The Promise of a Saviour-KingA time of tragedy had come over Judah. Like the wings of a great bird of prey, so the kings of the Assyrian conqueror overspread the land. It was a day of darkness, but at this time a prophet bearing the symbolical name, "Salvation is of the Lord" appeared upon the scene. So God deals with His people. In times of deepest darkness, when all about seems to give way, God appears with His salvation. The presence of this one prophet would direct the attention of the believers to God their true King and only hope.
Edward J. Young
Volume VIII -- Number 1
All Rights Reserved
The Cincinnati Bible College & Seminary
It was a day, not merely of darkness, but of deep darkness, such as had not come over the world since the time when men united to make a name for themselves at Babel. God had destroyed the old, wicked world by a flood, and at Babel men thought they saw the necessity for uniting themselves and becoming one. In such union there could be strong opposition to the progress of God's work upon earth. Hence, men built the tower, and this was to be their means of salvation. This means of salvation, however, actually became one of destruction, for God scattered men abroad upon the face of the earth and confounded their tongues so that they could no longer understand one another. Consequently, individual nations arose, and with them individual religions. In such a climate the kingdom of God, the theocracy, could survive and grow. A concentrated hostile unity would be a greater threat to the theocracy than would individual, particular nations, each seeking to protect itself from the other. Likewise, many religions and many forms of worship would not constitute as great a threat to the truth of God as would one powerful, man-controlled religion in which man himself was glorified.
In Isaiah's day, however, the spirit of Babel was beginning to reassert itself. Perhaps it did not exercise that self-consciousness which characterized Babel, but it was an ecumenical spirit nevertheless. And, if at the beginning the spirit of man may not have been completely self-conscious as to its intentions, it soon became so. For God characterized the spirit of Assyria thus: "For he saith, By the strength of my hand I have done it, and by my wisdom; for I am prudent; and I have removed the bounds of the people, and have robbed their treasures, and I have put down the inhabitants like a valiant man; And my hand hath found as a nest the riches of the people; and as one gathereth eggs that are left, have I gathered all the earth; and there was none that moved the wing, or opened the mouth, or peeped" (Isaiah 10:13,14). And later, in characterizing the haughtiness of the Babylonian king, the same prophet remarks, "For thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north: I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High" (Isaiah 14:13,14). It was clear enough that that spirit which strove to form mankind into one mighty centralized empire which would engulf also the theocratic nation, knew perfectly well what it was doing.
The Historical Background
Daniel represents this great human power, this mighty attempt at an ecumenical kingdom, under the form of a colossus and also of four beast which arise from the sea. It is with the first of these beasts, or with the head of gold of the colossus, that the prophet Isaiah has to do. This head of gold was interpreted by Daniel as referring to Nebuchadnezzar himself, and the lion with eagle's wings which arose from the sea represents the Babylonian empire. In Isaiah's day this Babylonian empire in its culminating form had not yet appeared upon the scene of history. It was in its embryo form. The rising Assyrian power would culminate in that of Babylon, for essentially the two were one. It was the Mesopotamian power as such which initiated the kingdom of man and which was to prove such a great threat to the kingdom of Judah.
Among a variety of individual nations and individual religions the Mesopotamian power began its great rise. As it sought to capture other kingdoms, so also it wished to capture Judah. For the theocracy was to it no different from other kingdoms. "Is not Calno as Carchemish? is not Hamath as Arpad? is not Samaria as Damascus? As my hand hath found the kingdoms of the idols, and whose graven images did excel them of Jerusalem and of Samaria, shall I not, as I have done unto Samaria and her idols, so do to Jerusalem and her idols?" (Isaiah 10:9-11). Judah was one of these individual kingdoms. In the time of Moses, God had chosen his own people to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation unto him. They were to exhibit His righteousness and to be reigned over by a king who would be a true representative of the righteous and holy Jehovah. As a matter of fact, however, they did not act like the theocracy. They acted like the nations round about them. Judah was ripe for destruction.
Thus the central or pivotal point of history between Moses and Christ had come. The old order of scattered, individual nations was passing, and a new order was making itself felt. Where would the people of God stand in this time of severe testing? Would they act as the true theocracy, the light to lighten the Gentiles, or would they succumb to the kingdom of man? Israel and Syria to the north wished to resist the Assyrian king and wanted Judah to side with them. The three together might have constituted a strong buffer state between Egypt and Assyria. Together they might have been able to withstand the uprising and oncoming Assyrian, but Judah, in the person of her king, Ahaz, was unwilling.
What was the nature of this revival of Babel's spirit? It manifested itself not in the desire to erect a tower reaching to the heavens, but in the establishment of a universal kingdom such as the world previously had never seen. All the kingdoms of the earth were to be included in one large empire, an empire human in origin and entirely man centered. In this empire there would be no place for the God of Israel.
