Keep Calm and Carry On

Keep Calm and Carry On

O Come, O Come, Immanuel is perhaps the most popular hymn sung in the run up to Christmas. You may already know from popular carol service readings that ‘Immanuel’ is Hebrew for “God with us.” What may surprise you is that this famous name occurs in the Bible in only two places.

Matthew (1:22-23) tells us that Jesus’ birth fulfilled God’s promise that “the virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel (which means God with us).” That promise was made some 700 years earlier through the prophet Isaiah (7:14 and 8:8). What was the context in which that promise was made?

God had chosen to reach out to the people of the world through one particular family: the descendants of Abraham, his son Isaac and his son Jacob (also called Israel), who over the centuries grew into a nation with their own land on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean. By Isaiah’s time, this nation had divided in two small kingdoms, sandwiched between the mighty empires of Egypt and Assyria.

In Isaiah 7:1 we learn that the Northern Kingdom of Ephraim, fearing Assyria will attack and swallow them up, has formed an alliance with its easterly neighbour and together these allies are threatening to take over the Southern Kingdom of Judah in order to present a larger united front against the Empire. The people of Judah are terrified of being overrun (v.2) so God sends his spokesman, the prophet Isaiah, to speak to their king (v.3).

God tells the king to ‘keep calm and carry on’ (v.4) and assures the Southern Kingdom that the attack they fear “will not take place, it will not happen” (v.7). But God warns them that they must trust Him in this instead of doing something rash – like trying to cut a deal with Assyria – saying “if you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all.” (v.9)

As God had previously done when He had made promises to His people, He offered them a sign to confirm that Isaiah’s words were in fact from God. Only this time, God said that King Ahaz could choose the sign himself. (v.10) Ahaz’s refusal to choose a sign when God has asked him to (v.11) was not piety but disobedience.

Isaiah’s children were given names that were summaries of the messages that God was speaking through him. God tells Ahaz that another child will be born – this time to a girl who is not yet married – and his name will be Immanuel, meaning “God with us.” (v.14) God goes on to say that before the boy is 12 years old, the allied Kingdoms of the North will no longer be a threat to the South, because Assyria will have laid them to waste (v.16). The point was that only one thing would protect the Southern Kingdom, and that was God’s presence.

Sadly, King Ahaz did not ‘keep calm and carry on’ putting his trust in God. Instead, he took silver and gold from God’s temple in Jerusalem and sent it to the King of Assyria, appealing to him to rescue Judah from the allied Kingdoms of the North (see 2 Kings 16). In Isaiah 7:17, God warned Ahaz of the consequences of that choice: that the King of Assyria would later crush Judah too. 126 years later, Jerusalem was overrun and the people of Judah were taken into exile, never to fully recover.

Over the centuries, the ‘Immanuel’ sign from God has remained recorded in the book of Isaiah – as both a hope that God will give us another chance and come to rescue us; and as a challenge for us to put our trust in Him rather than people or things.

At Christmas, Matthew’s Gospel reminds us that God has come to rescue us in the person of Jesus. The question now is will we put our trust in Him or not?