Monday, November 29, 2010

A Virgin Shall Conceive

"Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel," which is translated, "God with us." Matthew 1:23

Arguably, Isaiah 7:14 is the most contested verse in the Old Testament. Although Matthew unequivocally states that this is fulfilled by the birth of the Messiah, the Old Testament indicates a fulfillment during the life of King Ahaz. These two perspectives can be reconciled by the introduction of the concept of a “double fulfillment.” But is this an understanding that Christianity has illegitimately imposed upon the Old Testament?

Leaving a Jews for Jesus meeting, I met a young believer who reluctantly admitted that he thought that the Rabbis had a better understanding of Scripture, in at least one area. He was referring to Isaiah 7:14, perhaps the most contested Old Testament verse: "Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel."

Christianity has traditionally understood this verse as a prophecy of the birth of the Messiah Jesus to the Virgin Mary. The Book of Matthew demands that we understand Isaiah 7:14 in this sense since Matthew 1:23 actually quotes this verse as fulfilled by the Messiah's birth. However, the Rabbis raise four potent challenges against this interpretation.

First, there is no imperative to take "Immanuel" (meaning "God with us" in the Hebrew) as a description of the "child" as Christianity insists on understanding it, as God actually with us in Jesus Christ. Instead, the Rabbis insist that "Immanuel" is merely a name like Daniel or Nathaniel ("El" always means "God" in Hebrew) and not a description of the nature of the person.

Second, the Rabbis correctly assert that the Hebrew word "almah," translated as "virgin" in Isaiah 7:14 can also be translated as "young maiden." Furthermore, if Isaiah had wanted to unequivocally say "virgin," he could have used the unequivocal word, "betulah," in this context, not the equivocal “almah.” “Betulah” always means “virgin.”

Third, the prophecy of 7:14 was given to King Ahaz (ca. 735 BC) as a divine sign of what God had promised him--that the two northern kings, Pekah (Israel) and Rezin (Syria), who were threatening his own nation of Judah, would soon be destroyed (Isaiah 7:1-16). The birth of Jesus, which took place over 700 years later, couldn't possibly be a sign for Ahaz. It’s therefore faulty reasoning that insists that the first century Jesus fulfills this prophecy.

Last, and perhaps most troubling, Isaiah's prophecy seems to have already been fulfilled by the birth of his son. Isaiah had prophesied to Ahaz that the promised events of the demise of Damascus (Syria) and Samaria (the Northern kingdom of Israel) would precede the sign-child’s maturation:

“Curds and honey He shall eat, that He may know to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the Child shall know to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land that you dread will be forsaken by both her kings” (Isaiah 7:15-16).

This same prophecy seems to be reiterated shortly afterwards when Isaiah’s wife gives birth to their own child, Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz:

“Then I [Isaiah] went to the prophetess, and she conceived and bore a son. Then the LORD said to me, ‘Call his name Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz; for before the child shall have knowledge to cry 'My father' and 'My mother,' the riches of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria will be taken away before the king of Assyria’" (Isa. 8:3-4).

Here again, we find the same two elements—the destruction of both Damascus and Samaria preceding the child’s maturation. This seems to indicate that the prophecy had already been fulfilled 700 years before Christ. Therefore, by applying this prophecy to the birth of Christ and “illegitimately manipulating” Hebrew Scripture into saying what it never intended to say, the Christian Church has hidden behind some imaginative and self-serving speculations.

The magnitude of this charge can’t be overestimated. If Matthew is wrong about this verse, then perhaps other parts of Scripture are also wrong. If this is the case, Scripture can’t be completely trustworthy, and although we can still trust in God, we are left not knowing what exactly to trust about Him. If the writers of the New Testament are sometimes mistaken, we are left standing on a shaky foundation. The stakes couldn’t be higher. It’s therefore imperative to undertake this challenge lest our faith withers on a broken vine.

Let's start with the last challenge first. If the birth of Isaiah's son had already fulfilled Isaiah 7:14, then this is a clear case of a multiple fulfillment. This concept suggests that a single prophetic message is sometimes fulfilled at different times and in slightly different ways. It acknowledges that the final fulfillment is often preceded by types. This is clearly visible in the New Testament, which understands the entire sacrificial system, with its holidays and offerings, as prefigurements of Christ. But do the Hebrew Scriptures also provide evidence of this type of foreshadowing--that prophecies and objects are often prefigurements or types of some ultimate realities yet to be revealed? Yes! Although the Hebrew Scriptures are not often explicit about pointing out types, they nevertheless do allude to them. For example, the prophet Zechariah sees the broken, assailed high priest Joshua as a type of One to come.

