The following is taken from The Moody Handbook of Messianic Prophecies: Studies and Expositions of the Messiah in the Old Testament, eds. Michael Rydelnik & Edwin Blum, published by Moody Publishers, Chicago, IL 2019, pp. 815-830. All emphasis will be mine.
The Virgin Birth in Prophecy1
MICHAEL A. RYDELNIK
In his book Velvet Elvis,2 Rob Bell asked,
What if tomorrow someone digs up deﬁnitive proof that Jesus had a real, earthly, biological father named Larry, and archaeologists ﬁnd Larry’s tomb and DNA samples and prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the virgin birth was really just a bit of mythologizing the Gospel writers threw in to appeal to the followers of the Mithra and Dionysian religious cults that were hugely popular the time of Jesus, whose gods had virgin births? But what if as you study the origin of the word virgin, you discover that the word virgin in the Gospel of Matthew actually comes from the book of Isaiah, and then you ﬁnd out that in the Hebrew language at that time, the word virgin could mean several things. And what if you discover that in the ﬁrst century being “born of a virgin” also referred to a child whose mother became pregnant the ﬁrst time she had intercourse?3
After raising these questions, Bell does aﬃrm the historic Christian faith, including the virgin birth.4 Nevertheless, Bell’s conjecture regarding “Larry, the human father of Jesus” is troublesome, not because he believes it but rather because evangelicals have accepted some of the presuppositions presented here.
For centuries Christians understood Isaiah 7 to be a prediction of the virgin birth. Now it is not uncommon for evangelicals to assert that the Hebrew word Isaiah used does not mean “virgin” but rather “young woman.” Moreover, the passage is not viewed as a prediction of Messiah’s birth but rather of a child born in Isaiah’s day. Bell’s popular-style book reﬂects the trend in contemporary evangelical OT scholarship that denies that Isaiah was predicting the virgin birth of the Messiah. For example, John Walton understands Isaiah predicting the natural birth of a child to a young woman in the court of King Ahaz.5 He writes, “Exegesis gives us no clue that Isaiah had been aware that he was speaking of the Messiah. The child’s name merely expressed the hope that accompanied God’s deliverance.”6 Walton and other evangelical scholars who agree with his view take this position not to deny a biblical essential but rather to aﬃrm biblical scholarship and sound exegesis. But is their approach to interpreting Isa 7 as accurate and safe as they suppose?
For now, the evangelical commitment to faith in Jesus and His virgin birth is secure. But, will not the questioning of the predictive value of Isa 7 or, as Bell does, the questioning of even whether belief in the virgin birth of Jesus is essential for evangelical faith lead to a slippery slope culminating in a spiritual disaster? It seems that to maintain faith in the virgin birth over the long term, it will be necessary to address the seemingly troublesome Isa 7 passage. Is it possible to view Isaiah’s prophecy as a direct messianic prediction while still practicing sound exegesis? In this article, that is precisely what I propose to do.
THE VIRGIN BIRTH IN PROPHECY
In my experience, Isa 7:14 is the most controversial of messianic prophecies. Disputes revolve around a variety of issues, chieﬂy, the meaning of the word ‘almah, the relationship of Isaiah’s “sign” to the context, the way the original readers of the prophecy would have understood it, and Matthew’s citation of this verse in support of the virgin birth.
As a result, interpreters have divided into three primary views of the passage, and even among these views, expositors present their own unique perspectives. The ﬁrst view, held by many traditional Christian interpreters, is to see the prophecy as a direct prediction of the virgin birth of the Messiah. Taking diﬀerent approaches as to how the prophecy relates to the original context, they each conclude that the word ‘almah means “virgin” and refers to the mother of Jesus.
A second position, frequently held by critics and Jewish interpreters, is that of a purely historical interpretation. It views Isaiah’s promise to be that a young woman in the eighth century BC would have sexual relations and then give birth to a child that would serve as a sort of hourglass for Judah—before that child reached a certain age, the two kings threatening Judah would be removed.
Third, a common approach taken by contemporary Christian scholars is to view the prophecy as having some sort of dual or multiple fulﬁllment. Isaiah is understood to refer to the natural birth of a child in his own day to function as a sign to Judah. Nevertheless, they contend that this does not exhaust the meaning. Rather, by double fulﬁllment, sensus plenior, type, a later rereading, progressive fulﬁllment, or even by the use of ﬁrst-century Jewish hermeneutics, the prophecy also refers to the virgin birth of Jesus.
I believe that by placing the prophecy in context, through a careful reading of the text of Isa 7 and relating it to innerbiblical interpretations of the passage, a view that supports a direct prediction of the virgin birth makes the most sense. That would explain Matthew’s reason for citing Isa 7:14 as a prediction of the virgin birth.
THE CONTEXT OF THE PROPHECY
The historical setting of the prophecy was a threat against Judah around the year 734 BC. At that time, Rezin, king of Syria (Aram) and Pekah, king of the northern kingdom of Israel, formed an anti-Assyrian alliance. They in turn wanted Ahaz, king of Judah, to join their alliance, and when he refused, they decided to make war against Ahaz to force the issue (7:1). The northern alliance against Ahaz caused great fear in the royal family of David (7:2) because the goal was not just to conquer Judah but also to “install Tabeel’s son as king” in the place of Ahaz (7:6). Their plan would place a more pliable king on the throne and also put an end to the Davidic house. This threat provides a signiﬁcant detail in understanding the passage. While some have contended that there would be no reason to foretell the coming of the Messiah, the danger to the house of David explains the messianic concerns of the passage. It was the Davidic covenant (2Sm 7:12-16; 1Ch 17:11-14) that led to the expectation of a future Messiah who would be a descendant of David. Therefore, if Ahaz and the entire royal house were to be destroyed, it would bring an end to the messianic hope. A long-term prophecy of the birth of Messiah would assure the Davidic house and the readers of the scroll of Isaiah that the messianic hope was indeed secure.
