Today I continue my studies on Isaiah 7:14 and the sign of Immanuel. In these studies I have tried to place Isaiah’s oracle in a historical context and have insisted that unless one takes seriously the historical situation in which the oracle was given to Ahaz, the interpretation of the text will not be complete.
Isaiah 7:14 has great significance to Christians because the text is quoted in the gospel of Matthew and then applied to the birth of Christ. In these studies, I will also seek to understand the text from a New Testament perspective, without neglecting the historical context in which the oracle was first spoken.
Many scholars call Chapters 6 to 8 in the book of Isaiah, “The Book of Signs.” In these chapters, the word “sign” appears twice in the singular (7:11, 14) and once in the plural (8:18). Isaiah himself is concerned with signs, since he believed that he and the children whom the Lord gave to him were “signs and portents in Israel from the LORD” (Isaiah 8:18).
The child Immanuel was also a sign. Isaiah’s words to Ahaz in 7:10 and 7:14 indicate that Immanuel was the sign the Lord gave to the king to indicate that in a short time Israel and Syria would be conquered and the land would be desolated. The child became a sign to the king the moment the child was born.
I wrote in a previous post that most Christians who read and interpret Isaiah 7:14 never look at what the prophet Isaiah wrote in chapter 8 of his book. It is my contention that in the historical situation in which Isaiah proclaimed his oracle and in the historical situation in which Ahaz heard the message of the prophet, the announcement of the birth of the child was fulfilled in the birth of Isaiah’s son (Isaiah 8:1-11, 18).
What follows is a comparison between what was predicted in chapter 7 and how the prediction finds fulfillment in the events mentioned by Isaiah in chapter 8.
1. The Conception
The ‘almah shall conceive, 7:14
The prophetess conceived, 8:3
There are several issues in these words that make the interpretation difficult and confusing. Most Christians interpret these words in light of the Septuagint and not the Hebrew text. The Septuagint, followed by many English translations, translates this sentence: “a virgin shall conceive” (Isaiah 7:14 KJV).
However, as I mentioned in a previous post,
In Isaiah 7:14, the Hebrew word for “young woman” is ‘almah, a word that “signifies a young woman without regard to whether she is married or single” (1972:101). The word does not mean “virgin,” but “young woman,” or “maiden.”
If the word ‘almah means a young woman, “without regard to whether she is married or single,” then, who was this woman? Some scholars identify her to be Ahaz’s wife, an unidentified Judean woman, or Isaiah’s wife.
The Hebrew text says that when Isaiah proclaimed his oracle, the woman was already pregnant. This is how the New Revised Standard Version translates Isaiah 7:14: “The young woman is with child.” The Tanak follows the same reading: “The young woman is with child” and so does the NET Bible: “This young woman is about to conceive.”
Isaiah’s wife was a prophetess. Whether she was the mother of Shear-jashub (Isaiah 7:3) or whether she was Isaiah’s new wife is not known. Since Isaiah’s wife conceived his son Maher-shalal-hash-baz (Isaiah 8:1) within the historical period dealing with the fulfillment of his oracle, it is clear that Isaiah’s son was the sign promised to Ahaz.
2. The Child’s Development
Before the child knows good and evil, 7:16
Before the child cries father and mother, 8:4
In his oracle, Isaiah told Ahaz that before the child was old enough to distinguish between good and evil, the land of the two kings with whom he was at war would be deserted. In Isaiah 8:4 Isaiah said that before his son could say father and mother, “the wealth of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria will be carried away by the king of Assyria.” The same idea is present in both texts.
Call his name Immanuel, 7:14
O, Immanuel, 8:8
Isaiah said that when the child was born his mother would call him Immanuel. The child would be a sign, a sign that God would be present with the people to save them from their enemies. The birth of the child would be a confirmation that what Isaiah was announcing would come to pass a short time after the birth of the child.
In Isaiah 8:7-8 the prophet uses a metaphor to describe the work of the Lord. The Lord would bring the mighty waters of the River (Euphrates), symbolized by the king of Assyria, to punish Ephraim and Damascus. The prophet announced that Judah would not escape the floodwaters of Assyria, because “its outspread wings will fill the breadth of your land, O Immanuel” (Isaiah 8:8). According to Isaiah, Immanuel was already present and he would see the consequence of the coming of Assyria.
But in the midst of the catastrophe that would come against Ephraim and Damascus, Isaiah offers a word of hope to the people of Judah:
“Band together, you peoples, and be dismayed; listen, all you far countries; gird yourselves and be dismayed; gird yourselves and be dismayed! Take counsel together, but it shall be brought to naught; speak a word, but it will not stand, for God is with us” (Isaiah 8:9-10).
These words of Isaiah echo similar words he spoke to Ahaz: “Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: It shall not stand, and it shall not come to pass” (Isaiah 7:7). When Ahaz refused to believe God’s promise of protection, Isaiah told the king to ask for a sign: “Ask a sign of the LORD your God (Isaiah 7:11). The sign was designed to confirm to Ahaz that it “shall not stand, and it shall not come to pass.”
The “it” was the threat posed by Ephraim and Damascus. And this is what Isaiah said after the birth of the child: “It will not stand, for God is with us” (Isaiah 8:10). The expression “for God is with us” is the same as Immanuel. What Isaiah said was that Pekah and Rezin would not succeed because God was present with the people to deliver them.
4. The Desolation of the Land
Before the child is old “the land . . . will be deserted,” 7:16
Before the child is old “Damascus . . . and Samaria will be carried away,” 8:4
As I demonstrated in my last post, Tiglath-pileser deported the population of Samaria and of Damascus two years after Isaiah’s oracle. What Isaiah said before the birth of the child, Isaiah also said after the birth of the child.
5. The Sign
“The Lord will give you a sign,” 7:14
“The children the Lord gave me are signs,” 8:18
The child that was to be born to the young woman was a sign that God was present to deliver Judah from the threat posed by Ephraim and by Damascus.
Isaiah believed that his children were also signs to the people of Judah. Isaiah’s first child was named Shear-jashub, a name that means “A remnant shall return.” Isaiah’s second child was named “Maher-shalal-hash-baz,” a name that means “The spoil speeds, the prey hastens.” The first child was a sign of God’s judgment upon Judah and that God would preserve a remnant. The second child was a sign that Ephraim and Damascus would be plundered by Assyria.
Because Ahaz refused to believe the promise of deliverance Isaiah had proclaimed, the prophet felt that his ministry had come to an end. So, Isaiah retired from active ministry. He probably did not return until the ascension of Hezekiah, the next king of Judah.
But before his withdrawal, Isaiah preserved his oracles for future generations to know that what he had prophesied was indeed true. He said: “Bind up the testimony, seal the teaching among my disciples. I will wait for the LORD, who is hiding his face from the house of Jacob, and I will hope in him. See, I and the children whom the LORD has given me are signs and portents in Israel from the LORD of hosts, who dwells on Mount Zion” (Isaiah 8:16-18).
Thus, when we study Isaiah 7:14 in light of the Syro-Ephraimite war and in conjunction with the events narrated in chapter 8, Isaiah 7:14 makes better sense.
So, how about the New Testament? Well, I have been so verbose again that I have run out of time and space. The New Testament will come in my next post.
Studies on Isaiah 7:14 and the Sign of Immanuel
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Kaiser, Otto. Isaiah 1-12. Old Testament Library. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1972.