The beautiful, almost haunting song O Come Emmanuel is one of my favorite Christmas carols, even though there is very little mention of traditional Christmas in it at all. There are no angels, or shepherds, or magi, or even mention of a baby born in Bethlehem. To someone who has only a passing knowledge of the nativity story and what it means, O Come Emmanuel might be a little confusing.
In some of the older versions of the song, we have some interesting names for Jesus: Emmanuel, Son of God, Rod of Jesse, Dayspring, Key of David, and then we have Adonai, Lord of Might. Many of those titles might be unfamiliar to us. They sound old. Archaic. They sound much more Old Testament, don't they? Not quite the same as the baby in the manger, born under a star.
But that is where Jesus, as Emmanuel, began. Back in what we, today, call the Old Testament. Within a heartbeat of mankind's fall to sin in the garden of Eden, God announced his rescue plan. God declared that a descendant of Eve would crush the serpent's head—speaking of Satan—and the serpent would strike his heel. God put this rescue plan in action through a nation, the nation of Israel.
Today I want to tell you a short story inspired by Israel, told as if the nation was a woman. The idea of Israel personified a woman comes from the Bible itself, notably in the book of Hosea. My intention is, that by looking at Israel as if she was a person, we will be drawn into the epic history that spans thousands of years. As you listen, you're going to catch bits of famous Bible stories you know and love. This short story can in no way replace the power of reading the entire history for yourself. My aim is to present an overarching picture of Israel as a dramatic story of failure and hope.
The Birth of a Nation
Before Israel was born, her purpose was set. She was created to be different. Righteous. Set apart. She was born into a land that was promised to her forefathers, yet she did not have even a blade of grass to call her own. From her infancy she was told about her grandfather, Abraham, and that God himself had come down to make a covenant with him. God had promised Abraham that because he had not withheld his beloved son from the Lord, God would make his name great, and through Abraham's descendants, all the nations of the world would be blessed. (Genesis 22)
We can forgive the child Israel, if that task seemed so daunting, that it was easier to worry about later. How can she bless the whole world? She's small, after all, and the world is so very big. For now, it is hard enough to keep food in her belly as a drought sweeps over the promised land.
Just as she begins to fear she might starve to death, her neighbor Egypt offers her both food and shelter. Relieved, she packs up her tent and moves in. (Genesis 46) When the drought ends, it is easier to stay than to go back to a land she doesn't even own.
The years slide by and her kindly neighbor passes away, leaving everything to his cruel son. This son hates Israel. He is threatened by her, and he takes her as his slave. He does everything he can to crush her, body, and soul. Israel weeps bitterly and dreams of freedom. She remembers the promise made to Abraham. She prays in the darkness of the night, “God, have you forgotten your promises? Come and rescue me!” But for a long time, God is silent. (Exodus 1-2)
One day she looks up and sees a man striding out of the wilderness. He declares that God has sent him to rescue her. Could it be true? The man named Moses marches off to face her captor and Israel waits with bated breath.
Egypt laughs in Moses' face. Israel helplessly watches as Moses and Egypt face off in an epic battle. Moses, filled with power from God, strikes blow after blow. Egypt buckles behind his shield but refuses to surrender. Finally, after a crippling strike against Egypt, God not only frees Israel, but repays her for her slavery and suffering. In a great Exodus, she walks free, laden with everything she had come with, and more: gold and riches. She can hardly believe the miracle! (Exodus 7-12)
Finding Israel's Place and Purpose
Once they are far away and safe, Moses sits her down and reminds her of the purpose for which she was born. She is supposed to be the chosen one among the nations. With her neck dripping with jewels and dressed in the rich robes of her former master, she nods eagerly. “I can do this.” Moses teaches her how to act as the chosen nation. (Exodus 35:1 and following)
Before she becomes too impressed with her position among men, Moses warns her that the God who rescued her is so holy that she can not come before his presence full of sin as she is. Blushing with shame, she knows Moses is right. But Moses assures her that God has a plan to make things right between them. She learns how to offer sacrifices that will atone for her sins. (Leviticus 1-7)
Moses then leads her back to the land she had abandoned, the promised land. But in the time she has been gone, it has filled with people. She will have to fight for her home. As she stares at the fortified cities and the soldiers who look like giants, she cries out, “I'm too afraid!” Moses is grieved at her cowardice, and he marches her back into the wilderness. He keeps her there for forty years, using the time to remind her of her role. (Numbers 13-14)
When the time is right, a man named Joshua leads her up to the land she had been promised. She stands with her toes at the river that divides her from her future home, takes a deep breath, and draws her sword.
