Nothing in history remotely approaches the wonder of the birth of the Lord Jesus. Charles Wesley had a great gift for incorporating in brief form some of the greatest truths of our faith. He wrote,
Late in time behold Him come,
Offspring of a Virgin's womb;
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail th' incarnate Deity.
In these verses he captured the mystery, glory and beauty of that scene in Bethlehem we sing of at Christmas season.
In Chapter 7 of Isaiah we have the prophetic announcement of that virgin birth. One commentator has written: "Of measureless importance to the universe, to this world, to every individual of the human family is the prophecy to which we have now come. On the fulfillment of this prophecy all Christianity rests, as a building on its foundation."
It is important to point out that perhaps twenty years of time lie between Chapter 6 and Chapter 7 of Isaiah. The sixteen-year reign of Jotham, the son of Uzziah, king of Judah, is passed over in silence. We leap from "the year in which king Uzziah died" at the beginning of Jotham's reign, to the reign of Jotham's son, King Ahaz, a man so sunken in idolatry that he offered his own son to the pagan god of Molech.
The historical setting of the prophecy of the birth of Messiah is given in the opening two verses of Chapter 7:
In the days of Ahaz the son of Jotham, son of Uzziah, king of Judah, Rezin the king of Syria and Pekah the son of Remaliah the king of Israel came up to Jerusalem to wage war against it, but they could not conquer it. When the house of David[king Ahaz] was told, "Syria is in league with Ephraim," his heart and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind. This is a report of ancient power politics. The ten tribes of Israel had joined in a military alliance with the nation of Syria(countries that are very much in the news today), and had invaded the southern kingdom of Judah. They besieged Jerusalem, surrounding it with their armies, but could not overcome it. The reaction of king Ahaz, coward and unbeliever that he was, and of the people of his kingdom was, as Isaiah describes here, one of panic: "his heart and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind." (Isaiah 7:1-2 RSV)
We learn from the book of Second Kings that at this juncture King Ahaz resorted to an expediency. He gathered all the temple vessels of gold and silver and sent them far away to the north, to the king of Assyria, the superpower of that day, and hired him by this means to come against these two kings and thus deliver Jerusalem from the threat they represented. He relied upon manipulation, playing one power against another -- a familiar tactic that has been employed throughout history.
Right at this point, when the king and the whole nation are trembling with fear at what might happen, God sends the prophet Isaiah to him with a message.
And the Lord said to Isaiah, "Go forth to meet Ahaz, you and Shear-jashub your son, at the end of the conduit of the upper pool on the highway to the Fuller's Field, and say to him, 'Take heed, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint because of these two smoldering stumps of firebrands, at the fierce anger of Rezin and Syria and the son of Remaliah.'" (Isaiah 7:3-4 RSV)
Isaiah brings a word of comfort to the king. He tells him he does not have any need to fear as there is no real danger. Notice the almost contemptuous way God refers to these two invading armies and their kings. "Smoldering stumps of firebrands" he calls them. Their fire has gone out; there is nothing but smoke left. In Verse 5 we discover why:
"'Because Syria, with Ephraim[another name for the northern kingdom] and the son of Remaliah[Pekah, the king of Israel] has devised evil against you, saying, "Let us go up against Judah and terrify it, and let us conquer it for ourselves, and set up the son of Tabe-el as king in the midst of it," thus says the Lord God:
It shall not stand,
and it shall not come to pass. (Isaiah 7:5-7 RSV)
That is clear and unequivocal; the threat will come to nothing. God goes on to give the reason for this powerful, forthright message:
"For the head of Syria is Damascus its capital, and the head of Damascus is Rezin[the king]. (Isaiah 7:8a RSV)
This king is such a weak figure that he is no threat and therefore Syria and Damascus may be disregarded.
"[Within sixty-five years Ephraim will be broken to pieces so that it will no longer be a people.) And the head of Ephraim is Samaria[that was its capital], and the head of Samaria is the son of Remaliah." (Isaiah 7:8b-9a RSV)
That is Pekah, the king, who also is an inconsequential figure. Isaiah warns Ahaz:
'"If you will not believe, surely you shall not be established."' (Isaiah 7:9b RSV)
That is a play on words in the Hebrew. We could capture it in English if we put it this way: "If there is no belief, you will find no relief."