With this threat looming, the Lord sends Isaiah to give assurance to Ahaz, telling him to meet Ahaz at “the conduit of the upper pool, by the road to the Fuller’s Field” and speciﬁcally to bring his son, Shear-jashub (7:3). Frequently, commentators overlook this command to bring the boy as if it were an unnecessary detail. Nevertheless, it seems strange to think that Isaiah would include this precise requirement without it having any signiﬁcance. As will be seen, this seemingly minor detail will play a signiﬁcant role in understanding the passage.
At the conduit of the upper pool, Isaiah gave Ahaz his God-directed message: “It will not happen; it will not occur” (7:7). The Lord, through Isaiah, promised that the attack would not succeed and the alliance would be broken. In fact, Isaiah predicted that within 65 years, the northern kingdom of Israel would no longer be recognized as a people (7:8, “Ephraim will be too shattered to be a people”). This prediction came true in three phases. First, Tiglath-pileser, king of Assyria, conquered Israel in 732 BC, sending many captives back to Assyria (2Kg 15:29). Second, Assyria destroyed the northern kingdom in 721 BC, deporting much of the Israelite population to Assyria and settling the land of Israel with other peoples (2Kg 17:24). It was completely fulﬁlled in 669 BC when Ashurbanipal enacted the ﬁnal population transfers between Israel and Assyria (Ezr 4:2, 10). Thus in 669 BC, 65 years from the date of the events described in Isaiah’s prophecy, the northern kingdom was indeed “too shattered to be a people” (7:8) and the land was inhabited by Samaritans, a people of mixed ethnicity (Ezr 4:2).7
To conﬁrm the promise that the attack on Judah would not succeed, the Lord oﬀered a sign to Ahaz of his own choosing.8 The king was told that the sign could come “from the depths of Sheol to the heights of heaven” (7:12). This is an obvious merism, 9 calling Ahaz to ask God to provide a sign that would be stupendous enough to elicit faith. Although the Hebrew word for “sign” (’ot) does not necessarily require a miracle, it does include the supernatural within its range of meaning (cf. Ex 4:8-9, 17, 28, 30; 7:3; 10:1-2; Nm 14:11, 22; Dt 4:34; 6:22; 7:19, etc.). In light of the nature of the oﬀer, it appears that Ahaz was to ask for a miraculous sign.
Nevertheless, Ahaz, with false piety, refuses to test God. The disingenuous nature of his response is plain in that this is a king who had so little regard for the Lord that he practiced idolatry, even oﬀering his own son as a child sacriﬁce to Molech (2Kg 16:3; 2Ch 28:3). While he might claim biblical justiﬁcation (Dt 6:16) for his refusal to ask or test the Lord (7:12), this seems ridiculous because the Lord Himself has just called upon him to do so. So, when Ahaz was under his greatest threat, he refused the Lord’s comfort and rejected the oﬀer of a sign. In response, Isaiah declared that, nonetheless, the Lord would give a sign—one that would become a source of controversy for generations.
THE CONTENTS OF THE PROPHECY
The most signiﬁcant diﬃculty in interpreting the prophecy is that from a cursory reading it appears that the sign would be fulﬁlled within just a couple of years of Isaiah’s meeting with the king and not more than 700 years later with the birth of Jesus. The reason for this diﬃculty is the failure to read the prophecy carefully and pick up the clues the author has left. A close reading of the text will disclose that there is not one prophecy here but two—a long-term prediction addressed to the house of David (7:13-15) and a short-term prediction addressed to Ahaz (7:16-23).
THE LONG-TERM PROPHECY TO THE HOUSE OF DAVID: THE BIRTH OF MESSIAH (ISAIAH 7:13-15)
Since the northern alliance was threatening to replace Ahaz with the son of Tabeel, the entire house of David was endangered. Were Syria and Israel to succeed, the messianic promise of a future son of David who would have an eternal house, kingdom, and throne (2Sm 7:16) would be demolished. This provides the need for a long-term sign of hope that, despite the menace to the house of David, the Messiah would be born, with the sign of His coming being His virgin birth. The details of this prophecy are as follows:
“Listen, house of David.” Isaiah’s declaration of the Lord’s sign shifted the direction of the prophecy away from Ahaz to the whole house of David (7:13). This is evident not only from the vocative “house of David” but also from the change of singular pronouns and verbs of command (7:4, 11) to plural. When addressing Ahaz alone, the singular was used. However, in 7:13-14, Isaiah used the second-person plural. This is not an obvious change in the English Bible, but in v. 13 the imperative verb “listen” is plural, the expression “Is it not enough for you” is plural, and “Will you also try” is plural. Then in v. 14 “you” is plural.10 The reason for the shift is that God was clearly fed up with this wicked and sanctimonious king, so he addressed the royal house he represented. Moreover, it was not only Ahaz who was being threatened but also the entire house of David.11
“Therefore, the Lord Himself will give you a sign.” Although Ahaz, as the head of the house of David, had tried God’s patience, Isaiah promised that the Lord Himself would still grant a sign—but one that would now be of God’s own choosing. As mentioned above, the Hebrew word for “sign” can refer to the miraculous or the non-miraculous. However, in light of the previous oﬀer of a sign “from the depths of Sheol to the heights of heaven,” it would appear that the sign to follow would be of a miraculous nature. Moreover, this is how Isaiah uses the same word in the parallel situation with Hezekiah (Isa 38:1-8). There, as a “sign” that Hezekiah’s life would be extended, the shadow on the stairway would miraculously retreat ten steps (38:7-8).12
“[Behold] the virgin will conceive [lit., the virgin is pregnant], have a son, and name him Immanuel.” The Lord called special attention to the ensuing sign with the word hinnê, traditionally rendered “behold!” When used in similar constructions in the Hebrew Bible (Gn 16:11; 17:19; Jdg 13:5-7), the word hinnê serves to bring attention to a birth of special importance.13 The sign that the Lord promised the house of David is that of a pregnant almah who would bear a son. The use of the article (frequently untranslated in modern English versions) with the word almah indicates that the Lord has a speciﬁc woman in mind. It is not some generic woman in the court of Ahaz but one whom the prophet sees in particular. Controversy has surrounded the word almah since the second century when Aquila substituted “young woman” (Gk. neanis) in his Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible for the LXX translation of “virgin” (parthenos). Was Isaiah speaking of a virgin or merely a young woman?14 Various arguments have been put forward to make the case for translating the word as virgin.
