“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14, Revised Standard Version) “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14, King James Version)
The Messianic prophecies of the old Testament have always been dear to the heart of the devout Christian believer. Here the believer has found the announcement of God’s saving work in Jesus Christ heralded long before Christ actually appeared upon earth. And it has always been a source of delight to read the prophecies and to compare them with their remarkable fulfillment in the Messianic work of the Savior. Thus was one reminded of the faithfulness of the Triune God to his promises.
These Old Testament prophecies are very rich and very varied. They speak of the Messiah’s birth and of his saving death upon the cross. That they have reference to Jesus Christ cannot be doubted; so clear and remarkable is their fulfillment. There are those, however, who believe that the Christian heart has been in error in thus regarding the prophecies as direct predictions of Christ. Prophecy, we are being told today, should be regarded not as mere prediction. The prophet, rather, was a man who was concerned with the age in which he lived, and who uttered a message which had to do with the time in which he lived. If we are to understand the prophecies, it is maintained, we must first of all discover the “life situation” which was the cause of their utterance.
It will be our purpose in the present article to consider the modern view of prophecy as it has to do with the famous “Immanuel” passage found in the book of Isaiah. This is a prophecy that is dear to the heart of the believer because it sets forth the wondrous birth of the Redeemer. In the Gospel of Matthew it is definitely applied to the birth of Christ. “Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us” (Matthew 1:22, 23). There can be no question about the meaning of the New Testament. It very definitely regards the Isaiah prophecy as a prediction of the Virgin Birth of Jesus Christ. We may note the words—“Now all this was done.” The reference is to the appearance to the angel to Joseph and his announcement that Mary should bring forth a son and call his name Jesus. This was to be done, we are told explicitly, in order that that which had been spoken of the Lord by the prophet might be fulfilled. Surely this is dear enough. The birth of Jesus Christ, according to Matthew, was a specific fulfillment of the prophecy which had earlier been uttered through the prophet Isaiah.
The New Testament interpretation, however, has ·not found universal acceptance. We might expect that it would be gladly accepted by those who profess to believe in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and the Bible as the Word of God. We might surely expect that it would be believed joyfully by ministers who call themselves Presbyterian or Reformed. What, however, actually is the situation? We look at the new Westminster Study Edition of the Holy Bible and read an interpretation of the Isaiah prophecy which is far removed from that which the New Testament places upon it. In a note on the Isaiah prophecy (Isaiah 7:14) we are told that the word which is translated “virgin” (it is almah in the Hebrew) merely means a young woman who is old enough for marriage. As to the meaning of the prophecy we are informed that it means that a mother will bring forth a son in nine months and as an expression of her faith that God is with his people to save them w ill call her newborn son Immanuel. To state the matter very bluntly, the passage, upon this interpretation, is not a prediction of Jesus Christ at all but merely the announcement that some Hebrew mother—who she was, we are not told—will have such faith in God that she will call her newborn child Immanuel.
We turn then to the comments which this Westminster Study Bible has to offer on Matthew’s use of the Isaiah prophecy. Here we· are told again that the Hebrew word which is translated “virgin” means “young woman.” The Isaiah verse was originally spoken of a birth which took place in Isaiah’s day, but here, in the Gospel of Matthew, it is applied to the birth of Jesus. It is well to grasp the significance of this. According to the Westminster Study Edition of the Holy Bible, the wondrous prophecy of Isaiah seven was not at all a prediction of the Virgin Birth of Christ. it was simply a local prophecy; one which had to do with the birth of some child nine months from the time when the prophecy was uttered. In the New Testament the prophecy is applied to Christ, but whether it is rightly applied or not, we are not told. Thus, this beautiful verse of the prophet Isaiah, which the Christian Church has always looked upon as a precious prediction of the wondrous birth of the Lord, is reduced to nothing more than the banal utterance that some unknown Israelitish woman will express her faith in God by naming her son, whoever he may have been, Immanuel. The New Testament applies the passage to Christ, but, obviously, if the passage in itself does not apply to Christ, then the New Testament has no right to misinterpret it and make it apply to him. Thus, the Christian Church is robbed of one of her most priceless prophecies. It might be remarked in passing that it is indeed time for those who profess to love the Reformed Faith to take a vigorous stand against the low views of the Bible that are being promulgated in many of the larger Protestant bodies of today.
