Isaiah, son of Amoz, is a towering figure in biblical history. His prophetic voice spans four Davidic kings (1:1). His prophecies, marked by great rhetorical power, command a book of 66 chapters. The prophecies, while grounded on the period C8-C6 BC, span from creation to a new heavens and new earth.
Isaiah is a book of two halves. Both halves warn of judgement and announce salvation. God’s messianic Servant -King is central to both.
The book is two halves with a narrative bridge between.
1-35 Judah, the Assyrian threat and warnings of exile.
36-39 The Assyrians destroyed by the Lord and the Babylonians visit Judah.
40-66. The Babylonian exile and beyond.
In the year that king Uzziah died (740/739 BC) Isaiah is commissioned to be God’s prophetic voice to the nation (Ch 6). His calling involves a divine encounter with the Lord in his holy majestic glory. This vision of God in holy glory shapes his prophetic preaching. God is the Holy One of Israel who judges sin and is powerful to save. The nation is divided into two kingdoms – Israel (Ephraim or Samaria) in the north and Judah in the south. Isaiah speaks to both though principally to Judah. Israel, in the north, was idolatrous and apostate. None of its kings followed the Lord. Judah in the south was not much better. Isaiah knew God was holy and Judah and Israel’s sins were to him an abomination. The nation as a whole must repent or be judged.
But repentance is not envisaged. Isaiah is warned that his preaching will be ineffective. The people do not have ears to hear. Isaiah will preach in vain until Israel and eventually Judah are exiled from the land. Yet in judgement God remains merciful. The nation will not be completely destroyed. Like a tree it will be cut down and only a stump will remain, ‘a holy seed’ (6:13). Salvation lies in God’s Servant-King, Messiah. He and the children God gives him are the holy seed (11:1), the remnant perfected through suffering (10:20-23). The true Israel is a remnant chosen by grace, redeemed by the suffering of Messiah and preserved by God (Isa 10:22; Roms 8:27-29. 11:5).
a challenge for Ahaz
Ch 7,8 are unusual as they are narrative. Two actors are central: Immanuel, in whom is salvation, and the Assyrian, the instrument of divine judgement.
Isaiah is commissioned as a prophet in the year of king Uzziah’s death (6:1), however, Ch 7 is set some years in the future during the reign of Ahaz (7:1). Ahaz was an evil king who plays a key role in Judah’s moral and spiritual collapse. His faith was nominal and he embraced idolatry. He offered his son as a sacrifice to Moloch. He desecrated the temple of the Lord and set up centres of pagan worship. Nations, by and large, take their cue from their leaders and so idolatry was rife in the nation. The narrative focuses on a strategic decision of Ahaz which has far reaching ramifications.
The narrative begins by God instructing Isaiah to take his son, Shear-Jashub, and meet Ahaz who is of standing at the water conduit. It is likely Ahaz is contemplating a potential siege. Water supply is vital for a city under siege. At this point Jerusalem has no completely dependable water supply if besieged. Ahaz lives in troubled times. Assyria, a cruel and ruthless power, is pressing south to attack Egypt and various smaller countries lie in its direction of travel. Ephraim (Israel) and Aram (Syria), already vassals to Assyria, wish to break free. They create an alliance and pressure Judah to join them. Their aim was to create an army to withstand Assyria. Ahaz refuses and had already been attacked by the coalition and other small countries. The signs are that Israel and Syria are about to mount another attack and Ahaz and the nation tremble at the prospect (7:2).
Isaiah, with his son, met Ahaz at the city water supply. It is a significant location because a gravely mistaken decision by Ahaz now will result in an Assyrian commander standing on the same spot in the future calling on Jerusalem to surrender. Having ravaged the land and deported many, Assyria lays siege to Jerusalem – the flood waters of Assyria run to the neck of the nation (8:8, 36). Unbelief has far reaching and devastating consequences.
