Our second carol, like O Come all ye faithful, was originally written in Latin. Our version of O Come O Come Immanuel dates back to 1861 when the Hymns Ancient and Modern hymnbook was produced. The original words were used as a plainchant probably going back to the 12th Century. The earliest surviving copy of the Latin text was published in Cologne, Germany in 1710.
Why are we singing about ransoming Israel? When you ransom someone you rescue them from captivity. But why are we so interested in Israel? This is a small country, many miles away from here.
A few of us may well have some Jewish blood (from my family tree it appears I possibly do). But is that a good enough reason to sing this seemingly very political song? And is it really a political song? I know that because of Israel’s role in God’s plan many of us care deeply about that specific country, many of you pray for the peace of Jerusalem, some of you take a passionate interest in what happens in the Middle East. However, I’m not sure that this is exactly what the carol is getting at. I think it might have something even bigger and even more wonderful in mind.
And who is Immanuel? Answering this question will make a big difference.
The name appears in Isaiah 7:14. This very verse is taken and applied to Jesus. So what is going on here?
1. Watch the signs and know your enemy (Isaiah 7:10-17)
Ahaz was one of the Kings who reigned during the life of Isaiah. Ahaz was worried about enemies to the North (see v1-9). Many years ago civil war had split God’s people into two kingdoms, Israel in the North (10 tribes) and Judah in the south (2 tribes). Ahaz was afraid that Israel and Syria were forming an alliance and will attack Judah.
God spoke to Ahaz through Isaiah the prophet. He offered him a sign to prove that his promises would come true. Ahaz says “I don’t want a sign. I will not test God.”
This sounds very spiritual. It sounds at first like he is trusting God. However, Isaiah sees through this. He sees that Ahaz does not really want to listen to God. Sometimes we can use very spiritual language to disguise that we are not following God. For example
“I have prayed about this….”
“I see my gift/calling as….”
These should be good things to say. We should be praying about things. It is good to find out what gifts God has given us. But sadly sometimes we use these phrases to stop others from challenging us about what God really wants. Sometimes we can even use them to deceive ourselves.
Isaiah sees through Ahaz’s words. This is the context for the prophecy in verse 14. But we need to read the whole passage to understand what verse 14 means. Let’s have a look at the whole prophecy.
- “A young woman will conceive and give birth to a son called Immanuel.” This is literally what Ahaz would have heard (v14) Please note:
- At this stage we only know that it is a young woman. The word used could mean a virgin but could simply refer to her youth.
- It does not necessarily mean that she will conceive miraculously.
- The name Immanuel means that God is with us.
- God is going to deal with Israel and Syria. Those two countries will no longer be a threat (v15-18). This will happen whilst the child is very young before he has reached the age of moral discernment. This is the main sign for Ahaz. Peace will come very quickly.
- However, this sign is not quite as positive as it first seems. The reason for this peace is that another enemy is coming. The King of Assyria was building an empire. He was about to unleash savage, violent, destructive forces against Syria and Israel. This same enemy would then attack Judah. The army would even lay siege to Jerusalem.
What did this mean for Ahaz?
Ahaz would have seen Assyria as a powerful ally against his own enemies. However, God warns him that Assyria is not a real friend. Assyria wants to destroy his country too. Ahaz had trusted in other people and other gods not in the one true God. Judgement was coming. Immanuel was a sign both of God rescuing and protecting Israel but also of God’s justice and judgement.
What does it mean for us?
Well, we can learn something already. I said earlier that we could sum this section up as “Watch the signs and know your enemy.” We know the importance of watching the signs don’t we. All of those public health adverts tell us to watch out for the warning signs for disease. We’re told not to miss the symptoms in case there is something more sinister coming.
Then we’ve had all the warnings about people behaving suspiciously and what to do if we think they might be terrorists.
Well watch out for the spiritual warning signs. Sometimes we can be so focused on our immediate needs –worrying about our health, job or relationships that we can miss out on seeing the bigger danger. I worry when preachers focus on promising that God can sort out those things. Of course he can and of course there is a day coming when he will do all of that. However we can get so focused on those things that we miss the real danger.
