FROM JUSTIN RYAN BOYER
Most of us are familiar with the term Immanuel, God-With-Us. The Gospel of Matthew links the birth of Jesus to Immanuel through the prophet Isaiah (cf. Matt. 1:22-23, Isa. 7:14). Indeed, YHWH has always been with His people or seeking to be with them even when they had wanted different. But when the Word became flesh, the idea of God’s with-ness exploded exponentially. God becoming human is truly something baffling and amazing and foundational to our faith and understanding of divine purposes.
There’s another reference and a half to Immanuel in the Scriptures that isn’t directly connected to the Christmas story and often goes unnoticed. What do I mean by a reference and a half? Well, there is a portion in Isaiah chapter 8 where the prophet is employing Hebraic parallelism and old school sarcasm to have the different dynamics of God’s with-ness stand next to each other.
The Lord spoke to me again:
“Because this people has rejected
the gently flowing waters of Shiloah
and rejoices over Rezin
and the son of Remaliah,
therefore the Lord is about to bring against them
the mighty floodwaters of the Euphrates—
the king of Assyria with all his pomp.
It will overflow all its channels,
run over all its banks
and sweep on into Judah, swirling over it,
passing through it and reaching up to the neck.
Its outspread wings will cover the breadth of your land,
Raise the war cry, you nations, and be shattered!
Listen, all you distant lands.
Prepare for battle, and be shattered!
Prepare for battle, and be shattered!
Devise your strategy, but it will be thwarted;
propose your plan, but it will not stand,
for God is with us.
Did you notice how each of the two sections ended in the same way but with a slight variance in language? And yet, each passage is giving a different implication of Immanuel / God-With-Us.
In the latter section, we see an important telos, one key goal or fruit of God’s with-ness: that those who come against His people will be thwarted. As Isaiah later puts it: No weapon formed against you shall prosper and every tongue which rises against you in judgment You shall condemn. This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord, and their righteousness is from Me.
But we must not miss the less popular Immanuel that comes right before that.
In the previous section there is this sense that just because God is with His people doesn’t mean they can get away with anything they want. Quite the opposite! God’s people rejected the good they should have rejoiced over and rejoiced in the evil they should have rejected; they were metaphorically drinking from and trusting in the wrong water source. Because of God’s special presence, rather than its absence, the Lord sent/allowed a disciplinary action, represented by the illustration of floodwaters, to take place.
What a ride! Do we know what we are asking for when we pray for God to be with us? Are we willing to receive His grace and His mercy alongside His judgments which are also good? How much more do we see this comfort and confrontation play out in the Gospels with Christ? Are we ready for such a true-to-self God that has covenanted with Himself for our benefit? Can our hearts handle this terrible-joy?
Terrible-joy is my working definition in trying to more fully understand the fear of the Lord. A couple years ago as I was in a season of reflecting on the subject at hand, God shed a ray of light in my heart and threw me into a living parable. I took one of my daughters on her first roller coaster ride and there I experienced in her eyes and body language terror and joy married together, two things I didn’t previously believe could occupy the same space. It was a paradox both mysterious and understood.
Isaiah continues in chapter 8 into fear of the Lord language, revisiting the dynamic paradox of God-With-Us being both a sanctuary and a stone of offense.
As the people of God, let us not be afraid of the fear of the Lord. Fearing God for something He is not is idolatry, and we need to cast that off (1 John 4:18, Romans 8:15), but fearing God for who God is, experiencing a terrifying joy in God, well… that’s just plain worship. Let us draw near.