These notes are an attempt to clarify, for myself at least, the historical setting for the Immanuel prophecy in Isaiah 7:14, following the helpful feedback given to yesterday’s post: Are Immanuel and Wonderful-Counselor-Mighty-God-Everlasting-Father-Prince-of-Peace the same person? Thanks to all those who have so far contributed to the discussion. This may have to serve as a rather dull (but warm) Christmas greetings to all and sundry.
The birth of Immanuel was to be a sign, either to Ahaz or to the house of David, that within a few years the two kings, Rezin and Pekah, who threatened Judah at that time would be defeated by the king of Assyria (Is. 7:10-25). Some time later another boy was born to Isaiah, Maher-shalal-hash-baz, an event which further confirmed that Syria and the northern kingdom of Israel would be defeated. Following that, however, the king of Assyria would invade Judah, reaching to the gates of Jerusalem, as punishment for the failure of Ahaz and the people to trust YHWH when Syria and Israel first threatened (8:1-10; cf. 7:2). It seems likely that both boys, along with Shear-jashub (7:3), are “signs and portents in Israel”, along with Isaiah himself, regarding impending events.
We read in 2 Kings 16:1-9 that Ahaz asked Tiglath-pileser III to rescue him from the kings of Syria and Israel/Ephraim. Damascus was immediately captured and Rezin was killed. The northern kingdom did not fall to the Assyrians until 722/721 BC. There is disagreement about the dates of Ahaz’s reign, but his death is usually put at 716. This would mean that the prophecy was fulfilled within Ahaz’s lifetime. I don’t know at what age a child would have learned to distinguish between good and evil. The attack of Rezin and Pekah came around 732, so it would have been no more than ten years before both nations suffered defeat at the hands of the Assyrians, fully satisfying the conditions of the prophecies made in connection with both Immanuel and Maher-shalal-hash-baz.
If the death of Ahaz and ascension of Hezekiah are dated to 726, Daniel’s observation that the prophecy of 7:14 is addressed not to Ahaz but to the house of David (we really should reinstate the distinction in English between “thou” and “ye”) becomes relevant. The prophecy refers then to events that happened after Ahaz’s death. But there is still no reason to think that the child Immanuel was not born during Ahaz’s reign.
The fact that the sign of the birth of Immanuel is given to the house of David means that it must take place at least before the termination of the Davidic line following the death of Zedekiah in 587 BC. There is no house of David at the time of Jesus’ birth to which it might be said, “Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also?” (7:13).
The phrase “God with us” also occurs in the context of the prophecy regarding the Assyrian attack on Judah: the Assyrian armies will “fill the breadth of your land, God-with-us” (8:8; cf. 8:10). How we interpret this does not make too much difference. The point to note is that only the defeat of Damascus and Samaria are referenced in the Immanuel and Maher-shalal-hash-baz prophecies, not the later invasion of Judah by the Assyrians.
Judah is the land of the boy Immanuel, who was given to the house of David as a sign that God would be with his people. There is no reason why he would not have been alive at the time of Sennacherib’s invasion in 701 BC. Immanuel could perhaps be Hezekiah, the king whose land this was, though this seems unlikely since, by my reckoning, Hezekiah would have been about 6 years old when Ahaz began to reign.
John Doyle has suggested that there are good grounds for thinking that Isaiah 9:6-7, which is given wide berth by the New Testament, refers back to a king who has already been born—that is, Hezekiah, whose name means “YHWH is my strength”. The Septuagint quite clearly puts the birth of the king in the past. But there may be no reference to the boy at 8:8 at all. Isaiah may only be saying that at this time “God will be with us”, as he was when he preserved Judah from attack by Rezin and Pekah. The Septuagint has meth’ hēmōn ho theos (“God is/be with us”) not the name Emmanouēl as in 7:14.
As far as Isaiah is concerned, the last echo of the Immanuel prophecy fades with the deliverance of Judah from the armies of Sennacherib.