by Al Maxey

Issue #266 ------- September 20, 2006
The hand that rocks the cradle
is the hand that rules the world.

William Ross Wallace {1819-1881}

The Virgin Shall Conceive
Reflective Analysis of Isaiah 7:14

An elder in the beautiful state of Florida, and a good friend and supporter of this Reflections ministry, recently sent me the following appeal -- "Al, in Isaiah 7:14 Ahaz is given a sign by the Lord. However, the passage is messianic. How can it be both a sign for Ahaz and a reference to the virgin birth of Jesus? Were there two virgin births? I don't think so, and yet I am in a 'straight betwixt the two,' as Paul would say. Then we have a repeat of the prophecy in Matt. 1:23. Can you shed any light on Isaiah 7:14 and the virgin birth?"

"The Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel" [Isaiah 7:14, New King James Version]. This passage has, admittedly, somewhat troubled students of the Bible for quite a long time. There are several reasons for this. First, the text is clearly messianic -- "Now all this took place that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled" [Matt. 1:22]. The above mentioned prophecy from Isaiah 7:14 is then quoted in the very next verse [Matt. 1:23; cf. Luke 1:27]. Thus, there is clearly a fulfillment of this prophecy in the virgin birth of Jesus.

On the other hand, the prophecy was originally given as a sign to king Ahaz, as the text unequivocally declares. Thus, it was essential that there be a more immediate fulfillment for him. Does this suggest two virgin births? If not, what does it suggest? In what way could this text be messianic, yet still be relevant as a sign for Ahaz? Further complicating this exegesis is the way in which a few modern translations have dealt with the text in question, and specifically with the Hebrew word almah. There are some disciples of Christ Jesus who have become quite angry over those translations that have rendered this particular word as "maiden" or "young woman" rather than the more familiar "virgin," even suggesting this to be nothing less than a "Satanic plot" to undermine the deity of our Lord. These are all questions and concerns deserving further reflection.

Historical Background

The message contained in Isaiah 7:14 does not appear to the modern reader of Scripture in a vacuum. It has context. Thus, to lift the passage from its surrounding text, to remove it from its relevancy to its own time and location, impressing it into duty as some sort of proof text, is to do injustice to the verse. As someone once said, "To interpret a passage apart from its context is pretext." Thus, it is essential to sound hermeneutics (the art and science of interpretation) that we become somewhat familiar with the overall context (both textual and historical) of the passage in question.

The prophet Isaiah, who was highly educated and evidently from quite a prominent Jewish family, served the Lord faithfully for about 60 years, his prophetic ministry ranging from about 740 to 680 B.C. (which can be discerned from Is. 1:1). He was a contemporary of Hosea and Micah, and his ministry occurred during the last years of the northern kingdom of Israel, although his message was primarily to the people of the southern kingdom of Judah, who were in danger of following their sister to the north into the same deadly apostasy. The northern kingdom fell in 722 B.C. with the overthrow of Samaria by the Assyrians. Judah was then threatened, which caused tremendous concern among the people and the leaders. How would they deal with this threat? The temptation was to form human alliances with pagan nations, but Isaiah warned against such unions, insisting that the nation turn to its God and rely upon His strength. Salvation is of God, not of man, and this is one of the recurring themes of the book. Indeed, the word "salvation" appears 27 times in the book of Isaiah, and only 8 times in all the other OT prophetic writings combined. The name "Isaiah" really states the message well -- "Salvation is of the Lord."

But, let's narrow our historical focus even more. The context of the passage in question [Is. 7:14] is laid out for us at the very beginning of that chapter. "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" [Is. 7:1, NIV]. Before we examine this historical event itself, let's get to know the people involved a little better.