The Assyrian siege, however, lay in the future; Israel and Syria are the immediate threat. Knowing the pressure Ahaz is under the Lord sends Isaiah with a message to strengthen his courage. Ahaz need not fear the coalition. Its threats will come to nothing. The kings of Israel and Syria are smouldering stumps (spent forces). They are no danger. The Lord well knows how alien faith is to Ahaz and so to encourage faith the Lord tells him to ask for a sign – a sign of any magnitude to verify his promise (v10).
Ahaz refuses to ask for a sign under the pious pretext of being unwilling to test the Lord. In reality he did not want to trust the Lord. Genuine faith in Yahweh was far from Ahaz. Instead, he made an alliance with the Assyrians using the temple gold to curry favour (2 Kings 16:7-9). Ahaz would rather trust Tiglath-Pileser, King of Assyria, than the the Lord, the God of Israel (2 Kings 15:5-10). He’d rather be a vassal son of Tiglath-Pileser than a Davidic son of Yahweh (2 Kings 16:7). It was a catastrophic misjudgement. Ahaz is a sheep asking a wolf for protection. It is a suicidal policy for which Judah will pay a heavy price and not only in tribute (8:6-8; 2 Chron 28:20,21)). Ahaz has chosen to trust his own political negotiations rather the Lord and that is always a recipe for disaster. All future Davidic kings are puppet kings first of Assyria then of Babylon who both exile the nation. Ahaz was warned: If you will not stand by faith you will not stand at all. It is a message not simply for Ahaz but for us all.
the virgin’s son
Ahaz refused to ask for a sign but a sign is given nonetheless. The Lord himself gives a sign.
Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. 15 He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good.
This text has been the subject of much controversy. How are we to understand this sign? Who is the virgin’s son? Is the sign for the immediate future or the distant future or both?
In one sense the sign is clear. Christians are in no doubt that the prophecy refers ultimately to Jesus who is born of Mary, ‘who knew no man’ and who conceived through the Holy Spirit (Matt 1:20). Jesus is the promised seed of the woman, not man (Gen 3:15). He is Immanuel, the divine Son, sent into the world. (John 3:16,17; 1 Jn 4:14). Matthew explicitly states this text is fulfilled in Jesus (Matt 1:23). The question is does the prophecy refer only to Jesus, born seven or more centuries later, or does it also refer to someone born in the C8 known to Ahaz? Many believe that the prophecy has a dual fulfilment – one immediate and the other eschatological? Dual fulfilment is not unusual in biblical prophecy so this is not improbable.
In favour of an immediate fulfilment is that the sign is intended to assure Ahaz that God’s promise the alliance will fail is reliable. There must, it seems, be an immediate fulfilment. V16 seems to support such a conclusion; before the boy reaches the age of responsibility Israel and Syria will be deserted.
It is largely believed that the Hebrew word ’almah’ translated as ‘virgin’ in most Bibles simply means a young woman of marriageable age, although, it is agreed that in Israel, such a ‘young woman’ would be assumed to be a virgin. Ambiguity of meaning may permit a double fulfilment; the first in a ‘young woman’ and the second in a ‘virgin’. In any case, the reference may be to a virgin who marries and gives birth to a son she names Immanuel. It is often pointed out that the more common word for virgin is ‘betulah’. For these reasons many evangelicals think there is an immediate fulfilment in a child born in the C8 and they may be right. However, the view does face some difficulties.
Let me list some of them.
• A young woman marrying and bearing a son whom she names Immanuel is not a very impressive ‘sign’. Where is the wonder to engender faith in this? The only ‘sign’ is the name Immanuel. By contrast, a virgin who conceives, a girl who has never had intercourse yet conceives a son, is a sign of quite different proportions. Such a sign would truly be ‘as high as heaven’. It is a greater miracle than the conception of Isaac. The introductory ‘behold’ indicates the announcement of something special. A young women who marries and bears a son is scarcely a sign at all.
