Isaiah's Christmas Children:
Isaiah 8:1-15; Matthew 18:1-4
Charles G. Dennison
In Isaiah chapters 7 through 12 (the so-called "book of Immanuel" in Isaiah's prophecy), we find an unmistakable and unavoidable concentration upon the figure of the child. We have five distinct passages over the course of these chapters in which the prophet Isaiah sets before us the figure of a child. First, there is Isaiah's very own son, Shear-jashub, by name, spoken of in chapter 7, verse 3. Then, we have the enigmatic child Immanuel, from that famous text in chapter 7, verse 14. Third is Isaiah's newborn son, the child with the foreboding name Maher-shalal-hash-baz. He is followed then by the inexplicable glory-child of chapter 9, verse 6the one known as "Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace." And finally, but by no means the least, there is the child of chapter 11, verse 1; indeed, the same child as that glory-child in chapter 9, though now differently described as "the branch from Jesse's stem."
Five presentations of the figure of the child, each presentation being propheticthat is, each presentation speaking about the future of God's dealings with his people. To be more specific, God is pleased to convey the expansiveness of his plan in the figure of the child. He is pleased to convey even the monumental transformation he intends to bring for the entirety of the world in its course of history. God's big dreamshis biggestcome in tiny packages. The large and the immense is compressed into the small and the minuteinto the figure of a child. God's magnificent work of salvation by which he changes everything is brought about through and in a child.
But why? Why this concentration on the child? Why this choice of the figure of the child to convey God's purpose and his activity? Well, of course we know, don't we? Kids are so cute. They're so cuddly. They're so attractive in and of themselves. They draw attention. They even command attention. And they are so innocent. Well . . . no. God's reason for concentrating on the childhis reason for choosing the child as the appropriate imageis not for any of these reasons that may interest the world. Why is it then that the child is appropriate? Why does Isaiah, led by the Spirit throughout the course of these chapters, repeatedly put before us the figure of the child? Why is it then, in the final analysis, that God chooses the child as that suitable vehicle in the effecting of his purpose even to the point of coming to us himself in the form of a child?
First of all, the child is a proper figure in the administration of the government of God's kingdom because the child speaks to us about new beginnings. Children and the birth of a child speak to us of the arrival of a new state of affairs. Ask any parent. Nor does it matter how many children are in the family already, a new child in itself speaks about an altered environment. Things will be different. And inevitably that altered environment is one that is filled with hope. Thus the birth of a child is accompanied by joy. In actual fact, God intends the child to be the sign of the transition into the permanently altered state of eternal joy. And that is effected in and through the last childthe ultimate child. Joy invariably is associated with the birth of a child and speaks about new beginnings; and this telegraphs to us the new beginnings which God intends for his people.
But at the same time (as is the case with Isaiah's Christmas children), each of the children he mentions is a sign which either implicitly or explicitly communicates God's justice. A child in joy! Yes! But here with Isaiah's children, the child and wrath. Compared with the cases of the two children mentioned before, this child in chapter 8 (Maher-shalal-hash-baz) communicates this line of justice and wrath a bit more subtly. After all, Shear-jashub's name means "a remnant shall return" (Isa. 7:3). Despite its jubilant message on the surface, the name implies a horrible devastation out of which the remnant will be gathered. So while it may seem as if the joy and the rejoicing are there blatantly; accompanying even this child, the first of the children mentioned, is this implied message of horrible devastation out of which the remnant must arise.
The same can be said for the second child, Immanuel (Isa. 7:14). What compares, we might ask, with the positive meaning of that name Immanuel? It means "God with us." No joy equals the joy of the people of Immanuel, the people who know in keeping with that name that God is with them. But you see, even this name implies a darkness in which the light of the name then shines. It is specifically because God has not been with his people that his renewed presence as symbolized in the coming of the child means so much. But even more, if that were possible, it is God's presence now which continues to mean so much to the people of God, particularly as they continue to face distress, threat and manifest evil. And even the consequences are the same, namely death. Truly, in the midst of a persistent, unnerving reality, even as that reality testifies to God's dealings with a wicked worldif not a wicked churchhow comforting for those who truly believe to know that God is with them, Immanuel.
But while his wrath has been implied with the message of joy in Shear-jashub and Immanuel, the message of God's justice now becomes explicit and dominant in child number three. The account of the third child's appearance is dramatic. Beginning at verse 1 in chapter 8, the Lord instructs Isaiah to write on a large tablet in easily readable letters the Hebrew words Maher-shalal-hash-baz; these words meaning "swift is the booty, speedy is the prey." Or as one translator has rendered it: "quick loot, fast plunder." With regard to this action on Isaiah's part, the Lord then secures two witnesses (v. 2), Uriah and Zechariah, who validate what Isaiah writes regarding the circumstances of his actions in inscribing the tablet. Then, as if Isaiah's inscribing of that tablet in verse 1 were itself prophetic of the prophet's relationship to his wife, she, his wife herself, becomes the means of his writing the name yet again. Isaiah "knows" his wife who now is described as a prophetess (v. 3) and she conceives and gives birth to a son. At the birth of the child, the boy is given the name that was written on the tablet (v. 1) as if the child had been prophesied by the inscription itself. We are then told that the infant will not know how to call out the words "my father" or "my mother" before the dreaded Assyrians loot and plunder both Damascus and Samaria (v. 4), the two cities that have set themselves presently against Jerusalem. However the boy's name will continue to have significance as the Assyrians, not content with the plunder of Damascus and Samaria, turn their gaze southward toward Jerusalem itself (vv. 5-8).