PEKAH --- Pekah was the 18th (and next to last) king to reign over the northern kingdom of Israel, ascending to the throne after killing his predecessor, King Pekahiah. "One of his chief officers, Pekah son of Remaliah, conspired against him. Taking 50 men of Gilead with him, he assassinated Pekahiah, along with Argob and Arieh, in the citadel of the royal palace at Samaria. So Pekah killed Pekahiah and succeeded him as king" [2 Kings 15:25]. Pekah, like most before him, was an evil king. "He did evil in the eyes of the Lord" [2 Kings 15:28]. Pekah allied himself with King Rezin of Syria (Aram) and together they made war against the southern kingdom of Judah -- the very incident that we find to be the historical context of our passage from Isaiah 7, which occurred during the reigns of Kings Jotham and Ahaz of Judah [2 Kings 15:37; 16:5; 2 Chron. 28:5-15]. During one particular battle with Judah, King Pekah and his men slaughtered 120,000 "valiant men" in the course of just one day [2 Chron. 28:6]. They also took captive 200,000 women and children to be used as their slaves, and a great deal of spoil [vs. 8]. The prophet Oded, however, convinced them to let the captives return home, because (1) they were their brethren, and because (2) the Israelites had transgressions of their own against God. Those with sin should not be casting stones! Further, brethren should not be injuring brethren! See: John 8:7; Matt. 7:1-5; Acts 7:26; 1 Cor. 6:6-8.

During the reign of Pekah, King Tiglath-pileser of Assyria began to attack the northern kingdom of Israel and succeeded in capturing large portions of their land. He also led away many of the people of Israel into captivity, a captivity from which most never returned [2 Kings 15:29; 1 Chron. 5:25-26]. After a reign of 20 years [2 Kings 15:27], Pekah became the victim of a conspiracy. Hoshea, the son of Elah, and a friend of King Pekah [Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, book 9, chapter 13, section 1], assassinated him [2 Kings 15:30], becoming king in his place. According to ancient Assyrian annals, the king of Assyria was also part of this deadly conspiracy: "Pekah their king I deposed and I placed Hoshea over them as king ... talents of silver as tribute I received from them."

REZIN --- This man was the last king of Syria (Aram) before the fall of Damascus to the Assyrians in 732 B.C. (at which time Rezin was killed by the invading Assyrians -- 2 Kings 16:9). Rezin became king around 740 B.C. and was extremely angered by the severe tribute that had been imposed upon them by the Assyrian king Tiglath-pileser. Thus, King Rezin joined an alliance of several kings against the Assyrians, which included several Arab states, Phoenicia, Philistia, and King Pekah of the northern kingdom of Israel. When King Ahaz of Judah refused to join this alliance, Rezin and Pekah attacked Judah in 734 B.C., besieging the city of Jerusalem with the intent of deposing King Ahaz and replacing him with a king who would join their alliance. This attack upon the southern kingdom, and Judah's later counter-attack, came to be known as the Syro-Ephraimite War. Ahaz appealed to the Assyrians for help [2 Kings 16:7f], and the Assyrians came and defeated the coalition of states, just as Isaiah foretold [Isaiah 8:3f].

AHAZ --- After the death of his father, King Jotham, Ahaz became the 12th king of the southern kingdom of Judah [2 Kings 15:38; 2 Chron. 27:9]. He took the throne in the 17th year of the reign of King Pekah of Israel [2 Kings 16:1]. This was just 21 years before the fall of the northern kingdom to the Assyrians. Ahaz was only 20 years old when he became king, and he would reign for 16 years over Judah [2 Kings 16:2; 2 Chron. 28:1]. Unlike his father, Ahaz was an extremely wicked man. Josephus characterizes his manner of living as a "mad course" [Antiquities of the Jews, book 9, chapter 12, section 1]. "He did not do right in the sight of the Lord as David his father had done. But he walked in the ways of the kings of Israel; he also made molten images for the Baals. Moreover, he burned incense in the valley of Ben-hinnom, and he burned his sons in fire, according to the abominations of the nations whom the Lord had driven out before the sons of Israel. And he sacrificed and burned incense on the high places, on the hills, and under every green tree" [2 Chron. 28:1-4; 2 Kings 16:2-4].

"Because they had forsaken the Lord God of their fathers" [2 Chron. 28:6], God sent several nations against Judah and inflicted tremendous losses upon the people. As Rezin and Pekah came against Judah, some of the members of the family of Ahaz, as well as a few close advisors, were killed [2 Chron. 28:7]. The Edomites and the Philistines also invaded Judah and inflicted a great deal of damage upon them. "The Lord humbled Judah because of Ahaz king of Judah, for he had brought about a lack of restraint in Judah and was very unfaithful to the Lord" [2 Chron. 28:17-19]. As a result of all the affliction he was experiencing at the hands of these many nations, Ahaz sends word to King Tiglath-pileser III of Assyria, vowing to be his servant and pay him tribute if he will come with his army and deliver him. The Assyrian king agreed, thus leading to the fall of Syria and the death of King Rezin [2 Kings 16:7-9; 2 Chron. 28:16, 20-21]. Assyria also began to capture territory in the northern kingdom of Israel, and to lead away some of their residents into captivity [2 Kings 15:29].