All this seems very far removed from us. These events happened long, long ago in a country far distant from us. Yet there are several important matters included here that we must not fail to note. Bear with me as I give you some pointers on how to interpret Old Testament prophecies. Notice first that the prophet is specifically told to take along with him his little son Shear-jashub. Although the boy does nothing and says nothing, his very presence is required to make this prophecy meaningful, as we will see. The boy's name (which means, "A remnant shall return"), is the significant element that the prophet is to bring before the king.
In studying the Old Testament it is important to note the meaning of people's names. Hebrews did not choose their children's names like we do -- after some movie star, a great football player, or some name that has been in the family for years. Hebrew names mean something, and oftentimes teach a lesson. For instance, the name of the oldest person who ever lived, Methuselah, means, "When he dies, it will come." What a strange thing to name your child! But in Genesis 5 we learn that the father of Methuselah was another remarkable man named Enoch, one of only two men in the Bible who never died, but was "caught up" when he reached 365 years of age. Enoch began his walk with God when he was 65 years old, and the reason he did so was because he had a little boy whom he named Methuselah! These clues help us figure out what is going on. I hope you learn to read the Bible like you were Perry Mason, following some of these remarkable clues. It makes the Scriptures come alive.
A look at the context reveals that what changed Enoch's life and made him walk with God was the revelation that there was coming a great event that would significantly affect every human being then on earth. He was told to name his little boy "When he dies, it will come," because the world was headed for judgment: a great flood was coming. Can you imagine what it meant to the people of that day to have this little boy around, reminding them all the time, "When he dies, it will come?" How they must have kept track of him! "Where's Methuselah? I haven't seen that boy for half an hour. Let's find him because 'When he dies, it will come!'" If you check the record, you will find that the very year that Methuselah died was the year the flood came. Here in Isaiah we will see why Shear-jashub ("A remnant will return") is a very key part of this prophecy.
Then the second thing we are told is the precise spot on which God directed the prophet to stand when he made this announcement to the king. You probably read this thinking that it was nothing more than a casual direction God gave to him. But it is very significant. Isaiah was told to go to the "end of the conduit of the upper pool on the highway to the Fuller's Field"; to stand at that very spot and give this announcement to King Ahaz. What is the meaning of that? In a moment we will see that it has a most remarkable meaning. There at that spot, and only there, the prophet was to inform King Ahaz that he had nothing to fear from these two armies that were threatening the city of Jerusalem. They were only "smoking stumps" and were no real threat at all. The account declares that within sixty-five years this deliverance would happen. Jewish commentators tell us that those sixty-five years began when an earthquake struck Israel during the days of King Uzziah, twenty years before this prophecy was uttered, which meant that there were only some forty years left within which it was to be concluded. Thus within that period of time, sometime before forty years had elapsed, Israel, the northern kingdom, would become a captive nation, and Syria's power would be smashed by the might of a greater nation, the kingdom of Assyria. All this came true, as predicted.
In looking at this passage we must remember the peculiar nature of Isaiah's commission. In Chapter 6 he was sent to this people with a very strange message. God said to him, "Go and speak to this people, but speak in a way that they will 'hear what you say but they will not hear it,' and they will 'see what you are talking about but they will not perceive it.'" Here we are given a clue that Isaiah is to prophesy in rather cryptic, double-meaning language.
This word about the "conduit of the upper pool on the highway to the Fuller's Field" is a good example of this. The beauty of the Hebrew language is that it is capable of a number of different meanings. That is not true of Greek. Scholars and students love the Greek New Testament because Greek is a very precise language. But Hebrew is not like that. It paints in big globs of color which can be interpreted in various ways. Many of the Hebrew words actually have many meanings -- sometimes meanings that are even opposites. Granted that this makes interpretation difficult, but it also makes it challenging and very interesting.
