Isaiah 7:14—Would the Messiah be “Virgin Born”? – Part 2

By: Dr. Walter Kaiser; ©2002
Dr. Kaiser concludes his article regarding the various interpretations of Isaiah 7:14, a most interesting discussion.

Isaiah 7:14—Part Two

II. Isaiah 7:14 and the Single-Meaning Hermeneutic

It is impossible to raise each of the numerous questions that this text has occasioned. Our purpose is much more restricted; we propose to focus on the problem of Isaiah’s awareness of the meaning of this text and the legitimacy of relating it simultaneously to Ahaz’s day and to the first advent of Messiah. Succinctly stated, our problem is this: if Isaiah intended to predict the advent of Messiah (and this must first be demonstrated that he did), how can this event which occurred seven centuries later be depicted in Isaiah 7 as proximately and inseparably linked with a definite historical event in the immediate future of these eighth century recipients?

What, then, is the central issue which will help us to keep perspective in the midst of the welter of baffling questions? We believe that it is the assurance Isaiah gives in this pas­sage of the permanence of “the house of David” (Isa. 7:2).

In fact, the six chapters of Isaiah 7-12 might be entitled, “The Discourse of the three Children” with the pivotal verses coming in Isaiah 8:17-18:

I will wait for Yahweh, Who is hiding his face from the house of Jacob. I will put my trust in Him. Behold I and the children whom Yahweh has given me are signs and symbols in Israel from the Yahweh of hosts The One dwelling in Mount Zion.[1]

Each of these three children are “signs” and each child is born in fulfillment of the promise made to David that his seed should be eternal and that he would have an eternal dominion wielding a peaceful scepter. The three children are:

  1. Shear-Jashub = “Remnant-will-return” (7:3) (Compare Isa. 10:20, 21, 22; 11:11, 16)
  2. Immanuel = God-with-us” (7:14) (Compare Isa. 8:8, 10)
  3. Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz = “Hasten-spoil-Hurry-prey” (8:1, 3, 4) (Compare Isa. 10:2, 6)

Consequently, each of the three children is the subject of one introductory prophecy and each is featured later in the argument. In this fact, and in the statement that each of the three children are “signs,” the children are on the same footing.

But the second child, Immanuel, emerges with a distinctive bearing, separate from the other two children. For one thing, the phraseology used in Isaiah 7:14 would have been reminiscent to Isaiah himself, as well as to his listeners in the eighth century, of previous theophanic appearances of Yahweh. Note these similarities found in the births of Ishmael, Samson and Isaac:

  1. Isaiah 7:14“Behold (you) the virgin are pregnant,”
  2. Genesis 16:11 “Behold thou are pregnant,”
  3. Judges 13:5,7 “Behold thou are pregnant,”
  4. Genesis 17:19 “But Sarah your wife”

(a1) “and bearing a son,and shall call his name Immanuel.”

(b1) “and bearing a son,and shall call his name Ishmael.”

(c1) “and bearing a son.” (=Samson.)

(d1) “is bearing to thee a son, and you shall call his name Isaac.”

No doubt Isaiah’s words were deliberately cast in this familiar phraseology so that the prophet’s original hearers would associate this new “sign” of God with those earlier and well-known promises to his people.[2]

But even more impressive is the mention of Immanuel twice in the fourth[3] of these introductory prophecies: Isaiah 8:5-10. Even though he prophesies the fact that the Assyrians will be successful (as exhibited in the fact that Ahaz found more delight in the gods to which he sacrificed in Damascus [Isa. 8:6; II Chron. 28:23; II Kgs. 16:10-16] when he later on went to meet their Assyrian conqueror, Tiglath-Pileser) that land—Immanuel’s land—will survive. The reason it will survive is simply stated: because of Immanuel him­self—”God is with us” (Isa. 8:10). Therefore, “Do your worst, you nations…. Devise your strategy…. Propose your plan, but it will not stand, because (I am) Immanuel” (Isa. 8:9-10; NIV and NIV footnote)!

