Ahaz Receives a Sign

7:1 During the reign of Ahaz son of Jotham, son of Uzziah, king of Judah, King Rezin of Syria and King Pekah son of Remaliah of Israel marched up to Jerusalem to do battle, but they were unable to prevail against it.

Kidner’s summary: ‘These chapters have been called “The book of Immanuel,” after the promised child of Isa 7:14; 8:8, whose nature and reign emerge in Isa 9:1-7 and 11:1-10 against a background of local menace (Isa 7:1-9.) and worldwide dispersion (Isa 11:11-16.). The prophecies arise straight out of a contemporary crisis, but they extend to the last days (Isa 9:1) and the whole earth (Isa 11:9-10; 12:4-5).’ (NBC)

‘Isaiah 7:1-12:6, a section often called “The Book of Immanuel,” begins by stating that Rezin king of Aram and Pekah king of Israel marched out against Ahaz king of Judah with the intention of capturing Jerusalem and replacing Ahaz with a certain “son of Tabeel” (perhaps an Aramean; cf. Ezr 4:7). In 735/4 B.C.; they slaughtered large numbers of people in Judah and took captive even larger numbers. (2 Chron 28:5-8) The ferocity of the attack may have been prompted by the posited refusal of Ahaz to join Rezin and Pekah in a western alliance against Tiglath-pileser III of Assyria. In any event Ahaz appealed to the Assyrian king for help, sending him tribute and becoming his vassal in the bargain. (2 Kings 16:7-8; 2 Chron 28:16-21) The Assyrians were only too willing to oblige; they destroyed Damascus the capital of Aram (2 Kings 16:9) in 732 and Samaria the capital of Israel in 722. It was probably shortly before the Aramean-lsraelite invasion of Judah in 735/4 that Isaiah uttered his famous Immanuel oracle to Ahaz.’ (Isa 7:10-17) (ISBE)

The kingdom of Judah was in serious peril. Rezin, king of Syria (Aram), and Pekah, king of Samaria, had already, in the time of Jotham, begun to harass Judah, 2 Kings 15:37. Now they formed a conspiracy to dethrone the young Ahaz, and replace him with a puppet king, Isa 7:6. The two kings advanced on Jerusalem, but failed to overthrow it, cf. 2 Kings 16:5. But the country was ravaged, and large numbers were taken captive, 2 Chron 28:5ff. But instead of trusting in the Lord, Ahaz appealed to the king of Assyria for help 2 Kings 16:7 2 Chron 28:16.

The events described in this chapter are thought to have taken place around 735 BC.

‘We do not know the specific reason why Syria and Israel are attacking Judah. However, it seems probable that they are attempting to force Judah to join a coalition with them against the Assyrians.’ (Oswalt) Alternatively, it may be that Ahaz has already aligned himself with Assyria, and Syria and Israel are set on punishing him for this. At any rate, these two neibours of Judah intend to depose Ahaz and enthrone the son of Tabeel in his place, v6.

The question raised in this passage is whether Ahaz will live by God’s promises, 2 Sam 7. If he does, he need not panic.

Aram = Syria, originally applied to the whole region between the Euphrates and the Mediterranean.

7:2 It was reported to the family of David, “Syria has allied with Ephraim.” They and their people were emotionally shaken, just as the trees of the forest shake before the wind. 7:3 So the LORD told Isaiah, “Go out with your son Shear-jashub and meet Ahaz at the end of the conduit of the upper pool which is located on the road to the field where they wash and dry cloth. 7:4 Tell him, ‘Make sure you stay calm! Don’t be afraid! Don’t be intimidated by these two stubs of smoking logs, or by the raging anger of Rezin, Syria, and the son of Remaliah. 7:5 Syria has plotted with Ephraim and the son of Remaliah to bring about your demise. 7:6 They say, “Let’s attack Judah, terrorize it, and conquer it. Then we’ll set up the son of Tabeel as its king.”

“Syria has allied with Ephraim” – Ephraim is another name for Israel, so called because its first king, Jeroboam I, was an Ephraimite (1 Kings 11:26) and Ephraim was one of its leading tribes.

So the, one part of the people of God (Israel/Ephraim) has formed an alliance with a foreign nation so that, between them, they can bring down the other part of the people of God (Judah).

The hearts of Ahaz and his people were shaken – Ahaz was terrified at the prospect of invasion by Syria and Israel

One man stood firm in the general consternation. One man set himself to turn the tide of popular opinion. Isaiah, obedient to the Lord’s instruction, met with Ahaz.

“Your son Shear-Jashub” – Isaiah is pointedly told to take his son with him to meet Ahaz. The son’s name can mean either ‘a remnant shall return’ or ‘a remnant shall repent’. In view of the faith-unbelief theme in the present context, Webb thinks that the latter meaning is ‘almost certainly the primary one’.

Shear-Jashub – means “a remnant will return” (Herbert). ‘Like the prophet Hosea’s children, (Ho 1:4-9) the names of Isaiah’s children carry symbolic meanings that had a bearing on the fate of Israel (cf. Isa 8:18). Mention has already been made of the remnant in 6:13. It is unclear whether this name was meant in a positive way, i.e., that despite the coming crisis Judah would not be totally annihilated; or negative, i.e., that the majority would be destroyed and only a small segment would survive (Grogan). This ambiguity may be deliberate, depending on Ahaz’s response to God’s word (Kaiser).’ (NCB)

“Meet Ahaz at the end of the aqueduct of the Upper Pool” – Ahaz is evidently inspecting the water supply in preparation for the coming siege. By being built atop hills, cities were both protected (from attackers) but also vulnerable (to water shortages during times of siege).  But the safety of the city depends less on the security of its water supply, and more on his trust in the Lord.

Note the repeated emphasis on Ahaz’ fearfulness: “Be careful, keep calm and don’t be afraid. Do not lose heart…”

Isaiah’s message to Ahaz was not to fear these two firebrands: like burned-out logs at the edge of a fire that has gone out, they would soon be extinguished. Ahaz should not seek Assyrian aid at this time of panic.