Etymologically, almah is derived from a word that means “to be sexually strong, sexually mature, sexually ripe or ready.”15 This would seem to emphasize the age of the woman (pubescent) rather than indicating whether she was sexually active. Cyrus Gordon has argued that ancient (preMosaic) Ugaritic, which is cognate to Hebrew, used the word parallel to almah of a virgin goddess. Since the Ugaritic annunciation formula used a similar construction to Isa 7:14, Gordon concluded that almah should rightly be translated “virgin.”16 Furthermore, many have maintained that the Septuagint translation of almah with the Greek word parthenos (“virgin”) is evidence that in the pre-Christian era, the word was understood as referring to virginity.17
The best way to determine the meaning of the almah is by examining its usage throughout the Hebrew Bible. If there were a place in Scripture where it clearly refers to a nonvirgin, it would widen the range of meaning to make it possible that it might refer to a non-virgin in Isa 7:14. However, in every situation the word is used either of a virgin or in an indeterminate, neutral sense.
Genesis 24:43. Here Rebekah, the soon-to-be wife of Isaac, is called an almah. This chapter of Genesis describes Rebekah as a “girl” (na’arah, 24:14), a virgin (bethulah, 24:16), and a maiden (almah, 24:43). These three synonyms are used to describe a virginal young woman.
Exodus 2:8. In this passage, Miriam, the sister of Moses, is called an almah. As a young girl, still in the home of her parents, it is legitimate to infer that the word includes the idea that she was a virgin.
Psalm 46:1. In this verse, the superscription uses the word as a musical direction. So it is indeterminate, not supporting or contradicting the meaning virgin.
Psalm 68:25. This verse refers to a musical worship procession in which alamot (plural of almah) play the tambourines. Perhaps this verse is indeterminate, not speaking to the virginity of the maidens. But possibly it hints at virginity because it calls to mind Jephthah’s daughter who lamented her being oﬀered as a sacriﬁce to the Lord (Jdg 11:34-40). While some commentators believe that Jephthah’s daughter was an actual human sacriﬁce, others maintain that she was given by Jephthah to lifelong service in the tabernacle. Thus, she was never to marry and went with her friends to mourn her virginity. If this is the case, then perhaps it indicates that serving in the Temple was restricted to virgins. Therefore, the young women in the Temple worship procession, spoken of in Ps 68:25, would be virgins.
First Chronicles 15:20. Once again, the word is used as a musical direction. So it is neutral, not supporting or contradicting the meaning “virgin.”
Song of Solomon 1:3. This verse refers to the love of the alamot for Solomon. These are not married women but maidens who wanted husbands but have not yet been married. Therefore, the word would imply the concept of virginity.
Song of Solomon 6:8. This description of the king’s harem includes three categories: 60 queens, 80 concubines, and alamot without number. The queens are those whom the king has married, the concubines are those with whom he has had sexual relations, and the alamot are the virgins who will one day be elevated to either concubine or queenly status. If these alamot were not virgins, they would be in the concubine category. Hence, the use of the word here describes virgins.
Proverbs 30:19. This verse is the most controversial of the usages since it describes “the way of a man with an almah.” The entire proverb is found in 30:18-19 and refers to four wonderful and incomprehensible things: an eagle in the sky, a serpent on a rock, a ship in the sea, and a man with an almah. Some have maintained that what unites these four is in each one something disappears. A soaring eagle is easily lost from sight. A serpent quickly slithers oﬀ the rock, disappearing from sight. A ship can be lost in a fraction of time. And a virgin can lose her virginity to a young man very quickly. Even if this were the correct interpretation of the proverb, the word almah would indeed be virgin. But since there is no moral evil in the ﬁrst three examples, it seems unlikely that the fourth would call extramarital sex “wonderful.” Moreover, the contrast with the adulterous woman in 30:20 would imply that the almah in the previous verse was not engaged in illicit sex. Probably the best way to understand this proverb is as referring to the mysterious and wonderful qualities of youthful attraction.18 Thus, it once again would refer to a virgin.
