I was preaching last night, in Belfast, on the Immanuel 'Sign-Son' in Isaiah Chapter 7. In spite of good commentators who argue to the contrary, I think, for numerous reasons, we should insist that the prophecy refers only and exclusively to Christ.
Could Immanuel really be one of the sign-sons of Isaiah?
It appears to me most improbable (if not entirely impossible) that Immanuel was either the first (already born) or third (soon-to-be-born) son of the prophet Isaiah himself:
First, if we are correct in insisting that 'Virgin' must mean virgin (see below), then this implicitly rules out Mrs Isaiah as the mother. There is no evidence anywhere that this woman already had one other son in addition to Shear-Jashub, nor that Isaiah ever became a widow or bigamist and took a second virginal wife. That being the case of the evidence of the text-in-context, when the second child was born (with the rather un-catchy, real-mouthful, name Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz), the woman that he married could obviously not lay claim to virginity. If the Sola Scriptura principle has any weight at all, we must look to another lady to produce Immanuel.
Second, to bolster this case, it will be important to note, that in the case of other sign-sons, all prophet-marital details are filled in: we know that Ezekiel, for example, was forbidden mourning rites when left bereft of his spouse:
"Son of man, behold, I am about to take the delight of your eyes away from you at a stroke; yet you shall not mourn or weep, nor shall your tears run down. Sigh, but not aloud; make no mourning for the dead. Bind on your turban, and put your shoes on your feet; do not cover your lips, nor eat the bread of men." So I spoke to the people in the morning, and at evening my wife died. And on the next morning I did as I was commanded - Ezekiel 24:16-18
Equally, God fully informed us about the three sign-sons that resulted from Hosea's liaison with Gomer - though the sons of Israel might be like grains of the sand of sea, in the case of Hosea son's they only number three:
When the LORD first spoke through Hosea, the LORD said to Hosea, "Go, take to yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the LORD." So he went and took Gomer, the daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore him a son. And the LORD said to him, "Call his name Jezreel, for in just a little while I will punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingdom of the house of Israel. And on that day I will break the bow of Israel in the Valley of Jezreel." She conceived again and bore a daughter. And the LORD said to him, "Call her name No Mercy, for I will no more have mercy on the house of Israel, to forgive them at all. But I will have mercy on the house of Judah, and I will save them by the LORD their God. I will not save them by bow or by sword or by war or by horses or by horsemen." When she had weaned No Mercy, she conceived and bore a son. And the LORD said, "Call his name Not My People, for you are not my people, and I am not your God" - Hosea 1:2-9
With all other biblical prophets, with the exception of Jeremiah, no mention is made of family: in the case of the weeping prophet, given the immanent, threatened, exile, strict chastity and celibacy is commanded:
The word of the LORD came to me: "You shall not take a wife, nor shall you have sons or daughters in this place. For thus says the LORD concerning the sons and daughters who are born in this place, and concerning the mothers who bore them and the fathers who fathered them in this land: They shall die of deadly diseases. They shall not be lamented, nor shall they be buried. They shall be as dung on the surface of the ground. They shall perish by the sword and by famine, and their dead bodies shall be food for the birds of the air and for the beasts of the earth - Jeremiah 16:1-4
In short, while this point would not be decisive by itself, it runs contrary to the manner is which Scripture presents sign-sons, without making it explicit, to insist it is likely that Isaiah sired Immanuel.
Third, it strains hyperbole and credulity, to put the title deeds of Canaan in the back-pocket of Isaiah's son. It seems far more natural to assign the Land of Promise to the future Judahite claimant of the royal throne of David:
"Behold, the Lord is bringing up against them the waters of the River, mighty and many, the king of Assyria and all his glory. And it will rise over all its channels and go over all its banks, and it will sweep on into Judah, it will overflow and pass on, reaching even to the neck, and its outspread wings will fill the breadth of your land, O Immanuel" - Isaiah 8:7-8
If not one of the sign-sons that Yahweh gave Isaiah, a more plausible answer place to search out the dynasty of David.
Could Immanuel be a sign-son born to King Ahaz?
There is something more attractive about this suggestion. It does, for example, turn over ownership of the Land to a prince on Judah's throne. By passing the reins of the realm to a son with royal blood, the promise to David left intact and secure. To make Immanuel the firstborn grandson of the late-king Uzziah, brings the sign-pledge close-up and personal to the ruling monarch Ahaz. Supposing this royal birth actually took place during Ahaz's life, answers to clamor for contemporary relevance in the immediate vicinity of the 8th Century BC context. On such a reading, the most likely candidate, is the venerable Hezekiah (as Walt Kaiser argues) for whom 'Immanuel' becomes a pseudonym 'cover-name' - who is set as a type of the final Immanuel 'Christ'.
Yet, when all is said and done, excepting the 3rd advantage of a personalized in-house pledge to Ahaz, the traditional 'Jesus' exposition is equally advantageous (with a lot more besides) - there are, in fact, strong arguments which preclude Hezekiah from being the postulated alternate candidate:
First, there is significant force to the point that the sign must be excellent: Yahweh commands the King to ask the LORD to move "heaven and earth." The sign Ahaz should seek can be as big as he wants - he should pick something pit-deep, sky-high, or any option in-between. I agree with Palmer Robertson that something of cosmic import and significance is required. It is hard to see how any ordinary natural conception or birth is going to tick this Immanuel sign-son box. We need to expand our son-search horizons beyond Isaiah or Hezekiah.
