Criswell Theological Review 6.2 (1993) 223-235
[Copyright © 1993 by
digitally prepared for use at
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE
'ALMAH PROPHECY IN THE
CONTEXT OF ISAIAH 7-12
JOHN N. OSWALT
Asbury Theological Seminary
Isaiah raises for us a question which is re-emerging in biblical
studies these days. Does biblical prophecy contain within itself the
idea of prediction of the distant future? For much of the Church's his-
tory this has been taken as a given. Accurate prediction was the sign of
inspiration.1 Generally speaking, this view prevailed until the middle
of the last century, when prophecy began to be seen primarily as con-
frontation with the social and religious status quo. The name of Julius
Wellhausen is especially associated with this new view. In the middle
years of this century there was some swinging back of the pendulum
so that as recently as 1987 J. E A. Sawyer could say that the belief
in the Bible that the prophets could accurately predict the future
[whether they actually did or not!] was an established fact.2 Yet, a year
before Sawyer's book appeared another book was published which--
if I judge the spirit of the times correctly--more accurately expresses
present directions. This is J. Barton's The Oracles of God in which he
argues at length that the biblical understanding of the prophets as
predictors of the future is actually an imposition of a post-exilic and
intertestamental understanding upon the earlier documents. For Bar-
ton, Wellhausen's understanding of the nature of prophecy is correct.
1 See, for instance, the arguments of J. Orr, The Problem of the Old Testament
(New York: 1914) 455-60.
2 J. F: A Sawyer, Prophecy
and the Prophets of the Old Testament (
224 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
It is very difficult to counter arguments like Barton's because
whenever one refers to evidence from the text, the chances are that
the evidence will be disallowed as reflecting a late stage of the tradi-
tion. Nevertheless, it must still be pointed out that it is God's capacity
to predict the future through the prophets which forms the backbone
of Isaiah's lawsuit against the gods found in Isaiah 40-48. Over and
over God through the prophet challenges the gods to bring forward
evidence to show that just once they have done what is characteristic
of Him: specifically predicted not merely the events, but the pattern
of events which have subsequently occurred as predicted.3 B. Duhm,
in his well-known commentary, says that only one who was quite un-
familiar with pagan religion could make such an overblown state-
ment. Anyone with even an elementary knowledge of Babylonian
religion would surely know that the gods regularly predicted the
future.4 But the fact is, Isaiah's statements are neither naive nor over-
blown. As C. Westennann points out, we look in vain in the non-
biblical literatures for anything approximating the duration and
specificity of the prophecies of the exile, for instance.5 In fact, the pa-
gan oracles were noteworthy for their ambiguity. Most of the time
they could be taken in several ways. Thus, whatever happened, it
could be argued that the oracle was correct.6
But even if we recognize this characteristic ambiguity, if Isaiah
were merely saying that the gods had never predicted the outcome of
some event correctly, Westermann's argument would be open to ques-
tion. Anyone familiar in any way with the ancient world could have
surely pointed to some case of that happening. What Isaiah is clearly
talking about has to do with what Westermann saw. Isaiah is talking
about the prediction of a pattern of specific events shaping the course
of history out into the far-distant future. It is this which the gods
could not even begin to duplicate, as the inspired prophet well
3 Cf. Isa 41:21-24; 43:8-10; 44:6-8; 45:21; 46:8-10; 48:5,14-16.
Buch Jesaia (
5 C. Westermann, Isaiah 40-66: a Commentary (
Wright, The Book of Isaiah (
6 Two well-known examples are the oracle to Croesus and the one regarding the
Persian threat to the city of
ing lost to refer to the Persians, and therefore inferred that he would triumph. After he
lost the battle, it was declared that the empire being referred to was Croesus'. Similarly,
when the oracle declared that the Athenians would be saved by "the wooden wall; it
was assumed that the reference was to the walls around the city. Later, when the Greek
fleet had removed the threat of attack by destroying the Persian fleet, it was declared
that "the wooden wall" must have referred to the fleet. See Botsford and Robinson's
Hellenistic History, rev. D. Kagan (New York: 1969) 102, 147.
