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Isaiah 7

Chapter 7

First, I will set up the dates of events as I understand them and as they may be relevant to Isaiah’s prophecy in this chapter.

-Historians seem to be confused about dates for the reign of Ahaz.  Dr. Fortner believes that by the time Isaiah delivers this prophecy, Ahaz has already shut the temple up, but I don’t know how soon the king would have done this after his reign began. The Oxford commentary gives two possible starting dates for the reign of Ahaz: 743 B.C. or 735 B.C. (988).

-According to Dr. Fortner, the prophecy is delivered to Ahaz in 735 B.C.  Barnes believes it is delivered in the 2nd year of Ahaz’s reign (162), but does not give a date.  The Oxford commentary believes the prophecy is delivered in 734 B.C. (987) the 2nd year of Ahaz’s reign, so all of these dates roughly correspond, unless Fortner believes Ahaz had been king for longer than a year or two by 735 B.C.

-According to the Oxford commentary, the reigns of Rezin of Damascus and Pekah of Israel both end in the year 732 B.C. (988) which would be 2 years after the date it gives for the delivery of the prophecy.  Barnes roughly agrees with this, writing that Rezin was slain by the king of Assyria about one year after the delivery of the prophecy and that Pekah was assassinated within two years of the delivery of the prophecy (162).

-The universally acknowledged date for the collapse of the northern kingdom (a.k.a. Israel, a.k.a. Ephraim, a.k.a. Samaria) at the hands of Assyria is in 722 B.C., 13 years after the time Fortner suggests the prophecy was delivered, and 12 years after the Oxford commentary’s date.

v. 8b: The Oxford commentary believes this prophecy is a later addition to the original (988); I suppose it believes this because this prophecy does not seem to deal with the same time frame which the Immanuel prophecy does (65 years in the future as opposed to 2 or 12 years).  Both the Oxford commentary (988) and Barnes (153-154) acknowledge that this prophecy probably refers to later deportations from the northern kingdom made by Assyria about 65 years after its conquest of that land.

v. 11: When I first read this, I assumed the offer was genuine and that God, through Isaiah, was trying to accommodate Ahaz’s shaky faith by suggesting that he ask for a sign.  Dr. Fortner, however, believes this offer was purely rhetorical and only served as a prelude to Isaiah’s Immanuel prophecy and his subsequent condemnation of Ahaz.  (Note a similar use of rhetoric and irony in 6:9.)  Fortner believes this because he believes Ahaz has already exasperated God and Isaiah at this point by closing down the temple.  I will have to find the dates for the closing of the temple. Just judging from the narrative itself, I do not believe the offer is rhetorical.

Assuming it is genuine, the offer seems to suggest that Ahaz could ask for something miraculous. (“The sky’s the limit” might be a good idiomatic translation for “either in the depth or in the height above.”)  Most signs like this, which are given to encourage people, are in fact miraculous.  Note, for example, the signs given to Gideon (Judges 6:36-40) or Moses (Exodus 4:1-8).  Therefore, I would expect that the sign God actually ended up showing Ahaz (the sign of Immanuel) was also be miraculous, although the sign of Immanuel would be a double-edged sword, not intended purely to encourage.  For Ahaz, that sign would demonstrate that God had truly  spoken through Isaiah and that all of Isaiah’s prophecy (including things like vs. 17-20 of this chapter) would come to pass.

Vs. 14-16: The Immanuel Prophecy.  I will first discuss the significance of this prophecy in its immediate context as a sign to Ahaz, and then I will discuss its ultimate fulfillment in Christ.

