I don’t usually post religious stuff on my blogs, but hey — I’ve written a Bible app, why not, right? Now, let me explain why I don’t feel Isaiah 7:14 is a Christological prophesy before your blood simmers too much:
It’s one of the most oft-repeated verses around the Christmas season, often because the author of Matthew quotes this passage in Matthew 1:23. If you don’t remember it off-hand, here’s the text:
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. (NIV, 7:14)
Now we can debate to the ends-of-the-earth and beyond as to whether or not the original wording here meant “virgin” or “young woman”. That particular issue is not germane to this post. It’s also interesting, but not relevant to this post that some versions go to great pains to use “young woman” in the Isaiah verse, while switching to “virgin” in Matthew. Or, seen in reverse, how willing many translators are in order to harmonize the two together and either use “young woman” or “virgin” for both verses in order to assuage the dear reader from worrying about potential contradictions. No matter how you look at it, this is worrisome, because it means the original intent of the text is often lost in modern translations, especially those that harmonize between references. Anyway, that is neither here nor there for this post. I get sidetracked easily.
My beef here is that Christianity (modern and old, since the author of Matthew did it) is that this verse has absolutely nothing to do with the foretelling of Jesus Christ as the Messiah. He may have been born of a virgin or not, and he may have been called ‘Immanuel’ or not. (In fact, Jesus probably wasn’t called ‘Immanuel’ — just do a search in the Bible for the word. It comes up in exactly three places: Isaiah 7:14, 8:8, and Matthew 1:23.) Regardless of these facts, the quote by Matthew is pulling the same trick many modern Christians pull (or like to claim when an interpretation disagrees with their’s): that of quoting out-of-context.
Look at the actual context of Isaiah 7:14:
(1) When Ahaz son of Jotham, the son of Uzziah, was king of Judah, King Rezin of Aram and Pekah son of Remaliah king of Israel marched up to fight against Jerusalem, but they could not overpower it.
(2) Now the house of David was told, “Aram has allied itself with Ephraim”; so the hearts of Ahaz and his people were shaken, as the trees of the forest are shaken by the wind.
(3) Then the Lord said to Isaiah, “Go out, you and your son Shear-Jashub, to meet Ahaz at the end of the aqueduct of the Upper Pool, on the road to the Launderer’s Field. (4) Say to him, ‘Be careful, keep calm and don’t be afraid. Do not lose heart because of these two smoldering stubs of firewood—because of the fierce anger of Rezin and Aram and of the son of Remaliah. (5) Aram, Ephraim and Remaliah’s son have plotted your ruin, saying, (6) “Let us invade Judah; let us tear it apart and divide it among ourselves, and make the son of Tabeel king over it.” (7) Yet this is what the Sovereign Lord says:
“ ‘It will not take place,
it will not happen,
(8) for the head of Aram is Damascus,
and the head of Damascus is only Rezin.
Within sixty-five years
Ephraim will be too shattered to be a people.
(9) The head of Ephraim is Samaria,
and the head of Samaria is only Remaliah’s son.
If you do not stand firm in your faith,
you will not stand at all.’ ”
(10) Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, (11) “Ask the Lord your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights.”
(12) But Ahaz said, “I will not ask; I will not put the Lord to the test.”
(13) 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? (14) Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. (15) He will be eating curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, (16) for before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste. (17) 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.” [(NIV, 7:1-17)]
Reading the text plainly (with no assumptions), here’s what I see:
- Ahaz, the king at the time, is worried about an invasion (v3-6)
- The Lord, through Isaiah, tells Ahaz to stop worrying — those who would invade Judah will instead be destroyed (v7-9). As an aside, the timespans here are a bit vague and long. Ephraim will be destroyed within 65 years, but the other two aren’t given any date at all.
- The Lord, directly this time, asks Ahaz to ask God for a sign (v10-11). From a basic reading, this indicates (to me) a sign indicating that God would follow through on the prior promise. (Isn’t it a bit odd that God is the one asking the king to ask God for a sign? Isn’t it further odd that someone decided that verse 10 should be that short? See — sidetracked easily.)
- Ahaz then responds the way most modern Christians would do (v12) — and I’m paraphrasing now (Ahaz doesn’t really say this): “Who am I to demand a sign from God? He’s God — He can do whatever He pleases. I have faith that He will do what is right and best.” (I suppose one could argue that by not testing God, Ahaz was showing a lack of faith, but that is not evident from a basic reading.)