• Notice that the sign is no longer simply for Ahaz but is for the ‘house of David’. The plural pronoun is used (v13). This broadens the canvas. The Davidic dynasty need not fear. It will not disappear. It will have an extraordinary son, a mighty one, who will bring God among the nation in blessing; he is Immanuel ‘God with us’. In these opening chapters Messiah is an event yet to happen, a person yet to come. In Ch 9, a Davidic child is born and a son is given who vanquishes his people’s enemies and establishes David’s kingdom. Both he and the kingdom are everlasting (9:6,7). In ch 11, Messiah is a shoot from the stump of Jesse (11:1). This is the company Immanuel the virgin’s son keeps. Immanuel belongs to a bigger stage than C8 Judah though his coming has implications for the house of David and Judah and the whole world (8:8-10).
Building on the above the sign of Immanuel is aimed it seems not so much to compel faith as confirm it and brace it. To those of OT faith, God’s promise of a miraculously born son called Immanuel, God with us, is a source of hope and comfort whenever he may arrive. Israel and the Davidic dynasty will not come to an end. In this sense the promise functions like every other biblical promise. Isaiah and his disciples know that life is not futile or hopeless for Immanuel is coming, God with us, and he will overcome their people’s enemies. He will establish a kingdom in which they shall share even if though resurrection (25:6-9)
• The prophecy specifically says ‘the virgin/young woman’ (v14). The use of the definite article suggests there is only one individual in view. Singularity seems best suited to virgin over young woman; many young woman may bear a son but for a virgin to conceive is unique. The definite article makes dual fulfilment less likely.
• There is controversy over the Hebrew word ‘almah’. Many believe it means simply ‘a young woman of marriageable age’ Others believe it always implies virginity. While ‘betulah’, the word understood to mean ‘virgin’, does not seem to always carry this weight (Joel1:8). In Gen 24 ‘Betulah is accompanied by the qualifier ‘whom no man had known’ (Gen 24:16) suggesting ‘betulah’ is not sufficient to establish virginity. It seems, of the two, ‘almah’ is best suited to express virginity.
• The LXX translates ‘almah’ with the Greek word ’parthenos’ which means ‘virgin’ . This is a strong argument in favour of understanding ‘Almah’ as ‘virgin’. The translator is a Hebraist whose translating judgement should not be easily dismissed. Moreover, Matthew adopts the LXX reading (Matt 1:18-24). It is also a matter of the gospel record that Mary, Jesus’ mother’ was a virgin who conceived through the Holy Spirit. A prophecy of such a unique birth would not surprise.
• No biblical record of an C8 son who embodies ‘God with us’ exists. Immanuel does not appear in Isaiah’s narrative as an C8 person.
• The name Immanuel (God with us) indicates someone significant. In The land is Immanuel’s land (8:8). Immanuel conquers the nations and not just Near East nations (8:9,10). In Isaiah the only person of whom these things are true is Messiah (9:6,7). Luke links Ch 7 and Ch 9 clearly identifying the virgin’s son with the child given the throne of his father David (9:6,7). In the larger canvas of Isaiah there is an anticipation of Messiah to which the Immanuel prophecy contributes. If Immanuel is Messiah then the virgin’s son will not be born for 700 years or more.
For these reasons it does seem to me that a single fulfilment in Jesus is the most likely reading of the prophecy.
If, however, v14 presents difficulties so too does v15
He shall eat curds and honey when he knows/that he may know how to refuse the evil and choose the good
The issues may not be so momentous but the question raised is perhaps as puzzling. What is the significance of Immanuel eating ‘curds and honey’; curds are a form of butter or cheese. How should the text be translated?
Some believe ‘curds and honey’’ imply Immanuel is born into a land made desolate by judgement (v22). The close proximity of v14 and v22 gives substance to this viewpoint. In a depopulated land due to exile good solid fare will be readily available. Immanuel, if Messiah, has come to bring salvation to oppressed people. On the other hand ‘milk and honey’ was the rich provision of Canaan (Ex 3:8; Deut 22:13-15). It is associated with plenty rather than poverty, blessing rather than judgement. Immanuel’s land will ultimately be a renewed Canaan; a land blest by God. Is God saying Immanuel will come into a land judged or is he describing the blessings that will belong to Immanuel’s redeemed kingdom? Perhaps these are not in conflict. In reality, Jesus was born into a subjugated Palestine with a puppet Edomite king (a land under judgement) though into a home where ‘curds and honey’ would not be beyond their means. He would establish the kingdom of God and bring salvation to Israel and the nations.
