I am reposting this now defunct article for the benefit of the readers.
At a public debate on the issue ‘Was Jesus the Messiah?’ (London L’Chaim Society, 19/1/98), Rabbi Shmuel Boteach stated from the platform that any Christian claiming that Isaiah 7.14 is a prophecy of the virgin birth of Jesus is being intellectually dishonest. This means that Christians have to reject the New Testament, since it makes this claim itself, quoting Isaiah 7.14 in connection with the birth of Jesus and stating: ‘All this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, ‘Behold a virgin shall be with child, and bear a son and they shall call his name Immanuel,’ which is translated ‘God with us.’ (Matthew 1.22-23).
Jesus also made the claim of himself that his life and ministry are prophesied in the scriptures (i.e. the Tenach or Old Testament): ‘You search the scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of me.’ (John 5.39) Either Jesus is right and the scriptures written centuries before he came do testify of him, in which case he is the Messiah, and should be listened to, or he is wrong and the scriptures say nothing about him in which case he is deluded and should be rejected.
So if in order to be intellectually honest in the eyes of Rabbi Boteach, Christians have to reject the New Testament and the words of Jesus, they don’t have much left to believe in and might as well reject their faith altogether. Why believe in someone who was deluded and had such an inflated idea of his own importance that he thought that words written hundreds of years before he came referred to himself? Why pay attention to a book, which claims that Jesus fulfilled prophecies if he did not? If I were to say that the writings of Shakespeare or Chaucer contain prophecies about my life and ministry people would rightly consider me to be mad.
Of course there are Christians who take the view that Rabbi Boteach is advocating. Liberal Christian scholarship is at the forefront of undermining the Christian cause from within and Jewish and Muslim opponents of Christianity like to use their arguments to attack the Christian faith. However Orthodox Jews should beware of using the arguments of liberal Christian clergy. The same people who undermine Christian belief in the virgin birth, the miracles of Jesus, his resurrection, etc, also undermine belief that the Torah is from heaven, in the Genesis account of creation, the Exodus and God’s ongoing covenant with Israel.
It is beyond the scope of this article to deal with the debate over the liberal or literal interpretation of the Bible, except to say that the view of scripture I hold is that ‘all scripture is inspired of God’ (2 Timothy 3.16), and that I accept the literal interpretation of historical and prophetic events in scripture. Since the passage of scripture we are looking at in this article is in Isaiah, I would also state that I believe that whole book has one author, namely the prophet Isaiah.
Isaiah 7.14 – What are the issues?
There are two major objections to the use of this prophecy in relation to Jesus:
- The Hebrew word ‘almah’ should be translated ‘young woman’ not virgin.
- The passage in context is a short term prophecy to King Ahaz about his fears of invasion by an alliance of forces led by Rezin, King of Syria and Pekah, King of Israel, not a prophecy of the virgin birth of the Messiah.
Almah or Bethulah?
The main argument relating to this passage is that if the text had meant to stress the virginity of the woman involved, the Hebrew word ‘bethulah’ should have been used, rather than the word which is used, ‘almah.’
- While ‘bethulah’ is used many times in the Bible to mean virgin, there are however times when its exclusive use as virgin is questionable. In Genesis 24.16, the passage dealing with Abraham’s servant going in search of a bride for Isaac, ‘bethulah’ is used. It is obviously of the highest importance that Isaac’s bride (Rebekah) should be a virgin. The text states: ‘Now the young woman (Hebrew ‘ha na’ar) was very beautiful to behold, a virgin (bethulah); no man had known her.’ If the word bethulah means virgin exclusively the phrase ‘no man had known her’ is unnecessary. It is like saying, ‘The young woman is a virgin. She has never had sex with a man.’ The Bible is economical with words and does not waste space with unnecessary phrases. The implication of this added phrase is that ‘bethulah’ on its own is not a strong enough word to mean that this young woman was definitely a virgin. Therefore her virginity, which is very important to her eligibility to be Isaac’s bride, has to be stated explicitly. Interestingly ‘almah’ is used of Rebekah later in the text (Genesis 24.43) by which time her virginity has been demonstrated. There is a similar reference in Judges 21.12 in which the phrase ‘had not known a man’ is added to the word ‘bethulah.’
