God uses normal means to accomplish wonderous effects, and He does so for now, for the future, and for eternity.
Judah was in desperate straits. The strength and prosperity of King Uzziah had given way to the weakness and poverty of King Ahaz. Tilgath Pileser III, the ascendant ruler of Assyria, was expanding with a mighty army and his neighbors, Syria and Israel, had attacked Judah to force it to ally with them against Assyria. Judah had suffered a severe defeat, and at that moment, Ahaz was not thinking about something that was going to happen 730 years later. Probably, Isaiah wasn’t either. Therefore the child promised in Isaiah 7:14 was not, at least in Ahaz’ mind, the future Messiah. Isaiah had promised him a sign that God would deliver him and his nation from the combined might of Israel and Syria and the child was to be the sign. The sign was not that a young woman would bear a child; this is an ordinary part of human experience. Rather it was that the birth of this child would begin the countdown to destruction for Judah’s enemies. Specifically, the kings that Ahaz feared would be destroyed before the child reached preadolescence.
That prophecy was most likely fulfilled by the birth of Isaiah’s second son, Maher-shalal-hashbaz (MSH). According to Herbert M .Wolf, “almah” most reasonably refers to a young woman of marriageable age, who in Hebrew culture was expected to be a virgin. The event in 8:1-2 is likely the marriage ceremony between Isaiah and his new wife, and the child is conceived in verse 3. Isaiah’s prophetess was a virgin when she married but obviously not a virgin when she conceived. In verse 4, Isaiah clarified his prophecy; this time saying that before his son was even old enough to talk, Israel and Syria would be no more. Thus MSH was the immediate fulfillment of the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14.
Richard Niessen also went into some detail about the meaning of “almah” in 7:14. The roots of the term are “to conceal” and “to be strong, or sexually mature”. “To conceal” is in contrast to “to uncover”, and the euphemism for sexual sin in Hebrew is to “uncover nakedness”. In Genesis 24:43 the term is used of Rebekah and the passage clearly spells out that she was a virgin. In Exodus 2:4 the term is used of Miriam, suggesting that she was a child still in her mother’s household and therefore clearly a virgin as well. In Psalm 68:25 “almah” described young women leading a dance of worship into the sanctuary. These women were usually unmarried and therefore expected to be virgins. Proverbs 30:19 is commonly seen as referring to adultery (compared to 30:20) and therefore would exclude virginity by definition. However, the parallelism with the other portions of verse 19 is better explained if the text referred to an unmarried man wooing a virgin in the hopes of marrying her. In Song of Solomon 1:3 “almah” refers to maidens as yet without a husband and in Song of Solomon 6:8 it speaks of unmarried women who would eventually enter the king’s harem. Therefore they had to be virgins. In sum, “almah” refers to virgins, women who have never had sex, in every instance. The other words commonly translated “young woman” do not have the same connotation.
The child in view in Isaiah 7:14 was MSH, but at the same time, Matthew applied Isaiah 7:14 to the birth of Jesus (1:23). Since Scripture is without error and Matthew applied that verse to Jesus, we must do so as well. When interpreting the Old Testament, modern exegetes must look for an immediate fulfillment of prophecy during the times of the prophet and his people. We must also seek another, later and greater fulfillment. Such appears to be the case here.
Richard Niessen, The Virginity of the עלמה `almah in Isaiah 7:14, Bibliotheca Sacra – April – June 1980, 133-150
Herbert M Wolf, A Solution to the Immanuel Prophecy in Isaiah 7:14-8:22, Journal of Biblical Literature, vol 91, no 4 (Dec 1972), pp 449-456
One thought on “The Identity of the Child in Isaiah 7:14”
In F.F. Bruce’s “The Canon of Scripture” he includes an Appendix that contains his lecture on the Primary and Plenary sense when reading and interpreting scripture. As you also noted the primary meaning is often in view and when it pertains to prophecy some fulfillment of that prophecy completed during the author’s lifetime.
When we read the Scriptures there are lessons to be learned in the primary sense (the message originally intended by the author) but through the working of the Holy Spirit we find a meaning deeper than even intended by the original author, but God with His eternal view, uses the author to record His fuller message. There is a word of caution that the plenary meaning of Scripture cannot be divorced from its historical setting, or in Dr. Bruce’s words we “cannot get more out of scripture than is there already – implicitly if not expressly.” As an example, we may take the visions of Daniel which in its primary sense talks about the persecution under Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Some have also extended this out to include the persecution of the believers after the Ascension of Christ and even to the persecution of the Church prior to Christ’s second coming.
In my personal studies of the Book of Revelation, I have been studying its four traditional interpretations (Historicists, Preterist, Futurist, and Spiritual). In reading these commentaries in parallel, I find that keeping these primary and plenary sense definitions in the back of my mind, I find a richer meaning and even some reconciliation of these differing views.
F.F. Bruce The Canon of Scripture. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press., 1988 pp 316-334