The Sign

Although biblical scholars of varied religious backgrounds continue to debate the precise significance of Isaiah 7:14 (Jewish scholars disagree among themselves, as do Christian scholars), the overall meaning is clear: The prophet speaks of a supernatural event of great importance to the house of David, apparently the birth of a royal child. When read in the larger context of Isaiah 7–11, it is not difficult to see how Isaiah 7:14 was taken to be Messianic. Matthew therefore had good reason to cite this passage with reference to the birth of Jesus the Messiah.

Isaiah 7:14 is quoted only once in the entire New Testament, and when understood properly—in terms of Isaiah’s original prophecy and Matthew’s quotation (Matthew 1:23), you will see that the Messianic interpretation makes good scriptural sense.

The context

More than seven hundred years before the birth of Jesus, the people of Judah had a crisis on their hands. They were being attacked by their brothers in the north, the Israelites, who were joined by the Arameans. These enemy armies were heading toward Jerusalem, and their goal was to take the city, remove the reigning king (remember that in Judah, the king was always a descendant of David), and place their own man on the throne.

How real was the threat?

So real that it is the “house of David” that is addressed twice in Isaiah 7: 2, 13, something that takes on real significance when we realize that outside of this chapter of Isaiah, the phrase occurs only three other times in the remaining 165 chapters of the Major Prophets (two other times  Isaiah 16:5; 22:22; once in Jeremiah 21:12; not at all in Ezekiel).

This attack was nothing less than a frontal assault on God’s established dynasty, the dynasty from which the Messiah would come. Unfortunately, the current king in David’s line, Ahaz, was a faithless man who was more prepared to hire a foreign army to help him fight than to rely on God. And so it was that the Lord sent the prophet Isaiah to speak to this weak Davidic king, urging him to put his trust in Yahweh alone and assuring him that Judah’s enemies would be defeated (Isaiah 7:7-8, 9)

But Ahaz refused to stand firm in his faith, even when the Lord offered to give him a sign of supernatural proportions: “Ask the Lord your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights” (Isaiah 7:11). Faithless Ahaz wanted nothing to do with this. So the Lord rebuked him with these words: “Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of men? Will you try the patience of my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin (העלמה) will be with child [or “is with child”] and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:13, 14).
Notice that Ahaz is not simply addressed as the king, but rather as the representative of the house of David; the Hebrew here and in the next verse is in the plural, so Ahaz is not being addressed alone.

That is the famous prophecy! The following verses, which clearly contain elements of judgment as well as deliverance, are not quoted as often but are certainly relevant (Isaiah 7:15-16, 17)

Who is this Immanuel?

  • a child to be born to Isaiah;
  • a child to be born to Ahaz;
  • a child to be born to one particular Judean woman at that time, although she is not specifically named in the context;
  • a child to be born to an unidentified Judean woman at that time.
The context does not make this clear (in spite of Isaiah 8:8; cf. also Isaiah 8:10; both verses have the words עמנו אל in the Hebrew text).

It would be fair to say, however, that the birth of the child has something to do with the future of the house of David, since

  1. The main threat of Israel and Aram, Judah’s enemies in this chapter, was that they would oust the Davidic king and put their own man on the throne;

  2. The Lord specifically says he will give a sign to the unbelieving house of David, and that sign has to do with the birth of a son;

  3. The following chapters, especially 9 and 11, contain some of the most significant Messianic prophecies in the Bible, focusing on the birth and supernatural reign of a new Davidic king.

We will return to the larger context of this passage after addressing several more questions.

What is the supernatural sign given by God?