John N. Oswalt: THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE '
I would like to argue that Isa is a part of one of those pat-
terns and, as such, supplies evidence for exactly the kind of thing
Isaiah, and orthodox Christianity, have insisted proves both the
unique transcendence of God and the inspiration of Scripture.9 This
is not a matter of mere academic interest because of what the New
Testament does with that prediction. If the event is nothing more
than the insightful reading of the signs of the times coupled with
religious exhortation, which Matthew has ingeniously appropriated
to support his convictions concerning the tremendous importance of
Jesus Christ, then a very great deal is at stake.
Historically, those who have espoused positions like that just de-
scribed have been divided into two camps: believers and unbelievers.
The unbelievers (like A Comte and, more recently, J. Hicks10), have
simply seen the church's position as an exercise in mass delusion. The
believers (like G. A. Smith 11) have argued that while the original intent
had nothing to do with the NT, the NT writers were providentially
7 Thus, Isaiah's use of the terms "former things" (41:22; 43:9; 44:7, etc.) is signifi-
cant. B. Childs believes this is "II Isaiah" speaking of "I Isaiah's" predictions, as in 38:6
and 39:5-7 (Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture [Philadelphia: 1979] 329-30).
More plausibly, R. E. Clements ("The Unity of the Book of Isaiah," Interpretation 36
 117-29) and C. Stuhlmueller (" 'First and Last' and 'Yahweh-Creator' in Dt.-Is.,"
CBQ 29  495-511) believe it refers to the Exodus events (the importance of the
Exodus events as a paradigm for understanding the return from Exile in Isaiah 40-55 is
widely recognized). But I believe even this is too limited; I am confident that all of God's
promises from Abraham through Moses and David to Hosea are in the prophet's mind.
such promises and preserved it against all the odds by wondrously fulfilling those
promises while giving even greater ones could either forget them or could be just one
more of the gods (40:27; 43:11-12)?!
8 This insight has bearing upon the significance of the Cyrus prophecy for our un-
derstanding of the authorship of the book of Isaiah. Surely the centerpiece for Isaiah's
claims for the uniqueness of the Lord is the Cyrus prophecy. "Have the gods ever made
this kind of prediction? Of course not!" If indeed the prediction was penned 125 years
before Cyrus was born, then the claim was absolutely correct. On the other hand, if, as
those who support multiple authorship claim, the "prediction" of Cyrus' victory was
only made after Cyrus had begun his conquests, there is, in fact, nothing unique about
Isaiah's predictions, and his arguments are indeed dependent upon misuse of logic. For
the claim that Isaiah's predictions were only made after the emergence of Cyrus, see
C. R North, The Second Isaiah (
9 Two examples of OT theologies which see the promise element as the organiz-
ing principle in OT thought are G. von Rad's Old Testament Theology (2 vols.
1962), and W Kaiser's Toward an Old Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: 1978). The
former sees promise/fulfillment as the general scheme which shapes the emerging the-
ology. The latter more correctly, in my view, sees the specific promises of the OT, and
their outworking, as expressing the plan of God for the saving of the race.
Myth of God Incarnate (
Book of Isaiah (2 vols., The Expositor's Bible,
226 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
guided in their discovery of links between the OT and NT. The early
Fundamentalists were surely right in their insistence that neither of
these positions did justice to the Biblical claims.12
This is not the place to enter into a defence of the orthodox posi-
tion on prophecy and fulfillment. But it is the place to register a note
of concern. Recently the "believers" position which I have described
above seems to have begun to gain currency among the descendants of
the Fundamentalists, the Evangelicals. In various ways it is being said
that imaginative reflection upon the inspired texts in which connec-
tions to ones own time are found, although those connections were not
originally intended, is consistent with a high view of inspiration.13
Thus, it has been argued that both propositions are true: Isa 7:14
bears no reference to the heaven-sent Messiah; Matt -23 is iner-
rantly inspired when it says that the virgin birth of Christ was "to
fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet."14 The only way such
a logical contradiction can be maintained is to say that the NT writers
did not mean by "fulfill" what the English word normally means.