The beginnings of this great kingdom are found in the work Tiglath-pileser III (745-727 B.C.), who was probably a usurper. He first turned his attention to Babylon, building there a palace and settling there peoples of other conquered lands. Following this he looked toward the northeast, and there practiced cruelties. Of one of the kings whom he fought, he says, "he escaped like a mouse through a hole, and no one saw him again." From the inscriptions which he has left behind, we may learn much of the character of this king. He was cruel, and he boasts in his cruel deeds.(1)
It was to be expected that he would direct his attention toward the west, and that he did, first coming to Syria and taking tribute from Rezin of Damascus and Menahem of Israel. In 733 Damascus took the lead, joining with Israel in opposition to Syria. It was this coalition which Judah was invited to join. Uzziah apparently had been opposed to Assyria, but Ahaz was not. Syria and Israel therefore were threatening Ahaz; indeed, they had already come to Judah and taken him captive, only free him later at the instigation of Oded, the prophet. Now they were determined to remove Ahaz from the throne and to place thereon one who would be in agreement with their policies, a Judean prince named, Ben Tab'el.(2)
When Ahaz heard this news, his heart trembled, we are told, like the shaking of the trees of the forest from before the wind. What was there to do? Would not the course of prudence dictate that one should appeal to Assyria for help? With the mighty Tiglath-pileser on his side, Ahaz would have nothing fear from the two northern kings. It was thus a crucial time, this period midway between Moses and Christ, and in this crucial time the people of God, or rather, the faithless leader of these people, made the wrong choice. Therefore, Judah must learn her lesson.
It is at this point that we begin the consideration of our text and it is a desperately troubled king of Judah that we meet. Well he knew that the two northern powers meant business; if he did not go along with them; they, so he thought. would simply remove him from the throne. Ahaz did not realize that the two northern kings, Rezin of Damascus, and Pekah of Israel, could not carry out their threat. He did not actually know the true situation, and yet he was willing to call upon the help of Assyria. At this moment the Lord commands Isaiah to go out from the city and to meet Ahaz where he is.
Isaiah and Ahaz
Ahaz is at the end of the ascent of the upper pool, where the fuller's field was. These fullers were men who cleaned cloth, treading upon it, beating it and kneading it in cold water. It is really not possible to identify the upper pool, although various proposed identifications have been made. What is clear is that Isaiah is to meet Ahaz at a definite geographical spot, and here to declare to him the Word of God. In the hour of man's extremity, God is truly ever present with His aid. Hence, we must keep in mind that the message which Isaiah is to deliver is one that stands out against the dark background of the times. Would the universal kingdom of man include and destroy the kingdom of God, the theocracy? Was the king of Assyria the true hope of the nation Judah? Over against all such considerations Isaiah is now ready to present to his people the true king, the divine Immanuel. Thus, he would remind the nation of the ancient promises which God had made to it, and point them to the faithfulness of the promising and covenant-keeping God.
First of all he issues a word of great practicality and comfort. Ahaz is trembling, but Isaiah is not, for when one has the word of God he need not fear what man can do to him. Therefore, Isaiah with calm boldness declares to the king that he has nothing to fear. The two northern enemies, those whose purpose it had been to depose Ahaz from the throne, will fail of their purpose. Their strength is played out, and their power to harm is gone. "The two tails of these smoking firebrands," Isaiah designates them. It is almost a designation of contempt. Just as wood which has burned and is now charred has lost its strength, so these two kings have lost their power to hurt. One of the kings is Rezin of Damascus; the other Isaiah does not even bother to mention by name, merely referring to him as the son of Remaliah. And what a contrast this introduces. The throne rightly belongs to a son of David, yet a son of Remaliah wishes to take that throne from its rightful owner. From the son of Remaliah the son of David has nothing to fear.
At the same time, despite the fact of this assurance, Isaiah is not merely suggesting that Ahaz hearken to his words; he is speaking with the voice of divine authority. "Be quiet, fear not, let not thy heart be soft." It is wrong to be afraid, when here is no reason for fear, and if God be with one, there is no reason for fear. How striking this picture is! Outside the city walls of Jerusalem stands a trembling king, a king who in all probability has gone out to examine the water supply in the upper pool. A practical king who is too busy for "religion" and for the commands of a prophet. Yet withal, a trembling mg, a king afraid of enemies that have no strength left to carry out their purposes. Before this trembling king stands another man, a man of courage and confidence, and with him his on, Shear-jashub, and this man of courage commands a king. Is it not the prerogative of a king to command? Yet, here a prophet dare to face the king and to command in the name of the Lord.
And there is reason for this holy boldness of Isaiah. The situation in the world will continue as it is, for God has revealed to the prophet that the purposes of the two kings will not be carried out. Syria's capital is now Damascus, and thus it will continue to be without the addition of the territory of Judah. Obviously Syria is the more prominent of the two adversaries, and for that reason is first mentioned. Again, however, Isaiah does not mention by name the king of Israel, merely dismissing him as "son of Remaliah." Surely this message is sufficiently clear for Ahaz to understand, and Ahaz' reaction makes it evident that he did understand but did not believe. It was a message for Ahaz, but also for all the court of David.
Hence, the prophet again addresses them all, and goes to the very heart of the matter. "If you will not believe," he declares, "it is because you are not established." While these words have been the subject of various interpretations their basic meaning seems rather clear. "If you will not believe this clear message which I have declared to you," we may paraphrase the thought, "it is because you are in such a condition that you cannot believe. You are in a condition of unbelief; you are not made firm so that you can manifest your firmness in belief." The original contains a play upon words, for the same root appears both in "believe" and "be established." In this context "to believe" is equivalent to accepting as true the message which Isaiah is presenting and to act in accord with that message. To believe would be to show oneself or to manifest oneself as firm with respect to the word of prophecy which in itself is a sure word. This Ahaz would not do, for the gifts of constancy and steadfastness of which faith is the fruit were lacking in him.
