Another Desperate Plea (Isaiah 7:14, Matthew 1:22, 23)
Passage: Isaiah 7:14–7:14
Behind the Music
I. Knowing the Right Boat
What if...what if you were a sailor, and your boat was destroyed behind enemy lines? What if you were the only survivor?
Imagine that you are floating in the water with only two items from your ship: a life-vest and all -weather, two-way radio. After many hours of silence and despair, a transmission starts to come across your radio. Overjoyed, you grab the device and put out a cry for help. Miraculously, a friendly, reassuring voice on the other end says that a blue boat will be out to get you in a little over an hour.
Even more surprising, about ten minutes later, the same episode repeats itself, only this time there is a different voice on the radio who describes a red boat that is on its way to rescue you. The radio operator tells you that this boat will have advance medical equipment on board to care for your injuries.
And if all that was not miraculous enough, you pick up a third transmission about an hour later. But this message is different. After telling them your name, rank, and about the disaster that befell your ship, the man on the other end of the signal warns you about enemy agents in the area posing as rescue vessels. He tells you not to go with anyone else, but that a green boat will be sent to save you.
Confused, you ask him how you can be sure that he is not an enemy agent attempting to deceive you. He tells you this: "In exactly 17 minutes, a red, blue, and green boat will appear on the horizon. Two minutes later, the overcast sky will break just a bit, and sunlight will fall on the green boat. Exactly 10 seconds after you see this, 10 dolphins will leap, at the same time, in front of the green boat. And, the green boat will be the first to get to you. When it does, you will need to get on board, quickly." And 17 minutes later, everything takes place exactly as the man describes.
So, what would you do? Would you take the blue boat, the first to contact you? Would you take the red boat, with its advance medical care, or would you take the green boat?
This morning, we are beginning a journey through some of the most-sung and most-loved Christmas carols of all time. Together I want us to go "behind the music", that is, to ultimately understand how the Bible gives these songs their real staying power.
This morning we begin with the carol we just sang, "O Come, O Come Emmanuel".
Let's begin exploring this song by learning a little bit more about where it came from.
II. Behind the Music: "O Come, O Come Emmanuel"
"O Come, O Come Emmanuel" is probably the oldest Christmas carol still sung today. The words for this song date back to the 9th century, about 1200 years ago. It was an important song for the Catholic church during the Dark Ages, but it was only sung during one week out of the year, during Advent season in December.
The reason we know it today as a popular Christmas carol and not just an ancient, obscure church chant is because of an Anglican priest names John Mason Neale. Neale, while ministering in the remote Madiera islands, of the NW coast of Africa, Neale "rediscovered the Latin chant in an old church book in the mid 1800's and translated it into English as "Draw Nigh, Draw Nigh Emmanuel". The common tune for the Latin song was actually a 15th century processional song that came out of a community of French nuns who were living in Lisbon, Portugal.
So this song has come down to us in its present from from many different times and places.
But what about the content of the song? Who is this Emmanuel that is addressed in the song?
III. The Passage: "The Lord Himself Will Give You a Sign" (7:10-14)
To answer that question we need to open our Bibles to Isaiah chapter 7. The Hebrew prophet Isaiah was speaking and writing about 700 years before the birth of Christ. Let's look at verses 10-17 of chapter 7, and then we will try to make sense of what we're looking at here:
Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz [who was the king of the southern kingdom of Judah], 11 “Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” 12 But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.” 13 And he [Isaiah] said, “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also? 14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. 15 He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16 For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted. 17 The Lord will bring upon you and upon your people and upon your father’s house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—[the Lord will bring] the king of Assyria." (Isaiah 7:10-17)
Now, what in the world is going on here? Here's a quick summary. Ahaz and his kingdom did not want to be part of an alliance with two other neighboring kingdoms, one being their brothers in the northern kingdom of Israel, and the other being Syria. These two kingdoms were forming an alliance to resist the neighborhood "super-power", Assyria. So because Judah didn't want to go along with the plan, Syria and Israel were going to kill Ahaz and replace him with a puppet king who would do what they wanted.
But Ahaz wanted to curry favor with Assyria in order to get their protection; you know, take the biggest bully on the block a plate of cookies so he'll protect you from the smaller bullies. But God wanted to give Ahaz an even more certain promise of protection. Even though Ahaz resorts to a kind of false piety ("I will not put God to the test"), God still gives him a sign.
