Who Is Immanuel in Isaiah 1-39? (II)



Given this harsh historical-political setting, the reader of the book of Isaiah could be surprised by the words of the prophet. For Isaiah, the main problem was not one of military or political dimensions, but of religious ones. The real question for him was how to deal with all this war and diplomatic pressure without putting the faith of Israel at risk. Or, positively, the issue was how to proceed relying only on YHWH’s protection. Obviously, given the previous information, Isaiah’s idea looks like an irrational option, a clear path to devastation. The message of his prophetic office, as noted before, suggests something entirely different: devastation is a consequence of trusting human reason instead of God’s grace. The establishment of Ahaz does not depend on his diplomatic skills, but on his faith. Precisely for the motives presented, the relevance of Isaiah’s prophetic role was determinant. The fulfillment of Is 7:14-17 requires faith, the kind of faith Ahaz lacks. However, despite the unfaithfulness of Ahaz manifested in his rejection of the sign (Is 7:12), the prophecy was delivered. Then, given the mysterious setting of the vision, some questions emerge. Who will be this child? When will the prophecy be fulfilled? The answer to these questions has historical and eschatological dimensions, but the same idea stated before through the words of the prophet, remains: faith in God’s covenant rather than trust in human calculus must be the key to understand the vision of the Immanuel. If there is no faith, the king shall not be established (Is 7:9).

Yet, to answer the questions posited above is not an easy task. Part of the conflict depends on Is 8:18, a passage in which the prophet explicitly says: “Here stand I and the children the Lord has given to me as signs and portents in Israel from the Lord of Hosts”. This seems to be a summarizing note, as Christopher Seitz suggests[1]. The problem is the confusion it generates concerning the determination of the prophecy of 7:14. There are three children at issue: Shear-jashup, son of Isaiah, already born (Is 7:3); Immanuel, who will be born in the future (7:14); and Maher-shalal-hash-baz, who was born after Shear-jashup (Is 8:3-4). Hence, is Immanuel also a son of Isaiah? Should we consider him as part of the label “signs and portents given by the Lord”? If the answer is yes, however, the Immanuel has a marked distinctiveness[2].

There are four main differences, according to Seitz. First,

“his birth is announced in specific connection with a sign to Ahaz, a sign that comes in a context of impatience and exasperation […]. Second, interest in the child goes beyond his birth […]. Third, the child’s birth portends good things insofar as the Syro-Ephraimite threat is halted (7:16) but also bad things for Ahaz and his father’s house (7:17) […]. Fourth, and finally, Immanuel has something to do with the halting of Assyria (8:8) and the general halting of the nations (8:9-10)”[3].

The first element of the excerpt has been treated before, but the rest —all connected— require further development. What starts to become clear is that the role of the Immanuel transcends the historical setting of Ahaz’s kingship: the Immanuel prophecy is inserted in Judah’s history, but is associated also with a Judah not already established. In Judah and Ahaz’s present, the oracle is a sign of punishment; nevertheless, the oracle is also a sign of hope for the future (Is 7:15-17)[4]. Hope for the near future, but, more important, hope for an eschatological future in which the nations will be halted, in which Judah will live in peace.

These ideas are better understood if connected to another important piece that helps us to resolve the Immanuel puzzle, namely, the oracle of Is 9:2-7. This passage is particularly confusing due to the tense of the verbs —“For a child has been born to us, a son has been given us. And authority has settled in his shoulders […]” (Is 9:5). While presenting the ideal king, the verbs used by the prophet are in past tense, a situation that leads the interpreters into diverse hypotheses. One of them argues that the use of these verbs is representative of what is known as prophetic past “which predicts future events using the past tense because they are as good as done”[5]. If this is the case, the vision probably refers to Hezekiah. The other alternative would be that the ideal king has already been born. If this is the case, the very birth of the children of Isaiah mentioned in 8:16 as sign and portent would be the embodiment of the oracle[6].

In any case, what is clear is that “this prophecy has undergone a major reinterpretation”[7]. As Seitz suggests, it is possible to maintain that the oracle referred originally to the prophet’s son; yet, some editorial decisions changed the meaning of the passage associating the oracle to King Hezekiah[8]. Something similar happens with the oracle in Is 11:1-12:10: the presentation of the ideal king remains their fundamental ambition. For this reason, we can say with a certain degree of confidence that this “is a messianic and eschatological prophecy comparable to 2:1-4 and 9:1-6”[9]. We can relate it to 7:14, also. As suggested by Seitz, 7:14 is re-read in light of these other oracles[10].

In order to clarify our subject even more, it is important to consider the connections of the passages in question with the context of first Isaiah’s final chapters (Is 36-39). In this regard, Seitz suggests a clear parallel between the behaviors of Ahaz and his son Hezekiah[11]. In both instances we have an assault on Jerusalem. The case of Ahaz is known (Is 7:1, 6). The situation of Hezekiah is narrated in Is 36:1-2: “[…] King Sennacherib of Assyria marched against all the fortified towns of Judah and seized them. From Lachish, the king of Assyria sent the Rabshakeh, with large force, to King Hezekiah in Jerusalem”. The critical encounter takes place at the conduit of the Upper Pool on the road to the Fuller’s Field (Is 7:3; Is 36:3). In the case of Ahaz it is an encounter with Isaiah; Hezekiah meets the Rabshakeh. Another interest feature is related to the presence of signs. A sign of the Lord comes for Ahaz even though he refuses it. In contrast, Hezekiah continually receives signs (Is 37:30-32; Is 38:7) as a consequence of his obedient faith to YHWH: in the moments of trepidation, instead of trusting himself, the king recourse to prayer shows his trust in the Lord (Is 37:14-21; Is 38: 3-6). Consequently, Assyria is unleashed on Ahaz as well as on his enemies; but in the case of Hezekiah, Assyria was halted by the power of God.

