In our posting ‘Messiah – man or divine?’, I mentioned Rabbi Kaplan’s teaching that ‘the Jewish Messiah is truly human in origin. He is born of ordinary human parents, and is of flesh and blood like all mortals.’ The New Testament is at pains to make clear that there was something very unusual about Jesus’ birth, that he was not conceived in the normal way to ordinary human parents. This unusual conception is seen as the fulfilment of Isaiah 7.14: ‘Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: Behold the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son and shall call his name Immanuel.’
So was Jesus born to a virgin and was this prophesied in Isaiah 7.14?
At a public debate on the issue ‘Was Jesus the Messiah?’ (1), Rabbi Shmuel Boteach stated from the platform that any Christian claiming that Isaiah 7.14 is a prophecy of the virgin birth of Jesus is being intellectually dishonest. This means that Christians have to reject the New Testament, since Matthew makes this claim, quoting Isaiah 7.14 in connection with the birth of Jesus and stating: ‘All this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, ‘Behold a virgin shall be with child, and bear a son and they shall call his name Immanuel,’ which is translated ‘God with us’ Matthew 1.22-23. Although Jesus was never called Immanuel in his public life, he was literally ‘God with us’ Immanuel, having both a human and a divine nature.
Jesus also said that details of his life and ministry are prophesied in the scriptures (i.e. the Tenach or Old Testament):
‘You search the scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of me’
John 5.39. Either Jesus is right and the scriptures written centuries before he came do testify of him, in which case he is the Messiah, and should be listened to, or he is wrong and the scriptures say nothing about him in which case he is deluded and should be rejected.
So in order to be intellectually honest in the eyes of Rabbi Boteach, Christians have to reject the New Testament and the words of Jesus, in which case they don’t have much left to believe in and might as well reject their faith altogether. Why believe in someone who was deluded and had such an inflated idea of his own importance that he thought that words written hundreds of years before he came referred to himself? Why pay attention to a book, which claims that Jesus fulfilled prophecies if he did not? If I were to say that the writings of Chaucer or Shakespeare contain prophecies about my life people would rightly consider me to be mad.
Of course there are Christians who take Rabbi Boteach’s view. Liberal Christian scholarship is at the forefront of undermining the Christian cause from within and Jewish and Muslim opponents of Christianity like to use their arguments to attack the Christian faith. However Orthodox Jews like Rabbi Boteach should beware of using the arguments of liberal Christian clergy. The same people who undermine Christian belief in the virgin birth, the miracles of Jesus, his resurrection, and second coming, also undermine belief that the Torah is from heaven, and that we should trust the Genesis account of creation, the Exodus and God’s ongoing covenant with Israel.
It is beyond the scope of this book to deal with the debate over the liberal or literal interpretation of the Bible, except to say that the view of scripture I hold is that ‘all scripture is inspired of God’ (2 Timothy 3.16), and that I accept the literal interpretation of historical and prophetic events in scripture. Since the passage of scripture we are looking at in this article is in Isaiah, I would also state that I believe that whole book has one author, namely the prophet Isaiah.
Isaiah 7.14 – What are the issues?
There are two major objections to the use of this prophecy in relation to Jesus:
- The Hebrew word ‘almah’ should be translated ‘young woman’ not virgin.
- The passage in context is a short-term prophecy to King Ahaz about his fears of invasion by an alliance of forces led by Rezin, King of Syria and Pekah, King of Israel, not a prophecy of the virgin birth of the Messiah.
Almah or Bethulah?
The main argument relating to this passage is that if the text had meant to stress the virginity of the woman involved, the Hebrew word ‘bethulah’ should have been used, rather than the word which is used, ‘almah.’
- While ‘bethulah’ is used many times in the Bible to mean virgin, there are times when its exclusive use as virgin is questionable. In Genesis 24.16, the passage dealing with Abraham’s servant going in search of a bride for Isaac, ‘bethulah’ is used. It is obviously of the highest importance that Isaac’s bride (Rebekah) should be a virgin. The text states: ‘Now the young woman (Hebrew ‘ha na’ar) was very beautiful to behold, a virgin (bethulah); no man had known her.’ If the word bethulah means virgin exclusively the phrase ‘no man had known her’ is unnecessary. It is like saying, ‘The young woman is a virgin. She has never had sex with a man.’ The Bible is economical with words and does not waste space with unnecessary phrases. The implication of this added phrase is that ‘bethulah’ on its own is not a strong enough word to mean that this young woman was definitely a virgin. Therefore her virginity, which is very important to her eligibility to be Isaac’s bride, has to be stated explicitly. Interestingly ‘almah’ is used of Rebekah later in the text (Genesis 24.43) by which time her virginity has been demonstrated. There is a similar reference in Judges 21.12 in which the phrase ‘had not known a man’ is added to the word ‘bethulah.’
