‘All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”)’. – Matthew 1:22-23
Umm, Matthew, don’t you mean ‘… and they will call him Jesus (which means “the Lord saves”)’?
Is the much ballyhooed Messianic prophecy in Isaiah 7:14, quoted here by Matthew, and cited often in churches during the Season of Advent, just plain wrong?
Boney M never sang ‘Mary’s Boy Child Immanuel Christ was born on Christmas Day’, after all.
In light of that apparent disconnect, I decided to do a bit of research and contemplation on the I-Word this week, and share what I learned, in today’s blog post.
But before we dismiss Isaiah 7:14 as a false prophecy, let’s have a look at it in the English Standard Version:
‘Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.’
… and compare that with another iconic Messianic prophecy from Isaiah:
‘For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.’ – Isaiah 9:6 (ESV)
It’s pretty clear that in the latter passage, these are titles – not names. And since ‘his name shall be called’ is pretty similar to ‘shall call his name’, maybe for Isaiah and Matthew, Immanuel was never intended to be the Messiah’s name, but merely one of his many, many titles.
But apparently, Christendom either didn’t get the memo, or we decided to run that ball in a different direction, because the I-Word (often spelled with an E) is a pretty common first name in our culture.
In my own small circle of friends and connections, I know two guys – one at work and one at church – named Emmanuel, and I have an annoyingly clever friend who pondered naming his daughter, born in late December, Emma Noël (his level-headed wife persuaded him to go with Holly instead, thankfully).
Another aspect of our culture that has wholeheartedly embraced Immanuel/Emmanuel is worship music.
I did a quick search of a leading Christian music database for the words Emmanuel and Immanuel, and came up with about 1,500 songs that contain at least one mention of one of them.
Some of them are undoubtedly duplicates, though.
Case in point: I have seven versions of O Come, O Come Emmanuel in my Christmas/Advent iTunes playlist – all by different artists, with at least slightly different arrangements.
But even if two-thirds of those 1,500 Immanuel/Emmanuel songs are duplicates, it’s fair to say that the I-Word strikes a chord (literally) with worship leaders.
In light of how much attention Christians give to this word, it’s a little surprising how infrequently it appears in the Bible. Aside from one other mention in Isaiah 8:8 that doesn’t seem to be related to the Messianic prophecy, we only read this term in the passages I’ve cited above.
Nowhere in the entire New Testament, aside from Matthew 1, does the word Immanuel appear. And a skeptic could argue that the entire first chapter of Matthew was a transparent attempt to legitimize Jesus for a Jewish audience by tying His story to a familiar Old Testament prophecy.
If that were all we had to go on, I think I might be tempted to delete those seven songs from my iPhone.
But thankfully, I don’t think that’s all we have to go on.
It’s true that aside from Matthew 1, the New Testament doesn’t use the I-word.
But I think it’s fair to say that the whole purpose of the New Testament is to proclaim the good news (Gospel) that God is with us, and to explain what He wants for (not from) us in light of this startling news.
Once Matthew 1 connects the dots with the Immanuel prophecy, that job is done.
We don’t need Scripture to keep connecting the dots. We need it to fill in the picture.
So for my shekels, every single verse of the New Testament calls Him Immanuel.
And so do we. Quite literally.
Maybe the word ‘they‘ in Isaiah 7:14 doesn’t only refer to the people who knew Jesus during the 33 years of his human life, or to His apostles who wrote the New Testament in the decades that followed.
There’s no time frame specified in Isaiah, so in light of the fact we name our children Emmanuel and have hymnals full of songs about Immanuel, maybe we are the ‘they‘ who fulfill this prophecy.
Behold, the virgin has conceived and born a Son, and we have called Him Immanuel.
Peace be with you.