After King Tiglath-pileser III of Assyria had overthrown Syria, King Ahaz goes to Damascus (the fallen Syrian capital) to meet the Assyrian king. While there he takes a liking to a particular pagan altar and sends the measurements of this altar, as well as a model of it, to the High Priest (who was named Urijah) in Jerusalem. This pagan altar is then replicated and placed within the temple in Jerusalem. Ahaz commands that offerings to God now be made on this pagan altar. Ahaz also removed many of the sacred objects that God had commanded the people to place within the temple [2 Kings 16:10-18; 2 Chron. 28:22-25]. Even after repeated harsh afflictions by God, Ahaz refuses to repent. Indeed, he becomes even more wicked. After a reign of 16 years, King Ahaz dies at the young age of only 36, to be replaced by his son Hezekiah, who would reign for 29 years. Ahaz was buried in the city of Jerusalem, but as a result of his exceedingly great wickedness, "they did not bring him into the tombs of the kings of Israel" [2 Chron. 28:27].

Isaiah Confronts Ahaz

Having thus provided in some detail the historical background, we are now prepared to examine more carefully and reflectively the exchange between King Ahaz and the prophet Isaiah, during which the passage before us in Isaiah 7:14 becomes a central focus, both then and now. In the previous historical narrative, we find ourselves at the point in time where Ahaz has determined to appeal to, and, indeed, perhaps already has, the king of Assyria in order to secure relief from the attack of Kings Pekah of Israel and Rezin of Syria. Thus, he was placing his hope for salvation in a human alliance with a pagan monarch rather than in the one true God. Isaiah is sent to appeal to Ahaz one last time to reconsider this godless course of action.

King Ahaz was greatly troubled by the forces arrayed against him, as were the people over whom he reigned. "His heart and the hearts of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake with the wind" [Isaiah 7:2]. They were terrified. However, rather than turning to the Lord for aid, the king sought to secure their deliverance through an alliance with the dreaded Assyrians. This would prove to be a horrendous mistake, so Isaiah was sent to counsel Ahaz to a far more responsible course of action. "Then the Lord said to Isaiah, 'Go out now to meet Ahaz, you and your son Shear-jashub'" [vs. 3]. The name of the son, whom most scholars feel was likely in his teen years at the time, meant "A Remnant Returns." The highly respected biblical scholars Drs. Keil and Delitzsch observe, "The prophetic name of Isaiah's son was intended to drive the king to Jehovah by force, through the threatening aspect it presented" [Commentary on the Old Testament in Ten Volumes, Volume 7: Isaiah, p. 209]. It was not unusual for God to use the names of a prophet's children to serve as prophetic messages to His people. Indeed, the names of the children of Hosea, who was a contemporary of the prophet Isaiah, were clearly prophetic in nature [see: Hosea 1:4-9].

Most scholars feel the message that Isaiah delivers to Ahaz came in two parts, and likely occurred on two separate occasions. The first message [Isaiah 7:4-9] was designed to diminish the fears of Ahaz and assure Him of God's willingness to come to the aid of Judah. "Take care, and be calm, have no fear and do not be faint-hearted because of these two stubs of smoldering firebrands" [vs. 4]. When one is quaking before one's enemies, the primary message they need to hear is: "If God be for us, who can be against us?!" [Rom. 8:31]. Yes, we may be outnumbered, but "greater is He that is in you, than he that is in the world" [1 John 4:4]. Having God on your side is not only comforting, but an assurance of ultimate victory! The wicked, self-serving plan of Kings Rezin and Pekah "shall not stand nor shall it come to pass" [vs. 7]. God, through His prophet Isaiah, assured Ahaz that these two kings, and their people, would soon be dealt with rather harshly for the evil they had planned against Judah. However, this first message ends with a solemn warning to Ahaz: "If you will not believe, you surely shall not last" [vs. 9].

