Criswell Theological Review 6.2 (1993) 223-235

[Copyright 1993 by Criswell College, cited with permission;

digitally prepared for use at Gordon and Criswell Colleges and elsewhere]

 

 

 

THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE

'ALMAH PROPHECY IN THE

CONTEXT OF ISAIAH 7-12

 

 

JOHN N. OSWALT

Asbury Theological Seminary

Wilmore, Kentucky 40390

 

Isaiah 7:14 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 (Oxford: 1987) 16.

 



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

knew.7,8

 

3 Cf. Isa 41:21-24; 43:8-10; 44:6-8; 45:21; 46:8-10; 48:5,14-16.

4 Das Buch Jesaia (Gottingen: 1892) 307-8.

5 C. Westermann, Isaiah 40-66: a Commentary (Philadelphia: 1969) 91. Cf. also

G. E. Wright, The Book of Isaiah (Richmond: 1964) 103.

6 Two well-known examples are the oracle to Croesus and the one regarding the

Persian threat to the city of Athens. Croesus took the oracle about a mighty empire's be-

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 'ALMA PROPHECY 225

 

I would like to argue that Isa 7:14 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

[1982] 117-29) and C. Stuhlmueller (" 'First and Last' and 'Yahweh-Creator' in Dt.-Is.,"

CBQ 29 [1967] 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.

How can Israel even think that the God who has called the nation into existence by

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 (Oxford: 1964) 105.

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. New York:

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.

10 The Myth of God Incarnate (Philadelphia: 1977).

11 The Book of Isaiah (2 vols., The Expositor's Bible, London: n.d.).



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 1:22-23 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-

 

12 See the discussion of J. G. Machen, The Virgin Birth of Christ (London: 1930)

287-94, a classic treatment of the passage.

13 This understanding has gained impetus through the study of the kind of exege-

sis done at Qumran and elsewhere by early Jewish exegetes. That this kind of exegesis,

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 'ALMA PROPHECY 227

 

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

to the problem posed in those chapters: how can proud, perverse, rebellious. Israel (1:1-

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

of destruction by Assyria (7:17-8:8); reflection on the blindness of the

people of God (8:9-9:1); the promise of the child deliverer (9:2-7);

explanation of the reason for Assyria's coming (not geo-political power,

but Israel's moral failure), (9:8-10:4); thus Assyria is merely a tool,

and, as such, accountable to Him who wields it (10:5-34); (since Israel's

destruction is not the result of Assyria's will but of the will of the mor-

ally responsible, trustworthy God, Israel's destruction will neither be

complete nor final [10:20-27]); the glory of Israel's return to the Mes-

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,

8); Assyria (7:17, 18, 20; 8:7; 10:5, 12, 24; 11:11, 16); the remnant (7:3;

10:20, 21, 22; 11:11, 16); God's sole trustworthiness as seen especially

in his will to deliver (7:7-9; 8:9-10; 9:1-7; 10:20-27; 11:11-12, 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 7:14. 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 (Philadelphia: 1972). While it is certainly possible

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 [1978] 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 'ALMA PROPHECY 229

 

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

dominant theme is the issue of Israel's mission: will the chosen people

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 (8:16-22) 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-

ship: how will the Holy King whom Isaiah saw in the temple estab-

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.:

forthcoming) .

21 For a further discussion of Israel's mission, see my "The Mission of Israel to the

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

trusting God, the entire sequence of Israel's experience from that

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 (7:17-8:22). But the love of God decrees that they cannot

be left in such a condition. In faithfulness to His promises to Abra-

ham and David, He must deliver Israel (9:1-7) and that, not because

the people have earned it, but as an expression of his free grace

(10:20-27). How is such deliverance possible? Because Israel was

brought down by God, not Assyria, and He who brought her down has

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 (11:10-12:6). 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

Assyria, his worst enemy, before he would trust God. Far from trust-

ing God and revealing Him to the nations, Israel would trust the na-

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 'ALMA PROPHECY 231

 

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 7:14.

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

Judah, so we should expect the mysterious sign to have significance

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

of the land of Judah. All of this says that he is the only likely candidate for association

with the Messiah.

26 So for instance J. Skinner, The Book of the Prophet Isaiah (Cambridge: 1925) 83.



232 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW

 

elsewhere,27 the statements in 7:15-16 surely point to a birth during

the lifetime of Ahaz. What we know of Israelite and Syrian history

confirms this, in that both Syria and Israel had been defeated and an-

nexed by Assyria by 722 B.C., approximately 12 years after the most

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 7:14 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 7:10-

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 (7:10-17); 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), (7:18-23);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 (8: 11-22); 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 7:14-8:22," JBL

91 (1972) 449-56.

30 Walton argues against this supposition on the grounds that the woman in 7:14

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 16:11 and Judg 13:5. These two passages are clearly future and the fact that they are

grammatically identical with Isa 7:14 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

twelfth year. However, Damascus fell in 732 and Samaria paid heavy tribute at that

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 7:15 and 22. This underscores the

continuity of thought.



John N. Oswalt: THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE 'ALMA PROPHECY 233

 

prophecy in Ahaz' own day, but also that that fulfillment was not the

ultimate one.

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 7:14 is to be found in 8:1-4, as was

contended above, why was that not stated explicitly in 7:14? 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 7:14

was to say, then it is very hard, if not impossible, to understand why

7:14 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

betulah, "virgin"?

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

when the evidence of God's presence would be the defeat of Syria

and Israel and the ensuing attack of Assyria upon Judah, and the dis-

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

His trustworthiness.

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

when the Northern Kingdom was about to be expelled from the prom-

ised land and the Davidic monarch of Judah was displaying that

breach of covenant which was to become calcified in his grandson

Manasseh, and which would issue in the destruction of Judah, the

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 'ALMA PROPHECY 235

 

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

Syria and Ephraim, or even from the tool of Assyria brought on to pun-

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

the segment: "Shout, and sing for joy, O inhabitant of Zion, for great in

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.

 

 

This material is cited with gracious permission from:

The Criswell College

4010 Gaston Ave.

Dallas, TX 75246

www.criswell.edu

Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at: thildebrandt@gordon.edu