Translations of the verse differ. If the latter reading is correct perhaps it suggests that while most of us learn through adversity the virgin’s son learns through plenty, a much more exacting task. Or perhaps it means that a good diet will help develop his abilities, specifically his moral sensibilities. Beyond these suggestions I am struggling.
What then are we to make of v16, 17
Clearly these verses are part of the sign. On the face of it they appear to continue describing the virgin’s son. If so, then the son must indeed be a boy born to a young woman in the C8. The verses read,
For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted. 17 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!”
This points to an impending fulfilment. Before the boy reaches the age of moral discernment the enemies Ahaz fears will be destroyed. Since Israel and Assyria were deserted within a few years the boy may already be born though that would contradict the future tense of ‘a virgin will conceive’. The question, however, is ‘what boy’? Is it possible the boy is not Immanuel but another boy? The switch is undoubtedly abrupt but that is not so unusual in prophetic literature (Cf. 52:13,14). Some suggest the subject is no longer the virgin’s son but is now Isaiah’s son (v16). Isaiah was instructed by the Lord to take his son, Shear-Jashub, with him when he went to meet Ahaz. There is no indication in the chapter why this is so. The boy plays no apparent role. Perhaps the answer lies here. Perhaps Isaiah’s son is a sign for Ahaz that God will imminently deal with Israel and Syria (v16). This is not as strange an interpretation as we may think. We should remember that both Isaiah’s sons serve as signs (8:18). They are signs of both Judah’s judgement and salvation. Before his elder son reaches the age of moral discernment and his younger son is able to properly speak Ephraim and Syria will be plundered and powerless. We are also specifically told the name of Isaiah’s son. This is significant. The name of Isaiah’s second son Maher-shalal-hash-baz means ‘The spoil speeds, the prey hastens’. The name of his first son Shear-Jashub means ‘a remnant shall return’.
The subtlety of prophetic literature is evident in both the prophecy of v16,17 and the names of Isaiah’s children. V16 announces God’s judgement on Israel and Syria which is of course good news for Judah. But v17 goes on to announce judgement on Judah too. Both houses of Israel were apostate; Judah and Ephraim were both were ripe for punishment. Assyria will be the instrument of God’s judgement for both kingdoms (7:16-18). In the immediate future Israel will be invaded by Tiglath-Pileser and some years later Judah will be invaded by Sennacherib (6:10-13). Yet in the midst of judgement there is hope.
Both judgement and hope are implied by the names of Isaiah’s sons. Maher-shamal-hash-baz means ‘the spoil speeds, the prey hastens’. It announces the imminent overthrow of Israel and Syria; Judah will not be attacked by the northern coalition. Yet the Assyrian who treats Ephraim as prey will treat Judah in a similar way (8:3-8). The name Shear-Jashub means ‘a remnant returns’. Here again judgement and salvation unite. A remnant implies Judah will undergo winnowing. The waters that sweep through Israel will also sweep over Judah reaching its neck, Jerusalem (8:7,8). Judah will swamped my Assyrians (flies and bees) and suffer humiliation (the bodies of the men are shaved with a razor v20). Deportation and devastation ensue (7:17-25). Much later the nation will be exiled to Babylon (6:11-13). God’s words to Ahaz will come true: if you will not stand by faith you will not stand at all.