The result is that people who appear to be able to help with a steady supply of soothing words, material goods, drugs and drink to mask the pain, intimacy to disguise our loneliness and even prayer ministry to give spiritual comfort may be doing more harm than good. It also means that we see people who refuse to offer that sort of help as our enemies when really they are some of our best friends.
What is the real danger? The real danger is sin; we have talked so often about its destructive effect on us and those we care about. But the biggest problem with sin that it is rebellion against God. We make God our enemy. We turn against the one who is Love, the one who made us and who has loved us since before the start of time.
2. See the Sign and know your Saviour (Matthew 1:23)
700 years later a man called Matthew was prompted by the Holy Spirit to write up his eye witness account of Jesus’s life. He writes about the birth of Jesus and tells us how God speaks to Joseph in a dream. The Matthew reflects on this and inspired by the Holy Spirit, a light goes on. This is exactly what Isaiah meant when he said “This will be the sign, a virgin will conceive….”
You see, when the OT Scriptures were translated from Hebrew into Greek, the translator used a very specific word to translate “young woman” –the word means “virgin.” Already, God was dropping a massive hint that he had something bigger in mind than just a sign for King Ahaz about the political events of his day.
An actual virgin, a young girl who hadn’t slept with a man yet would conceive. This would be a miracle. This child would be given lots of names. One special name he would receive would be “Immanuel” which means “God with us.” Ahaz was given a sign that God was still very much with the people of Israel acting to save, rule and judge. Matthew had seen God visibly and physically present in a special way because Jesus was fully God and fully man.
We go back to Isaiah’s prophecy through the eyes of the New Testament and we see that God always had something bigger in mind. As we saw last week, these promises of a sign, of a coming King who would save his people, who would bring world peace, who would deal with the problem of sin and guilt could not possibly refer to one or two people living in Isaiah’s day. God was promising Isaiah that he would be faithful and one day would fully and finally ransom Israel.
Do you notice that I’ve said the words of the carol there “ransom Israel….” Why that phrase? Why not just talk about Jesus saving us.
Well sometimes we talk about the Gospel and it can all become about me as an individual. However the good news is bigger than that. God rescues us, he chooses us, he loves us, he forgives us individually but then he draws us into this incredible family –his Kingdom.
Do you remember when we were studying Romans that we came to chapter 11. There we saw Paul asking what had happened to Israel. Why were the Jews rejecting Jesus? Had God’s plan failed or had God’s promises been broken. Jonathan preached on that passage and explained that some people have unhelpfully talked about the church replacing Israel. This adds to the idea that God is working on plan B now.
But God is eternal, he is sovereign, he knows the beginning from the end. God does not deal in plan bs! Paul said three things there.
- That God was using the salvation of Gentiles to provoke Jews to jealousy and repentance so that all Israel would one day be saved
- Not every physical Jew was truly part of God’s people Israel. It’s not your ancestry that counts but whether or not you have faith in the one true God, through Jesus.
- When we become Christians we are included into God’s people. This means that both Jews and Gentiles, in fact people from every nation are brought into God’s family to know him, worship him, receive forgiveness, experience his protection and care. Paul uses the imagery of being engrafted like branches into a vine.
So we have seen that our real danger, our real enemy is our own sin that makes us rebels against God. Last Sunday night at communion we gained a new insight into the horror of sin. We saw afresh that sin is deadly, toxic, horrible and that the cost of dealing with sin was beyond our comprehension. We saw how God’s love means that he was willing to take on that cost.
Once again this Christmas, we are reminded that we have a saviour who has dealt with sin and invites us into his family.
Those words “ransom captive Israel…” remind us that god has not been diverted from his plan. He has not settled for second best. They are reminding us that God’s plan has always been to put right the damage done by sin, to resort his creation and to call a new people to follow him and serve him.
In the Old Testament we see a foretaste. What God did with one small nation rescuing them from slavery, giving them a good and pleasant land to live in, teaching them to know and love his name, protecting them from their enemies, he has now, in Jesus done for people from every nation, English, Ecuadorian, German, Swiss, Korean, Polish, Bolivian, Portuguese, Scottish, Thai, Brazilian, South African, Nigerian, Jamaican and so on. He includes us in his people. He makes us one in Christ.