The second prophetic confrontation with King Ahaz "probably followed closely on the previous one, for it is related to the same situation. It implies that the earlier prophecy has been rejected, or at least treated with noncommittal evasion by the king" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 6, p. 62]. It is within this second prophecy [Isaiah 7:10f] that we find the passage under review in this current issue of Reflections. "Then the Lord spoke again to Ahaz, saying, 'Ask for a sign from the Lord your God -- from the depths of Sheol to the heights of heaven'" [vs. 10-11]. In other words, there will be no limitations or restrictions placed on the nature of this requested sign from God -- it can be anything. The patience of our God is remarkable, is it not?! We serve a God who "is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish, but for all to come to repentance" [2 Peter 3:9]. Even with regard to the wicked Jezebel in Thyatira, the Lord said, "I gave her time to repent; and she does not want to repent" [Rev. 2:21]. As wicked as King Ahaz was, God nevertheless sought to patiently bring him to a point of trusting faith. What amazing grace!!

"Ask for a sign, Ahaz ... any sign! I long for you to trust Me and to serve Me; to be a righteous leader of My people." The king declines the offer, however. "I will not ask, nor will I test the Lord!" [vs. 12]. Now, admittedly, this sounds pious. After all, who is man to put God to the test?! "You shall not put the Lord your God to the test" [Deut. 6:16]. Jesus quoted this very passage to Satan when He was being tempted to doubt the providential care of God [Matt. 4:7]. Thus, one might think, at least on the surface, that the response of Ahaz was appropriate. Sadly, it was just the opposite. "What a pious sound this has! And yet his self-hardening reached its culminating point in these well-sounding words. He hid himself hypocritically under the mask of Deut. 6:16 so as to avoid being disturbed in his Assyrian policy, and he was infatuated enough to designate the acceptance of what Jehovah Himself had offered as tempting God" [Keil & Delitzsch, vol. 7, p. 215].

"That which lay beneath this outward show of humble trust was simply self-will and utter unfaith. King Ahaz had already made up his mind to the Assyrian alliance" [Ellicott, vol. 4, p. 437]. "He rejected the offer of Jehovah with a hypocritical pretext. This was the very climax of obduration. When unbelief assumes the very garments of piety, the effect is much more loathsome than open blasphemy and mockery" [Dr. Paul Kretzmann, Popular Commentary of the Bible: The OT, vol. 2: The Poetical and Prophetical Books, p. 300]. "Ahaz has no wish for a sign because he has no wish to believe in any other salvation than that which will follow from the realization of his own schemes" [Pulpit Commentary, vol. 10, p. 127]. "King Ahaz had made his plans, and they did not include God or His will. Ahaz's reply was a monumental piece of hypocrisy" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 6, p. 62]. The simple reality is -- "It is not testing God to do as He says!" [ibid].

Nevertheless, God was still willing to try and work with this obstinate leader. Ahaz refused to ask for a sign, therefore God declared He would give him one anyway. "A sign was something, some occurrence, or some action, which served as a pledge of the divine certainty of something else. ... The thing to be confirmed on the present occasion was what the prophet had just predicted in so definite a manner, viz: the maintenance of Judah with its monarchy, and the failure of the wicked enterprise of the two allied kingdoms. If this was to be attested to Ahaz in such a way as to demolish his unbelief, it could only be effected by a miraculous sign" [Keil & Delitzsch, vol. 7, p. 213-214]. "A sign in the language of Hebrew prophets, is that which proves to the person to whom it is offered that there is a supernatural power working with him who gives it" [Dr. Charles Ellicott, vol. 4, p. 438].

Sign of the Pregnant Virgin

Isaiah was instructed to say the following to King Ahaz -- "Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel" [Isaiah 7:14, NKJV]. There are a few things to note. First, some biblical translations (such as the NKJV, which is here quoted) have done some interpretation as well as translation of this particular passage. The words "Son" and "His," by way of example, are capitalized, signifying the belief that this child is the Messiah. Although that is probably a correct assumption, at least on one level of fulfillment, it is nevertheless still a matter of interpretation, and such personal assumptions, even though they may be correct, should not be imposed upon a biblical text by those entrusted with the task of translation. Second, it should be noted that the NKJV has correctly rendered the text to read "the virgin." The definite article (which is present in the original -- Hebrew: ha almah) has been totally ignored by some translations and versions (thus rendering the passage: "a virgin"). Isaiah clearly had a specific person in mind.

