The Sign of Emmanuel—Lectionary Reflection for Advent 4A (Isaiah 7)

Frank Wesley, "Blue Madonna"

Isaiah 7:10-17 New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition

10 Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, 11 “Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” 12 But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.” 13 Then Isaiah said, “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals that you weary my God also? 14 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. 15 He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16 For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted. 17 The Lord will bring on you and on your people and on your ancestral house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria.”


                The Christmas season is not complete, at least the religious component, without reference to the promise of Isaiah 7. The promise of Isaiah is that God will send a sign to the people that God is with them. That sign will come in the form of a child born to a young woman who will be called Immanuel. While the promise appears in Isaiah 7, we draw upon it during the Advent season because the Gospel of Matthew appeals to it in speaking of the babe born in Bethlehem. The two passages invite us to sing with Handel, “For unto us a child is born, a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders.” So, the Advent season invites us to join Isaiah and Matthew in seeking signs of God’s presence even if God is not directly visible to our senses. If we pay attention to what is going on around us, we’ll discern the signs of the divine presence and activity, even if it’s not easy to offer proof. This means that if we are to discern God’s presence and activity, we must approach the search with a great degree of faith. Though, to live by faith, does not mean we should be naïve or gullible. There are a lot of conspiracy theories and other forms of “fake news” out there. Unfortunately, those who cry loudest about “fake news” are often its purveyors. Thus, to live by faith requires wide-eyed discernment! 

                It is with this openness to the possibilities of discerning God’s presence in our world, while being cautious about making claims about that presence, we come to this reading from Isaiah 7 that is set before us as the first reading for the Fourth Sunday of Advent. As we gather on this Sunday, we will light the final candle, the candle of love, before we culminate this journey by gathering on Christmas Eve/Christmas Day to light the Christ candle.

We read Isaiah 7 along with a reading from the Gospel of Matthew that announces the approaching birth of the messiah (Matthew 1:18-25). In Matthew’s version of the infancy story, the angel appears to Joseph and tells him that the child Mary carries is to be given the name Jesus (Joshua), and then the angel points Joseph’s attention to the promise of Isaiah 7, such that this child conceived of the Holy Spirit will be given the name Emmanuel (God is with us). This child will, the angel tells Joseph, save the people from their sins.

Getting back to the reading from Isaiah, the word shared by Isaiah is delivered to Ahaz, King of Judah.  As we learn in the opening verses of chapter7, the kings of Aram (Syria) and Ephraim (Israel) had allied with each other against Judah. The people were afraid, so Isaiah is sent to the king to reassure him that God was with him in this time of trouble.  The word given in our reading, beginning in verse 10, invites Ahaz to put his trust in God. It is a message that has resonance, not just in this moment, but in every moment. So, when we experience a sense of unease in our context, we’re invited to put our trust that God is present with us. The passage, as a whole, invites us to discern signs of God’s presence, signs that will ease our sense of anxiety.

Contextually, the eighth-century prophet we know as Isaiah speaks to a time in the history of Judah and Israel when these nations find themselves getting entangled in the conflicts of their neighbors. As noted, King Ahaz faced pressure to join in an alliance with Aram and Ephraim against Assyria. In their effort to force Judah to join the alliance, they invade Judah. Things look bad for Ahaz, but Isaiah has a solution if Ahaz is willing to accept it. Isaiah even offers to provide signs to encourage Ahaz to put his trust in the way of God. It can be as deep as Sheol (the place of the dead) or the heights of heaven. In other words, God is the Lord of all three levels of creation. While Ahaz isn’t known to be pious (unlike his son he is judged to be one of the bad kings), he piously refuses to put God to a test. Ahaz may be covering up his anxiety with a bit of piety. He’s contemplating how to resolve his current problem without God’s help, and so he feigns piety. The message that Isaiah wishes to share with Ahaz is that this alliance will fail, so he shouldn’t put his faith in the alliance. Instead, trust God. What Ahaz does, in this case, is make a pact with the Assyrians (2 Kings 16:5-9).

Though Ahaz doesn’t ask for a sign, Isaiah offers it anyway. The sign will come in the form of a child born to a young woman. Before the child is born to this pregnant young woman is weaned a sign of his own. A young woman is pregnant, and before her child is born and weaned, the threat to Jerusalem will be ended. The two kings that Ahaz is worried about will be no more. The advice seems to be. Don’t worry about allying with your neighbors, just trust God. Don’t be afraid of them because they will lose in the end. Perhaps the larger message is—stay out of foreign entanglements! That would include allying with Assyria, which is what Ahaz ultimately does.

Isaiah’s message has an original context. It speaks to the concern of that moment when Ahaz faces invasion by his neighbors, as well as perhaps a larger threat from the emerging empire to the north. So, while early Christians drew on this passage in creating a messianic theology featuring Jesus, Isaiah speaks to a real eighth-century political crisis. In other words, Isaiah doesn’t have in mind a sign that involves a child born in the first century. In other words, this is not a prophetic word about a child born in Bethlehem to a virgin.

Matthew, for his part, finds in this passage a word that can help him define his understanding of Jesus’ role in the unfolding revelation of God’s realm (for Matthew that is the Kingdom of Heaven). Matthew interprets Isaiah’s message in messianic fashion. This child Isaiah spoke of is not merely a sign that Ahaz’s enemies will disappear, but that this child Matthew has in view will save the people from their sins. He’ll do this because he is Emmanuel (God with us).  It is Matthew’s usage of Isaiah 14, that has proven tricky for modern Christians. For Matthew, the child spoken of here is born of a virgin, but is this what Isaiah had in mind? Does Isaiah speak of a “young woman” or a virgin? In the way that Matthew reads Isaiah, we see how early Christians, including New Testament writers, read Scripture.