In its every use in the Hebrew Bible, the word almah either refers to a virgin or has a neutral sense.19 Based on this study, it appears that Isaiah chose his words based on precision. While the Hebrew bethulah 20 could refer to a virgin of any age, almah would refer to a virgin that has just arrived at puberty. She is a maiden in the truest and purest sense. So, there does not seem to be cause to abandon the traditional interpretation of almah as a “virgin” except for an antisupernatural or antimessianic bias.21
This virgin, according to the translation, will be with child. However, the Hebrew in the verse is even more emphatic. It uses the feminine singular adjective harah (“pregnant”), which in context would more accurately be translated “the virgin is pregnant” or “the pregnant virgin.” Were it not for the context calling for a sign as deep as Sheol or high as heaven, such a translation would seem impossible. However, the prophet, by means of a vision, sees a speciﬁc pregnant virgin before him who would be the sign of hope for the house of David.22 This indeed would meet the qualiﬁcation of being “deep as Sheol or high as heaven.”
“And she will call his name Immanuel” (NASB). The virgin mother of the child will recognize His special nature. Therefore, she will give Him the title “Immanuel,” which means “God with us.” 23 The message to Judah was that God would be with them in a special way through this child. The title hints at the divine nature of the boy. Even clearer is Isa 8:8, which describes the Assyrian conquest of Judah, saying that the Assyrians will sweep over Judah “and its spreading streams will ﬁll your entire land, Immanuel!” If the child Immanuel were not divine, Isaiah would not identify the land as belonging to Him. 24 Moreover, in the next great vision of the coming Davidic king (Isa 9:6), the child receives other divine throne titles including “Mighty God” and “Father of Eternity” (my translation). Isaiah was not merely promising a future Davidic king that would secure the line of David. He was not only promising that He would have a supernatural birth. Ultimately, the prophet has revealed that the Messiah would be God in the ﬂesh, Immanuel.25
“By the time he learns to reject what is bad and choose what is good, he will be eating butter [or curds] and honey.” The Lord continues His description of the virgin-born Davidic Messiah, giving a clue to the situation into which He would be born (7:15). Many mistake the butter and honey He would eat as the food of royalty, ignoring the context in Isa 7 itself. Later in the chapter, Isaiah writes of the coming Assyrian oppression, when Assyria would shave the land (7:20). At that time, ﬁelds will not be cultivated and will become pastures for oxen and sheep (7:23-25). The eﬀect of this will be an overabundance of dairy (or butter/curds) because of the pasturing of livestock and an excess of honey because bees will be able to pollinate the wild ﬂowers. Therefore, because of “the abundant milk they give,” a man “will eat butter, for every survivor in the land will eat butter and honey” (7:21-22). So, in this passage, butter and honey do not represent the food of royalty but rather the food of oppression. The point then of the description of the future virgin-born, Davidic king eating butter and honey is to accentuate that he would be born during a time of political oppression. In other words, the prophecy of Messiah concludes with a hint that He will be born and grow up (“learn[ing] to reject what is bad and choose what is good”) at a time when Judah is oppressed by a foreign power.26
With this, Isaiah has completed his ﬁrst prophetic message. With the northern confederation of Syria and Israel threatening to replace Ahaz with a substitute king, the entire house of David was imperiled and with it, the messianic hope. Isaiah has come with a message of hope the future son of David would indeed be born someday. The supernatural sign that will reveal His identity is that He will be born of a young virgin and have a miraculous divine nature. Moreover, He will grow up during a time of oppression over the Jewish people and their land. With the assurance that the house of David and the messianic hope are both secure, the prophet turns his attention to the immediate threat and gives a near prophecy to wicked King Ahaz.
THE SHORT-TERM PROPHECY TO AHAZ: THE SIGN OF SHEAR-JASHUB (ISAIAH 7:16-17)
While many have considered v. 16 to be a continuation of the prophecy in 7:13-15, the grammar of the passage suggests otherwise. The opening phrase in Hebrew can reﬂect an adversative nuance, allowing for a disjunction between the child described in 7:13-15 and the one described in v. 16. There is a diﬀerent child in view in this verse.27
The Identity of the Child. So, who is the child in 7:16? In light of Isaiah being directed to bring his own son to the confrontation with the king at the conduit of the upper pool (cf. 7:3), it makes most sense to identify the lad as Shearjashub. Otherwise there would be no purpose for God directing Isaiah to bring the boy. Thus, having promised the virgin birth of the Messiah (7:13-15), the prophet then points to the small boy that he has brought along and says, “But before this boy (using the article with a demonstrative force) knows to reject what is bad and choose what is good, the land of the two kings you dread will be abandoned.”28 In this way, Shear-jashub functioned as a sign to the king. Appropriately, Isaiah could tell Judah in the very next chapter, “Here I am with the children the LORD has given me to be signs and wonders in Israel from the LORD of Hosts who dwells on Mount Zion” (8:18).
The Identity of the Addressee. To whom does Isaiah make this prediction? What is not evident in the English text is plain in the Hebrew. The prophet returns to using the second-person singular pronoun in 7:16 (“the land of the two kings you (sg.) dread” [emphasis added]). In 7:10-11 he used the singular to address King Ahaz. Then, when addressing the house of David with the prophecy of Messiah, he shifted to the plural. But in 7:16, he addressed King Ahaz, using the singular pronoun once again and giving him a near prophecy: before Shear-jashub would be able to discern good from evil, the northern confederacy attacking Judah would fail. Within two years, Tiglath-Pileser defeated both Israel and Syria, just as the prophet had predicted.
