Responding to a Question about Isaiah 7:14 and the use of “Virgin”
In Sunday’s sermon, I showed how the immediate fulfillment of the promise of Isaiah 7:14 occurs in chapter 8 with the birth of Isaiah’s second son. The birth meant “Immanuel” in the sense that God was visiting them through the Assyrian judgment. Immanuel (Isaiah 8:5-10), therefore, is a promise and a warning–a promise to those who believe and a warning of judgment to those who don’t.
Here is a recap of the reasons why Isaiah 8 is the direct fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14:
- It’s a sign to Ahaz and the immediate listeners (Isaiah 7:14), not to those alive 700 years later.
- It’s a sign to prove that Syria and Northern Israel’s alliance against Jerusalem won’t last (Isaiah 7:7-9), which is the immediate history.
- The sign is to prove that Assyria will attack Syria and Northern Israel in the near future, and then will threaten Jerusalem (Isaiah 8:5-10)
- Similar language is used in both passages, showing that Isaiah viewed it as a direct fulfillment (7:14, 8:3; “conceive and bear a son”).
- Similar language is used of the boys coming of age in both passages (7:15-16, 8:4; to eat solid food, to choose good, to say “mom” or “dad”), showing that Isaiah sees a connection.
- In the flow, chapter 6 is Isaiah’s call to ministry, chapter 7 is Isaiah’s first prophetic message, chapter 8 is the fulfillment of that message validating Isaiah as a prophet of the LORD, and chapter 9 is the long-term prophetic message that the hearers can also be confident will be fulfilled.
- Isaiah 8:18 shows that Isaiah views his child as the sign (same word is used as in 7:14)
- Chapter 8’s usage of Immanuel (v 8, 10) shows Isaiah saw these events as the fulfillment of 7:14.
However, there is an obvious question that arises when we read our English translations: Doesn’t it say that a virgin will conceive? Not a married woman?
The following is an excerpt with an important footnote from the commentary I wrote on Isaiah in preparation for our Walk Through the Word: Isaiah event.
“The virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. So, then, what are we looking for? The virgin has heavy sexual connotations in the English language, but although the word can include the concept of never having been sexually active, it more refers to one of the common groups of people in their society. Young women, who were often unmarried, often participated in celebratory festivities and served in households. Again, this may include the idea of never having had sex, but does not necessitate it. Now, before you put this book down because you think I’m teaching that Mary wasn’t a virgin, remember, we are talking about this passage in its original context. This word, in its original context, did not necessarily refer to a sexual virgin, but to a young woman, or a maiden.
So, we are looking for the virgin who will bear a son. The sign Isaiah offers is not the immaculate conception. The sign is that the coming of the son will include the coming of the Lord.
 “It is not possible to be dogmatic as to why Isaiah used the ambiguous [alma] here instead of the unambiguous [Betula]. Nor is it clear what meaning should be assigned to [alma]. Typically, the meaning given is ‘a young woman of marriageable age,’ with the clear implication that the conception is a natural one. However, conservative scholars have frequently pointed out that the word is never used of a married woman in the OT. So they have argued that the word denotes a sexually mature, but unmarried, young woman. It would be axiomatic in Hebrew society that such a woman would be a virgin. While the virginity would not be the main focus, as with [betula], nonetheless it would still follow. The English ‘maiden’ comes very close to having the same denotations and connotations. … The conclusion to which we are driven is that while the prophet did not want to stress the virginity, neither did he wish to leave it aside … In fact, he may have used this term precisely because of its richness and diversity … In the short term, the virgin conception does not seem to have had primary importance. Rather, the significance is that a child conceived at that moment would still be immature when the two threatening nations would have been destroyed.” (Oswalt, 1986 pp. 210-211)
In other words, the word used here doesn’t necessarily have to mean “virgin” as in “never had sex before.” This word is a class or group in society. It is similar (although not exactly the same) to how we use the words “boy” and “man” in English. When does a boy become a man? It’s not really an age. Some people might use this designation crassly to refer to when a male has sex for the first time. Others might use the distinction to show maturity and responsibility.
The word used here refers to a “young woman of marriageable age.” In this culture, this idea mostly included the idea that they never had sex before, but it does not focus on that idea. That means that Isaiah’s wife could still fit that idea if they were early in their marraige.
700 years later, another child would be born in similar circumstances. Mary and Jesus are the ultimate fulfillment of the prophetic category of Isaiah’s wife (known as the prophetess) and Maher-shalal-hash-baz. Mary, the mother of Jesus, was a “prophetess” similar to Isaiah’s wife. The New testament word used when this passage is quoted does focus on her virginity. Other verses also show she was a virgin (Luke 1:34-35).
This is the whole point of the flow of Isaiah 6-9. Because Isaiah was validated as a prophet of the LORD through the immediate fulfillment of his prophecies about Syria, Israel, and Assyria before his son was 2-3 years old, we can be confident that his long-term prophecies are also true. In other words, when Isaiah 9:6-7 says “to us a child is born, to us a son is given,” we know we are in the category of thought. We are looking for a child, born of young woman, who will be the ultimate fulfillment of Immanuel.