Isaiah - A Virgin Will Conceive
A well-known prophecy...but how well do you really know it?
Isaiah 7:14 ESV
14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.
A sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.
Isaiah 7:14. This has to be one of the most quoted and most familiar verses in Isaiah.
Does it sound familiar to you?
It’s definitely familiar to a lot of us, and it gets quoted a lot especially at this time of year. We’re now in the month of December, which means we’re into Advent: the days leading up to Christmas. In fact, last Sunday was technically the first Sunday of Advent.
This quote, and even this graphic, has a “ring” of Christmas to it, doesn’t it? Or is that just me? I didn’t make this graphic, but whoever did chose to put a star in it. Why? There’s nothing about a star in this verse at all! But there is a star in the Christmas story, and this verse is somehow associated with the Christmas story, and hence, someone decorated this verse with a star.
Why Verse 14?
Why has this one verse become so associated with Christmas?
Well, “Christmas” is of course for Christians a celebration of Christ’s birth. And in the gospel according to Matthew, he makes a very direct connection between the birth of Jesus and Isaiah 7:14:
Turn to Matthew 1, and we’ll read just a little excerpt from the first chapter of Matthew, which he begins by calling it “the genesis of Jesus.” The chapter opens with a “genesis” or “genealogy” of Jesus in the first 17 verses, then a summary of how his birth came about, beginning in verse 18:
Matthew 1:18–25 CSB
18 The birth of Jesus Christ came about this way: After his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, it was discovered before they came together that she was pregnant from the Holy Spirit. 19 So her husband, Joseph, being a righteous man, and not wanting to disgrace her publicly, decided to divorce her secretly.
20 But after he had considered these things, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because what has been conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
22 Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
23 See, the virgin will become pregnant
and give birth to a son,
and they will name him Immanuel,
which is translated “God is with us.”
24 When Joseph woke up, he did as the Lord’s angel had commanded him. He married her 25 but did not have sexual relations with her until she gave birth to a son. And he named him Jesus.
OK there is a LOT to unpack in that passage, and we’re not going to do that today. We are, Lord willing, going to explore Matthew in depth later next year. For now, we’re going to focus on the connection here to Isaiah.
For a lot of you, this may be a familiar part of the Christmas story. The angel appearing to Joseph and telling him Mary is going to give birth even though she’s a virgin. And then Matthew, the narrator, steps in to make a note. It’s almost like a “by the way” … in case you didn’t catch this connection, this hyperlink to Isaiah, all this took place to fulfill what Isaiah prophesied long, long ago.
So, as Christians, we like to read the gospels, because they’re about Christ, and we’re Christians! Right? And that’s great! We read Matthew and see that reference, and think “oh, cool! Isaiah made a prophecy, and Jesus fulfilled it! Awesome!” and we happily move on with the rest of the gospel story.
Meanwhile, that one, isolated verse in Isaiah has become awfully familiar to us, primarily because Matthew quotes it. And that’s great!
But how many of you are familiar with the rest of the context surrounding that one verse?
I must admit that I really was not familiar with it until I really sat down to study it for this week. And, what I found is that the context is… well… there is a lot of context.
Today, we’re going to be looking at that context. We’ll be spending the rest of our time this morning digging our heels firmly into Isaiah chapter 7, so go ahead and flip back to Isaiah and find your way there if you’d like.
Even though we’re not studying every verse of Isaiah, we also don’t want to study individual verses in isolation. And because this one verse has become so prominent, it is beneficial to understand what was happening when Isaiah gave this prophecy, and how it fit into the message he was actually giving at the time.
Slightly Broader Scope
The verse that’s famous is verse 14. So let’s broaden the scope just a little bit and look at the 7 verses surrounding it, starting in verse 10:
Isaiah 7:10–17 CSB
10 Then the Lord spoke again to Ahaz: 11 “Ask for a sign from the Lord your God—it can be as deep as Sheol or as high as heaven.”
12 But Ahaz replied, “I will not ask. I will not test the Lord.”
13 Isaiah said, “Listen, house of David! Is it not enough for you to try the patience of men? Will you also try the patience of my God? 14 Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign: See, the virgin will conceive, have a son, and name him Immanuel. 15 By the time he learns to reject what is bad and choose what is good, he will be eating curds and honey. 16 For before the boy knows to reject what is bad and choose what is good, the land of the two kings you dread will be abandoned. 17 The Lord will bring on you, your people, and your father’s house such a time as has never been since Ephraim separated from Judah: He will bring the king of Assyria.”