Having completed his long-term prophecy, Isaiah gave a short-term prophecy. In doing so, he followed a frequent pattern in his book. He consistently did this so his readership could have conﬁdence in the distant prediction by observing the fulﬁllment of the near one.29
THE CONFIRMATION OF THE PROPHECY
The messianic interpretation of Isaiah 7:13-15 does not only stand strongly through a careful reading of the text itself but it is also conﬁrmed by innerbiblical allusions to the prophecy. While some have argued that only Mt 1:23 reads Isa 7:14 as a messianic prophecy, that is really not the case. To begin with, Isaiah himself substantiates the messianic reading with two passages that follow. Isaiah’s contemporary Micah does the same.
Isaiah 9:6-7. After giving hope to the house of David that the promise of the Davidic covenant was secure, as would be seen in the birth of Immanuel (7:13-15), Isaiah proceeded to identify when the son of David would come. He described the time of judgment to fall on Judah (Isa 8) when Judah would be “dejected and hungry” and would “see only distress, darkness, and the gloom of aﬄiction” (8:2122). At that time, it will be said “the people walking in darkness have seen a great light; a light has dawned on those living in the land of darkness” (9:2). This light was the son of David described in Isa 7:13-15. 30 He was the child that would be born and given four glorious, twofold titles, “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father [Father of Eternity], Prince of Peace” (9:6). He would sit “on the throne of David and over his kingdom to establish and sustain it with justice and righteousness from now on and forever” (9:7). Just as this future king would be called Immanuel, indicating His deity, so also would the other throne titles reﬂect His divine nature.31 The point of Isa 9:1-7 was to alert the house of David that the virgin-born King for whom they were to look would only come after a long period of darkness. Nevertheless, He would indeed come, possessing a divine nature, to establish a righteous and eternal kingdom.
Isaiah 11:1-10. Although Isa 9 clariﬁes that the son of David would come after a time of darkness, Isa 11 elucidates even further that Immanuel, the virgin-born Child, on whom the hopes of the entire house of David rests, will come in the distant future. Only after the mighty tree of David was cut down with “terrifying power” (10:33) and the Davidic dynasty had become a mere stump would a shoot “grow from the stump of Jesse” (11:1). This King from David’s line would be empowered by the Spirit of God and establish a righteous reign (11:2-5). His kingdom would be so peaceful that it would even alter the nature of predatory animals (11:6-9). He would not just be the King of Israel, but when He comes, all the nations will seek “the root of Jesse” (11:10). This description is an innertextual clariﬁcation of the King as described in Isa 9, giving further details of His peaceful and righteous reign.
Robert Culver has conceded that perhaps Isa 7:13-15 is a diﬃcult passage and hard to identify as messianic without careful reading. However, it becomes clearly messianic “when one continues to the ﬁnal verses of the prophecy,”32 referring to Isa 9 and 11. He adds that reading Isa 7:13-15 within the context of these other passages would cause a reader to “understand that a virgin was someday to bear a very human baby whose very character would be divine.”33 Certainly, the prophet has included these passages in the book of Immanuel, as Isaiah 7-12 is frequently called, to clarify on whom it is that the house of David should pin their hopes. It was the child written about in Isa 7:13-15, namely, the future Davidic Messiah who would be “God with Us.”34
Micah 5:3. The prophet Micah, a contemporary of Isaiah, provides an intertextual conﬁrmation of the messianic reading of Isa 7:13-15. Located in the well-known prophecy of the Messiah’s birth in Bethlehem (Mic 5:2-5), this prophecy is clearly related to Messiah’s birth. It identiﬁes His human origin (“Bethlehem Ephrathah … One will come from you to be ruler over Israel for Me”), His eternal source (“from antiquity, from eternity”), and the time of His coming (“when she who is in labor has given birth”). This last phrase has long been recognized as an intertextual reference to the virgin birth in Isa 7:13-15.35
The passage indicates that Israel will be abandoned (referring to the captivity and exile) until “she who is in labor has given birth” to the son of David. Only after this birth will the remnant of Messiah’s brethren reunite as a nation (they will “return to the people of Israel”). The reason they will be able to return is the glorious reign of the Messiah, of whom it says, “He [this One] will be their peace” (5:5).
Micah 5:2-5 has multiple allusions and references to the Book of Immanuel. Both Micah 5 and Isaiah 7 refer to the Messiah’s birth; both refer to the pregnant woman giving birth; both allude to His divine nature (Micah saying He comes from long ago and the days of eternity, and Isaiah calling Him Immanuel, Mighty God, and Father of Eternity); both Micah (“He will stand and shepherd them in the strength of Yahweh,” 5:4) and Isaiah (9:7; 11:1-10) refer to the glorious reign of the Messiah; both point out that Messiah will be the source of peace for Israel (“He will be their peace,” Mic 5:5; “He will be named … the Prince of Peace,” Isa 9:6).
These many intertextual references are signiﬁcant. If a plainly messianic passage like Mic 5:2-5 36 cites Isa 7:13-15, it shows that the earliest interpretation of Isa 7:14 (and, no less, an inspired interpretation) recognizes the messianic prophecy of the virgin birth.
Matthew 1:23. Matthew’s use of Isa 7:14 in his narrative of the virgin birth has been regarded in a variety of ways: a double fulﬁllment or sensus plenior; an example of typical fulﬁllment; a pesher interpretation;37 or even a misuse of Isaiah who, they allege, was not referring to the virgin birth in any way at all. However, it appears to me that Matthew was following a careful and close reading of Isaiah38 and recognized that the prediction given to the house of David had found its fulﬁllment in the virgin birth of Jesus of Nazareth. Immanuel had come just as prophesied eight centuries earlier. God was with Israel. The inspired words of the apostle Matthew in 1:22 (lit., “Now all this happened in order that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulﬁlled”) make it clear that God’s words to Isaiah in 7:14 had made the particular nature of the Messiah’s birth to the virgin as inevitable as thunder that follows the lightening. Furthermore, to remove the intentionality of this connection is to deny the truthfulness of Matthew’s words.
