An Old Testament prophet says something very confusing about the Baby Jesus when you look at it more closely. It’s enough to rattle one’s faith. It rattled me until I learned this. ◊
Most of us are familiar hearing the well-known verses cited at Christmas time regarding the Virgin Mary and the Baby Jesus. One could find this passage in both the Old Testament Book of Isaiah and in the New Testament Book of Matthew:
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. – Isaiah 7:14
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). – Matthew 1:22-23
These are classic Christmas Bible verses that are read at church services around the world. They show us all how Jesus was heralded by the prophet Isaiah in the mid-8th century B.C, therefore centuries before He was born.
Several years ago, I tried to make sense of the next few verses in Isaiah, chapter 7. I saw a problem that I had never considered. It didn’t make any sense to me in the context of the birth of Jesus. Here are next 2 verses:
He will be eating curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, for before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste. – Isaiah 7:15-16
That doesn’t sound like it’s referring to Jesus at all!
Actually, my concern was partially correct. Clarity came to me when I came to a better understanding of prophetic Biblical literature. Here’s some helpful definitions of key literary principles:
- Biblical Typology – concerning the contrasting of an Old Testament reality with a New Testament enhancement. Examples: Passover vs. Communion; Manna vs. Jesus, the Bread of Life
- Biblical Allegory – a story, poem, or picture in which the characters and/or events are symbols representing other events, ideas, or people. Examples: Jesus’s parables about the Kingdom of God, the Prodigal Son, or the vision of the dragon and the woman in Revelation, chapter 12.
- Biblical Symbolism – the use of words, characters, locations, or abstract ideas to represent something beyond their literal meaning. Note that an allegory is a narrative work that utilizes symbolism to offer a broader moral or deeper meaning for the reader. Examples: rainbow, rock, dove, lamb.
- Biblical Metaphor – a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable. Examples: salt of the earth, light of the world, Lord is my shepherd.
With this in mind, the prophetic word in Isaiah 7:14 given as a sign by the Lord himself to Isaiah was a direct reference to the upcoming human birth of Isaiah’s own child (actually named Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz, see Isaiah 8:3). At the same time, it was a typological prophecy of the predicted birth of the coming Messiah, Jesus, Savior of the world, literally born of the virgin, Mary.
As always, the Bible is always best understood when studied in historical context.
Scripture in Context
Studied and read in context of the time Isaiah was writing, Isaiah Chapter 7 is God’s word to assure the weak faith of King Ahaz of Judah in Jerusalem who was worried about alliances that were going on around him with threatening kingdoms of the north.
Reluctant Ahaz is fearful to even answer God who has spoken to him and challenged him to ask God for a sign of assurance.
But Ahaz said, “I will not ask; I will not put the Lord to the test.”
Then Isaiah said, “Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of humans? Will you try the patience of my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. The virgin will conceive… – Isaiah:7:12-14a
What God promised came to pass. Within the few years, Ahaz’ fears were allayed as both Syria and Samaria and the Northern Kingdom were laid to waste in 722 B.C. by the superior Assyrian forces.
God Has Spoken
In his book, Has God Spoken? Hank Hanegraaff highlights how the prophetic words of Isaiah chapter 7 about the human birth of his own child was referenced by Matthew as a typological prophetic fulfillment when citing the virgin birth of Jesus, the Messiah. While Isaiah’s wife was a type or shadow, the antitype of the “young woman” (i.e., the real enhanced thing) was the Virgin Mary herself, who miraculously gives birth to Immanuel, a name or title for Jesus, God manifest in the flesh.
Additionally, it is noted that the Hebrew word of almah used by Isaiah had nothing to do with virginity. Hanegraaff points out that one may say that he should have used the word betulah. But Mary literally was a virgin and remained so through this pregnancy as she was supernaturally impregnated by the Spirit of God.1 True Biblical typology in play.
Incidentally, the controversy arises again in Isaiah chapter 9 with the equally often quoted prophetic “Christmas” passage:
“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” – Isaiah 9:6.
While some may claim this a prophecy of king Hezekiah’s birth, this is actually yet another typological marker for the future everlasting king: Jesus, the real Prince of Peace.2
Christmas: The Final Antitype
Certainly the recognition and honoring of Christmas is serious business. All of the types, shadows and symbols of the Old Covenant (Old Testament), including the holy land of Israel, the holy city Jerusalem, and the holy temple of God, have been fulfilled in the baby we celebrate at Christmastime, the Holy Christ:
“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given…”
When really grasped and understood in that light, this celebration of the birth of Christ goes well beyond decorated trees and lights and shopping and gifts. We’re dealing with the real and enhanced promise of God.
Do you believe this literal Truth?
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” – Isaiah 9:6
1 Has God Spoken? by Hank Hanegraaff, Thomas Nelson, Nashville, TN, 2011, p. 129.
2 Ibid. p. 131.