Various people say:

  • Isaiah is simply predicting that the child born will be a boy (not the most supernatural sign, since the chances of being right are fifty-fifty);

  • the sign is to be found in the name Immanuel, which means “God is with us” (and will deliver us);

  • the sign is that the mother would prophesy for the first time (giving her son the name Immanuel by divine inspiration, which, of course, is hardly a sign if she already knew about this prophecy!);

The nature of the sign is found in Isaiah 7:14-17—in other words, a child will be born soon, bearing a significant name, and before he reaches a certain age, God will defeat Judah’s enemies

some say:

  • the nature of the sign is exactly the opposite, namely, that before the promised child reaches a certain age, Judah will be devastated;
  • the sign consists in the supernatural nature of the birth, since the woman who will conceive Immanuel will be a virgin.

This much is obvious from the context: The sign must clearly bear the marks of divine activity and intervention, since Ahaz grieved the Lord by refusing to ask for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights,” as a result of which the Lord said that he himself would give Ahaz a sign.

This leads to a question that has received almost endless discussion for close to twenty centuries: Does the word עלמה mean “virgin”? While the word עלמה can refer to a virgin, it does not specifically mean “virgin.” Its basic meaning is primarily related to adolescence, not sexual chastity. The evidence is actually fairly clear:

  1. The masculine equivalent to עלמה is עלם, occurring twice in the Hebrew Scriptures (1 Samuel 17:56; 20:22). It simply means “youth, young man,” with no reference to virginity at all. Just substitute “male virgin” in either of these two passages, and the absurdity of such a translation will be seen at once. (Cf., e.g., 1 Samuel 17:56, where Saul wants to learn more about David after he killed Goliath. Did Saul say, “Find out whose son this male virgin is”? Hardly! He simply said, “Find out whose son this young man is”—because עלם meant “young man,” not “male virgin.”)

  2. The words עלם (masc.) and עלמה (fem.) should be derived from a Semitic root meaning “to come into puberty, to come into heat (for an animal),” not from a Semitic root meaning, “to hide, be hidden” (with a supposed reference to virginity).

  3. In the other Semitic languages, עלמה does not specifically mean “virgin.

  4. Within the Tanakh, עלמה does not, in and of itself, clearly and unambiguously mean “virgin.” Outside of Isaiah 7:14, עלמה occurs six times in the Old Testament, and in four of these cases, the NIV—a conservative Christian translation—does not render the word as “virgin.” Why? Because that is not the primary meaning of the word.

  5. The related noun עלמים, occurring in Isaiah 54:4 and Psalm 89:45, is correctly translated as “youth” (not “virginity”) in the KJV, the NKJV, the NASB, and the NIV, all of which translate עלמה in Isaiah 7:14 as “virgin.” Again, youthfulness, not sexual chastity, is the basic meaning of the word.

  6. In Aramaic, עלמה (i.e., עלימתא) sometimes refers to women who have been sexually active.

So, the root עלם has more to do with age and sexual development (i.e., adolescence) than with sexual chastity. The fact is, there is no single word in biblical Hebrew that always and only means “virgin”. The Hebrew word בתולה, while it often refers to a virgin in the Hebrew Scriptures, many times it has no reference to virginity but simply means “young woman, maiden.” In thirty one out of fifty times, the NJPSV translates it as “maiden”—rather than “virgin”, more than three out five times that בתולה occurs in the Hebrew Bible, it is translated as “maiden” rather than “virgin” by the most widely used Jewish translation of our day. The Stone edition of the Tanakh, reflecting traditional Orthodox scholarship, frequently translates בתולה as “maiden” as well. Even in verses where the translation of “virgin” is appropriate for בתולה, a qualifying phrase is sometimes added, as in Genesis 24:16:

“The maiden (נער) was very beautiful, a virgin (בתולה) whom no man had known.”

If בתולה clearly meant “virgin” here, there would be no need to explain that this בתולה never had intercourse with a man. Just think of normal English usage; we would never say, “The young woman was a virgin, and she never had sexual intercourse in her life.”

Just consider the absurdity of translating בתולה  with the word “virgin” instead of “maiden” in some of the following verses from Stones:

  • Isaiah 23:4.  Could you imagine translating this with “brought up virgins”? What parent says, “I’ve raised young men and virgins”?).