Frankly, this looks like sleight-of-hand and does not give confidence in
the argument. One must ask why a more correct translation of pleiro-
mai has never come into use if that is the case. No, the New Testament
writer believes, and wishes his readers to believe, that Isaiah pre-
dicted the virgin birth of the Messiah and that that prediction was
completed, fulfilled, in the virgin birth of Jesus Christ. The choice
before us is either to accept or reject that claim. The Fundamentalists
were correct in insisting that there is no middle way.15
But is it possible to accept Matthew's claim? Even if we grant
that such long-distance prediction is possible under divine inspira-
tion, is there genuine reason to believe that it took place? Does not a
careful historical-critical investigation of the text in the light of nor-
the discussion of J. G. Machen, The Virgin Birth
of Christ (
287-94, a classic treatment of the passage.
13 This understanding has gained impetus through the study of the kind of exege-
known in one form as Pesher, and in another as Midrash, was engaged in is clear. What
is not clear is whether it was the only kind of exegesis used, and more to the point, why
the literary links between it and the NT writings are so few. Barton's work (op. cit.) re-
lies heavily upon the assertion that this was the method of NT exegesis.
14 A recent statement of such a position is that of J. Walton, "What's in a Name?"
JETS 30:3 (1987) 289-306. His arguments are used as a backdrop for my own below.
15 Walton's attempt to solve the problem with reference to the OT use of names falls
far short. He argues that children are given names in the expectation that those names
will somehow become significant, but without any assurance of what that significance will
be. He sees this as analogous to OT prophecy. First of all, this does not apply to Isa 7:14
as he sees it, since he has already deprived that passage of any larger predictive signifi-
cance. But beyond that, this model of open-ended, and amorphous, possibilities does not
correspond to what the prophets claimed for themselves. See the arguments above.
John N. Oswalt: THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE '
mal Biblical usages suggest that the passage was only intended for
Ahaz' time? Certainly some weighty arguments can be mounted in de-
fense of such a position. Especially strong is the evidence from within
the text itself that the prediction was to be fulfilled, in one sense at
least, within Ahaz' own lifetime. But does that realization demand
that a later, fuller reference be given up? I think not. When the argu-
ments for limiting the reference are examined, significant weaknesses
can be found.16 But of greatest significance, in my opinion, is the evi-
dence of the literary context, and it is to that which we now turn.
Although most recent commentators do not regard chaps. 7-12 to
be a literary unity, there are good reasons to consider the chapters as a
unity of thought. First of all, they show a very clear demarcation from
what follows (chap. 13ff.), and a reasonably clear demarcation from
what precedes (chap. 6).17 Furthermore, when the ideas are considered,
there seems to be a clear progression of thought extending from Isaiah's
opening challenge to Ahaz to trust God (7:9) to the closing hymn of the
redeemed extolling God's trustworthiness (12:1-6). That progression
moves through several stages: terror at the Syro-Ephramite threat
16 The article by Walton cited above lists a number of these arguments. In the in-
terests of completeness those which are not responded to below will be responded to in
brief form here. 1) The author asserts that "shall conceive and bear a son" is incorrect
since harah, "conceive" is an adjective followed by a ptcp, which combination cannot
have a future connotation. He cites the comparable phrases in Gen 16:10 and Judg 13:3,
asserting that there also the word is an adjective and that only the converted perfects in
those contexts give the future meaning. In fact, the forms are not converted perfects,
but also participles (GKC §94f.). Thus, those references, which are clearly future by con-
text, do not prove his contention, but precisely disprove it. The future rendering is en-
tirely appropriate. 2) He asserts that 'ot, "sign," does not connote anything miraculous.