Let me show you what I mean. The word "pool" here ("the conduit of the upper pool"), in Hebrew also means "blessing." It is obvious why a pool of water would be called a blessing. In a dry and thirsty land any pool of water would clearly prove to be a blessing. So the word has both meanings. The word "upper" ("the upper pool") means more than a pool located on a higher level. It also means "the most high." So what we have as a second meaning is the phrase "The blessing of the Most High." This pool is a spring of water, located on the hillside west of the old City of David which flowed down an aqueduct to the city. At the end of it, where it emptied into a small pool, was the spot where the prophet was told to take his stand: "at the end of the aqueduct from the upper pool."
At the same time, that was also the place where the road by which he came there, "the highway to the Fuller's Field," led. A highway in Scripture is always an ascent. It is called in Isaiah 35 "the highway of holiness," so it has to do with righteousness and moral cleansing. This is also strengthened by the fact that it led to the "Fuller's Field." In old English, a fuller was a laundry man, a washerman. The field would be at the place of washing. Thus we can see why a pool which was "the end of a conduit" of water, coming down from an upper spring, would also be the place where people washed their clothes. That is the spot where Isaiah was told to stand.
When these meanings are considered we see why the prophet was sent to where these two places met -- it was where the "upward way of cleansing and of washing, met the downward flow of the channel of the blessings of the Most High." What would that symbolize? From the New Testament, we know it could only describe the Lord Jesus himself. He is the "end of the aqueduct, the channel of the blessing of the Most High." He is also "the way of cleansing," the upward ascent that brought the prophet to this place. It is all a beautiful poetic description of Jesus himself. (Forty years later, by the way, the king of Assyria stood on that very spot and threatened the city of Jerusalem again. God met him by sending an angel into the camp of the Assyrians and slew 185,000 of them in one night.).
Now we learn why the prophet was told to take his son Shear-jashub with him.
Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, "Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven." But Ahaz said, "I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test " And he said, "Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman, or, as some texts have it, a virgin, shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey that he may know how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, that land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted. The Lord will bring upon you and upon your people and upon your father's house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah[he will bring] the king of Assyria." (Isaiah 7:10-17 RSV)
The rest of the chapter describes the destruction that would follow as a result of that invasion by the king of Assyria.
What a confusing passage this is to many! Jewish commentators say this prophecy of Immanuel is not a reference to Jesus but merely a sign given to King Ahaz, and has only to do with the immediate events that would transpire in that land. It is not a prophecy of a virgin bearing a child, they say (especially the virgin Mary), but it was fulfilled by a young woman of that time, probably the prophet's wife. This confusing language is why many have missed the import of this message.
But notice, first of all, the wide scope from which Ahaz was invited to choose a sign. God said to him, "Ask of me and I will give you a sign (that what I say is going to happen), and you can choose from as deep as Sheol (hell itself) or as high as heaven." In other words, this sign was intended to be of world-shaking importance, something that all the peoples of the earth for all time would know about, a sign that would strengthen the faith of millions.
The petulant king, who had no interest in a sign from God and did not even believe that God could or would do anything for him, tries hypocritically to cover his unbelief by pious words, "Oh, I wouldn't think of asking a sign for such a one as me!" But he has just been invited by God to ask for a sign! Have you ever heard anyone talk like that? I have read passages of Scripture to people listing promises of God about what he would do if they would trust him, and they have responded, "Oh, I cannot believe that God would do anything like that for me." That may sound humble and pious, but actually it is a fearful utterance of pride. Isaiah answers the king rather bluntly, "Look, isn't it enough that you make me tired without making God tired as well?"
It is important to notice that the prophet now addresses him, no longer as King Ahaz, but as 'the House of David': "Hear then, O House of David. . . Therefore the Lord himself will give you ["you" is plural in this instance meaning the entire house of David"] a sign. Behold, a young woman [or a virgin] shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Immanuel [God with us]."
It is not wrong to translate this "a young woman." The Hebrew allows for that. The word can mean a young married as well as a young unmarried woman. But to be a "sign" it would have to be a young unmarried woman who had never known a man -- a virgin, in other words. Young women have sons all the time, but it would only be a sign if a woman who never knew a man conceived and bore a son. That is what the prophet said would happen. It was a sign to the whole House of David.
