Isaiah (Part 10): 1st Fulfillment of Immanuel Prophecy (Ch 8)
We don’t know how long it is after chapter 7’s prophecy that the Lord instructs Isaiah in 8:1 to write a name on a parchment. But it can’t be long. The activity and statements of the first few verses of chapter 8 is similar to the beginning of the Immanuel prophecy in 7:14-16. Isaiah is told to write the name Mahershalalhashbaz on a parchment with an ordinary pen. Mahershalalhashbaz (or Maher for short) means “speeding to the spoil.” Two men, in verse 2, are called to witness this writing. The point of these two verses is not so mysterious if we gather the facts together.
The first thing we notice is that a change occurs in grammatical person. Back in 7:3 we read, “Then the Lord said to Isaiah….” That’s written in third person. But in 8:1 we read, “Then the Lord said to me….” Now Isaiah writes in first person. Why the change? My answer is that Isaiah wants to get more personal in chapter 8. In chapter 7, Isaiah had a prophecy for the king—the leader of Judah. Reading about that prophecy—especially in third person—could have distanced the Jewish reader from participation in the prophecy. After all, although it may have involved the reader, it was a prophecy for the king. The reader would not feel so responsible for how it was received. But now in chapter 8, Isaiah’s message will turn from the leadership to the people. They too are culpable for their actions and attitude toward God. The switch to first person helps the message become more personal.
Of course if switching to first person were the only hint that the prophecy was now for the people, it would not be very firm support. But there is more. Maher’s name embodied the prophetic message. Assyria would be speeding to the spoil of Ephraim and Aram. But why does it have to be written—both written and witnessed? It is because God wants this message held up to the people so that they can understand his judgment. It is God that would send Assyria against Ephraim and Aram, and he would do it quickly.
Verse 2 in the HCSB says, “I have appointed trustworthy witnesses.” The KJV also uses past tense: “And I took unto me faithful witnesses.” The ESV, NASB, and NIV, however, all use the future tense, saying something like “I will take or call the witnesses.” As support, the KJV and HCSB have only the Vulgate, which also uses past tense. But the ESV, NASB, and NIV do not fare a whole lot better. They do have the Masoretic text on their side, but no other support. All other manuscript evidence (the Septuagint, Syriac manuscripts, Dead Sea Scrolls, etc.) use the imperative. While the distinction is not earth-shaking, understanding the imperative here does make more sense. It is God who is speaking, but it will be Isaiah who gets the witnesses to watch what he does. Therefore, it makes more sense for God to be telling Isaiah to call the witnesses then it does for God to say that he will call them (or, as in the case of the Vulgate, that he has already called them).
But these witnesses—a priest and a prophet—were important to verify the message from God so that the people would know for certain that God did prophesy about this. The priest functions mostly as the people’s representative to God. The prophet functions as God’s representative (mouthpiece) to the people. So this witness was a seal of official intercession. And it gives us more confidence that this prophecy was meant not for the leaders this time, but rather for the people.
Isaiah was to write this name of prophecy with “an ordinary pen” (HCSB and NIV). The KJV says “man’s pen;” the NASB. “ordinary letters;” and the ESV, “common characters.” Literally, the Hebrew gives us “man’s pen” or “the pen (stylus) of a man.” The translation of ordinary or common comes from the association of this description with Deuteronomy 3:11 in which the cubit is described as “man’s cubit” or “the cubit of a man.” The cubit was a measurement based on the length of a man’s forearm (long –from elbow to finger tips, or short –from elbow to wrist). Obviously, this was not exact, but about a certain length. From the cubit we understand that ordinary or common is imbedded in the measurement—it was the length of the ordinary or common forearm. In Isaiah, the phrase emphasizes that this is not the finger of God writing (as God did at Sinai) or the stylus of the king (whatever special royal implement he used) but rather simply a message written down in common fashion by the prophet for the people—another indication that this prophecy was indeed for the people, not the rulers.
Isaiah tells us in verse 3 that he was intimate with the prophetess. This prophetess was the virgin (almah) of 7:14. And we notice that chapter 8 verses 3 and 4 are similar to the prediction of chapter 7 verses 15 and 16. The repetition isn’t pointless. Again, the chapter 7 prophecy was for King Ahaz. The chapter 8 prophecy is for the people. But both prophecies speak to the same event—Assyria would speedily come to lay Ephraim and Aram to waste.
But verse 5 introduces a new twist. Isaiah writes that the Lord spoke to him again. The language indicates a new or additional part to the prophecy. In verses 6 through 10 we read of the effect on Judah.
Verse 6 mentions that the people rejected the slowly flowing waters of Shiloah. Shiloah means sent. No doubt the waters in mind were those originating to the west of Jerusalem at the Gihon spring. Those waters were sent by way of aqueduct to the city. And it was by this spring and concerned with this aqueduct that Isaiah had first approached Ahaz with the prophecy of God’s protection (7:3).
Rejecting this water—representing God’s provision—the people (not just Ahaz) rejoiced at the destruction of Ephraim and Aram by Assyria (and through the supposed alliance that Ahaz had made with Assyria). The HCSB reads “rejoiced with Rezin and the son of Remaliah” (8:6). This is incorrect. It should be either “in” (KJV, NASB) or, better, “over” (ESV, NIV). The idea is that the people of Judah rejoiced (not with) but over the destruction of Rezin and Pekah.