And the sign that God gives him, the sign that will confirm God's protection, will be a child. A virgin, in Hebrew, simply an unmarried young woman, will have a baby, and call that baby Immanuel, which means "God is with us" or “God with us”. We don't know if this young woman was a member of Ahaz's household or not, but somehow, Ahaz would know about it.
You see the baby's name was a confirmation that God was with his people and would not abandon them to these two kings. In fact, by the time that little Immanuel was weaned and was learning right from wrong, maybe about three years, by that time, Israel and Syria would both be in ruin...deserted. But, as the prophet tells us, Assyria was still coming and Judah would have to deal with them.
Now, the big question is this: why would this strange, little-known incident from Middle East in the 8th century BC, inspire a song that we sing today at Christmas? We didn't sing, "O come, O come, Emmanuel, driving out Syria and Israel."
There has to be more going on here. And in fact, the next few chapters in Isaiah reveal that there is more going on here, that this is bigger than just a false alarm for Judah and Judah's king.
Chapters 7 through 12 in this book of Isaiah all seem to be connected. And one of the themes that you find all over this section is the significance of children being born. Some children simply have names that are in and of themselves messages from God. But other children seem to be much more important. Remember what we heard read to us as the very beginning of our time together this morning:
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7 Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this. (Isaiah 9:6, 7)
In chapter 11 we also read this about the "rod of Jesse" that we sang about this morning:
There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse [Jesse was the father of King David], and a branch [a rod] from his roots shall bear fruit. 2 And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. (Isaiah 11:1, 2)
We go on to read that when this branch of Jesse, when this king from David's family comes forth that...
The cow and the bear shall graze; heir young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den. 9 They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. 10 In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious. (Isaiah 11:7-10)
That’s a pretty big promise of transformation, isn’t it? This is much bigger than a political problem with a couple of neighboring countries.
And if we had time this morning to look at the entire Old Testament, we would see that the coming of this future king, this king who will change the whole world, his coming is predicted time and time again in very specific prophecies, specific predictions. Let me give you one more example, this time from the prophet Micah, who lived just a little while after Isaiah:
But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days. (Micah 5:2)
So this coming king would come from, would be born in, the town of Bethlehem.
So in light of all this, in light of this setting, this context in Isaiah, it would seem that the name "Immanuel" is a fuller glass than we first thought. It for this reason that a man named Matthew writes these words over 700 years after Isaiah's message was given to Ahaz:
Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. 20 But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: 23 “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). 24 When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, 25 but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus. (Matthew 1:18-25)
Do you see what Matthew saw? He saw that this verse from Isaiah 7 was (pardon the expression) this verse was pregnant with much more meaning than its initial fulfillment seemed to indicate. The promise of "God with us" given to the house of David would only be 'fully fulfilled' when the coming king would rescue his people, not from their political adversaries, but from the power of sin and death.
Even though there was a little boy named Immanuel born 700 years earlier, only Jesus Christ can fully be called Immanuel, since he alone was God in human flesh.
III. Pleading for a Savior
So what about this song, "O Come, O Come Emmanuel"? If we think about the words of this song and about everything we've learned this morning, I think we can say that this song is just 'another desperate plea'.
It's definitely a plea, isn't it? The writer of the song is pleading for Emmanuel to come. It’s a plea with a very unique perspective.
Even though the song was written hundreds of years after the birth of Christ, the first stanza is written from a viewpoint hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus.
Israel, who has been exiled from their land, is crying out to God, crying out for God to send the Messiah, the chosen king who will free the people from their oppressors. But the next stanzas in the song reveal that God’s people are pleading for much more than just political freedom.
“Free thine own from Satan’s tyranny…From depths of Hell thy people save…And give them victory over the grave.” The writer goes on to talk about death’s dark shadow and our heavenly home.
It’s this clarification that the angel is probably wanting to communicate to Joseph as he tells him about Mary’s pregnancy: “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from [not from their political oppressors, but from] their sins.”
So it’s clear that this is a plea, a desperate plea. But why would we call it another desperate plea? I would give it that label because desperate pleas like this one are going up every single day.
People, out of desperation, are crying out for help. And like the writer of this song, they are, whether they know it or not, they are looking for a Savior, for someone to rescue them from the pain, the people, the problems of this life.