In the New Testament we are told that an angel appeared to Joseph because he was of the line of David and said to him, "Fear not to take this woman to be your wife because that which is born of her is of the Holy Spirit," Matthew 1:20). Thus the virgin birth was, indeed, a sign to the House of David, 750 years later, that God would carry out his promise. A baby would be born of a virgin and his name would be "God with us." All the beauty, mystery and majesty of Christmas gathers around that name. When Jesus was born of a virgin in a stable in Bethlehem and laid in a manger, the angels broke through the heavens and cried to the shepherds, "Behold, I bring you glad tidings of great joy, for unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord (God with us)," (Luke 2:10). Surely no one reading these two Scriptures together can fail to see the tie between them.
That was to be the sign to the House of David, but that was not the sign to Ahaz. Beginning with Verse 15, the prophet goes on to give him that sign. We read, "He (this sounds at first like it refers to Immanuel but later verses show otherwise)... shall eat curds and honey that he may know how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted." That is clearly the sign for Ahaz for it deals directly with the problem he faced. But who, then, is this "he" to whom it refers?
Perhaps you have already guessed. This is surely why Isaiah was told to take with him his little son Shear-jashub. At this point he probably put his hand upon the boy's head and said, "He (his own son) shall eat curds and honey that he may know how to refuse the evil and choose the good." Later in the chapter we discover that after the Assyrian invasion everyone in the land was to eat curds and honey, the food of poverty. The invading army so decimated the countryside that there was no food left. But grass grew abundantly, and the few cattle and sheep remaining produced milk, from which the people made curds (we would call it cottage cheese), and they ate wild honey, naturally found in the land. By eating this food of poverty Shear-jashub would learn "to refuse the evil and choose the good" for the land was destroyed because the king had chosen evil instead of good. Thus Shear-jashub and the whole population would learn to refuse the evil and choose the good. This, then, is a prophecy containing two signs: the wonderful sign of the coming of One born of a virgin whose name would be Immanuel, and a second sign to the unbelieving king concerning the invasion of Assyria during which his only comfort would be derived from the name of Isaiah's son, "a remnant shall return."
The rest of the chapter and part of chapter 8 describes this Assyrian invasion. Here we are introduced to another son of Isaiah who is also a sign to the nation. He too has a strange name: (Isaiah) 8:3 says,
And I went to the prophetess, and she conceived and bore a son. Then the Lord said to me, "Call his name Mahershalalhashbaz." (Isaiah 8:3 RSV)
Imagine having a son with a name like that! What a task, even to call him into lunch every day. Mahershalalhashbaz means "The spoil speeds and the prey hastens." It gives a picture of the people when the armies of Assyria came rushing in. The people were the spoil and the prey who would run before these armies, speeding to hide themselves. It is a picture of panic and flight: "the spoil speeds and the prey hastens."
Moving to Chapter 9, we discover another beautiful vision of the prophet that spans the centuries and brings before us new truths that were fulfilled in our Lord's day. The opening words of the chapter really belong to the closing part of Chapter 8. Thus the chapter should begin with these words,
In the former time he[God] brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
on them has light shined. (Isaiah 9:1b-2 RSV)
Here a new geographical area is brought into focus. Northern Israel, around the Sea of Galilee, was utterly decimated in the Assyrian invasion. It was the part of Israel hardest hit in that attack. This Isaiah foresaw which he calls "the former time," when God "brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali," the two tribes who occupied that area. But, he says, "in the latter time [centuries later] he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations." Surely no prophecy could be more striking in its fulfillment than the appearance of Jesus and his ministry in the area of Galilee. He would be, as the prophet says, a "great light" to the people who walked in darkness. When our Lord appeared he made the area glorious by his teaching and ministry. He was a great light amid the moral darkness and decay of that day.
Most of our Lord's ministry was spent in Galilee. There he healed the sick, opened the eyes of the blind, healed the lame, cast out demons and raised the dead. There some of his greatest messages were preached: the Sermon on the Mount, overlooking the Sea of Galilee; the great message on the bread of life in John 6, which was uttered after the feeding of the 5,000; there he told his great parables: the parable of the sower, the parable of the prodigal son, etc. All these wonderful utterances were made in that land of darkness. A "great light" had indeed come among them.