- In Joel 1.8 ‘bethulah’ is used of a woman mourning for ‘the husband of her youth.’ Presumably therefore she is no longer a virgin.
- ‘Bethulah’ is also used of pagan nations known for their immorality – ‘O virgin (‘bethulah’) daughter of Babylon’ (Isaiah 47.1), ‘Virgin daughter of Sidon’ (Isaiah 23.12) ‘O virgin, the daughter of Egypt’ (Jeremiah 46.11). In the context all these nations are facing judgment from God because of their impurity.
I have no doubt that if Isaiah had used ‘bethulah’ in Isaiah 7.14, Rabbi Boteach would be quoting these scriptures to demonstrate that the prophet should have used ‘almah’ if he meant to stress the virginity of the young woman!
The word ‘almah’ is used seven times in the Bible. Not once does it describe a married woman. In five cases there is no question about the virginity of the woman involved:
- Genesis 24.43. Rebekah is clearly an unmarried virgin in this text.
- Exodus 2.8. So is Miriam in this one.
- Psalm 68.25. Describing a procession of worshippers of God in the sanctuary. To participate in worship acceptable to God, as described in this Psalm, the ‘almoth’ (plural of almah) would have to be virgins.
- / 5. It is used in Song of Songs (1.3, 6.8) in contrast to the wives and concubines of Solomon, who would obviously not be virgins.
A sixth case, which Rabbi Boteach used in the already mentioned debate, is Proverbs 30.18-19:
‘There are three things which are too wonderful for me, yes four which I do not understand: The way of an eagle in the air, the way of a serpent on the rock, the way of a ship in the midst of the sea, and the way of a man with a maid (almah).’
This verse is followed by verse 20 which says: ‘This is the way of an adulterous woman: she wipes her mouth and says, ‘I have done no wickedness.’
Rabbi Boteach claimed that verse 20 continues the thought of the previous verse and therefore the ‘almah’ referred to is ‘an adulterous woman’ and not a virgin. However the word used for ‘wonderful’ in verse 18 (‘niflu’) implies something positive to follow, not something negative. The structure of Proverbs is one of short sayings, which often contrast with each other, rather than follow on from each other. In this case the adulteress of verse 20 is in contrast to the ‘almah’ of verse 19.
Now we come to the verse in question, Isaiah 7.14. The root of the word ‘almah’ implies a sexually mature woman of marriageable age, but who is not yet married. Ancient Jewish culture expected an unmarried woman to be a virgin, in fact a betrothed woman found not to be a virgin was put to death (Deuteronomy 22.13-21). The Septuagint, a pre-Christian translation of the Hebrew scriptures into Greek by Jewish scholars, uses the Greek word ‘parthenos’ to translate ‘almah’ in Isaiah 7.14. Since ‘parthenos’ only means virgin in Greek, this shows that the pre-Christian understanding of Jewish scholars was that this verse refers to a virgin being with child.
In the text the ‘almah’ being ‘with child’ would seem to deny her virginity. However this condition is said to be a sign (‘oth’) or miracle given by God. There is nothing miraculous about a young woman being with child. Moreover if this was a young unmarried woman being with child by the natural means, this would involve fornication. It is unthinkable that God could give a ‘sign’ involving sexual immorality. Therefore there are good grounds for Christians to claim that the word almah is used in this verse to stress the virginity of the person involved, without being intellectually dishonest, as Rabbi Boteach claimed.
The prophecy in context – three possible interpretations.
- It is a short term prophecy to King Ahaz about the threat to his kingdom.
- It is this, but also a long term prophecy about the Messiah (i.e. the prophecy has two applications).
- There are two prophecies, one to King Ahaz about the threat to his kingdom and one to the whole house of David about the birth of the Messiah.
The first option is the one favoured by Rabbi Boteach and is used to rule out any further application to the Messiah. The second is the one used by many Christians and implies that Isaiah 7.14 is both a prophecy to King Ahaz and a prophecy of the Messiah. The third is the one we shall look at in this article and is the one I hold to.
