Did Isaiah Prophesy the Virgin Birth of Christ?
“Does Isaiah 7:14 contain a prophecy of the virgin birth of Jesus Christ? Some suggest that Isaiah’s statement refers to a ‘young woman’ (not necessarily a ‘virgin’) of his day, who would conceive and give birth to a child, and that this event would be a sign to Hezekiah. It is then further said that Matthew took that text and applied it to Jesus’ birth, though, allegedly, this was not the meaning of the passage originally. How do we respond to this assertion?”
This theory contains so many flaws that it is difficult to know where to begin in refuting it. It can be traced ultimately back to the second century A.D., when it was employed by those who repudiated the concept of predictive prophecy that pointed to Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah.
It has been filtered down, revised and refined over the years, so that some Christians now “parrot” the theory — though they haven’t a clue that the “young woman” notion was birthed from the womb of skepticism.
As briefly as we can, we note the following points.
The background of the prophecy
When the kingdom of Judah was threatened by a confederation of enemies from the north, King Ahaz was terrified. God sent the prophet Isaiah to calm the king. The prophet declared that the evil forces would not prevail. Ahaz was encouraged to “ask for a sign” documenting this word of consolation, but the stubborn king refused.
Isaiah then directed his attention to the “house of David.” He promised a much greater “sign,” namely “the virgin” would conceive and bear a son, whose name, Immanuel, would signify “God is with us.” The time-frame that it would take for the Immanuel-child to reach the age of accountability was used as a chronological measurement. Before that time-span would expire, Judah’s current threat would dissipate (which reality came to pass).
More importantly, however, was the fact that a much greater deliverance was needed in Israel, and such would be provided by the actual arrival of Immanuel — who is Jesus Christ.
This prophesied event is designated as a “sign.” The term “sign” is a point of controversy. While the word itself does not demand a “miracle” on a strictly etymological basis, a word’s meaning is determined by more than etymology alone. General usage and context (both immediate and remote) must be factored in.
The immediate context does suggest a miracle. The king had been challenged to ask for a “sign,” either “in the depth, or in the height above” (11). This indicates something phenomenal. Ahaz refused the proffered “sign,” claiming that such would “tempt” Jehovah (again hinting of the supernatural).
Additionally, Matthew’s inspired interpretation of the passage clearly establishes the miraculous nature of the prediction (Mt. 1:22-23). There is no evidence at all that there was a miraculous birth to a virgin in the days of Isaiah.
The Hebrew word rendered “virgin” is almah. It is the only biblical word that truly signifies a virgin. Prof. William Beck, who researched this matter with great precision, declared:
I have searched exhaustively for instances in which almah might mean a non-virgin or a married woman. There is no passage where almah is not a virgin. Nowhere in the Bible or elsewhere does almah mean anything but a virgin (1967, 6)
Robert Dick Wilson, the incomparable Hebrew scholar who was proficient in forty-five biblically-related languages, declared that almah “never meant ‘young married woman,’” and that the presumption of common law is that every almah is virtuous, unless she can be proved not to be (1926, 316).
Even the Jewish scholar, Cyrus H. Gordon, who made some of the archaeological discoveries at Ras Shamra, conceded that recent archaeological evidence confirms that almah means “virgin” (1953, 106).
The notion that almah merely signifies a “young woman” was first argued by the anti-Christian Jew, Trypho, in the mid-second century A.D (Justin Martyr, 67).
“The virgin shall conceive”
Isaiah’s text plainly says “the virgin” (note the definite article, denoting a specific virgin) “shall conceive.” The passage does not speak of a virgin who would marry (thus surrendering her virginity) and then conceive. She conceives as a virgin. If this alluded to some contemporary of Isaiah, who was the mysterious lady? Were there two virgin births — one in Isaiah’s day, and another involving Jesus? There is no credibility to this view.
Additionally, the virgin’s child was to be called “Immanuel,” which signifies “God is with us.” If this name applied to a child in Isaiah’s day, who was this illusive youngster? He seems to have vanished as soon as he was born!
The suggestion made by some, that Matthew took Isaiah’s text and gave it an application alien to the original meaning, is unworthy of a correct view of Bible inspiration.
Preachers today who take a text, extract it from its context, and make it a mere pretext for points they wish to establish, are strongly chastised and their credibility is compromised. Yet men, under the sway of modernism, do not hesitate to so charge God’s inspired apostle in the case of the virgin birth. This is a shameful circumstance.
The “church fathers” were of one mind that Jesus was born of a virgin, and Isaiah 7:14 was appealed to as an Old Testament prophetic proof-text.
For example, Irenaeus (A.D. 120-202) wrote:
Wherefore also the Lord Himself gave us a sign, in the depth below, and in the height above, which man did not ask for, because he never expected that a virgin could conceive, or that it was possible that one remaining a virgin could bring forth a son, and that what was thus born should be “God with us”? (19.3)
Early scholarship, “rational” influence
The earlier scholars of Christendom (e.g., Calvin, Lowth, Gill, Henry, Clarke, Alexander, Hengstenberg, etc.,) argued that Isaiah 7:14 was exclusively messianic in its import.
In the mid-nineteenth century, however, as the influence of German rationalism made its presence felt, both in Europe and in America, even writers who were generally considered “conservative” began to yield to the pressure. They thus suggested that perhaps Matthew only “applied” Isaiah’s text to the circumstances, when, in reality, there was a primary application to a “young woman” of the prophet’s own day.
Edward J. Young’s masterful, three-volume set on the book of Isaiah (Eerdmans, 1965) was driven by a desire to refute this compromising drift — to which even some in the Lord’s family have fallen victim.
There is no reason for the Lord’s people to resort to such textual manipulations in dealing with the biblical evidence for the birth of the Savior.
For further study, see the author’s chapters in The Living Messages of the Books of the Old Testament (Isaiah), and The Living Messages of the Books of the New Testament (Matthew), in the Spiritual Sword Lectureship books (1977 and 1976 respectively).
See also the small volume by Prof. Edward E. Hinson, Isaiah’s Immanuel (Presbyterian & Reformed, 1978). It is a valuable resource.
Scripture references: Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:22-23
- Beck, William. 1967. “What Does
AlmahMean.” The Lutheran News. April 3, 1967.
- Cyrus, Gordon H. 1953. The Journal of Bible and Religion. XXI. April.
- Wilson, Robert Dick. 1926. _Princeton Theological Review. XXIV.
- Justin Martyr. Dialogue. 67.
- Irenaeus. Against Heresies. 19.3.