Isaiah’s reassurance was well-founded. ‘Syria was crushed in 732, while Israel lost her northern territories as early as 734, her national existence in 722, and her racial identity through a series of re-peoplings which continued to at least the reign of Esarhaddon. (cf. Ezr 4:2) By the end of this (669 BC) she was indeed too shattered to be a people (8).’ (Kidner)

“Keep calm and don’t be afraid” – This would become a frequent message from Isaiah, cf. v 9b; 8:12-13; 28:16; 30:15.

But it does not matter what Rezin and Pekah say, v5f. What counts is what the Lord says, v7, and he says that their threats will amount to nothing.

7:7 For this reason the sovereign master, the LORD, says:
“It will not take place;
it will not happen.
7:8 For Syria’s leader is Damascus,
and the leader of Damascus is Rezin.
Within sixty-five years Ephraim will no longer exist as a nation.
7:9 Ephraim’s leader is Samaria,
and Samaria’s leader is the son of Remaliah.
If your faith does not remain firm,
then you will not remain secure.”

The head of Aram is Damascus, and the head of Damascus is only Rezin – Whereas (the implication is), the only true God is the head of Judah.

Ephraim – = Israel, identified by its dominant northern tribe.

Within sixty-five years…too shattered to be a people – Within one person’s lifetime, the deportations of Israelites and the importing of other groups will have rendered those who remained scarcely a people at all.

“If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all”‘An entire doctrine of the role of faith is in this verse.’ (Watts) See 1 Pet 5:12.

Jackman concurs: this is a ‘key verse for the historical context of the whole book.  There is only one rock, one secure foothold, but to trust oneself to the promises of Yahweh requires faith and the renunciation of the alternative imagined securities of human policies and politics.  That is the issue Ahaz and Judah are facing – divine promises or human policies?  Which will they choose to put their faith in?’

‘The young king is clearly uncertain and frightened, as well he might be. He is reminded of God’s faithfulness and of God’s assurance. But in v 9b he is reminded that he has a task to fulfill, like that outlined for Solomon and Jeroboam, before he can be confirmed on his throne. V 10a offers Yahweh’s sign. This is his risk. He tests Ahaz through the offer, just as he tested Abraham. (Gen 22:1) When Abraham obeyed the bizarre command, he clearly tested God in return. Every encounter in faith consists of a mutual testing. God’s actions toward his people is a test and a risk. (cf. Deut 4:34) God’s blessings and providential acts are tests. (Ex 15:25; 20:20; Deut 8:2) Test and countertest are the very stuff of personal encounter and growth in faith.

But this encounter can go wrong. Deut 6:16 speaks of a bitter experience at Massah when Israel tested God and warns against testing God. Apparently the right encounter begins with God’s initiative, with God’s offer of a test. In Isaiah, this is the case. God offers a sign (v 11). This will clearly become a test both of Ahaz’s faith and of God’s faithfulness. There is a risk. But without risk there is no reward.’ (Watts)

7:10 The LORD again spoke to Ahaz: 7:11 “Ask for a confirming sign from the LORD your God. You can even ask for something miraculous.” 7:12 But Ahaz responded, “I don’t want to ask; I don’t want to put the LORD to a test.” 7:13 So Isaiah replied, “Pay attention, family of David. Do you consider it too insignificant to try the patience of men? Is that why you are also trying the patience of my God? 7:14 For this reason the sovereign master himself will give you a confirming sign. Look, this young woman is about to conceive and will give birth to a son. You, young woman, will name him Immanuel. 7:15 He will eat sour milk and honey, which will help him know how to reject evil and choose what is right. 7:16 Here is why this will be so: Before the child knows how to reject evil and choose what is right, the land whose two kings you fear will be desolate. 7:17 The LORD will bring on you, your people, and your father’s family a time unlike any since Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria!”

Failing to gain Ahaz’s confidence the first time, the Lord speaks to him again (presumably through Isaiah).

‘In that very hour, in which Isaiah was standing before Ahaz, the fate of Jerusalem was decided for more than two thousand years. (Delitzsch)

The Lord offers to reinforce Ahaz faith with a sign, but Ahaz has already made up his mind, v12.

“Ask for a confirming sign from the LORD your God. You can even ask for something miraculous” – NIV: “A sign, whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights”.  Ahaz is to ask the Lord for a sign of any magnitude. God is ‘pulling out all the stops’ to move the king to faith.

“I don’t want to put the Lord to a test” – Ahaz refused the offer of a sign with an appeal to piety. The reference is to Num 14:22; Deut 6:16. ‘But the testing referred to in the Torah is not believing God’s promises! To obey the command of God and step out in faith in his promises is nothing like the rebellions in the desert, where the Israelites doubted God’s goodness and essentially dared him to do what he had said he would. Ahaz’s supposed piety is only a mask for the same kind of unbelief.’ (Oswalt)

Ahaz refuses to ask the Lord for a sign, even though the Lord himself has told him to. Perhaps Ahaz had already dispatched his envoys to Assyria. Those ambassadors had taken with them a large amount of money to buy the Assyrian king’s favour, 2 Kings 16:8.

Goldingay: ‘Sometimes God disapproves of people who want signs, but sometimes God grants signs.  Maybe there’s a difference between people who want to believe but need help and people who don’t want to believe and want an excuse for avoiding doing so.  Ahaz comes in the latter category.’

‘Behind the smooth scriptural talk (v12; cf. Dt. 6:16) lay a plan to outwit his enemies by making friends with the biggest of them.’ (cf. 2 Kings 16:7-10) (Kidner)

‘Note, A secret disaffection to God is often disguised with the specious colours of respect to him; and those who are resolved that they will not trust God yet pretend that they will not tempt him.’ (MHC)

Ahaz has the form of godliness, 2 Tim 3:5, but not the substance.