- In Joel 1.8 ‘bethulah’ is used of a woman mourning for ‘the husband of her youth.’ Presumably therefore she is no longer a virgin.
- ‘Bethulah’ is also used of pagan nations known for their immorality – ‘O virgin (‘bethulah’) daughter of Babylon’ (Isaiah 47.1), ‘Virgin daughter of Sidon’ (Isaiah 23.12) and ‘O virgin, the daughter of Egypt’ (Jeremiah 46.11). In the context all these nations are facing judgment from God because of their impurity.
I have no doubt that if Isaiah had used ‘bethulah’ in Isaiah 7.14, Rabbi Boteach would be quoting these scriptures to demonstrate that the prophet should have used ‘almah’ if he meant to stress the virginity of the young woman!
The word ‘almah’ is used seven times in the Bible. Not once does it describe a married woman. In five cases there is no question about the virginity of the woman involved:
- Genesis 24.43. Rebekah is clearly an unmarried virgin in this text.
- Exodus 2.8. So is Miriam in this one.
- Psalm 68.25. Describing a procession of maidens (unmarried women) playing tambourines in worship of God in the procession to the Temple. To participate in worship acceptable to God, as described in this Psalm, the maidens (‘almoth’ – plural of almah) would have to be virgins.
- 4. & 5. It is used in Song of Songs (1.3, 6.8) in contrast to the wives and concubines of Solomon, who would obviously not be virgins.
A sixth case, which Rabbi Boteach used in the debate about Jesus, is Proverbs 30.18-19:
‘There are three things which are too wonderful for me, yes four which I do not understand: The way of an eagle in the air, the way of a serpent on the rock, the way of a ship in the midst of the sea, and the way of a man with a maid (almah).’
This verse is followed by verse 20 which says: ‘This is the way of an adulterous woman: she wipes her mouth and says, ‘I have done no wickedness.’
Rabbi Boteach claimed that verse 20 continues the thought of the previous verse and therefore the ‘almah’ referred to is ‘an adulterous woman’ and not a virgin. However the word used for ‘wonderful’ in verse 18 (‘niflu’) implies something positive to follow, not something negative. The structure of Proverbs is one of short sayings, which often contrast with each other, rather than follow on from each other. In this case the adulteress of verse 20 is in contrast to the ‘almah’ of verse 19.
Now we come to the verse in question, Isaiah 7.14. The root of the word ‘almah’ implies a sexually mature woman of marriageable age, but who is not yet married. Ancient Jewish culture expected an unmarried woman to be a virgin, as in fact did our own culture until relatively recently. The German word for virgin is ‘Jungfrau’ which literally means ‘young woman.’ In Bible times a betrothed woman found not to be a virgin was to be put to death according to Deuteronomy 22.13-21. The Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek by Jewish scholars uses the Greek word ‘parthenos’ to translate ‘almah’ in Isaiah 7.14. The Septuagint translation was made in about 200 BC by Jewish scholars who obviously had no idea about the Christian claim of the virgin birth of Jesus and who were much closer to the original text in time than we are today. ‘Parthenos’ only means virgin in Greek, showing that the pre-Christian understanding of Jewish scholars was that this verse refers to a virgin being with child.
In the text the ‘almah’ being ‘with child’ would seem to deny her virginity. However this condition is said to be a sign (twa ‘oth’) or miracle given by God. There is nothing about a young woman being with child in the normal way which would constitute a sign. Moreover if this was a young unmarried woman being with child by the natural means, this would involve fornication. It is unthinkable that God could give a ‘sign’ involving sexual immorality. Therefore there are good grounds for Christians to claim that the word almah is used in this verse to stress the virginity of the person involved, without being intellectually dishonest, as Rabbi Boteach claimed.