To say the least, this third child communicates the explicit and dominant message of God's just judgmenthis wrath, upon his people, north and south alike. But as clear as this is, we must not be deaf to the message of joy laid within even this child. The message of God's judgment may not have been all that clear in the first two children because the message of joy was dominant. But here we come to the third child and recognize fully that the message of judgment is there on the surface for all of us to read. But in seeing that message of justice, we might miss the message of joy laid within the child and his appearance. After all, this child also is a child. This child, in his embodiment of Israel and Judah's judgment, is at the same time the son of Isaiah and Immanuel's brother. And this is why verses 9 and 10 then pick up on the name Immanuel at the end of verse 8 and go on to speak about the ultimate undoing of the heathen nations and their plansthose who stand against the people of God. And why do these verses go on to speak about the ultimate vindication of God's people so wonderfully trumpeted at the end of verse 10 by a restatement, in translation form, of the meaning of Immanuel's name? For Immanuel! "God is with us!" Here is judgment, yes; but here is also the joy laid within the child.
But going even further, we can discern a positive note in the story of this child's birth, moving back to the beginning of the chapter. This is truly subtle. So you will have to concentrate. You see, the pattern of the inscription (v. 1), sealed by the dual witnesses in verse 2 and then giving way to the content of the inscribed message in the birth of a child, is the very pattern of the movement of God's revelation as it courses history. Here is the movement from the Old Testament to the New and into the birth of Jesus Christ himselfthe movement from an inscribed message sealed by dual witness. Are they priest and prophet? Are they law and prophet? Is that the significance of Uriah and Zechariah in the second verse? Are they priest and prophet, law and prophet, giving testimony and sealing the testimony of the inscription of the written record? And then that written record, testified to by the priest and the prophet, gives way to the birth of an actual childas the Old, with its inscripturated record and its letter, gives way to the administration of Jesus Christ in the Spirit.
Does this third child thenso much wrapped up in the message of God's justice and wrathalso communicate the marvels of God's activity in fulfilling his word and sending redemption so that in the new day, the tragedies and terrors of the old are truly set behind the people of God and they now live in his glory? As you think of this, you should remember and reflect on it in light of Christ's very birth. As we have worked with child number three moving from wrath to joy, we must also understand in considering Christ that we will have to work from joy to wrath. You will not be permitted to forget it. The birth of Christ is indeed positive. What joy is equal to the joy that accompanies that birth? However that birth also seals God's judgment climactically upon a resistant, stiff-necked, hard-hearted people. In the words of the fourteenth verse of this eighth chapter, that very child, born as a sign of hope and joy, in his maturity becomes as God himself, a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling.
But what is it about God's ways that both houses of Israel, both Samaria and Jerusalem, find so offensive? What is it about God's ways that both houses of Israel identify as such a stumbling stone for themselves? It is here that we must be sensitive to the second reason why God chooses the child as the appropriate vehicle for revealing his plan and purpose. Yes, the child speaks about new beginningseven that new beginning laid within the gospels. Seen in the most pejorative and prophetic light, the child tells us about God's saving activity over against the darkness and termination of an old, decadent world. The child as a child also says as much by its smallness. Not just as it speaks to us about a new beginning, but as the child as child speaks to us about its smallness, its weakness, its vulnerability.
By God's determination, the figure of the child in itself then deflates the pumped-up estimation of self-important people. The child becomes a sermon to such people, preaching God's delight as he proves his power through the meekest and the weakest means. In that way, there is no argument about whose power is power. If God chooses the vehicle of the child to demonstrate his power, there can be no question as to where the power resides and as to who has the power. "Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength because of thine enemies that thou mightest still the enemy and the avenger" (Ps. 8:2). The little things, the weak things, the insignificant, the dismissable, the vulnerable: God has chosen the weak things of the world in order to set his power before the world. It is not because of your strength that you are redeemed. It is not because of even a moral strength that you are redeemed. It is because of your powerlessness. Isn't it interesting that as the Lord chose the child for Isaiah as the instrument of instruction concerning his eschatological ways, our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, does the same? For he places a child in the midst of his bickering disciples who are arguing about who is greatest in the kingdomthat is, who has the power. Now the child becomes the eloquent message to which Jesus then adds commentary: "Truly I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself as this child, he is greatest in the kingdom" (Mt. 18:3-4).
And actually, if you consider what Jesus has done and what he has said, both points that we have been making in this sermon are made by him: the point with regard to new beginnings and the point with regard to powerlessness and humility. Personal conversion is rebirth. Personal conversion is a new beginning by which you become a child and partake of the brand new beginning brought about in the gospel. But that this transformation for you takes place in your personal conformity to the figure of a child means that, as far as you are concerned, there is absolutely no question where the power has come from.
And most amazingly of all, such power as is now visited upon you is
in true fact located in the One who speaks to his disciples in this passage
in Matthew 18. This One not only has the power and even the greatness as
his ownhe being the Eternal Son of God equal to the Father and the
Spiritbut he has this power and this greatness because in keeping with the divine
purpose, he himself became a child. Before you were called upon to become a
child yourself and follow him, he became the child. So now it's not even your strength in thinking that it's a bright and good idea for you to become a childlike
child because that's the route to powerNo! No! No! No! Your experience of
being a child is now found in him and through him. It is all of him. He, in becoming
a child, also becomes the perfect expression of a child's humble weakness
and vulnerabilityand that for you. If you sense then that your grasp upon
God's new beginnings in Christ, together with your own expression of an
appropriate humble weakness, is inadequate, then I plead with you to turn to Jesus,
who not only sets the child in the midst of the disciples, but himself became
the child so that you might be led to glory; so that you might stand before
your heavenly Father a true child of God. Isaiah's Christmas childrenintended
for all God's children. And aren't you among them?