A Virgin Shall Conceive
“Lo, Your Salvation Comes” – The Messiah in Isaiah Special Series
Isaiah 7 is well known as the chapter wherein the virgin birth of Jesus is foretold. But it is less frequently remembered that immediately after the prediction of a son being conceived and born (7:14), chapter 8 reports that a son was conceived and born. It turns out that the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14f is more like the one in 2 Samuel 7:12ff than it is like the one in Micah 5:2. Micah 5:2 pointed to the coming Messiah and nothing else, and this was manifestly evident from the beginning. But Isaiah 7:14 was not an immediately recognizable prediction of the coming Messiah. Like the 2 Samuel 7 prediction of David’s descendent who would build the Lord’s house, which first had application to Solomon who foreshadowed the Christ, Isaiah 7:14-16 is a prediction of a near term event that occurs in chapter 8 and which foreshadows a distant event, the birth of the Messiah to a virgin.
Ahaz, an idolatrous king of Judah, had come to the throne in about 735 B.C. as a co-regent with his father, Jotham. Perhaps a year later Ahaz was being threatened by an alliance between Pekah, King of Israel, and Rezin, King of Syria (2 Kings 16:5, Isaiah 7:1). Those two kings had conspired to defeat Ahaz and install someone named Tabeel as king in Jerusalem. Ahaz’ desire was to seek assistance from Tiglath-Pileser, the King of Assyria. And in fact, he would end up doing just that (2 Ki. 16:7).
Pekah and Rezin would indeed both be dead within two years. The Assyrians would defeat Syria and kill Rezin in 732 B.C. (2 Ki. 16:9), and they would capture much of the northern part of Israel and take the people of that area captive (2 Ki. 15:29). In the same year, Pekah would be assassinated by Hoshea.
Isaiah also told Ahaz that within 65 years, “Ephraim” (representing the northern kingdom, cf. Hos. 4:17, 5:3-14, 6:4, etc.) would be shattered so as to be no longer a people. In about 722 B.C., Samaria would fall to the Assyrians and the people of the land would be sent into exile. Then later, during the reign of Essarhaddon who died in 669 B.C. (65 years after Isaiah’s meeting with Ahaz), what had been the territory of Israel would be repopulated with other peoples whom the Assyrians had conquered (2 Kings 17:24ff, Ezra 4:2). Ephraim was utterly shattered.
A child conceived after the meeting between Isaiah and Ahaz could have been no more than a toddler by the time Pekah and Rezin were dead and Syria and the northern regions of Israel captured. He could have been no more than 11 or 12 by the time Samaria fell and all Israel was carried away.
But there is a warning given to Ahaz: “If you will not believe, you surely shall not last.” In 7:17ff, Isaiah elaborated upon this. Ironically, the very Assyrians from whom Ahaz sought help would become the greater threat.
All of this is found in Isaiah chapter 7. And then chapter 8 begins with the conception of a child. Isaiah “approached the prophetess and she conceived and gave birth to a son” (8:3).
We are told that Isaiah and the sons given him by the Lord were “for signs and wonders in Israel” (8:15). The name of this new son would be an ominous sign. The Lord specified that he should be named Maher Shalal Hash Baz, meaning, “Hasten, Spoil, Quick, Booty.” According to Is. 10:6, the Assyrians would come hastening for shalal (spoil) and baz (booty).
And again, as in Is. 7:16, so here in 8:3, the time frame is indicated: “for before the boy knows how to cry out ‘My father’ or ‘My mother,’ the wealth of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria will be carried away before the King of Israel” (8:4). By the time this child was a toddler, Damascus had fallen to the Assyrians who killed Rezin, and in Samaria, Pekah had been replaced by Hoshea, while the northern regions of Israel had been plundered by Assyria. Furthermore, Hoshea began sending wealth to the Assyrian monarch as tribute year by year (2 Kings 17:4). The wealth of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria was being carried away.
