Prophecy about Jesus' Birth
Categories: Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, Jesus, Jesus' Birth
In Isaiah 7:14 it states, "Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel." Do these words refer to Jesus?
The answer is somewhat dependent upon your point of view. Most scholars agree that Yahweh instructed Isaiah to speak these words to King Ahaz, who was being threatened by the Assyrians. He had offered to give the King a sign, whatever it would take to convince the King to believe in God's word. With feigned piety, the King refused, saying he wouldn't put God to the test. So Yahweh basically said he would give this sign whether the King asked for one or not: "A virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. Butter and honey shall he eat, that he may know to refuse the evil, and choose the good. For before the child shall know to refuse the evil, and choose the good, the land that thou abhorrest shall be forsaken of both her kings." It was supposed to convince the King to do or die, to trust in Yahweh or suffer the consequences.
Scholars have argued over the identity of the mother and the son for ages. Some think the son was a reference to Hezekiah (although he would have been approximately 25 years old by this time). That would make it a generic, royal psalm that extended over the entire House of David. Others think that the young woman was Isaiah's wife, and that his second son was named Immanuel. Still others argue that it was a royal woman who gave birth to a royal son whose name would symbolize God's presence with his people. Lastly, it is possible that it refers to mothers in general who would give their offspring names that represented hopefulness.
This also raises the issue of the meaning of "virgin." The word in Hebrew is 'almah. It could be translated virgin or young woman. It doesn't exclude virginity, but it could mean a sexually mature woman who is unmarried. Hebrew has a special word for virgin, betulah, and that word is not used here. Nonetheless, the LXX uses the Greek word parthenos in its translation, and this word does mean "virgin." Obviously, when Matthew used this quote, he followed the LXX, "Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us." This has resulted in the doctrine of the Virgin Birth. The more interesting proposition is that whatever it meant, the words were a sign for Ahaz. And generally a sign is something visible and concrete for the intended person.
It is most likely that, in Isaiah's time, it referred to a young unmarried woman, probably in the royal house, who would marry and have a son. She would name him Immanuel, oblivious of the prophecy. But then Ahaz would know that Yahweh's words had been fulfilled, and he would be convicted by his own stubbornness. The words about eating butter and honey could be a reference to the land being laid waste so that they would have to survive on whatever was available. Indeed, the Assyrians did destroy the land of Israel only a year or two after this prophecy was given.
Having said this, however, one does not necessarily have to choose one interpretation over the other. Bible texts have often been reinterpreted and reapplied to new situations. In this passage, Isaiah predicts that a baby boy would be given as a sign from God. When Matthew was writing about what God did through Jesus, these words stood out as a beacon to him. He saw in these OT words a foreshadowing and a verification of the birth of Christ Jesus. This was not a random happenstance, but the fulfillment of a plan prophesied centuries earlier. He was convinced that in Jesus, God was again making His presence known by sending a deliverer. (This is only one of eleven fulfillment prophecies that he quotes from the Old Testament.) Matthew used Isaiah's words to show that Jesus was the long-awaited messiah, and that he not only fulfilled the old, but also initiated something new. The name, Emmanuel, indeed, fulfills the promise that in Jesus, we see that God is with us. It is not so much a personal name as it is a description of the office Jesus fulfills. By bringing the presence of God to man, Jesus brought salvation - which is what the name "Jesus" means - God saves! Through Jesus, God is bringing to pass the salvation of His people.