• “Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the Angel of the LORD, and Satan standing at his right hand to oppose him. 2And the LORD said to Satan, ‘The LORD rebuke you, Satan!... Is this not a brand plucked from the fire?’ 3Now Joshua was clothed with filthy garments, and was standing before the Angel. 4Then He answered and spoke to those who stood before Him, saying, ‘Take away the filthy garments from him.’ And to him He said, ‘See, I have removed your iniquity from you, and I will clothe you with rich robes.’ 5And I said, ‘Let them put a clean turban on his head…8Hear, O Joshua, the high priest, you and your companions who sit before you, for they are a wondrous sign; for behold, I am bringing forth My Servant the BRANCH…And I will remove the iniquity of that land in one day’”
(Zech. 3:1-9).

This passage abounds in prefigurements and types. Joshua and his companions are symbolic of what the Lord will ultimately do through the Messiah. The filthy garments are symbolic of the sins that God will remove “in one day!” This removal serves as a prefigurement of a justification by grace through faith alone. Joshua was certainly sin-stained. God never corrected the damning accusations of Satan. They were probably true, but the righteous God did something Satan could never understand. He would remove sin through the undisclosed work of a mysterious individual, the BRANCH!

The identity of the “Branch” becomes clearer three chapters later where Zechariah is given another assignment regarding Joshua in his symbolic role.

• “Take the silver and gold, make an elaborate crown, and set it on the head of Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest. Then speak to him, saying, 'Thus says the LORD of hosts, saying: ‘Behold, the Man whose name is the BRANCH! From His place He shall branch out, and He shall build the temple of the LORD. Yes, He shall build the temple of the LORD. He shall bear the glory, and shall sit and rule on His throne; so He shall be a priest on His throne’’”
(Zech. 6:11-13).

This passage is also replete with types and symbols. A crown is placed upon the head of Joshua, ostensibly making this priest a king! However, Joshua never actually became a king nor was he supposed to. Israel already had a civil magistrate, Zerubbabel. If Joshua had become king, this would have brought him into direct conflict with Zerubbabel. However, we have no evidence that this ever happened. From all indications, they worked harmoniously together to build the Temple. Furthermore, a separation of powers had been strictly instituted in Israel. A priest couldn’t become a king and a king couldn’t become a priest. Only the Messiah was worthy of occupying both posts (Psalm 110). God was revealing through Joshua that He would ultimately bring the two offices together through the glorious BRANCH who would “sit and rule on His throne.” Thus, Joshua was merely a type or prefigurement of Someone greater who would ultimately fulfill the type.

Are we confronted with something similar in Isaiah 7? Could Isaiah’s child be a sign of a more glorious Child? Isaiah says as much!

• “Here am I (Isaiah) and the children whom the LORD has given me! We are for signs and wonders in Israel from the LORD of hosts, who dwells in Mount Zion”

Of what were they signs? Could Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz have prefigured the Messiah as Joshua did? The narratives regarding Joshua clearly point to a Person beyond Joshua. Does the Isaiah passage point beyond Isaiah’s son? To answer this question, it is imperative that we regard the broader context (Chaps. 7-12) where we find the same elements of the “Immanuel” prophecy recapitulated. These related narratives serve to place flesh and bones upon the original prophecy.

The term "Immanuel" (the conjunction of two very common words: "Immanu", with us; and "El", God) appears only three times in Hebrew Scripture. The first instance is found in Isaiah 7:14. The other two instances are both found in the next chapter. This alone would suggest that the three instances are related in Isaiah's mind (and in God’s)! Additionally, all three uses are unusual, provocative and thematically related.

"Immanuel" is encountered for the second time after a description of what Assyria will do to Judah after Assyria swallows up Syria (“Damascus,” “Aram”) and Israel (“Ephraim”) in 721 BC.

• “Now therefore, behold, the Lord brings up over them the waters of the River, strong and mighty--the king of Assyria and all his glory; he will go up over all his channels And go over all his banks. He will pass through Judah, he will overflow and pass over, he will reach up to the neck; and the stretching out of his wings will fill the breadth of Your land, O Immanuel”
[or “God with us”] (Isa. 8:7-8).

Assyria will conquer Judah "up to the neck" (8:8). This probably refers to Assyria's unsuccessful siege of Jerusalem in 701 BC, which culminated when the angel of the Lord "put to death 185,000 men in the Assyrian camp" (37:36). The prophecy ends with the ejaculation, "O Immanuel,” seemingly an outcry for help to the same individual of 7:14. However, in this latter context, Immanuel seems to be more than a mere human! It would be ridiculous to cry for help to a human in such a hopeless situation. Assyria’s victory seemed assured without miraculous intervention. However, it was this very intervention that turned the tide.