OK, so we see now that the Lord is giving the sign specifically because Ahaz refused to ask for one. And Isaiah seems upset. And then there’s this other stuff about the boy who’s born, and what he’s going to eat, and somehow that’s linked to Epharim and Judah and the king of Assyria. And that’s all just really confusing.
And…back up, who is this guy Ahaz, anyway, and why is God speaking to him through Isaiah?
This is not enough context.
Much Broader Scope
We’re going to have to broaden our scope a bit more. Let’s back up to the beginning of Chapter 7.
This is where the scene really starts. Chapter 7 introduces a new train of thought, it gives the backdrop for what becomes the next major prophetic message in Isaiah, after what happened in chapter 6, which Mike covered last week. Let’s read from the beginning:
Isaiah 7:1–6 CSB
1 This took place during the reign of Ahaz, son of Jotham, son of Uzziah king of Judah: Aram’s King Rezin and Israel’s King Pekah son of Remaliah went to fight against Jerusalem, but they were not able to conquer it.
2 When it became known to the house of David that Aram had occupied Ephraim, the heart of Ahaz and the hearts of his people trembled like trees of a forest shaking in the wind.
3 The Lord said to Isaiah, “Go out with your son Shear-jashub to meet Ahaz at the end of the conduit of the upper pool, by the road to the Launderer’s Field. 4 Say to him: Calm down and be quiet. Don’t be afraid or cowardly because of these two smoldering sticks, the fierce anger of Rezin and Aram, and the son of Remaliah. 5 For Aram, along with Ephraim and the son of Remaliah, has plotted harm against you. They say, 6 ‘Let’s go up against Judah, terrorize it, and conquer it for ourselves. Then we can install Tabeel’s son as king in it.’ ”
OH, ok, that all makes sense! Right? You all followed exactly what’s going on here, right? You can picture it all now! They’re by the road to the launderer's field!
If you do understand everything that’s happening here on the first pass, then that’s awesome. And you can probably just take a nap for the next few minutes.
I’m guessing most of you are more like me; I read these first few verses about a dozen times trying to wrap my head around it. And even then, I had to look at some maps and read some commentaries before it all really made sense.
And even though it took some effort, I was really glad I didn’t just give up and skim over it, because if you understand the political tensions being described here, the dialogue between God, Ahaz and Isaiah makes a lot more sense.
So, hopefully, I can help decipher this for you.
Deciphering the Politics
Now, I’m going to bring up a map, and do some writing on the screen, and I apologize to anyone watching online, because you won’t be able to see it. So, I’ll try my best to describe what I’m doing. But if you really want to follow along, I suggest getting a notepad and writing down a couple key things as I go, which will help unlock some of the nuances of this passage.
Here’s a map of what the political scene looked like at the time of Isaiah. You have various people groups and kingdoms all fighting for territory and power. And bear in mind these orbs or blobs fluctuated a lot throughout history, as various empires rose and fell. But this is the general distribution of power surrounding Israel at the time.
Now, to connect this map to Isaiah 7, there are a few terms we need to clarify. This passage is just swimming with all kinds of names: names of people, names of kingdoms, names of cities. So lets wade through these names.
First of all, remember that this is the period during which Israel was divided into two separate kingdoms. And while “Israel” can sometimes refer to both the northern AND southern kingdoms, it can also refer to specifically the Northern kingdom, and the southern Kingdom is called “Judah.” So, you have Israel in the North and Judah in the south. But Israel can sometimes also refer to all the descendants of Abraham collectively. So, there is a third term that you’ll find throughout Isaiah and other prophets, that refers specifically to the northern kingdom, and that’s Ephraim. If you’re taking notes, write that down.
Ephraim = Israel/Northern Kingdom.
Judah = Southern Kingdom
Another tricky name used in this passage, which you might have noticed, if your translation is different from what I was reading, is that name “Aram.” Some translations have “Syria” there instead. They are the same word, “Aram” is just the Hebrew word for “Syria.” So that’s the next thing to write down, or take mental note of.
Aram = Syria.
Now, each of these kingdoms has a capital city and a king.
The capital of Judah is Jerusalem, and her king is Ahaz, grandson of Uzziah.
The capital of Israel/Ephraim is Samaria, and her king is Pekah, son of Remaliah.
The capital of Aram/Syria is Damascus, and her king is Rezin.
Now, I’ve color-coded Judah as green, Ephraim as red, and Aram as blue.