Returning to the text of Isaiah 7:14, we must acknowledge the fact that there has been great difficulty over the years in seeking to interpret the significance of this prophecy. "Few prophecies have been the subject of so much controversy, or called forth such a variety of exegesis, as this prophecy of Immanuel" [Pulpit Commentary, vol. 10, p. 129]. "This one verse has received more discussion than any other passage in the OT, yet without any consensus emerging among commentators. While Christians agree that it refers ultimately to the birth of Christ, they remain divided about its original and primary meaning" [International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 4, p. 990]. A significant part of the difficulty faced by interpreters of this particular biblical text is in determining the meaning of the Hebrew word employed to refer to the one who will conceive and bring forth the child. Indeed, differing views on this may well be the source of the most heated debates on the passage, with a number of the more ultra-conservative biblical interpreters actually calling into question the very salvation of those who dare to differ with them on this matter!

The Hebrew word in question in the Isaiah 7:14 passage is almah, which most translations and versions have rendered "virgin." Nevertheless, some have chosen to translate it differently. The New World Translation of the Jehovah's Witnesses group has used the word "maiden." Other translations, such as the Easy-to-Read Version, The Jerusalem Bible, the New English Bible, and the Revised Standard Version, just to name a few, use the phrase "young woman." This has led to the charge by some of the more radical fundamentalists that these translators are the "seed of Satan," and that their versions are deliberate attempts to "deny the deity of Jesus Christ" by undermining His virgin birth. The RSV was especially attacked for this rendering of Isaiah 7:14, although what the critics fail to mention is that the RSV retained the word "virgin" in Matt. 1:23. Strange thing to do, is it not, if their "godless goal" was to deny the virgin birth?! Also interesting is the fact that of the seven places where the Hebrew word almah occurs in the OT, the KJV translates it "virgin" in only four of those places, rendering it "maiden" twice [Ex. 2:8; Prov. 30:19] and "damsel" once [Ps. 68:25].

The real problem faced by translators and interpreters, of course, is that the actual meaning of the Hebrew word almah is rather ambiguous. In other words, it can mean a number of things, and is not limited in its semantic range. The primary idea inherent within the word is one's youthfulness, rather than one's virginity. The Hebrew word for "virgin" is actually bethulah. The former word, in the secular writings outside of Scripture, was even used of young prostitutes, with obvious reference to their youth, rather than to their sexual purity. The word certainly does not exclude the idea of virginity -- after all, it was to be expected, especially among the Jews, that their young maidens would be chaste -- but the word itself does not demand this interpretation or application. Typically, the context in which almah appears will determine if the additional concept of virginity is called for.

Almah is the feminine form of the Hebrew masculine noun elem, which just means "lad, youth, stripling, young man" -- a word only occurring twice in the OT. "The rarity of its usage makes determining its meaning very difficult. It would certainly help the discussion if the meaning of almah were clearer. Unfortunately, the evidence is much too meager to be decisive" [ISBE, vol. 4, p. 990]. Lenski wrote, "It is true that almah does not etymologically, like bethulah, denote a virgin, but in general a young woman, as elem denotes a young man. They are like the German Jungfrau and Juengling" [Interpretation of St. Matthew, p. 53]. Drs. Keil and Delitzsch declare this word may "be applied to persons who were betrothed, and even to such as were married. It is also admitted that the idea of spotless virginity was not necessarily connected with the word almah, and a person who had a very young-looking wife might be said to have an almah for his wife" [vol. 7, p. 217]. In the writings of Homer, for example, the term was used with reference to a married woman, if that wife was young. Thus, "the Hebrew term almah, in Isaiah 7:14, need not always mean 'virgin'" [Craig Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, p. 87].

"The linguistic evidence isn't as determinative as some think. The Hebrew word almah is not precisely equivalent to the English word 'virgin,' in which all the focus is on the lack of sexual experience; nor is it precisely equivalent to 'young woman,' in which the focus is on age without any reference to sexual experience. Many prefer the translation 'young woman of marriageable age.' Although it is fair to say that most OT occurrences presuppose that the almah is a virgin ... yet one cannot be certain the word necessarily means that" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 77]. It is additionally suggested in The New Strong's Expanded Dictionary of Bible Words that almah has reference to "a woman who had not borne a child" [p. 715]. Thus, we have yet another element added to our interpretive dilemma with regard to the Isaiah 7:14 passage. Therefore, "as to the much debated question of whether or not the word means always and only 'virgin,' etymology offers no help and even usage is not all-determinative in this instance" [Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 2, p. 1779]. Thus, "there is no definite evidence that the term means strictly 'virgin,' that is 'untouched'" [Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 5, p. 885]. "The exact determination of virgo intacta must be made from the context" [ibid].

