Where the world comes to study the Bible

God Has Been, Is, and Will Be With Us

“Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel.”
Isaiah 7:14 (Matthew 1:23)

As we now find ourselves square in the middle of the Christmas season, Isaiah 7:14 seems to be nearly everywhere you look from Christmas cards, to tree ornaments, to the chorus of popular carols. Despite its popularity, Isaiah 7:14, along with its quotation and application in Matthew 1:23, is a verse which takes some work to really get a hold of and when I gave it a closer look in my own devotionals, it has helped broaden my worship of Christ this Christmas. What follows below is a short explanation of this wonderful verse and I pray that it will offer a glimpse into the grandeur and glory of our Lord as we celebrate His coming into the world.

While Isaiah 7:14 is in the Old Testament, its notoriety comes from the fact that Matthew quotes this verse in his Gospel when describing the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she is to give birth to the Messiah. Theologians have been particularly interested in this pair of verses, especially the New Testament version of it, because it is seen as a key verse in support of the doctrine of the virgin birth of Christ. However, there exists a problem. While the New Testament, the ancient Greek translation of the OT called the Septuagint or LXX, and the Syriac OT, all say “virgin” in their text of Isaiah 7:14, the Hebrew Old Testament does not! Rather, the Hebrew of Isaiah 7:14 says (in my own translation of the Hebrew):

“…Behold! (That young maiden/girl) will become pregnant and give birth to a son…”

One might reason that the difference is slight and that the distinction between a “virgin” and a “young maiden/girl” is nothing to quibble over and therefore conclude that they mean basically the same thing. This is true to a certain degree, the difference in meaning between the two might be small, but it is not insignificant. While a “young maiden” can certainly be a “virgin,” she doesn’t necessarily have to be, and we know all too well that not all “young maidens” are in fact “virgins.” Furthermore, if Isaiah wished to refer to a “virgin,” then why did he not use the Hebrew word for one? By my count the Hebrew word for “virgin” occurs at least 45 times in the Hebrew OT and it is curious that if a virgin were in mind here, why wouldn’t he use that particular form?

If this difference between the Old and New Testament versions of Isaiah 7:14 is true, then it begs the question, “In what sense is Isaiah 7:14 fulfilled in Matthew 1:23?” For remember that Matthew himself introduces the quotation from the prophet with the words, “Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet…” in Matt 1:22. So, even leaving the point about the “virgin” versus the “young maiden” aside for a moment, what is the “…all this…” that Matthew is speaking about that fulfills Isaiah 7:14? If the point of the virgin birth is secondary in Matthew’s mind, what is the true force of quoting the prophet Isaiah at this point?

The answer to these questions will allow us to unlock and fully appreciate the application of Isaiah 7:14 in Matthew’s birth narrative. However, to do so requires a consideration of how Biblical prophecy functions, and furthermore, how the NT writers applied OT prophecy to their current situations. As a result of this discussion, I hope that you will see two things:

1. That the nature and subsequent fulfillment of Biblical prophecy is much different than is conventional thought of.

2. That when considered in light of ancient prophetic proclamation and fulfillment, Isaiah 7:14 takes on an additional force which we might not have fully appreciated in the past when we concern ourselves with only the notion of the virgin birth.

In order to begin this discussion it proves necessary to talk a little bit about prophecy in the OT. Prophets in the OT have primarily three purposes:

1. They call Israel to account for her sins.

2. They envision a glorious restoration of God’s Nation and Kingdom sometime in the future.

3. They give evidence and testimony which affirms God’s presence and activity in the midst of dark times.

I bring these up because there is a popular misconception that prophecy in the Bible has to do with “predicting future events” or something akin to “future telling.” While this is certainly true for some of the prophecy encountered in the Bible, it is an overwhelming minority and even when it does function in this way, it often does so in a manner much different than how we typically expect. Rather, the primary purpose of Biblical prophecy tends to be a driving forward of Biblical imagery and themes which hold the consistency of God’s relation to all of His creation together. One of my seminary professors would always say, “What God has done in the past is a pattern and promise for what He’ll do in the future.” The purpose of Biblical prophecy is just that, to show that what God has done, He will continue to do, but always in a manner that exceeds everything that has come previously.

Furthermore, since prophetic literature tends to be rich in figures of speech and symbolic language it is often difficult to take things “literally,” as conservative, Bible believing Christians want to do. How many of us have puzzled over portions of Ezekiel’s visions or Isaiah’s view of heaven and have been left wondering what to do with these or how to “take them literally?”

The prophetic portions of the Bible certainly are to be taken literally, but in a way that many might not be fully aware of. May I suggest that Biblical prophecy tends to function on three levels.1

1. First, there is the language and historical context of what is being said. It is this level of prophecy that we are able to take “literally.”

