Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Emmanuel Prophecy

Throughout these special Advent Evensongs, we have been exploring the texts behind Handel’s musical masterpiece, Messiah. The libretto assembled by Charles Jennens is one saturated with Prophecy. Advent is a season of prophecy, and Messiah is a piece most appropriate for this time of year. It sets before us the words of the Prophets which they spoke concerning the coming Messiah and their fulfillment in the person of Jesus Christ. These prophecies are of more than historical importance to us, however, they continue to speak afresh to us, to challenge us in our complacency, and to hold out hope to us in times of doubt and distress.

Prophecy often revels to us things that are to come, but there is more to prophecy than just foretelling or predicting the future. Prophecy is also forth telling. It speaks to us of a larger reality within and behind the events of history. It speaks to us of eternal truths that both transcend and shape history. Prophecy is revelation. It is the Word of god breaking into human history from above in order to challenge and transform the course of human events from within. In this way it speaks to more than one moment or period in history. It is always current. It is always God’s Word to us. Most importantly, all prophecy leads and directs us to he who is the Eternal Word made flesh, Jesus Christ our Lord. This is the intended goal of Handel’s Messiah.

Tonight I would like to discuss the Prophecy from Isaiah 7:14: "Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call His name Emmanuel, God with us"

Last week we discussed how Messiah was composed, at least in part, as a response to a book by committed Deist, Anthony Collins, which challenged Jesus’s identity as Messiah. Among his many attacks on the Christian faith, Collins claims that Isaiah’s prophecy in chapter 7 does not refer to Jesus at all, or even of the virgin birth, but has a more immediate reference to events closer to the time it was first uttered. Collins is utilizing an argument used by Jewish critics of Christianity for generations.

For instance, the early Church apologist Justyn Martyr debated with the Jewish theologian Trypho who claimed that this text referred, not to Jesus, but King Hezekiah. Trypho’s suggestion is not without merit. The Sign of Immanuel was given by Isaiah to king Ahaz as an assurance of God’s continual protection in 734 BC. when Rezin the king of Syria and Pekah the son of Remaliah the king of Israel came up to Jerusalem to wage war against it. The text, at least originally, seems to refer to an event that would occur in the immediate future for Ahaz as confirmation that God was with him.

Isaiah speaks of a child that is soon to be born. Please indulge me in a linguistic digression. His words come to us from the Greek translation of the text quoted in the Gospel of Matthew as, “A virgin shall conceive and bear a son.” The word used in the Greek is Parthenos which means virgin, but in the Hebrew text the word that is used is Alma, which can mean virgin or it can also mean ‘young woman.’ The birth described by Isaiah need not be the miraculous one described in the Gospels.

What Isaiah seems to be saying is this, a child is to be born shortly. Before this child will reach the age of maturity, when he can tell right from wrong, your enemies will be defeated and their land deserted.

Who could the child be that Isaiah speaks of? One suggestion we already noted is Hezekiah, who will become the next Davidic King and thus proof that God had not yet entirely forsaken his promise to Judah. It could also be the prophet’s own son who he describes in the following chapter, “And I went unto the prophetess; and she conceived, and bore a son. Then said the LORD unto me: 'Call his name Maher-shalal-hashbaz.'” Isaiah even describes his own children as signs and portents a few verses later. Regardless of who Isaiah is referring to, there is strong reason to suppose that he is speaking of a child who will be born within Ahaz’s lifetime and before the destruction of Judah’s enemies.

But could the prophecy have a still deeper meaning? Isaiah had said to Ahaz, “Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol [the underworld] or high as heaven” but Ahaz refused under the pretense of piety. He was no doubt reluctant to be constrained in his plans by the Lord’s prophecy.

The prophecy that follows, it has been pointed out, while given in Ahaz’s hearing, is actually addressed to the House of David. The prophecy is broader than Ahaz’s particular moment; it is grand and cosmic in scope, speaking of God’s everlasting faithfulness to his servant David. It is indeed as deep as Sheol and as high as heaven.  This prophecy is more than just foretelling. It is the revelation of the eternal word of God breaking into human history. It is spoken not just to Ahaz, but to the nation, and indeed to the whole world, even us.

While the words of the Prophet may have immediate relevance to his hearers, their relevance does not end there. In fact the prophecy even mushrooms in scope culminating is Chapter nine’s prophecy of the universal and unending rule of the son of David:

“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even forever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.”

This is a messianic text. What earthly king could these words refer to? Who sits on the seat of David today? Hezekiah was not the promised messiah. Either Isaiah’s words overshot by a distance, or the people should expect a further fulfillment of these words. There is one, who the Church, owns as the worthy heir of all these grand titles, whom we proclaim as Messiah, Jesus our Lord.

When Saint Matthew takes up Isaiah’s prophecy, he is not merely molding his story to match the expectations of the people. Before Jesus’ birth it was not widely expected that the messiah would be born of a Virgin. And yet in two separate sources, Matthew and Luke, we are told the story of Jesus’ miraculous birth. How could those who received news of this event fail to read Isaiah with new eyes?

When Matthew writes his Gospel, he peppers it with references to the Old Testament. His use of scripture seems very odd to our modern, rationalistic, ways of thinking. For instance he uses a passage from Hosea 11:1, a poem about God’s love for Israel that describes how he rescued them from slavery, saying, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” Matthew uses it as a prophecy of the Infant Jesus’ own flight and return from Egypt.

Jeremiah 31:15, "A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more" originally referring to Israel’s exile is used as a prophecy of Herod’s massacre of the Innocents. He takes up the words of scripture and reveals their hidden depths. He wants to show us how all of scripture ultimately teaches us about Christ.

Prophecy is a living thing. It is meant to live wild and free. Its natural environment is poetry and song. It perishes when we try to pull it down from the heavens and put it under our microscope. It can only be perceived by revelation and faith, by those who have eyes to see and ears to hear.


Jesus comes to us, unknown, and unsought for, undercover, and walks beside us as he did to the disciples on the road to Emmaus so long ago. He spoke to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” Every time the scriptures are opened, every time the words of the prophets are read, He speaks to us again.  

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