Shop Talk
Isaiah 7
Who is Immanuel?

Isaiah 7
1 And it came about in the days of Ahaz, son of Jotham, son of Uzziah king of Judah, that Rezin king of Aram, and Pekah, son of Remaliah king of Judah, went up to Jerusalem to war against her, and he was not successful in fighting against her.
2 When it was told to the house of David saying, "Aram has settled down upon Ephraim," his heart and the heart of his people fluttered, like the quaking of forest trees before the wind.
3 and the Lord said to Isaiah, "Go out now to meet Ahaz, you and Shear-Jashub, your son, towards the end of the watercourse of the upper pond, towards the highway of the fuller's field."
4 and say to him, "Be on your guard but be calm, do not fear, and do not let your heart flutter by reason of these two smoking fire-brands, the burning anger of Rezin and Aram the son of Remaliah.
5 Because Aram has counseled evil against you to Ephraim and the son of Remaliah saying,
6 "Go up into Judah and cause her to dread and break through against them, and cause the son of Tabeel to reign as king in her midst."
    7 Thus the Lord God says,
       "She will not stand,
       and she will not come to pass.
    8 Because the head of Aram is Damascus
       and the head of Damascus is Rezin,
       and in again sixty-five years Ephraim will be shattered as a people.
    9 and the head of Ephraim is Samaria,
       and the head of Samaria is the son of Remaliah,
       if you will not trust then you will not last."
10 and the Lord again was speaking to Ahaz, saying,
11 Ask for yourself a sign from the Lord your God, as deep as Sheol or as high as the heavens."
12 and Ahaz said, "I will not ask nor will I test the Lord."
13 and He said, "Listen please, O house of David, is it too small a thing from you to weary men that you also exhaust the patience of my God?
    14 Therefore the Lord Himself will give to you a sign;
       Behold the virgin will become pregnant
       and will bear a son,
       and she will call his name Immanuel.
    15 He will eat curds and honey,
       in regards to his ability to know,
       he will reject the bad
       and choose the good.
    16 Because before the lad knows how to reject the evil and choose the good,
       the land which you dread, because of the two kings, will be forsaken.
    17 and the Lord will bring upon you
       and upon your people
       and upon the house of your fathers
       such days as have never come before the day that Ephraim turned aside from Judah,
          the king of Assyria.
    18 In that day the Lord will hiss for the fly which is at the end of the Nile,
       and for the bee which is in the land of Assyria.
    19 and they will come in
       and they will settle down in the steep wady,
       and in the cleft of the cliff,
       and in all the pastures
       and in all the thorn bushes.
    20 In that day the Lord will shave off with a razor,
       hired from the Euphrates by the king of Assyria,
       the head and the hair of the feet,
       and also the beard will be snatched away.
    21 In that day each man will preserve a cow and two sheep.
    22 and it will come to pass that
       because of the abundance of milk he will eat curds,
       because curds and honey will be eaten by all who remain in the midst of the land.
    23 and it will come to pass in that day that every place which there is a thousand vines
       at a thousand pieces of silver will be in thorns and thornbushes.
    24 With the arrow and with the bow will he enter there because the thorns
       and thornbushes will be in all the land,
    25 and in all of the hills which were cultivated with the hoe.""
    (Latham - 2008)

The story unfolding in Is 7 is also related in 2 Kgs 15:37 and 2 Chr 28.  In the 2 Kgs chronicling of events it can be seen that Rezin and Pekah began to move against Judah before Jotham, Ahaz's father, had died.  He was not particularly God's man, not doing good in the sight of the Lord (2 Kgs 16:2, 11).  Ahaz kept his allegiance to the Baals and perhaps even to Molech, burning his sons in fire (2 Chr 28:3).  Chronicles notes that "28:4 He sacrificed and burned incense on the high places, on the hills and under every green tree." (NASB)

2 Chr 28 points out that it was because of this faithless behavior that Ahaz was inflicted by his neighbors from the north, by Aram, by Israel.  It depicts the story in even more graphic detail than 2 Kgs, recounting that Pekah and the sons of Israel carted off more than 200,000 women and children in addition to the 120,000 Israelite men who were slain before Ahaz was to call for help.  His cry for help was not very astute, only expedient, Ahaz was to ignore God and depend upon kingdoms.  Bad move, Ahaz.