The following years are hard. She has to follow Joshua's commands, and sometimes he asks her to do the impossible. Yet, in the end, she stands in the promised land and breathes a sigh of relief. She has done it. She is home. She packs away her sword and turns her hand to planting vineyards and fields, raising sheep and children. (Joshua)
Israel's Search for a King
Times are good, and it is easy to forget her struggles in Egypt and the way that God rescued her. She makes friends with her neighbors and finds their cultures enticing. She begins to imitate their ways, and listen to their stories about their gods. She forgets that she is supposed to be an example to her neighbors, and instead takes them for her example.
As she turns away from all that Moses had taught her, her blessings fall away. Her neighbors, who she had found so appealing, do not care about her. She had pushed them off their land, and they want it back. Israel is attacked time and time again. When she cries out for help, God sends her judges and prophets to fight off her enemies. After each rescue, Israel sheepishly returns to the Lord for a time. But when life is good, she forgets God. (Judges)
One day, she comes up with a plan. She calls the prophet Samuel and asks for a king to protect her from her enemies. The prophet is not pleased. “God rules over you,” he reminds her. But she is not dissuaded. “My neighbors all have kings. They won't take me seriously without one of my own.” So God provides a man named Saul. Israel is pleased when she sees Saul for the first time. He is tall and soldierly, just like a king should be. He raises up an army and drives back her enemies. Israel is satisfied. (1 Samuel 8-11)
But then something changes. Rumors circulate that the king and the prophet had a falling out. The prophet accused the king of ignoring the commandments of God. Israel hears whispers that Samuel has anointed another man to be king, one of the sons of Jesse. (1 Samuel 15-16)
Israel is nervous about the divide between king and prophet, and about the stories of King Saul falling into a dark depression, but she is still hopeful that Saul can keep her safe.
Then, one day she looks up and her mouth dries with fear. The Philistine army has marched into her land. They have a giant of a man leading them, shouting for a challenger. Israel looks hopefully at Saul, but he is still sunk beneath God's rejection, and he does nothing. For a month Israel endures the taunts of the giant until she feels she will scream if she has to hear him one more time. And then, someone steps up. He walks boldly up to the giant and declares that God will give the giant into his hand. Israel holds her breath as the young man spins his slingshot over his head. The stone flies from the shepherd's sling and strikes down the giant. Israel throws her hands in the air and cheers loudly. (1 Samuel 17)
The young shepherd becomes the leader of the king's army, and Israel's enemies fall beneath his sword. Israel shouts out her praises for David, enamored with his good looks, his musical talent, his military prowess, and his bravery. She is heedless to the jealousy that is growing in King Saul. Before Israel knows what has happened, Saul lashes out and tries to kill David. Israel watches helplessly as David flees into the wilderness to escape the King's jealous rage. (1 Samuel 18-20)
Israel can only watch and wait as the years pass and David lives in the wilderness. Saul is caught in a spiral of self-destruction, and with one bad decision after the other, he eventually loses his life on the battlefield. After a little struggle for power, David is crowned king. (1 Samuel 31, 2 Samuel 1-5)
King David continues his military success, pushing back the enemies on every side. He moves the ark to his new capital, Jerusalem. David worships the Lord with abandon, without embarrassment. Israel feels a longing to worship like that, to rise up and dance for the Lord, yet the ever-watching eyes of her neighbors stifle her. (2 Samuel 6:12-23)
David begins plans to create a temple for the ark, but the prophet Nathan says no. Nathan tells David that God did not ask for a house and that instead, God will make David a house! Nathan says that God has promised that Israel will live in a land of peace and plenty and that David's kingdom will be made great. One of David's descendants will be like a son to God, and will keep the throne forever. (2 Samuel 7) Israel is ecstatic.
