Does Isaiah 7:14 speak of Messiah or is this verse being used out of context? Isaiah 7:14 is often connected with Matthew 1:23 to demonstrate that (Yeshua) Jesus is the promised Messiah from the house of David. Nevertheless for hundreds of years, this has been challenged on two grounds. Firstly, is this prophecy about Messiah, or a sign to King Ahaz, or might it include both? Secondly, is the word ‘virgin’ in Isaiah 7:14 an accurate translation, and why wasn’t the word ‘betulah’ rather than ‘almah’ used if ‘betulah’ could be proved to be a more accurate term for ‘virgin’?
Geographical context-The rulers of Judah, Syria, Israel and Assyria
Rezin, king of Syria and Pekah, king of Israel went up to Jerusalem to make war against King Ahaz who was ruling Judah. The Assyrian Empire was increasing in power and threatening the smaller kingdoms. Since Ahaz refused to side with Rezin and Pekah to defend themselves against the Assyrians, they devised a plan to take Jerusalem and set a king over them. Nevertheless, the Lord sent Isaiah to encourage and help Ahaz who was terribly afraid of the attack.
Historical Context-King Ahaz
King Ahaz was anything but a good king. 2 Chronicles 28 and 2 Kings 16 reveal He worshipped Baal and burned his children in the fire and 2 Chronicles 28:19 epitomises ‘for he had encouraged moral decline in Judah and had been continually unfaithful to the Lord’. It was no surprise that Ahaz didn’t trust the Lord and would sacrifice anything or anyone and would rather make alliances even with his enemies than trust God. He even gave some of the treasures from the house of the Lord, though Tiglath Pileser King of Assyria didn’t help him but only caused him distress.
The meeting-Isaiah, Isaiah’s son and King Ahaz
The Lord sent Isaiah with his son to meet Ahaz at the city aqueduct since Ahaz would most likely be checking the valuable water supply before the siege. The reason for Isaiah’s son being present is explained in Isaiah 7:15-17. Isaiah assured Ahaz not to fear and to be calm, explaining that the kings of Israel and Syria who he likened to two stubs of firebrands (a modern equivalent may be two cigarette butts of little power or use) would try to force a gap in the wall and set up the son of Tabel as king over them, though that most certainly wouldn’t come to pass. Not only that, Ephraim (the Northern Kingdom) would be shattered within sixty-five years. Furthermore, if Ahaz refused to believe he wouldn’t be established either.
A sign offered
If that wasn’t clear enough for Ahaz, the Lord offered him a sign either in the depth or height above. Suffice to say, it was a remarkably gracious, rare and magnanimous offer, which he refused. Ahaz said that he wouldn’t test the Lord, referring to Deuteronomy 6:16, though his actions betray his motives. Initially, it might be considered a humble, pious or even godly response, but it was far from that. His scornful, sarcastic refusal was in line with his mishandling of scripture to suit his own ends.
The prophecy to the house of David
King Ahaz had made a desperate situation only worse. Since Ahaz refused to ask for a sign, Isaiah immediately shifted the focus to the house of David. The house of David and Judah was being put at great risk because of the lack of faith on behalf of Ahaz, so the Lord would give him a sign. “Behold the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son and then shall call His name Immanuel.”
Was the correct word for virgin used in Isaiah 7:14?
Was Matthew correct in connecting this prophecy with his statement in Matthew 1:23 or was it the case that if Isaiah 7:14 had meant ‘virgin’ the word ‘betulah’ as opposed to ‘almah’ would have been used instead? It is noticeable that on the seven occasions that ‘almah’ is used, it is never with reference to a married woman. That isn’t disputed. Though some are of the view that ‘betulah would have been used rather than ‘almah’ if it were meant to be understood as ‘virgin’ from Isaiah 7:14.
Michael Brown notes that in the NPJSV, (the most popular Jewish version), where betulah occurs at least 50 times, ‘betulah’ is translated ‘maiden’ rather than ‘virgin’ 31 times[i]. Motyer adds that 12 uses of betulah are metaphorical, 14 are general and 21 cases would be assumed to be a virgin and demonstrates how the terms ‘betulah’ Genesis 24:14, 16 and almah in Genesis 24:43 are brought together concerning Rebekah[ii]. Significantly in his commentary, Rashi understands Song 1:3 as rendering a virgin[iii] when ‘alma’ is used though in Isaiah 7:14, no doubt because of the controversy didn’t consider ‘almah’ to mean ‘virgin’ but young woman in that instance[iv].
How did Matthew interpret Isaiah 7:14? From the outset his genealogy goes to great lengths to demonstrate the Davidic line through to Yeshua. In Matthew 1:18-25 there is no question that Mary was a virgin with child and he uses the word ‘virgin’ in Matthew 1:23 when he quotes Isaiah 7:14. Some may question whether Matthew was either selective or forced the connection, though it is evident that the Septuagint composed by seventy Jewish scholars and written in Greek two centuries previously, used the word ‘parthenos’ meaning virgin. In addition, Luke is a writer who has had the names, places and rulers of his accounts scrutinized with fastidious examination, also used the words ‘virgin’ and ‘virgin’s’ with reference to Mary in Luke 1:27. Like Matthew, everything in Luke 1:26-38, lends itself to the fact that in their immediate context she was considered a virgin.
Fulfilment of the first sign to Ahaz Isaiah 7:15-17
Sometimes it is easy to become so engrossed in prophecy and identifying fulfilled events or ones not yet fulfilled, that one forgets the immediate context and what happened previously. Isaiah brought his son with him, Shear-Jashub meaning ‘a remnant shall return’ (referring to their people returning to Jerusalem) as assurance to Ahaz and the house of David. In Isaiah 8:18, Isaiah declared that he and his children were for signs and wonders in Israel. His other son was called Maher-shalal-Hash-Baz meaning ‘hasten the booty’. The meanings of both their names were significant with reference to events that occurred in the then near future. Before Shear-Jashub was old enough to know right from wrong and choose to do right, the land which they dreaded would be forsaken by both her kings. In other words, the two smoking firebrands would be snuffed out and the Lord would use Assyria to achieve that.
The wider context
This passage contained a personal message to King Ahaz and
also a Messianic prophecy. Almah is a perfectly reasonable translation when the
use of this word is considered in all its other contexts within the Tanakh. This
astonishing prophecy was delivered in Jerusalem and Messiah will return there
(Zechariah 14:4). Yeshua the Messiah was born of a virgin in Bethlehem from the
tribe of Judah (Isaiah 7:14; Micah 5:2) and will reign on the throne of David
(Isaiah 9:6-7). Israel and Judah will be united and worship the Lord together
(Ezekiel 37:15-28). Gentile nations shall seek Him and worship Him too (Isaiah
60:1-22). The Saviour dwelt among us and will return once again to Jerusalem as
Immanuel-God with us. The question now though is, have you turned to Yeshua in
repentance, are you trusting in Him and
are you following Him?
[i] Michael Brown Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus Volume 3 (Baker Books, 2003: Grand Rapids), p21
[ii] Alec Motyer Isaiah (IVP, 1999: Leicester), p78-79