The Greek word employed by the Septuagint translators in Isaiah 7:14, however, and which is then quoted by Matthew in his gospel [Matt. 1:23], is a little more certain, although it too is not without some small degree of uncertainty. The word selected to represent the Hebrew almah in the Greek version of the Old Covenant Scriptures is parthenos, which "originally meant a 'girl of marriageable age,' but in later Greek it came to denote a chaste girl, that is: a virgin" [ISBE, vol. 4, p. 990]. "The LXX (Septuagint) renders the Hebrew word by the Greek parthenos, which almost always means 'virgin.' Yet even with this word there are exceptions" [Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 78]. For example, this word is used of Dinah in Gen. 34:4, and yet from the previous three verses we know for a fact that she was no longer a virgin! Also problematic is the use of this word by Paul in 1 Cor. 7:25-38, since there is great diversity of opinion as to the identity of these "virgins" spoken of in the passage, with some scholars regarding them as young wives rather than daughters.

Although there may be some doubt as to the exact sense in which almah and parthenos are used in Isaiah 7:14, there is no doubt whatsoever as to the significance of the term in Matthew 1:23. The context makes it abundantly clear that Mary had not had sexual relations with any man, thus she was indeed a virgin when this child was conceived within her by the Holy Spirit. When the angel Gabriel informed Mary that she would "conceive in your womb, and bear a son" [Luke 1:31], she said to the angel, "How can this be, since I have not known a man?!" [vs. 34]. Thus, there is no question about the truth of the virgin birth of our Lord Jesus. Even Matthew brings this out: "Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows. When His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit" [Matt. 1:18]. We also know, from Matt. 1:22-23, that the prophecy of Isaiah, many hundreds of years earlier, found its ultimate fulfillment in the virgin birth of Jesus the Messiah.

Double Fulfillment

B.W. Johnson, in his classic work The People's NT with Explanatory Notes, points out that the message of Isaiah to Ahaz in Isaiah 7:14, "like many other prophecies, had a double (both a typical and a true) fulfillment. The first was in the reign of Ahaz, a sign concerning a temporal deliverance, but the higher reference is to the spiritual Deliverer of the world" [p. 21]. In the study of biblical/sacred hermeneutics the student will quickly perceive that when interpreting prophetic writings one must be aware that these prophecies are often capable of having multiple applications, both present and future. This is also known among biblical scholars as the compenetration view. Some have characterized these diverse elements as forth-telling and fore-telling. Obviously, as already noted, the prophecy of Isaiah to Ahaz found its ultimate fulfillment many hundreds of years in the future with the incarnation of the Messiah. This does not negate a more immediate and/or temporal fulfillment that would have been more relevant to Ahaz and the trials being faced by the people of Judah.

If indeed this prophecy had a more immediate fulfillment, which is only reasonable to assume, then a number of questions immediately come to mind. Who was the "young woman" who would conceive and give birth? Was she really a virgin (in the same sense as Mary), or was she simply a young maiden who had yet to have this child who would be known as "Immanuel"? Was the child really to be called by this name, or does the name merely represent the truth of God's presence with the people -- perhaps through the influence and leadership of this child? Obviously, these are extremely difficult questions, and, frankly, we simply do not know with any degree of certainty the answers. However, it has not prevented scholars from speculating. Some of the more popular theories are as follows:

FIRST --- The woman was Abi (Abijah), the daughter of Zechariah and wife of King Ahaz, and the son was Hezekiah, who would succeed his father as king and subsequently deliver the nation of Judah from the power of the Assyrians [see: 2 Kings 18:1ff; 2 Chron. 29:1]. Although this is quite an attractive theory, it quickly breaks down due to the fact that when Isaiah made the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14, Hezekiah was already at least nine years old. Nevertheless, "the believing portion of the nation did concentrate their Messianic wishes and hopes for a long time upon Hezekiah" [Keil & Delitzsch, vol. 7, p. 218]. Some of the early church Fathers, such as Justin Martyr (100-165 A.D.), found this view the most appealing. Obviously, Abi was not a "virgin" in the strictest sense of that word, but she was a "young woman/wife," which is also a meaning of almah. Some even suggest she was a type of the virgin Mary, as both their sons grew up to be righteous kings who delivered their people, and both were representative of the reality of "God with us."