  • Ezekiel 9:6 (Cf. 2 Chronicles 36:17). It is very common for בתולה  to be parallel with בחור, “young man”—not young male virgin—as it is in this verse. There is no thought here about virgins being a special category of those who would be slain. Rather, the command is comprehensive: Slay the old men, the young men and young women, the mothers and children. Virginity is not an issue here.

  • Job 31:1. This was Job’s personal pledge of piety. Obviously, he was not promising never to look lustfully at a virgin. How could he know which attractive young lady was a virgin and which was not? Rather, he had promised not to lust after a young woman.

  • Joel 1:8. בתולה refers to a widow: “Lament—like a maiden girt with sackcloth for the husband of her youth” (NJPSV). A widow is hardly a virgin!

  • Isaiah 47: 1. A few verses later we read that this “Virgin” will lose her husband and her children on the very same day! “Now then, listen, you wanton creature, lounging in your security and saying to yourself, ‘I am, and there is none besides me. I will never be a widow or suffer the loss of children.’ Both of these will overtake you in a moment, on a single day: loss of children and widowhood. They will come upon you in full measure, in spite of your many sorceries and all your potent spells” (Isaiah 47:8–9).

Of course, Israel, Zion, or the surrounding nations could be referred to as a בתולה, always translated as “Maiden” in such contexts by the NJPSV. The point, however, is clear: בתולה did not immediately convey the image or meaning of “virgin.” Otherwise, the usage would be totally inappropriate in these verses in which the בתולה is married and with children. Once again, virginity was not the issue. In fact, an ancient Aramaic text even makes reference to a בתולה who is pregnant but cannot bear!

Some tell us that if Isaiah had intended to prophesy a virgin birth clearly, he would have used בתולה rather than עלמה. Neither word themselves would clearly convey the meaning of virgin.

The real meaning of Isaiah's prophecy.

As Matthew looked back at it more than seven hundred years later it was a lot more profound than realized! The original prophecy is so obscure and difficult that it provides the key to understand the depth of Matthew’s insight.

Now it is impossible to determine exactly what the prophecy meant to the original hearers when it was delivered, other than that it was a promise of a supernatural sign, a birth of great importance to the house of David, a token of divine intervention and deliverance, and a rebuke to unbelief and apostasy. Many commentators also point out that the wording of the birth announcement in Isaiah 7:14 follows the pattern of several other major birth announcements in the Hebrew Bible, underscoring the importance of the announcement here:
  • To Hagar, Abram’s concubine: “The angel of the Lord also said to her: ‘You are now with child and you will have a son. You shall name him Ishmael, for the Lord has heard of your misery’ ” (Genesis 16:11).
  • Regarding the birth of Samson: “The angel of the Lord appeared to her and said, ‘You are sterile and childless, but you are going to conceive and have a son.’ … ‘you will conceive and give birth to a son.’… He said to me, ‘You will conceive and give birth to a son’ ” (Judges 13:3, 5, 7).
All three of these birth announcements—concerning Ishmael, Samson, and Immanuel—are of great significance in the Hebrew Bible, and all three are introduced with similar words and phrases. Also relevant is an ancient pagan text from the city of Ugarit (north of Israel, in modern-day Syria), written roughly five hundred years before Isaiah and announcing the birth of a god to a goddess in words very similar to those used in Isaiah 7:14: “Behold, the maiden  will bear a son.”
Glrt in Ugarit is same as עלמה.
All this points to the fact that a birth of great importance was being announced by the prophet, especially for David’s house. It was God’s answer to the attack on the Davidic dynasty, and it was meant as a demonstration of his power and reality. As Matthew looked back at this prophecy in context, this is what he saw: The birth of Immanuel is highly significant in Isaiah 7–8; there are two major Messianic prophecies found in Isaiah 9 and 11; Jesus' birth truly was a supernatural sign (part of the sign being that the עלמה was in fact a virgin, yet she gave birth to a son); and Jesus was Immanuel—a name found nowhere else in the Bible or the Ancient Near East —in the literal sense of the name (God is with us), as seen clearly in Isaiah 9:5–6. Therefore Matthew could say that this prophecy reached its “fulfillment” with the birth of Jesus the Messiah since:
  • the meaning of the text in its original historical context is somewhat veiled from our eyes, and not enough is said in the context to interpret the verses in a definite and dogmatic way;
  • as a prophecy regarding the line of David and the coming Davidic king, and as part of Israel’s ongoing sacred Scriptures, we can see that its full and complete meaning was reached with the birth of the Messiah.
But this is not only true of Isaiah 7:14. This is also true of other Messianic prophecies that were originally spoken regarding the birth or reign of Davidic kings who lived at those times—in other words, contemporaries of the prophets who were delivering the messages. It was only decades or even centuries later, when the writings were recognized as Holy Scripture, that these prophecies were understood to be still unfulfilled Messianic prophecies.

