4. A Call for Faith and the Sign of Immanuel (Isaiah 7:1-25)
The oracle given to King Ahaz in this chapter has occasioned so many discussions and views that one hardly knows where to begin. But if we stay with the major ideas and probable interpretations we shall find a straightforward interpretation and a powerful message. It is a message that challenges our faith. Is our faith strong enough to see us through crises? Are we secure in our faith? If not, perhaps we do not fully understand the Word of the LORD or the confirming sign He has given.
The historical setting is critical to the account since the prophet supplies it and the oracle draws on its timing. With a close study of the events referred to we may date the oracle in this chapter to 734 B.C. On the throne in Nineveh is Tiglathpileser III, a ruthless and powerful king. Syria, the ancient Aramaea, with its main city in Damascus, and Ephraim, the northern Israelite state, with its main city Samaria, united to form a coalition against the kingdom of Judah with its capital in Jerusalem. Ahaz, Uzziah’s unbelieving grandson, was on the throne in Jerusalem. When he heard of this coalition that was made to replace him with one Tabeel, he sought support from Tiglathpileser (Pul in the historical account) against them. The Book of Kings actually says that Ahaz was a “son” of Pul, that is, a political dependent. The alliance and its costly tribute was foolish, because the Assyrian king was going to destroy the northern coalition anyway. Isaiah came to warn Ahaz that only Yahweh could guarantee safety.
The prophecy of the chapter is amazingly accurate. The sign that a boy was about to be born is the pivotal point. Before he would be old enough to tell right from wrong, that is, about 12 years old, the enemies would not only be defeated but cease to exist. According to history, Shalmaneser V (the successor to Tiglathpileser) campaigned against the land and besieged Samaria. He died in the duration and was succeeded by Sargon II who completed the destruction of the northern state in 722 or 721 B.C. So the oracle in Isaiah 7 could be dated about twelve years before that destruction in 722 B.C.
Then, in line with Isaiah 7:18ff., the Egyptians and the Assyrians filled the land in their war with each other. Devastation from this war severely tested the people, so that nothing grew in the fields, and the survivors had to rely on curds and honey. This led up to and included the invasion of 701 B.C. under Sennacherib, the next Assyrian king, when Hezekiah was on the throne in Jerusalem, and 200,000 people from Judah were carried off into captivity. As we shall see, the details of the Assyrian crisis are very accurately prophesied in these oracles. You may find it helpful to read Brevard Childs’ little book on Isaiah and the Assyrian Crisis, or as a general work, Eugene Merrill, A Kingdom of Priests. The details of Isaiah’s prophecies as well as the images he uses are very precise.
The chapter can be divided into three sections, as most commentators and translations indicate. The first nine verses record the words of encouragement offered by the prophet; verses 10-16 introduce and elaborate on the sign of Immanuel; and verse 17-25 go on to predict the invasion of Assyria. The sequence is clear: God was able to prevent the northern coalition from invading if Ahaz would believe, and God was willing to give a sign to guarantee it; but since Ahaz did not believe, God announced that there would be a glorious future for the Davidic family, although the immediate generation would not share in it, and the present land would be devastated by the Assyrians and Egyptians.
The following is a workable exegetical outline—it is still rough (I chose to leave it that way to show that it need not be polished to be workable) but it will at least enable us to describe the contents of the passage. This kind of an outline helps us to put in our words what the lines and sections are saying.
I. When the northern alliance terrified Judah with plans to invade, Isaiah assured the king of Judah that he would be completely safe and secure—if he would believe (1-9).
A. The king and the people of Judah were terrified when they heard of the impending invasion (1,2).
1. Syria and Israel warred against Judah but could not take it (1).
2. At the news of their alliance the people of Judah were terrified (2).
B. God sent Isaiah to encourage Ahaz that the plot would not succeed and that he would be secure—if he believed (3-9).
1. God sent Isaiah and his son (named “A Remnant Will Return”) to meet Ahaz when he was checking the water (3).
2. God assured the king that their plan to replace him and divide his land would not succeed and that they would be destroyed (4-9a).
a. Nothing would come of the plan to replace him.
b. Israel would not even exist in 65 years.