Thus it becomes necessary to speak with greater boldness to the unbelieving prophet. That all doubt may be ruled out and that Ahaz may know for a surety,-although he actually had no reason for knowing that the message of Isaiah is true, the prophet, in God's name, commands the king to ask for a sign. Again the prophet commands the king, and this time the command involves far more than the regulation of his own attitude. This time the king is commanded to ask for a sign. This sign is to be for his own benefit; it is to be such a sign as would convince him beyond the shadow of a doubt that he must trust the words of Isaiah. "Make deep the request, or make it high above," declares the pr6phet. And the choice of the sign is placed in the king's own hands. It is of course true that in itself a sign need not be a miracle. God had once spoken to Moses, "This shall be the sign unto thee that I have sent thee; When thou hast brought forth the people out of Egypt, ye shall serve God upon this mountain" (Exodus 3: 12b). In this particular instance the sign obviously was not a miracle. In the present context, however, we are led to think of something miraculous. Had Ahaz asked, for example, that the sun be darkened, or that the earth open its mouth, or that some great storm arise, it is what we might expect. We are led to look for a sign of the nature of the recession of the shadow on the dial of Ahaz. The choice lay in the king's hands; the performance of the miracle would have been the work of God alone.
At this point it is necessary to remark about the goodness and longsuffering of God toward the unrepentant king. In the Old Testament God manifests His mercy to those who reject
His will in that He makes abundantly plain to them what he wishes of them. Thus, in effect, the Gospel is proclaimed to them, that they may know precisely what it is that the Lord God requires. To Cain, God spoke clearly. "If thou doest well"
He had said, but Cain did not wish to hear His voice. Likewise Pharaoh He had sent Moses and Aaron. Pharaoh knew just what it was that God sought from him, but Pharaoh had no desire to obey His voice. And so it is with unbelieving Ahaz, this rebellious, hypocritical king, the Lord reveals His word with a genuine clarity. The matter was now in the king's hands, ask for thine own benefit a sign."
This Ahaz would not do. He had no intentions of hearkening the words of the prophet, for he was the type of so-called practical man who believes that he can get along well enough the problems of life without the help of God. Indeed, some commentators have defended him. They have pictured him as man of practical wisdom, concerned about the water supply the city and how best to defend that city against a powerful enemy.(3) He was a practical man, down to earth in his outlook and he could not be bothered with the ideas of an impractical dreamer. Isaiah was well meaning, so some seem to grant, but did not have his feet on the ground. At a time such as this men of action were needed, men who saw the dangers which were coming to their country and who would take necessary actions and precautions to avert those dangers. Here then, we are told, stood the practical man and the man of vision.
As a matter of fact, an estimate such as this cannot stand. As a matter of fact, it was Isaiah who was practical, and Ahaz who was impractical. For when one acts in obedience to God's commands he is acting in a practical manner, irrespective of whether he himself may see all the implications of the position which he is adopting. To act upon one's own in contradiction the commands of God is not to be practical; it is to be completely impractical. Thus, Isaiah commands Ahaz to obey God, and to obey God, even in a time of great physical crisis, is a wholly practical thing.
To this Ahaz replies, and his reply shows not only that he is not practical, but far more serious, it shows that he is hypocritical. The nation of Judah, the theocracy, is in the hands of a hypocritical incumbent upon the throne of David! With conscious understanding of what the will of God is, Ahaz rejects that will and declares, "I will not ask, neither will I tempt the Lord." That was that. It was hypocritical defiance coupled with contempt for the revealed will of God. And what made it worse was its false appeal to Scripture. To cover over one's evil attitude with a false Scriptural appeal is to reject the truth in a most heinous fashion. In Deuteronomy 6:16, Moses had charged, "Ye shall not tempt the LORD your God, as ye tempted him in Massah." As though to give the impression that he were obeying this command, Ahaz proclaims, "I will not tempt the Lord." Little did he care about tempting the Lord or manifesting obedience to the Scriptures. Ahaz' one concern was to be rid of this wearisome meddler and to go his own course, confident in his own ability to handle whatever situation might befall his nation.
The Divinely Given Sign
But Isaiah is not satisfied. He rebukes the king and charges him with wearying not merely men, but also God, and at that "my God." With a truly righteous indignation Isaiah speaks in severe terms against this faithless king, and then declares that the matter is now out of Ahaz' hands, for God himself will give the sign. It is necessary to emphasize this fact, for one of the principal objections urged against the Messianic interpretation of Isaiah 7:14 is that if the passage were Messianic it would not constitute a sign to Ahaz. But we must note that nothing is said of a sign to Ahaz. The king has had his opportunity. In most gracious fashion, God has given to him the opportunity of asking for a sign, any sign whatever, we might say. Ahaz has had his time. He has refused to ask and thus has forfeited whatever claim he may have upon a sign. The Bible does not say that God will give a sign to Ahaz. In verse eleven the singular had been employed; here, however, in verse fourteen it is the plural. To you--i.e., to all who are here who listen to the promise; to you the sign is given. The address is general, as later the prophet spoke; "Unto us a child is born," or when the angels declared, "Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour which is Christ the Lord." To hold then that Ahaz has some claim upon a sign is to misread the prophecy. Ahaz has rejected his opportunity and turned his back upon the gracious gospel invitation of the Lord. As a true prophet Isaiah speaks and in words of great beauty and mystery proclaims the sign which the Lord Himself will give. "Behold!" he declares, "the virgin is with child and will bring forth a son and she shall call his name Immanuel." Thus the prophet directs the eyes toward the birth of the One who will bring God to His people and who will be their true salvation. In place of the King Tiglath-pileser, the Lord will send a child upon whose shoulders the government will rest.
