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The Despair of Christmas: A Christmas Meditation from the Old Testament

J.R.R. Tolkein* coined a term, “eucatastrophe” (from Greek eu “good” and catastrophe “destruction), in which he meant, “the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears…it produces its peculiar effect because it is a sudden glimpse of Truth.” He concluded that the Resurrection was the greatest “eucatastrophe.” He is right. But the Gospel writers also saw Jesus’ advent as a sudden happy turn in a world seemingly out of control, filled with despair. With the birth of this baby, God reminded His people that He is with them: Immanuel.

For the Jewish people, the world Jesus was born into seemed topsy-turvy and out of control. They believed that their God reigned supreme as the only God, the Creator of the universe. Israel’s God had chosen them from all the peoples and nations of the world to be His chosen people (Exodus 19:5-6). Yet, if He reigned as the supreme and only deity, and Israel was His chosen inheritance, then why did the Jewish people find themselves ruled as part of the Roman Empire, the wicked empire, and the land of Israel forced to pay tribute to Rome? Judaism wrestled with this question from Rome’s appearance in 63 BCE and throughout the first century CE. Roman occupation presented an unnatural state for Judaism, a state in which they could not truly worship God because only in their liberty could they properly worship the Lord.

The model, of course, was the story of Moses and the exodus from Egypt of the children of Israel. Moses repeatedly told Pharaoh, “Let My people go, so they can worship me” (Exod. 8:16). Later generations drew from this that Israel’s freedom was a precondition to them properly worshiping its God, as He intended. For this reason, the idea of redemption within Judaism of the first century was always bi-focal: it had a nationalistic sense of political freedom and it carried a spiritual aspect to it as well. This bi-focal aspect of redemption appears in the Gospels and Acts (see Acts 1:6); it most certainly was Jesus’ understanding of redemption (see Luke 21:28).

This hope of Israel’s freedom, which would enable the Jewish people to properly worship God, appears within Luke’s narrative connected with the birth of Jesus and specifically John the Baptist. In the prophetic proclamation of John’s father, Zechariah, he stated:

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed His people, and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of His servant David, as He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from of old, that we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all who hate us; to perform the mercy promised to our fathers, and to remember His holy covenant, the oath which He swore to our father Abraham, to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve Him without fear” (Luke 1:68-74; emphasis added).

Zechariah’s proclamation encapsulates the Jewish hopes of redemption in the first century, a world that for many felt shaky and out of control.

As the Exodus story provided a model of God’s redemption of His people, Jewish writers often turned to other passages within the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible seeking hope and encouragement during uncertain times. The author of Matthew recalled a prior time when in a moment of despair, when things looked grim for God’s people, that God sent a sign in the birth of the child to show that He was with them. A moment of eucatastrophe: “Behold, a virgin will conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Immanuel” (Matt. 1:23).

Christian interpretation has often seen Matthew’s citation of Isaiah 7:14 as indicating that Isaiah’s original proclamation predicted the birth of Jesus. The value of Isaiah 7, then, within Christian interpretation has been predictive of the coming of Jesus, the Messiah. The problem, however, with this understanding of Matthew’s use of Isaiah 7:14 is that ancient Jewish interpreters handled the biblical text in a fluid manner. They saw the biblical text as a fundamentally cryptic document that while it might appear to say one thing, in fact, it’s saying something different.[1] The goal of an ancient interpreter, like Matthew, was to apply the biblical passage to his current situation with little care for the original context or meaning of the biblical text.

His application of Isaiah 7:14 to the birth of Jesus ensured that the original message of Isaiah 7, which contains a dramatic moment of eucatastrophe, often would be overlooked by subsequent Christian interpretation of Isaiah 7. But, in understanding the original pathos of Isaiah 7, we gain a glimpse as to why Matthew might have been drawn to cite Isaiah 7:14 in the context of the birth of Jesus.

The setting of Isaiah 7 is this: after the death of Solomon, the son of David, the kingdom of Israel divided into the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. The northern kingdom experienced a series of rulers from various families who often took the throne in a coup. The southern kingdom of Judah remained loyal to the house of David, so its kings continued to descend from the line of David. While the majority of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible is written from the vantage point of the southern kingdom of Judah, and specifically its capital Jerusalem, the northern kingdom of Israel played a more significant role within local, regional, and international politics. Israel’s strategic location on the international trunk road that connected Egypt with Damascus and then on to Mesopotamia provided economic and political advantages not often shared by Judah.

This international highway that connected the southern pole (Egypt) with the northern pole (Mesopotamia) of the Ancient Near Eastern world ensured that the land between—an area known as the Levant, which comprises the land of the modern countries of Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan—became the chess board of international politics. Whoever controlled the Levant, controlled international travel, commerce, and communication. So, the empires of the Ancient Near East vied for control of this route, which ran across the territory of the northern kingdom of Israel.

In the 8thcentury BCE, the kingdom of Assyria was on the rise and seeking to exert its influence into the Levant. The regional kingdoms of the Levant responded by forming a coalition to halt the Assyrian advance. The king of Israel and the king of Aram Damascus led this coalition and sought to draw the kingdom Judah into their plans.

Judah, ruled by Ahaz son of Jotham, resisted joining this regional coalition led by Rezin, king of Aram, and Pekah, king of Israel. Being the weaker kingdom, Judah sought to avoid conflict with the superpower of Assyria. In retaliation, Israel and Damascus, who were regional powers, threatened to remove Ahaz as king of Judah, and end the line of the house of David.

