Therefore, the Lord Himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive, have a son, and name him Immanuel.Isaiah 7:14
Ever since taking a class on Isaiah in seminary last fall, i can’t get enough of the “Prince of the Prophets” (Oswalt, 29; see below for full citation).
There is much debate in biblical circles about whether or not the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14 regarding Immanuel–“the virgin will conceive”–is fulfilled by Jesus or not. We know Matthew says it is fulfilled by Jesus (cf. Matthew 1:21). But how could a promise that wouldn’t be fulfilled for 700 years have been an encouragement to King Ahaz that God was presently with him (cf. Isaiah 7:1-17)?
The answer, it seems, is that it couldn’t have been. Unless you want to argue that Ahaz could trust in God’s future promise of Christ the same way Abraham or David believed in the coming future Messiah to be saved–by faith. Alternatively, you could say that because God knew Ahaz wouldn’t believe, He gave him a seemingly impossible promise.
But, do either of these options fit the data? Let’s start with the latter: Did God give Ahaz an impossible-to-believe prophecy?
God expects us to believe (and act on) the messages He gives us. We are to take the Bible for what it says. Jesus said:
Because you have seen Me, you have believed. Those who believe without seeing are blessed.John 20:29
Faith is similarly defined by the author of Hebrews:
But My righteous one will live by faith;
and if he draws back,
I have no pleasure in him.
But we are not those who draw back and are destroyed, but those who have faith and obtain life. Now faith is the reality of what is hoped for, the proof of what is not seen. . . . Now without faith it is impossible to please God, for the one who draws near to Him must believe that He exists and rewards those who seek Him.Hebrews 10:38-11:1; 11:6
Therefore, even if the only referent in this prophecy was Jesus’ future, virgin birth, Ahaz should have been expected to believe it. So the “impossible promise” option doesn’t work.
But what about the first option? Was Ahaz supposed to believe in Jesus’ future arrival–far off in the future–like David is said to have done?
All along, true faith was messianic faith, centered on Christ himself. He was the one held out and the one trusted by the faithful.Glen Scrivener, https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/where-is-jesus-in-the-old-testament.
The answer to the question is, “Yes and no.” Allow me to explain. To do so requires a short trip back to Genesis.
In Genesis 3:15, we read that because of leading Adam and Eve into sin, the serpent was cursed:
I will put hostility between you and the woman,
and between your seed and her seed.
He will strike your head,
and you will strike his heel.
However, there was more to this curse than what immediately meets the eye. The serpent was cursed, but in that curse was a promise of future salvation.
You see, immediately after God hands out the consequences for breaking His Law (cf. Genesis 2:16-17; Genesis 3:14-19), He slaughtered an animal and clothed Adam and Eve (cf. Genesis 3:21). This is proof that the promise in 3:15 was Messianic. It also proves that their sin had been covered by faith.
Fast-forward to Genesis 5:28-29, which says:
Lamech was 182 years old when he fathered a son. And he named him Noah, saying, “This one will bring us relief from the agonizing labor of our hands, caused by the ground the LORD has cursed.”Genesis 5:28-29
The people of God have always been looking forward to the arrival of the “seed of the woman.”
This is why Ahaz could be expected to believe in the future coming of Jesus.
However, at the same time, the people of God have always anticipated the Messiah’s arrival earlier than He would actually appear. Therefore, it was to be expected that an earlier fulfillment would show up on the scene. John N. Oswalt writes:
Especially strong is the evidence from within the text itself that the prediction was to be fulfilled, in one sense at least, within Ahaz’ own lifetime. But does that realization demand that a later, fuller reference be given up? I think not. When the arguments for limiting the reference are examined, significant weaknesses can be found. But of greatest significance, in my opinion, is the evidence of the literary context, and it is to that which we now turn.John N. Oswalt, The Holy One of Israel: Studies in the Book of Isaiah (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014), 125–126. Emphasis added.
Oswalt breaks down the book of Isaiah into the following main sections:
- Chapters 1-39
- Chapters 40-55
- Chapters 56-66
Because our passage under consideration is in the first of those three sections, we will limit our analysis to a more detailed outline of chapters 1-39.
- Introduction (1-5)
- Isaiah’s call to ministry (6)
- Historical Case Study: King Ahaz (7-12)
- Oracles against the Nations (13-35)
- Historical Case Study: King Hezekiah (36-39)
(This outline is adapted from Oswalt’s book but uses my own wording primarily.)
