posted on Dec, 14 2013 @ 11:16 AM
This is the season of the year when people will be quoting what is probably the best known prophecy in the whole of the Old Testament;
“Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Immanuel”- Isaiah ch7 v14 (RSV).
But this prophecy is addressed to two different groups of people, with a meaning for each group.
The more familiar application is Matthew’s quotation about the birth of Jesus.
At the same time, though, like all the Biblical prophecies, this prophecy was meant to have meaning and value for the people of the prophet’s own
I’ll try to use their understanding of the prophecy to throw light on the New Testament version.
This prophecy is first spoken at a time when two enemies of Judah have occupied the land.
Isaiah calls them “two smouldering stumps of firebrands.”
One of them is Rezin, king of Syria.
The other one is Pekah the son of Remaliah, king of Israel.
He had been the previous king’s captain, until he had taken the throne of Israel by conspiring against his master, along with fifty men of the
“He slew him in Samaria, in the citadel of the king’s house; he slew him and reigned in his stead”.- 2 Kings ch15 v25
(However, there is no need to grieve for Pekahiah the son of Menahem, whose family had come to the throne in exactly the same way)
These two men have entered into alliance and agreed their war-aims;
1) Let us go up against Judah and terrify it.
2) Let us conquer it for ourselves.
3) Let us set up the son of Tabe-el as king in the midst of it. (Isaiah ch7 v6)
At the time of the prophecy, they have got about half-way through this programme.
They have conquered most of the territory. Their combined armies have been strong enough to drive the people of Judah back into Jerusalem and hold
The prospective puppet-king is probably sitting among the rest of the camp-followers, waiting hopefully to be called to his new duties.
They’ve already achieved their first objective, though, with resounding success.
Judah is duly terrified.
“When the house of David was told “Syria is in league with Ephraim”, his heart and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest
shake before the wind”- v2.
Isaiah intercepts Ahaz, the king, in the middle of one of his rounds of inspection, and tries to rouse his courage;
“Take heed, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint…If you will not believe, surely you shall not be established”- vv3-9
But Ahaz is clearly stunned and despairing, like the French Cabinet in 1940.
He is too depressed even to take up the offer of requesting a “sign” from the Lord.
So Isaiah loses his patience (“Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also?”) and gives him a sign anyway.
The “sign” is that a child will be born.
But the birth of this child is not the real focus of the prophecy.
The birth merely sets the clock ticking towards a deadline when the main prophecy itself will be fulfilled.
The deadline is defined as “by the time the child knows how to refuse evil and choose the good”.
There’s a similar prophecy in the next chapter about the expected son Maher-shalal-hash-baz, who may be the same child.
In that case, the deadline is defined as “before the child knows how to cry ‘My Father’ or “’My Mother’”.
These look like two different ways of saying the same thing, that the prophecy will be fulfilled within a year or two years after the birth, at the
The prophesied event itself is described in v15- “He shall eat curds and honey”.
Isn’t that a wonderful promise?
If you’re tempted to ask “What do they gain from learning the contents of a baby’s breakfast?”, you’ll be missing the point.
The presence of food, glorious food, means that the siege will have been lifted.
Otherwise there was a real prospect that the baby’s nourishment would have been sucking on his mother’s dress while the adults nibbled at the legs
of the furniture.
“Curds” means access to milk, and therefore to cows, and therefore to the open field.
“Honey” implies the same freedom.
While the combination offers the larger sense of a restoration to the land “flowing with milk and honey” which God promised to Moses.
In short, the besieging armies will have gone away.
Isaiah also makes this promise more explicitly.
He’s already pointed out that the two “lands” which the people of Judah are dreading so intensely are really dependent upon two individuals.
Before long, the individuals will be dead and the lands themselves will be deserted.
For the Lord will send for the king of Assyria, who will sweep them all away like a river in flood.
We can go back to Kings for the fulfilment of this prophecy;
“The king of Assyria marched up against Damascus and took it, carrying its people captive to Kir, and he killed Rezin”- 2 Kings ch16 v9
The same happened in Israel. The king of Assyria came and captured Galilee and the territory of the tribe of Naphtali and took many people into
When this kind of thing happens, the people of the land tend to think that the king is not doing his job.
Soon afterwards, Hoshea the son of Elah “made a conspiracy against Pekah the son of Remaliah, and struck him down and slew him and reigned in his
stead”.- 2 Kings ch15 vv29-30
As for that unscrupulous adventurer, Pekah the son of Remaliah, he was effectively the step- father of the prophecy “a woman shall bear a child”
and never knew it.
He must have lived and died without guessing that his petty political ambitions would give rise to the most famous prophecy in the entire Bible.
The New Testament use of the prophecy is well-known.
Matthew changes the emphasis by selecting the words about the child’s birth, making them the main focus of the prophecy, and applying them to the
birth of Jesus.
In quoting the text, he uses the Greek word for “virgin”, as found in the Septuagint.
He finds this apt for the tradition about the birth of Jesus which he shares with Luke.
We will find the real essence of this prophecy by looking at what the two applications have in common.
Firstly, the prophecy is God’s response to a threat from a dangerous enemy.
In Isaiah, the danger is represented by the combined armies of Israel and Syria.
We should be looking, then, for a “dangerous enemy” to provide the occasion for Matthew’s reference.
The New Testament as a whole makes it clear that the danger does not come from any human enemy, not even the Romans.
The real enemy is that whole complex of sin-and-death which was introduced in the events of Eden.
“The last enemy to be destroyed is death”- 1 Corinthians ch15 v26
Secondly, the prophecy is a promise that God will save his people from their danger.
In Isaiah, he saves them by striking at the power of the hostile kings.
The corresponding promise in the gospel is that he will “save his people from their sins” (Matthew ch1 v21), and he will do this by striking at
the power of sin.
That is the fundamental theme of the New Testament.
Thirdly, the God who gives the promise is calling for faith.
He tells his people to trust him and not to be afraid.
“If you will not believe, you shall not be established”.
Finally, in both cases, the sign of the promise of salvation is the birth of a child.
Since the birth of that child is the evidence that God is at work, that child might well be named Immanuel- which means “God is with us”.