2. Secondly, prophecy typically contains a “symbolic” level where the “literal” raw material of the prophecy (words with meanings, syntax, language, etc.) points to something else. That “something else” being other themes or symbols introduced previously in the Biblical text.

3. Finally there is the “referential” level where a determination must be made as to what exactly the prophecy is referring to, and this is more often than not a theological point and *not* a one-to-one prophetic fulfillment, or in other words, a prediction of the future.

The mistake many Christians make is to jump from the “literal” level (what the text actually says) to the “referential” level (what the text is referring to) without taking into consideration the second, and most important, “symbolic” level. To do so is to miss the theological point the Bible is trying to make for us.

Matthew’s quotation of Hosea 11:1 in Matthew 2:15

In order to illustrate this approach to Biblical prophecy let’s consider an example – Matthew’s quotation of Hosea 11:1 in Matthew 2:15.

  • Hosea 11:1

“When Israel was a youth I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.”

  • Matthew 2:15

“He remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: OUT OF EGYPT I CALLED MY SON.”

So now, let’s compare these two texts a bit more closely using the levels I described above as guides.

1. The Literal Level, or what is the text actually talking about.

Literally, Hosea 11:1 is talking about *Israel.*


Matthew 2:15, which is talking about *Jesus.*

When looked at this point, we see that the two texts aren’t even talking about the same thing! So how then can Matthew say that Hosea 11:1 is fulfilled by what happened to Jesus?!

Now let’s look at some of the key features of these two verses at the symbolic level, and there we find that the two texts are more closely aligned than we first may have thought.

2. The Symbolic Level, or what does the literal text mean to elicit beyond the actual words.

  • Hosea 11:1

“When Israel was a youth I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.”

In this verse, what does Israel stand for?

a. God’s special son.

b. Israel represents God’s chosen nation, installed to bring salvation to the world.

The rest of the verse goes on to talk about how God was with Israel when she was in bondage in Egypt.

Who brought Israel into Egypt in the first place?

a. Joseph.

How did God primarily communicate with Joseph?

a. Via dreams.

What was Joseph’s relation to Israel when he entered into Egypt?

a. He was Israel’s surrogate, i.e., God kept His promise of faithfulness to Abraham’s descendents through Joseph.

Why did Joseph, and by extension, Israel enter into Egypt?

a. To escape the crisis of famine.

What happens as a result of Joseph, and by extension, Israel’s entrance into Egypt?

a. God’s chosen nation threatened by Pharaoh when he decides to kill all Hebrew young children.

Overall thrust of Hosea 11:1

Despite being preserved through oppression in Egypt, Israel failed in her role to be God’s special, chosen representative of Him on Earth.

  • Matthew 2:15

“He remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: OUT OF EGYPT I CALLED MY SON.”

In the Matthew 2:15 verse who is Jesus, or what does He represent?

a. The Son of God.

b. God’s chosen one to bring His salvation to the world.

Who brought Jesus to Egypt?

a. Joseph

How did God communicate with Joseph?

a. Via dreams.

Why was Jesus brought to Egypt by Joseph?

a. To escape the crisis of Herod wanting to find and kill Jesus.

b. To help keep God’s promise of redemption alive by relocating God’s Son.

What was the nature of the threat to God’s chosen Son?

a. An evil king (Herod) threatens God’s chosen representative by attempting to kill all the young children.

Overall thrust of Matthew 2:15

God’s preserves His chosen representative on Earth in the face of oppression, but this time He will succeed.

3. The Referential Level, or what is the point of the prophecy, what it is “about?”

By laying the two texts out in this manner, the similarities between the two texts are striking. One can see that the purpose of the prophecy is *not* to foretell a future event, but rather to call to mind the original context of Hosea 11:1, reapply it to the current situation of Christ’s birth and escape to Egypt, and most importantly, to make the *theological* point that even though Israel failed in her role to bring salvation to the nations, this new, chosen Son would not!

The point is that Biblical prophecy most often occurs like this. As a result, it is important to focus on the theological argument the prophecy is trying to make and not necessarily the modern-day events which can be considered a fulfillment of the prophecy.

With this in mind, let’s now turn to Matthew’s use of Isaiah 7:14.

“Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold! (That young maiden/girl) will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and she will call His name Immanuel.”

As with the previous example, it is first necessary to look at the literal level of the prophecy which entails a consideration of the “raw materials” of the text and its historical context.

Isaiah 7:14 takes place at a time after the split of Israel into two rival kingdoms, Israel in the North and Judah in the South. At the time of Isaiah’s writing, the Northern Kingdom of Israel formed an alliance with Aramaea, the ancient kingdom of modern day Syria in order to lay siege to Judah together. On the thrown in Jerusalem, the capital of Judah, was the wicked king Ahaz, who we learn from 2Ki 16:1 “did not do what was right in the eyes of the Lord” and who conducted all manner of abominations before the Lord. This stands in stark contrast to his grandfather Uzziah, who “did what was right in the eyes of the Lord” (2Chr 26:4).