But Isaiah had told Ahaz that Assyria would become a threat to Judah as well, and the name of the child speaks to this threat also. Assyria is represented by the Euphrates River (8:7), which would not only overwhelm Syria and Israel, but would sweep on into Judah, reaching up even to the neck of Judah (8:8). And in fact, the Assyrians did sweep into Judah, taking the fortified cities of Judah (46 of them according to Sennacherib’s annals), and even threatening Jerusalem before being turned away by the angel of the Lord who slew 185,000 Assyrian soldiers overnight (Is. 37:36f, 2 Ki. 19:35f).
It is in the foretelling of these events that we see another name that is also a sign: Immanuel, “God with us.” We see two names for one child―the first, “Hasten, Spoil, Quick, Booty,” an ominous message indicating coming judgment, and a second, “God with us,” a reassuring message for the faithful remnant.
But the full import of Isaiah’s words are realized in Jesus, who would be born of a virgin in the distant future. Here we must consider the meaning of the word translated virgin, for while Jesus was certainly born of a virgin, Maher Shalal Hash Baz was not. For that reason alone, some will suppose that Maher Shalal Hash Baz cannot be in view in Is. 7:14.
“VIRGIN,” the Hebrew ‘almah
The word translated virgin is ‘almah. There is not so much disagreement in the understanding of the word itself as one might suppose. Different opinions arise primarily when other than lexical factors are brought into view, e.g., what bearing Matthew’s quotation has. But even among those scholars who believe Isaiah 7:14 emphasizes virginity, it has generally been conceded that such a meaning is not derived from the word itself. Delitzsch wrote, “It is also admitted that the idea of spotless virginity was not necessarily connected with ‘almâh (as in Gen. xxiv. 43, cf. 16)...” (217) Young wrote, “We are far from asserting that this word is the precise equivalent of the English ‘virgin’. It rather seems to be closer to words such as ‘damsel’ or ‘maiden’, words which most naturally suggest an unmarried girl.” Machen, who wrote the famous defense of Jesus’ virgin birth, wrote, “It may readily be admitted that ‘almah does not actually indicate virginity, as does bethulah; it means rather a young woman of marriageable age.” (288)
Besides Is. 7:14, there are 8 occurrences of ‘almah in the OT. In two the plural form alamoth is possibly a technical term in connection with music. At 1 Chron. 15:20 we see “harps tuned to alamoth,” perhaps meaning “in accordance with maiden’s voices,” i.e., soprano, or perhaps “by a choir of maidens.” Similarly, in the superscription of Psalm 46:1, we see “set to Alamoth.”
In Gen. 24:43, ‘almah is used of Rebekah. Yes, Rebekah was a virgin, but it is not the word ‘almah that tells us this. We know that she was a virgin because she was described as a bethulah (24:16). It is generally acknowledged that bethulah is the word that comes closest to the English “virgin.” Furthermore, Rebekah’s virginity is more explicitly indicated by the words, “no man had had relations with her” (24:16).
It is also worth noting that in verse 43 where Abraham’s servant uses the word ‘almah, he is describing the words of his earlier prayer. The first account of that prayer (24:12-14) has the word na’arah (girl) where the second account has ‘almah. It would seem then that a stronger argument could be made from Gen. 24:43 for associating ‘almah with na’arah than with bethulah. In other words, ‘almah speaks more to gender and age than to virginity.
In Ex. 2:8, ‘almah is used of Miriam. “So the girl went and called the child’s mother.” There is no reason so assume that Miriam’s lack of sexual experience is in view here.
In several passages where ‘almah is used, there is little reason to argue one way or the other about the virginity of the women in view. At Ps. 68:25, we read, “The singers went on, the musicians after them, in the midst of the maidens beating tambourines.” Song of Solomon 1:3 has, “Your name is like purified oil; Therefore the maidens love you,” and Song of Solomon 6:8 has, “There are sixty queens and eighty concubines, and maidens without number.”
The word is found in Prov. 30:19 where the meaning of the whole passage is difficult to discern, but certainly, understanding ‘almah to mean young woman suffices.