The prophecy in context – three possible interpretations.
- It is a short term prophecy to King Ahaz about the threat to his kingdom.
- It is this, but also a long-term prophecy about the Messiah (i.e. the prophecy has two applications).
- There are two prophecies, one to King Ahaz about the threat to his kingdom and one to the whole house of David about the birth of the Messiah.
The first option is the one favoured by Rabbi Boteach and is used to rule out any further application to the Messiah. The second is the one used by many Christians and implies that Isaiah 7.14 is both a prophecy to King Ahaz and a prophecy of the Messiah. The third is the one we shall look at in this chapter.
Background to the passage
To understand this verse there are two important verses we must look at first.
‘And I will put enmity between you (the serpent – i.e. Satan) and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise your head and you shall bruise his heel’ Genesis 3.15.
According to the earliest Messianic prophecy in the Bible the ‘seed’ of ‘the woman’ will ‘bruise’ the head of the serpent (i.e. Satan). A crushing blow to the head is fatal, but a blow to the heel is painful, but not fatal. In other words a fatal blow will be delivered to Satan, while the one who delivers the blow will suffer in the process, but not fatally. This means that one born of ‘the woman’ is going to bring deliverance to humanity from the power of evil. ‘The woman’ here is a particular woman who will bring forth a particular child. There is even in this prophecy a hint of something supernatural about this birth, since the ‘seed’ (sperm) is provided by the man in sexual reproduction, whereas here the emphasis is on the ‘seed’ of the woman.
From this point on there are many references to the ‘seed’ in the Bible. God says to Abraham, ‘In your seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed’ Genesis 22.18. The promised seed is the Messiah who was to bring blessing to all peoples of the world. His line is traced in the genealogies of the Bible from Adam and Eve through Seth, Noah, Shem, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah, Jesse, David (to name some of the most important figures).
Satan hates this ‘seed’ because he knows that Messiah’s coming will deal his kingdom a mortal blow. Logically he will also be hostile to the line of descent and to the individual woman who will bring him forth. Therefore he will do everything in his power to prevent this from happening by trying to eliminate the Messianic line.
The second verse we must look at is the prophecy to King David through the prophet Nathan:
‘And it shall be when your days are fulfilled, when you must go to be with your fathers, that I will set up your seed after you, who will be one of your sons; and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build me a house and I will establish his throne for ever. I will be his father and he shall be my son; and I will not take away my mercy from him, as I took it from him who was before you. And I will establish him in my house and in my kingdom for ever; and his throne shall be established for ever’ 1 Chronicles 17.11-14.
On one level this prophecy speaks of the line of kings that would follow David, but that cannot be the complete fulfilment of the text. It points also to the ‘seed’, the descendant of King David who would be the Messiah.
David’s son, King Solomon, ruled for 40 years, then died after turning away from the Lord and worshipping foreign gods under the influence of his many wives (1 Kings 11). As a result the kingdom was divided into the 10 tribes under King Jeroboam in the northern kingdom of Israel and the 2 tribes under Solomon’s son, King Rehoboam in the southern kingdom of Judah (1 Kings 12). The northern kingdom of Israel was always out of God’s will as Jeroboam ignored the laws of the Torah by setting up calves for worship and making priests of every class of person and having feast days which did not conform to the laws laid down in the Torah (1 Kings 12.26-33).
The southern kingdom of Judah had good and bad kings, but even the bad kings were legitimate rulers according to the promise given to David. There was always the possibility that they could turn back to God under the influence of the prophets and offer the legitimate worship in the Temple through the proper sacrifices and feast days administered by the Levitical priests.
By the time we reach the prophecy of Isaiah 7.14, about 250 years have passed since the division of the united kingdom of David and Solomon into the northern kingdom of Israel (also known as Ephraim) and the southern kingdom of Judah.
About 20 years later the northern kingdom of Israel was to be invaded and carried off into captivity by the Assyrians. For information about the events surrounding the kings mentioned in Isaiah 7, we have to look at 2 Kings 16-17 and 2 Chronicles 28.