It is into this political montage that the story of Is 7 unfolds.

Is 7:1-2 - With the beginning of this chapter, had Rezin and Pekah already done their damage in Judah?  (2 Chr 28:6-8)  Likely not yet.  We do know that the situation had Ahaz, and his court, shaking in their knees.

Some commentators have spiritualized the meaning of house of David to the extent that the exegetical waters have now been quite muddied.  However, I found that house of David in this era, outside the context of David or Solomon, tended to be used to highlight the split between Israel and Judah (c.f. 1 Kings 12, 13:1, etc.).  The two occurrences of this phrase in Isaiah seem to support this.  We are looking at a reference to a split monarchy, the southern of two kingdoms in the Promised Land.

Vv.3-6 - Isaiah was given marching orders to go meet with King Ahaz.  Ahaz was probably checking out the city's water supply in preparation for an extended siege.  This impending crisis becomes the central backdrop for further developments within the chapter.

Even though it is designated by some as an oracle, this section is still backgrounded information.  This is merely the preface to the oracle.  The Lord instructed Isaiah to tell Ahaz information that he undoubtedly already possessed.  In other words, this is not new news.

Isaiah brings his son Shear-yashub (a remnant returns) to the meeting.  Did the name have any meaning to Ahaz?  We don't know.

Vv.7-9 - The text now arrives at the prophecy, the reason for Isaiah's visit.  This can be viewed as an oracle with a bite, in essence, "even though the bad guys will fail, if you do not trust/believe then you will not survive."  This is a wordplay in the Hebrew, it suggests the English translation ought to be something like if you do not confirm this then you will not be made firm.

Vv.10-11 - Notice that the narrative is thrust forward in this section as Isaiah's instructions from God suddenly become the dialogue itself (v.10).  Some scholars note that, "Isaiah did not claim to speak about God, he claimed to speak for God."

We find that Ahaz gets a case of cold feet.  Cold feet before God certainly is not a unique situation.  Moses repeatedly denied his ability to lead the people, but God gave him various signs as motivation (leprous hand - Ex 4:6; serpent staff - Ex 4:3).  Ever timid Gideon repeatedly asked God for a sign (Jdg 6:36).

It is possible that Ahaz displayed some tendency toward disbelief, (keep in mind that Ahaz was not particularly faithful toward God - 2 Kgs 16:2, 2 Chr 28:2-4), this may have accounted for God's offer for Ahaz to request any sign, the sky is the limit.  Knowing God's omniscience in this situation it seems likely that God's offer (and Ahaz's subsequent refusal) was designed to show us, the gentle reader of Isaiah, what Ahaz was really made of.  He followed other false gods, and where goes the king, so goes the kingdom.

Note that in v.11 Isaiah refers to your God.  This becomes critical as an indicator of Ahaz's status before God when he refuses to trust.  In v.13 it becomes my God.

V.12 - Remember from ancient Exodus history that the Israelites, as they camped at Rephidim, had water on their minds, rather no water.  And they contended with Moses and with God saying, "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt only to kill us with thirst?"  (Ex 17:3 paraphrased)  The basis for their contention was this, "Is the Lord with us, or not?"  The place became known as Massah and Meribah for a testing and a contention.

Moses took his staff, the one in which he struck the Nile River, and he struck a stone at Horeb.  Water gushed forth from the rock.  It is ironic that Ahaz chose this historical event, God's sign to a stubborn people, from which to express his trepidation to ask for a sign.  Had he waffled like Moses, had he whined for a sign like Gideon, we would have seen a much different outcome.

Vv.13-14a - We see that God forces a sign upon the unbelieving king.  The Hebrew usage in this verse can be seen as exhaust the patience of God.  This same verb is used in Is 1:14 when God speaks of wearying of Israel's festivals.  It is also in Is 47:13, Babylon is wearied of its many counsels.  It is fascinating that in these latter two references that the term khodesh, new moon, surfaces.  What does that tell us?