Isaiah 7:14, when read in the context of Isaiah 7–11, one of the key Messianic sections in the prophetic books, ultimately pointed to Jesus/Yeshua, our Messiah and King:
  • in Isaiah 7:14 he is about to be born;
  • in Isaiah 9:6 he is already born and declared to be the divine king;
  • in Isaiah 11 he is ruling and reigning (in the supernatural power of the Spirit).
As Matthew looked back at these prophecies hundreds of years later, it was clear that:
  • these chapters were linked together
  • the promises of a worldwide, glorious reign of the promised Davidic king were not yet realized
 Something must have happened in Isaiah’s day relative to the birth of an Immanuel figure, but its greater promise—elaborated more fully in chapters 9 and 11—did not reach fulfillment in any sense of the word.

And how do we know that Matthew had these other chapters of Isaiah in mind? He cited them or made reference to them elsewhere in the first four chapters of his book!
  • Matthew 1:23 he quotes Isaiah 7:14;
  • Matthew 4:15–16 he quotes Isaiah 9:1–2;
  • Matthew 2:23 he makes reference to Isaiah 11:1
This means Matthew was not looking at Isaiah 7:14 in isolation, but rather in the larger context of the Messianic prophecies of Isaiah 7–11 (some would also include chapter 12 in this Messianic section).

So who was this Immanuel?

  • He was a king promised to the line of David, with an important, symbolic name—whose birth would serve as a divine sign.
  • If Immanuel is also the king spoken of in Isaiah 9 and 11, he was to be the Messiah, seen prophetically as emerging on the immediate horizon of history.
In that light, it is interesting to note that the promise of yet another child of promise, Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz in Isaiah 8, seems to take the place of the Immanuel prophecy in Isaiah 7 in terms of the immediate historical context spoken of there. In other words, Isaiah declares that before Immanuel reaches a certain age, Judah’s enemies would be destroyed, and then God would bring judgment on Judah as well. But the birth in Isaiah 8 seems to repeat this very same promise, with one important exception: The text indicates the child was actually born, whereas there is no record of Immanuel being born in Isaiah’s day.

The Catholic Old Testament scholar, Joseph Blenkinsopp, even suggested that the very close structural parallel between 7:10–17 and 8:1–4 would suggest the hypothesis … of alternative accounts of one sign-act, the first addressed to the dynasty, the second to the Judean public. The parallelism may be set out as follows:

The young woman
The young woman is pregnant and about to give birth to a son
She will give him the name Immanuel
Before the child knows how to reject what is bad and choose what is… good
The king of Assyria (Isaiah 7:17)
The prophetess (Isaiah 8:3)
Maher shalal-hash-baz (Isaiah 8:1,3)
The prophetess became pregnant and bore a son
She will call him Maher-shalal-hash-baz
Before the child is able to say, ‘my father’ or ‘my mother’
The king of Assyria (Isaiah 8:4)
To round it off, the declaration of the meaning of the sign-act is followed in both cases by a threat of punishment for Judah to be administered by the Assyrians as agents of YHWH (Isaiah 7:18–25; 8:5–10). I conclude, then, that within the prophetic world view, Immanuel and Maher-shalal-hash-baz represent different aspects of the divine intervention in human affairs at that critical juncture. They are, so to speak, the recto and verso of the same coin.