The first word of the prophecy, "therefore," sums up, as it were, what has preceded. We may paraphrase the thought "Inasmuch as you Ahaz, in hypocritical fashion, have rejected the gracious offer of the Lord to ask for a sign, the Lord Himself will now give you a sign." It is thus the background of Ahaz' rejection that is prominent here. Inasmuch as he had rejected the sign offered of the Lord, it was necessary that the Lord Himself offer a sign. But we may note that the matter now is entirely removed from the hands of Ahaz. The sign is one which only the Lord will and can give. And it is the Lord (adhonai) who gives that sign. Isaiah does not employ here the covenant name of God, but rather that word which designates the Lord as the sovereign one. It was the word which designated the one who appeared to the prophet in vision, seated upon a throne high and lifted up. The Lord, adhonai, was He who possessed all power and who could bring to pass His almighty will. Therefore, He it is that gives the sign, for the sign is something completely out of the ordinary; it has to do with the very purposes of God in the salvation of His lost people. It is to be a sign that will bring comfort to them, and such a sign can be given alone by the One who has the power to grant it.
The Lord, therefore, is the one who will give the sign, and this He does to those who are standing about, ready to hear His voice. In the strange language of prophecy, we are probably to understand the "to you" as applying to those who are obedient to the word of God, those who will be the recipients of the blessings which the sign will bring with it. It is a sign for the benefit. of such people. Yet how strange that sign is! With one of his favorite words, the prophet introduces the sign, "Behold!" The word is arresting, and is designed to stop the hearer, to arrest his attention and to direct it to the announcement to follow. And it is an important word pointing in Isaiah's usage to an event of great importance. Then follows the sign. It is the virgin with child and about to bring forth a son. The question of course arises how it is possible to see the virgin. Is Isaiah pointing to some one then and there present? Is he merely indicating some young woman who is passing by at the time? There have been those who have held such a view, but it is erroneous, for it does not do justice to the actual language of the prophecy. The introductory word, "behold!" does not necessarily call the attention to any object immediately before the eyes, but may also point to something to occur in the future, and so it is here. It is really to the message itself, the announcement of the birth of the child, that the word "behold!" refers.
As is well known, this passage has been and still is the subject of much dispute and difference of opinion. With the appearance of the Revised Standard Version of the Old Testament a few years ago, the controversy was revived. The objections which today are urged against the Messianic interpretation of the passage are essentially the same as those which have been advanced against it all along through the Christian centuries. As early as the time of Justin Martyr we have a presentation of those views. As will be remembered, in defending the deity of Christ against his Jewish opponent, Trypho, Justin made appeal to this passage. And in reply Trypho said three things. In the first place, he contended, the word `almah did not mean "virgin," but merely "young woman." It should be rendered into Greek, he said, not by the word parthenos but rather by neanis, as the translation of Aquila actually had done. Secondly, the prophecy did not refer to the birth of Jesus Christ, but simply to that of Hezekiah; and lastly, asserted Trypho, among the Greeks there were many stories of virgin births. Thus, in these three assertions, Trypho seems to have anticipated the course of the argument. Among the Jews the opinion gained ground, largely through the influence of David Kimchi, that the Hebrew word 'almah meant a young woman of marriageable age, good or bad, married or unmarried. This view was imported into the Protestant Church through the commentary of Bernhard Duhm, first published in 1892. It is an opinion which has become almost universally accepted among Protestants, although, as we shall seek to point out, it is an opinion without foundation in fact. In addition it has been claimed that if Isaiah had wished to speak of a virgin birth he would have used the word bethulah, for, it is claimed, this word means "virgin."
These arguments against the Messianic interpretation have by no means gone unchallenged, and scholars have refuted them very vigorously. Luther, for example, made the claim that if anyone could show to him that the word 'a~mah ever referred to a married woman, he would give that man a hundred guldens, and then, in characteristic fashion, he added, that the Lord alone new where he would get them. It was a safe offer, and were it made today, it would be just as safe.
In the consideration of this prophecy there are three basic factors which must be taken in to consideration. They are: the birth is a sign; the child is "God with us," and the significance of the name used to designate the mother. We cannot rightly be said to have interpreted the passage until we do justice to those three factors. All too many interpretations have not given to these factors their due. When we have considered these three points we may then examine the passage in the light of its immediate and its wider context.
Three Basic Considerations
First of all, then, the birth is to be a sign. As was remarked earlier the sign in itself need not be a miracle. That the people should worship God at Mt. Sinai was not in itself a miracle, not that the Babe should be found wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, and yet, although in themselves, these were not miracles, they were in the truest sense of the words, signs. The sign, therefore, in itself, need not be a miracle. But to make that acknowledgement does not really help us in the interpretation of the present passage. In this passage we are led to consider a sign that is indeed out of the ordinary. When he offer had been made to Ahaz, it had in no wise been restricted to that which was ordinary. Rather, all restrictions of such a nature had been removed from it, and the field was wide open. "Make deep thy request," or as some would read, "Make it down to Sheol." "make it high above." Thus, Ahaz had his choice. Had he sincerely desired confirmation of the truth of the word of the prophet, he might have asked what he wished. And whatever he wished would have been granted to him. Had he raised his eyes to the heavens above and asked that the sun be darkened, we have every warrant to assume that such a request would have been granted.
