Isaiah's Christmas Children:


Isaiah 7:1-16; 8:5-8

Charles G. Dennison

My encouragement to you is that you should not allow the size of Isaiah's prophecy, its sixty-six chapters, to intimidate you. At least intimidate you in the sense of forcing you to lay it aside and not consider it. Much rather even the size of this prophecy should be an opportunity for you to develop spiritually—for you to exercise spiritually. My own prayer is that you would, in looking at the magnitude of this prophecy, consider as well the enormity, even the immensity of God, as he sets himself before you in what Isaiah sets down. My prayer is that the magnitude of the entirety of this prophecy would communicate to you God's own immensity before which you in your own sinful finitude would then appear to be as nothing. The greatness of God and the smallness of man—thinking of things in terms that Isaiah would wish to communicate to those to whom he writes—the greatness of God, the enormity of God, and the smallness of Judah.

Travelling through Isaiah's prophecy then at any time during the year should prove to be instructive. If for no other reason than the way in which this prophecy confronts us with God's grandeur and our own corrupt insignificance. But possibly moving through this prophecy at this time of year is especially beneficial to us, since such an exercise may prod us towards the truly extraordinary and sublime dimensions of Isaiah's message. After all, no one quite like Isaiah among the Old Testament writers sets before us the great gulf between God in his sovereign glory and humanity in its full and fallen creatureliness. And at the same time among the Old Testament writers, no one quite like Isaiah sets before us the gracious divine enterprise whereby the exalted Lord of all eternity overcomes that great gulf between himself and his sinful creatures through a voluntary, even vicarious humiliation on his part. A voluntary, vicarious humiliation intended and designed to save some—his chosen people—his elect—those we might even describe as his church.

In the earlier chapters of Isaiah, the portion that catches our eye along these lines is that section which has come to be known as the Book of Immanuel, specifically chapters 7 through 12. This section of Isaiah's prophecy, as I'm sure you realize, gains its title from the name which appears for the first time in it at v. 14 in chapter 7—that famous 14th verse. The name also appears in the eighth verse of the eighth chapter. You might note in that eighth chapter that the word Immanuel appears once more; however, it appears in the Hebrew instead of the English of that tenth verse in that eighth chapter. But it is not simply the near expressed mention of this name that characterizes this portion of Isaiah's prophecy. For permeating the entirety of these chapters (chapters 7 through 12) is the meaning of this name—Immanuel. That meaning, as you know, is "God with us".

In communicating this central thought, and this dominant theme and motif, we find notable about these chapters something more than just the mention of the name Immanuel and all that that name communicates. For we realize that in the initial instance, this name is introduced to us in a child at birth. And that furthermore, throughout these chapters, there is set before us again and again, the message which the Lord has for us through Isaiah—that message communicated to us in the figure of a child. It is in the figure of a child then that both the great gulf between the Creator and the creature: think of it in the figure of a child—that both the great gulf between the Creator and the creature as well as the inexplicable humility which God demonstrates in his dealings with men—are accentuated. It is there for us again and again. Not just one figure of a child, but repeated figures given to us throughout the course of this section in Isaiah's prophecy. There are no less than five children presented to us in the course of these chapters; although not always different children to be sure, yet uniquely set forth, distinctly set forth, in what we find before us.

In chapter 7 verse 3, we have the introduction of the first child for the section. It is one of Isaiah's own children, a child by the name of Shear-jashub. We've already mentioned, somewhat at length, the mysterious child Immanuel, set before us in the fourteenth verse of the seventh chapter. In chapter 8 verse 3, we have another of Isaiah's children set in front of us, this one with the very long and strange name, Maher-shalal-hash-baz. But these three children mentioned so far are then followed by the two blatant portraits of the messianic child—the coming messianic child—the glory child of chapter nine verses six and seven; and then finally, the shoot out of Jesse's stem in Isaiah 11:1.

Now in taking stock of these children, you must be careful with your appreciation. I say this because invariably when we look at a child or at the birth of a child, we look at that child and the child's birth in the most positive way. While it is true that joy does surround these children in their successive presentations by Isaiah, with each one, we are face to face with a disturbing ambiguity. For accompanying the joy comes a certain dissonance—the terrifying and cacophonous sounds of chaos and disaster. In some ways that might not be inappropriate for a child after all the introduction of dissonance and cacophonous sounds of chaos and disaster.

