The second of my three articles published recently belongs to an issue (pdf) in The Master’s Seminary Journal devoted to the Messiah in the Old Testament. My article is entitled “The Messiah in Isaiah 7:14: The Virgin Birth” (on Academia, or direct link here).
Some may roll their eyes at the idea that there is anything left to be said on a subject debated for a couple of thousand years now. I have, however, endeavored to break new ground, particularly in my first section. There I argue that the greater context (Isaiah 1-12) is all about the coming of God to be with his people after judgment. I don’t recall this argument being clearly articulated before with respect to the interpretation of Isaiah 7:14. My logic is that if Isaiah consistently presents Israel’s hope as lying beyond the exile, then it is most natural to expect that a “God-with-us” child was never intended to give hope to a wicked Ahaz but was for a future generation. If a woman gave birth in a dramatic sign in Isaiah’s own day, it would contradict Isaiah’s message in chapters 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, and 11.
In the second section, I try to show why hermeneutical efforts to see two fulfillments are textually illegitimate. Here I cite a number of conservative Christian writers who believe the text demands an 8th-century fulfillment, but who are compelled by Christian confession to affirm that Jesus was somehow also related to the passage. In my opinion, the only valid hermeneutical options are (1) the Jewish view, in which the prophecy was fulfilled in Ahaz’s day, or (2) the traditional Christian view, in which the prophecy was fulfilled only in the birth of Jesus.
In the third section, I make the case that the details of Isaiah 7 decisively preclude the birth of the child in the 8th century. If one accepts that almah means virgin, then the case is closed. (This, of course, is why some conservatives have labored so strenuously to insist that almah can signify a non-virgin.) But even were I to be wrong on that matter, an 8th-century fulfillment is impossible. Here’s how I summarized this argument in the article’s abstract.
Analysis of Isaiah 7:14–17 reveals that an 8th-century fulfillment is impossible given the nature of the sign, the meaning of almah, the syntax of the announcement, as well as the child’s name, role, diet, and character. A closer look at the timeline in Isaiah 7:16–17 shows that Immanuel could only be born after the land of Judah was laid waste, a reality that did not occur in the 8th century.
In other words, the greater context of Isaiah aligns with the particular details of the Immanuel prophecy. Those who wish to identify the Immanuel child with Maher-shalal-hash-baz necessarily ignore many details in the text, including the child eating curds and honey in a time of exile.
Here is the concluding paragraph of the article:
The best understanding of Isaiah 7:14 agrees with the interpretation of Matthew and the view of the church for most of its history. Because of Ahaz’s refusal to trust the Lord, Isaiah prophesied judgment against him and his kingdom. Like most other prophecies against Israel, this one had a silver lining. A special child would be born during the time of exile and would be called “Immanuel.” This prophecy could not have been fulfilled in the time of Isaiah because the conditions did not match the prophecy, and it was fulfilled once and only once in the person of Jesus the Messiah. The historical-grammatical interpretation of Isaiah 7 eliminates the need for hermeneutical liberties, fits the greater context of Isaiah, and corresponds with the fulfillment recorded in the Gospel of Matthew. The prophecy of the virgin birth heralded the earth-shaking tidings of the coming of God to live with his people as a man, making him qualified to atone for their sins and rule over God’s kingdom in righteousness.
My desire is that this article will help students of the Word to think more clearly about this most debated passage. If you know someone interested in the subject, please pass the article on them.
In fact, I recommend the entire issue and believe it will be quite valuable in strengthening the church’s understanding and appreciation of the unity of God’s Word, the divine origin of Scripture, and the need for hermeneutical integrity.