The latest Superman movie that came out a few years ago confirms this same idea. Listen to this small bit of dialogue:
How are you crying out this morning? “O come, O come and free me from my past”…”O come, O come and rescue me from my financial problems”… ”O come, O come and make me a better parent”… ”O come, O come and help me to forgive my father, my mother, my friend”… ”O come, O come and save me from this marriage”… ”O come, O come and deliver me from guilt, from shame, from fear, from boredom, from worry, from exhaustion, from loneliness.”
Even more current songs are filled with these pleas: “Rescue Me”, “Help”, “Baby Hold onto Me”, “Don’t Leave Me This Way”, “Come Back to Me”, “Save Me from Myself”
So, in some sense, it’s true that “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” represents just another desperate plea. But it’s also not true in the sense that this plea is THE plea. In light of God’s word, this songwriter has identified the real problem. Our greatest need is not a stable love life or a healthy bank account. Our greatest need is deliverance from the exile of sin, from that exile of our own making, an exile in which find ourselves far away from God.
But there is something else about this song that makes it very unique among Christmas carols. This song reminds us that Jesus Christ came into our world as the fulfillment of all of those prophecies in the Old Testament.
In taking about these messianic prophecies, one writer describes how the Old Testament “contains more than three hundred references to His coming. Using the science of probability, we find the chances of just forty-eight of these prophecies being fulfilled in one person to be right at one in 10-to the 157th power (that’s one followed by 157 zeroes.)
A professor of statistics put it this way several decades ago when he analyzed just eight of these predictions. He wrote, "we find that the chance that any man might have lived down to the present time and fulfilled all eight prophecies is 1 in 1017." That would be 1 in 100,000,000,000,000,000 (100 quadrillion). To visualize this professor has us imagine that "we take 1017 silver dollars and lay them on the face of Texas. They will cover all of the state two feet deep. "Now mark one of these silver dollars and stir the whole mass thoroughly, all over the state. Blindfold a man and tell him that he can travel as far as he wishes, but he must pick up one silver dollar and say that this is the right one. What chance would he have of getting the right one? Just the same chance that the prophets would have had of writing these eight prophecies and having them all come true in any one man."
These predictions about what was to come are the reason God would speak these words later in the book of Isaiah:
Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts: “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god. 7 Who is like me? Let him proclaim it. Let him declare and set it before me, since I appointed an ancient people. Let them declare what is to come, and what will happen. 8 Fear not, nor be afraid; have I not told you from of old and declared it? And you are my witnesses! Is there a God besides me? There is no Rock; I know not any.” (Isaiah 44:6-8)
Do you see what God is communicating in those verses? He is telling the listener that nothing compares to Him. All of the other solutions to our problems out there, all of these are not really solutions at all. Getting a better job is not really going to solve THE problem. Getting a new spouse is not really going to solve THE problem. Having everyone agree with you is not really going to solve THE problem. Moving away is not really going to solve THE problem.
And God proves to us that His way is right by showing us that He is in control of the future. Who else can “declare what is to come, and what will happen”? That’s why we need to get on board the green boat, right? While the other boats offered rescue, only the green boat gave us clear evidence that it was the right boat, that it was distinct from all the rest.
This holiday season, where will you be looking for deliverance? To whom will your song be addressed?
“O Come, O Come Emmanuel” is a song about God’s people looking forward to the birth of Jesus. But it is also a song that builds on the fulfilled predictions of the OT, in order to help us sing about the return of Jesus. We are the Israel who can rejoice that Jesus shall come again and bring us the fullness of His victory and deliverance.
Emmanuel. “God with us”. If God is with us, it changes everything, doesn’t it?
Listen to how God reminds us of this fact in the book of Isaiah:
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. 2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. 3 For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.” (Isaiah 43:1-3)
That promise is only true for us, because of the fulfillment of that name, Immanuel, “God with us”. We need to look to Jesus in faith this morning, we need to believe that He is our only hope for the minutes, hours, days, weeks, month, and years to come. Remember the words he spoke, not at the beginning of his time on this earth, but at the end:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)
More in Behind the Music: Advent '09
December 20, 2009An Invitation to Adoration (Matthew 2:1-11)(O Come All Ye Faithful)
December 13, 2009More than Meets the Eye (John 1:1-4)(Silent Night)
December 6, 2009From the Lips of Angels (Luke 2:1-20)