But what we are observing here is certainly the case for the first child—Shear-jashub. The boy's name means "a remnant shall return." And it is very important as you consider that child's name, that you understand what is being assumed when that child's name is given, and when it is spoken. Isaiah is to take the boy with himhe is to take the boy with him when he goes out to meet Ahaz, the king of Judah. While Isaiah in his message offers hope to Ahaz and to Judah, in the midst of the current conflict in which he and that nation are involved (with Syria and the ten northern tribes of Israel), Shear-jashub, this child of Isaiah's, serves as a walking sermon concerning the distant reach that would inform and instruct Ahaz's faith, and no less the faith of Judah. You see, in the context, Isaiah preaches immediate deliverance in the present situation. But Shear-jashub, by his name (he is standing beside his father) proclaims to Ahaz a quality of faith that now must accept God's word concerning a future distant debacle, a truly excruciating ordeal in which faith, if it be the type of faith which justifies, expresses the most serene confidence.

Such a faith as is in view, as it is proclaimed in this child—such a faith is serene despite devastation yet to come—looming as yet on the horizon. Such a faith is serene, even as devastation comes and registers its most severe loss. Shear-jashub is a walking prophecy of the yet coming devastation of Judah—a devastation that is not going to come at the hands of the Syrians, at the hands of the ten northern tribes, or even at the hands of the Assyrians, but far distant coming through the hands of the Babylonians—and that because of Jehovah's judgment. And in that context Shear-jashub becomes a walking prophecy of the gracious salvaging by God for himself of a remnant—a remnant shall survive.

It is specifically this kind of faith that is now challenging Ahaz, and is challenging Judah through the prophet Isaiah and his son. It is the kind of faith that reaches out to the distant future and grabs hold of that future despite all of the horrors and terrors that that future may hold, and vindicates God in the midst of it. It is a faith that latches hold of the future even in terms of the future's extremities and then works backwards into the present circumstance. Do you see how most people have it all wrong? The faith that they are looking for is a faith that merely satisfies them in the immediate context—a faith that is helpful for them in the present situation—that enables them to cope right now, moment by moment. But the faith that is being held out before Ahaz here is a faith that grasps hold of the distant future of Judah's history; and cause him to believe in a God who will preserve for himself a people, even though the land is lost and the people themselves go through a horrifying judgment. Do you see how biblical faith works? Do you see how this faith that is being preached by Isaiah and in the child Shear-jashub works? It reaches out to the distant future and then sees all present circumstances in light of that future, because you see all the important and ultimate matters have been resolved and settled.

I'm terrified about losing my job because in the final analysis, I'm afraid of death. If you do not have a faith that reaches out to the conclusion of the matter—even dealing with the most severe loss, you do not have biblical faith. What I am suggesting to you is that nothing less than what is in view here in Isaiah 7 characterizes the faith that you yourself as Christians profess. By this faith you are compelled to face the disillusion, not only of your body in death reaching out to the ultimate, but the destruction of this world and the melting of its elements according to Peter and his statements in his second letter. Has the gospel which you have embraced—has the gospel which you have believed in—is that gospel granting to you such a faith that you know that not even your death, no, not even the disillusion or the end of this world can rob you of your inheritance which has been made secure for you in Jesus Christ? An inheritance that is laid up for you in heaven—reserved for you there? Is the faith which you profess at this time of the year—the faith that characterizes all of your days and will characterize your days till you die—that truly just as there was a Shear-jashub beside Isaiah, a remnant shall survive. In fact, it shall survive through death and the undoing of this creation. And if you have such a faith that justifies God in the face of such realities, then your faith is the justifying faith sealed even by Christ's blood and the Spirit's work.

But we move along. As Isaiah 7:10 says, "The Lord spoke again to Ahaz." And in this further word, the second child, as you know, is introduced—this child Immanuel: "The Lord Himself will give you a sign: behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son and you shall call his name Immanuel (7:14)." Again, the name means "God with us". It should be clear to you from this context that this child is promised in the time of Ahaz and Judah's current distress. In other words, this child is a contemporary child—one that was born in and lived in the late eighth century B. C. What is said here by the prophet is not, first of all, dealing with the distant birth of Jesus Christ. That is not its intention in the first order. The focus of the prophecy here—the statement has to do with a child that was going to be born, presumably in Jerusalem, contemporary to Ahaz and to Isaiah in the context of the late eighth century B. C. He is to be born during the time of the threat of that alliance between Syria and the ten northern tribes of Israel as they have joined themselves together against Judah.

