Because of “Immanuel” being tied so closely together with Christmas and the birth of Jesus, the one who would save his people from their sins, the word has been read as an unequivocally good thing. Immanuel, in the person of Jesus, “God with us” was a great thing that brought salvation into the world. And so we read that ending back into the original.
“Immanuel” was a prophecy. It was a prophecy spoken almost 800 years before Jesus. And it was a prophecy that had a very specific 800 year old reference. Isaiah 7 is the place. Here’s the prophecy:
14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virginwill be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. 15 He will eat curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right. 16 But before the boy knowsenough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste. 17 The Lord will bring on you and on your people and on the house of your father a time unlike any since Ephraim broke away from Judah—he will bring the king of Assyria.”
The prophecy is that there will be a child born and before the boy is old enough to know right from wrong the King of Assyria will come and destroy the two nations opposed to Judah, the nations of Israel and Aram, and that Assyria will decimate the land of Judah also. “God with us – Immanuel” will mean judgement. Judgement on the enemies of Judah who seek to destroy her, but also judgement for Judah.
“God with us” might sound at first like a good thing, but if I’ve made myself an enemy of God and if I’m against him and he’s against me, then I’d probably prefer him to stay away actually.
Immanuel is judgement mixed with salvation. Judah will be saved from her enemies. But Judah will also be disciplined for her own rebellion. Salvation in the midst of judgement.
And when Jesus came as the fulfilment of and the greater Immanuel, it was the same. Salvation yes, but salvation in the midst of judgement. It was a salvation where Jesus himself absorbed the punishment as the judge judged in our place. But it was also salvation in the midst of judgement for those who rejected, and still, reject the salvation. The salvation of Jesus becomes a clear and present and final word that people ignore at their own peril.
So Immanuel isn’t just a good thing. It never was. It’s a good thing and a bad thing at the same time. Depending on how you respond to it.