In response to the news that Israel had formed an alliance with Aramaea, Ahaz along with all of his people became incredibly scared, “his heart and the hearts of this people shook as the trees of the forest shake with the wind” (Is 7:2).

However, God commissioned Isaiah, along with this son Shear-jashub, to go to Ahaz in order to tell him that if he believed and had faith in God then he would be delivered. In order to confirm this word to Ahaz, God even allows Isaiah to offer Ahaz any sign he wants that would help him believe God on this point. It is always said that it is harder to walk by faith than by sight, and so God was being very gracious to Ahaz in His offer to provide a material confirmation of Isaiah’s prophetic word.

In response, Ahaz refuses to ask for a sign, saying that he does not want to test God and replies, “I will not ask, nor will I test the LORD!” (Is 7:12). Because of Deut 6:16, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test,” along with Jesus’ use of it in rebuking Satan, it is easy to think that Ahaz was doing the right thing here. However, it was God who told Ahaz to ask for a sign, and in refusing one he was not being holy, but rather he showed himself to be consistent with his rebellious nature not wanting to submit to the prophet Isaiah’s words.

The Lord greets Ahaz’s refusal to ask for a sign of the truth of God’s Word with anger, and tells him that he is going to provide a sign despite Ahaz’s disobedience.

The sign God promises to Ahaz is contained in Isaiah 7:14-16:

“Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold! (That young maiden/girl) will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and she will call His name Immanuel. He will eat curds and honey at the time He knows enough to refuse evil and choose good. For before the boy will know enough to refuse evil and choose good, the land whose two kings you dread will be forsaken.”

The point of this prophecy in its “literal” context is that some maiden, which is known to Isaiah and Ahaz, but not necessarily to us, will give birth to a son, and by the time he is able to discern good from evil the danger posed by the alliance of Israel and Aramaea would be averted. While it is true that the reader does not know the specific identity of the “young maiden/girl” or her child (some scholars think it to be Hezekiah but I am not convinced), since Isaiah is addressing the king of Judah the girl is most likely from within the royal court, for after all, she is going to be a “sign” to Ahaz. This is “symbolically” significant because such a child would be much more than a material sign that Judah would withstand the insurgent armies, it was also a spiritual sign that the line of David would continue thus keeping alive the promise that a savior would come forth from Judah (2Sam 7). God promises that he would rise up a righteous, perfect king from Judah, and the fierce armies knocking at Judah’s door seemed to cast this promise in doubt. So, in promising to preserve Judah in the face of her enemies, God was also re-affirming His promise to bring about Messiah.

Turning now to Matthew’s use of Isaiah 7:14 reveals the “referential” or theological application of Isaiah’s prophecy. The circumstances surrounding the birth of Jesus are remarkably similar to those at the time of the dialogue of Isaiah and Ahaz. In Isaiah’s time, there were two enemy kings poised to take out God’s chosen line of Judah. In Matthew’s time, Herod held an alliance with Rome which threatened the existence of Israel. While Aramaea and Israel conspired to snuff out God’s promise of a future, King Herod and his slaughter of the innocents threatened to take out the Messiah.

Despite these similarities, oh is there such a difference! In Isaiah’s time the birth of a child, the sign that “God is with us” (the literal translation of Immanuel) points to the physical and local deliverance of the nation of Judah. But the sign that “God is with us” in Matthew’s Gospel is so much more grand, so much more complete and glorious – God would deliver us not from invading armies, but a far more deadly enemy, our sins.

When I look at the world today, it is easy to see many parallels between the conditions of Isaiah’s time and Matthew’s time – wars are raging, the world’s political structures seem uncertain, and people around the world are suffering at unprecedented levels. People are being gunned down in shopping malls, in schools, and in churches. Buildings which seem so secure and impregnable can fall like card houses. Dictators are after weapons which can wipe out entire populations and one can’t even travel this Christmas season without thinking that there is an enemy out there that wants you dead. The list of people on our prayer list with cancer continues to grow rather than shrink.

It is enough to ask where God is at this time.

Matthew and Isaiah give us the answer. Immanuel. God is with us.

Difficult times may come, but He is right here through it all.

So, when you see Isaiah 7:14 all over the place this Christmas, take confidence. Our Lord, the creator of the universe, is right at our side.

May God richly bless you and your families this Christmas.

1 I am deeply indebted to Dr. Kent Berghuis, now senior pastor of First Baptist Church, Lansdale, PA, who influenced greatly my current understanding of prophecy when he was my professor at Dallas Theological Seminary.

Related Topics: Christmas

Report Inappropriate Ad