The truth that God was with them was detailed further in Isaiah 9:1-6 and in Isaiah 11. A child would be born who would sit on the throne of David; a shoot from the stem of Jesse! As Willis J. Beecher concluded:

It may be doubted whether any of them had in mind the idea of just such a person as Jesus, to be born of a virgin, in some future century; but they had in mind some birth in the unending line of David which would render the truth “God with us,” especially significant.[4]

Our argument is that this passage cannot be fairly handled until it is seen as another prediction in the series of promises made with “the house of David.” Once this proposition is grasped, it is possible to proceed to the more difficult question: how is the promise made with the house of David to be linked with a “sign” which functions for Ahaz’s generation and that final “shoot” that will come from the “stump of Jesse,” whose name will be “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace?” This is the question that has made interpreters return to this text time and time again.

The historical setting is well knownby now to all interpreters, even if it can only be sketched in general terms. Rezin, the reigning monarch in Damascus, Syria and Pekah, the ruler of the Israelite throne in Samaria, plotted together to teach the house of David and its present holder of the throne, Ahaz, a lesson. They proposed to set “The son of Tabeel” (Isa. 7:6) on the throne in Jerusalem in place of a scion of David.

Even before Ahaz became King, Rezin and Pekah had already begun to encroach on Judean territory during the reign of Ahaz’s predecessor, Jothan, (II Kgs. 15:37). Clearly these two northern nemeses wanted Jothan, and then Ahaz, to join their anti-Assyrian coalition, but these Davidites and the population of Jerusalem wanted no part in stirring up the wrath of Nineveh. Miller and Hayes[5] suggest that the cities denounced by the prophet Micah in his first chapter may indeed have been towns in the prophet’s neighborhood who were anti-Assyrian and therefore opposed Ahaz’s pro-Assyrian policy.

It is extremely important to note, therefore, that the attack on Jerusalem in Ahaz’s reign was the climax to a war that had originally broken out in Jothan’s reign and the intervention of the Assyrians was not the cause of it, nor its beginning.

In place of the current Davidic ruler, Pekah and Rezin intended to place “the son of Tabeel.” What were the motives that impelled Pekah and Rez in to challenge Jotham and Ahaz? Was the key to be sought in the military struggle for Transjordania as B. Obed[6] suggests is the case on the basis of II Chronicles 27:5 where Jotham defeated the Ammo­nites and exacted a heavy tribute from them? Obed believes that this “ben-Tobeel” can be traced back through Tobiah the Ammonite servant (Neh. 2:19; 6:17; Zech. 6:10) to a grand­son of the Tobiah known from the Lachish letters, up to Ben Tobeel in the time of Ahaz.[7]

Others make the unnamed son of Tabeel a son or relative of King Tubail = Tabeel, the ruling house in Tyre who were strong supporters of the anti-Assyrian coalition.[8] It is impos­sible to say who he was or from whence he came.

For our purposes, the challenge to the Davidic dynasty, and thereby to the program of redemptive history, is the only point which emerges clearly in this complicated issue. Isaiah assured a worried Ahaz that the two Northern partners opposing him with all their threats would be doomed to failure.

Whether the movements of the Assyrian King Tiglath-pileser were motivated by Ahaz’s request for help in 11 Kings 16:7, or by strategies that may even have preceded that, is an open question. What is known is that Tiglath-pileser did undertake a campaign against Syria-Palestine in 738 B.C. In the Annuls of Tiglath-pileser III, paragraph 772,[9] we are told of the number of captives he took from each city along with the fact that he received tribute from a Menihumnu (=Menahem) of Samaria and Hahianu (= Rezin) of Aram (Damascus). Four years later in 734 B.C., again according to the Assyrian annals, Tiglath-pileser in­vaded Philistia.[10]

What, then, is the chronological relation between the Syro-Ephraimite War and the 738 and 734 campaign of Tiglath-pileser? We know that 732 ended the allies adventure, but as Michael Thompson asks, “How is it possible to conceive of Rezin and Pekah essaying an anti-Assyrian movement when the Assyrian army was already in Syria-Palestine?”[11]

Thompson is forced to conclude, as we are, that “The war must have occurred, there, before Tiglath-pileser’s 734 campaign against Philistia, and it is credible that its associated anti-Assyrian mood should have been strengthened and encouraged in the years following the earlier Assyrian campaign in 738.”[12]

Herbert Donner[13] objects to this reconstruction arguing that there is not enough time between Pekah’s accession to the throne in 735 B.C. and Tiglath-pileser’s intervention in 734. But Pekah’s reign is shrouded in such darkness that none can set any firm date for his accession to the throne. In Edwin Theile’s[14] construction, he began his reign in 752 B.C. and reigned, perhaps at first in the Transjordanean territory just south of Damascus, and then in Samaria for a total of twenty years until his death in 732 B.C.

