This is part one of a two part set of posts on the virgin birth in Isaiah 7 and Matthew 1. It’s not going to be some kind of detailed exegesis on the chapters, but more so the thoughts of Rikk Watts taken from his Isaiah lectures. The usual question goes something like this, “Does the Old Testament really predict a virgin birth?” Watts says no, it doesn’t. In fact, he says it makes no such prediction, but rather, it points to Someone greater. So what I’ll do this time is cover the original context and then consider if the woman in Isaiah 7 is a virgin.
While Ahaz is the king of Judah, Rezin (king of Syria) and Pekah (king of Israel) go to Jerusalem to make war. Yahweh sends Isaiah to tell Ahaz not to listen to these two puffs of smoke. He is told that if he is not firm in faith (if he does listen to them and fears them), then he “will not be firm at all.” In fearing them Ahaz is tempted to renounce his sonship under Yahweh (Ps 2.7) and become a son-servant to the King of Assyria (which he does in 2 Kgs 16.7).
Next, the Lord asks Ahaz to request a sign, but Ahaz refuses to “test” the Lord. But now Yahweh will give a sign of His choosing, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted. The Lord will bring upon you and upon your people and upon your father’s house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria” (Is 7.14-17).
At first, Ephraim (Israel, a.k.a. “not Judah”) would have been destroyed in 65 years. Now, before this child can grow to the age of knowing right and wrong, the Lord will bring Assyria onto Ahaz. In fact, by chapter 8, Assyria will come before the boy even knows how to cry “My father” or “My mother.” Things are only getting worse for Ahaz, the hardened king of Judah who is fulfilling Isaiah 6.9-10, “And he said, “Go, and say to this people: ‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’ Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.’””
Things will be doom-and-gloom for some time, but eventually “the people who walked in darkness” will see “a great light” (9.2). Verses 6 and 7 famously tell the readers that a greater king is coming, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.”
We know this hope to be Jesus, as Matthew 1.23 and 4.16 quote Isaiah 7.14 and 9.1-2. Ahaz is not the final authority. Jesus will be The Davidic King, the true Son of God.
The Meaning of the Sign of the “Virgin”
Is the sign intended to point to a future virgin birth? Some say it is, but Watts disagrees. He says it’s about a timeframe, one that centers around the age of the child. Isaiah’s saying, “If you don’t change your ways, within x number of years, you’re going to experience deadly trouble from the Assyrians.“ Before this “Immanuel” (meaning ‘God is with us’) becomes of age, Israel will know what it means for God to be with them, and it will be a visit in judgment.
Who is this Virgin Woman?
While I don’t have the resources on hand to go over this, nor the proper linguistical knowledge, according to Watts, this word for virgin in the Hebrew (‘almah) means an unmarried woman. “Any woman of marital age would be a virgin” (Watts, Lecture #4). If a girl was unmarried, then she was likely a virgin. While many read “the virgin will conceive” and think it points to a virgin conception, “no one in Jewish literature read this statement as a virgin conception” (Watts, Lecture #4).
(As for Matthew’s use of the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible, Craig Keener says, “[T]he earlier Greek version’s term for young woman usually (albeit) not always meant virgin, as in Matthew.” However, I do not have the finesse to go into these kinds of Greek and Hebrew discussions. I can merely provide Watts’ discussion and some clarifying comments).
To reiterate,, if this word doesn’t mean “virgin,” but, instead, “young woman,” then what we have is a young, unmarried woman who will give birth to a child, one who will be a sign to Ahaz of God’s promised judgment on his and the people’s rebellious hearts (Is 6.9-10). It would make sense that this “woman” isn’t Mary, and that this soon-to-be-born “child” wouldn’t be Jesus for how would Jesus be a sign to Ahaz? How could he be a sign to Ahaz when Ahaz would have been dead for roughly 700 years by the time Jesus was born? There must be more to this story.
What then is Matthew’s purpose? Well, you’ll have to wait for part two.