The Triumph of His Grace: The Incarnation in the Old Testament

August 13, 2021
P.T. Tan

“Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel.” Isaiah 7:14
“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder.” Isaiah 9:6

God stepped into human time and space via the ordinary experience of childbirth. And yet His choice to arrive in this everyday manner was also an undeniably miraculous sign of the Divine. It was more extraordinary than the arrival of Isaac to Abraham and Sarah in their old age – it was conception in the absence of human means. To make this event even more staggering, Isaiah states that His name shall be “Immanuel” meaning God with us.

We read in John 1:14, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” Those who first heard Isaiah’s proclamation must have scratched their heads and wondered, “how can the child be called, ‘God with us?’ Isn’t that an exaggeration?” Not at all. In these few verses in Isaiah1, there is such a burst of revelation of God to Judah and indeed to the world that it is hard to find a comparable human experience of the divine self-revelation to man. The only other comparable sign is the sign of Jonah, a picture of Christ’s resurrection. On these two signs rest the foundation of Christianity and the authenticity of Christ’s claims of Who He is.
Without a doubt, great is the mystery of godliness, “God was manifested in the flesh, justified in the Spirit ….”2 In the historical context of Isaiah chapter 7, the sign was given to unbelieving King Ahaz of Judah who was preparing for an imminent siege by Syria and Samaria (the northern kingdom of Israel). Ahaz did what he could as head of national security – he inspected the city’s aqueduct to make sure Jerusalem had enough water supply during the siege while their enemies outside would not. Ahaz was trying to be diligent, but he made a major error in allying himself with Assyria3, a large northern neighbor, to protect his people from Syria and Samaria. Although Ahaz thought it was a prudent move, Isaiah was sent to point out the folly of depending on Assyria for Judah’s safety, and to persuade Ahaz to put his trust in God instead.

Ahaz’s problem is not unique. It is like many problems we face today: personal, job, financial, health, or family security. When we are faced with such problems, what do we do? We seek counsel from those wiser than us to provide guidance. Ahaz did that – he did what he thought was the rational thing for a king to do – but he failed to put his ultimate trust in the Lord God. It was tough for Ahaz to put his trust in the God Whom he could not see. What does trust in God mean, anyway? How do we trust in God? We trust God by opening up to Him in prayer and seeking His help to face and resolve our problems, whatever they may be4.

To persuade Ahaz to trust in God for deliverance from the foreign threat, Isaiah encouraged Ahaz to ask God for a sign – any sign – no matter how big or small. Faithless Ahaz refused and quoted scripture in pretended piety5. Isaiah chastised Ahaz for wearying God and said, “Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel.”

Isaiah 9 is the continuation of the prophetic utterance on the Child Deliverer for Judah and indeed for the world. Through Ahaz’s lack of faith and dependence on God and shortsighted policy of alliance with Assyria, Judah was eventually attacked by Assyria itself! Imagine a mouse making an alliance with the cat to protect itself against other mice6. Assyria is modern Iraq. There was thus the ensuing doom and gloom in the land but not of the such as was in “her vexation, when at the first He lightly afflicted the land of Zebulun and the land of Nephatali, and afterward more grievously by way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, in Galilee of the nations.” Jerusalem is not the focus, but the far-flung places to the north west, the route from the north to the south for traders and invaders. It speaks of the people who dwell in darkness as seeing (past perfect tense) a great light! Upon those who dwell in the shadow of death has the light shined! Though the Lord went to Jerusalem during the feast time (especially Passover), and to be crucified, Galilee was the primary place of the Lord’s ministry while on earth. Not Jerusalem.

The prophesy talks about God multiplying the nation (in contrast to the depletion of people through deportation) and of joy as when a victorious army divides the spoils, and as in the day of Midian when Israel defeated the vast army of the Midianites with just 300 men. What a change in mood from darkness and gloom to the enlarging of the nation and increasing its joy. Isaiah says that “garments rolled in blood” will be used for burning and fueling of fire (Isa. 9:5). Why?

The reason is provided in vv. 6-7, “Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given.” This is the continuation of the earlier prophesy in Isaiah 7:14. This is also a literary device in Hebraic poetry: the use of repetitive couplets to emphasize a point and to elaborate its meaning. The phrase, “Child is born” emphasizes His humanity. The phrase, “Son is given” emphasizes His Deity.

The image of a child as a Deliverer is a paradox7. Instead of a mighty hero charging into battle, Isaiah depicted the Deliverer as a Child – a picture of dependency, humility and vulnerability. This is God’s way of dealing with the problem of oppression and foreign conquest: sending a Deliverer who appears weak, vulnerable, harmless and humble, to turn enmity, hostility and oppression into friendship, goodwill, and peace. The weakness of God is stronger than the strength of man8. This is the triumph of His grace: overcoming oppression not by meeting force with greater force, but by sacrifice and forgiveness so vast that it is pointless to resist9. •


  1. In Micah 5:2, is the prophecy he would be born in Bethlehem, Judah. Isaiah focuses on His Person. Micah focuses on the place.
  2. 1 Timothy 3:16
  3. For which Ahaz had to pay a huge ransom to Assyria, emptying the Temple’s treasury.
  4. “When thou saidst, Seek ye my face; my heart said unto thee, Thy face, LORD, will I seek.” Psalm 27:8
  5. Ahaz, quoting Deuteronomy 6:16, had a form of godliness, but denied the power thereof. 2 Timothy 3:5
  6. John Oswalt, Isaiah, Chapters 1-39, pp. 55-59
  7. John Oswalt, op. cit.
  8. 1 Corinthians 1:15-21
  9. John Oswalt, op. cit.