In Isaiah 7, the Lord presents to us a prophecy that we know well. We see it quoted in Matthew 1 and we think about it a lot at Christmas time. This is the prophecy regarding the virgin conceiving and bearing a son.
But I fear that many Christians are so far from knowing the history of Israel and Judah that they miss what the prophecy originally told us. That lack of knowledge for many opens us up to a couple of errors that can slip in and leave us vulnerable to attacks from those who would attempt to attack the faith.
First, the history. There are some simple facts you must have if you are going to understand the prophecy in its original context. The nation of Israel, the people of God, was divided into two nations around the year 930 BC. The northern kingdom, comprised of ten of the original 12 tribes of Israel, was often identified as Israel, Ephraim, or Joseph. The southern kingdom continued to be ruled by descendants of King David, and was known as Judah for the most part.
When Isaiah spoke to King Ahaz in the southern kingdom during the 8th century BC, Judah was being threatened by a combined force. The northern kingdom was allying with the nation of Syria to come and attack the southern kingdom. This was a major threat, and the king of the southern kingdom was terrified. But Isaiah came to tell Ahaz that this was not going to be a problem. Syria and Israel would not conquer Judah. The Lord would not let that happen. And, quite soon, God would bring the nation of Assyria into the picture to deal with both threats.
With all that in mind, read the prophecy now.
14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. 15 He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16 For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted. 17 The Lord will bring upon you and upon your people and upon your father’s house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria.”
The prophecy is simple, but it uses an interesting illustration to show the king how short the time will be until the Lord fulfills his promise. For a moment, do not hang up on the word “virgin.”
A woman will be pregnant and have a child. Before that child is old enough to know between good and bad, the threat to the southern kingdom will be gone. So, within a couple of years, the thing that is terrifying the people of Judah is going to be wiped out by the sovereign hand of God working through the Assyrians. And, so you know, God did exactly what he promised.
Why is this important? There are two things we need to learn from this about the Bible and about interpreting prophecy that will protect us today. And, that is all beside the fact that we see, in this prophecy, that god, the Sovran One over all, is able to tell us exactly what the future holds and to use anyone he chooses to accomplish his will.
First, note that prophecy in the Old Testament can have more than one type of fulfillment. This prophecy had both an immediate and a future fulfillment. Isaiah’s words to King Ahaz were fulfilled in less than five years. A child was born. Before that child was old enough to make moral decisions, Judah was free from the threat of the Syrian and northern armies.
Second, in order to help us understand how that prophecy could be fulfilled in the years of Isaiah, we do need to know that the Hebrew word here translated “virgin” can mean simply young woman, and it does not have to imply physical virginity. In Isaiah’s case, it looks like the word is a reference to Isaiah’s wife whom we see have a son in Isaiah 8.
Wait! Does that mean that those who would attack the New Testament claim of the virgin birth have a leg to stand on? Nope. You see, even though this word is a word that could mean young woman in Hebrew, when Matthew wrote it in a citation of the prophecy, under the inspiration of God’s Holy Spirit, he used a word that means virgin in the way we understand and use it today—virgin, not just young woman. Plus, when you read the accounts of Matthew and Luke, there is no question whatsoever that these biblical authors are intending to communicate to us that Jesus was conceived of the Holy Spirit and literally born of a woman who was literally, physically a virgin. So, that Hebrew word in Isaiah 7:14, a word with a broader semantic range, in no way speaks against the truth of the way that Matthew claims the prophecy with a Greek word with a more narrow semantic range. Mary was a virgin when Jesus was born. And all this was by the miraculous working of our holy God.
When you understand the two facts I just mentioned, the Isaiah 7 prophecy and those who try to oppose its application to Jesus make far more sense. Prophecies can have an immediate and a later fulfillment. Isaiah spoke of his wife and, as we see in Matthew, of a virgin to arrive centuries later. And the glorious way that God inspired the prophecy makes it apply perfectly to both.