Messianic prophecy 1: They shall call him Immanuel

This post is part of my biblical prophecy series.
Context and prophecy

King Ahaz of Judah is being threatened by two other nations: Syria and Ephraim (the latter being the Kingdom of Israel). These two nations had been tributary nations to the much larger Assyria, but decided to form a coalition against Assyria. They wanted Judah to join them, but King Ahaz refused [1].

Ahaz is afraid of the impending attack from Syria and Ephraim, but Isaiah tells him that he will not be vanquished. Ahaz is skeptical, but Isaiah offers a sign from God to show him that his prophecy can be predicted. Here is the relevant excerpt from Isaiah 7:

Moreover the LORD spake again unto Ahaz, saying,

11 Ask thee a sign of the LORD thy God; ask it either in the depth, or in the height above.

12 But Ahaz said, I will not ask, neither will I tempt the LORD.

13 And he said, Hear ye now, O house of David; Is it a small thing for you to weary men, but will ye weary my God also?

14 Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.

15 Butter and honey shall he eat, that he may know to refuse the evil, and choose the good.

16 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.

17 The LORD shall bring upon thee, and upon thy people, and upon thy father’s house, days that have not come, from the day that Ephraim departed from Judah; even the king of Assyria. (Isaiah 7:10-17)

It is important to note that there is considerable controversy regarding the translation of some of the Hebrew in verse 14. In the following, the alternative translations at each contentious location are indicated [1]:

Therefore, my Lord Himself shall give you a sign: behold, hā‘almāh [the young woman or virgin] hārāh [is pregnant or is about to become pregnant or shall conceive], and bear a son, and qārāṯ [she shall call or (female) you shall call] his name Immanuel.”

In summary, Isaiah predicts that a young woman will give birth to a child called Immanuel, and that before this child learns the difference between good and evil, the kingdoms of Syria and Ephraim will be deserted by their kings.

2 Kings 15 and 16 offer us a resolution to the prophecy: the kings of Syria and Ephraim (Rezin and Pekah, respectively) make their attack against Ahaz. Ahaz sends a message to the king of Assyria asking for his help; the king obliges and destroys Rezin in Damascus. Pekah, on the other hand, is killed by someone within Ephraim (Hoshea). Both kings probably died in about 732 BCE, about three years into Ahaz’s reign.

It is thought by some scholars that the child in the Isaiah prophecy is Hezekiah, the royal heir to Ahaz. Certainly, if Rezin and Pekah were killed within three years of the beginning of Ahaz’s reign, then any child born within this period would not have grown up by the time the deaths occurred. The prophecy’s prediction of these deaths before the child learns good from evil, would therefore be fulfilled.

Unfortunately, Hezekiah was born in 739 BCE, three years prior to the start of Ahaz’s reign, so he was already alive when Isaiah made his prophecy. Since Isaiah speaks of a child not yet born, Hezekiah doesn’t seem like a good candidate.

Straightforward Interpretation

This prophecy seems to be much more about the doom of Rezin and Pekah, than the birth of an important child. Indeed, if it wasn’t for the inclusion of the child’s name, the use of a child in the prophecy would seem more like a rhetorical device to set the timeline, than an actual prophecy.

Even with the name, a rhetorical interpretation may still be possible: Immanuel means “God with us”. Therefore, it might seem poetically apropos to call the child Immanuel, even if one doesn’t really believe that a child of that specific name will be born.

Regardless of this interpretation, there is no description of the fulfillment of this prophecy in the Bible. Indeed, no person by the name of Immanuel is mentioned in the Bible. We therefore must conclude that it is unknown whether this part of the prophecy was fulfilled.

Certainly, a straightforward view of the text suggests that the other part of the prophecy, namely the failure of Rezin and Pekah to conquer Judah, was fulfilled. Both kings were killed three years into Ahaz’s reign, leaving Ahaz’s kingdom intact.

Apologist Interpretation

Apologists, just like the author of Matthew (1:23), apply this prophecy to the birth of Jesus.

However, there are three problems with such an application:

1. The child in the prophecy is supposed to be born before the demise of Rezin and Pekah, i.e. prior to 732 BCE.

2. The controversy regarding the translation of the original Hebrew casts the idea of a virgin birth into great doubt. In fact, it might even be concluded that the very idea of Jesus’ virgin birth was arrived at by Matthew (or his sources) because of an incorrect interpretation, and application, of the Isaiah prophecy.

3. Jesus is quite obviously not called Immanuel. One could, however, argue that since Jesus is alleged to be the son of God, the name Immanuel is appropriate. This is not, of course, nearly as convincing as a child who was actually named Immanuel by parents who had no knowledge of the Isaiah prophecy. That would be compelling!

Instead, we simply have a biblical author (the author of Matthew), who is aware of the Isaiah prophecy as he writes his account of Jesus, decides that the prophecy fits Jesus quite well, and writes as much into his account.

I must conclude, then, that the prophecy fails under the apologist interpretation.

Explanation

Fail. Since it is not clear whether the child in the prophecy was actually born, we cannot conclude that this part of the prophecy was fulfilled.

Ex Eventu. The prediction of Rezin and Pekah’s death seems to have been fulfilled. Looking at the authorship of Isaiah [2], we find that the first part of the book (chapters 1 to 39) are thought to have been written by Isaiah himself, somewhere in the period of 740 to 687 BCE [2]. This immediately raises the possibility of ex eventu prophecy, since the events in Isaiah 7 occurred in approximately 732 BCE, early in Isaiah’s working life. He could easily have inserted the prophecy into his work after hearing of the death of Rezin and Pekah.

High probability. It was never very likely that Rezin and Pekah could overthrow Judah. Ahaz was allied to the large and powerful kingdom of Assyria, and Syria and Ephraim were quite small in comparison. Isaiah would surely have been aware that all Ahaz needed to do to save his kingdom was appeal to the mighty Assyrian army for protection.

Return to the prophecy index.

[1] Wikipedia entry on Isaiah 7:14.
[2] Wikipedia entry on the Book of Isaiah.

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