The parallels identified by Seitz are highly relevant because they give support to the idea I have stated before, i.e., that the issue in debate is not only a historical one, though historically situated; the issue in question is theological[12]. How should Judah, embodied in the decisions of its kings, proceed? The answer seems even clearer now. Judah ought to be faithful, must believe in YHWH’s covenant (Is 7:7)[13]. Judah must proceed following Hezekiah’s example[14]. What is at play here is the whole meaning of the oracle of the Immanuel. The prophecy of Isaiah seems to be pointing more and more to King Hezekiah, but in what way? Let me clarify this idea in the subsequent lines.

Following Seitz, we should recall that the name “Immanuel” was used in first Isaiah two more times beyond Is 7:14. It appears at the conclusion of the oracle in Is 8:8 and at the end of the next unit, in Is 8:10. Both passages are connected. The first one narrates the punishment executed by the Lord against Judah through the hands of Assyria; the second one gives us the other side of the story, the halting of the nations due to the Immanuel. The God is with us is a sign of judgment over Ahaz’s refusal to believe in the Lord; yet, is also a sign of hope for Jerusalem[15]. In this regard, Seitz concludes: “Because of the suitability of both of these oracles to the situation of Jerusalem’s deliverance in 701, it would make sense to interpret Immanuel as none other than Hezekiah […], faithful king and obedient counterpoint to Ahaz”[16].

After a close reading of the most relevant passages in order to respond the question about the identity of the Immanuel, it seems relatively clear that the vision of the prophet finds its fulfillment in King Hezekiah. The contrast between the sections of Is 7 with those of Is 36-38 are very relevant in this regard. All the evidence studied suggests that the text was theologically constructed to contrast father and son, Ahaz and Hezekiah, having in mind a clear purpose: to show the people of Israel the kind of faith required by YHWH. Hezekiah becomes a model of kingship and a model of faith. He is the most faithful representative of the House of David. Hezekiah represents the accomplishment of Isaiah’s prophecies.

[1]Seitz, Isaiah 1-39, 62.

[2] Seitz, Isaiah 1-39, 63.

[3] Ibid., 63.

[4] In Brevard Childs’ words: “The language [of the prophecies] is not just of a wishful thinking for a better time, but the confession of Israel’s belief in a divine ruler who will replace once and for all the unfaithful reign of kings like Ahaz”, see Brevard Childs, Isaiah: A Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001), 81.

[5] Fishbane, The Jewish Study Bible, 801.

[6] See Seitz, Isaiah 1-39, 86.

[7] Ibid., 64. On the same subject of reinterpretation, Childs gives us some relevant remarks: “What is reflected in these passages is a serious wrestling with the substance of the Isaianic tradition, already in a largely written form, in an effort to interpret the content of the prophetic word in a changing context. The point is not that editors simply adjusted the tradition to meet new historical realities, but rather that the coercion of the authoritative biblical text itself pressed the believing community to explore the fuller meaning of the prophetic witness as an ongoing extension of divine revelation that guided its faith and practice” (Childs, Isaiah, 94).

[8] Ibid., 63-64.

[9] Fishbane, The Jewish Study Bible, 807.

[10] Seitz, Isaiah 1-39, 75.

[11] Ibid., 64.

[12] Ibid., 253.

[13] See also Ibid., 67.

[14] Ibid., 248.

[15] Ibid., 68. This idea is connected with what Seitz calls “Zion theology”, namely, the fact that YHWH unconditionally endorses Zion (Jerusalem, Judah) and, precisely for that reason, He must take up arms against his own people. He must honor his covenant with Zion by punishing the Judeans who became unrecognizable from other people (Seitz, Isaiah 1-39, 72-73).

[16] Seitz, Isaiah 1-39, 64-65.

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2 respuestas a Who Is Immanuel in Isaiah 1-39? (II)

  1. servant of God dijo:

    Good question. Immanuel is not Jesus. This prophecy is very long and complicated and only given to the house of David. The reason why is not Jesus is because there are two servants of God in this prophecy. God sent his son Jesus to plant the seed and finally God will send two servants for harvesting the seed. The complete prophecy will begin with chapter 7, 8 and will end with 9. The prophecy is a coronation. The two sons given to Isaiah Shear-jashub and Maher-shalal-hash-baz are the two signs given to the house of Judah. These two sons are the two olive trees on Zechariah’s visions. The two olive trees represent lampstands. The lampstands stand before the whole world (two great lights), one for darkness (moon/night) the other for light (sun/day). God asks Ahaz for the sign as deep as Sheol or high as the sky. One olive tree is darkness (sheol) the other tree is light (sky). After the two servants complete the work of God on earth the blessing would be given and one of them Maher-shalal-hash-baz would be crown and become Immanuel. The crown is the Spirit of God. Look up Judges 9 7-15, Isaiah 24, Isaiah 24 13-14, Isaiah 13, Zechariah 3 8-10, Zechariah 4 1-14.

  2. Raúl Zegarra dijo:

    Thanks for the comment and the very meticolous comment. However, I don’t believe that this issue can be resolved so clearly, the biblical scholars are not in complete agreement with the position you defend. In any case, I’m just interested in the issue, but it is not my main topic of research. Thanks again for your relevant and well informed comment.


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