What we learn is that Ephraim/Israel is teaming up with Syria/Aram against Judah. Red and Blue make Purple, so purple signifies their alliance. To understand why THAT is happening, we need to zoom out on the map just a little bit more:
Notice Babylonia and Media over here, each quite large already, but they don’t come in until much later in the story. Right now, they’re not a threat to Israel and Judah and Syria over in the West. Right now, the imminent threat in that area is coming from this smaller, orange blob up here. That’s Assyria, and they’re expanding to the west and making a lot of ground in the north. In response, Aram/Syria and Ephraim/Israel formed an alliance, to hopefully withstand the incoming threat.
Ahaz, in Judah, meanwhile had no interest in allying with those two kingdoms, and in fact plans to simply pay off the Assyrian king (Tiglath Pileser) rather than try to rebel against him.
Ahaz is terrified of the alliance because they’re right at his front door! So in his mind, his only hope is that the Assyrian empire will send reinforcements as a reward for his loyalty.
A deciphered reading
Let’s go back to the passage here, with all these terms color-coded for reference. Using these colors, I’m going to offer a deciphered re-reading of this passage in a way that makes sense to me. It may seem silly, but I found it really helpful:
This took place during the reign of Ahaz, the green king: The blue king Rezin, and the red king Pekah went to fight against the green kingdom’s capital city, but they were not able to conquer it.
Here’s how it happened:
When it became known to the green kingdom that the blue king and red king had joined forces, the heart of the green king and his people trembled like trees of a forest shaking in the wind.
Yahweh said to Isaiah the prophet, “Go out with your son Shear-jashub to meet the green king at this specific location. Say to him: Calm down and be quiet. Don’t be afraid or cowardly because of this purple alliance, the combination of the blue king and the red king. For the blue king, along with the red king has plotted harm against you, the green king. They say, “Let’s go up against the green kingdom’s capital city, terrorize it, and conquer it for ourselves. Then we can install a purple puppet king in it, who will cooperate with us.
Now, maybe you didn’t need the colors to visualize what’s going on in this passage, but I’m a visual person, so I did! And hopefully, one way or another, you get the idea of the situation in which Isaiah approaches Ahaz.
Ahaz is terrified and God sends Isaiah to tell him not to be.
Reading on, Isaiah expounds on this message:
Isaiah 7:7–9 CSB
7 This is what the Lord God says:
It will not happen; it will not occur.
8 The chief city of Aram is Damascus,
the chief of Damascus is Rezin
(within sixty-five years
Ephraim will be too shattered to be a people),
9 the chief city of Ephraim is Samaria,
and the chief of Samaria is the son of Remaliah.
If you do not stand firm in your faith,
then you will not stand at all.
Basically, God is saying “I will not let what the alliance overtake you” God is not going to let this purple imposter sit on the throne in Judah.
But then he calls out Ahaz’s faith. And the Hebrew uses a clever play on words, with the Hebrew word for “firm,” saying, if your faith isn’t firm, then you won’t stand firm. It’s a lot more clever in Hebrew than in English, but the concept is the same.
If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all. I like this translation, because it plays on the English word “stand” instead, and it’s catchy. You could easily quote this one out of context all the time. If you don’t stand firm in your faith, you won’t stand at all.
So, God’s turning this reassurance into a warning. He’s promised that the purple alliance won’t succeed, but then he also warns him to stand firm in his faith.
And finally, in the next few verses, we get to the prophecy.
Let me Prove it
In verse ten, God tells Ahaz to let him prove the validity of his promise:
Isaiah 7:10–11 CSB
10 Then the Lord spoke again to Ahaz: 11 “Ask for a sign from the Lord your God—it can be as deep as Sheol or as high as heaven.”
It’s an invitation to ask for a sign, no matter how miraculous, astounding, or supernatural! That’s a rare opportunity!
What’s Ahaz’s response?
Isaiah 7:12 CSB
12 But Ahaz replied, “I will not ask. I will not test the Lord.”
Now, at first glance, this might seem like the right response! Right? After all, Deuteronomy 6:16 specifically says “Do not test the LORD your God!”
But this invitation by God was not a test to see whether or not Ahaz would take him up on it. That command not to test God was in response to a rebellious sort of testing, whereas any time God actually Invites people to test him, although it’s very rare, he does actually want and expect that test. It’s an invitation for God to display his power and sovereignty on a human’s own terms, so there can be no basis for arguing against the validity of God’s promises.