He makes this assertion on the basis of three passages, 1 Sam 2:34; Jer 44:29-30; 2 Kgs
19:29. But this overlooks two important aspects: the general usage of the word and its
specific context in Isaiah 7. In general, the word is connected with "wonders" in the
recitals of the Exodus. The Exodus signs were surely miraculous in nature. This is
brought closer home by the miraculous sign of the shadow in Isa 38:7-8. But most im-
portant of all is the passage itself in which Ahaz is directly encouraged to ask for a
miraculous sign as high as heaven or as deep as Sheol. Thus there is every reason
to believe that the sign which God eventually gave was miraculous. The "fulfillment"
which Walton suggests breathes none of the air of mystery and wonder which is found
in the passage itself.
17 The lack of agreement among commentators as to whether chap. 6 should be in-
cluded with chaps. 1-5 or 7-12 is an indication of the chapter's transitional function: in
my view. Looked at from the perspective of chaps. 1-5, chap. 6 provides a clear solution
problem posed in those chapters: how can proud, perverse, rebellious.
31; 2:6-4:1; 5:1-30) become clean and holy (4:2-6), the one to whom the nations come to
learn the law of God (2:1-5)? The answer is that the nation of unclean lips can have an
experience of God analogous to that of the man of unclean lips. But when chap. 6 is
looked at from the perspective of chaps. 7-12, there are many ways in which it functions
as an introduction to those chapters. Like them, it has a firm historical rootage; it provides
a clear explanation for the blind and stubborn refusal of the promises of God which
228 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
(7:1-6); refusal to accept God's word. of promise (7:7-16); the forecast
people of God (8:9-9:1); the promise of the child deliverer (9:2-7);
the reason for
such, accountable to Him who wields it (10:5-34); (since
not the result of
the glory of
sianic kingdom (11:1-16); the hymn of redemption (12:1-6; cf. Exod
15:1-18). Thus, there is a clear thread of continuity which proceeds
from the opening announcement of terror (7:2) to the final pronounce-
ment of fearlessness (12:2), with each successive topic growing out of
the preceding one.
This sense of continuity is enhanced by the recurring treatment of
certain themes. Some of these are: the house of David (7:2, 13; 9:7; 11:1,
10); children as signs of threat and promise (7:3, 14; 8:3, 18; 9:6; 11:6,
, 21, 22; , 16); God's sole trustworthiness as seen especially
in his will to deliver (7:7-9; 8:9-10; 9:1-7; -27; -12, 15-16;
12:1-6). All of these reasons argue strongly that, despite a diversity of
literary forms (poetry, prose, threats, oracles of salvation, etc.18) these
materials have been put in this particular sequence because they are
intended to be understood in context with one another.19
This understanding of the contextual unity of chaps. 7-12 is
significant for the interpretation of . The author, or compiler, has
signalled to us that he understands this passage, as well as all the rest
of the materials in the unit, as a part of that larger picture. Thus, to
read this statement merely from within its immediate context, which
is vv 10-17, would be like interpreting a musical phrase in a sym-
phony in isolation, without considering the movement in which it
characterize the response in those chapters; it predicts the destruction which will result
from that refusal; it sets the stage, with its final glimmer of hope, for the Messianic
promises which conclude the unit. Thus, any simplistic inclusion or exclusion with
from either 1-5 or 7-12 is to be avoided. Rather, both segments must be interpreted in
the light of that pivotal chapter.
18 For a highly detailed discussion of the possible literary forms involved, see
O. Kaiser, Isaiah
1-12, a Commentary (
that someone may yet analyze these forms in still more detail, it is hard to imagine that
anything but very diminished returns can come from it. Kaiser already seems to have
gone far in that direction.
19 P. Ackroyd ("Isaiah 1-12, Presentation of a Prophet," VTS 29  16-48) has
argued that chaps. 1-5 should be included in the unit as well. Although he makes a good
case, the argument that chaps. 1-5 have a less restricted usage than this seems stronger.
John N. Oswalt: THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE '
occurs, let alone the larger symphonic structure. This is not to say that
the larger context provides a warrant for reading a passage in a way
which does violence to its immediate context, but it does say that exe-
gesis which analyzes the grammar and syntax of a sentence, or even a
paragraph, in minute detail, without paying attention to the shaping
influence of the larger context, is not complete exegesis.