The masculine form of ‘almah is ‘elem, which clearly does not indicate virginity. 1 Sam. 17:56 has Saul referring to David as ‘elem, and in 1 Sam. 20:22 the lad whom Jonathan would send to fetch the arrows as a signal to David was referred to as ‘elem. “In neither of these cases is the sexual chastity of the individual a viable issue.” (Walton, 292)
Dan King catalogued the treatment of ‘almah in the various Hebrew lexicons and found “virgin” given as a meaning in only two of twelve. He further noted that in those two, it was offered only as a secondary meaning. Moreover, those two were 19th century lexicons, and King discussed the reasons for the greater reliability of more recent lexicons. (King, “A Plea for Sanity...,” 668)
“VIRGIN,” the Greek parthenos
The Septuagint rendering of ‘almah in Is. 7:14 is parthenos (the same word used in Matthew 1:23). But this does not prove that the Jewish translators saw a virgin birth in the passage. In the first place, parthenos does not always indicate virginity. parthenos is sometimes used of “unmarried women who are not virgins.” (Greek-English Lexicon, Liddell, Scott, Jones). According to BDAG, parthenos is used “gener. of a young woman of marriageable age, w. or without focus on virginity,” although in the New Testament and “other early Christian literature” it is said to be used of “one who has never engaged in sexual intercourse.” In Pindar’s Pythian Odes, Coronis, who is pregnant by Apollo and has incited his jealousy by infidelity with Ischys, is referred to as a parthenos. And in the Septuagint rendering of Gen. 34:3, parthenos is twice used of Dinah who was no longer a virgin.
Nonetheless, the Septuagint translation likely reflects a supposition on the part of the translators that a virgin was in view―after all, a young, unmarried woman would ideally be a virgin―but not necessarily a supposition she would still be a virgin at the time of the birth. The Septuagint uses future tense verbs, “will conceive” (en gastri hexei; v.l. lēmpsetai), “will bear” (texetai), and therefore the thought could easily have been that the prophet envisioned a woman who was then a virgin, who would marry and conceive naturally.
Some suppose the quotation in Mt. 1:23 determines the meaning of ‘almah in Is. 7:14. Payne, who sees only a reference to Jesus in Is. 7:14, says of Matthew’s citation, “it simply is not right to use a verse that is not about a virgin birth to substantiate a virgin birth.” (Payne, 77) But Matthew is not citing Is. 7:14 so much to substantiate a virgin birth as to reveal that the virgin birth which he otherwise substantiates was prophesied in the O.T.
Moreover, we can not say Is. 7:4 is not about a virgin birth any more than we can say 2 Sam. 7:12-16 is not about Jesus. The virgin birth may not have been the chronologically first application of Is. 7:14, but certainly the Lord had the virgin birth in mind as the ultimate application.
Payne’s concern seems to be that Matthew’s credibility suffers if whatever Matthew meant by virgin was not the meaning in Is. 7:14. But Matthew’s use of Isaiah 7:14 is consistent with the Lord’s intent even if Isaiah himself did not fully understand that intent. God certainly had in mind the birth of a Messiah to a virgin, an extraordinary birth foreshadowed by a more prosaic birth in Isaiah’s time. Old Testament characters and events that had messianic import were sometimes described in language that had one meaning with reference to the OT character or event, and another meaning with reference to Jesus.
The Double Entendre of Messianic Shadows
Sometimes the meaning of such language was less literal in its OT application and more literal with reference to Jesus. The language of 2 Sam. 7:14, “I will correct him with the rod of men and the strokes of the sons of men,” has reference to Hadad the Edomite, Rezon, and Jeroboam, adversaries whom God raised up against Solomon ( 1 Kings 11:14, 23, 26). But the same language is true in a much more specific and literal sense with reference to Jesus (Mt. 26:67, 27:25).