- For doing what most of us would think is right to do (that is, not demanding a sign from God and instead trusting Him to do what is best for us), Ahaz is reprimanded by Isaiah (v13). (Does this mean we can all demand signs from God without worrying that we’re being insubordinate? Sidetracked. Again!)
- Isaiah then says that God is going to give Ahaz a sign that the promise would be fulfilled and that Ahaz’s enemies would be destroyed (v14). A virgin (or young woman, however you look at it) would give birth to a son. That son would be named “Immanuel”.
- Isaiah continues (v15-16) by indicating that before this son is old enough to choose right from wrong (coincidentally the same time when he can eat curds and honey), the land of Ahaz’s enemies would be laid waste. (Sidetrack again: I guess this prophecy has a bound of 65 years then, given the above promise to destroy Ephraim in that timespan?)
- Oddly enough, for all Ahaz’s worry about an invasion, bad news is delivered in verse 17 — the King of Assyria will come and do far worse than the those who broke away from Judah. I guess the point here is to stop worrying about the little details when there are far bigger things to worry about. Kind of a “can’t see the forest for the trees” moment for Ahaz, right? He was so worried about two insignificant rivals that he couldn’t see the larger picture: Assyria was going to bring far worse times to his kingdom.
So God gives Ahaz a sign that he’ll be safe from these particular adversaries, but not from Assyria. This sign is a son born to a young woman or virgin, named Immanuel.
Guess what: nowhere does this section indicate that we should read it with a Christological interpretation! In other words, Isaiah is not prophesying Christ, he’s prophesying the fulfillment of a sign within 65 years. He’s not even promising it to a people: he’s only talking to Ahaz. And yet the author of Matthew, and the rest of Christianity, decided that this verse applied to a man born hundreds of years after the prophecy was made (and the timespan for fulfillment had passed). Therefore it could not possibly refer to the Christ as found in the New Testament.
Let’s not forget what prophecy really is: it’s not a foretelling of the future, no “if”s, “and”s, or “but”s: it’s a foretelling of what God will do if His people obey or fail to obey His words. To be brief, then, prophecy was all about sending a message to the people of that time. That means that really, no prophecy was meant for us — it was meant solely for the people of the time. This particular prophecy was meant for Ahaz, and Ahaz alone. We cannot possibly apply it anywhere else.
Now some will say that this verse is really a double prophecy, and has thus been doubly fulfilled. From a basic reading of the test, this reading is not at all supported. Again, prophecies were meant for the recipient of the time as a warning or blessing, not for anyone else. If God had intended this to refer to Christ, why not say so? Something like: “Behold, I shall give the people who live in Judah a few hundred years from now a sign: A virgin shall have a son, and he will be called Immanuel”. I don’t know about you, but this would not give me (in the shoes of Ahaz) any comfort at all that God was going to fulfill His prior promise of destroying Ephraim in 65 years. Instead He’s going on about something He’ll do in a few hundred years. Well, (as King Ahaz), I’d be long dead by then!
To sum up: we should not be quoting Isaiah 7:14 to support a fulfilled prophecy about Christ. Period.
I know, it’s a hard habit to break. The Church has been doing it two-thousand years, starting with the author of Matthew. When you read the context in Matthew, you see nothing else from this chapter — only verse 14. Which means the author has done exactly what we often accuse other Christians of doing: taking a verse out-of-context and using it for his own means. Although this isn’t the only time Matthew does this, it’s one of the most well-known used in support of Christ fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy — a prophecy that, according to God, had to be fulfilled within 65 years of the original saying. Was Jesus born with 65 years of Ahaz? Didn’t think so.
None of this needs to change your view of who Christ is. I’m just pointing out that we should stop applying a Christological interoperation to this verse. Yes, it sounds pretty, and makes for good Christmas cards, but it really isn’t a supported by the text.
Really, we need to look at all the Bible texts with the same critical eye: Sometimes this results in a reading that doesn’t support the tradition, and that’s a good thing. Rather than mindlessly following tradition, let’s think about the text, why a specific interpretation became tradition, and whether or not it was actually what the author intended to say. And then we need to be flexible enough to change our minds if the text doesn’t support the traditional interpretation.
- 12/23/2013: Changed “subordinate” to “insubordinate”; thanks @antijingoist