Second, the 'card' of contextual relevance seems in this case a little 'overplayed': I would argue, that this claim, strangely misses the point of the Book. It is true that in all the prophetic writings God's future-predictive power is proclaimed or implied. Yet, far above and beyond all others, Isaiah makes this reality the very touchstone to truth. Central to his case against Israelite idolatry is that Yahweh alone is LORD of the Cosmos, who by His sovereign decree heralds events in advance (with intricate precision that includes names and years), and then by cosmic lordship brings all He promised to pass.
"Remember this and stand firm, recall it to mind, you transgressors, remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, 'My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,' calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of my counsel from a far country. I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it - Isaiah 46:8-11
Isaiah makes explicit false gods and their false prophets cannot do that - it is this very real distinction, between idols and Yahweh, which makes God's inviolable Word worthy of trust, hence the repeated summons to faith.
"The former things I declared of old; they went out from my mouth, and I announced them; then suddenly I did them, and they came to pass. Because I know that you are obstinate, and your neck is an iron sinew and your forehead brass, I declared them to you from of old, before they came to pass I announced them to you, lest you should say, 'My idol did them, my carved image and my metal image commanded them.' "You have heard; now see all this; and will you not declare it? From this time forth I announce to you new things, hidden things that you have not known. They are created now, not long ago; before today you have never heard of them, lest you should say, 'Behold, I knew them' - Isaiah 48:3-7
In fact, both negatively and positively, I AM is so completely in control that by His will events will stop or start:
"Because Syria, with Ephraim and the son of Remaliah, has devised evil against you, saying, "Let us go up against Judah and terrify it, and let us conquer it for ourselves, and set up the son of Tabeel as king in the midst of it," thus says the Lord GOD: "'It shall not stand, and it shall not come to pass - Isaiah 7:5-7
All of this suggests that the stupendous nature of the sign that should be sought is even greater than the pinpoint-precise prediction of a delivering Persian prince Cyrus - that it stunning and stupendous-enough in itself:
Thus says the LORD, your Redeemer, who formed you from the womb: "I am the LORD, who made all things, who alone stretched out the heavens, who spread out the earth by myself, who frustrates the signs of liars and makes fools of diviners, who turns wise men back and makes their knowledge foolish, who confirms the word of his servant and fulfills the counsel of his messengers, who says of Jerusalem, 'She shall be inhabited,' and of the cities of Judah, 'They shall be built, and I will raise up their ruins'; who says to the deep, 'Be dry; I will dry up your rivers'; who says of Cyrus, 'He is my shepherd, and he shall fulfill all my purpose'; saying of Jerusalem, 'She shall be built,' and of the temple, 'Your foundation shall be laid.'" Thus says the LORD to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped, to subdue nations before him and to loose the belts of kings, to open doors before him that gates may not be closed: "I will go before you and level the exalted places, I will break in pieces the doors of bronze and cut through the bars of iron, I will give you the treasures of darkness and the hoards in secret places, that you may know that it is I, the LORD, the God of Israel, who call you by your name. For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name, I name you, though you do not know me. I am the LORD, and there is no other, besides me there is no God; I equip you, though you do not know me, that people may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is none besides me; I am the LORD, and there is no other - Isaiah 44:24-45:6
This sign, surely, must even exceed the 'show-stopper' on the steps named in the honour of Ahaz, which Hezekiah later received, as a pledge of Jerusalem's safety and personal prolongevity:
Thus says the LORD, the God of David your father: I have heard your prayer; I have seen your tears. Behold, I will add fifteen years to your life. I will deliver you and this city out of the hand of the king of Assyria, and will defend this city. "This shall be the sign to you from the LORD, that the LORD will do this thing that he has promised: Behold, I will make the shadow cast by the declining sun on the dial of Ahaz turn back ten steps." So the sun turned back on the dial the ten steps by which it had declined - Isaiah 38:5-8
In other words, if a major theme of the Book is announcement well-in-advance; and if a prediction of BC 539 Persian Cyrus must lie in abeyance for a further 196 years (the time of the Immanuel prophecy is around BC 735) before fulfilment - and yet is indisputably relevant; and if Messianic faith in the survival of the royal line of David was always of saving import from the time of its announcement; and if hope in the promised Christ was always the only way of salvation from sin throughout the entire period of the Old Testament; in what way is the traditional interpretation of a primary reference to Jesus of no practical importance to the church in the BC 735 - can we not justly argue, without such a hope, no Jew of that day could entertain any hope of being saved? Of course, if we don't think faith in Christ is essential to being saved in the Old Testament period, we might have cause to doubt the contextual relevance of a 'Jesus-only' reference. Yet is was that very fault, which caused those in Isaiah's day, and those of a later age, to stumble on the block, and end up being crushed!