David said his enemies pierced his hands and feet, divided his garments, and cast lots for his clothing, all of which were figurative descriptions of his own suffering. Though Absalom was taking everything David had―his kingdom, his palace, his wives―we read nothing of lots being cast for David’s clothing. But David foreshadowed Jesus, whose hands and feet were literally pierced, and whose clothing was literally divided. The soldiers literally cast lots for Jesus’ tunic.
Sometimes the language even seems somewhat ill suited to the OT character or event that is in view. Delitzsch argues that Isaiah must not have been referring to his own wife for if that had been his intention, by choosing to refer to her as hâ’almâh (the maiden) “he could hardly have expressed himself in a more ambiguous and unintelligible manner” (217). That, however, fails to take into account the language of foreshadowing. When God told Abraham to take his son and offer him as a sacrifice, He referred to the son as “your son, your only son whom you love” (Gen. 22:1). In fact, Abraham had another son, Ishmael. While it is true that one could explain the language by noting that Ishmael was the son of a handmaid, and was not to be Abraham’s heir, and was now gone away, still it seems apparent the Lord spoke as He did not because it was the most appropriate language to describe the immediate referent, namely Isaac, but because it was the most appropriate language to be recognized later as referring to the unique Son of God, whom Isaac foreshadowed.
If God determined that a virgin would conceive conventionally and would foreshadow a virgin who would conceive without knowing a man, and if he revealed this event in such ambiguous language that perhaps even the OT prophet himself did not comprehend the full meaning, how is Matthew to be faulted for identifying the full import of the prophet’s words? Matthew’s integrity is no more to be faulted here than when he described the flight to Egypt and wrote, “This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Out of Egypt I called My Son.’”
Matthew’s integrity is no more to be questioned than that of the writer of Hebrews, who makes application of other sayings from this section of Isaiah, applications beyond what is obvious in Isaiah. In Is. 8:18, Isaiah says, “Behold, I and the children whom God hath given me are for signs and wonders in Israel.” The first part of this statement is quoted in Heb. 2:13 as Jesus’ words. Immediately before this, in Is. 8:17, Isaiah says, “I will even look eagerly for him.” The Septuagint translates, pepoithōs esomai ep’ autōi (I will put my trust in him). Although these words are also found in 2 Sam. 22:3 and Is. 12:2, given that the Hebrew writer will immediately quote Is. 8:18, we can hardly imagine he did not have in mind Is. 8:17 when he quoted the Septuagint translation. In Isaiah 8:17, it is not at all clear that these are the Messiah’s words. They are Isaiah’s words. But the writer of Hebrews puts them in Jesus’ mouth. Isaiah was a prophet. He and his sons were signs. What he said, the names he gave his sons, these things ultimately pertained to the Messiah. Matthew reveals this.
The argument has often been made that this particular context requires a sign that was an extraordinary event, which the conventional birth of Maher Shalal Hash Baz was not. Alexander argued that a natural birth “does not afford such a sign as the context and the parallel passages would lead us to expect” (170). The factors often thought to call for some extraordinary sign are the following:
Of course, when Ahaz declined to ask for a sign as deep as Sheol or as high as heaven, it was within the Lord’s prerogative to give no sign at all, or to give a sign of whatever nature the Lord himself might choose.
But there are two further responses to this argument: (1) The sign given was not the birth itself, and (2) a sign may indeed consist of nothing more than the accomplishment of what was promised.
Regarding the first point, the sign given to Ahaz was neither the conception nor the birth of the child. The conception and birth of the child were the prelude to the sign. The sign was the diet of the child and the relationship of that diet to the threat, and the fact that the lands of the kings whom Ahaz feared would soon be forsaken.
The significance of the diet, the curds and honey, is debated. And it is also difficult to be certain of the relationship between the diet and removal of the threat. Does the diet indicate scarcity (Delitzsch, Alexander, Leupold) or abundance (Young)? Would the condition prevail until the lands of Syria and Israel were forsaken, or by the time they were forsaken? But we need not understand the precise relationship of the diet to the Syro-Ephraimite threat to understand the point―the lands of the two kings would soon be forsaken. Regarding the plan of the two kings, Isaiah had said, “It shall not stand nor shall it come to pass.” Their lands being forsaken would be the sign that Isaiah’s words were from God.
