Jesus was the Emmanuel that others had hoped to be

By | December 21, 2010


Emmanuel comes from the Hebrew words Imanu and el for “with us” and “God.” (The verb of being is implied here.) It appears only in the Book of Isaiah, and is seen there only twice (7:14 and 8:8). It is given, by the prophet Isaiah, as a name for a child to be born into the royal house of Judah. Judah’s king at the time was Ahaz, whom we have already learned was one of the “bad kings” of Hebrew history.

Isaiah’s prophecy took place just before war broke out against the Kingdom of Judah by the kings of northern Israel (Ephraim) and Damascus (Syria or Aram) in 734 B.C. The two attacked because Ahaz refused to join them in a war against Assyria. Ahaz, in turn, sided with Assyria, the military power of the day. The prophet Isaiah warned Ahaz against this alliance and tried to remind the king that his only true alliance should be with the God of Israel.

This is where the prophecy we hear this Advent fits in: Isaiah telling Ahaz to turn to the Lord, to trust in God. “Ask for a sign from the Lord your God.”

Ahaz didn’t listen. He made Judah a vassal state of Assyria and let the Temple fall into neglect. The Assyrians did spare the city, but took over many northern parts of Israel, including the lands of the tribes of Zebulon and Napthali, and destroyed Ephraim. Judah was forced to pay high tributes.

But what about the child the prophet predicted? What about this sign of “God with us?”

Well, some scholars believe this prophecy was a promise about the goodness of the king who succeeded Ahaz, Hezekiah.

When Hezekiah became King of Judah, he listened to the prophet Isaiah and restored the Temple and the feast of Passover, among other religious reforms. He revolted against Assyria and its king, Sargon. For a while, Hezekiah got away with it, but Sargon’s son, King Sennacherib, attacked Jerusalem in 701 B.C. Fortunately, Hezekiah had time to prepare and built an underground tunnel to bring water to the city so it could withstand a siege. (The tunnel can still be seen today.) Also, a plague destroyed most of the Assyrian army and they turned and went home to Nineveh (Isaiah, chapters 36-37).

So was Hezekiah the promised “Emmanuel”?

No. In Jewish tradition, the Emmanuel promise of Isaiah is largely seen as a reminder to Jews that God promised to eternally be with his chosen people and their kings. Old Testament scholar John J. Collins also says that this prophetic title ‘Emmanuel’ was so ingrained in Jewish tradition that it “could serve as a slogan for the Davidic house.”

God promised David, ancestor of both Ahaz and Jesus, that “your house and your kingdom shall endure forever” (2 Sam 8:16). And this promise led to the image of a messiah who would rise from the Davidic line.

When Matthew wrote his Gospel, one of his main intentions was to show how Jesus fulfilled the promises of the Old Testament. So when Matthew refers to Isaiah’s prophecy of Emmanuel — which we hear both on the third Sunday of Advent and at the Gospel for the Christmas Vigil Mass (Mt 1:18-25) — we can see that Matthew had realized that Isaiah’s words foreshadowed Jesus.

In Matthew’s time, Israel was again under the control of a foreign power. Not Assyria, but Rome. The Temple, where God had dwelt on earth — was destroyed, in 70 AD. For Matthew’s Jewish-Christian audience this was not very different from the days of Temple neglect under Assyrian rule, and the Temple’s later destruction by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.

Yet Matthew’s audience also knew that God, ever-faithful, had both routed the Assyrians and brought Israel home from the Babylonian Exile — both as prophesied by Isaiah. So Matthew’s message that God was still here made perfect sense to early Christians. By referring to Isaiah, Matthew reminded them of that promised royal child, destined to properly honor God, who had now appeared in the person of Jesus.

What Ahaz failed to do, and what Hezekiah tried to do — though imperfectly — was what Jesus actually did, both perfectly and eternally: brought God to us.

Jesus was more than a child of hopeful promise. He was more than the Temple, that sacred site where the Holy of Holies resided. He was more than a royal king, who could restore proper religious practices.

Jesus was God dwelling on earth.

He was — and always will be — there with us, in apple blossom time and at all other times. He is “God with Us” — Emmanuel.

Sources: The Catholic Encyclopedia; Reading the Old Testament; The New Jerome Biblical Commentary; the “Workbook for Lectors and Gospel Readers”; and Salt and Light TV

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