And it will rise up over all its channels and go over all its banks.
Then it will sweep on into Judah, it will overflow and pass through,
It will reach even to the neck;
And the spread of its wings will fill the breadth of your land, O Immanuel.
Through Isaiah, God forewarns Judah of the coming invasion by Assyria, an oppressive advance that won’t be stopped, much like a flood of a river cannot be stopped but simply endured. Isaiah had the unenviable task, as a prophet, of calling to account Judah’s waywardness from God, and to remind his nation of the terms of their covenant with God. In short, those terms were if they obeyed God, they would live in His blessing, and if they disobeyed Him, they would reap the curses that come from their own sins. So in these verses, God is forewarning Judah of the penalty they will bring on their own heads if the continue to refuse to love the waters of Shiloah (see verse 6), which represented hearing God’s voice and obeying.
But isn’t it curious the way God speaks to Judah? He tells this nation that the Assyrian flood “will sweep on into Judah...will fill the breadth of your land, O Immanuel.” Wait, are we talking about the land of Judah, or that child of the virgin, called Immanuel? God has a peculiar way of nicknaming people that He really likes, and like any good father, our Father develops nicknames for us in the context of relationship. We see that His relationships with people drive the context of what He calls them, of how He identifies them. Look at Abram and Sarai! God didn’t seem too keen on their names, so He renamed them something He liked better—Abraham and Sarah—because He thought those nicknames more fitting names. He refitted their names to their destinies. He also did that with Simon, whom Jesus renamed Peter (which means “little stone”), and He often called two of His disciples, the brothers James and John, “sons of thunder,” which we might today call “wind bags” or “blowhards.” With James and John, He did it for fun.
God likes nicknaming His children, whether He does this with whole nations like with Judah or Israel, or with individuals like Peter or James and John. But why? Well, as a good Father He nicknames His kids as a way of creating a special bond with them, around a shared experience. Here, in calling a soon-to-be-invaded Judah the nickname “Immanuel,” God is subtly telling them, “I will be with you, don’t be afraid!” He wants Judah’s King Ahaz to remember that prophecy about the coming child who will end empire, and He wants Judah to recall that, even in their weakness against their enemies, God was going to be with them. With guys like James and John, Jesus made light of their intemperate disposition, making a joke out of it in order to weaken its power to define their character.
God likes our weaknesses. He isn’t bothered by them, nor does He think that displays of great strength and power are necessarily the answer to our weaknesses. Sometimes He decides to nickname us, based on our weaknesses—think how small pebbles are, when you think of Peter and his propensity for boasting, or how difficult it is to express love when you’re quick-tempered, like James and John. The way, in other words, that God perfects His grace in our weaknesses is actually to nickname us in light of our weaknesses—but He does it in a way that attaches a promise to them and installs grace into them. He does it this way: “Judah, yes Assyria is coming, but I am here calling you ‘Immanuel’ because I am reminding you that I will be with you in your captivity to empire. Fear not!”
God isn’t afraid of our weaknesses. In fact, He likes them so much He nicknames us according to them, so that we won’t forget that none of His promises rest on our ability, but only on His grace. And so that we will remember that He fully knows all of our weaknesses and is completely unbothered by them. A Child is an answer to empire just as much as a nickname is a way to silence the fears our weaknesses provoke.