Advent

Gordon MackleyPosted on Monday, December 23, 2013 by Gordon Mackley

Isaiah 7:10-16 and Matthew 1:18-25
Isaiah 7 – Messianic prophecy or not?

There is much controversy (probably megabytes, if not gigabytes on the web alone) about the use of the Isaiah passage…

“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: the ‘almah’ will conceive and give birth to a son, and (they) will call him Immanuel (God with us)”

…by Matthew as a messianic prophecy. I have not translated the Hebrew word, ‘almah’ here, as that is a major part of the controversy.

Clearly Christian thought is to support Matthew’s view that this is the Lord through Isaiah prophesying the coming of the Messiah and one of the signs of that would be that it would be a virgin who gave birth to him.

Sites with an atheistic, Judaistic or Muslim viewpoint take a contrary view and accuse Matthew of being ignorant and uneducated, not understanding scripture/prophecy, distorting scripture deliberately or some combination of these. This view is based on two items:

  • the proposition that ‘almah’ in Isaiah 7:14 only means young woman, and not specifically a virgin and that if a virgin had been meant the word, ‘bethulah’ would have been used instead
  • the idea that verse 15 clearly envisages a prophecy fulfilled in the short term and is not applicable in any way to Jesus. Opinions differ as to which person actually fulfils the prophecy in this view

The facts are as follows:

  • the Hebrew ‘almah’ was used to describe both a virgin and a young woman who was not virginal (e.g. a married one)
  • the Hebrew word ‘bethulah’ often quoted meant ‘virgin’ more often than ‘almah’. However there are still references to married women using bethulah so it was still not unambiguous.
  • the Septuagint (the Greek version of the Jewish scriptures written before Jesus was born) uses the word ‘parthenos’, as does Matthew’s (Greek) Gospel. Parthenos tends more towards the ‘virgin’ meaning, but there are known usages to describe young women who were not virgins.

We can see that the meaning of the word ‘almah’ or ‘parthenos’ is not definitive.

Verse 15 clearly is not about Jesus and refers to someone purely human and in the short term future. The sign here relates to the time period concerned. So was Matthew wrong?

We know he collected taxes for the Romans and was therefore a well educated Jew. ‘Well educated’ for Jews at this time meant that he had a good knowledge of Jewish scripture including prophecy.

Beyond this though, as part of effectively the same passage and only two chapters later is Isaiah 9:6,

“For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

This is not about a purely human person in the short term future of Ahaz or Isaiah, but about someone who is also God Himself and goes on into ‘everlasting’.

So what is the answer here about Isaiah 7?

I suggest that God here is much cleverer than many modern people. He gets Isaiah to use a deliberately ambiguous word, ‘almah’ to give not one sign but two.

The concept of a prophecy having a very literal meaning in the shorter term, but also of being a hint of a slightly different fulfilment further in the future was well known in Jewish prophetic writings and described as ‘remez’. This was clearly well known to Matthew.

As well as here he uses the following such remez or hints:

Matthew 2:6 (quoting Micah 5:2),

“But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.”

Matthew 2:15 (quoting Hosea 11:1),

“Out of Egypt have I called my son.”

Matthew 2:18 (quoting Jeremiah 31:15),

“A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”

Taking this principle, the signs become:

(1)

“…the young woman will conceive and give birth to a son, and (they) will call him Immanuel (God with us). 15 He will be eating curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, 16 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. 17 The Lord will bring on you and on your people and on the house of your father a time unlike any since Ephraim broke away from Judah – he will bring the king of Assyria.”

This is a short term prophecy about Ahaz, Judea (southern kingdom), Ephraim (northern kingdom) and Assyria and the sign revolves around the time when it will happen,

“…before the (not positively identified at this stage in history) boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste.”

(2)

“…the virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and (they) will call him Immanuel (God with us).”

This is a longer term prophecy, a hint or remez of the earlier one, and here the sign is that it is a virgin who conceives. It refers to the birth of Jesus, the Messiah as perceived by Matthew and in accordance with Isaiah 9:6.

Note that in answer to other criticism, ‘Emmanuel’ is not a name. It is what ‘they will call him’. It was not actually a name at all before the Isaiah passage was written so Jesus can be named ‘Yehoshua’ in Hebrew (a common name meaning ‘God saves’) and still be referred to (as we still do) as ‘God with us’ (Emmanuel).

Beginning and end

All of this is concerned with the start of Jesus’ life on earth, but amidst the nice ‘fluffy’ pictures of a baby amidst the ox, ass and the shepherds with their lambs, we need to remember the other end of Jesus’ life – his death on a cross at Calvary.

Why did that have to happen?

One of my favourite explanations is given by the great Christian apologist and theologian, C.S. Lewis in his ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ tale of Narnia when Aslan the Lion (representing Jesus) is killed by the White Witch but is then resurrected.

A clip of this part of the film version can be viewed on YouTube.

In answer to the White Witch’s,

‘Every traitor belongs to me as my lawful prey and…for every treachery I have a right to a kill.”,

Aslan explains the ‘deeper magic from before the dawn of time.’

“…when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead. Death itself would start working backwards’

In theological terms, this is called ‘substitutional atonement’ and there are whole books on the subject but C.S. Lewis’ explanation is so much simpler!

What did Jesus come to do on Earth?

A few scriptural references are given here:

  • Luke 19:10:

    “For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.”

  • Matthew 18:12:

    “What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off?”

  • Luke 9:56:

    “For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.”

  • John 10:10:

    “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.”

  • John 3:17:

    “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.”

Why do we need to be saved?

In western 21st century culture it is popular to believe that truth is relative and personal and that there is no absolute line between good and bad.

However, the longer you live on this earth (I am 62), the more you discover that whatever philosophy you might have, bad consequences do follow from bad decisions and unwise actions.

In short, we do wrong things and do not do right things. The inevitable consequences of this is what we need to be saved from.

This is how Eugene Peterson phrases Galatians 6 in his ‘Message’ paraphrase translation,

7-8 “Don’t be misled: No one makes a fool of God. What a person plants, he will harvest. The person who plants selfishness, ignoring the needs of others — ignoring God! — harvests a crop of weeds. All he’ll have to show for his life is weeds! But the one who plants in response to God, letting God’s Spirit do the growth work in him, harvests a crop of real life, eternal life.
9-10 So let’s not allow ourselves to get fatigued doing good. At the right time we will harvest a good crop if we don’t give up, or quit. Right now, therefore, every time we get the chance, let us work for the benefit of all, starting with the people closest to us in the community of faith.”

Jesus came to wipe the slate clean, to say that all the wrong things we have done and shall continue to do are forgiven and that we do not need to dwell on them.

We can and should let all of our past go, however bad. However, we do need to both learn and respond.

Imagine having a very old, unreliable and uncomfortable car and someone gives you a brand new top of the range luxury car totally free! Would you continue to use your old vehicle and leave the new car to be admired in a garage or would you want to use the new car?

God’s gift of a new life is worth far more than any new car! We need to learn to live the good full life God wants for us.

Whilst people have spent a lot of money researching happiness, I suggest that the secret of real happiness is in that Galatians passage.

It is not wealth, power, owning lots of material things, being sexually attractive or whatever, but doing God’s work amongst His people on earth.

This is how real happiness and the full life promised and by Jesus can be obtained.

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