Ahaz is addressed as the house of David.  Again, I believe that in this context it is an explicit reference to the divided monarchy.

V.14b - There are five basic possible interpretations of v.14, paraphrased below;
  • Royal mother, royal child
      This would be Ahaz's son based upon the idea that the king would then have first hand knowledge about the son and his name.  Hezekiah's son may be a viable alternative.
  • Isaiah's wife, his own child
      Some have suggested that Isaiah's wife would have yet a third son and she would name him Immanuel.  Since his sons already have symbolic names this would be no great stretch.
  • Mother's in general, children symbolize hope
      After the siege had been lifted, some suggest, then mother's across the countryside would tend to give their sons a positive, uplifting name, such as Immanuel.
  • Virgin Mary, baby Jesus
  • Royal contemporary, known child
      This could be any mother/child that is known to the court of Ahaz.
Concerning the term almah, the virgin, she would be unmarried, mature, and her chastity would not be in question.  Both the Latin Vulgate and Septuagint support this view with gloss words that denote virginity.  Liberal scholars would question whether she was a virgin at all, since almah is not a technical term for virgin.

Virgins become pregnant every day (after which they are no longer virginal), beget their children, and name them.  If we are to remain faithful to our hermeneutic, then the context of this chapter/book must rule our interpretation.  Moving outside the context too soon, such as into Matthew 1:23, is rife with hazard.  So the only pertinent question can be, if this is to be a sign to Ahaz, then it must be one that he will understand and agree that, "Yes, this is the sign."  Otherwise, it is a useless oracle to him.

Thus, Ahaz was told that the virgin will become pregnant.  While the text does not support a future aspect, one assumes that Isaiah imparts knowledge that Ahaz will have to apprehend as a sign in order to verify that what God says is true.  It will be a future event.  The Septuagint translation of the Hebrew supports this with future tense verbs.

Some think that Immanuel belongs to Isaiah himself, they use the apparent similarity between Is 7:15 and Is 8:4 as support.  There are at least four problems with this conjecture.  First, the earlier reference (v.15) speaks of an age of reason, to select good and reject evil, as predictive of certain political events.  The latter (Is 8:4) speaks of the child crying out "mom!" or "dad!" as the discriminating marker.  Second, the demographic of mom appears to be all wrong (Isaiah's wife was not a virgin).  Third, if the birth event of a child is sufficient to identify the two as one individual then why stop there?  Why not say that the child born in Is 9:6 is also Isaiah's son?  Having begged the question, there seems to be a clear division between chapters seven and eight when we encounter, "And the Lord said to me, "Take for yourself a large tablet . . (8:1)"" and then "And I approached the prophetess . . (8:3)"  The text in chapter 8 is no longer an encounter with Ahaz.  Thus, the tie is too tenuous for any certainty of the child's identity using that rationale.

Fourth, Isaiah uses the theme of child/children at least twenty-one times throughout the book.  Some children refer to Judah's oppressors (Is 2:6, 3:4, 12).  God uses some children for signs to the people (7:14, 8:18).  Note that in the latter reference God has given them children for signs and wonders.  He uses child to indicate the ease of counting (10:16), children safe from harm (11:8 ), children as an object of pity (13:18, 37:3, 47:8-9, 57:5), as a representation of God's people (29:20, 30:1, 49:8, 57:4, 65:23), and joy despite barrenness (54:1).  The point of this is that child/children is used to such a frequent extent throughout the book that making a tie between two such references should be undertaken carefully.

But who was Immanuel?  If mothers in general were to name their children Immanuel out of a sense of relief, then word might or might not reach Ahaz in the palace.  If the child were Isaiah's, it might be seen by Ahaz that she does not qualify as the correct demographic.  If the child were Jesus of Nazareth, then Ahaz would never see the sign.  My thoughts are that it had to be someone, mother and son, who were known to Ahaz.  The fifth bullet point above thus becomes the most likely candidate.