Not that David is perfect. He commits both adultery and murder. His sins cause him grief and suffering. As he ages, he is plagued with family trouble. His sons begin to fight for position, eager to be the next king. Israel watches their hunger for power with trepidation, wondering about that kingdom God had promised, and the king God would call son. (2 Samuel 11, 13-21)
Before David dies, he sees his son Solomon crowned king. When God offers Solomon any blessing he wishes, Solomon asks for wisdom. Israel basks in an era of wealth and peace, proud of her king who judges so wisely that queens from afar come to meet him. Solomon builds a spectacular temple for God, and the priests offer their sacrifices and prayers there daily. With all the blessings showering down on her, it is easy to overlook that Solomon's foreign wives are leading him to worship false gods. Israel sees idols cross into her homeland with unease, but if the wise king says it's okay, it must be. (1 Kings 2, 10, 11:3)
But it isn't. After Solomon's death, Israel's promised land is almost immediately fractured in two, each with its own king. Amid the chaos, she wonders about that promise to her grandfather Abraham, and about the promise to King David, and she wonders how God can fulfill his promises now. (2 Kings 12:16-19)
Perhaps, God has forgotten her. Perhaps it is better to trust the gods of her neighbors. As the years pass she sinks lower and lower, falling into depravity. Her senses are dulled with seeking pleasure, and her house becomes a brothel. She plays the harlot with God, scorning his faithfulness even while He pursues her, as the prophet Hosea reminds her so persistently. Finally, she falls so low she offers her own children to a god of bronze and wood. (Ezekiel 16:21)
God cannot let this one who was supposed to be a beacon of light, become a nightmare of darkness. God has to get her back on the right path again. If she will not heed his messengers, He will get drastic. He allows her to be taken captive again. (2 Chronicles 36)
Sobbing, stripped of her wealth, a shadow of the strong woman who had marched into the promised land, she is dragged, bound and beaten, into captivity. Her homeland is a smoking ruin, and the temple to the God she had all but forgotten is pillaged and smashed.
She weeps in Babylon for what she has lost. She looks back on her life and repents of her choices. How did she forget what God did for her in Egypt? How did she fall so far from the high standard Moses had set for her? Will God rescue her again?
She hungrily searches the words of the prophets she had ignored, and discovers that God has promised that after her punishment, He will call her back. She will go home someday. The prophet Isaiah promised that a child will be born, called Emmanuel, “God With Us”, symbolizing a return to her place as the hope of the nations. (Isaiah 6:10) The prophet Joel spoke of a time when God would pour His Spirit on her sons and daughters, young and old. (Joel 2:28-29) And then, a man named Daniel, who interprets dreams for the rulers of Babylon, has a vision of a Son of Man who is presented before the Ancient of Days and receives an eternal kingdom. (Daniel 7:13-14) Israel's heart quivers with longing. She had thought God forgot his promises, but he hasn't. He has been faithful, even when she wasn't. This time, she'll do better.
Seventy years later, her time in Babylon ends. Once again, God sends her home from captivity with gold and riches, enough to rebuild. She returns to the promised land to find it coated in dust and ash. She despairs over the state of her home: broken, choked with weeds, empty. (Ezra 1)
When she has laid the foundation of the new temple, she looks at the work of her hand and weeps aloud at the simple stones. This is not the glorious promised land she remembers. She feels like a child playing house. But what can she do? Perhaps if she had a king like David again, one who loved the Lord with all his heart and soul and mind, then maybe she could get back on track. (Ezra 3:12)
She stands over her land and sings, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”. But that king does not come. The walls and temple are rebuilt. The houses are repaired and the cisterns filled. The fields are cleared and seeded, the vineyards planted and harvested, the flocks grow, but there is still something missing. Israel ensures the sacrifices continue and she studies the laws of Moses like never before. Yet, she is still not the person she was meant to be. She remembers the purpose for which she had been born, but it feels impossible.
Instead, the world looks with admiration on powerful empires like her new neighbor, Rome. Rome mocks her as she tries to follow the commandments that Moses gave her. She grits her teeth and digs deeper into her traditions, using them as a wall to put space between her and her neighbors.
She prays for the time of peace and prosperity that God had promised. Men rise up to lead Israel back to glory, but they never last. One day Rome sets Herod over her and names him her King. He is not the son of David. Why has God allowed this? Maybe her sacrifices are not enough to take away the sins of her youth. She is no longer a captive, but she does not feel free.
Where is Emmanuel?
She cries out to the Lord, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel. And rescue captive Israel.” She feels a tap on her shoulder. She looks up and sees a new man. She can feel the power of God radiating off of him, something she has not felt since she spoke with a prophet, long, long ago.
“I will do what you can not,” Jesus says, and her eyes widen. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because He anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.” (Luke 4:17-21)
Israel breaks down and weeps in relief. Jesus marches into her promised land and she watches as he displays God's power and love time and time again. It is truly like God is with us, Emmanuel! Here is one to take the throne!
Though, he is not quite the king she expected. She struggles as Jesus tosses aside the careful traditions she built to protect herself. She winces as he cuts through outward piety, and insists she must change her heart. He declares the Kingdom of God is coming, yet he does not raise a sword like David. She watches with amazement as he moves through life being everything she could not, loving God with all of his heart, soul, and mind, and loving his neighbor too. He is the light, the hope for the nations, doing perfectly what she had failed to do. And then, he promises that God's spirit will be given to all who ask of it. Her jaw drops. To receive the Spirit for herself . . . she fears it is too good to be true! (Luke 11:13)
And in one dark day, those fears come to life as a twisting, awful nightmare. The one who said that he would do what she could not, the hope of the nations, is killed upon a cross, suffering the most pitiable of deaths. She flees into the shadows, overcome with despair.
