10 Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, 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 Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? 14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. 15 He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16 For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.
18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’22 All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
23 ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’ 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
In this post, I intend to take some space at the outset to show that Proto-Isaiah encourages people who seek transformation over the long haul to begin by inspiring—that is breathing in—hope. Inhaling hope, according to the form of Proto-Isaiah, allows a sustained ability to exhale justice.
I will suggest that Isaiah’s vision—“Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel”—aligns with this overarching vision of inhaling hope in order to exhale justice. I will also suggest that when Matthew tells Mary’s story in terms of Isaiah’s prophecy, Matthew intentionally proclaims Jesus as the crucial and liberative force who transforms hope into justice.
First things first: in Isaiah, we’ve got a prophet on our hands. This prophet does not only hear God’s word; this prophet sees God’s word. “The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem” (2:1).
This seemingly incongruent verb choice is no Proto-Isaiah typo. It is a way that Isaiah hangs up a neon sign that screams: “Prophet!” This prophet knew a vision. This prophet saw the word.
The word that Isaiah saw did not hold back. It takes courage and stamina to hear the word that Isaiah saw. In the initial chapter of Isaiah alone, Isaiah sees bruises and sores, bleeding wounds, a country—desolate, the cities—burned, and Zion—O dear Jerusalem—left like a besieged city. Isaiah sees God sickened by the self-congratulatory burnt-offerings. Isaiah sees God’s thunderous word writ large
Cease to do evil,
Learn to do good,
Rescue the oppressed,
Defend the orphan,
Plead for the widow. (Isaiah 1:17)
In this concerning context, Isaiah could have begun by laying into the wide array of injustices that need to be addressed.
In fact, he will soon get to a firm denunciation of injustice. He calls the inhabitants of Jerusalem out for their behaviors: for devouring the vineyard, for claiming the spoils of the poor to stock their own pantries, for “crushing [the] people, by grinding the face of the poor,” and for their haughty, outstretched necks and their wantonly glancing eyes (3:14-3:16).
Yes, Isaiah sees God’s nostrils flared. Yes, Isaiah sees Judah’s complicity and Jerusalem’s injustice. None of this is lost on Isaiah. Yet, with all of that clarity, Isaiah does not start with a denunciation of injustices.
There is something more powerful. There is something more important. There is something ultimate. Isaiah starts with hope.
God raises up a mountain as a place of refuge for all. God’s voice emanates from this safe-zone with an allure stronger than the aroma of baking bread or the scent of the first pot of coffee; God’s voice compels the nations to stream toward this mountain.
This vision of hope is in no way an avoidance of the real world conditions surrounding Isaiah. Rather, it is precisely because he fully intends to face the powers that he must begin with hope. The form of Proto-Isaiah argues that one must begin with hope if one intends to sustain practices of justice.
In Isaiah 7, we hear the prophet’s vision, “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” This vision revisits hope and aligns with Isaiah’s overarching vision of hope sustaining practices of justice.
First, Ahaz refuses to demand a sign, which serves to make it clear that God intends to give a sign. In the absence of Ahab suggesting the sign, God gives the sign of God’s own accord. This suggests that God deems the people to need a sign.
God offers a sign of hope: God with us—Immanuel—will be the name of this child who is coming. This child is hope within a desperate time. In the midst of desperation, the child is named as the one with authority to establish justice with righteousness and the one called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (9:6-7). The prophecy of this child is a prophecy that instills hope in order for people to persevere through desperation and maintain their pursuit of justice.
In his gospel, Matthew tells Joseph and Mary’s story in terms of Isaiah’s prophecy. Matthew shows Joseph’s dramatic change of plans—from intending to “dismiss her quietly” (Matthew 1:19) to marrying Mary and bestowing the name Jesus on the child.
The angel argues for the marriage because the child is “from the Holy Spirit” (1:20). The angel says to name the baby Jesus “for he will save his people from their sins” (1:21). Matthew frames the angel’s speech by Isaiah’s prophecy. He writes, “All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God is with us’” (1:22-23).
With Jesus’s birth comes hope. Hope of freedom from the shackles of sin. Freedom from sin translates into the ability to live into God’s vision for justice. Matthew intentionally proclaims Jesus as the crucial and liberative force who transforms hope into justice.
The hopes of all the ages are met in the Christ who comes into the world. The dawning of Christ’s light rises on each fear so that one can first breathe in hope, and, then, exhale justice.
Jan Schnell Rippentrop is the Axel Jacob and Gerda Maria Swanson Carlson Chair in Homiletics at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, where she also serves as the Director of the Master of Arts Programs. Working ever at lively intersections, she is a liturgical theologian whose scholarship focuses on homiletics and a political theologian whose scholarship is informed by communities suffering from the stifling effects of poverty.