“Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel.”
At a time when the empire of Assyria was bulldozing nations, Isaiah boldly proclaimed the coming of the victorious virgin-born child. Assyria was on the rise but so was God. While Tiglath-Pileser sought to make himself of great reputation, God was plotting to make Himself of no reputation. One sovereign wanted to enslave the world; the other wanted to free it. Therefore, while Assyria was quickly and loudly amassing soldiers and horses and chariots, God was slowly and quietly smuggling in a ruler of His own choosing: a virgin born child.
The vast kingdom of Assyria was characterized by cruel oppression. The great steles of Assyria found today boast of powerful kings conquering their captives and dragging them behind their chariots by hooks threaded through their noses. Not so the kingdom of the coming Child. He would conquer by love not force. His kingdom will be of peace and “of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end” (Isa. 9:7).
The kingdom of Assyrian was also characterized by moral decay and shameful lust. Apparently, according to Herodotus, every native woman of Assyria was bound, once in her lifetime, to go to the Temple of Mylitta (the Assyrian name for Aphrodite) and give herself to a stranger. The first man to toss her a coin, of any amount, was the one who could have her. After she had performed this shameful act, her duty to the goddess was fulfilled and she was free to leave.
Against this backdrop, the virgin birth of our Savior was announced. Instead of by disgusting acts of prostitution, this child would be born through a virgin. A pure, innocent virgin would be the vessel of the Lord. The entry of our Savior into the world would be morally superior to any other, and the government would be placed upon His strong, weak shoulders. He will be our Counselor, Warrior, Father and Prince. No more would Israel, or any nation for that matter, need to fear barbarity and oppression.
I find it ironic that God would announce this prophecy at the exact moment the Assyrian nation was on the rise, even at its pinnacle. At a time when the King of Assyria thought he was the master of the world’s chessboard, God revealed that he was just a passing pawn. Little did He know his overthrow would be through the birth of a child. Assyrian, Babylon, Persia, Rome – all were temporary pawns on the tiny chessboard called time, as God slowly moved up His eternal king one move at a time.
Man seeks to enslave others while God seeks to free them. Seven hundred years before it ever happened, God spoke about bringing His Son into the world to seek and to save sinners. But He had been planning it long before even that. Before the foundation of the world we read that God had already decided to give up His Son (Rev. 13:8). Therefore, the Apostle Paul declared that “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under law, that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:4, 5). While Tiglath-Pileser was planning to enslave the sons of the nations, God was thinking of a way to adopt them.
Thus the prophecy of Immanuel signaled the end. The birth of God-with-us sounded the death-knell for oppressors and freedom for the oppressed. The Christmas carol falls short as it proclaims, “O come, O come, Immanuel, and ransom captive Israel,” for it is not only Israel that will be ransomed by the coming of Immanuel but the whole world. Those who receive Him He ransoms from the power and fear of death and when He comes again a second time He will “order all things far and wide.”
Immanuel, or the Incarnation as we call it, was the greatest event ever to happen on planet earth. The Lord spoke to Ahaz saying, “Ask a sign for yourself from the Lord your God; ask it either in the depth, or in the height above” (Isa. 7:11). In heaven and earth there would be no greater sign given. To a virgin God’s Son would be born, being made in the likeness of men, being found in fashion as a man, and this would forever earn Him the name that is above every name. The One who had the unspeakable name took the lowest name in order to acquire an even higher name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow (Phil. 2:5-11).
They say it only takes a tiny crack in a massive structure to bring the whole edifice down. It is only a matter of time, they say. So it is with God and the kingdoms of this world. The fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, which came 700 years later, when Immanuel was born, brought about a tiny crack in the kingdoms of men. Not many on earth heard the tiny sound, save a handful of nameless shepherds. But it was from that tiny crack that God made His entry into the world. From then on, that crack became a fissure and that fissure became a fault line, and one day all the kingdoms of the earth will fall and become “the kingdoms of our Lord and of his Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever” (Rev. 11:15). Once more the chessboard will be shaken, removing the things that can be shaken, so that the things which cannot be shaken will remain. And He shall have the glory.
I love the chime of bells at Christmas time. One of the largest bells to ever chime resides in the walls of Notre Dame Cathedral. That bell has been appropriately named Immanuel. So huge is the bell that its tongue alone weighs five hundred pounds. On Christmas day its chime can be heard clanging through the city, ringing through the streets of Notre Dame, trumpeting the day of Christ’s birth.
In a similar way, I believe, the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Savior of the World, can be likened to a bell heard ringing around the world. At first it made just a tiny sound. Only the shepherds heard it ringing on the plains of Bethlehem. It chimed again in Nazareth and Galilee when He went about teaching and preaching the kingdom of God, training “The Twelve” to be His emissaries to the world. At last, it made its final sound on Golgotha’s tree when the Lord sounded His victorious defeat. “It is finished!” He shouted and made all our sins fall dead like soldiers fallen in battle.
Three days later that bell began to chime again. Immanuel’s bell can now be heard ringing in all the lands and from ear to ear, people have been responding. Soon its long tongue will clang against the walls of every nation, tribe and tongue, saving those who want to be saved, destroying those who reject the God who created them. Then, one final time, the Son of God will come with the clouds and every eye will see Him. Then every knee shall bow. Then every tongue will confess. But for some it will be too late. Behold Immanuel and trust the Savior while you still can.