But that despair does not last. On the third day, God raises Jesus from the dead. Israel is stunned at this incredible turn of events, and Jesus explains to her that this was foretold in the law, prophets, and psalms. (Luke 24:44)
And then, just like Jesus promised, as God foretold through the prophets long ago, the Spirit is poured out onto Israel. Full of the Spirit, Israel stands up and declares the glory of God to all the nations. “Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel has come to thee O Israel.” The promise to Abraham has come true in Jesus. The promise to David has come true in Jesus. The prophecy of Daniel has come true in Jesus. The sacrifices Moses proscribed to make her holy were fulfilled in Jesus, if she will just believe in him! (Acts 2)
But not everyone believes. If Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophecies and promises, why is Israel still suffering? Why are others who believe in Jesus still suffering? She is not deterred by their doubts. Everything else Jesus had promised has come true. He told her would come back, and so she believes that he will. In the meantime, she set to the purpose he has given her, utilizing the gift he has given her, the Holy Spirit, to be a witness to all the world. Her life is not easy, but at last, because Jesus is shining through her, she is a light to the world. (Matthew 5:14-16)
Do you resonate with Israel's story? Her history seems to touch on every emotion, every heartbreak we experience as we struggle to be who we were meant to be, who we were created to be. We are not surrounded by idols of bronze, but we know what it is to be tempted by empty things. We know what it's like to not live up to our ideals, to know we are not good enough.
But Israel's story is not built on despair. Even on her darkest night, when her sinful ways have come to collect their dues, she is not abandoned. God never leaves her. He loves her through it all. Even when he disciplines her, he is speaking tenderly to her through his prophets. He tells her, “I have not forgotten you, or My promises.” (Psalm 105:8)
Why does the story of Israel matter to Christians?
What do the promises given thousands of years ago, to a nation on the other side of the world, have to do with you and me? Why do we need to know Israel's history to fully appreciate the role that Jesus stepped into as Emmanuel, God with us? Because, as Christians, we have been written into Israel's story. Her rescue is now our rescue.
In the Garden of Eden, God is described as walking in the Garden. He was with them. That is what God has always wanted, to be with his creation. Way back in Leviticus 26:12 God says “I will walk among you and be your God, and you shall be my people.” Israel had that exhilarating experience from time to time, but sin kept getting in the way. As we see in her story, Israel cannot achieve her salvation by her own strength, and neither can we. Like Israel, Jesus steps in for us and does for us what we can't, no matter how hard we try.
Now, God is with us through Jesus, as Emmanuel, and through Jesus, we have been freed from captivity to sin. In Luke 4, Jesus takes the prophecy of Isaiah on himself and through his life, death, and resurrection, he fulfills it.
At the end of my creative story on Israel's history, she receives a precious gift, the gift of the Holy Spirit. And she wholeheartedly believes that her purpose is to use that Holy Spirit to witness to the world about what Jesus has done. The mission isn't finished yet.
If Jesus is our Emmanuel, why is there still suffering?
One last point. Just as Israel had to grapple with the fact that Jesus had saved her, that the kingdom was proclaimed, and yet there were suffering and sin in the world, so do we. We see it in broken relationships, sickness, death, corruption, fear . . . you name it. But we know that God keeps his promises. The apostle Peter, who had lived with Jesus and experienced the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, faced these same questions. We see his reply in 2 Peter 3, particularly verse 9. “The Lord is not slow in His promises, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.” God will keep his promise, and this delay is due to God's wonderful patience. So be ready. Jesus is coming back.
As we spend this season reflecting on the hope of the Christmas story, I hope that we remember how big, how epic, was that moment when Jesus came into the world as Emmanuel, to rescue captive Israel, to rescue us. For those who believe, God is with us.
I don't know about you, but sometimes it's hard to feel that God is with me. There are so many distractions in this world, even good things, that can make it hard for me to cultivate a personal relationship with Jesus. And when I let that slip, I feel it. December is a month full of distractions, so my challenge for you this December is to take some time every day, even for just five minutes, to sit with God. Read from his word, slowly, as if he is speaking to you. Pray with the intention to connect. Meditate on his attributes. Worship. Let God be with you, because He'd love nothing more.
If you'd like more short stories about the Nativity, check out my book As the Stars for stories on Elizabeth, Simeon and Anna, and the Shepherds. Or enjoy these nativity Christmas stories here on the blog:
This story was originally shared at a speaking event. If you are interested in hosting me to come and tell stories based on the Bible, please contact me!