What is the larger message of which Isa 7:14 is a part? Of course,
to follow the metaphor described above, the largest message is to be
found in the entire symphonic structure of the book of Isaiah. While a
lengthy discussion of that topic is not warranted here, neither should
it be overlooked, for like many of the Biblical books, there is substan-
tial evidence for the conscious shaping of the whole, and that all which
is included is included as a part of that whole.20 If I were to express the
overall theme in a sentence, it would be this: "The Holy One of Israel
is the Sovereign of the Nations and the Redeemer of the World': The
book is about God as Holy, Sovereign Savior. Intertwined with that
theme is the issue of
bow down to the humanly-based gods of the nations or will they reveal
the transcendent God to the nations? Thus, the move is from a people
who, far from having light for others, grope about in a darkness of their
own making (-22) to people upon whom the Lord has risen in such
brightness that all the nations are drawn to the glory (60:1-3).21
Coupled with the question of mission is the whole issue of king-
will the Holy King whom Isaiah saw in the
lish His dominion on the earth? How will He conquer pride,
rebellion, and oppression? Will He do so with domination and aggres-
siveness, crushing his enemies beneath a mailed fist? No, he will
come as a child would, harmless and weak (9:6; 11:3; 42:1-4; 49:7;
52:15-53:3).22 Here is the power of God: to absorb all the evil of a
hopelessly depraved world, and give back only boundless love and
justice, free for the taking.
If that is what the larger movement is about, where do chaps.
7-12 fit into that? What part does this movement play in the larger
structure? In one sense they are introductory to the entire structure,
20 For an extended treatment of this subject, see my "The Kerygmatic Structure of
the Book of Isaiah" in the festschrift in honor of Dwight Young (Winona Lake, Ind.:
21 For a further discussion of
Nations," in Through No Fault of Their Own: The Fate of Those Who Have Not Heard,
eds. W V: Crockett and J. G. Sigountos (Grand Rapids: 1991).
22 To be sure, there are statements of God's violent destruction of his enemies. In-
terestingly, all of those which occur in extended treatments are found after chap. 53
(59:15-19; 63:1-6; 66:15-16). Those who reject "the gently flowing waters of Shiloah"
(cf. 8:6), will have to contend with rushing floodwaters.
230 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
in that they layout the complete program. There is a sense in which,
once Ahaz has made his fateful choice not to take the radical step of
the entire sequence of
point on follows with a certain ineradicable logic. The justice of God
means that failure to trust Him brings destruction and darkness upon
His people (). But the love of God decrees that they cannot
be left in such a condition. In faithfulness to His promises to Abra-
David, He must deliver
the people have earned it, but as an expression of his free grace
(-27). How is such deliverance possible?
by God, not
the power to lift her up again (9:8-10:19; 10:27-34). The power
which will characterize the coming King will be moral, not political
or military (11:1-5). In the light of that universal kingdom (11:6-9),
the truest values of the Exodus will be realized (-12:6). Thus it
may be said that the great themes of the rest of the book are con-
tained in capsule form in this segment of the book.23
But there is another sense in which this unit fills a very specific
place within the book. That is, it sets the stage for the particular
teachings of chaps. 13-39. What Ahaz had refused to believe was that
God was with him, and his dynasty, and his people in any unique
way. He had already made his own plans for extricating all of these
from the threat of Pekah and Rezin to depose the Davidic monarch
and place someone else on the throne (2 Kgs 16:5-9). Ahaz would trust
ing God and revealing Him to the nations,
tions and, in so doing, deny God. As noted above, that decision would
bring destruction, which would in turn bring redemption and the
Messianic kingdom. But in the theological program of the book, this
segment serves to introduce a question of major importance. Can God
really be trusted? Chapters 13-35 provide the data to answer that.
question, and then chaps. 36-39 show us another Davidic monarch
who, in a much more serious situation, does trust God and has that
trust vindicated in a marvelous way.
Thus, in a specific sense chaps. 7-12 have to do with the question
of "immanu-el": is God really with us in any way that makes any
23 In this light, it may be asked if chaps. 1-12 are not the introduction to the book,
and not just chaps. 1-5(6), as suggested above. While good arguments can be mustered in
favor of such a position (cf. Ackroyd, op. cit.), two important points weigh against it.