The advantage of placing the beginnings of the Syro-Ephraimitish War before the Assyrian campaign of 734 B.C. is clear: “…we can perhaps more easily understand why Rezin and Pekah might have thought that their anti-Assyrian plans had some hope of succeeding. For they enjoyed a period of years—perhaps three, or even longer—when they had been free of the Assyrian and had thus had time (due to Tiglath-pileser’s occupa­tion with matters in the north and the south of his empire so that the west was spared any incursions).”[15]

All of this only peaks our curiosity all the more: what was the year that Isaiah delivered his message to Ahaz? It had to be prior to 734 B.C. How much more we cannot say.

But the door is now opened for a new look at the old question: What child born in Ahaz’s day served as a sign to his generation while also embodying the wonderful names of that coming Davidic prince? We believe the best working hypothesis still is the one that says that Ahaz’s son Hezekiah is the best candidate.[16]

However, that suggestion raises the most nettlesome problem of all. To say that the chronology of this period is obscure is to understate the magnitude of the difficulty. The principle areas of difficulty come in harmonizing the chronological data of II Kings 15-18. The issues may be listed as follows:

  1. If Hezekiah was 25 years old at his accession according to II Kings 18:2, and if his accession is placed in 714 B.C. (the latest date anyone proposes), he must have been born in 739 B.C.
  2. If Hezekiah’s father was 20 at his own accession to the throne and he reigned for 16 years (II Kgs. 16:1-2), he would have died when he was 36 (when Hezekiah apparently was 25), making Ahaz only 11 when his son Hezekiah was born!
  3. To exacerbate matters still further, the chronological data of II Kings 18:1, 9, 10 make the fifth year of Hezekiah’s reign the same year that Samaria fell in 722 (II Kgs 18:10); therefore Hezekiah succeeded his father Ahaz in 726-27 B.C., meaning Hezekiah would have been born twenty-five years earlier in 752-51! Very few opt for the 752 B.C. date, for most equate Hezekiah’s fourteenth year of his reign with Sennacherib’s invasion in 701 B. C.[17]

The year 701 B.C. appears to be the pivotal year. For the moment let us not decide whether that is Hezekiah’s fourteenth or twenty-fourth reigning year. Instead, let us skip down in the list two rulers to King Josiah who met his death at 39 years of age in 609 B.C. after ruling for 31 years (II Kgs 22:1). This 609 B.C. date is secure because the events associated with Josiah’s death are recorded in Babylonian Chronicle on a year by year basis.[18]

Josiah was preceded by Amon, who reigned for two years (II Kgs. 21:19) and he in turn was preceded by Manasseh who ruled for 55 years (II Kgs. 21:1). Now 609 plus 31= 640, plus 2 = 642, plus 55 = 697 B.C.

But there must be a co-regency between Manasseh and Hezekiah since Hezekiah’s 29 years (II Kgs. 18:2) would last until 686 B.C if his fourteenth year matches Sennacherib’s invasion of 701 B.C. Moreover, II Kings 20:1 states: “In those days Hezekiah became ill and was at the point of death” when Isaiah told him “Put your house in order, because you will die; you will not recover.” What would be more natural than for him to place his son on the throne as a co-regent at such a desperate point in his life?

No doubt when Manasseh had reached the age of twelve (the accepted year of maturity in the Jewish community, cf. Lk. 2:42, 49), he made him a co-regent. And in response to Hezekiah’s prayer, God extended his life fifteen years—eleven of which he ruled with his son as co-regent from 697-686 B.C.

