“All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel (which means ‘God with us’.)’ “ (Matthew 1:22-23)
Matthew’s quotation is, of course, from Isaiah 7:14. It is argued here that Isaiah 7:14, read in its context, has nothing directly to do with the virgin Mary or Jesus’ birth, though it will be seen to have a legitimate indirect application, once we understand the key words to fulfil. It will be argued there are at least two types of fulfillment: predictive and repetitive. Because of King Ahaz’s godless behaviour (c732-716BC), the Lord raised up two armies against him. The northern kingdom of Israel joined with the pagan people of Aram, and invaded Judah in the south. God sends Isaiah with his son to meet with King Ahaz. (7:3) Isaiah has some good news for the king, followed by some frightening news:
FIRST, THE GOOD NEWS
Isaiah tells the king God’s promise, that these combined armies will not defeat him. They will go away without victory. (7:3-9) Isaiah calls the king to trust in the true God of heaven:
If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all. (7:9)
God offers Ahaz a sign to prove that this remarkable deliverance will occur:
Therefore the virgin will conceive and give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel. He will be eating curds and honey when he knows how to reject the wrong and choose right. (Isaiah 7:14-15).
While this child is still in his infancy, this threat of invasion will be removed. This is reinforced in Isaiah 8:2, in which the age of this infant is described as being, “[b]efore the child knows how to say ‘My father’ or ‘My mother’.” (8:4).
What follows?: “Then I made love to the prophetess, and she conceived and gave birth to a son.” (8:3). The prophetess cannot be Isaiah’s first wife as she could hardly be described as either a young woman of marriageable age or a virgin. It seems either she may be a second wife, or perhaps his first wife has died. So, the prophecy that the virgin will conceive in this context has no direct application to Mary or Jesus. The boy is Isaiah’s own child, and the mother is Isaiah’s own second wife. NOW THE BAD NEWS
Isaiah had not finished giving him God’s message:
For before the boy knows how to say ‘My father’ or ‘My mother’...the Lord will bring on you and your people...the king of Assyria! (7:16-17)
The boy child may be a sign of political salvation, but he is also a sign of coming political judgement. The Assyrians were infamous for their blood-thirsty warlike practices. This was extremely bad news indeed. The Assyrian army, armed with recently-minted, mass-produced iron weaponry, crossed the Euphrates River, probably at the Carchemish fords which they controlled, and soon the crimson tide of their unbridled violence began to spread across the Levant and beyond. Israel, Aram, Edom, and Judah itself soon found their late Bronze Age weapons to be seriously out of date. After overwhelming Judah’s second strongest city of Lachish in a violent conflict, the Assyrian forces surrounded the only opposition left, the city of Jerusalem, taunting them. It seemed that God had finally deserted the city to its well-deserved fate. But:
That night the angel of the Lord went out and put to death one hundred and eighty-five thousand in the Assyrian camp. (2 Kings 19:35-36)
God’s people were miraculously saved in a salvation event arguably ranking only second to their Exodus miracle, and they contributed nothing! They were merely witnesses to the work God accomplished on their behalf.
However we must go back a few hours. For Isaiah the prophet was sent to the new King Hezekiah with this message from the Lord:
This is what the Lord says concerning the king of Assyria: He will not enter this city, or shoot an arrow here. I will defend this city and save it, for the sake of David my servant. (2 Kings 19:32-36)
This message is genuinely predictive prophecy, fulfilled in the most amazing manner.
So why does Matthew quote Isaiah 7:14 as referring to Jesus? By any logic this cannot be said to be predictive prophesy, except by completely ignoring the Old Testament context. It would be better to label it something like “repetitive prophecy” or, put more simply, “here-we-go-again prophecy”. To pick up Isaiah 7:14-15 (= Matthew 1:22-23) again as an example: in the Old Testament, God gave his people a sign, which in context was a sign of both salvation and judgement: salvation from twin enemies Israel and Aram; to be followed by judgement at the hands of the feared Assyrians; then followed by unaided salvation again on the night that 185,000 enemies perished.
Now, in the first pages of the New Testament, God repeats the dose. A virgin is to conceive. This child will also be a sign of both salvation and judgement: salvation towards those who put their trust in him as their Lord and Saviour; judgement and destruction to those who wantonly choose otherwise. Alone and unaided by any human effort, this obedient child will accomplish the ultimate and climactic salvation event, such that both the Exodus and the Assyrian deliverances pale into insignificance.
This is not to deny predictive prophecy. In chapter two of Matthew we encounter a clear case of predictive prophesy. God, through Micah, foretold that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, the city of David, and now the prediction has come true. (Matthew 2:6 = Micah 5:2-4). Clearly predictive! But, only a few verses later in Matthew, we come across perhaps the clearest case of repetitive prophecy. After Joseph and Mary return from Egypt to Judah with the child Jesus, Matthew adds this comment:
And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘Out of Egypt I called my son’. (Matthew 2:14-15)
Again, if we look at the Old Testament context, Hosea 11:1-2, this out of Egypt prophecy has nothing directly to do with the incident recorded in Matthew:
“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. But the more they were called, the more they went away from me. They sacrificed to the Baals and they burned incense to images”.
God is repeating the dose. Long ago, God brought a son out of Egypt, namely, the nation of Israel, under the leadership of Moses. This son proved to be rebellious and recalcitrant, and finally this son was punished by exile in Babylon. Now God repeats the dose: he brings another son out of Egypt, a very different son. He will obey his Father, even to death upon the cross.