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How to Understand Isaiah 7:14 in the Literal Context
  1. Introduction

T

ogether with chapter six, chapter seven lays the groundwork for the entire book of Isaiah. These are linchpin chapters that must be valued and understood first for their literal meaning, so that the beginning, remainder, and all of the book can be understood harmoniously with the full Catholic sense of Scripture.

The tropological, didactic and messianic value of chapter seven also cannot be over-emphasized. There is much to say about the response of Ahaz resembles our own response when we are being called to just trust in the Lord; the contrasts between how Isaiah responds to the call of God versus how Ahaz responds – clinging to the Lord versus clinging to pagan thought and ideas.

Through song, Advent and Christmas liturgy, and poor catechesis, perhaps Christians have become too familiar with Isaiah 7:14 as being only a prophecy for the coming of Christ Jesus, rather than valuing it first within the context of its literal understanding.

This paper proposes that unless we first understand the literal meaning and value of Isaiah 7, we’ll always fall short of appreciating what all of Isaiah has to say about God’s plan to restore His people.

  

  1. The Book of Isaiah

The book of Isaiah consists of sixty six chapters, of which four sections of these chapters are thought to contain the authentic words of the prophet Isaiah (1-11, 13-23, 24-27, and 34-37), while the remainder of the book is composed of a collection of oracles from exilic and post-exilic times (Deutero-Isaiah).  The traditional tripartite division of Isaiah has it divided into chapters 1-39, 40-55, and 56-66. Altogether, Isaiah stands as one of the longest books in the chapter in both the number of chapters and in the number of words.

What we know comes from the prophet Isaiah himself is only from the book attributed to his name, beginning in chapter six, which has been traditionally called Isaiah’s Memoir (6:1 – 8:18 [(:6]).

 

  1. The Historical Setting of Isaiah 7

It was in the year that King Uzziah of Judah died (742 B.C.) that Isaiah saw a vision of the Lord “seated on a high and lofty throne . . .”[1]  He is man who has a bright understanding of who he is (unclean) in relation to a holy God, but he is also a man who is audacious, courageous, bold, and obedient enough to respond to the call that the Lord is willing to place upon him to be sent to the Northern Kingdom to speak His words. Perhaps the mission that he received to prophesy to a people whom the Lord doesn’t plan to immediately save or restore is too arduous even for the brave, is why Isaiah was compelled to cry out in supplication, “How long, O Lord?”[2]  To which, the Lord only has to offer signals and signs of the desolation of His people.

We also know that Isaiah had two sons, and he was married to a woman who was designated as a prophetess.[3]  Through some of his oracles, that will be discussed later, he seems to be aware of the work of the prophets Hosea and Amos who also worked in the Northern Kingdom.

“In the days of Ahaz . . .” Following the call, Isaiah enters chapter seven which, taken together with II Kings, describes the situation in which the prophet was sent.  There is a crisis in Judah as a result of the so-called Syro-Ephraimite war, which was an attempt by Syria and Israel on Judah to force it into the anti-Assyrian coalition.  In response to this near aggression of King Ahaz of Judah (735 – 715), who was not faithful to the Lord and who practiced paganism, decided to align himself with King Tiglath-pileser of Assyria.[4]

King Ahaz will refuse to heed oracles of Isaiah that he trusts in the Lord, and what follows in the remainder of Isaiah’s Memoir and to the conclusion of the first division of the book are a series of oracles against Judah, Israel, and Assyria; and concluding in chapter eleven with a plan for final restoration of His people.

 

  1. On the Yowns and Names

“In the days of Ahaz . . .” Chapter seven begins with it a timestamp, common to Biblical literature that serves as an indicator for an actual historical event and a connection to all Old Testament text.

In the former case, these are names of real people and the setting of this event occurred in a real place.  In the instant case, the principal players associated with it are Ahaz, king of Judah, are Jotham, son of Uzziah, Rezin, king of Aram, and Pekah, king of Israel, son of Remaliah.