The third instance of "Immanuel" is more striking. In Isaiah 8:9-10, a warning is issued against Assyria and the nations it had overwhelmed and incorporated within the Assyrian army:

• "Be shattered, O you peoples, and be broken in pieces! Give ear, all you from far countries. Gird yourselves, but be broken in pieces; gird yourselves, but be broken in pieces. Take counsel together, but it will come to nothing; speak the word, but it will not stand, For God is with us
[“Immanuel” in the Hebrew]" (8:9-10).

Despite the overwhelming superiority of the Assyrian army, it will not succeed against the wobbling and panic-stricken Jerusalem ("the neck") for one simple reason--"for God is with us" (the third instance of "Immanuel")! What started out as a cry for help (8:8) has now become a declaration of triumph (8:10)! "Immanuel" is the cause of this triumph. Reading the account of the destruction of the Assyrian army (Isaiah 36-39), it is clear that "Immanuel" can't pertain to Hezekiah, nor to any mere mortal. "Immanuel" (appropriately translated here as "God is with us") holds the destiny of nations within His hands. It's interesting to observe that English translations all render the Hebrew as "God is with us" rather than simply "Immanuel" which consistency among the two prior instances would ordinarily demand.

To suggest that these three "Immanuels" represent three different people is more than sound interpretation will bear, especially since they are all found in two adjacent chapters. The more natural interpretation demands that the same titles or names pertain to the same person. Furthermore, this individual appears to be both human (a "child") and Divine! This conclusion will be born out as we track this “child” Immanuel in two subsequent and related contexts--Isaiah 9:6-7; 11:1-12.

Let's now look at another concept found in 7:14 which is also recapitulated within the context of chapters 7 through 12 and serves to unify them. This is the concept of the birth of a child:

• “For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of His government and peace here will be no end, upon the throne of David and over His kingdom, to order it and establish it with judgment and justice from that time forward, even forever…”
(Isa. 9:6-7).

This prophecy is not only related to 7:14 by virtue of a birth of a special child, but also by divine names. In 7:14, we encountered a divine name or description designating a child. In 9:6 we encounter four divine titles. I don't say "names" because at this point, it should be clear that these can't be mere names – not all four! – but rather descriptive titles of the Child. These four titles contain eight words—too cumbersome for actual names. It would be like naming a child “Anthony Robert Spencer Alan Thomas Arthur Andrew Timothy.”

The first title, "Wonderful Counselor" ("Pele Yoetz" in Hebrew), is clearly divine. "Pele" might better have been translated "awesome" because this term only refers to God or to the wonders He miraculously brings into existence (for example, Exo. 15:11; Dan. 12:6).

"Mighty God" ("El Gibor") is clearly a divine designation because "El" as a free-standing word always refers to God. In addition to this, note that "Immanu El" of 7:14 also carries the free-standing "El" (along with 8:8 and 8:10), establishing another parallel with 7:14. This also serves to rule against "Immanu El" as merely being a name as the Rabbis propose, instead of a description.

"Everlasting Father" is also a divine designation. Who can be everlasting apart from God Himself? Even "Prince of Peace" seems to be a divine reference, for it is God Himself who will bring peace. Jewish interpreters want to understand these divine names as mere reminders that it is God who is performing His works through this child. However, it is this very Child who is called these descriptive titles. Nowhere does the text suggest that He is given these divine titles in remembrance of God!

It strains credulity to say that the "child" of 9:6 is different from the "child" of 7:14. As the "Immanu El" of 7:14 (8:8, 10) will reign supreme, so too will the "El Gibor" of 9:6. Are we looking at two reigning Deities or at one? The child of 9:6 will set up a kingdom with “no end!” This leaves little room for any other divine children or kingdoms.

The context is not complete without chapter 11 where we find another allusion to the Child:

• “There shall come forth a Rod from the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots. The Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon Him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD. His delight is in the fear of the LORD, and He shall not judge by the sight of His eyes, nor decide by the hearing of His ears; but with righteousness He shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; He shall strike the earth with the rod of His mouth, and with the breath of His lips He shall slay the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt of His loins, and faithfulness the belt of His waist. The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb… They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain, for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea”
(Isa. 11:1-9).

Here we find an enlargement of the portrait established earlier. We find the Child, at long last, reigning in His own kingdom. However, in chapter 11 this child is referred to with slightly different terms. Here He is a "Rod" and a "Branch," born from the "stump of Jesse" (11.1), the father of King David. Unmistakably, this is the same Child who "will reign upon the throne of David and over his kingdom" (9:7).

Other parallels are also clear. Both kingdoms "will have no end" (9:7), an idea which is expressed in 11:9. Both kingdoms will entail the establishment of "justice and righteousness" (9:6; compare with 11:3-5) and endless "peace" (9:7; 11:6-9).