3. The prophet warned the king that he would not survive if he did not believe (9b).
II. Although Ahaz would not respond with faith for a sign, Yahweh announced the sign of the birth of Immanuel to show that the threat would end (10-16).
A. When God offered Ahaz the opportunity to respond in faith and ask for a sign, he cleverly avoided the commitment (10-12).
B. With righteous indignation the prophet announced the sign of Immanuel to show that the threat from the enemies would end (13-16).
1. The prophet in anger condemned the way the king tried the patience of God (13).
2. The prophet announced the sign and its effects:
a. A virgin would give birth to a son known as Immanuel (14).
b. Before this child reached the age of accountability the danger from the north would end but the land would be ravaged (15,16).
III. The prophet announced that God was about to bring an invasion from Assyria and Egypt that would devastate the land (17-25).
A. Summary: God will bring in the Assyrians to overwhelm the land (17).
B. Details: God will bring in the Assyrians and Egyptians who will occupy the land and carry off people into captivity (18-20).
C. Devastation: The land will be so ruined that people will live among briers and thorns and have to rely on natural and uncultivated products (21-25).
When a northern alliance terrified King Ahaz and his people, the LORD promised deliverance if they would believe; but when Ahaz failed to respond correctly, the LORD announced the sign of the birth of Immanuel in the royal family to show that Judah would survive the invasion, and to encourage the people for the greater invasion to come from Assyria.
I. Only God can provide security amidst the terrifying circumstances of life (7:1-9).19
A. The great crises in life terrify people (1-2).
The first two verses lay out the historical setting. In the exposition it is here that I would bring in the international scene that I surveyed above. That would leave room, then, in the introduction to the exposition to develop a more immediate bit that would reveal or create a need for trust in the modern audience. Certainly, there are enough international crises and domestic crises that would cause fear in people. And today especially, the fear of attack by enemies has a very familiar ring to it. The point to stress here is the fear this alliance in ancient Israel caused Ahaz (and note the simile of the trees in the wind).
B. The Word of the LORD ensures security if faith is present (3-9).
Verse 3 records how Yahweh instructed Isaiah to take his son and go meet the king at the end of the conduit at the upper pool, the place where the king would be preparing for the attack. The main point here is not simply the meeting to give the king the word from God, but to stress the situation b taking the son, Shear-jashub. I would here note that in Isaiah 8:18 Isaiah and his sons are called signs; that is, like the families of other prophets, they are “incarnate words” living out the messages of the prophets. Shear-jashub (se’ar-yasub [pronounced sheh-ar yah-shoov]) means “a remnant will return.” This is a loaded name to deliver to the king, for it confirms that war is inevitable, destruction will follow, but a remnant will return. The question was who would be a part of this remnant.
The doctrine of the remnant (a small part left over) was introduced in chapter 1 and confirmed as the holy seed (a group of righteous believers) in chapter 6. The point through the Scriptures is that while the covenant promises are unconditional, individual participation in them is conditioned on faith and obedience. Verse 9 will be the explanation of this theme, for without faith there will be no participation in the remnant. The boy’s name will be the focus of the message in Isaiah 10:21.
Verses 4-8 record the details of the words of comfort. God clearly says that Ahaz and the people need not fear this invasion, for it shall not happen. In fact, he refers to these two kings as “two tails of smoking firebrands” (hypocatastasis, implied metaphors)—smoldering out.