Background to the passage.
Before looking at the passage itself there are some passages we need to look at.
‘And I will put enmity between you (the serpent – i.e. Satan) and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise your head and you shall bruise his heel.’
This is the earliest prophecy of the Messiah. There are references to its Messianic significance in Jewish writings. (1). It speaks of one who would deliver a fatal injury to the serpent (Satan) and would himself suffer a non-fatal injury in the process. It is the beginning of the biblical references to the ‘seed’, who is the Messiah, and the line which would bring him forth. Through the genealogies of the Bible we can trace this line of descent from Adam and Eve through Seth, Noah, Shem, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah, Jesse, David (to name some of the most important figures).
This ‘seed’ is the object of Satan’s enmity because he knows that Messiah’s coming will deal his kingdom a mortal blow. Logically he will also be hostile to the line of descent and to the individual woman who will bring him forth. Therefore he will do everything in his power to prevent this from happening by trying to eliminate the Messianic line.
There is evidence in the text that Eve imagined that she was bringing forth the fulfilment of this prophecy when she gave birth to Cain and said, ‘I have acquired (Hebrew ‘qaniti’) a man from the Lord.’ (Genesis 4.1) In fact Cain turned out to be a child of the Devil and killed his brother. The fulfilment of the prophecy lay many years in the future, yet the fact that Eve considered this a possibility shows that the expectation was that a son born to a woman would break Satan’s power.
The fact that the text refers to the woman’s ‘seed’ also points to something unusual about the birth. In sexual intercourse it is the man who provides the seed (semen) for the fertilisation of the woman’s egg (ovum). While it cannot be conclusively shown that this is a prophecy of the virgin conception of the Messiah, there is a strong implication in that direction.
1 Chronicles 17.11-14.
‘And it shall be when your days are fulfilled, when you must go to be with your fathers, that I will set up your seed after you, who will be one of your sons; and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build me a house and I will establish his throne for ever. I will be his father and he shall be my son; and I will not take away my mercy from him, as I took it from him who was before you. And I will establish him in my house and in my kingdom for ever; and his throne shall be established for ever.’
Here we have a prophecy given to King David concerning his ‘seed’. On one level it speaks of the line of kings that would follow him, but that cannot be the complete fulfillment of the text. His son, King Solomon, ruled for 40 years, then died in a condition of apostasy, worshipping foreign gods under the influence of his many wives (1 Kings 11). As a result the kingdom was divided into the 10 tribes under King Jeroboam in the northern kingdom of Israel and the 2 tribes under Solomon’s son, King Rehoboam in the southern kingdom of Judah (1 Kings 12). The northern kingdom was always apostate and Jeroboam set up calves for worship and made priests of every class of person and feast days which did not conform to the laws laid down in the Torah (1 Kings 12.26-33). The southern kingdom had its times of apostasy too, but also of revival and restoration to the principles of the Torah. In Judah the line of kings through David as promised in 1 Chronicles 17 above was preserved, as was the legitimate worship in the Temple through the proper sacrifices and feast days administered by the Levitical priests.
At the time of the prophecy in Isaiah 7, which we are looking at, there was only about 20 years to go before the northern kingdom of Israel was to be invaded and carried off into captivity by the Assyrians. The southern kingdom of Judah was to be preserved for about 150 years longer before it fell in its time to the Babylonians. This fall of Judah brought to an end the line of Davidic kings. If this was the end of the story one would have to say that the prophecy of 1 Chronicles 7 is a false one. Since the Babylonian captivity there have been no kings of the line of David sitting on the throne of Judah.
Moreover if the prophecy is just about the human descendants of David, it is impossible to fulfil. It speaks of an eternal house, throne and kingdom which the prophesied descendant of David will inherit. But no mere man can have these things eternally. The only way that could happen is if the one it ultimately speaks of is himself an eternal person, i.e. Immanuel – God with us.
