Jesus, our Immanuel.

by K.W. Leslie, 09 December
Jesus, our Immanuel.

Isaiah 7.14, Matthew 1.22-23.

In the middle of the Joseph story, the author of Matthew inserted this comment.

Matthew 1.18-19 KWL
22 (All of this happened so it could fulfill
God’s message to the prophet, saying,
23 “Look, the maiden will have a child in the womb,
and will birth a son,
and they will declare his name to be Immanúël,” Is 7.14
which is translated “God is with us.”)

So let’s jump from the first century of our era, to the eighth century BC, for that story.

If you’re not familiar with the nation of Ephraim, that’s because the writer of Kings preferred to call it “Israel.” It’s the nine northernmost tribes of Israel, which split from Jerusalem and were run by the king of Samaria. Back round the year 735BC, the king of Samaria, Peqákh ben Remalyáhu (KJV “Pekah the son of Remaliah”) joined forces with Radyán of Damascus, Aram (KJV “Rezin the king of Syria”) to attack Jerusalem. 2Ki 16.5 This was one of the first campaigns of the Assyro-Ephraimite War… which eventually destroyed Samaria. The Assyrians dragged all the cities of Ephraim into exile, and all the country-dwellers left behind either moved south to Jerusalem, or evolved into the Samaritans.

While Jerusalem was under seige, 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: Ephraim and Aram’s plans would ultimately come to nothing. But Akhaz—who wasn’t the most devout of kings—really didn’t know how to take the encouragement.

Isaiah 7.10-17 KWL
10 The LORD’s word to Akház, saying,
11 “Request a sign from your LORD God.
Make it deep as a grave,
or make it 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 are laid waste
before the face of these two kings.’
17 The LORD is bringing upon you, your people, and your father’s house
days which haven’t been
since the days Ephraim turned away from Judah to Assyria’s king.”

God had Akház’s back. Proof? Little Immánuël. And Matthew quotes this prophecy because Jesus is like little Immánuël.

Fulfillment. It doesn’t work like you’re thinking.

We don’t know the situation of the “pregnant maiden” whom Isaiah pointed out. Nor what became of her.

Was she pregnant at the time? Dunno. Usually fathers, or the patriarch of the family, would declare the names of their kids. Isaiah said she would declare his name, so maybe the father wasn’t around to do it. Maybe he died in the siege. Regardless, she didn’t die, and gave her kid the hopeful name Immánuël.

It doesn’t take toddlers long to learn right from wrong. (The “terrible twos” and “terrible threes” are what happens when they test those boundaries.) And in fact the siege lifted relatively soon: Later that year, Aram and Ephraim abandoned Jerusalem to go fight for their lives against the Assyrians. And lose.

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

No, really! Nothing. But it’s got a lot of significant similarities to Jesus’s circumstances, which is why Matthew pointed to it. It’s like Jesus. In many ways, Jesus fits it better than the people it actually happened to. That’s why Matthew says the nativity events πληρωθῇ/plirothí, “could fulfill” the Immánuël story.

Not does fulfill, like some translations have it. Plirothí is a subjunctive verb, meaning it could or might do what it does. Too many overzealous translators keep removing indefinite verbs, and making ’em sound like definite verbs, because they want the bible to be definite and sound decisive. Sometimes it’s not! But in so doing, they mislead people, who take these indefinite verbs and make promises out of them, or declarative statements—and in so doing, build houses on sand. Matthew says this story could fulfill Jesus’s story, not that it absolutely does.

But very few Christians understand just what Matthew means by plirothí. The word means “filled” or “fulfilled”—which mean the same thing, but Christians get this weird idea that when an Old Testament story is fulfilled by a New Testament story, it therefore means the Old Testament story was about that New Testament story—and therefore wasn’t about anything which was going on in the Old Testament.

In other words, if Jesus fulfills the Immánuël story, it must therefore mean the Immánuël story is about Jesus. Not some eighth-century kid named Immánuël. Phooey on this eighth-century kid named Immánuël. We don’t care what happened to him; whether he grew up to be someone great, or died of childhood illness, or suffered some catastrophic misfortune and wound up a eunuch in some Assyrian household somewhere. Heck, some people act as if Immánuël never existed, because Jesus is the only Immánuël.

No no no. It’s more like this:

Imagine you’re listening to a true-crime podcast, and they bring up a man whose father died five years ago under mysterious circumstances. Soon thereafter, the man’s uncle married the man’s mother and took over the family business. Sounds a lot like William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, right? So of course the podcaster brought up the similarity. It’d be kinda silly to not notice the similarity… unless you never read Hamlet in high school or college, and thought, “This sounds suspiciously like The Lion King.” But I digress.

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 which actually does happen to people. Less-than-historical fiction, like The Lion King, when it’s well-written, likewise resembles truth. And history, as we all know, repeats itself. A lot. ’Cause human nature hasn’t changed any.

So 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 authors of the gospels are gonna acknowledge this, and quote the Prophets. And not necessarily because these prophets were deliberately foretelling the events of the New Testament! Sometimes that’s exactly what’s going on. But more often (especially in Matthew), 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 this phrase quoted in context. Doesn’t need to be! That wasn’t the point. We quoted it because it’s a well-known phrase… which just happens to come from the bible. (We might not have even known it comes from 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 these 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 it fits. Or fills, as the ancients used to put it. And that is all fulfillment means. A passage from the bible, from history, from literature, fits our circumstances really well.

The New Testament authors grew up with bible, and were eager to show how the life of Jesus fits with biblical ideas. They borrowed Old Testament ideas all the time, and showed off how Jesus kinda gave them meaning. Like Malachi’s idea of an angel building a road, Ml 3.1 and Isaiah’s idea of someone shouting for the LORD’s roads to get straightened. Is 40.3 So the author of Mark swiped these two ideas, and used ’em to describe John the baptist. Mk 1.2-3 Now, Malachi and Isaiah likely had whole other ideas about what they meant. 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 Malachi and Isaiah originally meant. Look, it’s a literal messenger in the wilderness!—offering people a path to God.

Our culture, not understanding this, guesses “fulfillment” means “to accomplish what’s been foretold.” As a result we read the “bible quote” about John, and figure he’s who the prophets meant. 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 never bothered to find out what they really wrote about. Or worse: We do read the prophets, but we assume 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 in the very same way—so we do.

But this is why it appears the NT authors didn’t appear to care about the context of the scriptures they quoted: Because they actually didn’t! Because they weren’t trying to claim, “This is what the prophet was talking about.” They were only saying, “This Jesus story 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 Old Testament passages 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 stand out a lot. First of all, Immánuël is Hebrew for “God [is] with us.” It’s a prophetic name, ’cause his mother named him that, preemptively trusting God. She named him that before God proved he was with Jerusalem by driving away their 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 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 why Matthew brought it up. Jesus is a better, fuller example of Immanuel. But he’s not the Immanuel. He’s more like our Immanuel.

Secondly, Jesus’s mother Mary was a maiden, meaning a young teenage girl, about 13 to 16, who was considered of marriageable age. (In our culture that’s much too young, but ancient Hebrews didn’t think that way at all.) As was Immánuël’s mother, who wasn’t even married when Isaiah prophesied about the boy. So there’s that parallel too. The fact Jesus’s mother conceived him miraculously, without first being with a man, kinda makes it a 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 us 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 he was a legitimate prophet; his predictions never came to anything!

(And before you point out how the predictions in Revelation haven’t yet come to anything: I reject that belief. It has so. The reason Christians kept it, and still keep it, is because 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.