By Ben Volman
Many of us who grew up in Jewish homes were told, “It’s impossible for God to become a man.” Indeed, the second commandment forbids Israel to fabricate an image of any living thing for worship (Ex. 20:4). But the issue is much more profound. How does God promise to be present with His people?
Isaiah framed the promise in the name of a miraculous child yet to be born: “Emmanu-el” meaning “God with us” (Is. 7:14). The Jewish Scriptures repeatedly show God communicating with His people in human form.
Consider Abraham, who welcomed three strangers to his tent in Mamre. The Scripture says, “The Lord appeared to him” (Gen.18:1). These men predicted the miraculous birth of Isaac and warned Abraham of the divine judgment about to fall on Sodom and Gomorrah.
Consider Jacob, who wrestled all night with “a man” and called the place Peniel, “For I have seen God face to face” (Gen. 32:30).
In one of the most intriguing passages in the Torah, Moses and the elders of Israel see the God of Israel in the appearance of a man (Ex. 24:9-11).
None of these passages suggest that the God of Israel exists in a human body or is limited to a human likeness. However, they show that God continues to be near and accessible to His people.
Moses expresses the need for God’s continuing presence after the Exodus from Egypt: “You have been telling me, ‘Lead these people,’ but you have not let me know whom you will send with me.” God answers immediately, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” Moses responds: “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send up from here” (Ex. 33:12-16).
When Israel’s tribes later decide to be ruled by kings like the other nations, God explains to the prophet Samuel that this is a choice of a human lord over the divine King (1 Sam. 8:7). But after Saul’s disastrous rule, David receives a special promise from the prophet Nathan: that David’s throne and line of descendents will be established for all time (2 Samuel 7).
The fulfillment of that promise is described in greater detail by the great Messianic prophet Isaiah, who speaks of a child to be born called, “Emmanu-el” (“God with us”). This name hearkens back to Moses’ cry for God to “go with us.” The name suggests God’s continuing answer to Israel’s need for a sustaining relationship with their heavenly Father. Who is this child? He is neither the prophet’s son, nor the son of the king (Ahaz) to whom the prophecy was given. But the child’s miraculous nature is proven by His birth to a virgin.
The promise is expanded in Isaiah 9:6-7, where the prophet gives another telling description of the coming Messiah:
For unto us a Child is born,
Unto us a Son is given;
And the government will be upon His shoulder.
And His name will be called
Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of His government and peace
There will be no end,
Upon the throne of David and over His kingdom,
To order it and establish it with judgment and justice
From that time forward, even forever.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.
The human character of Messiah combined with the Spirit of God is described most explicitly in Isaiah 11:1ff.
There shall come forth a Rod from the stem of Jesse,
And a Branch shall grow out of his roots.
The Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon Him,
The Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
The Spirit of counsel and might,
The Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD.
Increasingly, we see a direct link between the Lord’s presence and the fulfillment of the Messianic promise. It is in this context that the prophet Malachi warns: “The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to His Temple” (Mal. 3:1).
The heavenly vision of the prophet Daniel is even more striking: “Thrones were set in place and the Ancient of Days took his seat.” This is clearly a vision of the God of Israel: “His throne was flaming with fire…Thousands upon thousands attended him.” And then, out of the night vision, he sees “One like a Son of Man coming with the clouds of heaven. He came to the Ancient of Days.” This is clearly a Messianic figure, and the prophet continues: “He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away…” (Daniel 7:9-14).
This confirms the vision of Isaiah (49:6-7), who says of the coming Messiah:
“It is too small a thing for You to be my servant
To restore the tribes of Jacob
And bring back those of Israel I have kept.
I will also make You a light for the Gentiles,
That You may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth”…
“Kings will see You and rise up,
Princes will see and bow down,
Because of the LORD, who is faithful,
The Holy One of Israel, who has chosen You.”
In the light of these promises, we see the Jewish disciples of Yeshua (Jesus) said of Him, “We beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father” (John 1:14). In Yeshua’s miracles and ultimately in His resurrection, they realized that the promise of God to be present with His people was being fulfilled in their midst and would be fully realized when He ascends the throne of David in days to come.