The Hebrew word ALMAH. The really crucial point in the interpretation of the Isaiah prophecy centers about the meaning of the Hebrew word almah. Does this word mean virgin or does it have reference merely to a young woman who is of marriageable age? There are several ways in which this question may be approached. For one thing we may seek to ascertain whether the word is used in a strictly technical sense, such as our English word “virgin” seems to be. Then, again, we may study the word in its context to discover, if possible, what significance the context lends to the word. It will be necessary to employ both these procedures if we are real! y to come to an understanding of the passage. In the first place then, we may note that there is no word in the Hebrew which seems to be employed consistently in the technical sense of virgin. Appeal is often made to the word bethulah, which is generally translated “virgin,” and yet, in Joel 1:8 we read, “Lament like a virgin (bethulah) , girded with sackcloth, for the husband of her youth.” At the same time, despite this exception, it must be acknowledged that the word bethulah can usually be translated “virgin.” The word almah may possibly be rendered in English by words such as “maiden” or “damsel.” In the Bible there is no occurrence of the word where it refers to a married woman. In fact, in the description of Rebekah it is said that she was an almah, and she is further described as a bethulah, whom a man had not known. Indeed, Moses seeks to make it very clear that Rebekah is a virgin (Genesis 45; cf. verses 16 and 43) . In Exodus 2:8 Miriam is called an almah, and it is questionable whether, even considering the early age of marriage in the East, she was really of marriageable age. Certainly she was not married. As far as the present writer can discern, there is no case in the Old Testament where the word almah refers to a married woman.
Likewise, in the other Semitic languages, there is no instance of almah referring to a married woman. The late Dr. Robert Dick Wilson made an exhaustive study of this question and came to the conclusion that in none of the ancient Semitic languages did the word almah ever appear in the sense of a married woman. It is necessary also that we consider the context in which the word almah occurs. It appears in the phrase, “Behold the almah shall bring forth, etc.” Now this is a very old formula which was used in the ancient world for heralding an unusual birth. It appears in the Bible for example, in connection with the birth of Ishmael, “Behold, thou art with child and shalt bear a son and shalt call his name Ishmael” (Genesis 16:11) . We may also note Judges 13:3 “Behold, now, thou art barren, and bearest not; but thou shalt conceive and bear a son.”
The same formula occurs outside of the Bible. It is found on the recently discovered (1929) texts from Ras Shamra. Thus, for example, on one of these texts we read “Behold a maiden (almah) shall bear a son.” It is necessary that we understand the force of these formulae. They were intended not merely to announce a birth, but rather to announce an unusual birth. We should note then that Isaiah is talking about an Unusual birth, not the birth of an ordInary child. The annunciation formula must be taken into account in any proper interpretation of the Isaiah passage and it is this which, in the present writer’s opinion, the Westminster Study Edition of the Holy Bible fails to do.
There is, however, another point which must not be overlooked. The birth is said to be a sign. The word sign need not in itself have reference to a miracle but merely to something unusual. On the other hand, when Ahaz was commanded to ask for a sign, we should expect, since Isaiah told him to “ask it either in the depth or in the height above,” that the sign could be of a miraculous nature. Had Ahaz asked, for example, that the light of the sun be blotted out [or a time, his request would have been in keeping with the name of the command which Isaiah had given. Since, therefore, the birth is to be in the nature of a sign, we may well expect that it would be most unusual.
This rules out the reference to any birth near at hand. Rather, and here again, the formulae from Ras Shamra throw some light upon the subject, this is to be a royal birth. In the light of all these considerations, we look again at the usage of the word almah. It is the almah, one particular almah, who is to bear a son. The word focusses attention upon the maiden herself, and for that reason this word was chosen. There is mystery about this maiden. Just as the child will be no ordinary child, so will there be something unusual about the mother. She will not be an ordinary woman; she will be an almah. Is it any wonder that the earlier Jewish translators, living many years before the time of Christ, translated this word as virgin? They hit. upon the exact meaning of the passage.
The Virgin Mother. That these early Jewish translators were right in their translation is shown without a doubt by the New Testament. Isaiah, therefore, was not speaking of some ordinary birth. He was not talking about some woman then and there present who in nine months would give birth to a son. That would have been no sign; that would not have done justice to the announcement formula used: that also would not have done justice to the force of the strange word almah. No, Isaiah, under the strange compulsion of the Holy Spirit, the true Spirit of prophecy, was looking forward, as in a dim and mysterious vision, to that time when Immanuel, the King who should save his people, would lie as a little Babe in the Virgin’s arms. Such a prophecy, for those who have rejected the claims of the Holy Scriptures, may seem indeed to be out of place. For those, however, who rely for their salvation upon the Virgin-born Son and King, the prophecy can be only a source of delight and rejoicing. For what God did formerly promise through his servant the prophet, he has fulfilled in the wondrous birth of his own Son.