‘The true reason why he would not ask for a sign was because, having a dependence upon the Assyrians, their forces, and their gods, for help, he would not thus far be beholden to the God of Israel, or lay himself under obligations to him. He would not ask a sign for the confirming of his faith because he resolved to persist in his unbelief, and would indulge his doubts and distrusts; yet he pretends a pious reason: I will not tempt the Lord; as if it would be a tempting of God to do that which God himself invited and directed him to do. Note, A secret disaffection to God is often disguised with the specious colours of respect to him; and those who are resolved that they will not trust God yet pretend that they will not tempt him.’ (MHC)

‘Piety is not the same as faith. Piety is the appearance of religion while trust in God is the substance of religion. Ahaz does not have the substance and tries to cover this up with a veneer of appearance. Jesus condemned the Pharisees for the same sin. They tithed and prayed and gave charity to the poor, but it was all a show. They were worshiping themselves being pious. True piety follows as a result of trusting in God.’ (Oswalt)

Because Ahaz has rejected the word of the prophet, 7-9, and rejected the offer of a sign to confirm it, 10-12, he is given a sign which is ‘veiled and enigmatic’ (Webb), in fulfilment of Isa 6:9f. (So veiled and enigmatic, in fact, that scholars have debated it ever since!)

‘The records show that within his reign Ahaz actually designed and built an altar of Damascene style specifically to “inquire before.” He also was very active in rearranging the Temple and its worship. The editors of Kings judge his motivation to have been political and pagan. (cf. 2 Kings 16:10-18) The accumulation of testimony is that Ahaz was religious enough, but that his real gods were idols.’ (Watts)

“The Lord himself will give you a sign” – although Ahaz had refused the offer of a sign, v12.

Colin Nicholl (The Great Christ Comet) argues that this prophecy would have been pre-eminent in leading the magi to the new-born Jesus.  They would have seen it being acted out in the sky as a comet appeared in the constellation of Virgo and led them first to Jerusalem and then to Bethlehem.  It is striking, for instance, that Matthew 1:22f affirms that the conception and birth of Jesus took place in fulfilment of Isa 7:14, and that the visit of the Magi is recorded just a few verses later (Mt 2:1ff).  See the Bible Study Notes on Matthew 2 and Revelation 12.

“Look, this young woman is about to conceive and will give birth to a son. You, young woman, will name him Immanuel”

‘The sign is revealed anyway. A young woman who is apparently present or contemporary, but not yet married (i.e., a virgin) will in due course bear a child and call his name Immanuel meaning God-(is)-With-Us. By the time the child is old enough to make decisions, the land of the two opposing kings will be devastated. The sign is simple. It has to do with a period by which time the present crisis will no longer be acute or relevant. This is parallel to the statement in v 8b but indicates a much shorter period. The shorter period accords with history. Tiglath-Pileser’s reactions to Rezin and the son of Remaliah came in 733 b.c. when he reduced most of Israel to the status of an Assyrian province.’ (Watts)

Childs remarks that ‘One of the most significant features of this verse is the mysterious, even vague and indeterminate, tone that pervades the entire passage. The reader is simply not given information regarding the identity of the maiden, or how precisely the sign functions in relation to the giving of the name Immanuel. It is, therefore, idle to speculate on these matters; rather, the reader can determine if there are other avenues of understanding opened up by the larger context.’

‘The message was that by the time the unmarried woman (the meaning of “virgin”) had married, conceived and given birth – that is, in the space of a year or so – Assyria would destroy Aram and Ephraim (the northern kingdom of Israel) the communities which were conspiring against Judah.’ (The Bible Application Handbook)

The coming deliverer is referred to again in Isa 9:6-7; 11:1-5. ‘Enough, so far, that while the king calls in an army, God looks to the birth of a child.’ (cf. Gen 17:19) (Kidner)

'The virgin will conceive'

Isaiah 7:14 ‘Look, this young woman is about to conceive and will give birth to a son. You, young woman, will name him Immanuel.’

Matthew 1:22 This all happened so that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet would be fulfilled: 1:23 “Look! The virgin will conceive and bear a son, and they will call him Emmanuel,” which means “God with us.”

The passage in Isaiah, and its quotation by Matthew, invite a raft of questions:

  • What is the meaning of ‘almah’ (‘virgin’? ‘young woman’)?
  • Who is the woman referred to in Isaiah?  And who is her son?
  • In what sense did Matthew think that the Isaiah passage had been ‘fulfilled’?

What is the meaning of ‘Almah’ (‘young woman’)?

The issue here is that Matthew (following the LXX) takes the Heb. ‘almah‘ (young woman) to mean ‘parthenos‘ (virgin).  This is regarded as a simple, but far-reaching, mistranslation by sceptics such as Jonathan Pearce (The Nativity: A Critical Examination, ch. 1).

Kidner (NBC) comments that

‘the nearest English equivalent is “girl.” The Hebrew word describes a potential bride in Gen 24:43, and the young Miriam in Ex 2:8; it presumes rather than states virginity and is a term outgrown at marriage. Before its NT fulfilment its miraculous implications would pass unnoticed.’

Watts concludes his word study by referring to

‘two different and contrasting semantic implications which provide an invitation to double entendre. The one implies the spotless candidate for marriage. The other implies a type of available sexual partner not condoned by Yahwistic norms or the Law. The common meaning signifies one who is sexually mature. It is difficult to find a word in English that is capable of the same range of meaning. “Virgin” is too narrow, while “young woman” is too broad.’

It might be wondered why the word almah is used, rather than bethulah, which, it is claimed, unambiguously means ‘virgin’.  Yet, if the meaning of bethulah is so unamibuous, why does the narrator in Gen 24:16 feel the need to add, with reference to Rebekah, that ‘she had never known a man’?  And does not bethulah in Joel 1:8 clearly refer to a married woman?