In the light of this particular context, therefore, we are to understand the nature of the sign. A sign that was merely taken from the ordinary providential ordering of the world would not seem in this context to be requisite. We are led rather to look for something, as remarked before, like the recession of the shadow on the sundial, something that was out of the ordinary. If such wide latitude had been granted to the king in the asking of a sign for his benefit, why might we 'not expect the same thing for the benefit of God's people. And again, we must further note,. that at this time the prophet was commanding the king to turn his eyes from the Assyrian king and to trust in God. To confirm him a sign was offered of such a nature that the king really would and could be confirmed, and all doubt would be removed from his mind. Why would not God give to His own people a similar sign? Why, at this point, when the hearts of the faithful were in need of being strengthened in faith, would not God give to them a sign of such a nature that their faith would indeed be strengthened? Would He not do for them as much as He was willing to do for the faithless king? The Messianic interpretation presents us with such a sign. The birth of the Christ is a sign that there is nothing to fear from any of the enemies round about. In the coming of the Christ, God has shown His complete power over the forces of nature, and He has also made clear that He indeed rules on high. The Messianic interpretation and that alone gives to us a sign of the nature which we have every reason to expect and accept in this particular context.
In the second place, it is important to stress the significance of the name Immanuel. The meaning of the word is well known, "God is with us." In what sense, however, is this to be understood? How will God be with His people? As we read over the history of Israel we learn that God had often been with His people. In times of crisis and danger, He had not forsaken them, but in a special way had been present with them to sustain and to protect them. He had been with the patriarchs, for example, and He had been with Joseph with the result that Joseph proposed. Joshua's fame spread abroad, because God was with him, and inasmuch as He was with David, the Davidic dynasty was established. In each of these instances and in many other similar ones, God was present with His own in a special, particular manner.(4)
With respect to our present passage, however, there are those who think and assert that God's presence is to be seen in His providential dealings with the nation. Although the argument is presented in different ways, it boils down to this. When Ahaz is freed from the threat of his two northern enemies, then, at that time, the presence of God will truly be seen. The birth of the child on this view is somewhat of a pledge that in the future God will be with His own when He delivers them from the threat of Rezin and Pekah. Is that, however, the meaning of the passage? For one thing, the whole prophecy focuses its attention not so much upon the delivery from the two kings to the north as much as it does upon the child himself. The hope of the nation lies not in the general providential workmg of God as much as it does in the birth of the Child. The heart of the prophecy is found in the Child.
Another point, however, must be stressed, namely, the difficulties which this interpretation entails. If Isaiah's meaning is that God will be with His people in the deliverance from Rezin and Pekah, then, how can one know what child is to be the sign of that deliverance? It will not do with Duhm to make the assertion that mothers generally will call their children "Immanuel" just as at the time of the French Revolution mothers called their children by such names as Liberte, Fraternite and Egalite. If this were the meaning of the passage it would be clear that the children born were not actually a sign at all. At best the child would be but an evidence of the hope that its mother had that a deliverance would come in a few years. No mother could be sure that her particular child was actually the sign that the deliverance was to come; no mother, therefore, would have the right so to name her child. She could never have the assurance that her particular child was the sign intended. At best she could express her hope.
Could not the matter be settled, however, if we simply assume that Isaiah did have some definite child in mind such as Hezekiah or a son of his own? Might not Immanuel be but another name for Maher-shalal-hash-baz, for example? Could. not the birth of some particular child at that time in itself be the sign that God would be with His people in the deliverance which they might expect within a few years? Any child born at that time could be a sign of such a deliverance, could it not? In answer to these questions we must examine the matter more carefully. It would be necessary, first of all to know precisely what child was intended, so that men might be assured that in the birth of a particular child they would have the sign that had been promised. Now Isaiah's language is not sufficiently clear to enable one to indentify any particular child of that time, but it is sufficiently clear, when taken with the other Messianic prophecies of the book to enable one to understand that he is talking of the Messiah. Why does Isaiah designate the child "God with us." Surely this is a strange name. Granted that there were many names in ancient Israel with theophoric elements, names such as Daniel, Elijah, Joel, etc., there is nothing similar to this strange name, Immanuel. Why then, if Isaiah was referring to some contemporary child, does he give to this child the unusual designation Immanuel?
Why too does not Isaiah make clear who this child is to whom he is referring? From the meager data which he gives there is not sufficient warrant for saying that the child is his own. And certainly there is no warrant for saying that the child is Hezekiah, for as Jerome long ago pointed out, Hezekiah had already been born at this time. What warrant would the wife of Isaiah have for calling a child of hers Immanuel, supposing that there were some child born to her in addition to Shear-jashub and Maher-shalal-hash-baz, and assuming that this particular child was the sign intended? And what warrant would the wife of Ahaz have for making a similar assumption about the birth of Hezekiah? For if the sign was to have meaning, not only the mother of the child know by direct revelation from God that her own child is the precise sign intended by God, but the nation generally must also know this fact so that it can properly appreciate the sign. Otherwise, the child might be born and the nation would have no means of knowing, unless further revelation were given to it through the prophet, that one particular child was the sign intended by God.