THE VIRGIN BIRTH IN PROCLAMATION
We end where we began. What if Jesus did indeed have a human father named Larry? What if the gospel writers were merely mythologizing to make their message more palatable to pagans? What if Isaiah’s prediction referred to a young woman giving birth to a child via natural means in eighth-century BC Judah? According to some, these are insigniﬁcant questions. This approach says that faith in Jesus is still the truth even if the virgin birth is questioned or if Isaiah’s prediction of it is explained away as exegetically untenable. But truth is foundational to faith. According to Bell and others, we must believe in Jesus because “it works,” not because it is true. In fact, Jesus’ claim is just the opposite. According to Him, faith in Him only works because it is a true faith. Moreover, He is the truth.
It appears that according to prophecy, the Messiah’s virgin birth was an essential to be believed for two reasons. First, the virgin birth was to be a major sign to conﬁrm Messiah Jesus’ position as the messianic son of David. If Jesus of Nazareth had a human father named Larry or Joseph, it would prove that He really was not the Messiah. No matter how good a life one could lead by believing in Jesus, it would be a sham. Following Jesus changes our lives because He truly is the Messiah. Second, the virgin birth is in some way related to the deity of Jesus. The prediction foretells that the Messiah would be Immanuel or “God with us.” Luke, when recording the virgin birth, records the angel’s message to Mary: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the holy One to be born will be called the Son of God” (Lk 1:35). Just as Isaiah related the virgin birth to Messiah being God with us, so Luke regards the virgin birth as the basis for Jesus’ being the Son of God, that is, Deity. Foundational to our faith is that God became a man in order to redeem us. Without the virgin birth, we deny the doctrine of Messiah’s deity and lose the truth of His atonement.
Philip Roth’s short story, The Conversion of the Jews, relates the tale of a young Jewish boy, Ozzie, who asked his rabbi about the virgin birth. Retelling his question to his friend, young Ozzie says,
I asked the question about God, how if He could create the heaven and earth in six days, and make all the animals, and the ﬁsh and the light in six days … if he could make all that in six days, and He could pick the six days he wanted right out of nowhere, why couldn’t He let a woman have a baby without having intercourse?39
Ozzie’s point about the possibility of a supernatural birth makes perfect sense. I would go one step further to aﬃrm supernatural revelation. If God could create the world and miraculously enable a young Jewish virgin to have a baby, certainly He could have allowed an eighth-century BC Jewish prophet to predict the ﬁrst-century virgin birth of the Jewish Messiah.
1. This article is adapted from Michael Rydelnik, “Proclaiming Jesus from the Hebrew Bible: The Virgin Birth as Predicted in the Hebrew Scriptures,” in Proclaiming Jesus: Essays on the Centrality of Christ in the Church in Honor of Joseph M. Stowell, ed. Thomas H. L. Cornman (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2007). Used with permission. A version of it later appeared as Michael Rydelnik, “An Example from the Prophets: Interpreting Isaiah 7:14 as Messianic Prophecy” in The Messianic Hope: Is the Hebrew Bible Really Messianic? NAC Studies in Bible and Theology, ed. E. Ray Clendenen (Nashville: B&H Publishers, 2010), 65–82.
2. R. Bell, Velvet Elvis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005).
3. Ibid., 26–27.
4. Ibid., 27.
5. J. H. Walton, “Isa 7:14: What’s in a Name?” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 30 (1987): 289–306.
6. Ibid., 300.
7. J. J. Davis and J. C. Whitcomb, A History of Israel (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980), 429–34.
8. J. Walton has speculated that Isa 7:10 (“Then the Lord spoke again to Ahaz …”) begins a new setting for the prophecy at a later time and that Isaiah and his son Shear-jashub were no longer present at the conduit of the upper pool. He also cites a number of sources both supporting and rejecting this conjecture (“Isa 7:14: What’s in A Name?” 289). J. Oswalt correctly aﬃrms that 7:10 is a continuation of Isaiah’s meeting at the upper pool. He writes that the word “again may merely indicate a second part of a single conversation, vv. 3-9 being the promise and vv. 10, 11 the challenge (cf. Gen. 18:29; etc.). There being no evidence of a change in time or location, it seems best to see the paragraph as a direct continuation of vv. 1-9” (The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 1-39, New International Commentary on the Old Testament [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986], 204).
9. A merism is a ﬁgure of speech in which “the totality or whole is substituted by two contrasting or opposite parts.” See R. B. Zuck, Basic Bible Interpretation (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1991), 151.
10. English cries out with the need for a second-person plural. Hence, the southern colloquialism “Y’all” or the Brooklynese “Youse.”
11. An implication is that the sign oﬀered in vv. 13-15 was no longer intended to encourage Ahaz to have faith since he was now under judgment. Note the prophet’s change from “your God” in v. 11 to “my God” in v. 13. See J. A, Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1993), 84. 12. See the discussion of the word “sign” or “’ot” in D. L. Cooper. Messiah: His Nature and Person (Los Angeles: Biblical Research Society, 1933), 36–37. R. L. Reymond maintains that since “the referent of the word ‘sign’ in verse 11 clearly is of that order lends strong credence to the presumption that, when God declared in verse 14 that He Himself would give a ‘sign’ since Ahaz had refused to ask for one, the words that then followed upon His declaration that He would give a ‘sign’ also entailed the miraculous” (Jesus, Divine Messiah: The Old Testament Witness [Ross-Shire, Scotland: Christian Focus, 1990], 24).