First, chaps. 1-5(6) seem to be much more broadly stated and addressed than do chaps.
7-12. Chaps. 7-12 might be more aptly characterized as preparation for what follows.
Second, careful examination of 7-12 in the light of 36-39 suggests that the two sections
are part of an inclusio around 13-35 showing that the whole segment (7-39) is about
God's sovereignty and trustworthiness in the world. See below.
John N. Oswalt: THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE '
difference? Isaiah's answer is that He is presently with us in the
sense that we can depend on him to deliver us from the threats of
Rezin and Pekah, but also that he will actually be with us as the Mes-
siah. These two promises are inseparable and interdependent. If God
is not truly with His people in the affairs of that moment, the lovely
messianic promises are highly suspect. By the same token, if God can
never be with His people in actuality, then there is reason to doubt
that His transcendence can ever be truly overcome on our behalf.
What all of this says is that all the elements of this unit must be
understood in light of the emphasis on divine trustworthiness and im-
manence on the people's behalf which characterizes the unit. This
has a considerable bearing upon the correct understanding of .
Whatever we might conclude from the paragraph alone, and this is
hardly unambiguous, the larger context points us to an understanding
which far surpasses Ahaz' own immediate experience. Just as his
choice was to have far-reaching consequences for the kingdom of
beyond the immediate historic context as well.
That the sign does have such significance is supported by the con-
ection of children with both of the messianic prophecies. This is par-
icularly important with 9:2-7 where the Messiah's coming is as a
child.24 While the Messiah in 11:1-9 is not specifically called a child,
the childlike qualities ascribed to him (11:3) and the repeated mention
of children leading and playing among previously ravenous animals
(11:6, 8) surely contributes to the same understanding. Can it be
merely coincidence in a segment where the presence of God among his
people is central that Immanuel is a child and the Messiah is a child?
I think not.25 In fact, there is every reason to believe that the language
is intentional in order to guide the reader to make the association be-
tween the two.26
It should not be inferred from this argumentation that I believe
the Immanuel prophecy refers solely to the Messiah. As I have stated
24 Efforts to relate 9:6 to the birth of a son to Ahaz, perhaps even Hezekiah, have
not met with any wide-spread agreement. The language is too expansive and. cosmic to
be applied to a human ruler. For a further discussion, see my The Book of Isaiah, Chap-
ters 1-39 (Grand Rapids: 1986) 246-47.
25 It may be objected that I have been selective in equating Immanuel with the
Messiah and not either Shearjashub or Maher-Shalal-has-baz. But the reason for doing
so is that there is absolutely no mystery about either of those two. They are clearly said
to be the children of Isaiah and nothing more is to be said. But a great deal of mystery
surrounds Immanuel. His mother is identified with a highly-ambiguous term; his father
is not mentioned at all; and he is referred as the owner, or at least, a notable inhabitant
with the Messiah.
26 So for instance J. Skinner, The Book of the Prophet Isaiah
232 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
elsewhere,27 the statements in -16 surely point to a birth during
the lifetime of Ahaz. What we know of Israelite and Syrian history
this, in that both
likely date of this prophecy.28 Thus, it seems beyond question that the
prediction was fulfilled, as intended, during Ahaz' lifetime. In addi-
tion, it seems very likely that it was fulfilled in Isaiah's own family
through the birth of his son, Maher-shalal-hash-baz.29 This argument
is supported by the recurrence of language in and 8:3 ("she con-
ceived and bore a son"), by the similarity of the signs,30 and by the
mention of Immanuel on both sides of the mention of Maher-shalal-
hash-baz. One significance of this equation is that it clearly means
that if the ultimate fulfillment of the Immanuel sign is that God will
be with us in and through a son of David (9:7; 11:1), then the fulfill-
ment in Ahaz' own time was not the ultimate one.