Ahaz, the king to whom Isaiah gave the prophecy we are looking at, was one of Judah’s worst kings. He turned away from the Lord, worshipped the Baals, the Canaanite gods, and even sacrificed his children to pagan gods in the valley of Hinnom. Because of his wickedness he was out of God’s favour and trouble was coming upon the land in accordance with the general warning given in the Torah to the people of Israel not to worship other gods (Leviticus 26, Deut. 28).
At the beginning of his reign he suffered defeat at an alliance of Rezin, king of Syria and Pekah, king of Israel, involving loss of territory and life. He was now facing the threat of invasion and a siege of Jerusalem by these two kings who were plotting to depose him. (Isaiah 7.6).
The reason Rezin and Pekah wanted to get rid of Ahaz was that he had made an alliance with Assyria, the rising power to the north of Syria, which was itself threatening to invade Syria and Israel. They wanted Ahaz to join their alliance against Assyria, but he would not, so they planned to put their own puppet king on the throne of Judah, the son of Tabel, who would join with them in their pact against Assyria.
The first part of Isaiah’s prophecy (7.3-9) is a message about this situation. Significantly Isaiah meets Ahaz ‘at the end of the aqueduct’. Why is this detail added? Because it shows that Ahaz was afraid of a coming invasion and siege and so was checking out his water supply (the most vital ingredient in surviving a siege). Isaiah gives him a message which should actually be very encouraging to him. He tells him that this attempt to depose him and set up a puppet king by Rezin and Pekah is going to fail.
This plot will not succeed, because if it did the line of David would cease and therefore the promise to David would be null and void. Even more important it would cut off the Messianic line. The historical books of the Bible show that God took pains to preserve the line of David despite their continual failings. Concerning a later king, Jehoram who ‘did evil in the sight of the Lord’ we read ‘Yet the Lord would not destroy the house of David because of the covenant that he made with David, and since he had promised to give a lamp to him and to his sons forever’ 2 Chronicles 21.7.
Despite the fact that Isaiah’s message to Ahaz should be an encouragement to him, God knows that he is a man full of unbelief and is trusting in his own plans to get himself out of the hole he was in. So the last part of Isaiah 7.9 has a personal message to Ahaz. ‘If you will not believe, surely you will not be established.’ If he were to turn to God in faith he would find security, but not if he continues in unbelief.
Ahaz had his own reasons for not wanting to hear what Isaiah was saying. He was secretly making a pact with the king of Assyria to defend him against Rezin and Pekah. This was like using the Devil to fight against the demons, because Assyria was going to turn out to be a much more ferocious and deadly foe of the kingdom of Judah than Syria and Israel ever were. What Ahaz should have done is trust in God, as his own son Hezekiah was to do when faced with a similar threat to his kingdom (Isaiah 36-37).
God then offers to give Ahaz a sign to confirm the message that Isaiah is giving him. A sign (Hebrew word ‘oth’) would show that there is a supernatural God in control of events who is infinitely more powerful than puny men, no matter how powerful they seem to be. At this point Ahaz puts on an act of being pious. He is being confronted by the living God, but he does not want to face God. That would disturb his plans. So he gets religious and says, ‘I will not ask, nor will I test the Lord.’ (Isaiah 7.12)
His refusal of the sign offered in verse 11 is a reference to Deuteronomy 6.16, ‘You shall not tempt (or put to the test) the Lord your God.’ However as often happens when unbelievers quote scripture to justify themselves, this is a misquote. God does not want us to look for a sign or demand a sign, but if he is offering a sign we are to take it.
Up until this point the prophecy has been entirely directed to Ahaz and his immediate situation. In the Hebrew it is clear that there is a change in verse 13, which is not clear in our translations, apart from the King James Version. From verse 4-11 the word for ‘you’ has been in the singular. In other words God has been talking to one man, Ahaz. He has not been listening though. His failure to listen to God is not just his problem. It is the problem of most of the kings of the house of David.
From verse 13-14 the prophecy is addressed to ‘you’ in the plural. Now God is talking to the whole house of David, and telling them that he is pretty fed up with them! Whether they want it or not, he is going to give them a sign (oth) which will give the deeper reason as to why, despite their obvious failures, he is going to preserve them until the appointed time. The sign is the key verse:
‘Behold the virgin shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Immanuel.’ Isaiah 7.14
Because of the Messianic prophecy of the seed of the woman (Genesis 3.15) and the promise to David that he would have a descendant who would have an eternal throne, God is going to preserve the line of David and keep Ahaz on the throne. Even though he is a wicked king, he is in the line of succession, unlike the son of Tabel. There is a possibility that even if he does not repent, his son who comes after him may repent and follow the Lord (as Hezekiah in fact did).
