Isaiah 7:14 is one of the most familiar verses of the Old Testament, mainly due to its association with the birth of Jesus, an application which goes back to at least the time of the composition of the Gospels (c. 70-80), if not several decades prior, for the Gospel of Matthew cites it explicitly (1:22-23). Yet, an examination of the verse in its original context shows clearly enough that it had little to do with a miraculous ‘messianic’ figure of the distant future. What is one to make of this?
The original setting of Isaiah 7:14—indeed, I would say, of the larger section 6:1-9:6—is the so-called Syro-Ephraimite crisis of 735-4 B.C.:
Threatened by Assyrian advances (under Tiglath-Pileser III), Aram-Damascus (led by king Rezin) and the Northern Kingdom of Israel (“Ephraim”, led by the usuper Pekah [“son of Remalyah”]) formed an alliance (along with the city of Tyre) in hopes of repulsing Assyria, similar to the coalition which resisted Shalmaneser III at the battle of Qarqar a century earlier. It was most likely for the purpose of forcing the Southern Kingdom of Judah (led by Aµaz) into joining the alliance, that Rezin and Pekah marched and laid siege to Jerusalem (Isaiah 7:6 indicates that they planned to set up a new king, “son of Tab±al“). Isa 7:1 states that they were “not able to do battle against” Jerusalem, perhaps in the sense of being unable to prevail/conquer in battle (so the parallel account in 2 Kings 16:5, but 2 Chronicles 28:5ff tells rather a different story).
Isaiah 7:3-9 and 10-17ff should be understood as taking place prior to the main event summarized in verse 1. Verses 10-17, in fact, need to be read in tandem with vv. 3-9, and in context with the larger section 6:1–9:6. Here is a fairly literal translation of vv. 10-17:
10And YHWH continued to speak to Aµaz, saying 11“Ask for you(rself) a sign from YHWH your God—made deep (as) Sheol or made high (as) from above [i.e. the sky]”. 12And Aµaz said, “I will not ask and will not test YHWH.” 13And he [i.e. Isaiah] said, “Hear ye, house of David: (is it) a small (thing) from you to make men weary, that you would also make weary my God? 14Thus (the) Lord himself will give for you a sign—See! the ±almâ (becoming) pregnant will bear a son and (she) will call his name ‘God-with-us‘. 15Curds and honey he will eat to (the time of) his knowing to refuse by the evil and to choose by the good; 16for by (the time) before the youth knows to refuse by the evil and choose by the good, the land, which you dread from the faces of her two kings, shall be forsaken! 17YHWH will bring upon you—and upon your people and upon the house of your father—days which have not come from [i.e. since] the day (of) Ephraim’s turning (away) from alongside Judah—the king of Assyria!”
Note that I have translated the name la@ WnM*u! (±immanû °¢l), and have temporarily left untranslated the word hm*l=u^ (±almâ). This latter word has been variously translated “virgin” or “young girl”, etc.—a point of longstanding dispute and controversy, which I shall discuss (along with the identity of the ±almâ) in a subsequent note.
Apart from the overall historical context, a number of details in the passage speak clearly against the child as a (messianic) figure coming only in the (distant) future:
- It is meant to be a sign for the “house of David” (that is, the kings of Judah) which they, and presumably Ahaz in particular, would be able to recognize (in their lifetime)—v. 11, 13-14.
- The use of the definite article (hm*l=u^h*, the ±almâ), would seem to indicate a woman already known to Isaiah and/or Ahaz—v. 14
- The interjection hN@h! (“see/behold!”), as well as the construction td#l#)yw+ hr*h* (verbal adjective + Qal participle) seem to imply an immediacy (i.e. “see! the ±almâ, being pregnant, is about to bear…”)
- The key temporal detail of the prophecy vv. 15-16, would seem to specify that within 2-3 years of the child’s birth, the main event will take place.
- The event so indicated has a two-fold reference:
a) The land of the ‘two kings’, which (currently) causes you dread, will be forsaken (“the land” primarily in reference to Aram-Damascus)—v. 16
b) YHWH will bring the king of Assyria (with special reference to judgment on the Northern Kingdom [“Ephraim”])—v. 17
This prediction was fulfilled, to large degree, in 732 B.C. (that is, within 2-3 years), with the fall of Damascus and the effective loss of much of the Northern kingdom (conquest of territory, deportations, installment of a puppet king, etc.)
In light of this, one must turn to the traditional Messianic and/or Christian interpretation of the verse 14, especially as it relates to the citation in Matthew 1:22-23: for the Gospel writer applies the verse to the (virgin) birth of Jesus, apparently without any regard for the original historical context. If the (inspired) New Testament author treats the passage thus, why should we be so concerned to understand and appreciate the ‘original context’? Looking at it from the opposite side, if there is no clear reference to Christ (or a future Messiah) in the Isaiah passage, should we continue to accept the traditional Christian/Messianic interpretation without exception?
In response to the first question, I would suggest that believers in each place and each generation must study and contemplate the Scriptures anew. There is available to us today a wealth of information—linguistic, historical, archeological, and so forth—which earlier generations did not possess. We approach and use texts in many respects very differently than did early Christians in the ancient Near East. Protestant readers and commentators, in particular, tend to emphasize an “historical-grammatical” approach as the primary (and fundamental) mode of interpretation; on the whole, I agree with this. I would add that the first goal of interpretation then is to analyze and consider what the (ancient) text would have meant to the (ancient) author(s) and audience; without at least a basic sense of this, any secondary interpretation or application runs the risk of distorting the fundamental meaning. We ignore or disregard these factors very much at our own peril.
With regard to the second, opposite question, I find there to be at least as great a danger in ignoring the ways in which Christians have (traditionally) made use of the Scriptures. We see today, for example, a tendency to disregard completely earlier mystical-spiritual or allegorical-typological modes of interpretation, so prominent and vital to the thought and spiritual life of the early Church. Even with regard to the New Testament, we often fail to appreciate just how creatively the authors (and/or their sources) made use of the Old Testament Scriptures. Scores of examples could be cited where the wording (and even the basic sense) of the original passage were altered by the (inspired) author. If this be admitted, we must always be careful to examine how, and for what purpose, the Scriptures were adapted. Surely inspiration, as the work of the Spirit, far exceeds the limitations of any one view.
With this in mind, let us explore Isaiah 7:14 in relation to the birth of Jesus in a little more detail…
There is a rough extrabiblical parallel to the “God-with-us” prophecy of Isaiah 7:10ff, from earlier in the 8th century (c. 785): the Zakkur (or Zakir) stele. Another ruler (of Hamath in Syria [“Aram”]) is besieged by an enemy force, and the seers deliver a message from the deity to the king which reads, in part: “Do not fear, for I have made you king, and I shall stand by you and deliver you” (transl. from ANET, 501-2).