When Matthew applies to the conception of Jesus by the Holy Spirit the words of Isaiah that “the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel”, he is not saying that Jesus is God incarnate. The meaning of the allusion derives from the story that is being told in Isaiah 7-8. Matthew’s point, I think, is that the manner of Jesus’ conception is a sign to Israel at a time of crisis that God is with his people both to judge and to preserve.
John Doyle, however, asks about the relation of the boy Immanuel to the boy described in Isaiah 9:6-17—a passage very familiar to us from Christmas readings but, oddly, nowhere cited in the New Testament:
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.
If the boy “Immanuel” is also the boy “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace”, then there is surely a stronger case to be made for the incarnational reading of Matthew 1:23. However, I think it very unlikely that either Isaiah or Matthew thought that this was the case.
Three sons are mentioned in Isaiah 7-8. The name of each carries prophetic significance.
When the kings of Syria and Israel first come to wage war against Jerusalem, Isaiah takes his son Shear-jashub (“a remnant shall return”) to meet Ahaz and reassures him that the Lord will not allow the city to be harmed (7:1-9). Later a “prophetess”—Isaiah’s wife—bears him a son who is given the name Maher-shalal-hash-baz (“Speed spoil, hasten plunder!”), for “before the boy knows how to cry ‘My father’ or ‘My mother,’ the wealth of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria will be carried away before the king of Assyria” (Is. 8:3-44).
Similarly, the birth of the boy Immanuel (“God with us”) will be a sign to the doubting Ahaz, in the first place, that the “land whose two kings you dread will be deserted” (Is. 7:16), but more generally that God will be with his people when the crisis comes. The Lord will bring the Assyrian army against Judah because of the people’s rebelliousness, and it will fill the land (8:8). The invasion, however, will come to nothing because ultimately God is with his people (Is. 8:10).
The question of the relation of the boy Immanuel to Isaiah is difficult to answer. The mother is an unmarried woman. An unmarried woman would normally be a virgin, but that is a connotation of the word ‘almâ rather than its meaning. (Brian LePort has drawn attention to Mark Goodacre’s podcast asking “Is the Virgin Birth based on a Mistranslation?”) She is presumably known to king Ahaz, and it is sometimes suggested that she is a princess in his court, possibly Abia, the mother of Hezekiah (2 Kgs. 18:2). But if the chronology is to be trusted, Hezekiah would have been born around 740 B.C., five years before Ahaz began his coregency with his father. Besides, nothing in Isaiah 7:14-16 suggests that the boy was of royal descent, and there is no succession issue that needs to be resolved.
Nor can we say with any great confidence that Immanuel was Isaiah’s son. It is not stated explicitly as it is with the two other boys. Some would argue that Immanuel and Maher-shalal-hash-baz are the same boy since they fulfil the same prophetic function: before they reach a certain young age, Judah will be rescued from its enemies. But it seems unlikely that the unmarried woman of 7:14 is the same woman who bore him the other boys. Does Isaiah, then, father a child by another woman? It would be reasonable to suppose that the reference to the “sign” children given to Isaiah (Is. 8:18) included all three boys mentioned in the preceding narration, particularly since the birth of Immanuel is expressly said to be a “sign”. Perhaps, then, it would be more plausible to suggest that the mother of Immanuel was, like the “prophetess” of 8:3, one of the group of Isaiah’s disciples. I think I’ll go with that interpretation for now.
Isaiah commits this “testimony” and “teaching” to his disciples, and then waits to see what the Lord will do. He and his children are “signs and portents in Israel from the Lord of hosts” (Is. 8:16-18). If the people do not listen to this prophetic word but instead insist on consulting mediums and necromancers, “they will pass through the land, greatly distressed and hungry”; “they will be thrust into thick darkness” (Is. 8:19-22).
Now to consider the relationship of the boy Immanuel to the Davidic ruler whose birth is spoken of in Isaiah 9:6-7….