Oswalt’s article has many facets, but one key is that “the great themes of the rest of the book are contained in capsule form in this segment of the book” (Oswalt, 128). And what do we find in Isaiah 7-12?
- A conversation with Ahaz (7)
- Isaiah’s second son is born (8)
- The future reign of a child (9)
- Assyria is a tool in God’s hand (10)
- The Messiah will descend from Jesse’s line (11)
- A song of salvation (12)
(There is more to this section than these statements, but this provides a helpful summary.)
As such, it is clear that Isaiah can predict the future. If Isaiah 9:6 (“for a child will be born for us. . .”) and Isaiah 11:1 (“Then a shoot will grow from the stump of Jesse”) can refer 700 years into the future, why can’t Isaiah 7:14? Isaiah 12 hasn’t even come to pass at all yet in its ultimate sense. Isaiah is the “Prince of the Prophets” because God gave him a vision of salvation history from 740 B.C. (cf. Isaiah 6:1) until the Final Judgment (cf. Isaiah 66:24).
Isaiah’s second son, Maher-shalal-hash-baz, could be the one Isaiah 7:14 is referring to. It makes the most sense in the original historical context (i argued this view, without seeking any commentaries, in my book Live Free or Die Lawfully). However, Isaiah’s wife was clearly not a virgin at that point (cf. Isaiah 7:3). Additionally, Isaiah 7:13 makes it clear that the Immanuel prophecy was directed at the “house of David.” Oswalt comments: “In the immediate future the virginity of the mother was not the issue, but in the distant future that was all-important. Thus an ambiguous word was used” (Oswalt, 132).
Another option would be to view Hezekiah (Ahaz’s son) as the Immanuel in the immediate context. This sounds good, but unfortunately, Hezekiah was already about nine years old by the time the Immanuel prophecy was given. Oswalt concludes, “[I]t seems very likely that it was fulfilled in Isaiah’s own family through the birth of his son, Maher-shalal-hash-baz” (Oswalt, 130).
But again, remember: The promise of Isaiah 7:14 was directed at the “house of David” (cf. Isaiah 7:13). They were the ones who would see the prophecy come to pass. And some might have thought Hezekiah was the promised child (cf. 2 Samuel 7:12).
This takes us to chapters 36-39, the second “Historical Case Study.” Whereas Ahaz trusted the nations–Assyria, Israel’s greatest enemy at the time–Hezekiah trusted God. In a sense, the main point of Isaiah 13-35–God is Sovereign over all nations and not only Israel–took hold in Hezekiah’s heart. He trusted God, and God delivered Israel from Assyria–miraculously–in 701 B.C.
As such, maybe this was the person God had promised? Maybe this was the son to be born?
I already explained that the timeline doesn’t work. Still, even if it did, there’s another reason why it couldn’t have been Hezekiah. Oswalt explains:
[T]he section which opens with Ahaz’ failure in chapter 7 ends with the announcement of comfort to a redeemed trusting people in chapter 12. Almost too neatly, the section which begins with Hezekiah’s great deliverance (chaps. 36–37) ends with the announcement of the coming Babylonian captivityOswalt, 36-37.
Hezekiah was a sinful human being who needed salvation just as much as any of the rest of us. As such, he couldn’t be the promised ruler who was also described in 52:13-53:12 as the sinless one suffering in the place of sinners.
As such, Oswalt notes:
[I]f the ultimate meaning of the Immanuel sign is that God will be with us in and through a son of David (9:7; 11:1), then the fulfillment in Ahaz’ own time was not the ultimate one.Oswalt, 131.
In fact, Jesus still fits the timeline of Isaiah 7:15-16 because the threat facing Ahaz was gone by the time He was born. The more i reflect on this passage, the more i am convinced that the prophecy’s primary purpose is that “God is with us” (Immanuel) in the person of Jesus Christ.
Where Hezekiah fell into pride, where you fall short of God’s standards, where i struggle with sin–Jesus never did. He was the perfect, humble, righteous, glorious, promised Savior of humanity.
The world has been waiting for Him at least since Noah’s day (though probably since Adam and Eve). Isaiah promised Him 700 years before His arrival. He arrived 2,000 years ago, and He took the punishment for sins in Himself after living the perfect life that no one else could ever hope to live.
Place your faith in Him today!
Adam and Eve did–and their sins were graciously covered. We know so much more about Him today than they did then. We know even more about Him now than Isaiah did 2,700 years ago. We have no excuse not to trust Him!
Place your faith in Him today!
In this with you.
Soli Deo Gloria
Thanks for reading.