I’ve been working on a series of posts that examine the prophecies given in the Bible. My first post in the series can be found here.
One of the best known prophecies of Christ concerns the virgin birth. In Matthew 1:18-25, we learn about Mary’s pregnancy and the birth of Jesus. In verses 22-23, we’re told:
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us).
The passage in Isaiah 7 that Matthew is referencing is definitely a prophecy. It says that something specific is going to happen, and it seems to include peculiar events that would be impossible under normal circumstances. However, there are still a couple of problems.
First of all, this prophecy is given to King Ahaz of Judah to put him at ease about the looming threat of Syria and Israel, who had joined forces to attack him. Ahaz refuses to ask for a sign, but he’s given one anyway:
“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted.”
– Isaiah 7:14-15
Now in the Bible story, there’s only one person we know of that is born of a virgin, and that’s Jesus. But this prophecy was given to a king who lived 700 years before Christ and had an immediate need that he was concerned about. So if this were a prophecy about Christ, what possible consolation would it have been for King Ahaz? The other interesting question is why would it say “before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good,” if we’re talking about Jesus? Granted, we don’t know exactly how he was as a child, but this still sounds unusual.
Of course, the reason we know this prophecy is talking about Jesus is because of the word virgin. But in actuality, the Hebrew word here is almah, which means “maiden.” While that can imply virginity, it does not necessitate it. And in any other circumstance, a maiden who is pregnant is obviously not a virgin. Had Isaiah really meant virgin, he could have used the word bethulah, which means just that. That word is used in Deuteronomy 22:13-24 where the subject of virginity is actually discussed. The word almah was used in passages like Genesis 24:43 where the point of the passage had nothing to do with whether or not someone was actually a virgin. Of course, even if Isaiah had meant to say “virgin,” that doesn’t necessarily mean he was implying the conception would be through miraculous means. A virgin can conceive by having sex. So she may have been a virgin at the time the prophecy was given, but that doesn’t mean he was stating she would still be one by the time she conceived.
Furthermore, Isaiah 8 actually seems to show the fulfillment of this prophecy. Verses 1-4 show where Isaiah goes in to a prophetess who conceives, and he names the child Maher-shalal-hash-baz. Then he repeats the same prophecy he gave before, “before the boy knows how to cry ‘my father’ or ‘my mother,’ the wealth of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria will be carried away before the king of Assyria” (vs 4).
Every indication is that this prophecy has nothing to do with Christ. It was about a current event in Isaiah’s time, and its fulfillment happened right there in Isaiah chapter 8. This really calls Matthew’s integrity into question.
The fact that Isaiah’s prophecy deals with a local event in his own time is not new information. Apologists and preachers are aware of it, but they try to answer the problem by saying that many prophecies have double fulfillments. In other words, they admit that Isaiah was talking about a local issue in this prophecy, and that it was fulfilled by the birth recounted in Isaiah 8. But they say that the prophecy also had a double meaning that pointed to Christ.
I think this is a very poor explanation. A prophecy really has no point unless it’s predictive in nature, because anyone can claim credit once the event has happened. To borrow an analogy I’ve used before, I could claim credit for predicting the World Trade Center collapse of 9/11 by saying I knocked down a tower of blocks when I was four. While my immediate actions only concerned the tower of blocks, I was also predicting the collapse of the World Trade Center.
Obviously, that’s a ridiculous claim. But this is basically how people have tried to explain Matthew’s use of Isaiah 7. See, here’s the problem: Before Christ came, people who read Isaiah would find no significance in the prophecy of chapter 7, because they’d see that it had already been fulfilled in chapter 8. Since no one saw it as a prophecy of the Messiah, there was no point in having it. No one would have dreamed of making the connection until Matthew told us to.
So while I suppose we could say that this was just the magnificent insight of a person who was inspired by the Holy Spirit, it seems more like the manipulation of someone creating a myth.
We’ll continue our study of prophecies in the next post.