How interesting! Two birth prophecies with similar subject matter and similar time frames following one after the other, but with different names for the boys to be born (Immanuel and Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz) and with the birth of the latter actually described, while the birth of the former is not. It seems, then, that for Isaiah’s contemporaries, the birth of Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz virtually took the place of the birth of Immanuel, leaving this important prophetic announcement without any record of fulfillment for more than seven hundred years.

I am fully aware of the standard, quite logical, Jewish argument against any fulfillment of the Immanuel prophecy hundreds of years after Isaiah’s day. As summarized in the Encyclopedia Judaica:
The medieval Jewish commentator David Kimhi (on Isa. 7:14) comments that the sign was to strengthen Ahaz’s conviction in the truth of the prophet’s message. This would imply that the sign be contemporary with Ahaz and not a symbol for a future occurrence. The birth of Immanuel therefore could not take place, as Christianity has it, in the distant future after the period of Isaiah.
However, this argument fails to take into account that
  • it was a promise to the house of David as a whole (addressed, significantly, in the plural in verses 13–14), and the promises to the Davidic kings often had meaning beyond their own generations;
  • the Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz prophecy becomes the more prominent in terms of Isaiah’s own day, serving as the time setter;
  • the prophecy is shrouded in some degree of obscurity, allowing Matthew to look at it afresh and inquire as to its deeper meaning.
It is also fair to point out that Matthew’s interpretive method, throughout his writings, is quite typical of the best of ancient Jewish interpretation, reflecting literal interpretations, allegorical interpretations, plays on words, and midrashic allusions. Thus, in the first two chapters alone, he cites:
  • Micah 5:2 (in Matthew. 2:5–6), interpreted as a direct prophecy of the birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem;
  • Hosea 11:1 (in Matthew. 2:15), interpreted as a prophetic parallel (in other words, as it happened to Israel in its infancy, so also did it happen to Yeshua in his infancy;
  • Jeremiah 31:15 (in Matthew. 2:18), where Rachel is heard allegorically and poetically weeping for her children once again.
  • Isaiah 11:1 and several other prophetic passages (in Matthew. 2:23) as a play on words related to a title of the Messiah in the Tanakh.
For Matthew, the Hebrew Bible was the Messiah’s Bible, and therefore, given that
  1. Jesus was literally Immanuel, God with us,
  2. the Immanuel prophecy was clearly directed to the house of David,
  3. Mary(Miryam), Jesus' mother was an עלמה who had never known a man, and
  4. the surrounding context in Isaiah contained highly significant Messianic prophecies, it is no wonder that Matthew pointed to Isaiah 7:14 as being “fulfilled” in the birth of Jesus the Messiah.

Who else fulfilled it?

Since Matthew knew beyond doubt that Jesus was the Messiah and since he knew that he was born of a virgin, was he wrong to quote Isaiah 7:14 in reference to Jesus' miraculous birth? Was it not another important link in the chain of promises and prophecies given to David and his line?

It is also interesting that the Greek Septuagint translated the Hebrew עלמה with  παρθενος (normally rendered “virgin”) more than two hundred years before the time of Jesus. This has been cited for the last two millennia as a further proof that עלמה really meant “virgin.” Otherwise, why would the Jewish translators of the Septuagint render the Hebrew in that way before Jesus was born? But παρθενος does not always mean “virgin” either, as evidenced by the Septuagint’s rendering of Genesis 34:3, where Dinah is still called a παρθενος even after being raped.