We might start our reading of Matthew by remembering that the New Testament writers generally used the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. While the original Hebrew is ‘almah, which rightfully is translated as “young woman” and in context has no miraculous intent. Generally, especially back then, it would have been a young woman who gets pregnant and has a child. The Septuagint, however, uses the word parthenos rather than the expected neanis, which like ‘almah speaks of a “young woman of marriageable age.” Parthenos can be translated as “virgin.” It is the foundation for the name of the temple dedicated to the virgin goddess Athena—the Parthenon. Though it can also simply mean young woman, as is seen in the story of Dinah in Genesis 34:3. Nevertheless, early Christians took this to mean virgin and not a young woman. But, once again, whether Hebrew or Greek the assumption of Isaiah and his translators were not envisioning a miraculous event in the first century C.E. Yet, Matthew (alone among the Gospel writers) makes this interpretive jump. So, as Amy Jill Levine and Marc Brettler note, What might have surprised Jews was not the claim of Jesus’s miraculous conception; it was the citation of Isaiah 7:14 to legitimate the claim. The followers of Jesus read the scriptures of Israel in light of their understanding of him as the Messiah and risen Lord and so found references to him that outsiders would not have recognized” [The Bible With and Without Jesus, p. 274]. As they note as well it’s not a question of whether this is a legitimate reading, but that for most Jews it would have been a peculiar one.

                With Matthew’s reading of Isaiah, the foundation for a central plank of Christian theology is born. As the Apostle’s Creed references, believers confess faith “in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord: who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, …” It became such a central part of Christian belief about Jesus that when the Revised Standard Version was published in the 1950s, with the translation of Isaiah 7:14 being “young woman” rather than virgin (as in the King James), there was a major outcry. Some opponents of this translation went so far as to burn copies of the offending translation.

                While Matthew made his interpretive turn, which provided the foundation for the Christian confession of Jesus being conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary, that is not what Isaiah had in mind. He simply wanted Ahaz to know that a pregnant young woman would have a child, and this child’s birth would be a sign that God is present in their midst. Thus, he and Judah could take comfort and find assurance that the kingdom would not fall. It might suffer the loss of land, which it did, but unlike its neighbors, it wouldn’t fall (at least not to the Assyrians). This child could have been Ahaz’s son, Hezekiah. It could have been Isaiah’s son with the prophetess Jeberechiah spoken of in Isaiah 8:1-4. The identity is not revealed by Isaiah. Nevertheless, a sign will be given to assure the people that in the end, all will be well. In other words, by the time the child is weaned (eating curds and honey) and knows how to refuse evil and choose good, the crisis will be over. Again the message to Ahaz is that he should put his trust in the covenant God made with Israel and not join in any foreign alliances. Of course, in the end, both Aram and Israel (Ephraim) are destroyed, while Judah just barely survives.

While Isaiah 7:14 plays a significant role in Christian theology, we must let scriptural texts have their own integrity. Old Testament texts can be read Christologically, as long as we understand that this was not its original intended usage. That is, there are ways of reading the Old Testament with and without Jesus. For his part, though later used polemically, Matthew uses Isaiah 7:14 not as an apologetic tool, but as a way of helping early Christians comprehend Jesus’ messianic identity. For Matthew, Jesus is the incarnate one, even if Matthew doesn’t exactly use that language. For Matthew Jesus is the one who represents to us the promise that God is with us. As Immanuel, Jesus saves us from our sins. Again, this is not something Isaiah has in mind. What the story of the incarnation does is remind us that God is present and at work, often within the mundane aspects of life, including the birth of a child (whether Isaiah’s or Matthew’s). Thus, in Matthew’s reading of Isaiah, God is understood to be at work in the world, and the agent of God’s work is this child who is being born in Bethlehem. While the birth of the child spoken of by Isaiah doesn’t result from a miraculous birth, in Matthew’s reading that birth is miraculous. That is because this child born to a virgin is conceived through the auspices of the Holy Spirit (Matt.1:18-25).  

If we can allow Isaiah’s message to have its own original integrity, we can as Christians see in it a word to us about how God is present to us in Jesus. As we draw ever nearer to the moment that the church of Jesus Christ celebrates the birth of Jesus when we can sing carols about a child born in the little town of Bethlehem, might we stop to ponder how and where God is present with us? Sometimes it’s difficult to discern that presence because we’re distracted by the busyness of the season or the challenges of the age. Most assuredly Ahaz had difficulty discerning God’s presence at that moment. Whether he perceived the birth of a child as a word of assurance is not known. After all, he did make an alliance with Assyria that placed Judah under vassalship to the Assyrian king rather than to God. Will we follow Ahaz’s example, or will we instead choose to put our trust in the one who reveals that God is present with us, the one we call Emmanuel who will save us from our sins?

So we wait for the revealing of Emmanuel. We do so singing Alberto Taulè’s Advent hymn (as translated by Gertrude C. Suppe):

All earth is waiting to see the Promised One,

And open furrows, the sowing of our God.

All the world, bound and struggling, seeks true liberty;

It cries out for justice and searches for the truth.

                "All Earth Is Waiting" (Chalice Hymnal, #139

Image attribution: Wesley, Frank, 1923-2002. Blue Madonna, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. [retrieved December 9, 2022]. Original source: Estate of Frank Wesley,