Some dull but seasonal reflections on the historical context for the fulfilment of the Immanuel prophecy

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These notes are an attempt to clarify, for myself at least, the historical setting for the Immanuel prophecy in Isaiah 7:14, following the helpful feedback given to yesterday’s post: Are Immanuel and Wonderful-Counselor-Mighty-God-Everlasting-Father-Prince-of-Peace the same person? Thanks to all those who have so far contributed to the discussion. This may have to serve as a rather dull (but warm) Christmas greetings to all and sundry.

The birth of Immanuel was to be a sign, either to Ahaz or to the house of David, that within a few years the two kings, Rezin and Pekah, who threatened Judah at that time would be defeated by the king of Assyria (Is. 7:10-25). Some time later another boy was born to Isaiah, Maher-shalal-hash-baz, an event which further confirmed that Syria and the northern kingdom of Israel would be defeated. Following that, however, the king of Assyria would invade Judah, reaching to the gates of Jerusalem, as punishment for the failure of Ahaz and the people to trust YHWH when Syria and Israel first threatened (8:1-10; cf. 7:2). It seems likely that both boys, along with Shear-jashub (7:3), are “signs and portents in Israel”, along with Isaiah himself, regarding impending events.

We read in 2 Kings 16:1-9 that Ahaz asked Tiglath-pileser III to rescue him from the kings of Syria and Israel/Ephraim. Damascus was immediately captured and Rezin was killed. The northern kingdom did not fall to the Assyrians until 722/721 BC. There is disagreement about the dates of Ahaz’s reign, but his death is usually put at 716. This would mean that the prophecy was fulfilled within Ahaz’s lifetime. I don’t know at what age a child would have learned to distinguish between good and evil. The attack of Rezin and Pekah came around 732, so it would have been no more than ten years before both nations suffered defeat at the hands of the Assyrians, fully satisfying the conditions of the prophecies made in connection with both Immanuel and Maher-shalal-hash-baz.

If the death of Ahaz and ascension of Hezekiah are dated to 726, Daniel’s observation that the prophecy of 7:14 is addressed not to Ahaz but to the house of David (we really should reinstate the distinction in English between “thou” and “ye”) becomes relevant. The prophecy refers then to events that happened after Ahaz’s death. But there is still no reason to think that the child Immanuel was not born during Ahaz’s reign.

The fact that the sign of the birth of Immanuel is given to the house of David means that it must take place at least before the termination of the Davidic line following the death of Zedekiah in 587 BC. There is no house of David at the time of Jesus’ birth to which it might be said, “Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also?” (7:13).

The phrase “God with us” also occurs in the context of the prophecy regarding the Assyrian attack on Judah: the Assyrian armies will “fill the breadth of your land, God-with-us” (8:8; cf. 8:10). How we interpret this does not make too much difference. The point to note is that only the defeat of Damascus and Samaria are referenced in the Immanuel and Maher-shalal-hash-baz prophecies, not the later invasion of Judah by the Assyrians.

Judah is the land of the boy Immanuel, who was given to the house of David as a sign that God would be with his people. There is no reason why he would not have been alive at the time of Sennacherib’s invasion in 701 BC. Immanuel could perhaps be Hezekiah, the king whose land this was, though this seems unlikely since, by my reckoning, Hezekiah would have been about 6 years old when Ahaz began to reign.

John Doyle has suggested that there are good grounds for thinking that Isaiah 9:6-7, which is given wide berth by the New Testament, refers back to a king who has already been born—that is, Hezekiah, whose name means “YHWH is my strength”. The Septuagint quite clearly puts the birth of the king in the past. But there may be no reference to the boy at 8:8 at all. Isaiah may only be saying that at this time “God will be with us”, as he was when he preserved Judah from attack by Rezin and Pekah. The Septuagint has meth’ hēmōn ho theos (“God is/be with us”) not the name Emmanouēl as in 7:14.

As far as Isaiah is concerned, the last echo of the Immanuel prophecy fades with the deliverance of Judah from the armies of Sennacherib.

peter wilkinson | Fri, 12/21/2012 - 21:48 | Permalink

The point to note is that only the defeat of Damascus and Samaria are referenced in the Immanuel and Maher-shalal-hash-baz prophecies, not the later invasion of Judah by the Assyrians

Not so Andrew; 8:6-8 refer to Judah (verse 8), in which the overflowing “Euphrates” reaches to the neck of Judah, leaving the head free. The “head” is Jerusalem (cp 7:8-9, though it might possibly be the ‘head of Jerusalem’, the King of Judah). This might refer to Assyrian influence following Ahaz’s subordination to Assyria as a vassal state. It makes better sense if it refers to the later invasion of Judah in the time of Hezekiah — when Jerusalem was spared. Ahaz wan’t really a “head” lifted above the waters of Assyria. He was well and truly subordinated to Assyria.

Anyway, there’s a good case for saying that 7:1 (at least) to 12:6 form a unit, with the thought, and the narrative flowing throughout. It is not necessarily the case, as I propose, that “the last echo of the Immanuel prophecy fades with the deliverance of Judah from the armies of Sennacherib”.

The unity of the entire section (7:1 — 12:6) is argued by Derek Kidner in the New Bible Dictionary. The view lends much more significance to Matthew’s reference to Immanuel in Matthew 1:22-23. It also illustrates a narrative running through the entire section, leading to Matthew’s description of the coming of Jesus, and avoids the awkwardness of a typological explanation of Immanuel in Matthew.

@peter wilkinson:

Yes, I think you’re right—the Immanuel prophecy runs through to 8:8-10. It refers, in the first place, to the defeat of Rezin and Pekah, but Isaiah 7:17 adds to this a calamitous situation that will face Judah (cf. 8:11-15). In fact, that’s why I originally said that the Immanuel prophecy had in view both judgment and deliverance—actually, deliverance from Syria and Ephraim, followed by judgment by the agency of Assyria, followed by deliverance from Assyria.

But I don’t understand the point you are trying to make in the next two paragraphs. Certainly, the narrative about Israel and the Assyrians runs through to 12:6. But this is the story of the northern kingdom. I made the point before that a significant narrative shift happens at the end of chapter 8: gloom descends on Judah, but “there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish”—that is, Israel (9:1)

Israel is punished by means of the Assyrian invasion; Assyria is then also overthrown; and the story ends with the hope of a return of Israel from exile (along with the people of Judah dispersed amongst the nations) and the establishment of peace with Judah. Matthew makes no reference to this story—not even to the Davidic king passages in 9:6-7 and 11:1-5.

Immanuel has to do with the security of the southern kingdom. He plays no part in the extended narrative. He is a sign only of the deliverance of Judah from Rezin and Pekah (as Maher-shalal-hash-baz also was) and of the failed Assyrian assault on Jerusalem. I see no reason to identify Immanuel with the later king or kings.

It is important to keep this distinction in mind. Matthew makes use of the Immanuel prophecy because it has to do with judgment and salvation for Judah and Jerusalem. He is apparently not at all interested in the story of the northern kingdom and Assyria.

So I think I wil repeat my original point: Matthew cites Isaiah 7:14 not because he wants to say that Jesus is God incarnate but because he understood Jesus’ miraculous conception to be a sign that, at a time of crisis, God was with his people to judge and deliver. That Jesus is son of David is obviously also important for Matthew—the angel addresses Joseph as son of David in 1:20—and is not too far distant from Matthew 1:23, but it still doesn’t get us very far in the direction of an incarnational theology.

@Andrew Perriman:

I’ve only recently stumbled upon the possibility of one extended narrative line of thinking from Isaiah 7:1 to 12:6 (Derek Kidner — New Bible Commentary, and also J. Alec Motyer — The Prophecy of Isaiah, which I’ve just recently purchased), though I don’t know of anyone who relates the 8:5-8 prophecy to Hezekiah, apart from me, and I suppose I must have got it from somewhere.

It seems to me then that there is a bigger narrative thread running through this section than the Judah/Israel southern kingdom/northern kingdom narrative. Isaiah only begins by looking at the disastrous story to come of both Israel and Judah, in which there was no biblical record of return from exile of Israel, the northern kingdom, though there may have been some preservation of exiles in history.

Despite the gloomy catalogue of disobedience and disaster, and even in the face of judgment on Assyria, the prophecies of 9:1-7 and 11:1-16 have no fufilment before the coming of Jesus. The past tense used in 9:6 is also balanced by a reversion to future tense in 7. This was predictive prophecy — of events unfulfilled in Isaiah’s time.

I don’t know how it is argued elsewhere, but my argument would be that there is at first a somewhat contradictory mixture of protection and judgment expectations in the Immanuel figure, somewhat resolved in 8:10, but only fully resolved by the more distant events of the 9:1-7 and 11:1-16 prophecies. There has to be some figurative interpretation of 11:10-16, especially the ‘gathering’ verses, as there was no corresponding literal fulfilment in history. 

The first Immanuel prophecy (7:14-25) seems then to be more about impending judgment on Israel and Judah than protection. The second prophecy (8:5-8) is likewise about judgment (on Judah), though with some minimal, and only limited protection. This seems in contradiction to the meaning of the word — Immanuel/God with us. There then follows, I suggest, a resolution of this contradiction. The existence of a faithful remnant (8:11-22), introduced by a third Immanuel prophecy in 8:10 suggests a protection and preservation of those who do not join the national apostasy, and hope arising through this remnant.

A prophecy against Israel (northern kingdom) in 9:8-21 follows, with a prophecy of further judgment to come against Judah (southern kingdom) in 10:1-11, including Jerusalem (so beyond Hezekiah), and then judgment on Assyria in 10:12-19, with further promises to a returning faithful remnant in 10:20-34 despite and in the midst of this judgment, and going beyond immediate historical events. I suggest that this ‘return’ is looking to the return of the exiles from Babylon at a later date, as the only event in Isaiah which begins to fulfil such a prediction (northern and southern kingdom distinctions having by then become obliterated).

This leaves 9:1-7 and 11:1-16 as prophecy which, before the coming of Jesus, awaited an adequate fulfilment, and which suggests a fulfilment of the non-judgmental meaning of Immanuel, resolving the apparent contradiction of prophecy of judgment being associated with a non-judgmental figure in the earlier Immanuel prophecies.

To see how this resolution is fulfilled in Jesus as Immanuel is very straightforward. Matthew doesn’t have to mention the specific verses in Isaiah (9:1-7 and 11:1-16). The Davidic identity of Jesus, and his royal status, were sufficient to supply the information needed to understand the meaning of Immanuel as restoration after judgment prophesied between Isaiah 7:1 and 12:6.