Surely, the Sign-Son Immanuel can only refer to The Christ
There are a number of key indicators that we should consider the sign-son Immanuel to be a direct prophecy whose primary and only referent is to the Lord Jesus Christ who was born of the Virgin Mary:
First, only Christ provides the answer to the current crisis that the threat of the plot to install Tabeel presents. The name of this purported puppet-king of Ephraim and Syria is pointed in such away to mean "good-for-nothing" (Isaiah 7:6). The sign the LORD grants blows such a possibility away - the promise to David will be put in safer hands, for sign-son Immanuel will be good-for-everything.
Second, the terminology used in the promise of the sign-son points to an explicitly intact virginal conception.
Bethulah is avoided - it has been spuriously argued by scholars that if Isaiah has really meant an intact virgin, he would have chosen this other Hebrew term for maiden: it has since been shown that this is simply not the case - Bethulah is a more general term for maiden or young woman which does not imply the presence or absence of virginal status.
Almah is chosen - the God-Word that the prophet used was not generic woman or girl but specific and deliberate: it is not a common term in the Hebrew Bible, but always means or implies virginity (of one or many) in every instance where its nuance can be determined (there is only one exception) - for example, when a wife is sought for Isaac, who of course would be a virgin, it refers to Rebekah; or again, when a nurse is sought who would be able to suckle Moses for the daughter of Pharaoh, it refers to unmarried sister Miriam; in other words, there is not a single instance where this term means 'a woman who is not a virgin'.
Parthenos is the translation - the Greek translations of the Bible (popularly known as the Septuagint, and designated by the roman numeral for 70, LXX), render the Hebrew term with parthenos, which in the Scripture always means virgin. In the New Testament in the Gospels, Acts and Corinthians it refers to female virgins, and in Revelation to males who are chaste. Danker gives the meaning as "one who had had no sexual relationship", Arndt-Gingrich as "virgin" or "chaste man". The Scriptures of Christ would seem to cement the case.
Virgin is definite - the original text does not say "a virgin shall be with child" but the definite article specifies this woman as "The" particular "Virgin". The promised sign-son has one particular virgin woman in mind. If the line of argumentation is correct, this must only refer to The chose Virgin Mary.
Naming is feminine - unusually, but significantly, it is not King Ahaz (or any other male) who would name this child (the qal waw-consecutive perfect 2nd person feminine singular form of the verb qara' translated 'and she will call' is employed), but the Virgin, herself, who calls the boy-to-be-born 'Immanuel'.
Thirdly, the scope of Isaiah is cosmic in its sweep: it not only provides an answer to the present crisis Ahaz faced, but also supplies the final solution to the sin-problem of Zion, its failure to be fit for purpose to witness, combined with promises of atonement and recreation of the Cosmos. It would be strange in such circumstances if the category of Virgin Birth is left empty, when all other future aspects of the work and reign of Christ is previsioned by the prophet.
Fourthly, the prophecy in question in 7:14, should not be artificially excised from the overall argument in chapters 1-12, and in particular chapters 7-10: here details are filled out about the child-to-be-given with added divine attribution and cosmic accomplishments.
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this - Isaiah 9:6-7
We were specifically told, in 9:1, that this promise refers to the time of the latter days, when glory would shine on the northernmost tribes who are about to be plunged in doom. We should not disconnect artificially this later elaboration on the nature of Immanuel - this text flows as a piece from chapter 7.1: the promise of Immanuel is the protection that the royal house of David required.
Fifthly, the prophet Micah, was a contemporary of Isaiah: most scholar suggest that Micah's prophecy concerning the Mountain of the LORD, drew heavily on the earlier prophecy of Isaiah (and not the reverse). If that is the case, and even if it is not, we are not surprised to learn that Micah goes as far as fleshing out details of Isaiah's messianic prediction. His birth location is now specified - not Jerusalem (precluding sign-sons of Isaiah or Hezekiah), but the royal city Bethlehem. The Virgin would give birth away from a palace - no other royal but David entered the world in that tiny maternity ward (with the portacabin annex). It seems rather surprising, if the 'where' of Christ is predicted, that the 'how' is passed-over, without any other further comment. A vital point made in the scroll of Isaiah is that a divine son is required to work where humans failed, by providing the pardon and Spirit to re-fit Israel for his mission vocation.
Sixthly, and finally, it is the clear testimony of the New Testament Gospel writers, that it is Jesus Christ who fulfilled this marvellous sign:
"Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel" (which means, God with us). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus - Matthew 1:23-25
The Word of the Angel is suffused with language and imagery which resonates with the prophecy that was given to Ahaz through Isaiah:
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin's name was Mary. And he came to her and said, "Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!" But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end." And Mary said to the angel, "How will this be, since I am a virgin?" And the angel answered her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy-- the Son of God. And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God." And Mary said, "Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word." And the angel departed from her - Luke 1:26-38
Thus, I am persuaded, that pulpit and pew have every reason to believe that the sign-son prediction, directly predicted Christ, God the Son in human flesh, conceived in the Virgin's Womb: God is with us, by the Spirit of Christ - may you rejoice in His peace at this season of grace.