This solution does not help us with the synchronisms given with Hoshea in II Kings 18:1, 9, 10. In fact, Edwin Thiele,[19] that great solver of every other synchronism and chro­nological fact in the chronologies of the Hebrew Kings simply gave up when he came to this one in his doctoral study submitted to the University of Chicago. Thiele argued that the reign of Hoshea was over and the Kingdom of Israel no longer existed when Hezekiah came to the throne. His evidence is this: one of Hezekiah’s first acts was to repair the temple in the first month of his first year (II Chron. 29:3, 17) and then to proclaim the cel­ebration of the Passover on the fourteenth day of the second month (II Chron. 30:2, 13, 15). His invitations, however, were not limited to Judah, but he sent to “all Israel and Judah” including Ephraim, Manasseh, Zebulun, and Asher (II Chron. 30:1, 6, 10, 11), areas once securely in the hands of the Northern Kingdom who had issued strict warnings against going to Jerusalem to celebrate anything. Indeed, he sent his decree “throughout all Israel, from Beersheba even to Dan” (II Chron. 30:5). Clearly, argues Thiele, Samaria had fallen.

Now if some emend II Kings 18:13 and Isaiah 36:1 to read “twenty-four” instead of “fourteen,” John McHugh suggests that we emend II Kings 18:2 instead. He proposes that Hezekiah was only “fifteen” years old, not “twenty-five” when he came to the throne, there­fore Hezekiah would have been born in 731/730 B.C.[20] and thus his birth would have coincided with Judah’s deliverance from the Syro-Ephraimite alliance.

However, there is no more textual evidence for this emendation than there was for the one suggested for II Kings 18:13 and Isaiah 36:1. in our view, the events that precipitated Isaiah’s warnings may have come as early as 740 or 739 B.C., just prior to Tiglath-pileser’s 738 foray into this territory. One fact remains: this scrap did not begin with Ahaz; it had roots in the last days of Ahaz’s predecessor, King Jotham.

When the data is further massaged and refined by some new discoveries we believe it will locate Hezekiah’s birth and Isaiah’s rebuke to Ahaz at some date early in this decade, perhaps four to six years prior to the fal of Damascus and the deaths of Pekah and Rezin in 732 B.C.

How would such an identity relate to Messiah who came seven centuries later? The same way that many of the “generic prophecies” of the Old Testament link the immediate fulfillment with the distant fulfillment. Willis J. Beecher defined a “generic prediction/prom­ise” this way:

A generic prediction is one which regards an event as occurring in a series of parts, separated by intervals, and expresses itself in language that may apply indifferently to the nearest part, or to the remoter parts, or the whole—in other words, a prediction which, in applying to the whole of a complex event, also applies to some of its parts.[21]

This is not to argue for a double sense or multiple meaning; instead, this definition seeks to represent the biblical facts which demand that the near and the distant were, in some real sense, linked in the prophetic revelatory vision from God. Accordingly, Antiochus Epiphanes is the Antichrist in Daniel II even though that same chapter, along with I John 2:18, looked forward to a final future Antichrist even if “Many antichrists have (already) come” (I Jn. 2:18b). Likewise, Elijah the prophet must come before that great and dreadful day of the Lord (Mal.4:5) even if John the Baptist was Elijah (since he came in the spirit and the power” of Elijah—Lk. 1:17). Both aspects of this identity were in Jesus’ own words: “(John the Baptist) is Elijah (Mat. 11:14) and “Elijah is corning and he will restore all things” (Mat.17:11).

If some protest, “yes but, Hezekiah was not born of a virgin!”, we will point out that neither Antiochus Epiphanes nor John the Baptist mirrored every or even most of the details which their final fulfiller will demonstrate. The only critical point is that both share enough distinctive common elements so that a single sense and meaning links them and thereby the one heeding Scripture wil be unerringly pointed towards the final fulfillment. In this case, the most essential common feature shared is that both Hezekiah and Messiah were from “the House of David which God had promised would never perish.”