In Luke 1.26-38, the annunciation to Miriam (Mary), the answer to this puzzle is made clear. Having established the connection to the line of David (Luke 1.27) the angel Gabriel says to Miriam, ‘Behold you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son and shall call his name Yeshua (Jesus / salvation). He will be great and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord will give him the throne of his father David. And he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever and of his kingdom there shall be no end.’ (Luke 1.31-33) It can be no accident that the three eternal things promised to David of his ‘seed’ are prophesied of the ‘seed’ of Miriam who was to be conceived supernaturally by the Holy Spirit: ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore that holy one who is to be born shall be called the Son of God.’ (Luke 1.35). It is nothing for God to overrule the laws of nature in order to bring his purposes to fulfillment: ‘For with God nothing will be impossible.’ Luke 1.37.
Although the line of kings descended from David was cut off at the time of the Babylonian captivity, the line of David itself continued. In fact Zerubabbel, who was the leader of the returning remnant to Jerusalem after the Babylonian captivity (see Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai, Zechariah), was himself a descendant of the royal line of David. The genealogical records showing descent from David were preserved in the Temple until its destruction by the Romans 40 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. Once these records were destroyed there was no way that anyone could verify descent from David.
Genealogies of Jesus showing his descent from David are contained in the New Testament. There is a valid debate about the difference between these genealogies, which Rabbi Boteach raised. It is beyond the scope of this article to go into this in detail, but suffice it to say that Matthew 1.1-17 is the genealogy of Jesus’ foster father Joseph and Luke 3.23-38 the genealogy of his mother Miriam. Interestingly the Talmud contains reference to ‘Miriam bath Heli’ (Miriam the daughter of Heli), which gives added weight to the argument that Luke gives the genealogy of Miriam (Jerusalem Talmud, Chagigah 2.4, Sanhedrin 23.3, Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 44.2).
The relevance of all this to Isaiah 7 is crucial. God’s covenant with David concerning his descendants is to go beyond the line of kings, which would follow him and to reach its fulfilment in the supernatural birth of the Messiah. The Messiah is to do mortal damage to Satan’s kingdom, therefore Satan will do all that he can to prevent the fulfilment of this prophecy. Because God is greater than Satan, He will ensure that His purposes are fulfilled.
Historical background to Isaiah 7.14.
By the time we reach this prophecy about 250 years have passed since the division of the united kingdom of David and Solomon into the northern kingdom of Israel (also known as Ephraim) and the southern kingdom of Judah. For information about the events surrounding the kings mentioned in Isaiah 7, we have to look at 2 Kings 16-17 and 2 Chronicles 28.
Here we find that King Ahaz was a wicked king of Judah. He forsook the Lord, worshipped the Baalim, the Canaanite gods, and made his children pass through the fire of sacrifice in the valley of Hinnom. God’s judgment was already upon him for his sins. Early in his reign he suffered defeat at an alliance of Rezin, King of Syria and Pekah, king of Israel, involving loss of territory and life. At the time of the prophecy of Isaiah 7 Ahaz was facing the threat of a siege of Jerusalem and being deposed as King of Judah. The reason for Syria and Israel’s hostility to Ahaz was that he had made an alliance with Assyria, the rising power to the north of Syria, which was itself threatening the security of Syria and Israel. Pekah and Rezin wanted Ahaz to join their alliance against Assyria, but he would not, so they wanted to depose him and put their own puppet king on the throne of Judah who would join with them against Assyria.
Later in Ahaz’ reign the threat to his kingdom from Israel and Syria receded. Pekah, king of Israel, was assassinated by Hoshea in the third year of Ahaz’ reign (2 Kings 16.30). In the ninth year of Hoshea, five years after the death of Ahaz, (2) the Assyrians invaded the northern kingdom of Israel and took its inhabitants away into captivity in Assyria (2 Kings 17). There these tribes inter-married and lost their identity. (No they did not become the British!)
If this had happened to the southern kingdom of Judah, then the Jewish people would have ceased to be an identifiable nation, and the line of David would have been cut off. In this case the prophecy of the coming Messiah would have been null and void, Satan would have won and his kingdom and rule over the human race would be secured. Therefore the issues surrounding God’s word to Ahaz through Isaiah go way beyond the immediate problems he is facing. They touch the central purpose of God in history – the redemption of humanity through the promised Messiah. In fact what did happen was that Ahaz was succeeded by his son, Hezekiah, who was one of Judah’s greatest kings. He feared God and paid attention to Isaiah’s prophecies (unlike Ahaz) and thereby saved Judah from the Assyrian invasion (Isaiah 37-38, 2 Kings 19).