However, judgement and exile will not be God’s last word; ‘a remnant will return’ implies not only judgement but hope. This is God’s word of judgement yet salvation to Judah. The tree may fall but a stump will remain. The house of David may feel the blade of the axe but it will not disappear. It will continue for a holy seed will survive (4:2,3, 6:13). God always has a surviving remnant among his people; the gifts and calling of God is without repentance (Roms 11); Israel will be saved for Israel is his people whom he loves and to whom promises have been given.
the virgin’s son again
The sign of the virgin’s son is a sign for faith. Unbelief will inevitably discard it only faith will see and believe. Ahaz is undoubtedly in trouble. His solution lay in the Assyrian army, God’s solution lay in a child. It was a solution that required faith. In the dangerous volatile world of the C8 Near East it is through children that God enables his people. With the gift of the virgin’s son a ‘great light’ appears in Israel. Messiah, the child born and son given has come bringing salvation. The point of the virgin birth is not simply that it is a miracle. Rather the point is that it signals a unique person. Part of this uniqueness is that he is divine.; he is Immanuel, ‘the mighty God’. Immanuel is not merely an announcement of God’s plans (as with Isaiah’s sons) he is the reality of God’s presence. In Immanuel God is with his people. He is with them in the sense of being for them. Immanuel is God coming in blessing, coming to save his people from their sins (Matt 1). Immanuel is God manifest in flesh (Jn 1).
The miracle of the virgin birth is only the first of many associated with Immanuel as in the NT he overthrows the powers that oppress his people: Satan, sin, sickness, blindness, deafness, demons and death (Matt 4:12-17). The gospels reveal his battle against all that oppresses. The people who sat in darkness see a great light. The child born is overthrowing all that oppresses his people (9:2-7). In the C8 Assyrian cannot ultimately conquer the land because the land is Immanuel’s land. It is held in trust for him. In this lies the certainty that no nation on earth can finally destroy God’s people; many may be killed but not a hair of their head shall perish (8:9,10; Ps 2; Lk 21:18). Immanuel and his people will triumph (Rev 14). Assyria may have a temporary and partial victory but it will not win the war. In the end it will face judgement (10:5-19). Judgement begins with the house of God. If they are judged what will be the end of the Assyrian (1 Pet 4:17).
For those of faith the promise of a virgin’s son instils hope. In Immanuel, God is with his people. Isaiah and his disciples live by faith in this promise. In the turmoil of life they will not seek assurance in necromancy or mediums. They will not listen to the frenetic rumours that swirl. They will not fear what others fear or dread what they dread. Instead they will fear the Lord and put their trust in him. They trust his prophetic word (8:20). Ahaz would not trust God’s word. Ch 8 shows that the unbelief of Ahaz resides in the nation too (8:11-15). Isaiah reminds us with Paul that not all Israel are of Israel (Isa 28:16,17; Roms 9:30-35); true Israel is believing Israel. To those who trust, the Lord is a sanctuary, but to those who will not trust he will become a stumbling rock over which they fall (8:14; Lk 20:18); he will not be God with us but God against us. Both OT and NT recognise Messiah as the rock over which unbelief stumbles and falls – a rock that will finally crush them. In a terrified world where all kinds of voices vie for attention the place of safety for God’s people is in him, in Immanuel God with us, and the teaching he gives in his word (8:20).
If this interpretation of the sign of the virgin is correct then there is indeed a dual prophecy but not in the conventionally understood way. An immediate sign lies in the two sons of Isaiah, with Shear-Jashub woven into the Immanuel prophecy (7:16). Shear-Jashub is the immediate sign while the virgin’s son belongs to the eschatological future and the birth of Jesus. I am drawn to this view.
The virgin’s son, the divine and Davidic son, has a realm that extends over the whole creation (Isa 9:7; Eph 1). Immanuel’s land has no borders. The virgin’s son is Messiah the king who dominates the first half of Isaiah (1-39) and Israel, the servant, who dominates the second half (40-66). He is the servant-king. All the plans of an ungodly world will ultimately come to nothing because in Jesus, Immanuel, the Lord, is with us (8:8-10).
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 Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7 Of the increase of his government and of peace. there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it. with justice and with righteousness. from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.