The argument so far has suggested that there is no basis for identifying Immanuel with this Davidic king. Motyer argues that the reference to “your land, O Immanuel” in Isaiah 8:8 implies that Immanuel is a king, but that is not a necessary reading.1 This word of the Lord is addressed to Isaiah, not to Immanuel, and the Hebrew name here may only mean “God is with us”, as in the Septuagint, where it is said that the camp of the king of Assyria “will be such as to fill the breadth of your country. God is with us.” Watts even includes it with the exclamation of verses 9-10.2
The boy of chapter 9 is given his own remarkable name: Wonderful-Counselor-Mighty-God-Everlasting-Father-Prince-of-Peace. Arguably this is also prophetically significant rather than a simple identification of the king with God: the Davidic king is a sign of God’s reign over his people. But, in any case, it differentiates him from the boy God-with-us. In the Septuagint the king is called only Messenger-of-Great-Counsel and is differentiated from the God who establishes his reign.
The two boys, moreover, serve quite different purposes. Immanuel is a sign to Judah and Jerusalem that the southern kingdom will soon be pitched into the gloom of a dire political crisis (cf. 8:22). The son of Isaiah 9:6-7, by contrast, will bring peace to the northern kingdom, lifting the gloom in which the people have long walked (9:1-5).
We also have to reckon with the fact that Matthew does not connect the child Immanuel with the Davidic king whose birth is described in Isaiah 9:6-7. He will later cite Isaiah 9:1-2 to account for the fact that Jesus began his ministry in Capernaum, in the territory of Zebulun and and Naphtali (Matt. 4:12-16), but he does not make the connection with the child of Isaiah 9:6-7. Nor does anyone else in the New Testament (well, perhaps Lk. 2:11).
So, in conclusion, Isaiah does not identify the boy Immanuel with the Davidic king of 9:6-7, and Matthew makes no reference to the latter passage. This leaves me where I started. Jesus’ conception is a fulfilment of Isaiah 7:14 because it too is a sign that God is with his people both to judge and to save.
Coincidentally, I have just this minute opened Craig Evans’ new commentary, and I find that he makes more or less my point:
Isaiah’s prophecy was not intended to be fulfilled seven centuries later; it was to be, and was, fulfilled in the lifetime of the feckless King Ahaz. The birth of the child who was named Immanuel took place long ago and had nothing to do with an awaited Messiah (and we in fact do not know who the young woman was—a new bride for Isaiah, or for Ahaz?—and we do not know who the young son was). But the event, which was indeed prophetic and is recorded in Scripture, took on typological significance for later generations. In the birth of Jesus, Matthew sees biblical history repeating itself, which is what typology is all about—the conviction that God will act in the future the way he acted in the past. If the birth of an infant, foretold with respect to a young woman, a virgin not yet wed, was a sign that God was with his people, to save and deliver, then how else was the surprising pregnancy of Mary to be understood.3
I’m not sure it makes much difference to your overall point, but I don’t really see any necessary reason for thinking that “Immanuel” was born in Ahaz’s time and could not be a genuine and direct prophetic reference to Christ.
7:14 is given in the plural; it’s a sign for all the people, or at least of of David’s house, and not just Ahaz. And it seems pretty evident that the sign is something of a judgment on Ahaz, since it’s stated as a rebuke to Ahaz’s faithlessness. Nothing is said about Ahaz himself seeing the child. All it says is that before the child knows good and evil, the land will be deserted. That is, Israel and Syria will no longer be a problem (and perhaps, as Alan Harman suggests, v.16 is better translated: “For before the boy will refuse the evil and choose the good, the land that you [Ahaz] are tearing apart [by your disastrous policies] will be forsaken of her two kings.”)
So taking into account that Immanuel is — at least to Ahaz — a rebuke, and that the only chronology we have is that the child will grow up after the Syrio-Ephraim crisis is resolved, there seems to be no reason to think that Immanuel was a child born right around Ahaz’s time. It seems to make a lot of redemptive-historical sense that part of the reason for Jesus’ virgin conception is to serve as a rebuke to the Davidic kings, whose (direct and literal) offspring would not ultimately inherit the throne. In that regard, cf. Jeremiah 22:11-23:6, which curses in turn Shallum/Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, and Jehoiachin, and then promises a coming “righteous branch” for David. Unless we want to equate that righteous branch with Zedekiah — the next and last king, whose name does admittedly mean “Righteous” even though he was anything but.
Then there would seem to be no reason disconnect Immanuel from the child in 9:6-7. That text is all of a piece with chapter 8, clearly. What other child could it be, in the context?
