The Good News About The Deeper Meaning of Immanuel: The Lord-always-is-with-us
Prophecy has to be understood in its own context. However, many prophecies are called to go beyond their historical, social and political contexts. This has to do with the spiritual meaning of prophecy.
The historical and political context of Isaiah’s prophecy of “Immanuel” (Isa 7:14) is inextricably linked to the “Syro-Ephraimite War”. Pekah was the king of Israel (or Ephraim), allied to Rezin, the king of Aram (or Syro, adjective referring to Syria); both rulers formed a coalition and sought to force Ahaz, the king of the southern kingdom of Judah to join them in consolidating the “Israel-Aram alliance” against the mighty Tiglath-pileser, the king of Assyria which has been seen by the Prophet Isaiah as the “rod of God’s wrath” (Isa 10:5).
“[Then] Rezin, king of Aram, and Pekah, son of Remaliah, king of Israel, came up to Jerusalem to attack it” (2 Kgs 15:2) because Ahaz declined the proposal of joining the Syro-Epraimite coalition. This was possibly either because of Ahaz’s political acquaintance with the Tiglath-pileser or the contrast in interests between the two rulers. However, once the southern kingdom was invaded, Ahaz requested the assistance of the king who was the enemy of the alliance (Tiglath-pileser). Thanks to the help of Tiglath-pileser and his powerful armies, Ahaz’s dynasty remained intact in Judah.
Isaiah’s first prophecy to Ahaz, the king of Judah, was the reassurance of the king by the Lord: “do not let your courage fail” (Isa 7:4) since the Lord has ever been “the Lord of hosts, the Mighty One of Israel” (Isa 1:24) will be protecting you. He said to him, “Unless your faith is firm, you shall not be firm” (Is 7:9), and thus the king should “trust in God” and in Him only. Through Isaiah’s consoling message, Ahaz neither entered into alliance with the ruler of Assyria (which was the “impious nation” according to Isa 10:6) nor was he afraid of the rulers of Aram and Samaria.
Therefore, both coalitions, “these two stumps of smoldering brands” (Isa 7:4), are fragile before the Lord just as human beings—who receive life—are fragile before the Creator or Giver of life. A second phase of Isaiah’s prophecy is connected to the beginning of a new oracle. An oracle in the Old Testament has to be accompanied by a sign that shows that this oracle is from the Lord, “Again [the prophet of] the Lord spoke to Ahaz”, requesting him to ask a sign from Lord, his God. Although the prophet’s request was not completed, The Lord himself—as the Almighty One—through the collaboration of the “young woman” will give you the sign of “Immanuel” (God-with-us, cf. Isa 7:14).
In Blenkinsopp’s perspective, in the immediate context, this young woman could be interpreted as both the prophet Isaiah’s wife (“the prophetess” Isa 8:1) and the princess Abi (2 Kgs 18:2) as both were pregnant at the same time. As a result, the sign of “Immanuel” could be understood as Maher-shalal-hashbaz (who is the second son of the prophet Isaiah with “the prophetess” Isa 8:3) or as Hezekiah (who is the son of king Ahaz with the “young woman” Abijah (2 Chr 29:1). This second interpretation appeared to be the most probable because it was said about Hezekiah that the Lord was with him and made possible his victory (cf. 2 Kgs 18:17).
However, for Blenkinopp, the two births are two distinct but complementary signs of God’s presence and activity among his people. Through a neo-testamentary reading, Christological interpretation connected “Immanuel” to Jesus as the “new Hezekiah”, who came from the line of David (that is precisely Judah); and whose mother is the Virgin Mary (Cf. Mt 1:23). Jesus could be considered as the one who unites or reconciles the two divided tribes of Israel (from his mother’s part) and Judah (from the line of the father Joseph). With the coming of the Messiah a broad number of prophecies become so meaningful to people. For Ratzinger, Isaiah’s prophecy of “Immanuel” is a “word in waiting” addressed in some extent to the whole of humanity (not exclusively to Judah or Israel). The Good News about the deeper meaning of Immanuel is that the Lord, our God, is-always-with-us. Let’s see why.
“God-with-us” statement was “symbolic” and always has been addressed to many people in the history of salvation either in the Old Testament or in the New Testament. There is both continuity and discontinuity in the way the prophecy in the Old Testament becomes fulfilled in the New Testament through the person of Jesus.
This prophecy of “Immanuel” was directed in a special way to king Hezekiah at the time he was rebelling against the king of Assyria, “The Lord was with him” (2 Kgs 18:17), as it was directed as well to Mary during the Annunciation, “Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you” (Lk 1:28) and to the disciples when it was time of their commissioning, “I am [the Lord] with you always” (Mt 28:20), and it is still addressed to us today, as God’s disciples. These are a few examples to show the high expression of the messianic hope.
Thus, Isaiah’s prophecy of “Immanuel” has to be understood not only in the context of rivalry in which it was written in the Old Testament but also in our today’s historical, social and political context. Its spiritual meaning, which goes beyond the immediate context, provides us tools to better understand and feel how the Lord was accompanying people along the history, showing his continuous presence to them hic et nunc.