Textual Tuesdays: Isaiah 7:14

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by Shane Scott

The prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 is a very controversial passage for two reasons. First, there is disagreement regarding the meaning of the Hebrew term almah in 7:14. It is translated “virgin” in the ESV but could also be translated “a young unmarried woman.” Second, there is debate regarding the time frame for the fulfillment of the birth of Immanuel. Several verses (7:16; 8:8b, 10) seem to suggest that Immanuel would be born in the immediate future. When we come to the NT, however, Matthew teaches that this was a prophecy of the virgin birth of Jesus (1:22-23), using the specific Greek term for virgin, parthenos.

So, was Isaiah speaking about a child in his day, Jesus, or both? I think a key to understanding this and many other prophecies is the concept of typology. A type is a category. And within that category there can be greater or lesser examples. For instance, “son” is a category. Israel had a father-son relationship with God (Ex. 4:22-23). However, Israel was in most respects a very poor son (Hosea 11:1). Jesus was also a son, but he was the ultimate example of what a son should be. This is why Matthew can say that Jesus “fulfilled” Hosea 11:1 – not because he was the only son God had, but because he was the ultimate model of what a son should be. Just as the Oscars have a category like “Best Picture” in which there are several nominees but one outshines them all, biblical types or categories also have several representatives, but it is the Messiah that best exemplifies the category (whether it is “son, “servant,” “temple,” etc).

It seems to me that this is what is going on in Isaiah 7:14. The prophecy (or category or type) is of a son whose name indicates the presence of God. And Isaiah’s own sons indeed indicated God’s presence, either in judgment (Maher-shalal-hashbaz – “the spoil speeds, the prey hastens”) or redemption (Shear-jashub – “a remnant shall return”). But these were only secondary models of the ultimate son whose birth would indicate God’s presence. And while Isaiah’s sons were important examples of signs from God, neither of them could begin to match the description of the ultimate son found in Isaiah 9:1-7.

And that is what Matthew is teaching in his gospel. He is showing that for the category of “Son Whose Name Indicates God’s Presence,” the supreme representative is Jesus. And the proof of this is the unprecedented miracle of the virgin conception by the Spirit. This was the sign that Jesus was the ultimate “Immanuel.” And Matthew shows us throughout his gospel that Jesus is indeed “God with us,” bracketing the prophecy of Isaiah at the start of the gospel with the promise of Jesus at the end of the gospel – “And behold, I am with you always” (28:20).