Here we have another solid prophetic connection. Within 65 years Ephraim will cease to exist as a people. Sixty-five years from 734 puts us down in the time of domination by the Assyrian kings Esarhaddon and Ashurbanipal. It was their foreign policy to mix up the nations of the lands that they conquered; they carried the Israelites off and brought in a variety of peoples from all over, so that the land of Ephraim was a land peopled with all nationalities other than the Israelites. The ones who remained intermarried with them, creating a half-breed race of people known later as the Samaritans.
Verse 9 gives us the theological lesson at the heart of the passage. We have had the circumstances, we have had the sure word from God, we will have the sign to confirm it—here is the instruction: have faith in the LORD. It is worded in a marvelous little word play put in the negative form:
‘im lo’ ta’aminu, ki lo’ te’amenu20
“If you do not believe, you will not be confirmed.”21
The Hebrew verb is ‘aman, from which derives our “amen” (meaning “truly, so be it”). The meaning of the verb changes between the verbal systems (called stems) to enable the word play. The basic stem meaning is “to be reliable, to support”; in the Niphal (passive) stem (the second verb here) it means “be confirmed, faithful, sure, or trustworthy.” But in the causative stem, the Hiphil, the first verb here, it means “to believe,” that is, to consider something reliable, to count on it. By using the two formations of the verb Isaiah can make a powerful play on the words: “If you do not believe, you will not be confirmed.” The point is that if Ahaz did not believe this sure word from God, he would not survive the invasion and be a part of God’s program. But conditional sentences can be read the opposite way too: if he would believe, he would find security and safety in the LORD. It is put in the negative because Isaiah does not expect the king to believe.
Here in teaching this passage I would stop to bring in New Testament correlations to keep the message related to the current Christian audience. Find New Testament passages in the epistles, or perhaps words of Jesus if they are self-explanatory, that promise security in spite of the circumstances all around. “This is the victory that overcomes the world, even our faith”—this type of passage (there are many). This will show the current audience that we too in the New Testament age have a sure word from the Lord that in this life and into the life to come we have security in Christ—if we believe. We need not fear what mankind can do, for we trust in the eternal LORD.
If you have time you can relate this word play to the Davidic Covenant which uses the same verb to guarantee a sure dynasty to David and his descendants. To participate in that sure promise, however, required faith and faithfulness (“your house and your kingdom will be made sure for ever” … [2 Sam. 7:16]).
II. The sign of the birth of Immanuel confirms the Word of the LORD (7:10-16).
To encourage the king to believe, God offers to let him ask for a sign that it will happen. But the king will not even do that. So God gives a sign that tells of the future of the Davidic kingdom—without this corrupt king in it.
Verse 11 tells of the offer to the king for a sign. Observe closely that according to verse 10 Yahweh spoke to the king (we would say through the prophet); observe also the change to the plural of the verb and the pronoun. The invitation is for a sign. A good article to read on this word “sign” (here as well as for other passages) is by Stefan Porubcan, “The Word ‘OT in Isaiah 7:14,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 22 (1960):144ff. He surveys all the uses of the word and concludes that a sign is a symbolic saying, fact, or action (also a name), wonderful or not, introducing or accompanying and illustrating, or signifying, the contents of a prophetic prediction. Here the king could name the sign, anything at all that he could think of, and God would do it.
But the king refuses to put God to the test. Verse 12 must be carefully explained. The king sounds pious; but we know from the Book of Kings that he was a wicked unbeliever. He was trapped here. If he asked for the sign, he would be submitting to the prophet; if he did not ask, everyone would know that he did not believe. So he said, “I will not tempt Yahweh.” The verb “tempt, test” is nasah; it is used in a number of ways, as a close study of it will reveal. If a human tempted God, it usually meant in rebellion, tempting as a challenge, coming without fear and wanting proof. Ahaz pretended piety and said he would not so test God. But God would give a sign anyway, not now to Ahaz, but to the whole House of David (note the plural “you” in the Hebrew text).
Verses 13 and 14 record the sign with a stinging rebuke that the king had wearied Yahweh with his unbelief. The sign concerns an unexpected birth through a “young woman” or “virgin.”