We cannot argue that Hebrew עלמה would have clearly conveyed the meaning of “virgin” to Isaiah’s hearers and readers. There is something important in the Septuagint translation, leading to comment on this passage made by Rashi.
Immanuel… Meaning, that our Rock will be with us, and this is the sign: She is a young girl and has never prophesied (נתנבאית), yet in this instance, Divine inspiration shall rest upon her …
The Hebrew word נתנבאית is a common word in the Hebrew language. It is related to the Hebrew word נבאי which means “a prophet”. So Isaiah 7:14 is prophecy according to Rashi.

Rashi’s also said: 
“And some interpret that this is the sign, that she was a young girl [עלמה] and incapable of giving birth.”  (Translated in English by Rabbi A. J. Rosenberg)
So the birth itself was unusual and perhaps even supernatural! Rashi does not say that עלמה means “virgin” here or that a virgin birth is prophecied and he does not relate it to Jesus. Yet despite his strong dislike for Christian interpretation of Messianic prophecy, he acknowledges that some Jewish commentators interpret the text to indicate that God’s sign to Ahaz had to do with the highly unusual nature of the birth:
She would be only an עלמה—a young girl!—and for such a woman to give birth would not be normal. How interesting! Not only so, he also notes that the plural עלמות in Song of Solomon 1:3 means “virgins” (בתולות).

The Greek Septuagint and Isaiah 7:14

The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament states that on purely lexical grounds it is impossible to say whether the translator is expressing true virginity when he uses παρθενος at Is. 7:14. The total picture of LXX usage demands no more than the sense of a “woman untouched by man up to the moment of the conception (of Immanuel).” … [However on the basis of LXX usage it is also possible that the translator of Is. 7:14 envisaged a non-sexual origin of the virgin’s son.
So it is possible that the Septuagint rendering indicated an expectation that the birth spoken of in Isaiah 7:14 would be virginal (and, hence, supernatural), just as the Hebrew could point to the unusual nature of the birth. In the fullness of time the unnamed עלמה  was in fact a παρθενος, a virgin, bearing the Son of God (Galatians 4:4). If a different word had been used, then a later virginal conception would have been impossible. The miraculous nature of the sign ultimately becomes clear in light of its fulfillment, whatever the original expectations and overall understanding might have been.

Rashi’s closing comment is of importance, since some Jewish interpreters felt that it was striking to read of an עלמה being pregnant and soon to bear a child. Centuries after Isaiah’s day, this uniqueness came to the fore, quite possibly reflected in the Septuagint’s παρθενος, and then certainly reflected in Matthew’s Greek text. So, the deeper meaning of the prophecy became apparent as the fullness of time dawned.

There are some who still claim that Jesus did not fulfill the prophecy because he was never called Immanuel (in particular, by his mother, as spelled out in Isaiah 7:14). But this objection can be easily refuted:
  1. According to 2 Samuel 12:24–25, Solomon was to be called Jedidiah, but he was never referred to by this name once in the Tanakh.
  2. The Talmud and a number of Rabbinic commentaries claim that the birth of Hezekiah fulfilled Isaiah 9:6, referring all the names of the child to him. But when was he ever called by any of these names, let alone called by all of them? Yet that did not stop these traditional Jewish sources from claiming that this passage referred to him. How then can the argument be made that Isaiah 7:14 cannot refer to Jesus because he was not called Immanuel in the New Testament?
  3. The fact is that Jesus the Lord is praised and adored as Immanuel by millions of his followers around the world. Many of the great hymns of the church center in on that one key name, including the medieval classic beginning with the words, “O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel.”
To conclude, then, there is no substance to the argument that Matthew misinterpreted Isaiah 7:14 when he claimed that the prophecy was fulfilled in Jesus' virgin birth. To the contrary, his interpretation reflects genuine insight into a difficult passage of Scripture, an insight that bears the mark of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
Brown, M. L. (2000). Answering Jewish objections to Jesus, Volume 2: Theological objections (248). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books. [Edited for website]