‘The term ‘almāh (“maiden”) has in the past evoked much controversy, initially because of its translation in Greek by the LXX as parthénos (“virgin”), and its subsequent role in Matt. 1:23. The noun is derived, not from the root “to be concealed” as suggested already by Jerome, but from a homonym, meaning “to be full of vigor,” “to have reached the age of puberty.” Thus the noun refers to a female sexually ripe for marriage. The emphasis does not fall on virginity as such and, in this respect, differs from the Hebrew betûlāh. However, apart from the controversial reference in Prov. 30:19, the women in all the other references to an ‘almāh do actually appear to be virgins (e.g., Gen. 24:43; Ex. 2:8; Ps. 68:26). It is very unlikely that a married woman would still be referred to as an ‘almāh. In sum, the English translation of the Hebrew by the AV as “virgin” is misleading in too narrowly focusing on virginity rather than on sexual maturity. Conversely, the preferred modern translation of “young woman” (NRSV) is too broad a rendering since it wrongly includes young wives.’

It is sometimes objected that this word, often translated ‘virgin’, does not necessarily bear this meaning, and only denotes a young woman, or maiden. However, the context seems to emphasise the unmarried state (and by implication, virginity). After all, what would be miraculous (i.e. a ‘sign’) about a young woman having a baby? There is no known instance where the word is used definitely to refer to a woman who is not a virgin. The Septuagint certainly understood the word to mean ‘virgin’, rendering it ‘parthenos‘ (and Matthew, in quoting this, gives us clear authority for this translation, Mt 1:23). On the other hand, it is significant that the Jews themselves do not seem to have applied this prophecy at any time to the Messiah – a circumstance which tends to disprove the theory that it was this text that suggested the story of a virgin birth to the early church.

According to Harper’s Bible Commentary,

‘Martin Luther allegedly offered a hundred gulden to anyone who could show a reference in the OT to a married woman designated by this term.’

(The one possible exception is Prov 30:19).

Lincoln (Born of a Virgin?) maintains that, so far as the original (Hebrew) Isaiah passage is concerned,

‘there is no question of the young woman being a virgin when she conceives Immanuel. 10 In Hebrew the term employed is almah and that simply means a young woman, who would have been understood to conceive by the usual means. The sign to Ahaz derives its force not from the manner in which the young woman will conceive but from its timing (Isa. 7.15–16).’

Lincoln adds that, even in the LXX (which uses the word ‘parthenos’, and which is followed by Matthew) the Isaiah passage need mean no more that that a young woman, who has not yet borne a child, will become pregnant.  In others words, she would have been a virgin at the time of Isaiah’s prediction, but then proceeded to bear a child in the usual way.

Who is the ‘young woman’ referred to in Isaiah 7:14?

The description carries the definite article. So, some particular person is being referred to. Perhaps Isaiah is referring to some maiden in the crowd.

According to the Dictionary of the Old Testament: Prophets (art. ‘Women and Female Imagery):

‘Based on Matthew’s quotation (Mt 1:23), Christian tradition has identified the young woman in Isaiah 7 as the Virgin Mary. The identity of the young woman in Isaiah’s original context has been variously identified as Isaiah’s own wife (Isaiah’s sons received symbolic names [Is. 7:3; 8:3–4]) (Gottwald), the wife of King Ahaz (Scullion) or even a random young woman whom Isaiah can point to. O. Kaiser interprets it collectively: women will name their sons “Immanuel” in gratitude and praise for the nation’s deliverance.’

Webb (BST) concludes that the woman is Zion (cf. Isa 1:8), and that her son would be ‘the faithful remnant who will emerge from her sufferings’.  His name, ‘Immanuel’, would reflect God’s continued presence with his people.  This would be supported by Mt 1:23, where Jesus Christ, ‘Immanuel’, is (in Jackman’s words), ‘the personification and fulfilment of the remnant promises.’

It is reasonable to assume that the young woman was at the time betrothed to Isaiah, and a virgin at the time.  Isa 8:1-4 seems to refer to their marriage and the conception of their son Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz.  It may be significant that she is called a ‘prophetess’ in Isa 8:3.

Who is the child?

We cannot be sure of the identity of the child of Ahaz’s time. We are given no information about the father, and the mother is spoken of in only the most general terms. Some (e.g. Watts) think that the reference is to the birth of Hezekiah. However, he was 25 years old at his accession in 516 (2 Kings 18:2) and was therefore born in 741, at least six years before these events. In any case, there would be no reason to refer to his mother – already married – in this way. Another alternative is that the child is Maher-shalal-hash-baz. However, the description of this same child in Isa 9:6,7 shows that the ultimate fulfilment is in the Messiah.

Is this a messianic prophecy?

Some interpreters, including Hill and Brown, think that there is no Messianic element here, and that the reference is to a child (possibly Hezekiah or Maher-Shalal-Hashbaz) born to a young woman in Ahaz’ day.  An implication of this interpretation would be that Mt 1:23 is mistaken in positing a prophecy/fulfilment link between this this verse and the birth of Jesus.

According to Goldingay (Isaiah For Everyone), Isaiah’s words may mean ‘a virgin will get pregnant’, but even this (he says) does not imply a miraculous birth, because it may simply mean that a girl who is at present a virgin will marry and conceive in the usual way.  This writer adds:

‘The point is that by the time a few months have passed and the girl has had her baby, the crisis that preoccupies Ahaz will be over.  It will have been proved that “God is with us,” and she will be able to call her baby God-is-with-us, Immanuel.’

Goldingay continues:

‘Hundreds of years later, Jesus came and was born of a girl who was a virgin when she conceived and whose baby turned out to be “God with us” in a more personal sense, and Matthew can utilise the words in Isaiah to help his Christian readers understand something of the wonder of that event.’

