20 December – First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 7:10-14

Today’s Gospel is the fulfilment of the prophecy spoken of in this reading from Isaiah. Among a number of bad kings, King Ahaz of Judah comes out as particularly bad. He revived the barbarous custom of human sacrifice:

He even made his son pass through fire [burnt his son as an offering], according to the abominable practices of the nations whom the Lord had driven out before the people of Israel. (2 Kings 16:3)

He followed other religious customs of the neighbouring idolatrous religions. When the king of Syria attacked Ahaz’ capital of Jerusalem, he appealed to the Assyrians:

I am your servant and your son. Come up and rescue me…
(2 Kings 16:7)

He then took treasures from the Temple, and sent them as a gift to the Assyrian king. He also made an exact copy of an altar he saw in Damascus, set it up in the Temple, and moved the bronze altar of the Temple to one side. On this new altar, he made offerings in the Assyrian manner, which included throwing blood on the altar.

Ahaz’ reign lasted 16 years and he was succeeded by his son Hezekiah, whom the Bible speaks of as being one of the best of the kings. His reign lasted for 29 years, but it was a very trying period for the Jews. During it, the famous Sennacherib “came down like a wolf on the fold” and laid siege to Jerusalem, but his whole army was suddenly decimated by some highly contagious epidemic which swept right through it killing, according to the Bible account, more than 100,000 soldiers. The siege had to be called off.

All of this, of course, is only indirectly connected with today’s reading but it does give some idea of the context in which the prophecy was made. The reading begins with the Lord (through the mouth of Isaiah) urging Ahaz to ask for a sign either from God or from Sheol, the place of the dead. Ahaz, however, declines because he does not want to put his God to the test. Nevertheless, although God (and especially his prophet, Isaiah) is clearly not pleased with this rejection of the Lord’s offer, Ahaz will be given a sign anyway.

The statement is a prophecy, and is very positive in meaning. It denotes God’s blessing on the Kingdom of Judah and on God’s people. It is also seen as a messianic prophecy. It promises a king and an heir to David who will bring salvation to God’s people, who, at this time, are being attacked by the Syrians on one side, and by the Assyrians on another.

Even though it seems that Isaiah is immediately thinking of a successor to Ahaz, namely, his son Hezekiah, the formal nature of the prophecy and symbolic name given to the future heir indicates he was speaking about a more decisive intervention by God and the establishment of a messianic kingdom.

The prophecy reads:

Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son and shall name him Immanuel.

This is clearly meant to be an encouragement to Ahaz about the future of the kingdom now under siege from so many sides. The original text does not say explicitly that it is a virgin who will give birth. The Hebrew word almah simply means a young girl.

However, in Genesis 24:43, almah refers to a young woman about to be married (and hence still a virgin). The pre-Christian Greek translation of the Old Testament, known as the Septuagint and made by Jews, translates almah as ‘virgin’. It is this version that Matthew uses and reads it as indicating that Mary is a virgin when she conceives Jesus.

And, of course, from the time of the Gospels, especially with Matthew who quotes from today’s passage, the prophecy has been understood as pointing to the birth of Christ, who is Immanuel, ‘God-is-with-us’. And Matthew will emphasise this at the very end of his Gospel when, just before leaving his disciples, Jesus in his final instructions promises:

And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matt 28:20)

This Child does not only give us God’s blessings, and miraculous and divine liberation, but through him, God becomes present among humankind and the promises heard so many times come true:

…I will be your God, and you shall be my people. (Jer 7:23)

We see the beginning of the fulfilment of all this prophecy in the Gospel which speaks of Mary being invited to be the Mother of the Saviour who will be both God’s Son and hers. Even Isaiah is not likely to have dreamt of the implications of all this – when the Word was made flesh and lived among us as one of us.

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