The book of Isaiah is a collection of four decades of prophecies communicated through Isaiah the son of Amoz during the reigns of four kings of Judah (ca. 740-698 BC).1 The Kingdom of Assyria was rising in power, attempting to dominate the world through widespread conquest. God’s covenant people had shamefully divided into two dysfunctional kingdoms, desiring to be like the nations around them, adopting immoral and idolatrous lifestyles, and forming political alliances with their pagan neighbors rather than trusting and obeying the LORD.
God was preparing the way for a new, spiritual world-order via his universal kingdom and messianic king.2 But would the people of Judah cooperate in fulfilling their divine purpose, or would they follow Israel’s digression into apostasy? The prophet Isaiah is called to issue warnings of impending judgment along with a message of hope for the future.
Historical Setting of Chapter 7
During the sixteen years that King Ahaz rules the Southern Kingdom of Judah (732-716 BC), Syria and the Northern Kingdom of Israel join forces against him. The Syrians have taken captive “a great number” from Judah, and Israel has killed 120,000 men and captured 200,000 women and children (2 Chron. 28:1-8). When Syria and Israel’s capital and military power Ephraim make war against Ahaz, he is understandably overtaken by fear (Isa. 7:1-2). Is this the end? The LORD graciosly sends Isaiah the prophet to reassure Ahaz that his enemies will not be victorious (vv. 3-9). Isaiah’s son Shear-Jashub, whose name means “a remnant shall return,” accompanies his father as a living symbol of hope (v. 3).
Ahaz is instructed to ask for “a sign” from above but refuses (Isa. 7:10-12), presumably because he is relying on the Assyrians instead (2 Chron. 28:16-21). Isaiah then directs the prophetic message to the entire “house of David,”3 seeing that they have persistently wearied men with corruption and oppression and wearied God with skepticism, disobedience, and contempt (Isa. 7:13). “Therefore,” the prophet declares, “the Lord himself will give you [plural] a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (v. 14).4
It is not without significance that this prophecy is directed to the “house of David” (v. 13), seeing that the future messianic king was to be of Davidic descent (9:6-7; 11:1-2, 10; 55:3; Gen. 49:10; Ezek. 37:18-28; cf. John 7:42). Ahaz and his posterity (cf. Isa. 7:2) are given divine assurance that the messianic lineage will not be terminated by Syria, Ephraim, or anyone else, but will endure until God’s purpose is fulfilled.
The sign involves one described as almah, a word appearing only seven times in the Hebrew scriptures.5 In every occurrence it refers to an unmarried young woman of marriageable age. Virginity is assumed, albeit not implicit in the term. The pressing question, then, is whether the English expression “young woman” is a satisfactory rendering of almah in this text (cf. N/RSV, NET, NLV).
There is no exact term for “virgin” in the Hebrew language. Isaiah could have employed betulah, but if virginity is the intended meaning, even this word lacks the desired precision (cf. Joel 1:8). Since almah is never used in the Hebrew Bible for a married person, and a young Jewess of marriageable age was presumed sexually pure, the term almah expresses “virgin” as definitively as it can be stated with a single word.6
Long before there was a “Christian interpretation” of Isa. 7:14, the Jewish translators of the Septuagint considered the Hebrew almah in this text equivalent to the Greek parthenos (“virgin”). A couple of centuries later Matthew understands it the same (Matt. 1:23). Parthenos, used fifteen times in the Greek New Testament,7 refers explicitly to one who has never had sexual relations. Moreover, this was to be “a sign” from the Lord himself. Since there is nothing extraordinary about a young woman conceiving and bearing a child, evidently the sign was to be miraculous – implying a virginal conception (cf. Matt. 1:18-25; Luke 1:26-38). Note also that the prophecy concerns “the virgin,” i.e., not just any but one in particular.
His Name Immanuel
The prophecy also affirms that the name of the virgin-born son would be called “Immanuel,” although no one in the biblical record is so designated. In fact, the one born to the virgin in the New Testament is named “Jesus” (Matt. 1:21, 25; Luke 1:31). Nevertheless, usage of the word “name” goes beyond a mere designation or identifying moniker. It can also represent the individual himself (Matt. 6:9) or stand for one’s authority (Matt. 7:22; 10:22; 18:5, 20), character (Matt. 10:41, 42), or reputation (Luke 6:22; Rev. 3:1). The Hebrew “Immanuel,” meaning “God with us” (cf. Isa. 8:8, 10), conveys the sense of comfort and assurance that inevitably accompanies divine presence.8 Jesus is in fact recognized as God dwelling among men (John 1:1, 14; 20:28). Isaiah had also stated that descriptively “his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (9:6).