Isaiah 7.14 in context.
‘Now it came to pass in the days of Ahaz the son of Jotham, the son of Uzziah, king of Judah, that Rezin king of Syria and Pekah the son of Remaliah, king of Israel, went up to Jerusalem to make war against it, but could not prevail against it. And it was told to the house of David, saying, ‘Syria’s forces are deployed in Ephraim.’ So his heart and the heart of his people were moved as the trees of the woods are moved with the wind.’
As shown above the prophecy is set at a time when an alliance of the kings of Israel and Syria is mounting an invasion of Judah and threatening the city of Jerusalem. King Ahaz of Judah is in a state of terror at the prospect.
‘Then the Lord said to Isaiah, ‘Go out now to meet Ahaz, you and Shearjashub (means a remnant shall return) your son, at the end of the aqueduct from the upper pool, on the highway to the Fuller’s Field.’
God has something to say through the prophet Isaiah, which will change Ahaz’ perception of the situation he is in. Isaiah is told by God to take his young son with him. The reason for this is not given, but will be seen to be relevant later on. On a human level this might not seem a good thing to do as there is some danger in the situation. Ahaz is inspecting his water supplies in fear of the impending siege. Interestingly his son Hezekiah was to have a tunnel built which would divert the Gihon spring and ensure Jerusalem’s water supplies in the event of a siege. Water would be the most important commodity in such a situation.
‘and say to him: ‘Take heed and be quiet; do not fear or be faint hearted for these two stubs of smoking firebrands, for the fierce anger of Rezin and Syria, and the son of Remaliah. Because Syria, Ephraim and the son of Remaliah have taken evil counsel against you, saying, ‘Let us go up against Judah and trouble it, and let us make a gap in its wall for ourselves, and set a king over them, the son of Tabeel’- thus says the Lord God: ‘It shall not stand, nor shall it come to pass. For the head of Syria is Damascus, and the head of Damascus is Rezin. Within sixty five years Ephraim will be broken so that it will not be a people. The head of Ephraim is Samaria, and the head of Samaria is Remaliah’s son. If you will not believe, surely you will not be established.’
The gist of God’s message to Ahaz is quite simple. Do not be afraid of the threat from Israel and Syria because it will come to nothing. They will not be able to breach the walls of Jerusalem or to set up their own puppet king, the son of Tabeel, in your place. In fact Ephraim, the northern kingdom of Israel, will cease to be a people. Faith in the word of God will cause Ahaz’ kingdom to be established, but since Ahaz is an unbeliever this is expressed in the negative. In other words your non belief will make you insecure.
Despite Ahaz’ unbelief however, he was a legitimate ruler of Judah being a descendant of David. So the crux of the matter is verse 6 where the kings of Syria and Israel are proposing to depose Ahaz and put their own puppet king, the son of Tabeel, in his place. Interestingly there is a play on words here. Tabeel pronounced one way means ‘God is good.’ But with a slight vowel change it becomes ‘good for nothing.’ In other words this plot is good for nothing because if it were successful it would remove the Davidic dynasty and thus prevent the prophecy of the Messiah coming through the line of David. Moreover if Judah then fell to the Assyrians the Jewish people would have lost their identity in that dispersion. Therefore although Ahaz is a bad king, God will prevent him from being deposed and the ‘son of Tabeel’ put on the throne in place of him.
Moreover the Lord spoke again to Ahaz, saying, ‘Ask a sign for yourself from the Lord your God; ask it either in the depth or the height above.’ But Ahaz said, ‘I will not ask nor will I test the Lord.’
