Isaiah 7:14 and the Immanuel Sign

As one reads Isaiah 7:14 in isolation of the New Testament, questions may surface about the identity of the boy named Immanuel, but it would seem less significant than the circumstances surrounding this passage. King Ahaz has not placed his trust in the Lord. Isaiah indicates that Ahaz was instructed to ask God for a sign, likely regarding the future of his kingdom in the face of heated politics and a looming invasion. But Ahaz, indignant, will not ask for a sign, but God says he will provide one anyway, maybe now a different sign in light of Ahaz’s rejection. The sign is that a young woman will give birth and name her child Immanuel, which means God is with us. This, on its face does not seem too unusual considering that surrounding this passage Isaiah has already been instructed to give two other symbolic names to his children. Before the boy Immanuel knows the difference between good and evil, Ahaz’s frightful enemies will be no more. That's it. That's the sign.

Only there's something more in this Isaiah text. The boy’s mother (who is left unidentified) is either young, young and unmarried, soon to be married, and likely a virgin. Or maybe she is a combination of these possibilities. If this is where the story ended, the vast amount of word studies, articles, and books on this passage would seem rather unusual, but this is not where it ends. Centuries later, Matthew writes of Jesus and Mary, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoke by the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel’” (Matt 1:22-23, ESV). Matthew is quoting the Isaiah text. Matthew claims Immanuel in the Isaiah passage is pointing to Jesus.  Jesus is the sign and Jesus is the fulfillment.

But if Jesus is the sign and fulfillment of the Isaiah text, how did Ahaz understand the sign that was given to him? How did readers of Isaiah before the Matthew Gospel understand the sign? How did they understand the identity of Immanuel? Who is he?

This presents a number of problems. Is Matthew wrong?  If he is, how are his readers to believe the rest of his Gospel? If Matthew is right, how are readers to view the Isaiah text? Is there a possibility that there was a duel meaning in this text—that is, could there have been two events that fulfill this sign prophecy? If there is indeed a near and a far view of this passage, were both mothers virgins and was there two boys to fulfill the product of a virgin conception prophecy?

Before we go any further, I should say that I believe that Matthew is correct; therefore, any understanding of the Isaiah passage must include Matthew’s statement. Matthew’s text means that Jesus fulfills the sign prophecy given to Ahaz and the Isaiah text was indeed talking about Jesus, at a minimum. But could the Isaiah text have a duel meaning? Some would argue that a text can only have a single meaning, but Matthew seems to find a duel meaning in other passages too. Hebert Wolf, in his article, “A Solution to The Immanuel Prophecy in Isaiah 7:14-8:22” calls these duel meanings “secondary interpretations” (Wolf, 456). Matthew uses Hosea 11:1, which spoke of the Exodus from Egypt, as a prophecy of Jesus coming back from his flight to Egypt.   Jeremiah 31:15, where Rachael is weeping for Ramah, is tied to Herod’s mass killing of the young boys in an effort to kill the Messiah. “In an analogous manner,” writes Wolf, “Matthew selected Isa 7:14 to describe the birth of Jesus. The language was perfectly suited to Matthew's purpose; and where he went beyond the normal interpretation, he clearly explained the circumstances” (Wolf 456).

Given that at a minimum, the sign was indeed a prophecy of Jesus, how was Ahaz to understand it? And how is a modern reader to see the Isaiah passage? John Oswalt’s approach seems to shed some light on this matter. “I believe,” states Oswalt, “that the sign originally given had a single meaning but a double significance” (Oswalt, 140). This approach does much to resolve what appears to be conflict. “Its meaning is that God is with us and we need not fear what other human beings may do to us” (Oswalt, 140). To Ahaz, Oswalt argues, the statement would provide significance regarding Assyria. He need not worry because God is with Judah. In this case, a specific child may have been indicated and the significance seen in the physical reality of the sign through the birth of a child named Immanuel. Oswalt even argues, “The fact that ‘almah has the definite article suggests that Isaiah is identifying a particular woman” (Oswalt, 140). The second significance is found in the birth of Jesus. The meaning is the same: God is with us. Even considering that Mary named the boy Jesus, the meaning in Isaiah remains the same. Some may suggest that this sign is too simple because God originally directed Ahaz to ask for a deep and high sign, that is, one that is amazing and miraculous; however, the reality that God is with his creation should been seen with this kind of miraculous wonder. Indeed, God entering flesh is so amazing that for many, they cannot even accept it. Given the larger context of Immanuel in Isaiah, Oswalt’s argument seems valid.

There is still a problem however. Two virgins? The word in Isaiah identifying the woman is the Hebrew word ‘almah. This particular word is a difficult word because it neither definitively points a woman who has never had sexual relations or a young woman. It seems both could be correct. Richard Niessen writes 15 pages and 72 footnotes on the word only to conclude, “The evidence supports both the traditional translation of ‘virgin’ and the modern translation of ‘young woman,’ but each must be qualified. The English term ‘virgin’ does not suggest age limitations while the English phrase ‘young woman’ does not suggest virginity. The word [‘almah] demands both, and so a more accurate translation would be ‘young virgin’” (Niessen, 1470).

It does not become less complicated when we see that the LXX translated the word as parthenos, a word that points more toward a young unmarried woman and mainly by implication is one who has not had sexual intercourse.

At any rate,  it appears that Isaiah is referring to a young, unmarried, virgin who will at some point in the future have a son. There is little in this statement that would demand that she is still a virgin, unmarried, or even young at the time of Immanuel’s birth. Matthew on the other hand, uses the term in the context that Mary had not ever been with a man at any point before the birth of Christ (see Matt 1:25). There is nothing in Isaiah that would dictate that the near and far view of this prophecy are physically the same. The meaning remains.

For the present-day student of the Bible however, we have the far view in our sights and it is much more significant for us today. Seeing Jesus as the ultimate fulfillment of the Isaiah passage speaks a much more meaningful message to us at this point in time than does a sign to Ahaz that God was with Judah. We should spend more of our time looking to Jesus when we read this text.

Niessen, Richard. “The virginity of the `almah in Isaiah 7:14.” Bibliotheca Sacra 137 (1980): 133-50.
Oswalt, John. Isaiah: The NIV Application Commentary: from Biblical Text- to Contemporary Life. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2003.
Wolf, Herbert M., “Solution to the Immanuel Prophecy in Isaiah 7:14-8:22,” Journal of Biblical Literature 91 (1972): 449-56.

* Photo by Flickr user, Lawrence OP, and is used by permission.