It is clear that Goldingay does not regard this passage as a Messianic prophecy.  In UBCS he writes that the ‘reapplication’ of OT passages found in Matthew 1-2

‘do not depend on a link with the actual meaning of the passages in question. They are inspired reapplications of the inspired words. This particular reapplication may have been encouraged by the fact that the Greek translation of the OT, which Matthew likely knew, translated ‘almah by Greek parthenos, which means “virgin.”’

I rather think that this represents a one-sided recognition of biblical inspiration: allowing ‘inspired’ interpretation by Matthew, while disallowing ‘inspired’ prediction by Isaiah.

Others, including Young, Motyer and Harman, think that this is a prophecy that refers only to a far distant event.  Harman notes (among other things) the close proximity of this prophecy to that recorded in Isa 9:6f, which speaks uniquivocally of the divinity of the Messiah.  (Harman also notes some difficulties with this interpretation: notably that a far-distant birth could hardly serve as a sign to Isaiah’s contemporaries).  It may also be observed, in support of this interpretation, that Ahaz’s son Hezekiah had already been born at this time, and that Isaiah’s wife, who had already born children, could not now be called a maiden/virgin.

Osborne (in his commentary on Matthew) says that there is a ‘growing consensus’ concerning a view between these two extremes:

‘The prophecy was given to Ahaz and introduced by “Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign.” In other words, it was mainly intended for Ahaz that God would destroy the kings he dreaded (Isa 7:14–17). So at least a partial fulfillment is indicated for Ahaz’s time. Yet the larger Isaianic context indicates also that a greater picture was envisaged as well. This promised “Immanuel” would bring a dawning of a great light (9:2–3) and would be called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (9:6). He is the “shoot from the stump of Jesse,” the “Branch” on which the Spirit rests (11:1–11), showing a distinct messianic longing.’

Osborne adds: ‘The LXX recognized this greater thrust and chose to interpret ʿalma with the narrower “virgin” (παρθένος), thus emphasizing the supernatural manifestations of the child’s birth. Matthew utilized this Septuagintal emphasis and applied it to the virgin birth of Jesus.’

This is, in essence, the view of Calvin (who thought that this passage refers to two births – the Messiah in v15 and another (possibly Shear-jashub) in v16), J.A. Alexander, and Grogan.

The contributor to Harper’s Bible Commentary detects a Messianic ‘trajectory’: ‘The unusual name “Emmanuel” (Heb., “God with us”) now harbors in it prophetic implications for the destruction of Judah as well as Syria and Ephraim (Isa 8:6–8) and, finally, for the nations in the future that will so threaten Judah (Isa 8:9–10). The “child sign” seems to continue in Isa 9:1–7, where the birth of a child (Isa 9:6) portends a comparable claim of God’s presence with Israel (Isa 9:4) in the period after the Exile, when “the people walked in darkness” (Isa 9:2). Even if the original tradition of Isa 9:1–7 was once an independent, nonmessianic “royal psalm,” its present context in the book invites a messianic interpretation.’

Carson (on Matthew) agrees that ‘Isa 7:1-9:7 must be read as a unit – i.e. 7:14 must not be treated in isolation. The promised Immanuel, Isa 7:14, will possess the land, Isa 8:8, thwart all opponents, Isa 8:10, appear in Galilee of the Gentiles, Isa 9:1, as a great light to those in the land of the shadow of death, Isa 9:2. He is the Child and Son called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” in 9:6, whose government and peace will never end as he reigns on David’s throne forever, Isa 9:7.’

Childs remarks that ‘the mysterious name of Immanuel in Isa 7:14 receives clarification in two passages in chapter 8 that belong roughly to the same period of the Syro-Ephraimite crisis (cf. below). The judgment announced by Isaiah will come and cover the whole land, but the remnant has hope because the land belongs to Immanuel (Isa 8:8). Again in Isa 8:9ff., in spite of the evil plans of distant nations their counsel will not prevail because God has so willed it through Immanuel (v. 10). In sum, Immanuel is no longer the unborn child of Isa 7:14, but the owner of Israel’s land and the source of the divine force that brings the plans of conspiring nations to naught (Ps. 2:1ff.). Notwithstanding the extraordinary mystery and indeterminacy surrounding the giving of the sign of Immanuel, there are many clear indications that it was understood messianically by the tradents of the Isaianic tradition, and shaped in such a way both to clarify and expand the messianic hope for every successive generation of the people of God.

‘Isaiah 8:3, introducing this son, echoes the language of 7:14 as Isaiah goes to his wife, and she conceives and then gives birth to the child with this symbolic name (“quick to the plunder, swift to the spoil” [NIV mg.]). The next verse repeats the sense of 7:15, describing how the wealth of Damascus (in Aram) and Samaria (in Israel) will be plundered before the child can say “My father” or “My mother” (8:4). This same son is called “Immanuel” in 8:8, which is explained in 8:10 as “God with us,” accounting for Matthew’s linking the two portions of Isaiah together. In 8:18 Isaiah describes his two sons, Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz and Shear-Jashub (cf. 7:3), as “signs and symbols in Israel,” which description ties back in with the sign God promised in 7:11, 14. But in 9:1–7 the more distant future is in view, as exiles are once again restored to Galilee. Here, in 9:6, another description of the birth of a wonderful child appears, one who can be called “Almighty God,” “Eternal Father,” and “Prince of Peace,” who will rule from David’s throne and establish universal justice forever—prophecies that scarcely could have been fulfilled in a mere earthly king.’ (Blomberg, in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament)

‘For Isaiah and his followers the Immanuel sign meant the promise of God’s protecting presence and the eventual fulfilment of God’s good purposes for his people. The preservation of the remnant in Isaiah’s day was part of a process which led finally to the coming of Jesus, the perfectly faithful and righteous one, in whom all God’s promises come to fulfilment. So Matthew was right to see the ultimate fulfilment of the Immanuel saying in Jesus Christ.’ (Webb)

Oswalt says that if it were not for Matthew’s use of this saying, it would have provoked little controversy. ‘On the surface the sign seems to be that before a child conceived at the time of the saying is twelve years of age, the two nations that so frighten the house of David will be destroyed, Isa 7:16. However, there are three factors in the sign itself that raise some question about this apparently straightforward interpretation:-

1. God himself urges Ahaz to ask for a remarkable sign. On the surface, there seems nothing remarkable about the sign that God actually gives.