The Name therefore has reference to the birth of the Child Himself. When this Child, whom Isaiah shortly after designates "the mighty God," is born, then, in the; person of the Child, God will have come to His people. It is not a mere declaration of deliverance to come, when the two kings, Rezin and Pekah, will be removed from the scene; it is rather the infinitely greater and more glorious declaration that God will come to His own in the person of a little Child.
In the third place, it is necessary to pay some attention to the word which Isaiah uses to designate the mother of the child. He speaks of the almah. By this usage of the definite article, it is quite possible that the prophet has in mind one particular almah who is to be the mother of the child. Such an interpretation is perfectly possible, and it has found many good and able defenders.(5)On the other hand, it is also possible, and indeed quite probable, that the prophet employs the article in what may be termed a generic sense. If this explanation is correct, Isaiah is then saying that the mother of the child will not be any woman at all, but only an almah. His purpose, on this construction, is to draw attention to the nature of the mother as an almah. "Not an old woman," we might paraphrase, "not a married woman, not a bride, not a betrothed virgin, not a young woman, not a child, but an almah will be the mother." The more one ponders the force of this interpretation, the more appealing does it become, for it singles out the word almah and causes us to ask why it was that Isaiah chose this particular word to designate the child's mother.
And this is a good consideration, one which cannot be avoided in any serious study of this particular Messianic prophecy. Why is it that, of the various available words in the Hebrew language, Isaiah selects this particular one for a designation of the mother? The answer to this question can be obtained only by a consideration of the words that were at his disposal. Yaldah is the Hebrew equivalent of "girl", and would refer to a child. Certainly it would not be a suitable word. Nor, for that matter, would the word n'aarah, which really signifies a "young woman." It might be noted in passing, however, that if Isaiah had really desired to designate the mother as a young woman, he had a perfectly good word to use, one that would have been free of ambiguity and would have expressed his meaning in a clear-cut fashion. He need only have written n'aarah, and the question would have been settled. The fact that he does not use the word n'aarah is a strong argument to show that he did not merely wish to designate the mother as a "young woman."
Then there is the word kalah, which is used of a bride. Had Isaiah wished to speak of the mother as a bride, this was the word he could have employed. There is however, another word, bethulah, and those who attack the Messianic interpretation often assert that had Isaiah wished to speak of a virgin birth, he had a perfectly good word at his disposal. Why did he not sitnply use the word bethulah, and then all controversy would have been ruled out? At first sight, this looks like an unanswered argument, but it loses its force as soon as one examines the usage of the word bethulah.
First of all, bethulah is not a word that is free from ambiguity. It may indeed be employed of one who is actually a virgin. It was thus so used of Rebekah, but here the explanatory phrase, "and a man had not known her," is added. Thus, the meaning "virgin" is safeguarded. But bethulah does not always signify a "virgin." At times the word is used in a different context. Thus, we may note in the Old Testament the phrase Bethulah. This Me'orasah, a "betrothed virgin." This phrase evidently refers to the girl who had become engaged and would soon be married. In ancient Israel such a status was considered different from what it is among us. In ancient Israel the status of betrothal was practically equivalent to that of marriage. In fact, it is difficult to discern precisely wherein the difference lay. It may be that .the act of consummation in itself often provided the distinguishing factor. On the other hand, we read of the wedding feast at Cana of Galilee. At any rate, whatever the distinguishing feature may have been, the state of betrothal was regarded as closely akin to that of marriage. The laws for infidelity on the part of a betrothed person for example, were similar to those for the punishment of infidelity on the part of married persons. These laws are found in the twenty-second chapter of Deuteronomy. Thus, "If a damsel that is a virgin be betrothed unto an husband, and a man find her in the city, and lie with her; Then ye shall bring them both out unto the gate of that city, and ye shall stone them with stones that they die; the damsel, because she cried not, being in the city; and the man, because he hath humbled his neighbour's wife: so thou shalt put away evil from among you" (Deuteronomy 22:23, 24). Several points call for comment. In the first place we may note that the girl involved is called the "wife" ('ishshah) of a man, and the man to whom she is betrothed is a "husband" ('ish). It was this state in which Joseph and Mary were found. Mary was espoused to Joseph (mnesteuthes); she is called his wife (tes gunaikos) and Joseph is her husband (hoadner). Yet they were not yet actually married. Mary was an "engaged" or "betrothed virgin." Surely, had Isaiah employed the mere word bethulah it would have been difficult to know what he wished to say.