“In the reign of Ahaz son of Jotham son of Uzziah, king of Judah, King Rezin of Aram (Damascus) and King Pekah son of Remaliah of Israel marched upon Jerusalem to attack it…saying, “We will march against Judah and invade and conquer it, and we will set up as king in it the son of Tabeel” (Isaiah 1:1, 6-7).

Judah, as the weaker kingdom, was struck with terror: “Now, when it was reported to the House of David that Aram had allied itself with Ephraim (Israel), their hearts and the hearts of their people trembled as trees of the forest sway before a wind” (Isaiah 7:2; emphasis added). Why? The kings of Damascus and Israel sought to remove the line of David from the throne of Judah setting up a puppet-king (the son of Tabeel) who would lead Judah to join their coalition against Assyria. Because both Israel and Damascus were stronger than Judah, Judah, specifically the house of David, was terrified. They could do nothing against these regional bullies. And, God’s promise to David and his house stood on the brink of annihilation.

Judah’s situation was like the small kid on the school playground being threatened by two larger, stronger bullies to take his lunch money. Israel and Damascus threatened to bring David’s line to an end; and Judah could do nothing. The kingdom of Judah found itself threatened, on the edge of despair, facing an uncertain future.

Into this despair and uncertainty, God spoke to Isaiah, “Go out with your son Shear-yashub to meet Ahaz at the end of the conduit of the Upper Pool, by the road of the Fuller’s Field. And say to him: Be firm and be calm. Do not be afraid and do not lose heart on account of these two smoking stubs of firebrands” (Isaiah 7:3-4). Isaiah proceeded to tell Ahaz that the plot of Rezin and Pekah to unseat the house of David over the kingdom of Judah would fail (7:7-9). To verify his statement, Isaiah told Ahaz: “Ask for a sign from the Lord your God, anywhere down to Sheol or up to the sky” (7:11). Ahaz refused. Isaiah therefore addressed the threatened house of David, “Assuredly, my Lord will give you a sign of His own accord! Look, the young woman is with child and about to give birth to a son. Let her name him Immanuel” (7:14).

The question arises who is the child? Christian tradition, because of Matthew’s Gospel, has assumed that the child mentioned predicts the birth of Jesus; however, the immediate context of Isaiah’s prophecy indicates that the prophet did not refer to an event eight hundred years in the future. Isaiah continued, “For before the lad knows to reject the bad and choose the good, the ground whose two kings you dread shall be abandoned” (7:16). In other words, before the child reaches the age of maturity, the kingdoms of Israel and Aram-Damascus will no longer exist. The child, then, was born in the days of the prophet. His birth had immediate relevance to God’s deliverance of the house of David.

Some interpreters have thought that the child was the son of the prophet, and the young maiden (which is the intended meaning of the Hebrew word ‘almah) was Isaiah’s wife. In light of the threat posed to Judah, specifically the house of David, and the fact that the sign responded to the fears of the house of David and the people of Jerusalem, it seems that the young maiden was the wife of Ahaz, the queen, who most likely was already pregnant with the heir.

Rezin and Pekah threatened the royal line of the house of David, not the existence of the kingdom of Judah. The sign God gave the house of David was the birth of the child. The queen, pregnant with the royal heir, would bear the child, and his birth provided the proof that God had not abandoned Judah, nor his promise to the house of David. At the moment when hope seemed lost, the eucatasrophe occurred, and in most natural and common of events: the birth of a child. And that birth signaled that God was with his people. Facing an imminent threat, with little hope, God’s word came to the prophet to encourage the house of David. In the simple act of the queen giving birth to the crown prince, God demonstrated His faithfulness to His promises: Immanuel.

Bulla bearing the name of Hezekiah

The child born to Ahaz was Hezekiah. That Hezekiah was the intended child mentioned in Isaiah 7:14 seems certain, for in Isaiah 9 the child has been born: “For a child has been born to us, a son has been given us…and he has been named ‘The Mighty God,’” (Isaiah 9:5). The phrase “mighty God” (in Hebrew אל גבור) is actually a word-play on the name Hezekiah (חזקיהו), which means “Yahweh is mighty.” God is good to His word.

The threat facing Judah and specifically the house of David struck terror throughout Jerusalem. Into this hopeless despair, God sent Isaiah to provide a word of comfort and hope that in the most natural way, the birth of a child, the crown prince, Hezekiah, God demonstrated His presence with His people. He announced that when things looked the darkest His presence turned despair into hope, darkness into light.

It’s little wonder that eight hundred years later when faced with a similar world threatened by despair the author of the Gospel of Matthew drew a connection between the birth of another child and the announcement of God’s nearness to His people. The birth of that child, Jesus, also served as a sign that God is with us: Immanuel.

Christmas often finds many people on the edge of despair. Facing threats much bigger than themselves, they give way to hopelessness. Overcome with loneliness or loss, they find themselves isolated feeling helpless. But, it’s at this moment when the threat of circumstances seems greatest that God emerges in the most common and natural ways to remind us that He is with us: Immanuel. No matter how dark the night seems, or how formidable and hopeless the circumstances appear, God’s presence pierces the gloom with the promise of hope. Tolkien was correct, the Resurrection is the greatest example of eucatastrophe, but the message of Christmas likewise calls upon joy to penetrate our sorrows and despair because it reminds us that God is with us: Immanuel.

*For my friend Mary, in loving memory of her husband Dan, who’s kindness to me forever impacted my life. Christmas 2018.

[1]James Kugel, The Bible as It Was(Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1997), 18.

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