This post is part of a series about the names of God in the Bible. This series is based off of the study that took place in our Ladies’ Bible Class. You can watch those sessions online at WestsideLife.org/media. Just look for the “Name Above All Names” media series.
“Immanuel” in the Book of Isaiah
Immanuel is a Hebrew name that means “God [is] with Us.” Recall that El is the shortened form of Elohim (God). “Im” mean with, and “Anu” means us. And that means God is the With-Us-God.
Immanuel occurs just twice in the text of the Old Testament: Isaiah 7:14 and 8:8. The primary passage is Isaiah 7:14, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.”
When Matthew tells the story of Jesus’ miraculous birth, he quotes this passage from Isaiah in order to demonstrate that Jesus is the fulfillment of this prophecy. In a very tangible way, Jesus’ presence on earth is the ultimate sign that God really is “with us.”
The Original Context of Isaiah 7
Isaiah 7 and 2 Kings 16 give us the full story of what is happening here. War has broken out among several kings and kingdoms in Israel. Here’s a brief rundown of the major players in the conflict:
- King Ahaz of Judah (southern tribes of Israel) is threatened by King Pekah of Israel (northern tribes) and King Rezin of Aram (Syria).
- Israel and Syria want to kill or exile King Ahaz of Judah and install a new king that is loyal to them instead (i.e. a puppet government). Despite those kings’ best military efforts, they aren’t able to capture King Aham or conquer Jerusalem (the capital city of Judah). See Isaiah 7:1.
- The Assyrian Kingdom is bigger, stronger, and more powerful than any of the others mentioned so far, and they will be central to the story.
Why Did Israel and Syria Attack Judah?
It all has to do with Assyria. They are the ultimate bad guys on the scene and they are starting to threaten their neighbors and expand their kingdom.
There’s two possibilities to explain why Israel and Syria are trying to attack Judah:
- They want to conquer Judah and install a puppet government to force them into a three-way alliance against the Assyrians (i.e. strength in numbers).
- They are attacking King Ahaz and Judah becuase they have already entered into an alliance with Assyria (2 King 16:7), and Israel and Syria want to punish them for that.
The Threat: An Invading Army
Ahaz is well-aware of Israel and Syria’s plan to depose him and conquer his Kingdom. There is a direct threat on his life and everything he holds dear. The natural response in Judah is overwhelming fear:
“So the hearts of Ahaz and his people were shaken, as the trees of the forest are shaken by the wind.” —Isaiah 7:2 (NIV)
In response to this threat, God sends the prophet Isaiah to tell Ahaz to keep calm, and not be afraid:
Say to him, ‘Be careful, keep calm and don’t be afraid. Do not lose heart because of these two smoldering stubs of firewood—because of the fierce anger of Rezin and Aram and of the son of Remaliah. Aram, Ephraim and Remaliah’s son have plotted your ruin, saying, 6 “Let us invade Judah; let us tear it apart and divide it among ourselves, and make the son of Tabeel king over it.” —Isaiah 7:4-6 (NIV)
God tells Judah to be careful, keep calm, and to stop giving into fear. He refers to the two attacking kings as nothing more than the small amount of smoldering firewood that remains after the fire has already gone out. It might still have a little heat to it, but it’s nothing to be afraid of.
God Invites Ahaz to Put Him to the Test
Sensing that Ahaz would need some extra encouragement to put his truth fully in God, God tells him to think of anything he wants to, and no matter how ridiculous, outrageous, or impossible it sounds, God would do it to prove his power and prove his faithfulness. Ahaz refuses to name a task, using the excuse that the Law of Moses prohibited Israel from putting God to the test. That was of course a convenient excuse that misinterpreted what “putting God to the test” was really about. God didn’t want his people to doubt his goodness or doubt his promises by calling his character or abilities into question.
In this instance, God was directly commanding Ahaz to name his miracle so that God could help him walk in faith instead of fear. But Ahaz wouldn’t even engage in this conversation with God.
Since Ahaz wouldn’t play along, God said he would come up with the sign himself:
“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” —Isaiah 7:14 (NIV)
In this story, Immanuel is the symbol of hope for God’s people, pointing them to God’s promise of deliverance.