But even more importantly, it shows us that we should read -
17 as part of a larger unit which extends at least as far as 9:7. The
sequence of thought would be something like this: 1) the prophecy
of Immanuel (-17); 2) expansions on the prophecy, showing that
it is two-sided (God's presence with us is not a cause for happiness
if we have rejected that presence), (-23);31 3) initial fulfillment of
the prophecy in Maher-shalal-hash-baz (8:1-4); 4) expansion of that
prophecy with particular connection to Immanuel (again two-sided),
(8:5-10); 5) further reflection on the two-sidedness of God's presence,
concluding that the ultimate significance of the signs was hidden at
that time (-22); and, 6) revelation of the ultimate meaning of Im-
manuel in the child who would be born to sit forever on the throne
of David (9: 1-6). Thus it can be seen that a contextual reading not
only supports the understanding that there was a fulfillment of the
27 Oswalt, Isaiah, 206-14.
28 "Refuse the evil and choose the good" (v 15) is taken by most commentators to
refer to a child's attaining the age of accountability-12 years old.
29 See H. M. Wolf, "A Solution to the Immanuel Prophecy in Isaiah ," JBL
91 (1972) 449-56.
30 Walton argues against this supposition on the grounds that the woman in
is already pregnant, whereas Isaiah's wife is just conceiving. As noted above, the argu-
ment that the 'almah is already pregnant rests upon a misreading of the fem. ptcps. in
Gen and Judg 13:5. These two passages are clearly future and the fact that they are
grammatically identical with Isa argues that it too is future. He further argues that
the signs are not the same since saying "mama" and "papa" occur long before the
same time. Clearly that date would be entirely in keeping with the sign. More impor-
tantly, both signs have to do with something the child can or cannot do by a certain date.
31 Note the recurrence of "curds and honey" in and 22. This underscores the
continuity of thought.
John N. Oswalt: THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE '
prophecy in Ahaz' own day, but also that that fulfillment was not the
But what about the specific wording of the promise in its context?
J. Walton has set forth some strongly worded arguments against read-
ing 'almah as "virgin" under any circumstances and has proposed an
understanding of the historical setting which is at least plausible,
although highly restrictive. What does the use of this word in this
context imply? Of greatest significance is the air of mystery and ambi-
guity which surrounds the term. If, as Walton argues, the sign refers
to one of Ahaz' concubines who is now pregnant and will shortly give
birth, it is very hard to explain this language. Why not simply say
"Your concubine has conceived and will bear a son to you. You shall
call his name Immanuel. He will eat curds and. . . ." Why not identify
the father, particularly if it is the Ahaz to whom the oracle is ad-
dressed? Why not use the common term for concubine? Why not
identify whose concubine it is?32 In fact, the text gives no reason at
all to associate this woman with the court, or with Ahaz. By its silence
on these points it specifically points away from that possibility. Wal-
ton is grasping at straws in order to support his contention that the
NT reading is simply a midrash on a misreading of the OT
But if the initial fulfillment of is to be found in 8:1-4, as was
contended above, why was that not stated explicitly in ? That is
just the point; it is an initial fulfillment only. If indeed Maher-shalal-
hash-baz' conception, birth, and naming said all that the sign in
was to say, then it is very hard, if not impossible, to understand why
is not more explicit. Why not use a common term for "young
woman" or even "your wife"? On the other hand, if the sign was in-
tended to point to the birth of Christ, why not use the unambiguous
I believe that the answer to both questions lies in the double na-
ture of the sign. It has two historic contexts: the immediate future
evidence of God's presence would be the defeat of
tant future when God would be physically present among his people
32 Walton's attempt to answer this question by reference to the definite article on
'almah is very weak. He suggests that Ahaz would not have had so many concubines
but that if one of them appeared to be pregnant there would have been some comment
about the situation in the court and that by Isaiah's saying the 'almah, his hearers
would have known to whom he was referring. In the first place, there is no reason to as-
sociate 'almah with a concubine at all. Perhaps the term could have been used to refer
to a concubine, but that is not the meaning of the term and it would not connote that
meaning without some modifier. From that point the argument successively falls in
upon itself, with each supposition being more questionable than the last.