So taking into account that Immanuel is - at least to Ahaz - a rebuke, and that the only chronology we have is that the child will grow up after the Syrio-Ephraim crisis is resolved, there seems to be no reason to think that Immanuel was a child born right around Ahaz’s time.
I agree that the prophecy contains a rebuke, but I don’t see why it needs to be projected beyond the circumstances of the immediate political crisis. Surely, if the child is born after Ahaz’s time, he—or his birth—is no longer a sign for Ahaz? And the devastation of the land referred to in 7:16 happens between the birth of the boy and his reaching the age of moral judgment. Otherwise, “before the boy knows how…” is a meaningless statement, isn’t it? The plurals in 7:13-14 refer to the “house of David”, which is directly addressed. The context doesn’t really allow this to be the future house of David, which in any case ended with the exile. There is no rebuke to the house of David in the New Testament; the royal line is presented only in positive terms, fulfilled in Jesus.
I accept the Perriman and Evans view on the subject. I also accept the notion that typological fulfillment usually involves not just repetition of a pattern, but also something greater in the repetition than was in the original (as in “Something greater than Solomon is here”).
On this basis, there’s no problem with our understanding the ultimate fulfillment of “Immanuel” being something greater than what was understood in the days of Isaiah or even in the days of Matthew.
This does not lead to Trinitarianism, but it does lead to the deity of Christ. Let us love, trust, and obey Him with all our hearts!
Well that’s an interesting exposition, and it prompted some further investigation. I agree with Mike Gantt: your three sons theory makes sense. As you point out, each of the three appears at a different time in Isaiah’s ministry, fulfilling a different function. After Ahaz fails to heed Isaiah’s advice and the sign of Emanuel in chapter 7, Yahweh sets aside a small number of “faithful witnesses,” including Uriah, Zechariah, Isaiah and the prophetess and their son — the second boy of chapter 8. On Yahweh’s command Isaiah “binds up the testimony” among the faithful few, during which time we presume that Isaiah suspended his public ministry until a more propitious time. That time comes in Chapter 9, when Isaiah announces a hopeful message, punctuated by the announcement of the third boy.
A case can be made that the birth of this third boy of Isaiah 9 also took place during Isaiah’s lifetime. This document argues (convincingly, in my view) based on parallel texts that the Hebrew verbs in Isaiah 9:6 are past tense rather than future: “For a child has been born to us, a son has been given to us…” This third boy could have been King Hezekiah of Judah, son and successor of Ahaz. Hezekiah was deemed a great success by the Biblical writers: “He trusted in Yahweh, the God of Israel; so that after him there was none like him among the kings of Judah, nor among those who were before him” (2 Kings 18:5). Isaiah got on well with Hezekiah, prophesying an extra 15 years of life when the king was struck with what at the time seemed a fatal illness.
But Isaiah says that this boy is named “mighty God” — how could that name apply to Hezekiah? In Ezekiel 32:21 the same phrase — el gibbor — is applied to men: not “mighty gods” but “mighty strong ones.” “El” means mighty; “gibbor” also means mighty; string them together and it’s an intensive: really mighty, almighty. Gods qualify as really mighty; so do very powerful men. Would a peerless king of Judah qualify? I think so. As supporting evidence it should be noted that the name “Hezekiah” means “Mighty Yahweh” or “Might of Yahweh.”
Very interesting. I haven’t got time to read the Jewish Home article right now, but I did notice that the LXX has past tenses:
because a child was born for us, a son also given to us, whose sovereignty was upon his shoulder, and he is named Messenger of Great Counsel, for I will bring peace upon the rulers, peace and health to him. (Is. 9:5 (6) LXX)
Immanuel is a sign to Judah and Jerusalem that the southern kingdom will soon be pitched into the gloom of a dire political crisis (cf. 8:22)
I’m slightly puzzled by this. “Immanuel” was the sign to Ahaz of Yahweh’s protection of Judah, that the king need not fear Syria (Aram) and Israel, who turned on him when he refused to enter an alliance with them against Assyria - 7:3-9.