It’s a rare and incredible invitation, and Ahaz says “No thanks.”
It turns out that Ahaz had more faith in Assyria’s ability to protect him than in God’s. The fact that he had negotiated with them, or at least was planning to, shows that he feared Assyria more than he feared God.
Isaiah’s response makes it pretty clear that Ahaz’s attitude and motivation was problematic:
Isaiah 7:13 CSB
13 Isaiah said, “Listen, house of David! Is it not enough for you to try the patience of men? Will you also try the patience of my God?
Ahaz is trying the patience of God. So God just gives him a sign of his own. The famous verse 14, the star of the show:
Isaiah 7:14 CSB
14 Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign: See, the virgin will conceive, have a son, and name him Immanuel.
So, there’s the sign. A virgin conceiving, and having a son named Immanuel.
Wait A Minute...
Ok… but we read earlier in Matthew that Jesus being born was a fulfillment of this prophecy. That was hundreds and hundreds of years later, how does that prove anything to Ahaz? What does it have to do with this whole situation with these different kingdoms?
OH, and hold on… Jesus is named Jesus (or Yeshua, to be exact). “Yeshua” is a Hebrew name, fairly common, it’s the same name as “Joshua” and means “Yahweh saves.” “Immanuel” is a totally different Hebrew word, meaning “God with us.” So…if Jesus is named Jesus, how can he be the fulfilment of a prophecy of a boy who’s supposed to be named “Immanuel?”
OH, and hold on…what about all this other stuff that Isaiah prophecies about this boy, none of this is included in our Christmas quotes:
Isaiah 7:15–17 CSB
15 By the time he learns to reject what is bad and choose what is good, he will be eating curds and honey. 16 For before the boy knows to reject what is bad and choose what is good, the land of the two kings you dread will be abandoned. 17 The Lord will bring on you, your people, and your father’s house such a time as has never been since Ephraim separated from Judah: He will bring the king of Assyria.”
“Before he knows to reject what is bad and choose what is good” in other words, while he is still young. More specifically, it could be referencing the traditional Jewish age of accountability, which is the age of 12.
But then, what’s up with the curds and honey? Well, I know that may sound like a pretty nice snack…we like our cheese curd up here in the North Country. But in this case, it’s not a reference to feasting on delicacies, it’s a reference to the destruction of their agriculture, and the decimation of the population, and basically that being the only food available to eat. That becomes more evident in the rest of the chapter, which, by the way is full of the phrase “On that day...” and if that doesn’t mean anything to you, check out the message from a couple weeks ago.
But what do curds and honey have to do with Jesus? Did he eat curds and honey? Well probably. But let’s look at the next claim. Still before he knows to reject what is bad and choose what is good, the land of the two kings you dread will be abandoned.
Hmmm. Jesus was born hundreds of years later, but those two kings and their kingdoms fell long, long before that, just a few years after this prophecy.
And then God goes on to turn the focus to Judah, saying Ahaz and his people will experience the Day of the Lord in the form of exile, and he goes on to elaborate throughout the rest of chapter 7 and into chapter 8.
Well, it turns out that Isaiah did have another son, and he referred to his sons as signs that corresponded to his prophecies. Check out chapter 8, verses 3-4:
Isaiah 8:3–4 CSB
3 I was then intimate with the prophetess, and she conceived and gave birth to a son. The Lord said to me, “Name him Maher-shalal-hash-baz, 4 for before the boy knows how to call ‘Father,’ or ‘Mother,’ the wealth of Damascus and the spoils of Samaria will be carried off to the king of Assyria.”
WELL…that sure sounds a whole lot like the boy from chapter 7, doesn’t it? So is HE the fulfilment of the prophecy?
Except…his name isn’t Immanuel, either.
That all happened way before Jesus.
So what’s going on here?
Is this prophecy even about Jesus at all?
Should we be quoting it around Christmas after all?
Well…Matthew sure thought so! But how do we reconcile all these different pieces to the puzzle?
JK - But Really
Anyway, that’s some food for thought. Chew on that, let me know if you figure it out. I’d love to know.
Hope you have a great week! God bless!
Ok, I’m kidding, I won’t actually stop there.
But I do have to say that this IS a bit of a puzzle, and it has naturally been the subject of much scholarly debate. And I’m not here to tell you that I have a perfect answer to every question regarding this prophecy.