Regarding the second point, a sign was not always a dramatic, conspicuously supernatural demonstration of divine power. Sometimes it was simply the accomplishment of what God had promised. As Jeremiah would later say, “when the word of the prophet shall come to pass, then that prophet will be known as one whom the Lord has truly sent.” The sign God gave to Ahaz was that when a certain child, yet to be conceived, was old enough to refuse evil and choose good, the two kings Ahaz feared would be gone, their land forsaken.
This was the sort of sign that the Lord would later give to Ahaz’ son, Hezekiah. When the Assyrians threatened Jerusalem during his reign and he prayed to God for help, Isaiah brought God’s response, assuring Hezekiah that God would turn the Assyrians back and send them home. And there was a sign: “Then this shall be the sign for you: you will eat this year what grows of itself, in the second year what springs from the same, and in the third year sow, reap, plant vineyards, and eat their fruit” (Is. 37:30ff, 2 Kings 19:29ff). In other words, when you are once again able to cultivate the fields surrounding Jerusalem, you will realize that the predicted deliverance had been accomplished by God.
We may also think back to the sign God gave Moses after telling him he was sending him to Pharaoh to bring Israel out of Egypt. God said, “this shall be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God at this mountain” (Ex. 3:11-12). The sign would be the accomplishment of what God had promised. The sign was the realization of what had been promised. This is the sort of sign the Lord gave to Ahaz.
If Isaiah’s words were to be a sign to Ahaz or to the house of David at that time, what they would have understood Isaiah to mean is germane. Let us imagine that in Jerusalem at that time, it could safely be assumed that an unmarried woman was a virgin (an assumption that is perhaps charitable given what we know about that society from Is. 3:16-23; 4:4; Hos. 4:13-14; and Amos 2:7-8). Let us imagine that we live in that society and that the prophet announces that he has seen a vision of a maiden, pregnant, and soon to bear a child who will be called Immanuel, and before he is old enough to distinguish between good and evil, the threat from Syria and Israel will be gone. Even if, as Young insists, the maiden be unmarried, would we not suppose that this maiden will evidently be getting married very soon and will soon thereafter conceive? The language of Is. 7:14 would not have led anyone at that time think of a child being born without a human father.
Let us summarize the reasons for concluding that Isaiah must have first had in view the prophetess of chapter 8 and her son, who had two names, Maher Shalal Hash Baz and Immanuel:
· The close connection in the text. Contrary to the punctuation found in many Bibles, we should understand Isaiah’s message to Ahaz to continue through the end of chapter 7. Immediately thereafter, the text turns to the Lord’s instruction that Isaiah write on a tablet, “Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz.” Then verse 3 says, “So I approached the prophetess and she conceived and gave birth to a son,” and according to the Lord’s word, Isaiah named him Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz. This name, “Hasten, Spoil, Quick, Booty,” connects the predicted Assyrian conquest of Syria and Israel (7:14-25) with the child of chapter 8.
· The similar references to the fall of Syria and Israel in terms of the child’s infancy or youth. The Lord speaks of the son in a manner similar to the prophecy of Is. 7:15, “before the boy knows how to cry out ‘My father,” or “My mother,’ the wealth of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria will be carried away before the king of Assyria.
· The association of the name “Immanuel” with the child. The words of Is. 8:5-8 are closely connected with Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz inasmuch as they develop the meaning of his name, the speedy judgment coming by means of the Assyrians (cf. Is. 10:5ff). But these words, so closely connected with Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz, are addressed to Immanuel. The Lord describes the Assyrian advance into “thy land O Immanuel” (8:8), using the name of the child as given in Isaiah 7. Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz and Immanuel are one and the same, one name indicating God’s coming judgment the other indicating God’s comforting presence (cf. 8:10) with the faithful remnant. Among those who have advocated this interpretation are Wolf (454f), Milligan (115), Oswalt (213).