To underline his commitment to preserve the line of David and Ahaz’ position on the throne, God offers him a sign. God made such an offer to Ahaz’ son Hezekiah, who accepted it in Isaiah 38.4-8. However unlike Hezekiah, Ahaz was an unbeliever and did not want a sign from God. He was making his own plans to get himself out of the hole he was in through a pact with Assyria. A sign from God might just disturb his plans. Like many unbelievers today he puts on a face of being pious in order to avoid an encounter with the living God. His refusal of the sign offered in verse 11 is a reference to Deuteronomy 6.16, ‘You shall not tempt (or put to the test) the Lord your God.’ However as also happens when unbelievers quote scripture to justify themselves, this is a misquote. God does not want us to look for a sign or demand a sign, but if he is offering a sign we are to take it.
One very important detail which is not clear in modern translations of the Bible, but is clear in the Hebrew and in the King James Version, is that the references to ‘you’ in verses 4-12 are in the singular, i.e. this is a specific word from the Lord to King Ahaz.
Then he said, ‘Hear now, O house of David! Is it a small thing for you to weary me, but will you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: Behold the virgin shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Immanuel.’
At this point the verb changes from ‘you’ singular to ‘you’ plural. The prophecy is no longer addressed to Ahaz alone, but to the house of David, i.e. the entire line of David. God is weary of their unbelief, especially as it is personified by Ahaz. Ahaz is a member of the house of David but now the Lord is speaking beyond him to the whole house of David. He is going to give them a sign. The sign is the future virgin conception and birth of a son who will be more than a human descendant of David. He will be Immanuel, God with us. (3)
Because of this prophecy of the coming Messiah, Ahaz’ kingdom will remain intact and the line of Davidic kings will remain on the throne until the time that God permits. If it had fallen to the attack from Israel and Syria, Judah would then have fallen to the Assyrian invasion and its people would have been dispersed, never to return or be an identifiable people again. In this case the purpose of God in the fulfilment of Messianic prophecy would have been frustrated.
The following chapter, Isaiah 8, warns that after the threat of invasion by Syria and Israel has passed, there will be an invasion of Judah by Assyria (fulfilled in the events described in 2 Kings 18-19). But the Assyrians will fail to overthrow Judah and take the people into captivity. The reason is given in verse 10: ‘Take counsel together, but it will come to nothing; speak the word, but it will not stand, for God is with us.’ This prophecy directed at the Assyrian invader would be better rendered: ‘It will not stand, because of Immanuel.’ In other words the invasion of Judah by Assyria will fail for the same reason as the invasion by Syria and Israel would fail. If it were to succeed the Immanuel prophecy of 7.14 could not be fulfilled.
Judah remained an independent kingdom ruled by kings in the line of David for another 150 years. By this time Babylon, not Assyria, was the dominant regional power. Jeconiah, an evil king, was the last descendant of David to rule the throne of Judah, and through the prophet Jeremiah, God pronounced the end of the line of Davidic kings with him (Jeremiah 22.30). The Babylonians invaded and deported the people of Judah, as they head been warned would happen through the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 25.1-10, 29.10-14).
Unlike the Assyrians, the Babylonians kept their captives intact as a people. When the Babylonian empire fell to the Medo-Persian empire, as prophesied in Isaiah 45-47 and Jeremiah 50-51, the Persian emperor Cyrus permitted the exiles to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple (Ezra 1.1-4). As already stated the returning exiles were led by a descendant of the royal line of David, Zerubabbel.
Thus the Messianic line was preserved and the Jewish people continued living in the land of Israel until the time of the fulfilment of the Immanuel prophecy in the birth and ministry of the Messiah Jesus. 40 years after his death and resurrection the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple, dispersed the Jewish people and caused the genealogical records in the Temple to be lost. Therefore Messiah had to come before this event in order to prove his descent from David, something which is also prophesied in Daniel 9.26 (i.e. that Messiah would come and be ‘cut off’ before the destruction of the Second Temple).
All this is relevant to the prophecy of Isaiah 7.14. It means that the line of David has to continue and be recorded in the genealogies until the time of the Messiah. It also means that the Jewish people have to remain an identifiable people living in the land of Israel until the time of the Messiah. King Ahaz being deposed by the conspiracy of Pekah and Rezin would have led to the end of the line of David and the southern kingdom of Judah losing its identity in the Assyrian conquest, as happened to the northern kingdom of Israel. So although all this is directed to the whole house of David because it has to do with the preservation of the Messianic line, it has a specific relevance to King Ahaz. It means that he need not fear being deposed by the conspiracy of Pekah and Rezin.
