The Real Meaning of "Immanuel"
In Matthew’s Gospel, after the Angel visits Joseph and tells him to marry Mary and to name Jesus Jesus, Matthew, the narrator, tell us that “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet” and then Matthew quotes from Isaiah, “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel.” Which means “God with us.”
Now, the most important principle that we have to understand when we are trying to understand how the New Testament authors quote the Old Testament, is that most of the time they are referring to more than just the verse that they are explicitly quoting.
Normally, they're referring to the whole passage in which that text is contained, and sometimes even larger sections, say multiples chapters or even to a whole book. So to understand what Matthew is doing. Let's go back to Isaiah chapter seven and see what was going on there.
In Isaiah 7, Israel has been split up into the northern kingdom, called Israel, and the southern kingdom, called Judah. And the northern kingdom, Israel has allied together with the kingdom of Aram or Syria depending on your translation, the nation just north of them and they are coming down to attack Jerusalem, the capital of Judah. The king of Judah, Ahaz, is freaked out. So God sends the prophet Isaiah to reassure Ahaz that there’s nothing to worry about because very soon they’re going to be gone, deserted. While they looks strong, in reality they’re weak. And Ahaz needs to stand firm in faith.
Ahaz doesn’t respond when Isaiah tells him this, so God says, listen “Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” That is, I know this is scary so I’ll give you any sign you want as proof that I will protect you.
And Ahaz says, “I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.” That is, he responds with false piety. I would never ask for a sign, that would be putting God to the test. Ahaz is referencing a text from Deuteronomy that says you should not put God to the test. But if God is telling you to do something that’s not testing him, it’s obedience.
And here’s what God says in response:
13 And he said, "Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted. 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 king of Assyria!" - Isaiah 7:13-17
In that day every place where there used to be a thousand vines, worth a thousand shekels of silver, will become briers and thorns. With bow and arrows a man will come there, for all the land will be briers and thorns. And as for all the hills that used to be hoed with a hoe, you will not come there for fear of briers and thorns, but they will become a place where cattle are let loose and where sheep tread. - Isaiah 7:23-25
That is, Ahaz, you’re not going to ask for a sign, fine, I’ll give you a sign. A virgin will conceive and have a son named God with us. And before that boy knows the difference between good and bad, those two kingdoms you fear will be gone, destroyed, oh and also your land will be deserted as well.
So far from being a positive sign, this was a negative sign given because of unbelief that indicates the destruction of the nation.
So when we apply this to Jesus, we normally think that this is a positive thing, Jesus is God with us to bless us. But as we saw in Isaiah 7, the sign was negative, and so it is here. Jesus is a sign of Israel's impending destruction because of their unbelief. But the amazing thing about this fulfillment is that the son being Immanuel is even more fully true with Jesus.
You see, in Isaiah, no one was thinking that the child was God, they thought he was a sign that God was with them. In the gospels, Jesus is literally God with them. But remember, this is not firstly a positive sign, but a negative one, a sign of the end of Israel.
When God shows up, whether that’s a good thing for someone or bad thing depends on how they respond to him, and for the Immanuel sign in Isaiah, it was bad.
In the next scene in Matthew we will be told about the king in Israel, Herod, who is far worse than Ahaz. Herod tried to kill the Immanuel sign, something that Ahaz never did.
Now throughout the gospel, Jesus, God’s Immanuel, will not be all negative. He will actually reconstitute, recreated Israel around himself. For instance he will call twelve disciples, symbolic of the new twelve tribes.
So whenever you see Matthew or any New Testament author quoting the Old Testament, look it up, because normally they are doing far more than you think.