‘The young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel’ (9:14)
It’s a very familiar passage, especially at this time of year (mid-December, in full swing of the Christingle and Nativity Play season, if you’re catching up on this blog in May). Of course, we generally quote it as it’s cited by Matthew (1:23), translating the word here given as ‘young woman’ as the more familiar ‘virgin’. Both are valid translations of the Hebrew, but most modern translations of Isaiah go for the more general ‘young woman’ – because although it’s clear that Matthew sees this prophecy as fulfilled in Jesus, there’s nothing in the text to suggest that Isaiah was looking into the distant future, or for a birth that would be miraculous in anything other than its significance.
This, incidentally, seems to me to be good evidence that Matthew (or the early church more generally) knew about Jesus’ virgin birth, and interpreted Isaiah in that light, seeing that here is the true ‘Immanuel’ – God with us indeed. That seems more likely than the idea that Matthew invented a story of virgin birth to supposedly fulfil a prophecy which Isaiah had originally given in very different circumstances and looking to the immediate future for God’s new work and presence. In other words, the link to the prophecy followed the tradition of the virgin birth, the tradition wasn’t invented to fit the prophet’s words.
It’s interesting that both in Isaiah’s view and in Jesus, God’s action comes unlooked-for. The promise of the child Immanuel is an answer to ahaz’ refusal to ask for a sign. Jesus was born unnoticed by the great and good of Jerusalem – but attended by shepherds from the edge of society and by wise men from a pagan nation. The prophet didn’t have a vision of Baby Jesus lying in a manger (with or without tinsel halos and tea-towel headdresses in attendance) but that doesn’t mean that Jesus’ birth isn’t a fulfilment of his prophecy, even more deeply than he could have imagined. God’s work of rescue, of stepping into history, is who he is and what he does. He does it time after time, and he’s done it above all in Jesus. So it’s still right to take these words and see them not just in the way that Isaiah spoke them but also in the way that Matthew – inspired by the same Spirit as Isaiah, of course – understood them to be more true than ever.
It’s just as well, or we’d have to have the service of eight lessons and carols next Sunday evening.
There’s another well-known bit in these chapters – 6:1-8, which I remember being read at my ordination. It’s a wonderful bit of perspective-setting. All of Isaiah’s words and deeds follow from this – that he has seen God in his glory. He knows that he is not worthy to have seen God, let alone to serve him. But he also knows that God has called him nevertheless. I truly believe that until we have at least glimpsed God in his holiness and majesty, and grasped our own inability to serve him as he deserves, we are not ready to serve him at all.
It is because of God’s glory, holiness and love that we worship and serve him – not because of our goodness or, for that matter, our badness. God is God. I am not. The fleeting, shadowy echoes of Isaiah’s vision that I have had keep me fixed on God – and wary of serving and worshipping anything less.