This initial timestamp will be followed up by four prophetic timestamps that begin with the phrase, “On that day”.[5]  These prophetic days follow the sign given to Ahaz – a sign he didn’t ask for – that “the young woman, pregnant and about to bear a son, shall name him Emmanuel . . .”[6]

In prophetical literature, the use of the word ‘day’ (Heb. yown) is not substantively different than how it is used in Genesis’s creation narrative and in the remainder of the Torah.  Yown belongs to the Lord, and it is His to do with it however He chooses.  In Genesis God intentionally created seven yowns for a purpose distinct to him and for His creatures (“Evening came, and morning followed – the third yown”)[7].  In Leviticus the priests were required to do or not to do things on specific yowns so that God might be pleased (“. . . the priest shall quarantine the infected article for seven yowns”)[8]  Typically In Deuteronomy the commands of God are for yown “ (. . . if you obey the commandments of the Lord, your god, which I am giving you yown [today] . . .”).[9]

Therefore, Isaiah’s and the other prophet’s repeated use of yown for the present, past and future/impending events follows a rich Biblical tradition of intentionally connecting it with God and for His glory alone.  Far are we presently connected to such use of the word ‘day’.  Often we hear is asked, or often do we say, ‘How are you doing today’ without any notion of the blessing contained in the question itself.

Another repetition present in this section if it can be extended to 8:3 is presence of the symbolic name of a son; (1) Shear-jashub (a remnant will return),[10] (2) Emmanuel (with us is God),[11] and (3) Maher-shala-has-baz (quick spoils; speedy plunder).[12]   Names mean something in Hebrew Biblical literature, but even more so if it is assigned by God because it means that God has given that person (a man typically) purpose that everyone who hears his name will know.  Similarly, Hosea, who was also prophesying in Northern Israel from 750 – 725 B.C., had a wife named Gomer who bore him three sons, all of which the Lord named.[13]

 

  1. The Refusal of the Sign from God

Signs from God are for people who are interested in signs from God. For those who have already made their minds up, and are not interested in hearing or reconciling themselves to God’s intentions for them, signs the Lord need to be avoided.  Such is the case with Ahaz.  At his disposal would have been advisors, family, friends, and prophets – all of whom may have been urging him in one director or another.  His refusal to Isaiah suggestion of a sign, notes Jensen, indicates that “that his mind is already closed.”[14]

R. B. Y. Scott commented on the qualitative depth of the offering itself coming from Isaiah. “Here,” says Scott, “Ahaz is given the unusual option of naming the sign from anywhere, even from areas normally outside of human experience, deep as Sheol [the world of the dead][15] or high as heaven.”[16] Indeed, as first read one might think that Ahaz is being forceful and pressing his agenda on Ahaz for him to accept out of fear.  Yet, to the contrary, what Ahaz is doing here is offering the fullness of the mercy and interest God has in the well-being of His people.   He wants to assure Ahaz that the day belongs to God and that he can have peace in being obedient His will.

As far as bad analogies can go, it would be comparable to walking up to a person who you knew for certain was going to die in the next hour by getting hit by car while they are crossing a busy intersection, and offering them any car they would like – from a 1981 Chevrolet Chevette to a 2016 Mercedes-Maybach S600 Sedan.

The ‘sign’ in conjunction with ‘far below – Sheol’ and ‘high above – Heaven’ being offered here in vv. 11 and 14 by Ahaz did not necessarily mean something miraculous.  Both Jensen and P. R. Ackroyd[17] connect these to similar usage in Isaiah 37:30 and 38:7-8 respectively.

At Ahaz’s refusal, “I will not ask!  I will not tempt the Lord!”[18]  Isaiah seems to have no recourse to become officious and now give to Ahaz, who he sees represents the entire “house of David” and that pertains to it, the sign from God.  Whereas before Ahaz had the option to choose his sign, “This sign will be not of Ahaz’, but of Yahweh’s choosing, and, its purpose being different, it will not need to be miraculous like that offered to and rejected by Ahaz.”

 

  1. The Promises are Given (vv. 14 – 25)

The First Promise: Ahaz refusal to trust in the Lord solicits five consequential promises from God that are to come to forth.  Ahaz could have gotten one sign, but at this refusal, God gives him five promises.

    “. . . the young woman, pregnant and about to bear a son, shall name him Emmanuel. Curds and honey he will eat so that he may learn to reject evil and choose good; for before the child learns to reject evil and choose good, the land of those two kings whom you dread shall be deserted. The LORD shall bring upon you and your people and your father’s house such days as have not come since Ephraim seceded from Judah (the king of Assyria).

What can be said about this promise outside of the dominant Christian interpretation that is guided by Matthew?