NOTES

  1. Translation and italics my own.
  2. This point and the whole organization of the argument about the three children has been taken from Willis J. Beecher, “The Prophecy of the Virgin Mother: Isa. vvi. 14,” in Homiletical Review 17(1889): 354-58. This essay was reprinted in Classical Evangelical Essays in Old Testament Interpretation, ed. Walter C. Kaiser. Jr., Grand Rapids: Baker, 1972, pp. 179-85. Note also the clear eight-scene outline of Louis Brodie, “The Children and the Prince: The Structure, Nature and Date of Isaiah 6-12,” Biblical Theology Bulle­tin, 9 (1979): 27-31. Said he, “And just as there is a continuity between the children of Isaiah (in scenes 1, 3, 5 and 7) so we expect a continuity between Immanuel (Scenes 2 and 4) and the Davidic prince (Scenes 6 and 8)” p. 29.
  3. The other three are: Isaiah 7:2-9; 7:10-25: 8:1-4.
  4. Willis J. Beecher, “The Prophecy of the Virgin Mother.” p. 358.
  5. J. Maxwell Miller and John H. Hayes, A History of Ancient Israel and Judah, Philadelphia: Westminster, 1986, p. 344. This anti-Assyrian thesis was first proposed by J. Begrich. “Der Syrisch-Ephraimitische Krieg und seine weltpolitischen zusammenhange.” Zeitschrift der Deutsch morgenlandischen Gesellschaft 83 (1929): 213-37.
  6. B. Obed, “The Historical Background of the syro-Ephraimite War Reconsidered,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 34 (1972): 155. For a critique of Obed’s views see Michael E. W. Thompson, Situation and Theology: Old Testament Interpretations of the Syro­Ephraimite War, Sheffield, Almond, 1982, pp. 107-109.
  7. Tobiads,” Israel Exploration Journal 7(1957): 233-34; 236-37.
  8. Miller and Hayes. A History of Ancient Israel, p. 342.
  9. D.D. Luckenbill, Ancient Records of Assyrla and Babylonia, New York: Greenwood, 1968, I:276.
  10. ND 400 which was discovered in 1950 in the excavations in Nimrud. See Donald J. Wiseman, “Two Historical Inscriptions from Nimrud,” Iraq 13 ( 1951): 21-26.
  11. Michael Thompson, Situation and Theology, p. 111.
  12. MichaeI Thompson, Situation and Theology, p. 111. Two other scholars may be cited as agreeing with locating the war prior to 734: John Bright, A History of Israel 2nd ed. Phila.: Westminster Press, 1972, p. 272; Norman K. Gottwald, All the Kingdoms of the Earth: Israelite Prophecy and International Relations in the Ancient Near East, New York: Harper and Row, 1964, p. 149.
  13. Herbert Donner, “The Separate States of Israel and Judah,” in Israelite and Judean History, eds. John H. Hayes and J. Maxwell Miller, London: SCM, 1977, p. 429.
  14. Edwin R. Thiele, A Chronology of the Hebrew Kings, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1977, pp. 52-3.
  15. Michael Thompson, Situation and Theology, pp. 111-12.
  16. This suggestion was previously favored by Jewish interpreters and is currently advo­cated by scholars such as John Lindblom, A Study on the Immanuel Section in Isaiah: Isa. vii, i-ix, 6, London: C.W.K. Gleerup, l958, p. 25; John McHugh, “The Date of Hezekiah’s Birth,” Vetus Testamentum 14 (1964): 446-53; E. Hammershaimb, “The Immanuel Sign,” Studia Theologia cura ordinum theologorum Scandinavicorum edita, 111(1949): p. 135.
  17. It is true that H. H. Rowley, “Hezekiah’s Reform and Rebellion,” in Men of God, p. 113 proposes to correct the Hebrew text ‘arba’ ‘eseh (“four and ten”—”fourteen”) to ‘arba’ w’ ‘es’rim (“four and twenty”—”twenty-four”). Likewise Gleason Archer, Encyclopia of Bible Difficulties, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982, p. 211, says “We must therefore conclude that the Masoretic text has preserved an ancient textual error (which also appears in Isa. 36:1—where the error probably originated), in which a mistake was made in the decade column. The word ‘fourteen’ was originally ‘twenty-four’.”
  18. Donald J. Wiseman, The Chronicles of the Chaldaean Kings (626-556 B,C.) in the British Museum, London: British Museum, 1956, p. 63.
  19. Edwin Thiele, A Chronology, pp. 53-4.
  20. John McHugh, “The Date of Hezekiah’s Birth,” p. 452.
  21. Willis J. Beecher, The Prophets and the Promise, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1963 (1905 r.p.), p. 130.

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