· Isaiah said his sons were signs. Chapter 7:14-16 tells of a sign related to the birth of a son. Chapter 8 tells of the birth of a son to Isaiah, and Isaiah says, “I and the children whom the LORD has given me are for signs and wonders in Israel...”
So then in Is. 7:14, almah refers to “the prophetess,” whom we may assume was a virgin inasmuch as she was young and therefore likely not a widow. And yet there is no hint that she would remain a virgin until giving birth. In fact, Isaiah “approaches” her and as a result she conceives. It is not implausible that though Isaiah had already been married (he already had a son), he was taking a second wife. Or perhaps Isaiah had become a widower before approaching “the prophetess.”
But as is the case with other messianic prophecies that first have OT events or people in view, the details as realized in the foreshadowed life of the Messiah are not identical to their OT counterparts. In fact, their realization in the life of the Messiah presses the prophetic language to service beyond what was needed in the first realization. While the OT describes a young woman, presumably a virgin at the time of the prophecy, who would marry and bear a child who would signify God’s presence, in the NT a young woman who would yet be a virgin when her child was born would bring into the world a son who would himself be God with us.
Whether or not Isaiah understood the full import of his words in 7:14, he must have understood the messianic significance of his ensuing words in chapters 9-11 as their focus turned more and more pointedly to the Messiah rather than to the 8th century child who would foreshadow him.
Ahaz’ fear of the Syro-Ephraimite plan (and the impending Assyrian threat of which Ahaz was ignorant) became an opportunity for God to announce his own plan, not only his immediate plan, but also his eternal plan. As God’s faithful could then say to their enemies, we can now say, “Devise a plan but it will be thwarted; State a proposal, but it will not stand, For God is with us” (Is. 8:10).
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Curry Melvin. “‘Plea for Sanity on Isaiah 7:14’ —A Response (Part I)” Guardian of Truth. 26:25 (Nov. 4, 1982): 671-673.
___________. “‘Plea for Sanity on Isaiah 7:14’ —A Response (Part II)” Guardian of Truth. 26:25 (Nov. 4, 1982): 674-676.
___________.”A Rejoinder to Dan King.” Guardian of Truth. 26:25 (Nov. 4, 1982): 680-681.
Danker, Frederick William, editor, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd edition, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.
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Gordon, Cyrus H. Ugaritic Literature, A Comprehensive Translation of the Poetic and Prose Texts. Rome: Pontificium Institutum Biblicum, 1949.
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Hengstenberg, E. W. Christology of the Old Testament, Vol. 1. McLean, Virginia: MacDonald Publishing Company.
Hindson, Edward, Isaiah’s Immanuel, a critical study on the meaning of Isaiah 7:14. http://18.104.22.168/~bible/theology/books/hind/isim-Index.html. 2/26/05.
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Machen, J. Gresham. The Virgin Birth of Christ. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1930.
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Payne, J. Barton. “Right Questions About Isaiah 7:14.” The Living and Active Word of God: Studies in Honor of Samuel J. Schultz. Edited by Morris Inch and Ronald Youngblood. Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 1983.
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Reymond, Robert L. “Who is the המלע of Isaiah 7:14?” Presbyterion: Covenant Seminary Review. 15:1 (Spring 1989): 1-15.
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Young, Edward J. “The Immanuel Prophecy, Isaiah —7:14-16.” The Westminster Theological Journal. 15:2 (May 1953): 97-124.
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 Wolf, who does see a reference to a child in Isaiah’s own time in Is. 7:14, is an exception. He concludes that ‘almah means virgin on the basis of a comparison of Hebrew with Ugaritic. But in regard to Isaiah 7:14, he says, “This does not mean, however, that the mother was a virgin at childbirth.” (Wolf, 455) Wolf sees a wedding and consummation taking place in Is. 8:1-3.
By Jeff Smelser
From Expository Files 22.22; February 2015