22 December 2014

Isaiah 7:10-16

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” (v. 14)

Psalm: Psalm 113


This is a prophecy to Ahaz, king of Judah. His capital city, Jerusalem, is under attack by the kings of Aram (Syria) and Israel. By this time, David's kingdom has been divided in two. The northern kingdom, Israel, has formed an alliance with Aram, to defeat the weakened Assyrian power, but the southern kingdom (Judah) refuses to join them. The allies therefore intend to attack Jerusalem, taking control of the throne of David. The odds seem to be against Ahaz, but Isaiah has brought him a message from God, to put his mind at rest. The kingdoms of the alliance will soon be no more.

Ahaz's reluctance to test God seems very admirable, especially in circumstances where he might be forgiven for being desperate enough to try anything! Perhaps, though, the issue is more that he is afraid to trust the apparent prophecy. What if it is not from God? What if he asks for a sign and doesn't receive one? Will that be worse than not trying at all? But the call to seek a sign - as dramatic as Ahaz chooses - does come from God, so Isaiah proceeds anyway.

We saw yesterday that the sign Isaiah proclaims has come to be associated with Mary and Jesus. For Christians today, its use by Luke's Gospel is probably the most familiar version of it. But it must presumably have had some meaning for Ahaz and the kingdom of Judah, or the prophecy would never have been written down and kept.

It is not clear who the young woman is - she may, perhaps, be a wife of Ahaz. The name of the son that she is about to bear is, of course, deeply symbolic. At a time of conflict and threatened invasion, his arrival will be a sign that God is with Ahaz: 'Immanuel' means 'God is with us'. He will in time be weaned, and will learn about right and wrong. But by that time, the choice of name will be shown to be apt. That God is with Judah will be proved by the fall of both Aram and Israel.

To Ponder

  • As we have already seen, this prophecy became part of popular expectation concerning the Messiah, or Christ. 'Messiah' means 'anointed one'; this could be a king, a military leader, an angel. Isaiah's prophecy comes at a time of turbulence and threatened military action, and it is easy to see why it might become important to people at the time of the birth of Jesus - a time of Roman occupation. Look at the conflicts and struggles in our world today. Where do you see signs of 'God-with-us'? How might the Church proclaim Immanuel today?
  • We have noted that 'young woman' in the Hebrew could also mean 'virgin', and the Greek translations had followed this understanding, as did the Gospel writers. Are they right? Does it matter? What difference does it make to your faith and your understanding of who Jesus is?

Bible notes author

The Revd Catrin Harland

Catrin Harland is the Methodist chaplain to the University of Sheffield, where she spends her time discussing life and faith with students and staff, aided by coffee and cake. She is passionate about equipping young adults to discover and live out their calling in the Church and the world.