2. The second unusual feature is the choice of the word used to identify the mother of the child. The word is not the normal one for “woman” or “girl,” but a relatively unusual one meaning “young woman of marriageable age.” When we discover that the LXX translates the word with “virgin,” the mystery is deepened.

3. Finally, the choice of a name for the child is a bit strange since its immediate relevance to the historic situation is not clear, whereas there is a direct relevance in the names of the other two children mentioned, Isa 7:3, 8:3. The mentioned of this second child highlights another oddity. The verbs describing the conception, birth, and naming of that child are the same as those in 7:14.’

Oswalt concludes that there is more to this prophecy than first meets the eye, and that Matthew was not wrong in appropriating the text to his own day. The text has ‘a single meaning but a double significance. Its meaning is that God is with us and we need not fear what other human beings may do to us. The first significance is for Ahaz’s own day. He need to go to Assyria because God is with Judah…In its first significance the virginity of the mother at the time of the announcement of the sign is all that is being intended. Thus, the typical word for “virgin” is not used; it would have called too much attention to itself. Yet for the real significance of the sign to be realised, the virginity of the mother at the time of the birth is critical. Thus, the common words for “woman” or “girl” cannot be used.’

As further alternative approach, Webb says that ‘if the “young woman” is Zion cf. Isa 1:8, then her son is the faithful remnant who will emerge from her sufferings cf. Isa 66:7f. That is why he is given the name Immanuel, “God with us.” God will be with the faithful remnant who gather round Isaiah, cf. Isa 8:16, not with the unbelieving Ahaz and the rebellious nation as a whole.’

Alan Richardson (TWBB) offers the following weak support to the predictive element in prophecy: ‘It would be false to the standpoint of the NT if we were to say that the significance of OT prophecy consists solely in “forth-telling” and to discount the element of “foretelling” altogether. The “argument from prophecy” is still impressive when it is restated in the light of modern knowledge. We can indeed no longer imagine that the OT writers were given a miraculous “preview” of the events of the life and death of Jesus, or that detailed predictions of his ministry and passion were divinely dictated to them; nor shall we look for precise fulfilments of particular OT texts, as writers in the pre-critical period have done ever since the days of the author of St. Matthew’s Gospel. (e.g. Mt 1:22-23; 2:5-6,15,17-18,23, etc.) We shall notice rather that the prophets, standing in the midst of the stirring events of their times, discerned therein the character and purpose of God, more particularly his judgement and mercy. The pattern of his action, both for judgement and salvation, was discerned and forth-told by them in their declaration of his will. As their sense of God’s unfolding purpose deepened, they came increasingly to look forward to a denouement, a climax of Israel’s history, a “day of the Lord” in which those things which were now but partially revealed should be fully and finally made manifest.’ (Art. ‘Prophecy’)

It is with similar scepticism that C.F.D. Moule says that Matthew’s use of the Old Testament ‘to our eyes [is] manifestly forced and artificial and unconvincing.’

Robert Miller (cited by John Loftus in God or Godless?) claims that Matthew:-

  1. attributes meanings to the prophets that they did not intend
  2. interprets their words in ways that are impossible in their own contexts
  3. relates prophecies to events that never happened
  4. invents a prophecy that did not exist

It is the last of these objections that most clearly shows the bankruptcy of such scepticism.  Miller is obviously thinking of Mt 2:23.  It is absurd that suppose that Matthew, steeped as he was in the scriptures, did not know (or thought his readers would not know) that there is no passage in the Old Testament that contains the actual words, ‘He will be called a Nazarene’.  Sceptics need to try a little harder to determine what sense might be made of such a statement before dismissing it so lightly.

As Wright says:

‘people have suggested that Matthew made his story up so that it would present a ‘fulfilment’ of the passage he quotes in verse 23, from Isaiah 7:14. But, interestingly, there is no evidence that anyone before Matthew saw that verse as something that would have to be fulfilled by the coming Messiah. It looks rather as though he found the verse because he already knew the story, not the other way round.’

It is well-known that the original Hebrew of Isa 7:15f did not specify ‘virgin’, but rather young unmarried woman.  As Macleod (The Person of Christ, p26) says, the point is ‘rather academic since young, unmarried women would be expected to be virgins’ (cf. Deut 22:1ff).  The LXX translation used the word ‘parthenos‘, which more definitely implies virginity.  Matthew, himself writing in Greek, quotes from the LXX.  So, even though the original text in Isaiah did not specifically predict a virgin birth, and no such expectation developed in Jewish thinking, Matthew found such a meaning latent in the prophet, supported by the line that the LXX had taken.

So, as Macleod remarks,

‘whatever the merits of Matthew’s exegesis, his assertion of the virgin birth is quite independent of it.  Isaiah 7:14 may be difficult to interpret.  Matthew 1:18,25 are not.’  Furthermore, ‘Matthew cannot be accused of trying to accommodate the truth to the expectations of his readers.  The Jews never applied Isaiah 7:14 to the Messiah: not even after the Septuagint had rendered ‘alma by parthenos.’  Then again, whatever problems there may be in the exegesis of Isa 7:14, it is clear that the birth referred to there was to be a ‘sign’.  A sign requires some unusual circumstance, ‘and what more unusual than that the child should be born from one who was an ‘alma/perthenos in the natural meaning of these terms?’