234 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
either to purify or to judge (cf. Mal 3:1-5). In the immediate future the
virginity of the mother was not the issue, but in the distant future
that was all-important. Thus an ambiguous word was used. Walton is
certainly correct when he asserts that 'almah does not mean "virgin."
But he is wrong when he goes on from that to imply that the word
can never connote virginity in a given setting. In fact, as he admits,
the word seems to have to do with adolescence. If we are talking
about an adolescent female in Hebrew society, there is every reason
to think that this would be one of the chief connotations of the word.
This supposition is only confirmed by the Septuagint's use of par-
thenos, "virgin," to translate 'almah.33 In other words, the ambiguous
term is used purposely so as to support both the immediate and dis-
tant occurrences of the sign. For this same reason the paternity of the
child is left unidentified. All of this argues that no short-term fulfill-
ment alone is in view here.
Added to this is the invitation to Ahaz to make the sign he asks
be ''as deep as Sheol or high as heaven." This hardly suggests some-
thing as' insignificant as the naming of the child of an already preg-
nant concubine.34 To be sure, Ahaz refused to ask, probably because
he had already made his own plans. But that is all the more reason for
God to make the sign even more stupendous as a final vindication of
In sum, I believe those who call Isaiah chaps. 7-12 the book of Im-
manuel are correct. At this absolutely critical point in salvation history
ised land and the Davidic monarch of
breach of covenant which was to become calcified in his grandson
and which would issue in the destruction of
complete outlines of the plan of God for His kingdom needed to be dis-
played. They are nowhere better done than in the book of Isaiah. And,
33 Walton's attempt to devalue the significance of the LXX reading rests upon two
pillars: an unpublished paper of G. L Archer in which he is reported to have argued
that the LXX translators of Isaiah often used equivalent terms and not exact ones, and
the fact that parthenos does not always mean "virgin" in classical Gk. Neither of these
will bear much weight. Whether parthenos is equivalent or exact, the question is why it
was used at all, especially if, as Walton maintains, 'almah has nothing to do with vir-
ginity. (Machen [op. cit., 297] makes a similar point but interestingly, insists 'almah
does have to do with virginity.) Second, as is well known, the LXX meanings are often at
odds with classical usage. In fact, they must be defined by reference to the Heb. word
they are translating in many cases! Furthermore, NT meanings, and NT parthenos defi-
nitely means "virgin," are frequently dependent upon LXX meanings. Perhaps the NT
usage in this case is derived from the LXX!
34 Note that the naming of the child is not even a command, as is that of Maher-
shalal-hash-baz. Surely this would be a self-fulfilling prophecy and nothing more.
John N. Oswalt: THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE '
as shown above, that display is prepared for in chaps. 7-12. There
God's trustworthiness is shown, not only in his ability to deliver from
ish them for their faithlessness, but ultimately and triumphantly from
the unrighteousness and the wickedness which lie at the root of all this
history. And how will this be accomplished? By the personal interven-
tion of God in history. This has been the foundering point of all merely
human philosophy. We have been terrified of the thought of transcen-
dence. We need a god with us. But our attempts to make the divine im-
manent have resulted in the loss of any real transcendence, for we
always submerge the god into ourselves in order to achieve our tran-
sitory desires. The glory of the Bible in general and Isaiah in particular
is that they are able to maintain God's transcendence by demonstrating
that He can break into the world without becoming the world. He is
able to be truly with us, in our midst, without being submerged into us.
This is what "Immanuel" is made to point to in this segment, and this
is what Jesus Christ means for the world. "God with us" is not merely
a theological/historical construct; it is a spiritual/material actuality.
The final confirmation that this segment is preeminently about the
real presence of the Transcendent with us is found in the final verse of
segment: "Shout, and sing for joy, O inhabitant of
your midst is the Holy One of Israel" (12:6). To restrict the Immanuel
prophecy to a banal event in Judean history, and to make the NT's
appropriation of it an exercise in literary imagination is to miss the
whole import of this segment, and indeed, of the book of Isaiah.
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