The chapters build upon one another. In addition to the above elaborations upon the initial prophetic germ, the four divine titles (9:6; and the fifth of 7:14) seem to receive an expanded treatment in chapter 11: "Wonderful counselor" in 11:2-5; "Prince of Peace" in 11:6-9. (Perhaps "El Gibor" and "Everlasting Father" are reflected within the entire prophecy of chapter 11 and the prayer of chapter 12.) These parallels each serve to demonstrate that these prophecies are closely related. If this is the case, then one prophecy is illuminated and enhanced by the others, and we must understand "Immanu El" and “child” (7:14) in a way that accords with the other above-mentioned prophecies.

The seed of a prophecy that Isaiah proclaimed in 7:14, and enlarged in 8:6-10, and then again in 9:6-7, he trumpets out in chapter 11. This child is indeed the cause of all the world's rejoicing and it is only natural that this great revelation should culminate in a song of praise (chap. 12).

This song has several interesting characteristics. There are three references to "salvation" ("Yeshua" in Hebrew):

• "…O LORD, I will praise You;…Behold, God is my salvation, I will trust and not be afraid; for YAH, the LORD, is my strength and song; He also has become my salvation…Cry out and shout, O inhabitant of Zion, for great is the Holy One of Israel in your midst!"

That chapter 12 is part of a single related prophecy (chapter 7-12) is evident. It concludes with "the Holy One of Israel in your midst" (12:6). This seems to be a play on "God with us" ("Immanu El"). The words are different but the theme is the same. All of this suggests that chapters 7 through 12 must be regarded together, as an inseparable prophetic utterance.

If Isaiah 7:14 is part of a greater prophecy (chapters 7-12), then this verse must be understood within the context of this entire prophecy. Any word or phrase needs the context of the sentence, paragraph, and story to be truly understood. Understanding "Immanu El" as merely a human child who was born during the reign of King Ahaz fails to see 7:14 in its broader context. This is an interpretive failure that an unbiased eye would not make.

When the Rabbis translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek about 180 years before Christ for the Jewish world of the Diaspora, they had to deal with Isaiah 7:14. If "almah" was equivocal and could be translated by either "virgin" or "young maiden," the Rabbis had an important choice to make. If they translated it as "young maiden," it meant that they understood the prophecy as having been fulfilled in its totality at the time of Ahaz. If they translated "almah" as "virgin," then they understood that this referred to a miraculous birth that had not yet taken place, a fulfillment which was still awaiting its day. They translated "almah" as "parthenos" in the Greek, a term that always means "virgin!" In light of this, Matthew was simply walking in the expectation of the Rabbis when he applied this prophecy to the birth of the Messiah, Yeshua.

Let's return to the third objection of the Rabbis--that the birth of Jesus (Yeshua) couldn't possibly be a sign for Ahaz, to whom the prophecy was addressed. However, a closer look at the text shows that the prophecy wasn't intended for Ahaz alone. The entire "house of David" was in view.

• “Then he said, ‘Hear now, O house of David! Is it a small thing for you to weary men, but will you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord Himself will give you (plural) a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel’”

Isaiah recognized that that the audience for his prophecy went beyond Ahaz. His message transcended its temporal boundaries, and he knew it! The prophecies constituted a sign of something far greater (8:18).

There is another reason why neither Hezekiah nor Isaiah's son could have fulfilled 7:14 in its entirety. A natural birth is hardly a “sign” (7:14). Young maidens are giving birth all of the time. There is nothing unusual about this, nothing that would have the persuasive weight to confirm a seemingly improbable prophecy. Only an unusual birth, a virgin birth, would constitute a legitimate sign, although an embarrassing one for the virgin herself.

Clearly, this prophecy reaches beyond the person and time of Ahaz. In many ways it points to a divine Person standing at the headwaters of history, to a Person who holds the destiny of Israel in His hand. In the strongest terms, it cries out that this is the One for whom Israel has been waiting, the One who would fulfill all the promises of God seated upon "David's throne" (9:7). It would be this Child who would set up an everlasting kingdom (9:7, 11:9) in which there would be no end to peace and the knowledge of the Lord. Although there was a type or a shadow of fulfillment in Ahaz's time, the ultimate fulfillment of 7:14 awaited the Messiah.

My Jewish friend believed that Jesus is the prophesied Messiah, but he was also very conflicted in his understanding of the prophecies. This deprived him of peace. The antidote to the conflict that rages in so many of us is a resolution of the conflict, the perceiving of God’s hidden treasures in the midst of the confusion. This requires persistent work, but even more than work, the grace of God which He pours out liberally upon those weary souls who seek His wisdom (Jam. 1:5, Psalm 51:6; 25:14).

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