat and response that will have a chilling effect on the politics of Palestine and the survival of Judah as a nation.
Perhaps the kings of Israel and Damascus sought to encourage Ahaz to join in the resistance to Assyrian invasion. In Isaiah we are told that they intend to put an unidentified “son of Tabeel” on the throne of Judah, someone that would be their “puppet” and would join them in rebellion against Assyria.
The Lord offers to give Ahaz a sign that these things will happen (Isaiah 7:10-16). Ahaz appears to take a high “spiritual” attitude by saying that he would not put the Lord to the test. The Lord, however, gives him the sign anyway – The sign of Immanuel.
Isaiah 7:10–16 (ESV) 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 sign is that a woman in Ahaz household will give birth to a child, and before that child is old enough to “know right and wrong” the coalition of the two kings will be broken. The name of the child is significant – Immanuel means “God with us.” The Lord is saying to Ahaz that no matter how evil and corrupt your heart is, God is still with you and has a plan and a purpose in the world. God is still with you even though you are in no way recognizing his presence and protection.
The original context of the sign of Immanuel is God’s protection of his people at a dark and desperate time in their history. Judah was not faithful to the covenant at this time, yet God promises to protect them on account of the promises that he made to David.
The birth of the child is important because it gives Ahaz an indication that it is only a few years until the nation is saved. Perhaps the child is Hezekiah himself, a king who will be faithful to the covenant and be instrumental in Judah’s salvation from the Assyrians (2 Kings 19). But the name of the child is far more important, his name is “God with us.” Even at the darkest moment for Jerusalem, God is still with the nation and has a plan to save them out of a disaster so great it would effectively end the line of David.
This is the story which Matthew wants us to remember when he says “all this was fulfilled” in Matt 1:22-23. He is recalling the time when Judah was unfaithful and not looking to God for protection, yet God was “still with them” and would protect them because of his promise to David.