The Hebrew word is ‘almah (from a root ‘alam) with an article, “the young woman.” A careful study of this term would, I believe, yield the conclusion that it describes a young woman who is ripe for marriage; and that the term in and of itself does not mean “virgin”—the context would decide that. In this context, in the royal court, the most polite society, and certainly as a heavenly sign of God’s presence, this young woman would certainly be presumed to be a virgin. Such a woman was to have a child, and that child was to be the proof of the presence of God among His people, signified by the name ‘Immanu-’el, Immanuel, “with us-God.” The sign would be proof that the royal Davidic household and thereby the nation of Judah would indeed survive and have a glorious future.
There are many interpretations offered for this verse, and you will have to be careful to deal with the context, the meaning of the words, and the theology of the Bible all together. I think one has to see from this prophecy two “fulfillments” (as is often the case with prophecy)—a near, partial fulfillment and a far or ultimate and complete fulfillment—because of the time references in the passage for the age of the child and the invasion. Moreover, the way Matthew uses Scripture supports this idea: he saw these old prophetic passages as partially typological, meaning that the historical fulfillment became a type of the final, full (and literal) meaning. But this opens several possible interpretations that cannot be decided altogether satisfactorily. One view takes the “wonder child” to be born as Hezekiah, the good and righteous king to follow. But he would have been born a good number of years earlier than this oracle, probably. Another view is to take the child as Isaiah’s son Maher mentioned in chapter 8. This has a certain appeal because the wording of Isaiah 8:1-4 is similar to that of 7:14, that child is called a sign in 8:18, Immanuel is repeated twice in chapter 8, and the view would give us closure, an identity in the Old Testament passage. The weakness is that the view would require the “young woman” or “virgin” ripe for marriage to be the prophet’s wife, who already had a son. Some who hold this view argue then that Isaiah may have married again—but surely this sounds contrived to fit the view. Another view is that some young princess (a virgin at the time of the oracle) who is unknown to us but known in the court suddenly married and had a child as a sign that the dynasty would continue. This fits the oracle well enough, but the weakness is that there is no closure. But of course, there is no closure anyway, for the prophet never tells who it is.
Another approach is to say that in this case there was no immediate fulfillment, only the ultimate fulfillment in Christ. But that would create all kinds of difficulties for the time limits in the context. So, you need to do some reading on the matter and decide which you prefer. I find the anonymous princess view the most plausible, and the Maher a close second.
But of course what really matters is that ultimately the fulfillment is Jesus Christ. It was also during a time of warfare and political crisis that the virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus the Messiah, as a sign that the line of David would continue, that God’s promises would be fulfilled. And there was a corrupt king on the throne at that time as well, Herod. The New Testament affirms clearly that Jesus’ supernatural birth literally fulfills the meanings of these words, meaning, they find their fullest meaning in Him.
But note carefully, the Christian doctrine of the virgin birth does not depend on the etymology of Hebrew ‘almah as some have contended, but on the plain, propositional statement of the New Testament that Mary was a virgin and the child was conceived by the Holy Spirit. That it fulfilled Isaiah 7:14 indicates that this was God’s revealed plan, and that Jesus is the Immanuel of Isaiah. His supernatural birth is one major sign that signifies that Jesus is Immanuel—in the real and true sense and not just that God is in some way with His people. The doctrine of the Incarnation is that God came into this world and became flesh; Jesus is not a mere mortal; His words are the words of God and to be believed.
At the end of His life is the other confirming sign, the resurrection. His birth is a sign of His supernatural origin; His resurrection is a sign of His supernatural nature. He is Immanuel indeed—God with us. But if we do not believe, we shall not be confirmed. Since we have believed in Him, we stand firm in all the difficulties of this life and are assured of His salvation into the life to come.