Michael Heiser (I Dare You Not to Bore Me With The Bible) points out that a more precise word – betulah (בתולה) – was available for ‘virgin’ (as in Lev 21:3; Judg 21:12; Deut 22:23, 28; Exod 22:15).  In most of the passages where almah (עלמה) is used, there is no clue as to the sexual status of the woman referred to [this is disputable: in most, if not all cases, virginity is implied].  In Song of Solomon 6:8, however, almah is used in a way that suggests virginity (queens and concubines were, of course, sexual partners of the king, and so it can be assumed that the third category, ‘virgins’ (alamot) were not sexually active.  Rebekah is referred to as both betulah (Gen 24:16) and almah (Gen 24:43), showing that the two terms do overlap in meaning, and to that extent are synonymous.

Aside from such word studies, Heiser writes,

‘In an ancient patriarchal culture, a “woman of marriageable age,” like Mary, was a female who had at least reached puberty and so was capable of bearing children. Daughters in such a culture were under close supervision and restraint. Even in today’s sex-saturated culture, a significant number of girls in their teen years are virgins—how much more those in a patriarchal culture? Matthew was raised in this culture—and with the book of Esther—so it should not surprise us that he saw no incongruity in understanding almah (עלמה) to mean “virgin.”’

Blomberg comments:

‘The reference in Isa 7:15-16 to the short period of time in the promised child’s life before the kings Ahaz dreads are destroyed seems to require at least a partial fulfillment of the prophecy in Isaiah’s day. Nevertheless, the LXX translation of almah as parthenos (both words often though not always mean “virgin,” though the Greek term is less equivocal) shows that some Jews already two hundred years before Christ favored an interpretation in which this immediate fulfillment was not seen as exhausting Isaiah’s prophecy. Further exegetical clues in Isaiah support the LXX’s interpretation. Isa 8:4,8 seems to equate Immanuel with Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz, but Isa 7:11 8:18 suggests that this child will be a “sign,” a term that regularly in Scripture refers to a more remarkable event than the simple birth of a child to a normally impregnated woman. By the time one reaches Isa 9:6, the prophet is speaking of a child, naturally taken as still referring to Immanuel, who is the “Mighty God.” In no sense can this prophecy be taken as less than messianic or as fulfilled in a merely human figure. So it is best to see a partial, proleptic fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy in his time, with the complete and more glorious fulfillment in Jesus’ own birth.’

Blomberg continues:

‘Matthew is operating typologically. Old Testament events, viewed as of crucial significance in the history of salvation, are seen to display patterns of God’s activity, which are being repeated in the events surrounding Jesus’ birth. Such parallels can be attributed only to God. A text that may well have had a previous historical referent is seen as being completed or filled full, a common meaning of the verb plero (“fulfill”). Much controversy in an often polarized and heated debate concerning Matthew’s use of Isa 7:14 in Mt 1:23 could be defused if these hermeneutical principles were recognized.’

The Virgin Birth was neither anticipated within Judaism, nor can it be paralleled within paganism:

‘It appears that Judaism never understood Isaiah 7:14 as messianic or describing a virgin birth and that Philo, a first-century Jewish scholar, never imagined a literal divine betting in his allegorical understanding of the birth of several Old Testament characters (cf. On the Cherubim, 40–52). Pagan parallels are scarcely more fitting. Greek and Egyptian mythology, for example, depict lustful pagan deities begetting male offspring through carnal relations with women. The New Testament accounts, in contrast, mention no father figure. God is not described as procreator or as sexually desiring Mary. The virgin birth is solely a creative work of God through his Holy Spirit. Comparative religions offer no precursor that remotely parallels the special theological features of the New Testament virgin birth stories; it suggests nothing that could have logically and naturally given rise to them.’ (EDBT)

For Lincoln, Matthew’s quotation is consistent with either of two purposes:

(a) he wishes to stress that Mary’s child will be ‘Emmanuel’ – ‘God with us’; but he does not imply anything supernatural about the conception and birth;

(b) he wishes his readers to understand that Mary’s child was conceived without a human father.

Will call him Immanuel – It is clear that it is she, the mother, who will call him by this name.

‘Mothers often named their children (Gen. 4:1, 25; 19:37; 29:32). In Matt. 1:23 the expression is strikingly changed into “they shall call.” When the prophecy received its full accomplishment, no longer is the name Immanuel restricted to the prophetess’ view of His character in its partial fulfilment in her son: all shall then call or regard Him as peculiarly and most fitly characterized by the descriptive name “Immanuel” (1 Tim. 3:16, “God was manifest in the flesh;” Col. 2:9).’

Nevertheless, in keeping with Hebrew usage, we should regard this, not so much as an appellation, but rather a statement about his character.

As Isa 8:10 clarifies, ‘Immanuel’ means, of course, ‘God is with us’.  But on which of these four words should the stress be placed?  Perhaps on the last word – ‘us’.  Remember, little Judah was under threat from a surprising alliance between Syria and the northern kingdom of Israel.  The birth of the child would assure the king that God was with ‘us’ and not with ‘them’.

When we think of the being and character of our Maker, we might well conclude that he either he would distance himself from us, or visit us as ‘God-against-us’.

Christ’s human and divine natures

‘You have here the human nature of Christ, ‘A virgin shall conceive, and bear a son.’ And the divine nature of Christ, his name shall be called Emmanuel, which signifieth also his office, ‘God with us’ by nature, and God with us by office, to set God and us at one.’ (Sibbes, Complete Works, Vol 7)

God with us? – no thanks!