This child by his birth and by his name comes as a confrontation (so says Isaiah on the authority of the Lord)—comes as a confrontation to Ahaz's arrogant feigned piety. Although invited to ask a sign as deep as hell and as high as heaven, Ahaz begs off self-righteously and evasively by saying, "I will not ask nor will I test or tempt the Lord". He sounds quite pious, when he is anything but. For Ahaz knows what is in his own heart and mind. The Lord, regardless of what signs he might provide this king, is not Ahaz's confidence. Instead, Assyria is Ahaz's confidence. As Syria and the ten northern tribes have set themselves against Judah, Ahaz has not turned to the Lord. Instead, he has turned to Assyria for his deliverance. This is his hope. Whatever joy then we might attach to the birth of Immanuel, that joy is surrounded then by the current threat. It also surrounded by Ahaz's wicked treaty with Assyria and the failure of his own faith. In the midst of all of this Immanuel does become a sign, functioning effectively in the distress that has overtaken Judah—overtaken Judah's people. In fact, it is particularly this ambiguity that defines Immanuel's usefulness as a sign. He is a sign of God's presence in distress. You see, you have to add the distress to appreciate God's presence in the distress.

Now many of you are arguing with God because you believe that Christianity entitles you to a life without distress. There is no such thing. You see, Immanuel is a sign of God's presence in distress. God in the sign, in Immanuel, accommodating himself to the distress. That this is true specifically in what we find in this prophecy is borne out by the progress of the prophecy itself. Immanuel will be born while the Syrians and the Ephraimites, that is, the ten northern tribes, threaten. But he will live out his days even into the time of the assault of the Assyrians which is coming. The very Assyrians to whom Ahaz presently turns for help but who shall in turn turn upon Judah, making Judah their prey. This means then that this child Immanuel will be alive during the days of the Assyrian invasion—the days when the Assyrians overwhelm the promised land in its totality, led by the general and king Sennacherib. And neither Immanuel's presence nor his name's meaning will secure Judah or Jerusalem against this onslaught. Most amazingly Immanuel himself—the child now growing up, will live through the onslaught. Immanuel, the one who's name means "God with us" will suffer because of the onslaught.

Just how much we are to grasp—this is made evident as the prophecy continues into the eighth chapter especially the eighth verse. Then the tidal wave of Assyrian will sweep into Judah—it will overflow and pass through—it will reach even the neck and the spread of its wings will fill the breadth of your lands, O Immanuel! Immanuel we thought was a name that bespoke that which was positive; but here, it is spoken of in the midst of that which is negative. Immanuel himself bearing up under the judgment, bearing up under the onslaught—he himself experiencing the onslaught. The character of the faith generated by this child was the sort that remains adamant about God's presence in the face of the nation's destruction. But in Immanuel, we are equally instructed about God's identification with his own cause. So that like the child Immanuel himself, he, the great God, goes through the ordeal also. The name is Immanuel—God with us—in our distress—in the destruction itself.

Do I need to draw out the significance of all of this for you? Is it not clear enough to you? The baby Immanuel from Isaiah's day—even the boy as he grows—the man as he matures—the one who carries that name will live through the coming ordeal—he will live through the coming distress—he will live through the coming destruction. The name itself preaching the hidden presence of God among his people. But this child, little Immanuel, belonging to Isaiah's day, of course anticipates a child, who, as a sign in the latter day reaches fully the depths and the heights. This latter child is no mere human baby, symbolically bearing the name Immanuel, but a divine child really and truly fulfilling that name. The new Immanuel is born to no mere maid in Judah, but miraculously conceived to a literal virgin. This one will live through and suffer in the life of his people, in order that his people might live in him. He compels the faith of all of God's people in order that they might know that God has actually taken to himself his people's condition—human flesh—and is bound to us in our life in this world until that life is completely resolved by the glories of the kingdom of heaven. And thus, the enormity of God is matched by the enormity of his love. And that, telegraphed to you in a child.