Concerning the prophecy itself it refers to a future conception and birth of a son. This is to be a sign, a miraculous event, something involving divine intervention. The son is to be born to a woman of marriageable age, but she herself would not be married. As already stated for God to give a sign of a birth conceived by an act of fornication would be unthinkable. The only possible way this could happen is the event described in Luke 1 quoted above. The Holy Spirit would overshadow a virgin betrothed to be married who would give birth to a son who would be a divine person. God would enter human existence in the person of Yeshua, Jesus the Messiah. In this way he would be both Son of Man and Son of God, without sin and therefore able to redeem lost humanity.
The identity of ‘the virgin’ (‘ha almah’) is the next issue to be looked at. The King James Version is helpful in the translation of this passage in showing the different between the singular and plural use of ‘you’. It is unhelpful in that it translates the verse ‘a virgin’ (as does the Septuagint which Matthew quotes). The Hebrew text says ‘the virgin’ which implies that the woman referred to is known (i.e. not just any woman, but a specific woman, who the reader will understand to have been already referred to). (4) In fact no woman has been mentioned thus far in Isaiah 7. Therefore the reference is to a commonly understood woman who would bring forth this special child, the woman of Genesis 3.15 who would bring forth the seed who would bruise the head of the serpent.
This prophecy then is a word to the whole house of David, concerning the supernatural conception and birth of a son to a virgin at a future unspecified date. This child would be more than just a man, he would be ‘God with us.’ It is separate, though related, to what has gone before and what is to follow, which is a specific prophecy to King Ahaz.
‘Curds and honey shall he eat, that he may know to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child shall know to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land that you dread will be forsaken of both her kings. The Lord will bring the king of Assyria upon you and your people and your father’s house – days that have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah.’
At this point the word for you returns to the singular. A prophecy concerning the future conception and birth of the Messiah was interesting but not much use to Ahaz in his immediate predicament. Isaiah now tells him that both the kings threatening him (Rezin and Pekah) will be removed from power themselves ‘before the child shall know to refuse the evil and choose the good’ (i.e. reach the age of maturity when he can make independent moral judgments).
The question now has to be asked, ‘Who is the child?’ Again because the Hebrew is ‘the child’ not ‘a child’ it must be referring back to a child who is either already mentioned in the text or one who is already known to the hearers of the prophecy. In Isaiah 7 there are two references to boys: Immanuel in verse 14, and Shearjashub, Isaiah’s son in verse 3. Which one is referred to here?
The most common interpretation is that it refers to Immanuel. This is how Christian commentators using the second possible line of interpretation referred to above on page 3 (?) would interpret it. However there are difficulties with this. For one thing if we take the dates given in 2 Kings 16-17, King Pekah of Israel was assassinated three years after Ahaz came to the throne. This means that the prophecy of Isaiah 7 must have been given to Ahaz at the beginning of his reign and the outcome of the prophecy had very little time to be fulfilled and no time at all for a son to be conceived and reach the age of maturity. Therefore it is referring not to Immanuel, but to Shear-Jashub, Isaiah’s young son, who was standing before Ahaz at the time the prophecy was given. This explains why Isaiah was told by the Lord to take his son with him, even though that might be a dangerous thing to do. This in turn means that there are two prophecies, one a long term prophecy concerning the miraculous conception and birth of the son who would be Immanuel, God with us, to be fulfilled in Yeshua, Jesus the Messiah, and the other a short term prophecy to be fulfilled in the events which were soon to take place.
The theme of Immanuel goes through the following chapters of Isaiah with further revelation given concerning this son in Isaiah 9.6-7:
‘For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder and his name will be called Wonderful Counsellor, 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 for ever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.’
The Rabbinic argument is to say that this prophecy refers to King Hezekiah, the good king who would follow Ahaz and re-establish true worship and obedience to the Lord. However this is impossible, since Hezekiah is long since dead and in now way has his kingdom increased and continued ‘for ever.’ Even more importantly Hezekiah cannot have the titles given to this king ascribed to him.