G. Buchanan Gray comments on the fact that from the patristic to the early Protestants, Christian interpreters have placed a heavy emphasis of this verse in connection to Matthew’s use of it in 1:23. In contrast, Jewish interpreters have always insisted that Isaiah’s promise here is in regards to a birth due to ordinal human intercourse (nothing miraculous – this is a promise, not the sign refused).[19]

The difficulty in interpreting this passage rest in many “ambiguities and awkwardness of the passage.”[20]   The promise doesn’t give enough away to allow for a general consensus to be reached.   What Gray does say should be conclusive is that (1) the predicted birth will in no away be abnormal; “but a child (or children_ conceived and born in the ordinary course of nature will be named Immanuel, God with us”; and (2) Judah will not be harmed by Ahaz’s actions; inasmuch as Northern Israel and Syria will be.

Scott notes that the Hebrew for ‘virgin’ here is almah, meaning ‘maiden or young woman of marriageable age’.[21]  The Septuagint translated this word into Greek as parthenos, meaning ‘virgin’.  Matthew lifted the verse, not from the Hebrew, but, rather from the Septuagint.

Gray states that the patristic criticisms of the early Jewish theory, that the child to be born was Hezekiah, was succeeded by medieval Jewish scholars who saw the child as either (1) the wife of Isaiah (a historic view also held by some Christians); or (2) with another wife of Ahaz.

The early Protestants followed the line of the traditional Catholic interpretation of Isaiah, with the caveat by Luther and Calvin, that almah need not necessarily mean ‘perpetual virgin’.

The ambiguity of the promise and knowledge of the prophet of God’s intention aside, certainly Isaiah could have used the Hebrew word for ‘virgin’ if he intended or was inspired to and he could have used more words to specify that the birth would be miraculous rather than nature if he intended or was inspired to.

Nevertheless, it was essentially vital to Matthew throughout his narrative to demonstrate how Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophets; therefore, the promise to Ahaz qualifies, either young woman or virgin, whether it is miraculous or not.  For Matthew Yeshua is Immanuel and the virgin birth simply explains how it is that God is Immanuel.

Scott also notes that the central point of departure for Christian and Jews on this point of Immanuel is that the child to be named Immanuel is only be named in token of the impending deliverance.  The child is not said by Isaiah to be the actual deliverer.[22]  In response, the fact that the Septuagint was translated 200 to 300 years before the coming of Christ, perhaps there was further rabbinical thought that was circulating about what Isaiah meant.  That is, if the translators wanted to use a more related word the Greek for virgin, they could have, but that they didn’t suggest that more mature understanding of the verse caused them to use parthenos.

The Second through Fifth Promise: This section (vv. 18 – 25) consists of a series of short oracles or promises, which Jensen says are fragments and attached here “because they relate to the preceding material.”[23]

The price the house of David has to pay for Ahaz refusing to trust in the Lord is an impending condition that Israel has not seen “since Ephraim seceded from Judah (the King of Assyria)”; that is, prior to the secession of the Northern Kingdom from the South.[24]

    On that day The LORD shall whistle for the fly in the farthest streams of Egypt, and for the bee in the land of Assyria. All of them shall come and settle in the steep ravines and in the rocky clefts, on all thorn bushes and in all pastures.

    On that day the Lord shall shave with the razor hired from across the River (the king of Assyria) the head, and the hair of the feet; it shall also shave off the beard.

    On that day a man shall keep alive a young cow or a couple of sheep, and from their abundant yield of milk he shall eat curds; curds and honey shall be the food of all who are left in the land.

    On that day every place where there were a thousand vines worth a thousand pieces of silver shall become briers and thorns.  One shall have to go there with bow and arrows, for all the country shall be briers and thorns. But as for all the hills which were hoed with a mattock, for fear of briers and thorns you will not go there; they shall become a place for cattle to roam and sheep to trample.”

For Scott, these four promises concern a colorful imaging for the ruin of Israel.  The first two concern figures of speech, while the two latter describe ruin of the land.  He agrees with Jensen that these oracles are not necessarily related to the promise of Immanuel; inasmuch as they may be from the same period.

