Tuesday, 4 March 2014

What's Interesting about Isaiah's Virgin Birth Prophecy is ...

            After Isaiah's commission in chapter 6 when he sees the Lord seated on a throne "high and exalted," he moves into the sign of Immanuel.  King Ahaz of Judah is being threatened by the alliance of the northern kingdom of Israel and Aram.  So in a sign of goodwill from God, Isaiah extends the offer of a sign that would prove to Ahaz that God would be with him.  "Ask the Lord for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or the highest heights" Isaiah offers.  Ahaz, is too proud to change his mind--he is the king after all who in 2 Kings 16 makes an alliance with the foreign power of Assyria, even ordering his priest Uriah to bring back a sketch of an Assyrian altar to set up in the temple.  He has made up his mind about who he is going to depend on, and it will not be God.  "I will not put the Lord to the test," he says.  So Isaiah snaps and asks why he is trying God's patience.  Instead of giving him a sign that God will be with him, Isaiah prophesies a sign against him: "Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign.  The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel," which name, as we know, means "God with us."  So the sign against Ahaz is the same as the sign that was first extended for his benefit, that is, that God is with him. 

            This seems like a paradox, but of course it is in accord with the Exodus account in which the signs and wonders performed on behalf of the Israelites were also performed against their oppressors.  In Isaiah 6 the Lord had told the prophet "Make the heart of this people calloused, make their ears dull and close their eyes.  Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed."  This child (paidion, LXX) is just such a sign.  Jumping ahead to 8:11-22 the Lord speaks to what seems to be the prophet, but, from the way these verses are quoted in the book of Hebrews, we know they apply to Jesus.  Hebrews 2:13 quotes Isaiah 8:17 and 18, "Here I am, and the children (paidia) God has given me."  There it breaks off, but in Isaiah the verse continues "We are signs and symbols in Israel from the Lord Almighty, who dwells on Mount Zion."  This man and his children are signs "destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel" as the aged Simeon said of Jesus (Luke 2:34).  The interesting thing is that just prior to verses 17 and 18 when God was addressing this man, the Lord had called himself a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.  This is to say that either you trust in God as your rock, the chief corner stone of your sanctuary (Is 8:16; Rom 9:33; 1 Pet 2:8), or he will be your downfall: "for the people of Jerusalem he will be a trap and a snare.  Many of them will stumble; they will fall and be broken, they will be snared and captured" (8:15).  What we find, then, is that both the Lord and the man with his children are "signs and symbols" that cause people to stumble and fall, and that close peoples' ears and eyes.  Thus, verse 16 says "Bind up the testimony and seal up the law among my disciples."  For, the prophecy is hidden from those whose eyes are closed. 

            Why are their eyes closed?  What would make them open their eyes?  It is not so much that those without faith do not have eyes, it is more that they are looking in the wrong place.  Let us look at Immanuel, "God with us," one more time.  God comes as a child (paidion) who causes people to stumble.  This word, paidion, is used rarely in Isaiah, but most notably in 53:2, the Servant song: "He grew up before him [God] like a tender shoot" (paidion).  Who grew up?  The "servant" (pais) introduced in 52:13.  Lionel S. Thornton has pointed out these connections: both "servant" and "child" can be designated by the word pais, and infant and tender shoot can both be designated by the word paidion.  Both Greek words obviously have the same root, and Isaiah and his Greek translators are clearly exploiting this overlap of meaning to convey prophetic truth.  The child, Immanuel, is the servant of God who "had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him….Like one from whom men hide their faces."  And yet this lowly servant-child whose very humility makes men overlook him or turn their faces away in disgust, Isaiah says in verse 13, is "raised and lifted up and highly exalted."  These are the exact same words Isaiah uses of the Lord on his throne in chapter 6, Richard Bauckham has pointed out.  There the Lord had told the prophet to close eyes and ears until the whole land had been laid waste and the family tree of David, that is the kingly line, had been cut down with but a stump left.  Nonetheless this stump would still have a "seed" in the land, for, "a shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse [David's father]" (11:1), which in 53:2 is the "tender shoot," the child Immanuel. 

            In sum, this child is the shoot from Jesse who would resurrect the kingly line of David.  Although being "raised and lifted up and highly exalted" on the throne of his Father, he nonetheless is only known in the "marred form" (52:14) of the crucified servant who hung on the cross as "a guilt offering" (53:10).  But those who "hide their faces" from one as marred as this will surely stumble over one so lowly and humble.  To them the "testimony" of Isaiah is "sealed up."  They are like Ahaz who cannot see that God is with them.  They depend upon something other than God.  But God is the only stable rock.  If you don't want to trip over him, become like a child, look down to the ground in humility at the humbled Son of God. 


Footnotes to come.

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