The only one who can fulfil this prophecy is one who is born as a child and yet who is also ‘The mighty God, the Everlasting Father.’ To ascribe the names ‘Mighty God, Everlasting Father’ to a mere man would be blasphemy and nonsensical. Yet this is what Isaiah does. The Rabbinic argument that the first part of the verse is about Hezekiah and the second part about God does not hold water. Both parts of the verse are about the same person whose career is continued in the following verse, as one who sits on David’s throne ‘for ever.’
It is only in the light of the New Testament that this verse makes sense, applying as it does to the Messiah Yeshua, who was born as a child, given as a son bringing eternal life to those who believe in him (John 3.16). Although he took on human form, he was also Immanuel, God with us, ‘Wonderful Counsellor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father (or Father of eternity), the Prince of Peace.’ As such he is able to have an eternal government, bringing peace, judgment and justice in contrast to the present time of darkness and misrule by wicked kings. This looks forward to the Messianic kingdom to be established at the second coming of the Messiah Yeshua of which Isaiah gives more details in Chapter 11.
The New Testament shows how Messiah was born by miraculous conception and so was able to be Son of Man and Son of God. Therefore he was without sin and able to deliver humanity from the curse of sin through his death and resurrection, as Isaiah also prophesied in Isaiah 53:
He is despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised and we did not esteem him. Surely he has born our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken smitten of God and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him, and by his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
He is able right now to give us peace and security, even if we face enemies coming against us as King Ahaz did. Ahaz was not established on David’s throne, nor in the kingdom of God, because he lacked faith in the promises of God. But we can have absolute faith in the promises of God revealed in Messiah Jesus. All of this and much more than there is space to mention in this article is fulfilled in Messiah Jesus who has come once in fulfillment of prophecy and is coming again to complete the Messianic programme and rule on David’s throne.
To believe in Him you do not have to be intellectually dishonest, but you do have to have the courage to go against the flow and to stand firm in the face of adversity, unlike King Ahaz, but like his son King Hezekiah, who believed and was established both on David’s throne and in the kingdom of God.
(1) The Aramaic paraphrase of the Hebrew scriptures, Targum Jonathan, relates this prophecy to the Messiah explaining: ‘But they shall be healed (shupf) in the footsteps (heels) of King Messiah.’ Rabbi David Kimchi also gave support to this Scripture as a prophecy of Messiah’s redemption of mankind. He recognised that salvation is by the hand of the conquering Messiah ‘who would wound Satan, the head, the king and prince of the house of the wicked.’ Rachmiel Frydland, ‘What the Rabbis know about the Messiah’ p 7-8.
(2) There is a gap of 9 years between the assassination of Pekah and the beginning of the reign of Hoshea according to the dates given in 2 Kings 15-17. One explanation is that there was a period of anarchy (possibly referred to in Isaiah 9.17-21) in which there was no king ruling in Israel after the assassination of Pekah. Another is that because Hoshea was a tributary to the Assyrians in the early part of his reign, the first nine years were not counted in the records. John Haley, ‘Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible’ p 399.
(3) ‘In verse 14, the Hebrew word for ‘behold’ is a word which draws attention to an event which could be past, present or future. However grammatically whenever ‘behold’ is used with the Hebrew present participle, it always refers to a future event. That is the case here. Not only is the birth future, but the very conception is future. This is not referring to a pregnant woman about to give birth.’ Arnold Fruchtenbaum, ‘Messianic Christology’ p 36.
(4) ‘According to the rules of Hebrew grammar, when finding the use of the definite article (the), the reader should look for a reference in the immediate previous context. Having followed the passage from chapter 7.1, there has been no mention of any woman. Having failed with the immediate context, the second rule is ‘the principle of previous reference,’ something which has been dealt with much earlier and is common knowledge among the people. Where in Jewish scripture or tradition is there any concept of ‘the virgin giving birth to a son’? The only possible reference is Genesis 3.15.’ ‘Messianic Christology’ p 36.