The Incarnate Son
Tom Wilson, Levin, New Zealand
Isaiah 7. 14 is one of the most beloved and disputed Messianic verses in the Old Testament. It is beloved because in clear, unequivocal terms it sets before us the promise of the incarnate Christ's virgin birth. It is disputed because the word for 'virgin' is the Hebrew almah which is also capable of being rendered 'young woman' (as the RSV), which those who deny the virgin birth of Christ have gladly seized upon.
The Septuagint (Greek) translators used the unambiguous word parthenos for 'virgin' and this is what is quoted in Matthew 1. 23. The issue, then, is to reconcile the Hebrew and Greek in these two passages.
To do this we should examine the context in Isaiah 7. There we see that although King Ahaz was told by God to ask for a sign that He was going to deliver Judah from the invading armies of the Syria-Israel alliance, in unbelief and with a show of false piety he refused: 'I will not ask, neither will I tempt the Lord', v. 12.
Nevertheless God did give him the sign of verse 14, 'Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel'.
Why did God persist? Because it was His will at that point in history to give Isaiah's first recorded prophecy of the coming Messiah, what Herbert Lockyer calls 'Isaiah's first evangelistic announcement'.
We must ask the question, why was this a sign to Ahaz when the ultimate fulfilment lay more than seven centuries ahead? The Messianic promise was no sign at all to this unbelieving man. The answer can only be that in his time a child call 'Immanuel' would be born to a young virgin about to marry, possibly within or connected to the royal house so that the fulfilment would be known by the king.
The name of that child and its meaning, 'God with us', would be the sign. The promise to Ahaz was that Judah would be delivered from the invading armies through divine intervention.
Of the lad it was written, 'Butter and honey shall he eat (all that was available in the land while it was occupied by enemy forces; milk from livestock without their young, honey from wild flowers on uncultivated land) 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 thou abhorrest shall be forsaken of both her kings', vv. 15, 16.
In this Old Testament picture the lives of people and events in Judah became an allegory of the birth of Jesus the Son of God, our 'Emmanuel'. The ultimate fulfilment was when Christ the eternal Son of God became Man, indeed to be born of a 'virgin' unlike Ahaz's contemporary who was born naturally of a 'young woman', who may well however have been a virgin when the prophecy was given. The dual meaning of the Hebrew word made both possible, and maintained the integrity of the text in its twofold application.
As in the time of Ahaz, our Emmanuel was born at a time of national crisis. But how much greater was the promise He brought and the deliverance He wrought! We should remind ourselves of the circumstances and meaning of that amazing birth.
Although the world of God's creation was condemned through sin, He still loved those whom He had put there. Satan had caused sin to enter their lives and death reigned.
He would deliver them - but how? There was no one on earth who could become a saviour because all were under sin. Yet God's justice required that the sins of the world be atoned for by someone who could, and would, take the sinner's place in death and judgment.
God's love was such that He appointed His only begotten Son to fill this role. Though God, He would become Man. Though sinless, He would take the sinner's place. Though eternal, He would die an atoning death for us. He was the 'Dayspring (or 'Sunrise') from on high' who was to visit us 'to give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace', Luke 1. 78, 79. Such was the love of God for His lost creation.
A plan like this could never have been conceived by human minds. In the incarnate Son all the holiness of God was to grace this world of lost sinners. But how? Natural birth would involve a human lineage and the progeny would therefore be of the sinful seed of Adam.
This Child must be conceived in a virgin womb by the Holy Spirit Himself. Even in His birth, He would be 'Immanuel . . . God with us'. By the will of the Father, through the Spirit of God, the Son would be born. Then in His spotless life, and His vicarious death, and victorious resurrection He would also be 'God with us'. All this is implicit in, and arises out of Matthew 1. 20-24, which includes a quotation of Isaiah 7. 14.
Human intellect could never have conceived such a plan.
The virgin birth of Christ is more than a point of doctrine. It is a requirement of the holy character of God and an evidence of His wisdom and power.
It was, humanly speaking, the foundation of redemption. Without it, Christ could never have saved us. Without it, He could not have been born because God could not be the product of sinful human progeny. Without it, Calvary would never have happened as a sinless Sacrifice was required to satisfy divine justice.
God's power in redemption was ministered to a dying world. Those who deny it, deny the very foundation on which God built salvation.
Isaiah 7. 14 is indeed a beloved verse to every child of God. Charles Wesley put it well:
Christ, by highest heaven adored,
Christ, the everlasting Lord,
Late in time behold Him come,
Offspring of a Virgin's womb.
Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see!
Hail, the incarnate Deity!
Pleased as man with men to dwell,
Jesus our Immanuel.