    On that day The LORD shall whistle for the fly in the farthest streams of Egypt . . .”  This is the action of a shepherd summoning his sheep[25] says Scott,[26] while the fly and the bee represent hostile armies.  While Isaiah doesn’t tend to liken the invaders to Egypt, Hosea does.[27]

    On that day the Lord shall shave with the razor . . .” Shave and razor is a double entendre.  Northern Israel will suffer from the flood Ahaz has set loose by appealing to the Assyrian King.[28]

    “On that day a man shall keep alive a young cow or a couple of sheep . . .”  When the desolation comes only those who eat the food of nomadic wanderers, cruds and wild honey will survive.[29]  Sheppard sees this oracle as applying to a future Assyrian attack on Ahaz.[30]

    “On that day every place where there were a thousand vines worth a thousand pieces . . .”  When this promise is fulfilled men will not be able to hunt where they once were able to enjoy rich bounty, but these lands will now be a place for cattle to wander.

 

  1. Summary

There is much ambiguity in regards to the promise of Immanuel.  Perhaps it as unreasonable to hope Isaiah would have used words or enough words to clear up a host of various interpretations.   The same hope could be foisted upon Paul or the author of Revelation.

While the Christian is certain that any ambiguity has been settled now with the coming of Christ, Isaiah 7:14 is still a difficult passage for non-Christians, that needs to be respected in light of what we know about its historical context, immediate implications, as well for promises that God made.

The meaning of these passages is that will bring His covenant with his people to fulfillment through the house of David, and the insolence of the human kings will be eventually overcome.

 

Footnotes

[1] Isa. 6:1.

[2] Isa. 6:11.

[3] Cf. Isa. 7:3; 8:3, 18.

[4] Cf. 2 Kings 16.

[5] Isa. 7:18, 20, 21, 23.

[6] Isa. 7:10-16.

[7] Gen. 1:13.

[8] Lev. 13:50.

[9] Dt. 28:13.

[10] Isa. 7:3.

[11] Isa. 7:10-17; 8:8-10.

[12] Isa. 8:3.

[13] Cf. Hos. 1:1-9.

[14] Jensen, Joseph, Irwin, William H. “Isiah 1-39.” The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Ed. Brown, Raymond E. Fitzmyer, and Roland Murphy.  Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1990. 235. Print.

[15] Yahweh power extend to Sheol below and to the far heights of Heaven.

[16] Scott, R. “Isaiah.” The Interpreter Bible. Ed. Buttrick, George A. New York: Abingdon Press. 1956. 217. Print.

[17] Ackroyd, P. R. “Isaiah 36-39: Structure and Function.” The Place is Too Small for Us. Ed. Gordon, Robert P.  Winoa Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns. 1995. 491. Print.

[18] There may be some connect here to Deuteronomy 6:16, which reads, “You shall not put the Lord, your god, to the test, as you did as Massah.”  Ahaz may be bad using a story from oral tradition to justify his own ambitions.

[19] Gray, Buchanan G. “Isaiah.”  The International Critical Commentary. Ed. Gray, Buchanan G. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1912. 122. Print.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Cf. Gen. 24:43; Exo. 2:8; Prov. 3:19.

[22] Scott, R. “Isaiah.” The Interpreter Bible. Ed. Buttrick, George A. New York: Abingdon Press. 1956. 219. Print.

[23] Jensen, Joseph, Irwin, William H. “Isiah 1-39.” The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Ed. Brown, Raymond E. Fitzmyer, and Roland Murphy.  Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1990. 235. Print.

[24] Cf. 1 Kgs. 12.

[25] Cf. Jdg. 5:16; Jn. 10:3.

[26] Scott, R. “Isaiah.” The Interpreter Bible. Ed. Buttrick, George A. New York: Abingdon Press. 1956. 221. Print.

[27] Cf. Hos. 9:3.

[28] Cf. 2 Sam. 10:4.

[29] Scott, R. “Isaiah.” The Interpreter Bible. Ed. Buttrick, George A. New York: Abingdon Press. 1956. 222. Print.

[30] Sheppard, Gerald T. “Isaiah 1 – 39.” Harper’s Bible Commentary. Ed. Mays, James L. New York: Harper Collins Publishers. 1988. 556. Print.

Summary
How to Understand Isaiah 7:14 in the Literal Context
Article Name
How to Understand Isaiah 7:14 in the Literal Context
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This paper proposes that unless we first understand the literal meaning and value of Isaiah 7, we’ll always fall short of appreciating what all of Isaiah has to say about God’s plan to restore His people.
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Saint Dominic's Media, Inc.
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