Decision Time: What Will Ahaz Do?
Here is where the story comes to a crescendo. Judah faces an onslaught of attacking enemies, and they are afraid that eventually the continued assault on their people will be too much to bear.
God makes the message crystal clear to Ahaz: your fate will be determined by your willingness to trust in God’s promises:
“If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all.” Isaiah 7:9b
On the one hand, God has promised to be with him and that none of the threats against them will come true. And he has given them the sign of Immanuel to demonstrate his power to make that promise come true. But from Judah’s perspective, trusting in an invisible God’s power to save probably seems risky when you’re faced with a very visible, physical army at your doorstep.
The only alternative is to enter into a military alliance with another nation that would be strong enough to repel the attacks and conquer Israel and Syria. The only real possibility there would be Assyria, an evil, idolatrous nation that was in many ways the archenemy of God’s people. Not exactly an obvious partnership, but desperate times call for desperate measures.
So Ahaz can either choose to trust in the power and promises of God, or the power of his human enemy. We know the path that Ahaz should take, but unfortunately Ahaz bolds takes the path of fear and doubt.
In 2 Kings 16:7-9 Ahaz makes his intentions clear:
“7 Ahaz sent messengers to say to Tiglath-Pileser king of Assyria, “I am your servant and vassal. Come up and save me out of the hand of the king of Aram and of the king of Israel, who are attacking me.” 8 And Ahaz took the silver and gold found in the temple of the Lord and in the treasuries of the royal palace and sent it as a gift to the king of Assyria. 9 The king of Assyria complied by attacking Damascus and capturing it. He deported its inhabitants to Kir and put Rezin to death.” (NIV)
Ahaz goes into the Temple of the Lord, takes money that belongs to God and gives it to Assyria in order to bribe them into a military alliance. Ahaz not only rejects God’s offer of protection, he uses God’s money to seal the alliance with the enemy.
The Question from Ahaz’s Story
When we face times of crisis, will we stand firm in our faith or give in to our fears? Will we turn to Immanuel, the God who is with us, or abandon God and place our trust in the things of the world?
Jesus Christ is our Immanuel
“22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).” -Matthew 1:22-23 (NIV)
The story of Ahaz helps us understand the significance of Jesus being called Immanuel. When Jesus entered our world, he as a sign of God’s power, his faithfulness, and his ability to make his promises come true. In the Old Testament, God’s people were being threatened by a physical enemy who was at their doorstep.
Now, the enemy is spiritual, as Paul says in Ephesians 6:12,
“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (NIV)
We face an onslaught of spiritual attacks, but God has promises that we are “more than conquerors” through Christ (Romans 8:37). Just like God promised deliverance to Ahaz if he stood firm in his faith, God is still promising victory to those who put their trust in him. Our victory (or defeat) is a function of our faith—of who we choose to put our trust in.
Consider these passages that make this point:
- Proverbs 29:25, “Fear of man will prove to be a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is kept safe.”
- Psalm 56:3-4, “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.4 In God, whose word I praise— in God I trust and am not afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?
- Jeremiah 17:5, 7, “Cursed is the one who trusts in man, who draws strength from mere flesh and whose heart turns away from the Lord… But blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in him.”
- Daniel 6:23, “The king was overjoyed and gave orders to lift Daniel out of the den. And when Daniel was lifted from the den, no wound was found on him, because he had trusted in his God.”
Jesus Shows Us God is With Us
One of the most significant things Jesus shows us is the truth of Immanuel, that God is with us:
- John 1:14, “14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
- Hebrews 1:3, “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.”
- Colossians 1:15, 19, “15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation… For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him.”
- John 14:9-10, “9 Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me?”
- Matthew 28:20, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
We all face the same decision Ahaz did: will we choose to believe in the goodness of the God who has promised to be with us, or will we ignore him and turn to the things and the people of the world?
After everything we’ve learned and explored about the nature of God, revealed in his names, the decision is clear: We will put our trust in the Lord!