Futhermore, there is another usage of this word, which, would make its presence in Isaiah 7:14 even more ambiguous. It is used of one who is truly a virgin, it is employed of one who is engaged or betrothed, and it is also used of one who has actually been married. This is shown, for example, by Joel 1:8, "Lament like a virgin with sackcloth for the husband of her youth." That this bethulah is married is not open to question. The husband of the engaged virgin is called an `ish in Hebrew; the married husband is called a ba'al, and it is this latter word which is found here in the Joel passage. Upon the basis of this passage as well as of Isaiah 54:1 the Jewish traditions concerning a married virgin have been based. In one of the Aramaic incantation texts, for example, a married woman who is without children recites a charm in hope of obtaining offspring. In this text she is designated a betulta, the Aramaic equivalent of bethulah. And among the Shiite Arabs, the word batul is used for the married woman. From all of this is perfectly clear that had Isaiah employed the word bethulah to designate the mother of the child, he would have been using a most ambiguous word. One could not have been sure what he actually had in mind. Certainly, bethulah, far from being the most suitable word in the language to express the doctrine of a virgin birth, would have been one of the most unsuitable. We can see, then, I think, why Isaiah passed by this particular word.(6)
Why, however, did he choose the word 'almah? The answer is ready at hand, for 'almah is a word which is never used of a married woman. Of all the words listed above, 'almah alone seems to have this distinction. This fact has often been pointed out. In the Old Testament itself the word does not occur frequently, but even these frequent occurrences show that it is not used of a married woman. Dr. Robert Dick Wilson in 1926 made an exhaustive study of the usages of the word outside the Old Testament and came to the conclusion, which has never been refuted, that outside the Old Testament also the word is not employed of a married woman. In 1929 the texts at ancient Ugarit, modern Ras Shamra, were discovered, and these have further light to cast upon the situation. One of these texts (Nikkal and Yarih) describes a wedding between the gods. In proclaiming the wedding, the bard sings of the woman to be married as one who will have a son. "Behold," he cries in language similar to that of our text, "a virgin will bear . . . behold, an 'almah will bear a son . . ." What is of significance here is that the word 'almah, used in Ras Shamra, is employed of the woman only before she is married. After the marriage an entirely different word is used to designate her as a married woman. The results of Dr. Wilson's investagation, then, can be extended to Ugarit. On these texts the word 'almah is never employed to designate a married woman, but only an unmarried one. (All the evidence I have collected in Studies in Isaiah, 1954.)
We are faced then with the fact that Isaiah deliberately chooses a word which never designates a married woman. Why does he do this? What is his point? For now a question arises and we are faced with a dilemma. If the mother is not a married woman, then, either the child is illegitimate, or we have to do with supernatural birth.
To assert that the child is illegitimate is to go contrary to the force of the whole prophecy. Isaiah is dealing with the deepest needs of the human heart. Doubts and fears have settled down over Judah like a black cloud. The army of the Assyrian seems to be the only hope. In such a time as this the prophet would point his nation to the true king. Can we seriously believe that at such a serious time in the history of his people Isaiah has nothing better to say than to point to the birth of an illegitimate child as the sign of deliverance? Let him believe that who will. There is too much that stands in the way of such an interpretation. How, possibly, could such an event be a sign of something that was positively good? It is asking too much to expect anyone to believe that such is what the prophet had in mind.
If, however, the birth is not an illegitimate one, then it would follow that it was supernatural. The mother gives birth to the child, yet the mother is not a wedded woman. There is no human father, for the child is not born out of wedlock. What other possibility is there than to assert that the child is supernaturally born? For this reason, I still prefer to translate the word 'almah in English as "virgin", even though I recognize full well that it is not the precise philological equivalent of the word "virgin." Possibly "maiden" and "damsel" would be satisfactory, yet even those words in English might be employed of a married woman. If there were some English word which was never used of a married woman, it would be the word to employ here in the translation of 'almah. Such a word, however, seems not to exist, and for that reason, I still prefer the translation "virgin."
The sign, then, which the Lord gives to His people is simply the declaration that the Messiah will be born and that His birth will be of a supernatural kind. Matthew is entirely correct in thus interpreting the verse, when he remarks: "Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Behold! a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us" (Matthew 1:22,23). And what greater, more comforting sign than this could there be? Those who truly waited for the consolation of Israel need not fear even the folly of their king, for this dark moment of Israel's history God sent a ray of light, the announcement of the sure birth of the promised Redeemer.
If verse fourteen be a direct prediction of the birth of the Messiah, how are we to interpret verses fifteen and sixteen? The difficulty which these verses present to any interpretation is recognized by all serious students of the passage, and we are far from saying that the view which we are now about to present is free of difficulty. In fact, we fully recognize that there are difficulties in this view. Nevertheless, all things considered, it would appear that this particular interpretation which we wish to present has as much or more to commend it than has any other.
With verses fifteen and sixteen the prophet leaves the realm of direct prediction and makes the infancy of the Messiah the measure of the time that would elapse until the land is forsaken of her two kings. We may paraphrase the thought as follows. "The period of time which elapses between the birth of the Messiah and when he reaches the age of discretion is the same period of time as that which will elapse between the present moment and the time when the land will be forsaken of her two kings." This fact is represented by the usage of symbolical language. During his infancy the Messiah is pictured as eating a symbolical food, butter and honey, and this he continues to do until he reaches the age where he will reject the evil and choose the good, and at such a time, when he does reject the evil and choose the good, the land which the king Ahaz abhors, will be forsaken of her kings. We may acknowledge that this is a strange procedure on the part of the prophet, thus to switch from direct prediction to the usage of symbolical language as a measure for events of the prophet's own time, and yet it would appear that we are compelled to accept such a position, unless we simply say that verses fifteen and sixteen do not refer to the Messiah at all but only to a contemporary child. Such an interpretation, however, must be ruled out, inasmuch as the child of verses fifteen and sixteen must be the same as that of verse fourteen. Grammar would seem to preclude a change of subject between verses fourteen and fifteen. If, then, we do admit that the subject of the three verses is the same, we must also conclude that verses fifteen and sixteen are speaking of the Messiah, the Immanuel of verse fourteen.