Old Testament context…

Apparently, the best translation of Isaiah’s Hebrew here is “Behold, the young woman will conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”  The word Hebrews had for virgin (i.e., someone who has not had sex) was bethula (Barnes 158), but the word here, alma (Barnes 158), does not have reference to whether or not the person has had sex; it only indicates that the person is of marriageable age and thus is sexually mature.  Because of this, I suppose it is likely that the sign given to Ahaz was not that an actual virgin would miraculously conceive (as Mary did) but that some young woman, probably one that they both knew, would soon conceive and bear a child.  Of course, I do not reject the idea that this could have been a virgin birth:  if the word alma is so general a term, then it could apply to someone who is also technically a bethula, just as “young woman” could designate a “virgin” as well as a young married woman.  Also, it is not a tenant of faith that Jesus’s birth was the only virgin birth any more than that Jesus’s resurrection was the only resurrection.  (See, for instance, 2nd Kings 4: 8-37.) The Christian simply believes that these miraculous events did, in fact, happen to Christ and that they are infinitely more significant in his life because of who he was and what he came to do.  Still, because of the word Isaiah chose to use (alma), I don’t believe he meant for the nature of the birth itself to be the miraculous sign that would convict Ahaz.

So what then was miraculous about the sign if not the fact that the child would be born of a virgin?  I think it must simply have been the fact that Isaiah was predicting the future.[1] That, in and of itself, is miraculous.  I think he was presenting Ahaz with a timeline of events that would happen in the future, and he was using the birth and life of the child Immanuel to mark the time.  The sign for Ahaz is that a young woman will have a child named Immanuel, and that while Immanuel is still a child (i.e., before he knows to choose good over evil and while he is still eating milk and honey) the power of the two kings whom Ahaz fears will be broken.  At first I wondered if this woman and child might be hypothetical, as if Isaiah were saying, “before the time it takes for a baby (any baby) to be conceived, born, and raised beyond childhood, the power of the two kings whom you fear will be broken,” but I do not believe the woman and child are hypothetical.  My primary reason for believing this is because Isaiah gave the child a name, Immanuel, which seems strange if he was speaking merely of a hypothetical child.    I believe the young woman was probably somebody that both Ahaz and Isaiah knew.  That way Ahaz would be aware of the birth of Immanuel and could personally witness the unfolding of Isaiah’s prophecy.[2]

As far as I can tell, “milk and honey” is a significant phrase on a couple of levels.  First, while it is true that adults ate milk and honey, I believe these foods were identified with the diet of a child.  Note Paul in Hebrews 5:12-14 and 1st Corinthians 3:1-3.  Note also Barnes’s numerous examples of this idea in the ancient world (160-161).  Besides, since Isaiah parallels the eating of milk and honey with the inability to choose between good and evil, I think it is obvious that he associates these foods with those of a child.  The other level of significance is that the phrase often suggests prosperity, as in “the land of milk and honey.”  (Note v. 22.)

Upon looking at the dates I have listed above, I see two lengths of time that would be consistent with the length of time Isaiah has in mind for his prophecy.  The first length of time is 2 years.  This would be the amount of time between the delivery of the prophecy and the deaths of both kings.  The other length of time is 12 years, which would be the amount of time between the delivery of the prophecy and the destruction of the northern kingdom.

I spoke with Dr. Fortner about the age at which ancient Hebrews would have considered a person capable of knowing right from wrong.  He said that, by the time of Jesus, 12 was the age of transition into adulthood; he pointed out, however, that it is uncertain how far back in history that belief existed, and was unwilling to make a direct connection between the 12 years of this prophecy and the fact that Jews of Jesus’s day (700 years later) considered a child capable of choosing right from wrong at the age of twelve.

I suppose one might also distinguish between the age at which a child could know to choose between right and wrong and the age at which he or she would be considered an adult (and fully responsible for such decisions).  Barnes believes the age Isaiah intends here is 2 years.  “A capability to determine, in some degree, between good and evil, or between right and wrong, is usually manifest when the child is two or three years of age” (Barnes 161).  (See also notes 8:4.)

Perhaps both lengths of time (2 and 12 years) could apply to this prophecy, but given the fact that 12 is the age of passage into adulthood by the time of Jesus, and the fact that this prophecy has its ultimate fulfillment in Jesus, and the fact that 12 years would not only include the major events of the first length of time (the deaths of Rezin and Pekah) but also the major event of the second (the fall of the northern kingdom) I believe twelve years is the length of time Isaiah intends.