The prediction that the child will eat butter and honey (verse 15) calls for some clarification. Here we shall see that these figures could indicate something pleasant or something bad, depending on context. If you are coming out of a wilderness, eating this would be a blessing. If you had been used to all the finest foods of the land, being reduced to this would not be so good. To understand these metonymies we have to look down to verse 22 to see that eating these is a sign that the land would be devastated and nothing would be growing. So the message was that Judah would survive the northern coalition’s attempts to destroy her, but that the land was soon to be devastated. In other words, the name Shear-jashub would be literally worked out: a remnant would return means that there would be devastation, but there would be a returning remnant.
III. The coming judgment makes belief in the Word of the LORD absolutely essential (7:17-25).
Whether you include this section in your lesson/sermon/exposition depends entirely on how much time you have and how detailed you want to get with the text. It may be that its essential substance can be covered in part in your introduction; that means you can finish on the second point and make an easier transition into the New Testament. To go back from that high point of “Immanuel” theology and discuss the Assyrian invasion might be anticlimactic, and certainly not the best homiletical style. It is also possible that you can jump ahead and discuss this in the warning of “if you do not believe” if not in the discussion of “Shear-jashub”; the main thing is that it may be better expositionally to end up on the call for faith and the sign from God. So there are several ways to re-arrange the material in a lesson.
But it also works well to leave it in the present order—if you do not miss your explanatory transitions. Ahaz’ unbelief is the critical problem. God had offered complete security if he would believe. And he could have had a confirming sign. But he did not believe. And so God announced a sign that the Davidic House would continue by divine intervention. This sign, coupled with the faith it was meant to signify, would be necessary for the greater judgment that was coming. Doing the homily this way would require that in discussing the third section you explain that the greater judgment was coming for unbelief and that faith in the supernatural provision of God would see people through it. So we read the idea of faith and judgment on two levels—the context’s, and the end of the age.
Verses 17 and 18 introduce the invasion. The fly is Egypt and the bee is Assyria. The figurative expressions are hypocatastases (implied metaphors) to match the cultural ideas of the lands. God will “hiss” for them—an anthropomorphic way of saying He will summon them. They will come and fill every place in the land according to verse 19. The armies will fill the land.
And the invading armies will not only destroy the land, they will humiliate the survivors. Verse 20 introduces the idea of shaving. This may well be a metonymy of adjunct or of effect. The invading armies often did shave their captives and carry them off into slavery without clothing and without dignity.
And the land will be left desolate (see Isaiah 6). Verses 21-25 predict how life in the land will be after the invasion. Nothing will be able to grow or be harvested, and so briers and brambles will overtake the land where vineyards once were. People will have their animals and have to rely on them for staple products. These expressions would all be metonymies of adjunct or effect for the conditions.
The message of the chapter for the time of Ahaz corresponds nicely with the timeless truth the passage teaches, and se we can word it in a general principle: True security from all danger (even judgment) comes by faith in God’s supernatural provision of Immanuel. There is a glorious future promised by God through the Davidic Covenant; that future is guaranteed and confirmed through a divinely appointed birth that is completely unexpected and that is proof of God’s presence. Thus, God calls people to believe His word and find security in troubling times, in this life, and in the life to come. In the fullness of time, God sent forth His Son to be born of the Virgin Mary; this One is Immanuel in the true sense of the word. His birth confirmed that His word was trustworthy. Faith in Him guarantees participation in the glorious future of peace and righteousness.
The application for unbelievers is certainly the warning to believe or they will not be confirmed. The application for believers would be twofold: to gain confidence through this sign that their destiny is sure, and to share the work of the prophet in calling for others to become part of the remnant of the LORD and put away fears of the circumstances of life.
