The name occurs but 3 times, twice in the Old Testament (Isaiah 7:14; 8:8), and once in the New Testament (Matthew 1:23). It is a Hebrew word signifying "God is with us." The form "Emmanuel" appears in Septuagint (Emmanouel).
1. Isaiah Rebukes Ahaz:
In 735 BC Ahaz was king of Judah. The kingdom of Israel was already tributary to Assyria (2 Kings 15:19,20). Pekah, king of Israel, a bold and ambitious usurper, and Rezin, king of Syria, formed an alliance, the dual object of which was, first, to organize a resistance against Assyria, and second, to force Ahaz to cooperate in their designs against the common tyrant. In the event of Ahaz' refusal, they planned to depose him, and to set the son of Tabeel, a choice of their own, upon the throne of David. To this end they waged war against Judah, advancing as far as Jerusalem itself, but without complete success (Isaiah 7:1). Ahaz, a weak king, and now panic-stricken, determined to invoke the aid of Tiglath-pileser, king of Assyria (2 Kings 16:7). This he actually did at a later stage in the war (2 Kings 6:9; 15:29). Such a course would involve the loss of national independence and the payment of a heavy tribute. At this period of crisis, Isaiah, gathering his disciples around him (Isaiah 8:16), is told to deliver a message to the king. Ahaz, though making a show of resistance against the coalition, is in reality neither depending upon the help of Yahweh nor upon the courage of his people. Isaiah, in an effort to calm his fears and prevent the fatal alliance with Assyria, offers him a sign. This method is specially characteristic of this prophet. Fearing to commit himself to the policy of Divine dependence, but with a pretense at religious scruples, "Neither will I tempt Yahweh," the king refuses (Isaiah 7:12). The prophet then chides him bitterly for his lack of faith, which, he says, not only wearies men, but God also (Isaiah 7:13).
2. The Sign of "Immanuel":
He then proceeds to give him a sign from God Himself, the sign of "Immanuel" (Isaiah 7:14). The interpretation of this sign is not clear, even apart from its New Testament application to Christ. The Hebrew word translated "virgin" in English Versions of the Bible means, more correctly, "bride," in the Old English sense of one who is about to become a wife, or is still a young wife. Psalms 68:25 English Versions of the Bible gives "damsels."
Isaiah predicts that a young bride shall conceive and bear a son. The miracle of virgin-conception, therefore, is not implied. The use of the definite article before "virgin" (ha-`almah) does not of itself indicate that the prophet had any particular young woman in his mind, as the Hebrew idiom often uses the definite article indefinitely. The fact that two other children of the prophet, like Hosea's, bore prophetic and mysterious names, invites the conjecture that the bride referred to was his own wife. The hypothesis of some critics that a woman of the harem of Ahaz became the mother of Hezekiah, and that he was the Immanuel of the prophet's thought is not feasible. Hezekiah was at least 9 years of age when the prophecy was given (2 Kings 16:2).
3. Was It a Promise or a Threat?:
The question as to whether the sign given to Ahaz was favorable or not presents many difficulties. Was it a promise of good or a threat of judgment? It is evident that the prophet had first intended an omen of deliverance and blessing (Isaiah 7:4,7). Did the king's lack of faith alter the nature of the sign? Isaiah 7:9, "If ye will not believe," etc., implies that it might have done so. The omission of 7:16, and especially the words "whose two kings thou abhorrest," greatly simplifies this theory, as "the land," singular, would more naturally refer to Judah than to Syria and Ephraim collectively. The omen would then become an easily interpreted threat, referring to the overthrow of Judah rather than that of her enemies. Immanuel should eat curdled milk and honey (7:15), devastation reducing the land from an agricultural to a pastoral one. The obscure nature of the passage as it stands suggests strongly that it has suffered from interpolation. The contrary theory that the sign was a promise and not a prediction of disaster, has much to commend it, though it necessitates greater freedom with the text. The name "Immanuel" implies the faith of the young mother of the child in the early deliverance of her country, and a rebuke to the lack of that quality in Ahaz. It is certain also that Isaiah looked for the destruction of Syria and Ephraim, and that, subsequent to the Assyrian invasion, salvation should come to Judah through the remnant that had been faithful (11:11). The fact that the prophet later gave the name of Maher-shalal-hash-baz to his new-born son, a name of good omen to his country, further strengthens this position. The omission of 7:15,17 would make the sign a prophecy of the failure of the coalition. It is plain, whichever theory be accepted, that something must be eliminated from the passage to insure a consistent reading.
4. Its Relation to the Messianic Hope:
The question now presents itself as to what was the relation of Immanuel to the Messianic prophecies. Should the emphasis be laid upon "a virgin," the son, or the name itself? For traditional interpretation the sign lay in the virgin birth, but the uncertainty of implied virginity in the Hebrew noun makes this interpretation improbable. The identification of the young mother as Zion personified, and of the "son" as the future generation, is suggested by Whitehouse and other scholars. But there is no evidence that the term `almah was used at that time for personification. The third alternative makes Immanuel a Messiah in the wider use of the term, as anticipated by Isaiah and his contemporaries. There can be little doubt but that there existed in Judah the Messianic hope of a national saviour (2 Samuel 7:12). Isaiah is expecting the arrival of one whose character and work shall entitle him to the great names of 9:6. In him should dwell all the fullness of God. He was to be "of the stem of Jesse," the bringer of the Golden Age. The house of David is now beset by enemies, and its reigning representative is weak in faith. The prophet therefore announces the immediate coming of the deliverer. If he had intended the virgin-conception of Christ in the distant future, the sign of "Immanuel" would have possessed no immediate significance, nor would it have been an omen to Ahaz. With regard to the Messianic idea, Micah 5:3 ("until the time that she who travaileth hath brought forth") is of importance as indicating the prevalent thought of the time. Recent evidence shows that even in Babylonia and Egypt there existed expectations of a divinely born and wonderful saviour. To this popular tradition the prophet probably appealed, his hearers being easily able to appreciate the force of oracular language that is to us obscure. There is much to confirm the view, therefore, that the prophecy is Messianic.
5. The Virgin Birth:
The use of the word as it relates to the virgin birth of Christ and the incarnation cannot be dealt with here (see PERSON OF CHRIST). These facts, however, may be noted. The Septuagint (which has parthenos, "virgin") and the Alexandrian Jews interpreted the passage as referring to the virgin birth and the Messianic ministry. This interpretation does not seem to have been sufficiently prominent to explain the rise of the idea of miraculous virgin conception and the large place it has occupied in Christological thought.
See VIRGIN BIRTH.
Arthur Walwyn Evans
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