New Testament context…

Based on the claims of the New Testament (Matthew 1:23) I believe this prophecy has its ultimate fulfillment in the birth of Jesus.  The first Immanuel, the child born in Isaiah’s day, was a type, a foreshadowing of the second Immanuel, just as (for example) Abraham’s intention to sacrifice Isaac was a foreshadowing of God’s actual sacrifice of his own son, Jesus.  In both cases (Abraham’s and the first Immanuel’s) it is possible that no human recognized the ultimate significance of the events in his own life as foreshadowings of the life of Christ, yet God could have revealed their significance for later generations to appreciate.

One has to consider that Matthew was well aware that this prophecy had an initial fulfillment.  The obvious reading of the passage is that Isaiah is speaking of events contemporary with himself and Ahaz, and that is how a first century Jew would have been taught to read it, so the application of the prophecy to the birth of Jesus by Matthew was not done naively, in ignorance of its original context (as a devout Christian might do in subsequent generations because he or she has only been taught its ultimate fulfillment in Jesus).

Whereas the birth of the first Immanuel might have been of a virgin, the birth of the second (Jesus) is undoubtedly of a virgin.  Apparently it is the Greek (Septuagint) translation of this passage which first asserts that the Hebrew word alma should be understood to signify someone who has not had sex.  The Greek word the Septuagint uses to translate alma is parthenos (Oxford 988) which designated a virgin.  I’m not sure why the Greek translators made this assertion, but here are a couple of possible explanations, assuming that their own free will (not divine intervention) led them to the assertion.

1) Perhaps the word alma developed a more specific connotation over time, and the Septuagint translators translated the word according to its more recently acquired connotation, being ignorant of its original significance.  (If this is the case, the Greek translators might have made a mistake.  Still, if alma did acquire a more specific connotation over time, it is interesting to consider what process(es) may have led to the change.  What if its use here in Isaiah to designate a young woman who gave birth while still a virgin was the event that inspired the new connotation?)

2) Perhaps the Greek speaking Jews were not ignorant of the word’s original significance but translated the word alma as virgin in spite of that knowledge because they thought (based on some other source of knowledge such as historical records we are not privy to) that the woman had been a virgin when she gave birth.

In either case, the Septuagint translators must have believed that the mother of the first Immanuel was a virgin when she gave birth.  Now the truth is that the mother of the first Immanuel may or may not have been a virgin when she gave birth to her first son, but Mary definitely was a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus.  We know this based on the actual story of Jesus’s birth provided in the Gospels, not based on the denotation or connotation of a single word as is the case with the first Immanuel.  Here is my explanation of what happened.

Matthew, being led by the Spirit of God, recognized that the Immanuel passage had its ultimate fulfillment in Jesus’s birth.  He was thus in agreement with the Septuagint’s translation as it applied to the second Immanuel.

Even if the Septuagint translators were incorrect to believe that the first Immanuel’s mother was a virgin, they were correct to use the term parthenos in a passage that would later signify Mary.  Perhaps they were as ignorant of their mistake in translation as they were of their new rendering’s future significance; nevertheless, I believe God used their translation to glorify the future birth of his son, either by actively leading them to choose parthenos, or by allowing them to select the word themselves.  If he actively led them to choose parthenos for alma, then he might have done so in any number of ways.  For instance, he could have led them to this choice over a period of centuries by slowly directing the connotation of alma among Jews to mean parthenos, or he could have led them to the choice at the moment of translation by showing them the passage’s future significance.

In any event, whether the Septuagint’s translation applies to the first Immanuel or not, it undoubtedly applies to the second.  If the translation was a mistake (as it applies to the mother of the first Immanuel) then I believe God used their mistake to glorify Jesus.  If the translation was the result of divine inspiration (and thus not a mistake) then I believe God actively led the translators to make their decision.  In this case, God would not have meant parthenos to apply to the mother of the first Immanuel (if, in fact, she was not a virgin) but to the mother of the second, although the translators may or may not have been aware of God’s reason for doing this.

