The Story Behind the Name

Whenever I hear the name Immanuel Christmas music starts playing in my head. I love those songs. Immanuel is Jesus in a manger. It is the angel telling Joseph that Mary is going to have God’s baby. It is God With Us.

"Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel."
Isaiah 7:14

I memorized that verse when I was a little girl but it must have been lifted out of its original story and printed on a little verse card for Sunday school or something. I have read it on lists of prophecies surrounding Jesus’ birth, heard it in sermons and have even taught it to groups of Junior High kids around Christmastime. It has been printed on so many Christmas cards that I guess I just assumed it was foretold in a “peace on earth” sort of setting: a twinkly starry night as Isaiah explained to a bunch of curious Messiah seekers how they would know when their Savior had come.

I obviously had no idea.

A few years ago when a group of friends and I were studying the stories behind the names of God we saved Immanuel for December. It was near the end of our study and it seemed like a nice festive way to end our time together. It would be an easy read at the beginning of our holiday season — a heart-warming prelude to our Christmas gatherings.

But this is not an easy story. It is a difficult one. This is the saga of a stubborn and smart-mouthed king whose willful disobedience roused God’s anger and moved a whole nation away from the knowledge of God’s presence.

At the pinnacle of Ahaz’s defiance, God spoke the promise of Immanuel to him through the prophet Isaiah. It was a remarkable act of grace really. It was God entering the confusion and fallout of disobedience to offer hope and safety to Jerusalem and it’s inhabitants. It was God coming to Ahaz when Ahaz didn’t even want God, let alone think he needed Him. It is the story of how incredibly much we don’t deserve to be rescued by a holy God, but about how He wants to come anyway.

King Ahaz's story is recorded in
2 Kings 16 and 2 Chronicles 28. His encounter with Isaiah is found in Isaiah 7.

King Ahaz was the 14th king to sit on the throne in Jerusalem. Two hundred years before he became king, Israel was divided into two separate countries: the Northern Kingdom (Israel) and the Southern Kingdom (Judah). [For the story of that split and more about why it matters to Ahaz’s story click
here.] The city of Jerusalem, in the smaller Southern Kingdom of Judah, was the center for both government and worship. The king's palace was there and the temple of God was there. Jerusalem was the city God had chosen as the dwelling place for His name. On the day King Solomon had dedicated the temple in Jerusalem to God over two centuries before, the cloud of God’s presence had literally descended on the temple filling it with His glory. Citizens and foreigners alike associated the city of Jerusalem with the presence of YHWH. Throughout all of Israel’s history God faithfully protected Jerusalem, partly because it was His dwelling place and partly because He had promised King David that his descendants would stay on the throne in Jerusalem. God absolutely loved that place.

So when Jerusalem came under attack during the irreverent reign of King Ahaz, God, as always, was ready to defend Jerusalem.

When Ahaz had become king at age 20, he blatantly rejected the God of his ancestors. His father Jotham had been faithful to YHWH but Ahaz must not have been paying attention to his dad when he was growing up. Ahaz offered sacrifices everywhere but the temple, to every god but YHWH. He payed homage to these foreign gods on high places, on hilltops and under every spreading tree. In unspeakable opposition to the tender heart of God, Ahaz callously discarded his own children in the altar fire of gods who were not really gods at all. He was a descendant of David, on the throne in Jerusalem, completely messing things up.

Because of Ahaz’s rejection of YHWH, God allowed Judah to come under attack. These enemies could not overpower the city of Jerusalem, but they were successful in taking many lives and capturing thousands of hostages from the kingdom of Judah. Ironically, one of the enemy kings was Pekah, the King of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Ahaz and Pekah barely remembered that they were family. Pekah’s ally Rezin was king of neighboring Syria (also known as Aram).

These military strikes left Ahaz frantic. He needed help. “The hearts of Ahaz and his people were shaken, as the trees of the forest are shaken by the wind.” (Isaiah 7:2) Ahaz’s own flesh and blood in the North had become his enemy and the gods he worshipped didn’t seem to be protecting him or his kingdom. He was desperate for someone to help him save Jerusalem. Ahaz looked to the most powerful warrior at that time in history, Tiglath-Pileser, the king of Assyria. The Assyrian empire was conquering and expanding like crazy and Tiglath-Pileser III was leading the way.

God allowed Judah to be attacked because of Ahaz's sin, but at the same time He longed to protect Jerusalem. God sent Isaiah his prophet to Ahaz with a reassuring message: “Don’t be afraid Ahaz, don’t lose heart over these two smoldering stubs of firewood…” (
Isaiah 7:4) He was talking about Pekah and Rezin. God was on Jerusalem’s side. He wanted to be on Ahaz’s side if Ahaz would only let Him. Isaiah continued with God’s message: “They are not going to overtake you. Ask the LORD your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or the highest heights.” (Isaiah 7:11) God wanted Ahaz to trust Him for Jerusalem. He was offering any sign Ahaz needed to turn his dependence to the only One who could actually help him.

But in an insincere statement of plastic reverence, Ahaz replied: “I will not ask. I will not put the LORD to the test.” (
Isaiah 7:12)

What? Ahaz, you have been defiant towards the One true God your whole life and now you are pretending to be religious? He wants to deliver you. He offered a sign to boost your faith in Him. How can you say you will not ask?

Then Isaiah said, “Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of humans? Will you try the patience of my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” (
Isaiah 7:13-14)

Into the ugliness of Ahaz’s defiance God spoke the promise of Christmas. Immanuel, "God with us" is not a promise born of our goodness. It is God saying, “I am coming into the mess to live life with you. You might not want Me, but I want you."

Ahaz thought he could snuff God out of Israel's story. God would turn their conversation into a birth announcement.

Ahaz got back from his conversation with Isaiah and sent a message to Tiglath-Pilesar. He said, “I am your servant,” and pleaded with Tiglath-Pilesar to rescue him. Ahaz exchanged the promise of God for an alliance with someone who would turn out to offer very little help. As payment to Tiglath-Pilesar, Ahaz sent gold and silver from his palace and from the temple of YHWH. In the 16 years that Ahaz reigned as king in Jerusalem, he cut apart the sacred furniture in God’s temple, robbed its treasury to buy help from foreigners, and sealed it’s doors so that no one in his kingdom could worship there. He barred his subjects from the entrance to the presence of God. He had a Syrian altar replicated in Jerusalem and offered sacrifices there that were supposed to be offered to God in His temple. He never turned his heart toward God. Ahaz did everything he could to remove God from his story and from Israel’s story.

But Ahaz is not the author of this story. God is. And every year at Christmastime we are reminded through Ahaz's story that God keeps His promises. A virgin DID give birth to a son....

“An angel of the Lord appeared to him (Joseph) in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ (which means ‘God with us’).” (
Matthew 1:20-23)

What is it about the heart of God that decides to put guys like Ahaz and promises like Immanuel in the same story?

The wonder of the story is that God was giving Ahaz a chance to trust Him for Jerusalem after he had done horrible things. There is nothing we know of in Ahaz's life that deserved the pursuit of a loving God, but that is what grace is. I thought God should have given the promise of Christmas to someone who deserved it more, but maybe the point of promising Immanuel through the story of Ahaz is that "God With Us" has nothing to do with our goodness or what we deserve. It is grace alone.

Next: (Order does not really matter - Click on any link you want to read next.)

Immanuel - Going Deeper

Jesus and Immanuel

Immanuel and Our Stories