13. E. J. Young not only cites these verses but also shows that the Ras Shamra literature does the same (Studies in Isaiah [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1954], 159–60). The word “hinnê” is a deicitic particle whose function is generally to call attention to what follows. It occurs ﬁrst in Gn 1:29 calling attention to God’s announcement of His abundant provision of food for Adam and Eve and thus serving as an important part of the context for the temptation narrative in Gn 3.
14. Walton “alumim” (entry 6596), in New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, vol. 3, ed. Willem VanGemeren (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 417, has made the case for translating almah as “young woman.” His strongest argument is that when used as an abstract noun in Isa 54:4, alumim (“youth”) is used with “a metaphorical attribution of this term to Israel, she is also described as having a husband (v. 5) and of being barren (v. 1). In parallel phrases the ‘shame’ of her [‘alumim] is paired with the shame of her widowhood.” He maintains that this “would suggest a close connection with childbearing,” thus concluding that the word does not indicate virginity. However, a closer look at Isa 54:4 will demonstrate that while Israel is indeed being spoken of ﬁguratively as a woman, the promise the Lord is making is that “you will forget the shame of your virginity (‘alumim) and the reproach of your widowhood you will remember no more.” The contrast is between Israel’s youth (before she married, hence a virgin) and when she was a widow (again with no husband, after she married). Isaiah’s usage of the abstract noun ‘alumim would seem to indicate virginity.
15. See Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, and C. A. Briggs, Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1906), 761.
16. C. H. Gordon, “Almah in Isaiah 7:14,” Journal of Bible and Religion 21 (1953): 106.
17. For example, see E. E. Hindson, Isaiah’s Immanuel (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1978), 67–68. G. Delling (TDNT 5:826-37) maintained that the word parthenos did not yet mean “virgin” when the LXX was translated. While this is questionable, the Isaiah translator clearly understood almah as a virgin and so rendered the feminine singular adjective harah (“pregnant”) as a feminine singular verb (“will conceive”). Surprisingly, most interpreters miss what has long been seen as an attempt by the translator to come to terms with the “diﬃculty” of a “pregnant virgin” in Isa 7:14.
18. This is the view of Hindson, Isaiah’s Immanuel, 38–39, and also D. Hubbard, who describes it as “the positive picture of romance.” Proverbs (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1989), 465–66. W. McKane, while denying that almah means “virgin,” interprets the proverb as referring to the “irresistible and inexplicable attraction which draws together the man and the woman.” Proverbs: A New Approach (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1970), 658.
19. For a more thorough discussion of the meaning of almah, see R. Niessen, “The Virginity of the in Isaiah 7:14,” Bibliotheca Sacra 546 (1980): 133–50.
20. In response to the proposal that if Isaiah had wanted to stress the girl’s virginity, he would have used the word bethulah, see G. J. Wenham, “Bethulah A Girl of Marriageable Age,” Vetus Testamentum 22 (1972): 32548, who points out that virginity was not a necessary element of the semantic content of bethulah any more than it is with the English word “girl.” He also argues, “It is not until the Christian era that there is clear evidence that bethulah had become a technical term for ‘virgin.’” Motyer concludes that almah suited the task of expressing virginity better than bethulah (The Prophecy of Isaiah, 84).
21. The antimessianic bias is readily apparent in the great Jewish biblical commentator Rashi, who interprets almah as “virgin” in Song 1:3 and 6:8 but argues for “young woman” in Isa 7:14. This same bias motivated Aquila in his second-century Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, changing the LXX parthenos to neanis (young girl).
22. This vision explains why Isaiah speaks of a future event in the present tense.
23. Some have objected to Matthew’s use of this passage in the birth narrative (Mt 1:23) because Mary did not name the child “Immanuel.” However, “Immanuel” is not the given name of the Messiah. Rather, it was to be seen as a symbolic, descriptive throne title. Similarly, David’s son was given the name Solomon, but his descriptive royal title was “Jedidiah” or “Beloved of the Lord” (2Sm 12:24–25).
24. See Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah, 86.
25. Reymond, Jesus, Divine Messiah: The Old Testament Witness, 31–34.
26. “The ‘butter and honey’ serve as ﬁgures for an oppressed land: natural rather than cultivated products; cf. vv. 22-23 … Fulﬁllment: the moral growth of Jesus, learning to distinguish between good and evil (cf. Luke 2:40, 52), yet in a land that was aﬄicted—as it worked out historically, by the Romans and no longer ruled by the dynasty of David.” J. Barton Payne, The Encyclopedia of Biblical Prophecy (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1973), 293.
27. The two Hebrew words, kiy beterem, are only used twice in the Hebrew Bible, and the other use, in Isa 8:4, may indeed be causal. However, the causal nuance does not make sense here. Both the NIV and NLT (ﬁrst edition) recognize the contrast with the translation “but before.” Calvin and more recently R. Vasholz (“Isaiah and Ahaz: A Brief History of Crisis in Isaiah 7 and 8,” Presbyterion: Covenant Seminary Review 13 : 82–83) recognized the adversative phrase kiy beterem as signaling a new and diﬀerent boy under discussion. Oswalt argues to the contrary, “It is not necessary to separate v. 16 from v. 15; in fact, the opening ki of verse 16 can be taken as causal, indicating why the child will eat curds and honey: Judah will be delivered from her neighbors’ threat” (The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 1–39, 213). However, the causal nuance makes no sense if the butter and honey represent the food of oppression, as it plainly does in the next paragraph. How would Judah’s deliverance explain why the child would eat butter and honey, the food of oppression?