‘Society never actually wanted the Incarnation. “Emmanuel, God-with-us” does not sell computer games or cologne. Society wanted the cute stuff-rustic stable, adoring shepherds, fluffy sheep, cows, donkey, holy family, infant Jesus, gift-bearing kings, stars, angels, St. Nicholas, reindeer, fir trees, holly, and presents. The pagan stuff they will retain-even if they do dye the trees powder blue and decorate them with miniature hanging appliances and Disney ornaments. …

The marketplace will also retain some of the traditional hymnody, but in upbeat arrangements that remove them from the realm of traditional worship. Ancient chants are popular, too. They sound religious and profound and-best of all-nobody understands Latin, so no shoppers are offended.’ (Maureen Jais-Mick)

The idea of God’s being ‘with’ people is prominent in the OT (Oswalt):-

  1. the Garden of Eden, Gen 3:8
  2. Isaac, Gen 26:28
  3. Joseph, Gen 39:2f
  4. the tabernacle, Ex 40:38
  5. Gideon, Judg 6:12f
  6. David, 1 Sam 18:12,14
  7. Asa, 2 Chron 15:9
  8. Hezekiah, 2 Kings 18:7
  9. Ezra, Ezra 1:3

Nevertheless, this prophecy represents a change of emphasis from transcendent to immanent, from impersonal to personal.  ‘God manifested his presence in many ways: by the pillar of cloud and of fire (Ex 13:21, 22), and by the symbolism of the tabernacle and the temple, especially the Holy of Holies and the ark of the covenant. But most of this was remote, impersonal, or inaccessible, and when the glory of the Lord was seen in those buildings it produced such a sense of overwhelming awe that the normal ministration could not be conducted (Ex 40:34–38; 2 Chr 5:13, 14; 7:1–3). God assured Israel of his presence when they confronted battle (Dt 20:1; 31:6; Jos 1:9) and promised to be with them when they were fearful and weak (Is 41:10) and when they were facing great trial (43:2). In Isaiah 7:14 the emphasis changes from “I with you” to “He with us.” (Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, art. ‘Immanuel’)

When God is not with us, disaster results, Num 14:43. But when he is with us, like can not only be endured, it can triumphed over. God’s presence is not a metaphor, but a reality. In Christ, God has taken on our human flesh, and in that flesh has even taken our sins upon himself. The truth of ‘God with us’ is more fully explicated in the NT, Mt 28:20; Jn 1:14; 14:3,17; Rev 21:3.

‘Emmanuel, God with us in our nature, in our sorrow, in our lifework, in our punishment, in our grave, and now with us, or rather we with him, in resurrection, ascension, triumph, and Second Advent splendour.’ (Spurgeon)

The story of Scripture

‘In a sense, “God with us” is the story of Scripture in summary. The key covenant statement of relationship, “I will be their God, and they will be my people,” is sometimes called the “Immanuel theme” in covenant theology. From the fellowship with God that mankind enjoyed in Eden to “the grace of the Lord Jesus … with all” God’s people in Rev 22:21, the concept of God’s search for his children and his dwelling with them (cf. Jn 1:14) is prominent throughout the Bible. As “God with us” was the sign to Ahaz and his people in Isa 7:14, so also “I will be with you” (rather than “you will serve me on this mountain;” cf. the MT accentuation) was the sign to God’s people at the beginning of their pilgrimage as a nation. (Ex 3:12) God’s relationship “with us” distinguishes us “from all other people that are upon the face of the earth.” (Ex 33:16) It is “with us” that God enters into covenant; (Deut 5:2f) it is “with us” that God speaks; (AV Ho 12:4) it is “with us” that God walks as he gives help and guidance and protection.’ (Jud 6:12-18; 1 Kings 8:57; 2 Chron 13:12; 32:7f) (ISBE)

Although curds and honey sometimes represent the food of royalty, v22 makes it clear that here they indicate the generally depopulated nature of the region.

Before the child knows how to reject evil and choose what is right – Probably the age of accountability, about the age of twelve. This suggests that the events narrated here took place in 735 BC, some twelve or thirteen years before the fall of Samaria and the final destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel.

By the time the boy has reached the age of accountability, the land of the two kings now invading Judah will be laid waste. Syria fell to the Assyrians in 732 BC, 2 Kings 15:29, and Israel fell in 722, 2 Kings 17:1-6.

v17.  But ‘by depending on himself rather than on God, Ahaz had unleashed a whirlwind which will not be content to devour his troublesome northern neighbours. Led by the God he has disdained, it will come sweeping over him and his nation as well.’ (Oswalt)

7:18 At that time the LORD will whistle for flies from the distant streams of Egypt and for bees from the land of Assyria. 7:19 All of them will come and make their home in the ravines between the cliffs, and in the crevices of the cliffs, in all the thorn bushes, and in all the watering holes. 7:20 At that time the sovereign master will use a razor hired from the banks of the Euphrates River, the king of Assyria, to shave the head and the pubic hair; it will also shave off the beard. 7:21 At that time a man will keep alive a young cow from the herd and a couple of goats. 7:22 From the abundance of milk they produce, he will have sour milk for his meals. Indeed, everyone left in the heart of the land will eat sour milk and honey. 7:23 At that time every place where there had been a thousand vines worth a thousand shekels will be overrun with thorns and briers. 7:24 With bow and arrow men will hunt there, for the whole land will be covered with thorns and briers. 7:25 They will stay away from all the hills that were cultivated, for fear of the thorns and briers. Cattle will graze there and sheep will trample on them.

The land will be overrun, then, but not at the hand of Syria and Israel, but of Assyria (and Egypt).  Isa 8:5-8 depicts further devastation by Assyria.  ‘But “Immanual” is a present reality, not just a pious hope (Isa 8:9f).  God is with his people, and in Isa 8:11-22 the focus is on the believing remnant.’ (Jackman)

‘The point of vv21-25 is the sad spectacle of the promised land reverting to jungle for lack of Israelites, its abundance (22) a rebuke to their sparseness, and its wild state a proof of their decline. It is the kind of reproach that a failing church might receive from inherited glories and commitments which it can no longer sustain.’ (Kidner)

Webb draws attention to two important themes in Ch. 7, which are developed from earlier chapters:-

1. The Lord’s sovereignty. This is set forth in 6:1-3, and shown in the present chapter as exercised as he summons the nations to do his bidding.

2. The absolute necessity of wholehearted reliance on the Lord. The alternative is posed in Isa 2:22; the choice put clearly in 7:9. ‘Whatever we rely on instead of trusting in God will eventually turn and devour us.’ (Oswalt)