Between Verses 2 and 3 of this chapter we have what has been called "the great parenthesis" in prophecy. It leaps over the centuries, past our own day, to the day when the nation of Israel discovers who their Messiah is. This is a frequent occurrence in the Old Testament. The Apostle Peter in his first letter says the prophets described "the sufferings of Christ and the glory which should follow," (1 Peter 1:11 KJV). Peter puts these events together, but we know that the sufferings came at his first advent, while the glory will follow at his second advent. All through the Old Testament we see the blending of these two great themes. This is why Jews struggle with believing that Jesus is their Messiah. They read prophecies that link these two events together and saw that when Jesus came he did not do what is described here. Isaiah predicts, in Verse 3,
Thou hast multiplied the nation,
thou hast increased its joy;
they rejoice before thee
as with joy at the harvest,
as men rejoice when they divide the spoil.
For the yoke of his burden,
and the staff for his shoulder,
the rod of his oppressor,
thou has broken as on the day of Midian. (Isaiah 9:3-4 RSV)
That is a reference to Gideon and his great victory.
For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult
and every garment rolled in blood
will be burned as fuel for the fire. (Isaiah 9:5 RSV)
That is a beautiful figure depicting worldwide peace, when the implements of warfare will be destroyed. It is what the peace movements of our day are longing to see, and what the bumper stickers cry for, "Make Peace Not War." All that will happen -- but in that day. The Jews say that Jesus did not fulfill these promises, and we have to agree with that. But this looks on to the time when he will. Who is it that will do this? The answer is given in these wonderful verses:
For unto us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government will be upon his shoulder,
and his name will be called
"Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace."
Of the increase of his government and of peace
there will be no end,
upon the throne of David, and over his kingdom,
to establish it, and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this. (Isaiah 9:6-7 RSV)
What a remarkable picture! It hardly needs any exposition. Suddenly, after a great time of trouble, the nation will realize that this glorious King, their Messiah, once came as a little child: "Unto us a child is born." He who was for eternity the Son of God was "given" to them as a little Baby in Bethlehem. They recognize at last, after centuries of rejection, that this One rightly deserves divine titles. This is Immanuel, "God with us."
The four titles Isaiah lists represent that: "Wonderful Counselor." Did anyone ever fulfill that more fully than Jesus? He unveils to us secrets about ourselves, counsels us how to avoid the heartaches and problems that otherwise would beset us, showing the way of deliverance from the taint and pollution of sin. "Mighty God." That unquestionably divine title can only describe God. He is the Mighty One, and in 10:21 the same term is used of God unmistakably.
It is not so much "Everlasting Father" as it is "Father of Eternity." This is surely a reference to the fact that Jesus alone can give eternal life; he is its father for it originates with him. "As many as believe in him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God."
No one contests the last title, "Prince of Peace." He states himself, "My peace I give unto you," (John 14:27 KJV). "Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end." This phrase captures the universal character of the Messiah's reign and its extension at last to the whole created cosmos.
The key, of course, is in these words, "Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given." Even though this event took place thousands of years ago, when a nation (or an individual) first comes into personal contact with the Lord of Glory it seems as though he is the recipient for the first time of this wonderful gift. That is why we speak of when we "found the Lord," and how he "came to us," because it is so real in our own experience. Here we see this in the case of the nation Israel in the day when their eyes are opened.
This applies to us in our own day as well. It is unto us that he came, unto us he is born. He is "God with us," to strengthen and guide us, to meet our needs, to solve our problems.
Between the services this morning a woman told me of her struggle with a sense of being abandoned, left without guidance, needing his presence. All I could do was point her back to these marvelous promises. The Lord is with us. This is the glory, the true message of Christmas. No Christmas carol captures this better than Philip Brooks' beautiful words:
How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him still,
The dear Christ enters in.
O holy Child of Bethlehem!
Descend to us, we pray,
Cast out our sin and enter in,
Be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us,
Our Lord Immanuel!"