If they are speaking of the Messiah, are we to understand them as predicting that the Messiah Will live on a diet of butter and honey until He reaches the age of discretion? If that were Isaiah's intention, it must be noted that the prophecy was then not fulfilled in Christ, f6r our Lord as an infant did not eat such food. Indeed, such food might even be harmful to an infant. Whatever be the precise significance of the phrase "butter and honey," and I incline to the view that this phrase indicates the diet of royalty, the reference would seem to be that here in symbolical fashion there is a reference to unusual conditions. This is not the normal food of an infant. Furthermore, why is this diet mentioned only with respect to the infancy of the Messiah? The answer seems to be that the prophet wishes us to understand that the infancy of the Messiah, represented by a diet of unusual food, is to be symbolical of something. Some have thought that it is symbolical of plenty and abundance, but I incline to think that it is the opposite. The butter and honey, it seems to me, is symbolical of a time of hardship, perhaps even of suffering. Now this period of suffering is not necessarily one which the Messiah Himself will actually experience, but rather, inasmuch as it is so closely tied up with the contemporary situation by the prophet, is to be understood as a period of hardship which Isaiah and his contemporaries must undergo. In other words, we are compelled to the assumption that Isaiah in making the Messiah in his infancy subsist on butter and honey, is using a figurative or symbolic method of stating that there is to be such a period of difficulty a period which will not be long lived, but will pass away shortly, in about the time that it takes an infant to reach the years of discretion.
How long will that be? This is a question which we cannot answer. By the phrase "choosing the good and rejecting the evil" Isaiah may mean to indicate the years of discretion, or he may simply mean the time when a child, instinctively, as it were, knows the difference between good and evil. One thing seems to be clear. It will not be a long time, and herein appears the relevance of the prophecy to Ahaz' day. Soon deliverance will come, and the birth of the Messiah is a pledge of this fact.
Having thus spoken, Isaiah turns directly to the king. There is a further word which must be given to him. Ahaz is to receive that for which he had asked, namely, the king of Assyria. One way in which God sometimes punishes us is to grant our requests. Ahaz had sought the king of Assyria in preference to God; well and good, the king of Assyria he should have. Tiglath-pileser has left behind his inscriptions in which he makes clear how he demanded an absolute obedience from all those whom he conquered. In placing himself under the protection of this Assyrian king, Ahaz was in reality selling not his own soul, but also that of his people. Turning aside from the true God in whom life and liberty were to be found, he had looked to a human king, and this action brought him into slavery. In that fateful moment the destiny of his people had been decided. What Ahaz did brought on the Assyrian king, and made it possible for him to carry out his evil purposes. Now, the colossus of Daniel could be a reality. Now there would be a head of gold, to be followed even by another kingdom, and finally by Rome. And where would the kingdom of God be?
First of all, Judah herself must need learn the lesson of suffering. God had promised to her blessings if she obeyed him, but cursing if she turned aside from him. She had turned aside, and now the curses were about to fall. The exile was to be a reality. Tiglath-pileser III would carry the people captive into distant lands and scatter them abroad from their homes. This was his master stroke. Could anything more effectively destroy Judah completely? And yet God turned this supposedly master stroke to His own glory. One of the most remarkable facts of all history now emerges. The Jews were scattered throughout the then known world. Everywhere they were settled among other peoples, and it would seem that they should certainly lose their own identity.
With them, however, there went the true religion, and this religion they carried wherever they were placed in exile. They practiced this religion.. and it stood out in sharp contrast to the paganism of the world round about. In time there grew up about them a body of people, who in the New Testament are referred to as God-fearers. And when the apostle Paul preached, he found waiting for him a picked audience. Here were people ready to receive the good news about the true King and Redeemer. And thus the church of the living God was established.
"In the days of these kings," said Daniel, "will the God of heaven set up a kingdom." This He did. When Rome was in power, and the kingdom of man was widespread, apparently a universal and eternal kingdom, then the Lord erected His own kingdom; then the Messiah was born of the virgin Mary; then the hope of the nations came, and in Him the promises found their fulfillment. To Israel of old as to us today, He is the only hope, the only Saviour, the only Redeemer. For He is the King of kings and the Lord of lords, and beside Him there is no other.
1. In The Prophecy of Isaiah, I have given a detailed survey of the relations of Tiglath-pileser with Palestine.
2. Cf. W. F. Albright: "The Son of Tabael" in Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, No. 140, Dec. 1955, pp. 34, 5.
3. Cf. A. C. Welch: Kings and Prophets of Israel, London, 1953, p.213.
4. The Scripture references are Gen. 26:2; 28:15; 39:2, 3, 21, 23; Josh. 6:27;
1 Sam. 18:14; 2 Sam. 7:9; 1 Kings 1:37; 11:38.
5. Gressmann, for example, held that in ancient Israel there was a widespread belief that a virgin would have a son. See his work, Der Messias.
6. The evidence may be found in Studies in Isaiah, 1954.
Typed: Daniel Dyke
to the glory of the God of Israel