However, because of Ahaz’s refusal to trust Yahweh and ask for a sign, a subsequent invasion and judgment by Assyria of ”the House of David” will take place — 7:17-25. If this was the southern kingdom, it did not occur until the time of Hezekiah. It sounds more like the devastation and depopulation of the northern kingdom. Which did Isaiah mean? And was Immanuel a sign of protection or devastation?
The Assyrian invasion of Judah did not take place until the rule of Ahaz’s son Hezekiah, and then was halted at Jerusalem, after which Assyria abruptly withdrew. This seems to make sense of 8:8, especially “reaching up to the neck”. The “head” here, which was not submerged by the river, was Jerusalem, a thought that echoes the metaphor used of the capitals and kings of Syria (Aram) and the northern kingdom of Israel in 7:8-9.
Where does this get us? Immanuel was the sign of Judah’s protection to Ahaz, which he rejected. The sign was repeated after Assyria’s invasion of Judah (following the invasion of the northern kingdom). I suppose Assyria might be said to have overwhelmed Israel before Hezekiah through the false alliance and setting up of its gods in the temple. So where was Immanuel now, when Isaiah laments “O Immanuel!” - 8:8?
8:11-22 pursues an answer to this obvious question by encouraging faith in Yahweh, despite times which seem to get worse, with greater apostasy. Moreover, there are now references which are taken up in the NT as applying to Jesus. 1 Peter 3:14b quotes Isaiah 8:12b as an encouragement not to fear persecution. Then, astonishingly, Isaiah 8:13 — “The Lord Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy”, is rewritten by Peter as “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord” — 1 Peter 3:15. Then there is a “stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall” — 8:14, which refers to Christ in Romans 9:33 and 1 Peter 2:8.
Meanwhile, “Immanuel” is still waiting for a fulfilment, in the light of the devastation by Assyria of Israel and Judah described in 8:6-8, with the lament appealing to Immanuel in 8:8b. The argument and description has been unbroken, and runs directly through to the fulfilment in 9:1-7, with the third son, the ultimate triumphant occupant of David’s throne. Whether the verses are quoted in the NT or not, there is only one candidate who fulfils the description: Jesus himself.
That 9 is a continuation of 7 and 8 can be in no doubt. We are still waiting for the fulfilment of the Immanuel prophecy. Zebulun and Naphtali, mentioned in 9:1, were the first places to be taken by the Assyrians in their invasion of the northern kingdom. The argument continues beyond 9 into 10, with further description of the judgment on the northern kingdom through the Assyrian invasion. This is followed by judgment on Assyria, by the hand of Yahweh which raised her as the axe — 10:15. A remnant of Jacob/Israel will return — 10:20-22, which takes us back to the first prophetic portent of Isaiah’s son - 7:3.
Further prophetic activity arises in 11, following the withdrawal of devastating armies described in 10:26-34. This time it is the shoot coming up from the stump of Jesse. It’s possible, but unlikely, that this is a separate person from Immanuel, and the “son” of 9:6. In fact, it is all part of the same restoration foreseen prophetically by Isaiah, beginning in local, historical circumstances in the time of Ahaz, continuing to the time of Hezekiah, and stretching beyond to the coming of Jesus described by Matthew, which includes the citing of Isaiah in Matthew 1:22-23.
Just to round things off, the section beginning in 7:1 (maybe really beginning with Isaiah’s commission in Isaiah 6, and maybe including the prefatory material in Isaiah 1-5), finishes (or pauses) in 12:1-6, with a note of praise for what Yahweh has done — or, in Isaiah’s situation, would do in the coming times.
So is “Immanuel” also the son of 9:6? Yes, and also the Branch from Jesse in 11:1, and in fact all the material in the section, since through it, Isaiah is prophetically demonstrating a sweep of God’s protective activity, even when it seemed furthest away, to the coming of Jesus, when what it meant to know God as “Immanuel” had its most complete fulfilment.
I would say therefore that “Immanuel” is more than a typological device employed by Matthew (though I wouldn’t dispute that he is at least that). Immanuel is certainly more than a prophecy limited to local, historical circumstances in Isaiah; the context encourages much more than that. It’s an interesting example of a historical narrative interpretation which plays out through and beyond the time of Isaiah, being fulfilled in Jesus, but Isaiah’s prophecy sketches the glorious implications of that fulfilment in technicolour, in terms of what is yet to come.