When one considers that God (in concert with us, of course) is writing the story of humanity, it seems probable to me that he would use such a passage, even such a mistake (if that is what it is) to introduce a more wonderful twist to the story than we could have imagined beforehand.  From our perspective, God often seems to delight in the use of ironies and paradoxes that foil our expectations and teach us not to be wise in our own eyes.  Consider many of the sayings of Jesus, or for that matter, his actual life and death.  He did not turn out to be the type of Messiah the Jews were anticipating.  In fact, the very moment of his triumph, the moment he fulfilled his task as Messiah and said “It is finished (accomplished),” was the moment of his death – a moment which nobody who witnessed it at the time recognized as a moment of victory.  No doubt, many of those witnessing the crucifixion even thought they had made a mistake in believing that Jesus was the Messiah.

v. 22: Barnes considers the fact that those remaining in Judah and Jerusalem after the Assyrian invasion (v. 18) will be eating milk and honey is a sign of desolation (171) but this seems like an odd phrase to use for that purpose.  It was the same phrase used to describe the land as a place of plenty before the Israelites settled it.  I think Isaiah is saying that the land will go to pasture after Assyrian invasion, but that this will be a good thing for the few people left to live in it.  Consider a similar idea in 4:2-3.


[1] Notice how often God uses his ability to predict/direct the future as an argument for his divinity.  See 44:7 and 46:10.

 

[2] See notes on 8:3.

8 Responses to “Isaiah 7”

  1. […] born of a virgin?  I think it must simply have been the fact that Isaiah was predicting the future.[1] That, in and of itself, is miraculous.  I think he was presenting Ahaz with a timeline of events […]

  2. […] born of a virgin?  I think it must simply have been the fact that Isaiah was predicting the future.[1] That, in and of itself, is miraculous.  I think he was presenting Ahaz with a timeline of events […]

  3. […] v. 4: Saying “before the child knows how to call ‘My father’ or ‘My mother’” might simply be idiomatic (rather than literal) and mean “before he knows the difference between right and wrong.”  I admit there does not seem to be much in the two phrases that would suggest this connection out of context, but the fact that this prophecy is so similar to the one concerning Immanuel in the previous chapter makes me inclined read the two prophecies as one.  (Besides, idiomatic expressions are often quite difficult to explain.  The natural connection between the two phrases above is certainly much closer than “break a leg” is to “have a good performance.”)  If, however, the phrase is meant to be taken literally, then it would have to refer (very roughly) to the age of two at the oldest.  If that is the case, and if this prophecy is synonymous with that of Immanuel, then Barnes’ idea that Immanuel’s age was two seems more credible. (See notes 7:14-16.) […]

  4. […] v. 4: Saying “before the child knows how to call ‘My father’ or ‘My mother’” might simply be idiomatic (rather than literal) and mean “before he knows the difference between right and wrong.”  I admit there does not seem to be much in the two phrases that would suggest this connection out of context, but the fact that this prophecy is so similar to the one concerning Immanuel in the previous chapter makes me inclined read the two prophecies as one.  (Besides, idiomatic expressions are often quite difficult to explain.  The natural connection between the two phrases above is certainly much closer than “break a leg” is to “have a good performance.”)  If, however, the phrase is meant to be taken literally, then it would have to refer (very roughly) to the age of two at the oldest.  If that is the case, and if this prophecy is synonymous with that of Immanuel, then Barnes’ idea that Immanuel’s age was two seems more credible. (See notes 7:14-16.) […]

  5. […] ironic twists.  (On the subject of irony and paradox in Isaiah, see also notes on 6:9, and  7:11, 14-16.)  This is no doubt an allusion to the name Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz, which means, “haste […]

  6. […] ironic twists.  (On the subject of irony and paradox in Isaiah, see also notes on 6:9, and  7:11, 14-16.)  This is no doubt an allusion to the name Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz, which means, “haste […]

  7. […] that justify Matthew’s interpretation of the Immanuel prophecy in Isaiah 7.  See notes on Isaiah 7:14-16 under “New Testament context…” of the Immanuel […]

  8. […] that justify Matthew’s interpretation of the Immanuel prophecy in Isaiah 7.  See notes on Isaiah 7:14-16 under “New Testament context…” of the Immanuel […]

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