However, their joy at the safety from Ephraim and Aram that they thought had been gained by their machinations in allying themselves with Assyria would soon be soured. Assyria did indeed destroy Ephraim and Aram, but they did not halt their conquest. As waters overflowing their banks and spreading out in all areas, Assyria went on into Judah to conquer them. The Assyrians must have been quite amused with Ahaz’s attempt at alliance. All it did was assure Assyria that Judah would not band together with Ephraim and Aram to stand against Assyria. Assyria effectively had Judah sitting on the sidelines during phase 1 of their conquest. When that was complete, Assyria could begin phase 2—the taking of Judah.
Judah received what it deserved. But notice the prophecy. Verse 8 speaks of this destruction, but ends with “O Immanuel!” Of course, calling Judah Immanuel draws the reader back to the prophecy. This is God’s control and God’s judgment. He brought this to pass. BUT, he calls to them Immanuel. Immanuel means “God with us.” By this word, this name, God indicates that he still—even after all their faithlessness—he still will be with them and help them and provide for them if they turn to follow him. Unbelievers try desperately to picture the God of the OT as angry, war-loving, and unmerciful. But this is grace. All we have seen of God in Isaiah so far has been a God who must judge because of Israel’s sin, but one who calls again and again for repentance, offering to rescue for those that turn to him. This is the Immanuel prophecy. Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of the Immanuel prophecy as Matthew tells us (Mt 1:23). Jesus, whose name means rescue, is the gift of God’s provision and grace to any who turn to him in faith.
Verses 9 and 10 switch perspective from Judah who was conquered by Assyria, to the nations (including Assyria) who think that they can win over God’s people of faith. Even though they may “band together” in their pursuit of God’s people, Isaiah tells these nations, they will be broken. They can prepare for war against God’s people, but they will be broken. Ultimately for those of faith, Immanuel is sure—God is with us.
In verses 11 through 17, Isaiah provides God’s personal word to him “to keep [him] from going the way of this people.” God told Isaiah that alliance with men and nations is not true alliance. They will always look out for selfish interests. That’s what Assyria did. Neither trust nor fear in other nations will help. Trust and fear in God is the only answer—the only hope. He promises sanctuary. This is his repeated offer—repeated throughout his Word beginning in the Garden. He is Caregiver.
God told Isaiah that both houses, Ephraim and Judah, would stumble over him as they claimed him as their God but in actuality sought their own interests. This is exactly to what Peter refers in I Peter 2:1-10. Notice also that this thought comes through in Paul’s arguments. In Romans 2:28-29, we read, “For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, and true circumcision is not something visible in the flesh. On the contrary, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and circumcision is of the heart—by the Spirit, not the letter.” This is not some new concept that Paul introduces. He is not ripping the covenant away from the nation. Isaiah explains that it has always been God’s intent to call his people those who were of faith. Romans 9:6b-7a reiterates the point: “For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Neither are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants. On the contrary, your offspring will be traced through Isaac. That is, it is not the children by physical descent who are God’s children, but the children of the promise are considered to be the offspring.”
Verse 16 may have an incorrect emphasis in our English Bibles. Here we read, “Bind up the testimony. Seal up the instruction among my disciples.” Interesting that the LXX reads, “Then shall those, who seal themselves that they may not learn the law, be made manifest.” The English directs the words to the faithful, binding up the testimony and the law for themselves. The LXX directs the words against the unfaithful who tie up and seal off the testimony and law from themselves. The Hebrew is difficult. Basically the Hebrew has the words: “Bind testimony stop law learn.” So how should we interpret that? I think the LXX has a better handle on the interpretation. We have read in Proverbs 7:3 that we should take instruction and “tie (bind) them to your fingers.” But this binding is a different Hebrew word. The binding in Isaiah 8:16 is tying up, shutting up, showing hostility, besieging. And that aggression interpretation goes along with the purpose for this passage. Verse 11 told us that God urged Isaiah not to follow along with the sin of the people. The sin is described, and verse 16 culminates in who those people treated God’s Word. The English would seek to introduce instruction for Isaiah to assist God’s disciples. But that, according to verse 11, is not the purpose of this instruction. Verse 17 is Isaiah’s conclusion based on God’s instruction for him. He will wait for the Lord.
In verses 18 to the end, Isaiah summarizes the judgment. He begins pointing out that his children, Shearjashub (remnant will return) and Mahershalalhashbaz (speeding to the spoil) are signs and wonders for the people. These signs speak to the over-arching prophecy of Immanuel (God with us). These signs from the living God should be what is sought, not the false necromancy of evil nations. Those who fail to turn to God face judgment.
It is interesting that those who choose for themselves will “become enraged, and, looking upward, will curse their king and their God” (8:21b). This again parallels the NT. In Rev 9:20-21 we read, “The rest of the people, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands to stop worshiping demons and idols of gold, silver, bronze, stone, and wood, which are not able to see, hear, or walk. And they did not repent of their murders, their sorceries, their sexual immorality, or their thefts.” Rather, in suffering at the final judgment, people “gnawed their tongues because of their pain and blasphemed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores, yet they did not repent of their action” (Rev 16:10b-11).
In the OT we see sure promise of judgment. And that is why the OT is filled with admonition to follow God. You can hear Isaiah’s heart and soul tremble as he calls out to these dying, cursed people in 8:20, “To the law and to the testimony!”