SECOND --- The woman was simply some unknown maiden, perhaps known to both Isaiah and Ahaz ("the virgin/maiden"), perhaps even a member of the king's harem, who would conceive and bear a child. Before this child had reached the age of accountability [Isaiah 7:16], God would bring to ruin the kingdoms of the two kings who had arrayed themselves against Ahaz and Judah. The message, therefore, was that God would very soon be delivering His people, therefore Ahaz should be patient and trust Him. It would be a few years hence, but the maiden with child would be the sign that deliverance was coming from the Lord, and it would be soon (before the child was of age). "The obvious and literal meaning of the prophecy is this: that within the time that a young woman, now a virgin, should conceive and bring forth a child, and that child should arrive at such an age as to distinguish between good and evil, that is, within a few years, the enemies of Judah should be destroyed" [Pulpit Commentary, vol. 10, p. 130]. It is even possible this child would literally be named Immanuel, which would serve to confirm even further this sign to Ahaz and assure him that God was indeed with His people.

THIRD --- By far the most popular view, however, and the one that seems the most likely interpretation to me, is that "Isaiah probably referred to his own son" [Craig S. Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, p. 87]. "Almah refers to the young wife of the prophet himself" [Keil & Delitzsch, vol. 7, p. 216]. "The child immediately in view was the son of the prophet and his wife who served as a sign to Ahaz that his enemies would be defeated by God. There was no embarrassment to Isaiah when his wife conceived a son by him, since the word almah allowed for this. Neither is there any embarrassment in Matthew's understanding of the word" [The New Strong's Expanded Dictionary of Bible Words, p. 715]. In other words, almah, when properly understood, would allow either Mary (an actual virgin) to conceive and be with child, just as it would Isaiah's wife (a young woman, though not a virgin). Both would fall under the parameters of the meaning of the word. Dr. Charles Ellicott, in his commentary, concurs -- "The most probable conjecture seems to be that it was Isaiah's own wife, still young (almah), and, as it were, still a bride" [vol. 4, p. 437].

There are additional evidences that this view (the "sign" was fulfilled in the birth of a child to Isaiah and his wife, who was a prophetess) is likely the correct one. As we have already seen implied, Isaiah took one of his sons with him when he initially confronted Ahaz [Isaiah 7:3], and most feel this was a sign to the king. We also have the testimony of Isaiah himself in this context: "Behold, I and the children the Lord has given me are signs and symbols in Israel from the Lord Almighty, who dwells on Mount Zion" [Isaiah 8:18]. Thus, the "sign" that was to be given to Ahaz, which was the birth of a child to a "young woman," could very clearly have been one of the children of Isaiah. Was such a child conceived, and did this child match the conditions that by a certain age the people of Judah would be delivered? The answer is Yes. "Then I went to the prophetess, and she conceived and gave birth to a son. And the Lord said to me, 'Name him Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz (which means "quick to the plunder, swift to the spoil"). Before the boy knows how to say, "My father" or "My mother," the wealth of Damascus and the plunder of Samaria will be carried off by the king of Assyria'" [Isaiah 8:3-4]. This perfectly coincides with the sign to be given to Ahaz -- "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" [Isaiah 7:16]. Although the child was not literally named "Immanuel," nevertheless he clearly signifies the reality of "God with us!"

Isaiah 7:14 is a beautiful prophecy of hope and deliverance during time of distress. It is also a powerful testimony to the grace of God Almighty, who is not willing to quickly abandon even the most obstinate among us. God delivered His people Judah from the threat they faced during the time of King Ahaz. He also, in a far more significant way, has delivered His people of all ages from the threat of sin and death with the incarnation of His Son -- the true embodiment of Immanuel: "God with us!" Praise God for His matchless grace.

