Christmas Prophecy Controversy: Is 'A Virgin Shall Conceive' Really About Jesus?
Isaiah 7:14 says, "Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bring forth a son, and you shall call his name Immanuel." The New Testament clearly tells us that the fulfillment of this passage is in the virgin conception and birth of Jesus (Matthew 1:21-23).
However, there is a controversy concerning the original intent of Isaiah's prophecy. Is the prophet speaking merely of a young woman who gets pregnant and gives birth to an ordinary child (and then later Matthew applies the prophecy in typical fulfillment to Christ)? There are certainly many biblical scholars (even conservative, evangelical scholars) who go with this.
Or is Isaiah actually giving a direct prophecy exclusively about Jesus with both near and far-reaching applications? If He is, and Jesus is the only fulfillment, then Isaiah 7:14 is one more link in a long chain of prophecies uttered hundreds of years ahead of time proving that Jesus is the divine Messiah of Israel. Let's break this passage down little bit by little bit and see what we come up with.
1. The context.
The first nine verses of Isaiah 7 set the scene: God is speaking to King Ahaz of Israel about his alliance with Syria against the impending invasion of Assyria. The Lord tells Ahaz that the enemy's plans would fail. He even offers Ahaz a sign to assure him that within sixty-five years the alliance would be broken (Isaiah 7:8-11).
We know from history that this happened in three stages of Assyrian conquest: in 732, 722, and 699 B.C. The Lord in verse 11 offers a sign "as deep as Sheol or as high as heaven," implying that this sign would be something definitey out of the ordinary. It would not be just another everyday occurrence.
2. The sign.
We need to pick apart two phrases in Isaiah 7:14 to find out the meaning. First, Isaiah tells us about THE virgin (not "a" virgin as in the KJV; the definite article "the" precedes the word for virgin in the Hebrew text). This means that there is a specific person in mind. And this particular virgin will bear a child.
The Hebrew word for "virgin" in this sentence is "almah" (used only seven times in the entire Hebrew Old Testament (OT)) and some English translations (RSV, NRSV, NEB, JB) translate "almah" as "young woman," or "damsel," or even "maiden," thus obscuring the meaning. Is she a virgin or not? Is she a virgin while she's pregnant or not?
Many Hebrew scholars contend that if God had actually meant virgin he would have used the much more specific word "bethulah." (However, "bethulah" may be used of a married woman as in Joel 1:8.) "Almah," on the other hand, has the basic meaning of a young woman of marriageable age. We should not put too much emphasis on this, but the Ugaritic (an ancient language similar to Hebrew) equivalent of "almah" is "g'lmt," and it too means a young woman who is not yet married (i.e. a virgin).
The real meaning of a word, however, is found in its usage in context. Each time "almah" is used in the OT the context indicates virginity (Genesis 24:43; Exodus 2:8; Psalm 68:25, Song of Solomon 1:3; 6:8; and Proverbs 30:19ff).
Conclusive evidence for the meaning of "almah" is found in the Septuagint (Greek translation of the OT done by Jewish scholars some 200 years before Christ). In the Septuagint, Jewish scholars used the Greek word "parthenos" to translate "almah." "Parthenos" always, and exclusively means "virgin," so that is how the Jewish people 200 years before Christ understood who this woman is in Isaiah 7:14.
But what about "shall conceive and bring forth a son"? The word for "shall conceive" is "harah" and is a verbal adjective describing present condition. The prophet does not see a woman who one day will get pregnant. The prophet instead sees a virgin who is presently pregnant! So, actually a better way to translate this is "Behold the virgin is pregnant..." Isaiah sees somewhere in the future for Israel, a pregnant virgin who will bring forth a child to save his people. And a pregnant virgin would definitely be a miraculous sign!
3. The name.
This child is given a special name. God tells Isaiah that He shall be called "Immanuel," which is Hebrew for "God with us." The only other time this name is used is in Isaiah 8:8 where the Child Immanuel is described as the owner of the land of Israel and also their protector (8:10). This cannot be Isaiah's son, but someone of divine origin and qualities.
Isaiah shows this far-reaching prophecy is a sign to Ahaz in his present condition. In verses 15-16, God tells him the time span allowed before judgment will fall upon Israel and Syria. From the Child's conception until his ability to know good from evil (2 to 4 years) will be the amount of time the alliance has left.
This is also confirmed in an immediate sign to Isaiah in 8:1-4. Isaiah's wife will bear a son named Maher-shalal-hashbaz (meaning in English: "hasten to the spoil, hasten to the prey"). The name foretells the soon-coming events of the Assyrian destruction of Israel and Syria. The child of 8:3 is not Immanuel and is not conceived miraculously of a virgin, nor is this passage referred to in the NT as a prophecy of messianic importance.
The Immanuel of Isaiah 8:8 is not connected to Isaiah's son in 8:3 — there is a natural break in context between verses 4 and 5. The context and language of Isaiah 7:14 points only to a miraculous fulfillment in history in the birth of Jesus. So, when you are reading Isaiah 7:14 at Christmastime (or anytime), you can read with full confidence that this particular passage is predicting 700 years ahead of time that there will be a specific pregnant virgin (Mary) who will bring forth her Son, Immanuel — the One who is God with us. Amen.