We celebrate and sing the name “Immanuel” at Christmas, and rightly so. “Immanuel” means “God with us,” and in one sense this is the story of the entire Bible. It is certainly the story of Advent.
But a Bible search for the word “Immanuel” doesn’t return many results. Aside from its appearance in Matthew 1, we only find this name twice in the early chapters of Isaiah.
When the angel of the Lord visits Joseph in Matthew 1, he tells Joseph to name Mary’s baby Jesus, “for he will save his people from their sins” (v. 21). Matthew comments:
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel’ (which means, God with us).” (vv. 22–23)
Since “all this” which took place must include the angel revealing Jesus’ name to Joseph, then the name “Jesus” fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy. But in Isaiah’s prophecy, the son would be called “Immanuel.”
This passage raises a question: How does the name “Jesus” fulfill the prophecy that this son would be named “Immanuel”?
We need some background before we land on an answer. After King Solomon’s reign, the nation of Israel splintered. The 10 northern tribes formed their own country with the capital of Samaria. This country was then referred to as “Israel” while the two southern tribes formed the country called “Judah.”
During the time of Isaiah, the Assyrian empire was gaining power, and the other nations in the area were scrambling. Israel joined Syria in a pact of mutual defense against Assyria, and they pressed Judah to join them. As Ahaz, king of Judah, resisted, Israel and Syria threatened to attack Judah and replace Ahaz with their own king.
Isaiah 7:10–17 is one of the best-known passages in all the Prophets. God told Ahaz to ask for a sign that God would protect Judah from their enemies. Ahaz refused, so God promised his own sign—the sign of Immanuel.
We know that the prophecy about the virgin bearing a son (v. 14) is fulfilled when Jesus is born. Matthew says so! But many biblical prophecies have both immediate and ultimate fulfillments. Is this prophecy fulfilled before Jesus is born?
Isaiah reveals the answer as we read on. One key is that the Hebrew word often translated “virgin” can also be rendered “young woman” or “maiden.” Thus, a miraculous birth is not necessary for an immediate fulfillment. Verse 16 also contains language pointing to a not-long-from-now fulfillment. And the beginning of the next chapter brings this first fulfillment into focus.
In Isaiah 8:1–8 we read of the way God will bring about his thorough judgment.
One of the striking features of this passage is the strangeness of Isaiah’s son’s name: Maher-shalal-hash-baz (v. 4). This name means “the spoil speeds, the prey hastens.” Through this name God was communicating his plan to break the Israel-Syria alliance by the coming of Assyria.
Isaiah was used to giving his children names with messages. In Isaiah 7:3, God told Isaiah to take his (older) son Shear-jashub with him to speak to Ahaz. This name means “a remnant shall return.” This son carried his name as a reassuring message to Ahaz, designed to give him confidence in God.
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It’s impossible to miss the parallels between Isaiah 7:16 and Isaiah 8:4. The birth of Maher-shalal-hash-baz is tied to the victory of Assyria over Israel and Syria. As Immanuel comes, Judah will be free from the immediate threat of these nearby nations.
But how should we understand the meaning of “Immanuel” in Isaiah 8:8?
Even when defeat looks near and the Assyrian army is filling the land, it is still Immanuel’s land. God will not abandon his people, even in their darkest hour. Assyria will come in like a flood, sweeping Syria and Israel away. But Assyria will eventually fade from history. Judah will remain in the land of Immanuel. God will be with them.
There is one final mention of Immanuel in this chapter. Though not a title, Isaiah specifically refers to “God with us” in verse 10:
Be broken, you peoples, and be shattered;
give ear, all you far countries;
strap on your armor and be shattered;
strap on your armor and be shattered.
Take counsel together, but it will come to nothing;
speak a word, but it will not stand,
for God is with us. (Isaiah 8:9–10)
Isaiah was speaking to those who would attack Judah in the future. He dared them and warned them that they would be broken and shattered. The reason all their counsel will come to nothing and none of their words will stand is because God is with them.
Putting It Together
What does this background to the name “Immanuel” add to our reading of Matthew 1?
“Immanuel” in Isaiah is a sign for God’s people that they will see victory over their enemies. Despite the doom and devastation, God will be with them, and they will be victorious. Isaiah’s son was a first, imperfect version of Immanuel, pointing to God’s victory over military enemies through his presence.
Notice how the announcement to Joseph fulfills this prophecy. Jesus will “save his people from their sins.” For God’s people then and for us now, our sins are an enemy. They are worse than any menacing country. We are no match for them on our own, and we dare not make peace or an alliance with these scoundrels.
Sometimes our sins seem overwhelming and damnable. These rise to our necks and threaten to drown us—
But Jesus is Immanuel, God with us! He will save us from our sins!
For those who trust in him, he has taken away the punishment our sins deserve. And he will strip our sins of their power over us, taking away their allure, appeal, and longevity.
The more we see the strength and rebellion of our sin, the more we see the glory and love involved in the work of Jesus for us. He is God with us, and this is good news worth celebrating, not just at Christmas but all year long.