28. Calvin and R. Vasholz, “Isaiah and Ahaz: A Brief History of Crisis in Isaiah 7 and 8,” 83, maintain that 7:16 begins a second prophecy but that it is not a particular boy but a generic child, leading to the idea “but before a boy grows old enough to refuse evil and choose good.” To come to this view they must claim a generic use of the article, which is not supported by the context. D. L. Cooper (Messiah: His Nature and Person, 150–51) and A. Fruchtenbaum (Messianic Christology [Tustin, CA: Ariel Press, 1998], 37) have recognized that the boy is Shear-jashub, but they mistakenly, and without syntactical warrant, begin his description in 7:15, seeing only 7:13-14 as referring to the Messiah. To my knowledge, only W. Kelly, An Exposition of the Book of Isaiah (London: Paternoster, 1897), 144–45; and H. Bultema, Commentary on Isaiah, trans. D. Bultema, (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1981), 108, have written that 7:16 begins a second, distinct near prophecy and identiﬁed the lad as Shear-jashub. Kelly states that others hold this view, but he does not give attribution to anyone.
29. Vasholz, “Isaiah and Ahaz: A Brief History of Crisis in Isaiah 7 and 8,” 82.
30. Even C. L. Blomberg, who advocates a “double fulﬁllment” hermeneutic, recognizes that “the larger, eschatological context, especially of Isa. 9:1-7, depicted a son, never clearly distinguished from Isaiah’s [Maher-Shalel-HashBaz according to Blomberg], who would be a divine, messianic king.” That is, the canonical book of Isaiah itself clearly linked, in some way at least, the divine Messiah of Isa 9:1-7, 11:1-10, etc., with the prophecy of a virgin-born son in 7:14. “Matthew could indeed speak of Isaiah’s prophecy as fulﬁlled in Christ. The canonical form of Isaiah was already pointing in this twofold direction” (“Matthew” in Commentary of the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, ed. G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007], 5).
31. While some have objected ﬁnding the deity of the Messiah in the Hebrew Bible, it appears that this is purely circular reasoning. It begins with the presumption that the Hebrew Scriptures do not reveal a divine Messiah. Then every passage that appears to indicate the deity of the future Messiah is dismissed because “the Hebrew Scriptures do not reveal a divine Messiah.” The classic defense of taking Isa 9:6 as referring to Messiah as God is J. D. Davis. “The Child Whose Name is Wonderful,” in Biblical and Theological Studies (New York: Scribner, 1912). For authoritative defense of the Messiah’s deity in the Hebrew Scriptures, see B. B. Warﬁeld, “The Divine Messiah in the Old Testament,” in Christology and Criticism (New York: Oxford, 1921).
32. R. D. Culver, “Were the Old Testament Prophecies Really Prophetic?” in Can I Trust My Bible? ed. Howard Vos (Chicago: Moody, 1963), 104.
34. Moreover, the author also provides an innertextual reference between the Messiah of Isaiah 11 and the Suﬀering Servant of Isa 52:13–53:12. Just as the Messiah “the root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples” (Isa 11:10), He would also be compared to a “root out of dry ground” (Isa 53:2). When all the innerbiblical dots are connected in Isaiah, it serves to inform the reader that (a) the future son of David would be the virgin-born Immanuel (Isa 7:13- 15); (b) He would be God in the ﬂesh (Isa 9:6); (c) He would reign over a righteous and peaceful, eternal Kingdom (Isa 9:7; 11:1-10); and (d) He would only accomplish this after His substitutionary death and resurrection (Isa 52:13–53:12).
35. N. Snaith, while denying the messianic interpretation of both Isa 7:13-15 and Mic 5:2-5, has recognized that Micah is indeed referring to the Isaiah passage (Amos, Hosea, and Micah [London: Epworth, 1960], 95). Snaith admits that Mic 5 is referring to the birth of a great king who, as heir to the Davidic throne, would be endowed with remarkable qualities.
36. Certainly some have disputed that Mic 5:2-5 is messianic and have regarded it as nothing more than hope for the restoration of a Davidic king. Nevertheless, the messianic interpretation is ancient and well established. It is only those interpreters with a presumption that the OT has no messianic hope at all who seem to reject the messianic interpretation of Mic 5:2-5; cf. K. L. Barker, “Micah” in Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, NAC 20 (Nashville: B&H, 1998), 95–103.
37. Evangelicals who hold this view would consider this rabbinic-style, creative exegesis under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
38. Some might object that the careful reading available to Matthew was not understandable to Ahaz, who might be considered “the original audience” of this prophecy. This objection fails to understand the nature of the Bible as a text. While Ahaz did receive this prophecy in a particular time and place, all we have is a textual record of that event in the composition known as the book of Isaiah. Thus, Ahaz is not the original audience of the book of Isaiah but a character in the inspired narrative written in the book. The audience of the book is eighth-century BC Judah, to whom a careful reading of the visible compositional strategies was available. They could read it in context with Isa 9 and 11 just as any reader of the book of Isaiah can after them. In other words, what was available and understandable to Matthew was also available and understandable to the original readers.
39. P. Roth, “The Conversion of the Jews,” in Goodbye Columbus and Five Short Stories (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), 140–41.