There is a further important reason why God had to preserve the kingdom under Ahaz in order for the Messiah to come forth. When the Assyrians eventually overran the northern kingdom of Israel (2 Kings 17) they took the people into captivity, where they intermarried and lost their identity as Jews, never again to return to the land of Israel. By the way they did not migrate northwards to become British, as the strange belief of British Israelism teaches! If that had also happened to the southern kingdom of Judah, the Jewish people would have disappeared and the promise of the Messiah would have never come to pass. So God rescued Judah from the invading Assyrians (2 Kings 18-19). On one level this was because of the ministry of Isaiah the prophet and the response to Isaiah’s teaching by Ahaz’ successor, King Hezekiah. On a deeper level it was in order to preserve the Jewish people in the Promised Land until the coming of the Messiah.
In Isaiah 8 we read a prophecy of the coming Assyrian invasion and the word of the Lord that it will fail to overrun Judah. The reason is given in Isaiah 8.10. ‘It will not stand for God is with us.’ This verse can be understood on two levels. On the first level God is with Judah through the covenant made with Abraham and with David, so he will defend his people. But the verse could also be translated ‘It will fail because of Immanuel’. This points to the second level at which this verse can be understood. The Assyrian invasion will come to nothing because God will preserve the Jewish people for the coming of Immanuel, the one to be born to ‘the woman’ by virgin birth several centuries later.
When eventually the southern kingdom of Judah was invaded and deported some 150 years later, the Assyrian Empire had been overthrown by the Babylonian Empire. The Babylonians had a different policy towards conquered people and kept them separate, without intermarriage, thus preserving the identity of the Jewish people. The Babylonian Empire was then overthrown by the Medes and the Persians (Daniel 5). They had a different policy again which meant that the Persian King Cyrus made an edict for the exiled peoples to return and resettle their lands (Ezra 1.1-4). Therefore the Jewish people were able to return to Israel and rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple, thus preserving the line of David and living in the Promised Land until the coming of the Messiah. One of the leaders of the returning people was Zerubabbel, a descendant of Jeconiah, the last of the kings of Judah in the line of David.
In this light the Immanuel prophecy of Isaiah 7.14 had a definite relevance to King Ahaz and the whole of the line of kings in succession to David. It was that God would preserve them despite their failure to keep his ways until his appointed time, in order to bring forth the Messiah who would be the ‘seed of the woman’ born in a supernatural way by virgin birth.
Following the virgin birth prophecy God goes back to speaking directly to Ahaz and from verse 15 onwards the word ‘you’ goes back to the singular. A prophecy concerning the future conception and birth of the Messiah about 700 years later was interesting but not much use to Ahaz in his immediate predicament. Isaiah now tells him that both the kings threatening him (Rezin and Pekah) will be removed from power themselves ‘before the child shall know to refuse the evil and choose the good’ (i.e. reach the age of maturity when he can make independent moral judgments).
The question now has to be asked, ‘Which child is this prophecy referring to?’ Because the Hebrew is ‘the child’ not ‘a child’ it must be referring back to a child who is either already mentioned in the text or one who is already known to the hearers of the prophecy. In Isaiah 7 there are two references to boys: Immanuel in verse 14, and Shearjashub, Isaiah’s son in verse 3. Which one is referred to here?
The most common interpretation is that it refers to Immanuel. In other words there was a boy called Immanuel who was to be born and before he was old enough to know good from evil the two kings Ahaz was afraid of would no longer be a threat to him. Christian commentators using the line that the prophecy has two applications, one to Ahaz and one to the birth of Jesus, would interpret it this way saying it applies both to this boy called Immanuel and to the birth of Jesus.
However there are difficulties with this. For one thing if we take the dates given in 2 Kings 16-17, King Pekah of Israel was assassinated three years after Ahaz came to the throne. This means that the prophecy of Isaiah 7 must have been given to Ahaz at the beginning of his reign and the outcome of the prophecy would take place in a short time, much less time than was needed for a child to be born and reach the age of maturity.
A better interpretation is given by Arnold Fruchtenbaum in which he says that the boy referred to in Isaiah 7.16 is not Immanuel, but Shear-Jashub, Isaiah’s young son, who was standing there before Ahaz at the time the prophecy was given. (2) This explains why Isaiah was told by the Lord to take his son with him, even though that might be a dangerous thing to do. Isaiah’s son’s name is also relevant to the whole issue of this prophecy. It means ‘a remnant shall return’ pointing to the coming deportation of Judah to Babylon and the remnant who would return from this captivity to continue the line of David living in the Promised Land until the coming of the Messiah.
Later in Ahaz’ reign the threat to his kingdom from Israel and Syria receded. Pekah, king of Israel, was assassinated by Hoshea in the third year of Ahaz’ reign (2 Kings 16.30). Five years after the death of Ahaz, in the ninth year of Hoshea, King of Israel, the Assyrians invaded Syria and the northern kingdom of Israel, taking its people into captivity (2 Kings 17). God supernaturally prevented them from taking Judah into captivity as well, in response to Isaiah’s ministry and in order to fulfil his prophetic word concerning the coming Messiah (2 Kings 18-19).
So there are two prophecies. There is a short-term prophecy concerning events which were soon to be fulfilled given to King Ahaz. There is a long-term prophecy concerning the miraculous conception and birth of the son who would be Immanuel, God with us, to be fulfilled in Yeshua, Jesus the Messiah, given to the whole House of David.
As a result of all this the Messianic line was preserved and the Jewish people continued in the land of Israel until the time of the fulfilment of the Immanuel prophecy in the birth of the Messiah Jesus. 40 years after his crucifixion the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple, dispersed the Jewish people and caused the genealogical records in the Temple to be destroyed. Therefore Messiah had to come before this event in order to show his descent from David. The prophecy of Daniel 9.26 indicates that Messiah would come and be ‘cut off’ before the destruction of the Second Temple, giving another pointer to his identity since according to this prophecy the Messiah had to come before 70 CE when the Temple was destroyed.
Concerning the prophecy itself it refers to a future conception and birth of a son. This is to be a sign, a miraculous event, something involving divine intervention. The son is to be born to a woman of marriageable age, but she herself could not be married because she had to be a virgin. As I have already said, for God to give a sign of a birth conceived by an act of fornication would be unthinkable.
The woman herself is referred to as ‘the woman / virgin’ not ‘a woman’ (the Authorised Version is wrong in translating Isaiah 7.14 as ‘a virgin’). Commenting on this Arnold Fruchtenbaum writes: ‘According to the rules of Hebrew grammar, when finding the use of a definite article (the), the reader should look back for a reference in the immediate previous context. Having followed the passage from chapter 7.1, there has been no mention of any woman. Having failed with the immediate context, the second rule is the ‘principle of previous reference,’ something which has been dealt with much earlier and is common knowledge among the people. Where in Jewish Scripture is there any concept of ‘the virgin giving birth to a son’? The only possible reference is to Genesis 3.15 (the ‘seed of the woman’ prophecy referred to above). Contrary to the biblical norm, the Messiah would be reckoned after the Seed of the Woman. Why? Because he would have no human father; his would be a virgin conception and birth.’ (3)
The only possible way this prophecy could be fulfilled is the event described in the Gospels, the Virgin Birth of the Messiah. The angel Gabriel arrives to speak to ‘a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David’ (Luke 1.27). Mary (Miriam) is ‘highly favoured among women’ because she is ‘the woman’ of Genesis 3.15. She has to be unmarried and therefore a virgin. She also has to be betrothed to be married because if she were to come out of this experience as an unmarried mother her position in society and the position of her son would be very difficult indeed.
It is vital that her intended husband does not reject her when he discovers that she is pregnant. So the angel also speaks to Joseph to ensure that he goes ahead with the marriage despite Mary’s condition (Matthew 1.20-25). In order to explain this to Joseph, he is made aware of the prophecy of Isaiah 7.14 concerning the Virgin Birth. Mary is treated with great honour in the New Testament (although never worshipped or elevated to be ‘Queen of Heaven’), but Joseph too acts with great faith and integrity, playing a vital role in bringing the Messiah into the world.
Both Joseph and Mary are of the line of David, with Joseph’s genealogy given in Matthew 1 through the royal line of the kings, and Mary’s genealogy given in Luke 3 through a different son of David, Nathan. Although the text of Luke 3 speaks of ‘Joseph the son of Heli’, this lines up with the convention of not putting the female name, and this genealogy is really Mary’s. The Talmud actually refers to Miriam (Mary) bat (daughter of) Heli. (4)
Having established the connection to the line of David (Luke 1.27) the angel Gabriel says to Mary, ‘Behold you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son and shall call his name Yeshua (Jesus / salvation). He will be great and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord will give him the throne of his father David. And he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever and of his kingdom there shall be no end’ Luke 1.31-33.
It can be no accident that the three eternal things promised to David of his ‘seed’ in 1 Chronicles 17.11-14 – an eternal throne, an eternal house and an eternal kingdom – are prophesied here of the ‘seed’ of Mary who was to be conceived supernaturally by the Holy Spirit: ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore that holy one who is to be born shall be called the Son of God’ Luke 1.35. It is nothing for God to overrule the laws of nature in order to bring his purposes to fulfilment: ‘For with God nothing will be impossible’ Luke 1.37.
This passage gives the key to a problem which is as yet unresolved by this investigation of the Virgin Birth prophecy.
From a human point of view without reference to any fulfilment in Jesus, the promise given to David in 1 Chronicles 17 was a false prophecy. There is no king of the line of David alive on the earth today and has not been for over 2500 years. Jeconiah was the last descendant of David to sit on Judah’s throne. According to the prophecy of Jeremiah 22.30 after Jeconiah there would be no king descended from David again (the actual last king before the Babylonian captivity, Zedekiah, was Jeconiah’s uncle not his son).
Moreover if the prophecy of 1 Chronicles 17 is just about the human descendants of David, it is impossible to fulfil. It speaks of an eternal house, throne and kingdom which the prophesied descendant of David will inherit. But no mere man can have these things eternally. The only way that could happen is if the one it speaks of is himself an eternal person, i.e. Immanuel – God with us.
The relevance of all this to Isaiah 7 is crucial. God’s covenant with David concerning his descendants is to go beyond the line of kings, which would follow him and to reach its fulfilment in the supernatural birth of the Messiah. The Messiah is to do mortal damage to Satan’s kingdom; therefore Satan will do all that he can to prevent the fulfilment of this prophecy. Because God is greater than Satan, he will ensure that his purposes are fulfilled, preserving the line of David in some identifiable form until Messiah comes and keeping the Jewish people in the land of Israel until this time.
The Holy Spirit would overshadow a virgin betrothed to be married who would give birth to a son who would be more than just a man. He would be Immanuel, God with us. God would enter human existence in the person of Yeshua, Jesus the Messiah. In this way he would be both Son of Man and Son of God, without sin and therefore able to be the perfect sacrifice required to redeem lost humanity.
The New Testament shows how Messiah was born in this supernatural way in order to redeem us from our sins. It is nothing for God to overrule the laws of nature which he himself has set up and bring forth a son without a human father. Despite the accusations of illegitimacy which were to be brought against Jesus by his opponents (implied in John 8.41) this was God’s way of coming into the world, to take on human form. He continues to be with us as the mediator who brings us into a relationship with God.
He is able right now to give us peace and security, even if we face enemies coming against us as King Ahaz did. Ahaz was not established on David’s throne, nor in the kingdom of God, because he lacked faith in the promises of God. But we can have absolute faith in the promises of God revealed in Messiah Jesus. All of this and much more is fulfilled in Messiah Jesus who has come once in fulfilment of prophecy and is coming again to complete the Messianic programme and rule on David’s throne.
To believe in him you do not have to be intellectually dishonest, but you do have to have the courage to go against the flow and to stand firm in the face of adversity, unlike King Ahaz, but like his son King Hezekiah, who believed and was established both on David’s throne and in the kingdom of God.
- Debate put on by London L’Chaim Society 19th January 1998
- Messianic Christology by Arnold Fruchtenbaum page 35-7.
- Messianic Christology pages 36-7
- Jerusalem Talmud, Chagigah 2.4, Sanhedrin 23.3, Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 44.2.