The first chapter of Luke records the visit of Gabriel to Mary to announce the birth of Jesus in fulfillment of this chapter. In that visitation three names or titles are used of the Messiah. First, the child was to be called “Jesus” (because He would save His people from their sins, the parallel passages add). In addition to other passages in the Old Testament, this seems to refer to the first part of the oracle of Isaiah 7, for that is a promise of salvation for the nation from the prophet Isaiah. And the name Isaiah (yesa’yahu [pronounced yeh-sha-yah-hoo]) is a close approximation of Jesus (in Hebrew yesua’ [pronounced yeh-shoo-a]), for it means “Yahweh saves.” And Isaiah says in chapter 8 that he and his sons are signs. The second name given is “Son of the Most High.” “Son” was primarily a title for the Davidic king, coming from the Davidic Covenant in 2 Samuel 7. The “Most High” draws further attention to the royal Jerusalem liturgy, for Melchizedek was the King-priest of the Most High God, reigning in Salem (=Jerusalem). So this title fits the second part of the chapter, which addresses the House of David, promising a glorious future in the birth of the king. The third title harmonizes with the identification of this child to be born as Immanuel, for Gabriel says that the one born of the woman, the virgin Mary, by the Holy Spirit, will be known as the “Son of God.” So Gabriel’s message draws all the themes of Isaiah 7:1-14 together in a series of names.22
Albright, W. F. “The Son of Tabeel (Isaiah 7:6).” BASOR 140 (1955):34-35.
Bird, Thomas E. “Who Is the Boy in Isaias 7:16?” CBQ 6 (1944):435-443.
Gottwald, Norman K. “Immanuel as the Prophet’s Son.” VT 8 (1958):36-47.
Hammershaimb, E. “The Immanuel Sign.” Stud Th 3 (1951):124-142.
Hasel, Gerhard F. “Linguistic Considerations Regarding the Translation of Isaiah’s Shear-Jashub: A Reassessment.” AUSS 9 (1971):36-46.
Lattey, Cuthbert. “The Immanuel Prophecy: Isaiah 7:14.” CBQ 8 (1946):369-376.
________. “The Term Almah in Isaiah 7:14.” CBQ 9 (1947):89-95.
McKane, William. “The Interpretation of Isaiah VII 14-25.” VT 17 (1967):208-219.
Mueller, Walter. “A Virgin Shall Conceive.” Evangelical Quarterly 32 (1960):203-207.
Myers, Albert E. “The Use of Almah in the Old Testament.” LuthQ 7 (1955):137-140.
Porubcan, Stefan. “The Word ‘OT in Isaiah 7:14.” CBQ 22 (1960):144-159.
Scullion, John J. “An Approach to the Understanding of Isaiah 7:10-17.” JBL 87 (1968):288-300.
Wilson, Robert Dick. “The Meaning of Almah in Isaiah 7:14.” PTR 25 (1926):308-316.
Wolf, Herbert M. “A Solution to the Immanuel Prophecy in Isaiah 7:14—8:22.” JBL 91 (1972):449-456.
Young, Edward J. “The Immanuel Prophecy: Isaiah 7:14-16.” WThJ 15 (1953):97-124.
Zimmermann, F. “The Immanuel Prophecy.” JQR 52 (1961):154-159.
19 Note that now in the exposition, the actual teaching format, I change the wording of the points to theological statements and principles that are relevant to today’s audience as well as the original audience, rather than retain the exegetical outline that is descriptive of ancient Israel’s experience only. But writing the exegetical outline first, even in a rough sketch, makes writing this one very easy, because I just have to substitute words and condense.
20 If you want to pronounce this Hebrew phrase fairly accurately, it would be as follows: eem lo ta-a-mee-noo, key lo tey-a-may-noo.
21 It is always difficult to translate a Hebrew word play. NIV tried “if you do not stand firm, you will not stand at all.” While that catches the word play, it gives the impression Ahaz is a believer who simply needs to take a stand. But he is an unbeliever who needs to believe.
22 In the archives of the web site in the section on sermons there is a sermon on this passage in Isaiah and its connection with Luke’s gospel; the material has been reworked to a homiletic form.