However, I also don’t think we should view this prophecy as incoherent at all. I think our own vision can be clouded by our expectations, but that doesn’t mean there is any discrepancy between Isaiah and Matthew, or between what God said would happen and what actually happened.
What About the Timeline?
First of all, what about the timeline?
Well, we have to remember that by nature, most biblical prophecy is crafted with multiple layers of meaning, and full of nuances that go beneath the surface.
We talked about this back when we studied Jonah, and we talked about it a couple weeks ago when we studied the Day of the Lord.
In the case of the Day of the Lord, I said that this phrase can refer to a past, present or future event, and that biblical authors can even use it in all three ways simultaneously.
Well, other prophecies can also have those multiple layers and multiple modes of application, and I think this is one of them. It’s a prophecy that had an imminent fulfilment, through the Exile, as well as an ultimate fulfilment, through Christ. One fulfilment foreshadowed the other, and the prophecy is able to interact on both layers.
So, as far as the timeline, that’s perhaps the easiest question to answer, and if you’ve been with us for a while this hopefully isn’t a big stretch of the imagination for you, because we’ve been trying to inform our understanding of the prophets from a culturally honest perspective for quite some time now.
What About “Virgin?”
Here’s another layer to dissect. There are two words in Hebrew which can be translated into the word “virgin.” One simply means “young woman of marrying age.” In their culture, such a young woman could also generally be assumed to be a virgin. But there is also a more literal term in Hebrew, which corresponds to our literal use of the word.
The one used in Isaiah 7:14 is the one which means “young woman of marrying age.”
IF this prophecy were meant to point ONLY to the Messiah, then why wouldn’t the more specific term be used? Is it because Mary wasn’t actually a virgin?
No, the gospels are very clear on that, and in Greek the term that Matthew and the Septuagint use is a specific, literal term.
No, the intentional use of the more ambiguous term allows the prophecy to be applied on multiple layers. And this is where you’ll find differing opinions as to how exactly the prophecy might have been fulfilled in the short-term: whether it was Isaiah’s son, or Ahaz’s son Hezekiah, who was a Godly king. Either way, this term, rather than posing a problem with the prophecy, enriches the prophecy so as to enable both an imminent fulfilment, as well as an ultimate fulfilment through the virgin Mary.
What About the Name?
Finally, what about that name? Immanuel? That seems to be the the last major piece to the puzzle.
Nobody in the Bible is actually named Immanuel, that I could find. Latinized variations of it are actually popular in some cultures now, but none of Isaiah’s sons, and none of the kings of Judah were named Immanuel.
Then in Matthew, Matthew describes the angel instructing Joseph to name this baby “Yeshua” or “Jesus,” and then the very next verse says “and that happened to fulfill the Immanuel prophecy.” So obviously he didn’t say the two different names as a problem. Why not?
Well, first of all, we can’t hold too tightly to our English definition of the word “name.”
In Hebrew, the word for “name” (Shem) also means “reputation,” among other things. And the literal translation is “She will call his name God with us.” Now, hold that thought, and compare that verse to this one:
Isaiah 9:6 ESV
6 For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
WHOAA! I know I’m getting ahead of myself a little, skipping to chapter 8, but this is another Messianic prophesy, and this one is a lot less ambiguous. It talks about a child being born, and then the same phrase is used: “His name shall be called” and then lists four different titles! So, it’s clear that when Isaiah talks about the ultimate child being born, the ultimate Messiah, and he makes a reference to his name being called something, he’s doing so in a way that assigns titles, roles, and attributes to this person and his entire reputation, not just the name that was on his tax forms.
The title of “God with us” certainly can be used to describe the way God was with Judah during the Assyrian invasion, when Israel was carried off and Judah remained for a much more extended period of time.
But in an even more literal sense, Immanuel can be applied to Jesus because when he came, he was, quite literally, “God with us.” And his Spirit remains with us.
The hope of the exile is that a remnant will return. Return to what? For Israel, it was a return to their homeland. But in a broader sense, the real hope is a return to God. To a relationship with God, in community with each other.
God gave Isaiah a glimpse into his restorative plan: both in the immediate context and for his long-term strategy of becoming human to pay the price of redeeming humans from themselves.
Immanuel, God with us, is a promise of the re-creation of the Eden ideal, where humans and God walked together. It is the restoration of what was lost with sin and the renovation of hearts that have become hard from sin.
God with us is what creation was made for, and what it will one day be again (on THAT day of Yahweh), and in the meantime, he has shown us just how far he is willing to go to redeem his creation.