Matthew records the birth of Jesus Christ as occurring in a very specific way. Matthew has just named Joseph as heir to the Davidic throne by virtue of his lineage, Matthew 1:1-17. Now it is found out that his future wife who is a virgin is pregnant, Matthew 1:18. Luke records that Mary knew in advance that she would be pregnant. The angel Gabriel comes to Mary and tells her she will conceive, Luke 1:26-33. Mary doesn’t understand how it could be possible, Luke 1:34. Gabriel explains that with God even a virgin can conceive, which seemed like a novel idea to Mary, Luke 1:35-37. As proof that God can do anything, Gabriel reveals that Elizabeth is having a child in her old age. Mary gives a statement of belief affirming God’s ability to bring this to pass, but also immediately (with haste) goes to see Elizabeth, Luke 1:38-39. When she sees Elizabeth it is confirmed that she is having a child in her old age just as Gabriel stated, further strengthening Mary’s faith in God’s ability to bring this to pass. It seems that it did not enter the mind of Mary that a virgin birth was expected or possible until God revealed it at this point in time.
It is only reasonable to believe that Mary relayed the events concerning Gabriel and Elizabeth to Joseph. Mary’s knowledge preceded Joseph’s knowledge. Joseph knew that Mary was with child, but doubted whether or not her story was true. He thought on these things meaning he was willing to consider the entire matter, Matthew 1:20. It seems like Joseph did not consider the possibility of a virgin birth either. When the angel of the LORD appeared to Joseph in a dream addressing him as the heir to the Davidic throne, then Joseph obeyed the LORD’s command, Matthew 1:20-25. Only after angelic revelation did Mary and Joseph understand that a virgin birth was possible.
After describing the angelic dream, Matthew has this insight. This was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the LORD by the prophet. Matthew words it so that the LORD was doing the speaking through the prophet. We know the prophet to be Isaiah and the verse quoted is Isaiah 7:14. So here is the question. Could readers of the prophets have anticipated in advance that a virgin would give birth to a child? If so, why didn’t Mary and Joseph understand this until after angelic revelation? For the answers, we must examine Isaiah’s prophecy in its original context.
For the record, I affirm the virgin birth. Jesus was born of a woman who had not had sexual relations with any man. This is how Christ could be made of a woman, Galatians 4:4, but still be free from sinfulness, Hebrews 4:15. He did not inherit our sin nature as everyone else born of woman has. After Mary brought forth the Messiah and named Him Jesus, she and Joseph continued that marriage relationship which brought forth at least 6 other children, Matthew 13:55-56. To refer to Mary as the Virgin Mary now is to miss the point of her significance. She was a virgin when she brought forth Jesus, but did not remain a virgin. The prophecy had been fulfilled.
Now let’s focus our attention on Isaiah’s prophecy. We start with the background story in Isaiah 7:1-9. There had been a lack of lasting peace between the northern kingdom of Israel, the southern kingdom of Judah, and the nation of Syria which lay to the east of Israel. With the rise of Pekah the son of Remaliah over the nation of Israel, and the reign of Rezin over the nation of Syria, there came an alliance between the two. When this alliance happened, Israel and Syria went to war against Judah, but could not prevail. This story is recorded in II Chronicles 28 and it remains unclear whether the prophecy concerning the virgin birth was given before or after this unsuccessful war.
At the heart of this story God is speaking to the house of David concerning his intentions to protect Judah even though Ahaz, the current representative of the house of David, was completely wicked. When the news came to the house of David that these two nations were confederate against Judah, the hearts of the people were moved like the trees are moved when the wind blows, Isaiah 7:2. In response to this, the LORD tells Isaiah to meet Ahaz in a specific place. Then the LORD gives detailed information about what Rezin and Pekah are plotting. Apparently they were going to make war against Ahaz, murder him or dethrone him, then set up the son of Tabeal in his place as king in Jerusalem, Isaiah 7:6. If you notice in the unsuccessful war they posed, they did kill one of Ahaz’s sons, Maaseiah, probably the heir apparent to the throne, II Chronicles 28:7. In spite of their plans, the LORD tells Ahaz through Isaiah that it shall not come to pass. Even though there are two nations plotting against Judah, each nation is headed by a city, and each city is headed by one man. What are two men against a mighty God? Beyond that, God also informs Ahaz that within 65 years, the northern kingdom of Israel will not even exist. It is with that background that God gives the sign to the faithless Ahaz.
Isaiah 7:14-16 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.
You can see that the prophecy concerning the child seems to have a direct correlation to the situation which Ahaz was currently going through. The boy born of this virgin will grow up with a certain diet. Before the boy gets to a certain age, both nations will be dealt with. It should be noted that the Hebrew word translated as virgin can mean young woman. So here is a boy born of a young woman that will be a sign to the generation of Isaiah and Ahaz. The prophecy continues in verses 17-25 showing that the Assyrian regime will be the vehicle which will mete out the punishment to these two nations. In fact, just a few years before, Tiglath-pileser carried the far north portion of Israel into captivity, II Kings 15:29. This area became known from that point on as Galilee and was never fully rejoined to the portion of Israel which was ruled from Samaria. Now here in Isaiah 7, we have the revelation that the king of Assyria will be back and this time the rest of Israel and the nation of Syria will be “shaved” by the Assyrian nation, Isaiah 7:20. After the Assyrian scourge passes through the land, the economy of the region will change so that butter and honey will be main staples in their diet. Here is another link to the prophecy since the child will be raised on a diet of butter and honey, and the exact reason for this diet is given. The vineyards will be gone and in their place will be briers and thorns, Isaiah 7:22-25. It will become easier to raise cattle for milk rather than use the land for farming.