He Shall Eat Curds and Honey
The prophecy continues in Isa. 7:15, “He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good.” This offers further hope to Ahaz and the house of David, in that the virgin-born child would have a normal upbringing and reach maturity in the very land they feared would soon be lost. Abraham’s descendants through Isaac and Jacob were promised “a land flowing with milk and honey.”9 The expression “flowing” indicates a fertile terrain, and the abundance of curds (a dairy product) and honey (incl. fruit nectar?) suggests that the land will still be fruitful and inhabited by Judah’s descendants when the prophecy is fulfilled (cf. v. 22).
Meanwhile, in the Near Future …
The focus of the prophecy then switches from the distant future to the near future. Isaiah proclaims to the house of David: “For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted. The Lord will bring upon you and upon your people and upon your father's house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria” (Isa. 7:16-17).
This passage has caused a great deal of confusion and generated varying interpretations because of its close proximity to vv. 14-15. However, in the broader context there are two boys in view: Isaiah’s son Shear-Jashub (v. 3) and the prophetic virgin-born child (v. 14). When reading the printed account, the tendency is to look to the nearest spatial antecedent in the text and forget that there is a boy physically present on this occasion who is a visual representation of the point being made. Isaiah’s children actually serve as “signs” for his prophetic utterances (8:18).
We don’t know if Isaiah is holding his son, or looking at him, or pointing to him as these words are spoken, but the same terminology (“the boy” = this boy) is used in 8:4 in reference to Isaiah's infant son (cp. Mark 9:36-37). The most obvious meaning of a biblical prophecy is revealed in its fulfillment. Within about ten years of this declaration (ca. 722 BC), the kings of Syria and Ephraim were deposed and the Assyrians were the dominating force in the region, just as the LORD foretold (see 2 Kgs. 15:29-30; 16:9). Yet the prophetic sign of the virgin birth was still seven centuries from its fulfillment.
In the Fullness of Time ...
The seventh chapter of Isaiah offers absolute reassurance to King Ahaz and the people of Judah that, despite overwhelming odds, the land would not be permanently lost, Judah would not be destroyed, the house of David would not cease to exist, and the messianic seed-line would not be severed until the divine purpose has come to fruition. God is faithful, and his word is sure.
The family tree of Ahaz continues through the centuries to a small village in the land of Judah (Matt. 1:9; Luke 2:4-5). “Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit…. All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel’ (which means, God with us)” (Matt. 1:18-23).
--Kevin L. Moore
1 On the authorship of Isaiah, see Matt. 3:3; 4:14; 8:17; 12:17; 13:14; 15:7; Mark 7:6; Luke 3:4; 4:17; John 1:23; 12:38, 39, 41; Acts 8:28, 30; 28:25; Rom. 9:27, 29; 10:16, 20; 15:12.
3 In the Hebrew text, “you” is plural in vv. 9, 13, and 14, and singular in vv. 11, 16, and 17.
4 Unless otherwise noted, all scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version, with added words [in square brackets].
5 Gen. 24:43; Ex. 2:8; Psa. 68:25; Prov. 30:19; Song 1:3; 6:8; Isa. 7:14. The obscure alamoth also appears in 1 Chron. 15:20 and the title of Psa. 46.
6 Robert Cole, “Isaiah 7.14–Why Matthew Was Right,” a lecture presented at the 67th Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society (18 Nov. 2015), Atlanta, GA.
7 Literally in Matt. 1:23; 25:1-11; Luke 1:27; Acts 21:9; 1 Cor. 7:25, 28, 34-38; metaphorically in 2 Cor. 11:2; Rev. 14:4.
8 Gen. 21:20, 22; 26:3, 24, 28; 28:15, 20; 31:3, 5, 42; 35:3; 39:2, 3, 21-23; 46:4; 48:21; Ex. 3:12; Deut. 20:1; Psa. 23:4; et al.
9 Ex. 3:8, 17; 13:5; 33:3; Lev. 20:24; Num. 13:27; 14:8; 16:13, 14; Deut. 6:3; 11:9; 26:9, 15; 27:3; 31:20; Josh. 5:6; Jer. 11:5; 32:22; Ezek. 20:6, 15; cf. 2 Sam. 17:29; Song 4:11; 5:1.
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