V.15 - The sign of the child continues by stating that he will eat curds and honey.  This must be seen in the context of an impending Assyrian destruction (vv.20-25).  Curds and honey will be consumed because no other food seems to be available (v.22).  This will be a sign of destitution with the land as a result of siege from the Euphrates (v.20).  Some have noted that curds and honey may be a baby food, this seems to have no Biblical support.  It is agreed that other references to curds tend to denote a sumptuous feast.  However, these instances include much other food in the menu.  I am assuming, therefore, that we are seeing some degree of irony portrayed to the reader.

V.16 - Vv. 15 & 16 speak of an age of reason for this child.  Before he knows how to . . tells not of his toilet training but of his cognitive ability to discern and actively choose good or evil.  This child will reject the evil choice and opt for the good.  Early translations, such as the Septuagint, affirm that this refers to evil in this context rather than merely something injurious.

How old is this?  Twelve years seems a reasonable choice (Luke 2:41-51) but this number, as are all others, is but a guess.  Ahaz's sign, however, will come to pass before the child reaches his age of reason/discernment.  Ephraim, the land which you dread, will be laid to waste.

Vv.17-20 - V.17 as I translated it above is somewhat unclear.  I want to restate it in a more periphrastic manner to better see the direct object.  "And the Lord will bring the king of Assyria upon you, and upon your people . . etc."  In other words, that which is being brought upon the land and people will be the Assyrians, the like of which has never before happened.

Because Ahaz had turned away from God and turned to Assyria for help (c.f. 2 Kgs 16:8, Is 7:9) it appears that Ahaz and Judah will witness a day of judgment.  This can be seen to have happened (2 Chr 28:20).  References to the fly of the Nile, the bee of Assyria, no doubt speak of foreign troops invading the land.  They will be ubiquitous to such an extent that Judah will be put to shame by the shaving of beards.

Vv.21-25 - God's judgment is so thorough that little will remain for provisions, even the fields will be thorn infested.  Each man will have but a heifer and two sheep.  Some have said that this is a sign of hope, I see this as an almost complete catastrophe.  For instance, curds and honey may have been a royal food as seen in nearby ANE cultures.  But notice that curds and honey, as used in v.22, was the food of choice in a depopulated country.  Those who were dining out were not doing so in the best of conditions but rather the worst.

So what does one do with but two sheep and one cow?  Almost nothing.  If you eat them then they are gone, there is nothing left to eat (no freezers).  Curds implies that the cow was "fresh" (has been pregnant and now has milk).  Additionally, keeping a cow continuously fresh has its own problems.  Eventually the cow will experience severe health issues.  On a modern day dairy farm we see a cycle of about 12 to 16 months from pregnancy to pregnancy for the cows.  This is a one way street to oblivion.  Rather than a sign of hope I see this as a sign of eventual starvation and death for the people of the land.

I found that much of the argument around who was Immanuel in the theological conversation strained out the gnat but ingested the camel.  For instance, some have argued a typology of this oracle such that OT (Is 7) and NT (Mt 1:23) had to match exactly in all respects.  Thus, Ahaz's sign had to be a virgin birth, too.  After all, did not God enable Sarah to become pregnant as a type of birth fulfillment?  This borders on the absurd and travels far beyond the normal usage of language.

My conclusion in this contentious area focuses on the meaning of the Hebrew word for sign (oat).  In both instances of the birth fulfillment, Isaian and Matthean, God gave the people a sign that what He says is true.  When Ahaz stumbled into his denial of trust in God, he was given a sign which would bear witness to the truth of the oracle.  We do not know why Ahaz used the unfortunate example of Massah and Meribah to express his reluctance.  We do suspect that had he studied Scripture a little more carefully that he would have avoided such an example.  Whatever the case may be, God's word did come to pass.  The evil Syro-Ephraimite alliance was brought to its knees.  The much more evil Assyrian menace did invade the region, but it was not until the Babylonian terror came to the fore that Judah eventually fell.

In the same respect the birth of Christ would be a sign to a nation under the Roman yoke, one they desperately sought.  I believe that the virgin birth of Jesus of Nazareth, even though it is fundamentally distinct from the Isaian occurrence, was a sign to the age (and throughout the ages) that what God says is true.  It is a sign that God cares so much for us that He put His Son here to die for our sins.

Soli Deo gloria

Works Cited

-. New American Standard Bible. Anaheim: Foundation, 1997.