Jesus, our Immanuel.

by K.W. Leslie, 13 December

Why “fulfillment” isn’t about when predictions come true.

Isaiah 7.14

Matthew 1.22-23 KWL
22 All this happened so the Lord’s word through the prophet could be fulfilled,
saying, 23 “Look, the maiden will have a child in the womb,
and they will declare his name Immanúël, which is translated ‘God with us.’” Is 7.14

This one’s probably the most famous “Messianic prophecy”… which, it turns out, isn’t. Seriously, isn’t.

Back in 735BC, King Radyán of Damascus, Aram (KJV “Rezin the king of Syria”) joined forces with King Peqákh ben Remalyáhu of Samaria, Ephraim (KJV “Pekah the son of Remaliah”) to attack Jerusalem. 2Ki 16.5 Laid siege to it. Didn’t look good.

The prophets Isaiah ben Amóch and his son Sheüryahsúv had come to King Akház ben Yotám (KJV “Ahaz son of Jotham”) with good news from the LORD: Aram and Ephraim’s plans would come to nothing.

Isaiah 7.10-17 KWL
10 The LORD’s word to Akház, saying, 11 “Request a sign from your LORD God,
made deep as a grave, or made high as outer space.”
12 Akház said, “I won’t ask.
I won’t test the LORD.”
13 Isaiah said, “House of David, listen please.
It takes little for you to tire people, because you also tire God.
14 For this, my Master himself is giving you a sign.
Look, a pregnant maiden gave birth to a son.
She declared his name Immánuël/‘God with us.’
15 He’ll eat curds and honey,
and learn to reject evil and choose good.
16 But before the boy learns to reject evil and choose good,
the nations you fear will be laid waste before the face of two kings.
17 The LORD is bringing upon you, your people, and your father’s house days which haven’t been
since the days before Ephraim turned away from Judah to Assyria’s king.”

Meaning the days before Peqákh had allied Ephraim with the Assyrian Empire, back when there was relative peace in the region.

God had Akház’s back. Proof? Little Immánuël.

We don’t know the situation of the “pregnant maiden” whom Isaiah pointed out. Was she pregnant at the time? Dunno. Usually fathers would name their kids, but maybe he died in the siege. Regardless, she wasn’t killed by the invaders, and named her boy Immánuël. It doesn’t take toddlers long to learn right from wrong; the “terrible twos” are what happens when they test those boundaries. And in fact the siege would lift relatively soon: Aram and Ephraim would abandon Judah to fight for their lives against the Assyrians. And lose.

So what does this story have to do with Jesus? Nothing.

But it’s got a lot of significant similarities, which is why Matthew pointed to it.


See, the reason Christians think this is a messianic prophecy is because very few of us know what plirothí/“might be filled” means. “Filled” isn’t the word most bibles use; they follow the King James Version’s lead and go with “fulfilled.” Same meaning. Same misinterpretation, too.

Imagine you’re reading the news. On that website, there’s an article about a man whose father died under mysterious circumstances. Soon thereafter, the man’s uncle married the man’s mother and took over the family business. Sounds like William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, right? So of course the author of the piece brought that up. Sounds similar.

Now, did William Shakespeare foresee these present-day events? Is Hamlet a prophecy of things to come? Of course not. There just happen to be obvious similarities. Historical fiction represents stuff that actually does happen to people; less-than-historical fiction, if well-written, resembles truth too. And history, as we all know, repeats itself. A lot. ’Cause human nature hasn’t changed any.

And that’s what we have in the New Testament. The events of the gospels are obviously similar to bible quotes in the Prophets. So the Prophets got quoted. It’s not because they foretold each of these events in the New Testament. Sometimes they did. But sometimes these are nothing more than literary references. That’s all.

It’s just like when we use the phrase “skin of my teeth” Jb 19.20 KJV as in, “I just passed that exam by the skin of my teeth,” or “I just filed my taxes by the skin of my teeth.” Neither time was it quoted in context. Doesn’t matter. That wasn’t the point. It was used ’cause it}s a well-known phrase, which just happens to come from the bible. It’s a literary reference.

Christians do this all the time with popular phrases. Like “passeth understanding” Pp 4.7 KJV or “suffer the little children” Mk 10.14 KJV or “the meek shall inherit the earth.” Mt 5.5 KJV We’re not trying to claim the bible passages are prophecies about our circumstances. (Well… some of us aren’t. Believe it or don’t, some of us are.)

But when the phrase suits us, we use it. Because that phrase fits. Or fills, as the ancients used to put it.

That’s what fulfillment means: A passage from the bible, from history, from literature, fits our circumstances. It takes a partial, incomplete concept, and fills it with meaning. Malachi had this idea of an angel building a road; Ml 3.1 Isaiah had an idea of someone shouting for the LORD’s roads to be straightened, Is 40.3 and the author of Mark figured these two ideas were great descriptions of John the baptist. Mk 1.2-3 The prophets made these statements about something God was doing at the time they wrote their books… but what John was doing suited these bible quotes so well, Mark had to point to them and note how John achieved them too. Arguably better than the people Isaiah and Malachi originally meant. A real live messenger in the wilderness, giving people a path to God.

Our culture, not understanding this, guesses “fulfillment” means “to accomplish what’s been foretold.” As a result we figure the Prophets were speaking about John, and no one else; and John “fulfilled” their prophecies by doing as they predicted.

And of course we’d assume that. We don’t read the Prophets, and don’t bother to find out what they really wrote about. Or worse: We do, but we figure the NT authors had special permission from the Holy Spirit to quote his bible out of context. Or even worse: We figure the Holy Spirit gives us permission to mangle the bible too. So we do.

But this is why it appears the NT authors didn’t seem to care about context: They weren’t trying to quote the Prophets in context. They were merely saying, “Jesus is like this prophecy,” or “Jesus is like Melchizédek.We’re the ones who misjudge ’em, and get ’em wholly wrong.

Now, sometimes they totally cared about context. (Pay attention to the Old Testament context when Paul tries to make arguments about grace!) But when the authors of the gospels point to verses which Jesus “fulfilled,” they weren’t writing about predictions of Jesus which he made come true. They were evoking biblical ideas which we oughta be familiar with if we read our bibles regularly. That’s all.

Like Immanuel.

Jesus’s similarities to Immánuël happen to stand out a lot. First of all, Immánuël is Hebrew for “God with us.” It’s a prophetic name, ’cause his mother named him that, preemptively trusting God. Named him that before God had proved he was with Jerusalem by driving away the enemies. As for Jesus: He’s literally God with us, God incarnate.

But if this prophecy were literally about Jesus, he’d be named Immánuël. Not Yeshúa/“Jesus,” as the angels instructed his parents. Lk 1.31, Mt 1.21 I mean, that’s kind of an obvious indication right there the prophecy’s not about Jesus, right? He got a whole different name than Isaiah said. When a fake prophet is up there guessing, “You have a brother named Manny,” and no, his name’s Chuy, we’d call him totally wrong. Same deal.

Whenever I point that out, suddenly now people wanna ditch literalness. “Well, Jesus being literally God with us, merits the name Immánuël more than the literal Immánuël.” Yes he does. That’s much of the reason why Matthew brought it up. Jesus is a better, fuller example of Immanuel. Though not the Immanuel. More like our Immanuel.

Secondly, Jesus’s mother Mary was a maiden. In Hebrew this’d be almá; in Greek parthénos. In Jesus’s culture, a maiden was a young woman of marriageable age—someone our culture would consider a teenager, from about 13 to 16 years old—and if she didn’t have a man yet, it was expected she’d be a virgin. So the concept of “virgin” was included in both words, and it’s why a lot of bibles translate ’em both “virgin.” Why this is particularly significant: Mary was a virgin when she conceived Jesus. Mt 1.18 Of course Immánuël’s mother conceived him in the usual way, but Jesus’s mother conceived him miraculously. So “the maiden will have a child” is a way more profound statement in Jesus’s case than Immánuël’s.

Jesus’s life reflects this story better than the original, in a more profound and complete way. That’s fulfillment for you.

The problem is when Christians insist, “No, Isaiah wasn’t speaking of a literal boy named Immánuël; he really meant Jesus.” They’ve misunderstood what fulfillment means. But this’d mean Isaiah was telling Akház something totally unrelated, totally useless, to his situation in the year 735BC. So in order for Isaiah to truly be prophesying about Jesus… he’d wind up a false prophet to Akház. (Well no wonder Akház never listened.)

But seriously: In their zeal to make this prophecy about Jesus, they’re nullifying any relevance Isaiah had to the eighth century BC… giving them no reason whatsoever to keep his book. Why’d the ancients keep Isaiah and include it in the bible? Because he was an honest-to-God prophet. But if none of his prophecies were fulfilled, ’cause they were all about stuff that happened eight centuries later, they wouldn’t know this. (And before you point out how Revelation hasn’t had its prophecies fulfilled yet either, I reject that belief. It has so. The reason Christians kept it was ’cause the seven churches Jesus addressed it to, recognized Jesus’s message as relevant to what they were currently going through. The rest… we agree to disagree about. I say much of it has already happened. Others say other things.)

Another problem is when Christians insist, “Okay, Isaiah meant Immánuël. But God was using that prophecy to look far, far forward—look ahead to a Messiah who’d be born 728 years later—and cleverly inserted that more profound message into another message. God has multiple levels of messages built into each of his messages. He’s just that awesome.”

True, if anybody could pull off that multiple-levels-of-messages thingy, it’d be God. But he didn’t. Every message has one meaning. If it has two—like a parable, an apocalypse, or even a double entendre—it’s because we’re meant to be distracted by the obvious meaning, but dismiss it and wisely seek out the hidden meaning. Not embrace both meanings. One is the relevant meaning. The other is not. Two possibly relevant meanings, means a message has been poorly communicated, or we’ve misinterpreted it badly. Or—when it’s from a false prophet—it’s rigged so you can interpret it any way you like, which gives the fake prophet an escape when it turns out wrong: “No, I meant it this way.” It’s designed to deceive. The only escape clause God permits himself are conditions on our behavior: “If you do X, I’ll do Y; if not, then not.” But there’s no ambiguity in God’s will. The only ambiguity is when we don’t wanna believe or follow him.

Nope. Isaiah meant Immánuël. But Matthew meant Jesus, and we mean Jesus. We’re borrowing Isaiah’s language—out of context, but it’s okay; we know Isaiah didn’t really mean Jesus—and saying, “Isn’t this interesting?” ’Cause it is. Makes it more memorable.

But don’t read anything more into it. It doesn’t apply.