A Virgin Shall Conceive
Dr. Philip W. McLarty
For the past two Sundays, we’ve heard the prophecy of Isaiah. He’s told us of signs to look for if we’re to recognize the coming of the Lord and the New Creation.
• Two Sundays ago he said, “The wolf will live with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the young goat; The calf, the young lion, and the fattened calf together; and a little child will lead them.” (Isaiah 11:6)
• Last Sunday, he said, “Then the eyes of the blind will be opened, and the ears of the deaf will be unstopped. Then the lame man will leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute will sing…” (Isaiah 35:5-6)
• Today we’ll hear of yet another sign: “Behold, the virgin will conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”
I should point out: Various translations prefer the wording, “a young woman,” or “a maiden,” but let’s not quibble. The message is clear: God will give a sign of what the future holds, and it will confirm, once more, the sovereignty of God over all creation and God’s unfailing determination to redeem his people and reconcile them to himself.
We’ll get to the text in just a moment, but first, I need to ask you to put on your thinking caps. Most of you have heard this passage read every Christmas since you can remember in connection with the birth of Jesus. And, I dare say, you’re likely to hear it again in Christmases to come.
That’s why we love the passage so––it seems to fit the Christmas story so well. What we overlook is the fact that Isaiah lived seven hundred years before Christ and that he was prophesying to the people of his day, without any foreknowledge whatsoever of Joseph, Mary or the baby Jesus.
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To be fair to Isaiah and to hear God’s Word proclaimed in this passage, we need to read it in the context in which it was written. That means we’re going to have to step back in time, and that’s going to take some effort on your part.
Are you ready? The year is 735 B.C. And the setting is this: There are three small tribal states––Syria (otherwise, known as Aram), Israel and Judah. Looking at a map, they’re lined up in a row from north to south. Further to the north and east of Syria is the nation of Assyria.
Here’s the problem: Assyria had become so vast and, militarily, so strong, that it was only a matter of time until the Assyrians turned south and attacked the lesser kingdoms of Syria, Israel and Judah. To prepare for the inevitable, the two northern kingdoms of Syria and Israel formed an alliance. They figured when the Assyrians attacked, they’d fight together to maintain their independence.
To bolster their strength, they asked Judah to join them. But the king of Judah, King Ahaz, said no. He felt sure they’d be no match for the mighty Assyrian army, and he was afraid that when the king of Assyria saw what they were doing, he’d wage war on all three nations.
So, King Ahaz refused to join the coalition, and this so upset the kings of Syria and Israel that they attacked Judah. This is where our story for today picks up. Isaiah writes,
“It happened in the days of Ahaz…Rezin the king of Syria, and Pekah the son of Remaliah, king of Israel, went up to Jerusalem to war against it, but could not prevail against it.” (7:1)
The Syrian and Israelite armies weren’t strong enough to breach the walls of Jerusalem, but they were able to put the city under siege. Fortunately, the people of Jerusalem had stockpiled grain and, as long as their water supply wasn’t cut off, they were safe.
But the clock was ticking. How long could they hold out? Isaiah says that “the heart of his people, as the trees of the forest tremble with the wind.” (7:2) They were running scared.
One day, King Ahaz went up to the Pool of Siloam to check the water supply. At the same time, the Lord spoke to Isaiah and told him to find the king and tell him not to worry:
“…tell him, ‘Be careful, and keep calm.
Don’t be afraid, neither let your heart be faint
because of these two tails of smoking torches
(who seek to destroy Jerusalem)…
It shall not stand, neither shall it happen.
(Stand firm in your faith, for)…
If you will not believe, surely you shall not be established.'” (7:4-9)
Isaiah found the king and advised him to stay the course: Trust God and be patient, he said. The siege would be short-lived. Besides, hadn’t God promised that a descendent of David would always sit on the throne of Judah?
But, as we all know, things like this are easier said than done. It’s easy to trust God when things are going your way, but when you’re under siege––when business is bad, say, or a relationship fails; when the stock market plummets or your health breaks; when things are not going your way and you’ve tried everything and nothing seems to work––it’s at times like these that you’re most likely to lose confidence and panic and go chasing after other gods.
It’s like the story of the tourist who went to the Grand Canyon. He stepped too close to the edge and fell off the cliff. Luckily, there was a scrub brush growing out from the hillside, and, as he hit it, he grabbed on for dear life. In desperation, he called for help. “Is anyone up there?” he cried. Just then, a man in a white robe appeared above him. He looked down at the man and said, “I’ll help you, my friend.” “Great!” he said, “But who are you? The man replied, “I’m the Lord. I’m here to help you. Just let go of the limb, and you’ll be saved.” The man hanging from the limb looked down at the great chasm below and said, “Let go of the limb? Are you crazy?!” The other man replied, “Not at all. I’m the Lord. Trust me. Let go of the limb, and you’ll be saved.” The man thought for a moment and called out, “Is anyone else up there?”
When things are going your way, it’s easy to live by faith. But when things go awry, as so often they do, it’s tempting to look for something more tangible and concrete to hang your hat on, and to take matters into your own hands.
King Ahaz and the people of Judah were surrounded by forces that threatened to destroy them, and, contrary to conventional wisdom, Isaiah said, “Do not fear. Stand firm in your faith.”
That’s a word we’d do well to remember––that whatever the particular circumstances you may be dealing with today, God is faithful and will stand with you and give you the strength to persevere. An old gospel hymn says it best:
When we walk with the Lord in the light of His Word,
What a glory He sheds on our way!
While we do His good will, He abides with us still,
And with all who will trust and obey.
Trust and obey, for there’s no other way
To be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.
Sadly, King Ahaz wouldn’t listen. Turns out, he was not a man of faith at all, nor was he a strong leader. In times of crisis, he capitulated. He let the world around him influence his thinking. He was motivated by political expediency. He didn’t believe Isaiah, and he wasn’t about to trust God for deliverance.
Instead, he looked to the false gods of Baal. Scripture tells us that, at one point, he even sacrificed his own son as a burnt offering to assuage the anger of the gods. (2 Kings 16:5)
When that didn’t work, he appealed to the king of Assyria for help. He would’ve sold his soul to the Devil, if he thought it would save him. Isaiah tried all the more to persuade him to stay the course and trust the Lord. He said,
“‘Ask a sign of Yahweh your God (Ask anything!);
ask it either in the depth, or in the height above.’
But Ahaz said, ‘I will not ask,
neither will I tempt Yahweh.'” (7:11-12)
On the surface, it sounds as if Ahaz was pious and didn’t want to trouble the Almighty. In fact, he was faithless and didn’t want to have anything to do with God at all. And so, in a fit of anger, Isaiah turned to the king and said,
“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign.
Behold, the virgin will conceive, and bear a son,
and shall call his name Immanuel.
He shall eat butter and honey
when he knows to refuse the evil,
and choose the good.
For before the child knows to refuse the evil,
and choose the good,
the land whose two kings you abhor shall be forsaken.
Yahweh will bring on you,
on your people, and on your father’s house,
days that have not come,
from the day that Ephraim departed from Judah;
even the king of Assyria.” (Isaiah 7:14-17)
We’re not told who the young woman was, and it really doesn’t matter. Isaiah’s point was that, in a relatively short time––before the child reached puberty––Syria and Israel would be deserted and the Assyrian army would go on to attack Judah, as well. Isaiah told the king,
“In that day the Lord will shave (Judah) with (an Assyrian) razor…,
the head and the hair of the feet;
and it shall also consume the beard.” (7:20)
The land of Judah would be reduced to rubble. The vineyards, once abundant and teeming with grapes, would become overgrown with thistles, and the once fertile farmland would become covered with briers and thorns. Check it out: The Assyrian Conquest was completed in 722 B.C. The child Isaiah was talking about would’ve been about thirteen years old.
Here’s the point: The future of Judah looked bleak; yet, in the face of certain annihilation, Isaiah offered a word of hope. He said, “Behold, the virgin will conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel (which means, God is with us).”
The child-sign was a symbol, not that the people of Judah would be spared from the wrath of the Assyrian army, but that God would be with them in their defeat and, through their hardships and suffering, God would give them the strength to recover and the will to return to a life of faith.
Now, hold on to that thought and fast-forward to the 1st Century, A.D. The people of Israel were living under Roman occupation. True, they weren’t slaves, as they had once been in Egypt, but they weren’t free, either. There were the greedy tax collectors, who squeezed as many shekels from them as he could; plus, there were the Roman soldiers, who were quick to put down any uprising or show of independence. They were free to practice their religion, as long as it didn’t interfere with their civic duties; in addition, they could observe the Sabbath and gather in their synagogues and make pilgrimage to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices in the Temple.
But, as for the hope of ever again becoming a great and glorious nation, well, at this point it seemed like pipe dream. For example, Isaiah had prophesied,
“It shall happen in the latter days,
that the mountain of Yahweh’s house
shall be established on the top of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
and all nations shall flow to it.
Many peoples shall go and say, ‘Come,
let’s go up to the mountain of Yahweh,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
and he will teach us of his ways,
and we will walk in his paths.’
For out of Zion the law shall go forth,
and the word of Yahweh from Jerusalem.” (Isaiah 2:2-3)
What was Isaiah thinking?! Such a vision was a distant fantasy. As for the coming of the Promised Messiah, there was little likelihood he would come on their watch.
And yet … there were those who remembered Isaiah’s prophecy and how, in the days of King Ahaz, God had given a sign of his faithfulness and love. For them, the words of Isaiah echoed still:
“Behold, the virgin shall be with child,
and shall bring forth sha son.
They shall call his name Immanuel;
which is, being interpreted, ‘God with us.'” (Matthew 1:23)
It was this sign that spoke to Matthew and the early church––that, just as God had promised to be with his people in the face of the Assyrian conquest, so God promised to be with his people in the days of Roman occupation; not to overthrow the Roman army or, in any way, challenge it’s authority; but to exert a force far greater––the force of faith in the sovereignty of God, and the transforming power of love and self-sacrifice, revealed in the person of Jesus Christ..
For Matthew and the early church, the birth of Jesus was the penultimate sign, that in the midst of a broken and fallen world, God was at work giving birth to a new creation.
Now, fast-forward once more, for the promise is just as real for us today as for the early Christians who first read Matthew’s gospel. God is with us, here and now. He has come in the person of Jesus to redeem us from our sinful nature and restore us to righteousness and reconcile us to himself.
This is what I hope you’ll take home with you today: As you honor him as the Lord and Savior of your life; and as you remember his teachings and follow his example of humility and sacrifice; you’re born again to a life of peace, joy, love and kindness. What’s more, you’re able to catch a glimpse of God’s heavenly kingdom here on earth and taste the first fruits of eternal life. As you do, you’ll find yourself singing with the angels on high, “Peace on earth, good will to all.”
Let us pray:
“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, Emmanuel.”
(Presbyterian Hymnal, p. 44)
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Copyright 2010, Philip McLarty. Used by permission.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.