Immanuel: The Gospel according to Isaiah
Isaiah is often seen as one of the most theologically rich books of the Old Testament. Living in a time of rampant idolatry and apostasy, Isaiah prophesied against Israel to the north and Judah to the south, foretelling the exile and return to the land of promise. Judgment and restoration of Israel, Judah, the nations, and the earth is a huge theme, as well as the destruction and humiliation of the false gods and idols. The judgment is something that is justly deserved because of the sins of humanity, but the restoration is only possible through a remarkable figure prophesied in Isaiah; Immanuel. Isaiah gives the fullest revelation about the Messiah in the Old Testament, and in fact it is possible to preach the whole Gospel from Isaiah.
While Immanuel is clearly Jesus, it can be useful to look at what we know about Immanuel from Isaiah alone, before reading the text through the lens of New Testament revelation.
The kingly lineage and extraordinary birth of Immanuel
Immanuel would be born in the house of David (Isaiah 9:6–7); His birth is said to be a sign to the house of David (Isaiah 7:14). But He would be born at a time when the kingly line had gone from the preeminence of David to their prior insignificance during the time of David’s father, Jesse (Isaiah 11:1). This is exactly what happened. When Jesus was born, Mary and Joseph took two doves as the purification offering (Luke 2:22–24). This was the allowed offering for people living in poverty, indicating that the house of David was no longer prominent or wealthy.
Immanuel would be born of ‘the virgin’ (Isaiah 7:14, Matthew 1:23). We have argued that ‘virgin’ is the correct translation of the Hebrew word in previous articles.1 But who is ‘the virgin’? The clearest explanation is that it is a reference to the idea that the Messiah would be the ‘Seed of the woman’ who would crush the head of the serpent, and He would be the Seed of the woman because He would have no human father (Genesis 3:15).
The ancient Jews knew just as well as modern people that it was impossible for a virgin to become pregnant naturally; this is why Joseph was about to divorce Mary before he was reassured in a dream. That is the point; a young woman becoming pregnant the usual way would not have been an extraordinary sign to the house of David.
Immanuel’s godly character
Immanuel would be the servant of Yahweh from His earliest existence (Isaiah 49:1, 49:5). He would be holy and set apart for service to Yahweh, who would put His words in Immanuel’s mouth (Isaiah 49:2). He would be extraordinarily wise, and would be filled with God’s Spirit (Isaiah 11:2). Immanuel would “refuse the evil and choose the good” (Isaiah 7:15), which no mere person does consistently. This is an indication that Immanuel would not be a mere man; even the extraordinarily righteous men in the Bible were still sinners.
Immanuel’s status as God
Immanuel’s birth makes it clear that He would not be an ordinary person, and His name means ‘God with us’, meaning that His birth would signify God’s presence with His people in a special way. He is called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6). Someone with these titles could be no less than God Himself.2
Some people wonder how the Incarnate Son could be called ‘Everlasting Father’. Is this a confusion of the Persons of the Trinity? In fact, the title is better translated as ‘Father of Eternity’; meaning that He is the creator of time, or alternately that He is the source of eternal life (both of which are true of God the Son).3
Immanuel’s rejection and shameful death
Though there would be signs to point to the truth of Immanuel’s identity, He would seem to be a normal person; He would not be obviously divine (Isaiah 53:2). And Israel would ultimately reject Him, as Israel had rejected Yahweh for idols in Isaiah’s day, subjecting Him to humiliation and ultimately death. He would be beaten so badly that He would be disfigured (Isaiah 52:14).
Yet all this would be in line with the will of Yahweh (Isaiah 53:10); and it’s because it is the will of Yahweh that Immanuel would not resist (Isaiah 50:6; 53:7). Immanuel would be shamed temporarily, but Yahweh Himself would vindicate Immanuel, and He would be honoured eternally (Isaiah 50:7–9; 53:12).
The purpose of the shaming and death of Immanuel would be to pay for the sins of Yahweh’s people, both among the Jews and the Gentiles (Isaiah 53). Immanuel would never sin, so His death could count for the payment of the sins of many others. This sacrifice would bring in a new covenant, in which Jews and Gentiles who believe in Yahweh and His Son share equally in eternal life (Isaiah 56:3, 6–7).
Isaiah saw Immanuel’s glory
One of the most well-known events recorded in Isaiah is his vision of Yahweh’s glory:
In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the LORD sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke (Isaiah 6:1–4).
John says that this was actually a vision of the pre-incarnate Son (John 12:37–41). While Immanuel would not manifest His true glory, He nevertheless possesses it (and the Transfiguration was one instance where Jesus’ true glory shone through).
Immanuel’s restored earth and eternal reign
Because Immanuel paid the price for His people’s sins, He is able to usher in a restoration of the entire earth. Reigning on David’s throne, He judges all nations. The earth itself is restored to an Edenic state where there is no more carnivory or predation, and snakes will not pose a threat to even the smallest children (Isaiah 11:6–9; 65:25). In that time, all false gods will be humiliated and all idols will be destroyed never to be worshipped again.
Jesus is Immanuel
When we properly understand how Christ is foreshadowed in the Old Testament, we can see that the Gospel is not new, or an idea foreign to the Old Testament. It is possible to preach the Gospel from Isaiah or from other books of the Old Testament—as did Christ Himself (Luke 24:13–35), Philip (Acts 8:26–39) and especially Paul (e.g. Acts 17:2)—if we see how they point to Jesus.