Isaiah 8:1-4 Then the Lord said to me, “Take a large tablet and write on it in common characters, ‘Belonging to Maher-shalal-hashbaz.’ And I will get reliable witnesses, Uriah the priest and Zechariah the son of Jeberechiah, to attest for me.” And I went to the prophetess, and she conceived and bore a son. Then the Lord said to me, “Call his name Maher-shalal-hashbaz; for 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.”
This passage seems to be a direct parallel to Isaiah 7:14-16. A child is born and before the child gets to a certain age, both nations which are currently troubling Judah will be dealt with. Again it is explained that the Assyrian army will be the vehicle through which both nations will be judged. As this occurs, the phrase Immanuel is mentioned again to show that God will be with them as He carries out His plan linking us back again to the child whose name will be Immanuel. In Isaiah 8:8 it states that the Assyrian scourge will flow through your land O Immanuel. In Isaiah 8:10 the counsel of the two nations will not stand because God is With Us, a phrasing of the name Immanuel. The people of Israel were tired of soft leaders (the waters of Shiloah that flow softly, Isaiah 8:6) like those in the lineage of David, instead rejoicing in strong military leaders like the son of Remaliah and Rezin. Since the people of Israel rejoice in these strong military leaders, it was like they were craving a mighty river, so the LORD will bring upon the entire region a strong overflowing river, overflowing all the channels and banks, Isaiah 8:7-8.
The evidence thus far points to the child which would be born of a virgin being that of a young woman bearing the child Maher-shalal-hashbaz. But this is not the entire body of evidence. There are other elements within this strand of prophecy that must be examined. For instance, the passage in Isaiah 8:13-22 continues with references to both houses of Israel (Judah and Israel) stumbling at him (???). This him will be a holy abode, a rock of offense, and stone of stumbling for the nation of Israel. Even as many stumble and fall at him, the law is sealed among his disciples. The he turns to the first person in verses 16-18. He waits upon the LORD, a believing remnant are sealed as his disciples, and he and these disciples are children meant for signs and wonders within the nation of Israel.
So I don’t think it’s out of line to see a messianic figure interwoven into this passage. This messianic figure is rejected by both houses of Israel, yet there is a believing remnant who are named as His disciples. This messianic figure along with these disciples perform signs and wonders to the nation of Israel while they are in this state of unbelief. Further, this messianic figure primarily ministers in the area which has just gone into captivity, namely Galilee, Isaiah 9:1-2 with Matthew 4:12-16. This is how the new testament writers quoted this passage. See Romans 9:33 where Paul quotes a portion of Isaiah 8:14 placing it with Isaiah 28:16. Peter does something similar in I Peter 2:6-8, but keeping each reference more distinct and also including Psalm 118:22 in the mix. The writer to the Hebrews quotes Isaiah 8:18 in Hebrews 2:13. More apostles than just Matthew saw a direct correlation between this passage and the new testament ministry of Christ and His disciples. Then to cap this theme off, let’s look at this portion of the prophecy.
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
There is absolutely no way that this prophecy was fulfilled during the days of Ahaz, Hezekiah, or any other Davidic king. Since we have seen that this entire passage under examination (Isaiah 7-9) is one strand, the child born here who will ascend the Davidic throne must refer back in some way to the child who would be born of a virgin. Now let’s consider that the Hebrew word translated virgin in Isaiah 7:14 usually means virgin. Each usage of this word in the old testament will be consistent with this translation. When the Septuagint was translated into Greek, it was translated as parthenos which definitively means virgin showing that this was how Hebrew language viewed the passage. This is also the same word that Matthew used (as he wrote in Greek) to describe the woman who would bring forth this Messiah. So in some way it had to be a virgin all along that would ultimately fulfill the prophecy to bring forth this child who would be the Mighty God and inherit the Davidic throne.
How does prophecy work? In this instance, there was a sign given to the generation that heard Isaiah’s prophecies. The sign was a miraculous birth followed by God intervening in the affairs of mankind on behalf of the nation of Israel. Both the northern kingdom and Syria were subdued by the Assyrian scourge. Yet the prophecies were not fulfilled, as in, completely flowing over. Some aspects remained unfulfilled which we can only rightly assume would be fulfilled when the Messiah comes. The fulfilled aspects of Isaiah’s prophecies validated his ministry as a prophet of God. The unfulfilled aspects left God’s people in suspense as to what would transpire in the future.
Since so much of the passage has to do with Isaiah’s contemporary viewpoint, it is difficult to pick out the portions which would be fulfilled at some point in the future when the Messiah comes. However, even though this is difficult, it is not impossible. It is along the lines of a hard to understand mystery novel which becomes clear at the end when the plot is resolved. The ardent student of the mystery has noted the little details which have remain unsolved and has an inkling just before the entire affair is revealed. Hindsight is 20/20 and with prophecy it is no different. We can look back much more clearly to see the prophecy fulfilled than the prophets could look forward. So in this instance, did Matthew bring out from Isaiah a deeper meaning that was originally intended? No, Isaiah originally intended for us to understand the truth of the virgin birth. However, since there was a child in Isaiah’s day who was a sign to that generation, many did not expect another child. Matthew does not reinterpret Isaiah, he does not bring out a deeper meaning than was originally intended, instead he records the fulfillment of what was intended all along.
Who amongst all of the apostles found insight into Isaiah 7:14 to see this prophecy fulfilled in Jesus Christ? Who amongst all of the new testament writers understood that Mary was fulfilling prophecy as she brought forth her firstborn while still a virgin? It was Matthew the tax collector. This outcast received the insight while Pharisees and scribes remained blind and we are forever in his debt. Without this notation in Matthew 1:22-23, there might be much debate in the church, but he has put it all to rest.
Have fun and stay busy – Luke 19:13
-The Orange Mailman