Reflections on CD
Down, But Not Out
A Study of Divorce and Remarriage
in Light of God's Healing Grace

by Al Maxey
Order Your Copy Today
Readers' Reflections

From a Reader in Oregon:

Al, I read your book Down, But Not Out earlier this year, and was scanning through it again tonight. Excellent work! You made it simple, sensitive, and full of godly advice and encouragement. I bought 10 copies so that I could possibly help others by giving a copy to those who could benefit from it in the future. Again, Down, But Not Out is a fantastic work. Also, thank you for the great Reflections article: "You Bet Your Life." Perhaps the owners of MarsList would be willing to show their fairness by inviting you back to the group to dialogue with you. What would they have to fear?!

From a Ed.D. in Florida:

Al, Aside from the words and message of the hymn Amazing Grace, the song also has some interesting musical appeal. The melody was composed in the "pentatonic" scale, which means that only five of the seven notes in a major scale are utilized in the song. This technique is curious to our "Western" ears, and so draws our attention to a different musical offering. Thanks for the article!

From a Reader in [Unknown]:

Hey Brother Al, This was the best story I have read in a long time! I am "old Navy" (back to 1969), and it made me think of my days as an "old salt." Thanks again for this story about John Newton.

From a Reader in [Unknown]:

Al, I was thoroughly moved by the Newton piece! Please continue with other pieces like this one!

From a Reader in Colorado:

Dear Bro. Al, I just got around to reading your article "You Bet Your Life," and want to say Amen to it. At present, there are many in my physical and spiritual family who would brand me a "Liberal" for even thinking about such "heretical" ideas as you present in your weekly Reflections. Our congregation is in a state of spiritual flux right now, and the elders have made some unfortunate decisions in the past few years that have caused an exodus of members to other churches in the area -- even to the "denominations." About 50 of them have left because they are dissatisfied with the traditional legalism of the church. My wife and I have also become quite disconcerted by the legalistic patternism in the Churches of Christ, and we have further ceased believing that "WE are the only ones going to Heaven."

From a Reader in Florida:

Brother Maxey, I love the articles that you write, and I am thankful for you, as you have made me think outside of what I have been taught for over twenty years. This is especially true with regard to the "law of silence." I am now trying to travel the road to a closer relationship with my Savior and my Father. The group that I have come out of believes me to be on my way to Hell, and that I am fallen away, all because I am no longer with them. They even believe that all of the rest of the Churches of Christ are on their way to Hell, all because these other congregations (in their view) don't have it "completely right." The group that I left, however, thinks that they DO have it all "perfectly right," and that they are the only ones who do. I hope to be able to speak to some of them one day, and to share with them some of what I have learned. Thank you again, Al, for all that you have done to open our eyes to His grace!

From a Reader in Kentucky:

Al, I love your Reflections. I grew up in a very legalistic Church of Christ that, of course, preached the so-called "law of silence." Since I have been out of that group for about 4 years now, I can see the errors of what they teach, but could never quite put all the many pieces together as effectively as you have. I have called them [they have a local Church of Christ radio program], trying to show them the true light, and they have challenged me to read Hebrews 7:11-14 and then tell them how "silence" doesn't prohibit. I can't wait to give them your answer. Everything is so much clearer now that I have come to know there is no "law of silence." Thank you!

From a Reader in Texas:

Al, It has been a while since I have written, but I just wanted you to know that I had been thinking of you and the pressures you face daily as you continue to serve our Lord. While not anywhere near the level you have been attacked on, I too have been attacked lately and thus know how the heart feels when the evil in another of God's creatures attacks the man behind a thought. As I was thinking of my own situation, God held you up before me, and I thanked Him for all that you do. May our God continue to bless you and your wife with many years of service and joy in the Lord.

From a Minister in Arkansas:

Dear Brother Al, Thank you for your article on John Newton. This literally brought tears to my eyes. I have similarly seen the grace of God within my own short life thus far. I too, much like John Newton, once had turned to a life of sin, but the grace of God brought me to repentance. Again, I enjoyed this issue of Reflections very much. Al, you are definitely blessed with the gift of spreading the gospel of Christ most effectively. May God continue to bless you forever. Keep up the good work.

If you would like to be removed from or added to this
mailing list, contact me and I will immediately comply.
If you are challenged by these Reflections, then feel
free to send them on to others and encourage them
to write for a free subscription. These articles may all
be purchased on CD. Check the ARCHIVES for
details and past issues of these weekly Reflections: