- The Explore the Bible Lesson for Sept. 20 focuses on Isaiah 7:7-17.
Isaiah is one of the Old Testament books most cited in the New Testament. The passage in this lesson provides the basis of one of the most important—and controversial—intertestamental citations in the entire Bible.
Before we understand how the New Testament uses Isaiah 7, however, we must understand this text on its own terms in its original historical context.
Ahaz, grandson of the deceased Uzziah, is king over Judah. An alliance between Aram (modern-day Syria) and the 10 northern tribes of Israel (here called Ephraim) threatens to conquer Judah (7:1-2, 5-6).
The Promise of the Sovereign Lord
Ephraim is larger, wealthier and more powerful than Judah. Their strength combined with the power of Aram will be more than enough to crush the little nation centered around Jerusalem. But the Lord, speaking through the prophet Isaiah, says that the alliance’s threats will come to nothing.
“It will not take place, it will not happen, for the head of Aram is Damascus, and the head of Damascus is only Rezin. … The head of Ephraim is Samaria, and the head of Samaria is only Remaliah’s son” (7:7-9). The rulers of Aram and Ephraim are merely human; their power is nothing next to the Lord’s.
“Within sixty-five years Ephraim will be too shattered to be a people” (7:8b). Here Isaiah predicts the Assyrian empire coming to conquer Ephraim. The 65 years may not be literal, but rather a biblical idiom for a human lifetime. History will prove Isaiah correct; the Assyrian empire obliterates the 10 northern tribes in 722 BC, within Ahaz’s own lifetime.
In this part of our passage, God asserts his sovereignty over history. His words are true, his promises unbreakable. Judah needs only trust and obey. But God’s promise here comes with a condition: “If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all” (7:9). While the destruction of Ephraim is certain, Judah’s own security hinges on whether they will trust God.
Isaiah is one of the prophets who enjoys direct access to the royal court, and he gives the prophecy directly to King Ahaz. Unfortunately, Ahaz is not known for his faith or integrity (2 Kings 16:2b-4).
Ahaz simply does not trust God and wishes to do things his own way. Yet, when God himself invites Ahaz to request a sign (Isaiah 7:10-11), Ahaz masks his lack of faith with a façade of piety: “I will not ask; I will not put the Lord to the test” (7:12). Ahaz here twists Deuteronomy 6:16 to justify his refusal to trust God.
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But the Lord sees straight through Ahaz’s hogwash. “Then Isaiah said, ‘Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of humans? Will you try the patience of my God also?’” (Isaiah 7:13). Ironically, Ahaz is testing God by refusing to “test” him.
The Child Immanuel
In the final verses of our passage, Isaiah asserts God is going to give Ahaz a sign anyway. This sign will be the birth of a child named Immanuel, which means “God with us.” This child still will be young when the threat of Aram and Ephraim’s alliance will disappear (7:14-16).
But this sign does not portend simple good news. Isaiah continues, “The Lord will bring on you and on your people and on the house of your father a time unlike any since Ephraim broke away from Judah—he will bring the king of Assyria” (7:17). While Judah will not ultimately be conquered by Assyria, the empire’s siege against the nation will take a toll.
It is important to note at this point Isaiah’s prophecy about the child is clearly meant to be fulfilled soon, not hundreds of years later. Moreover, the Hebrew word translated as “virgin” (7:14) is `almah, which simply means “a young woman of marriageable age.” The word does not necessarily suggest virginity.
What about Jesus?
The above details have caused much puzzlement and consternation over Matthew’s application of Isaiah 7:14 to Jesus’s virgin birth (Matthew 1:22-23), with some going so far as to say that Matthew used a Greek mistranslation of Isaiah to illegitimately prove his point.
However, Old Testament scholar John Oswalt offers an important clarification in his volume on Isaiah in the NIV Application Commentary. The term `almah is a rare word, yet Isaiah uses it instead of much more common terms for “woman” or “girl.” While `almah does not strictly mean “virgin,” the term can and sometimes does strongly imply virginity.
We also must nuance our understanding of prophetic fulfillment in Scripture. Prophecies can and often do have multiple fulfillments, and those fulfillments can be typological, not simply predictive.
In other words, Matthew is not necessarily saying Isaiah directly predicted the virgin birth of Jesus. Rather, Isaiah’s prophecy of Immanuel and its fulfillment in ancient Judah establishes a pattern. Jesus’s virgin birth both follows this pattern and brings it to a climax in an unexpected new way.
While the original woman of Isaiah 7:14 was likely not a literal virgin, the inherent ambiguity of `almah and its translation as “virgin” in ancient Greek versions of the Old Testament provide fertile ground for layers of meaning to Isaiah’s prophecy that ultimately are revealed through the coming of Jesus Christ.
Joshua Sharp is a writer and Bible teacher living in Waco. He holds a Master of Divinity degree from Truett Theological Seminary.