All prophesy is not predictive
Matthew 1 vv22-23
All prophesy is not predictive
Isaiah 7 v14, in context, “A virgin will conceive..”
does not directly refer to Jesus, but to Isaiah’s own child.
This article is written at Christmas time, and we are often hearing the familiar words:
All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel (which means ‘God with us’.) (Matthew 1 vv22-23)
The quote of course is from Isaiah 7v 14. It is argued here that Isaiah 7v14, read in context, has nothing to do with either the virgin Mary or the birth of Jesus directly, though it will be seen to have a legitimate indirect application, once we understand what is meant by the key words fulfil or fulfilled. It will be argued that these words sometime refer to predictive prophesy, but not always. The Old Testament context will show which are, and which are not, predictive.
It will be helpful to have a Bible open at Isaiah to follow this argument:
To understand the context, we need to take into account three stages of the history of the southern kingdom of Judah:
1) The reign of King Uzziah (c. 791-740BC)
Isaiah was called to be a prophet “In the year that King Uzziah died”. (Isaiah 6 v1). Uzziah had reigned for 52 years in Jerusalem. He is described as a good king, in the sense that He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord. This means he feared God, and encouraged the people to do the same. He was a very capable man, but during the last years of his life he contracted leprosy because he violated the Temple. His son Jotham ruled as co-regent for these final ten years. (Read 2 Chronicles Chapter 26). As previously mentioned, Isaiah became a prophet during Uzziah’s last year. (c. 740BC)
2) The reign of Jotham (c. 740-732BC)
Like his father, Jotham is described in this way: He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, and Jotham grew in power because he walked steadfastly before the Lord his God. (Read 2 Chronicles Chapter 27). The new prophet Isaiah would have been pleased by the godliness of his king, though the chronicler adds grimly, The people, however, continued their corrupt practices. (v 2)
3) The reign of Ahaz (c. 732-716BC)
Unlike his father and grandfather ..he did not do what was right in the eyes of the Lord. The description of this kingship in 2 Chronicles Chapter 28 makes distressing reading, including gross pagan idolatry even practiced in the Temple itself, and he also burned his own children alive as sacrifices to the pagan deity Molech.
It was during the reign of this king that the ‘virgin shall conceive’ incident occurred:
Because of Ahaz’s godless behaviour, the Lord raised up two armies against him. The northern kingdom of Israel joined with the pagan people of Aram, with their capital at Damascus, and invaded Judah in the south.
Now we take up the story in Isaiah Chapter 7. Isaiah appears to have married by this stage, as God sends him with his son to meet with King Ahaz. (Isaiah 7 v3) Isaiah has some good news for the king, followed by some frightening news:
First, the good news:
Isaiah tells the king that these combined armies will not defeat him. The king is to trust the promise of God that they will go away without victory. (Isaiah 7 vv3-9) Isaiah calls the king to trust in the true God of heaven:
If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all. (v9)
God offers Ahaz a sign to prove that this remarkable deliverance will occur. The king in arrogance or mock humility rejects the offered sign, (v12) but Isaiah gives him a sign anyway:
Therefore the virgin will conceive and give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel. He will be eating curds and honey when he knows how to reject the wrong and choose right. (Isaiah 7 vv14-15).
The Hebrew word for “virgin” can mean “virgin” or (rarely) “a young woman of marriageable age”. (See note by Leon Morris at the end of this article.) The Greek word in the LXX translation of this passage usually means “virgin”.
While this child is still in his infancy, before he knows right from wrong, this threat of invasion will be removed. This is reinforced in Isaiah 8 v2, in which the age of this infant is described in this way: Before the child knows how to say ‘My father’ or ‘My mother...’. (Isaiah 8 v4). What follows?:
Then I made love to the prophetess, and she conceived and gave birth to a son. (Isaiah 8 v3 NIV)
It is argued here that the child is Isaiah’s own son. The “prophetess” cannot be Isaiah’s first wife as the first wife could hardly be described as either “a young woman of marriageable age” or a “virgin”. It seems either she may be a second wife, not unknown in the Old Testament (think Jacob or David) or perhaps his first wife has died.
If this is correct then the prophesy, ..the virgin will conceive, in this context has no direct application to Mary or Jesus. The boy is Isaiah’s own child, and the mother is Isaiah’s own second wife.
It may be argued that Isaiah does not call the new-born “Immanuel” (Isaiah 8 v3), but then neither did Joseph and Mary call their child “Immanuel”.
Now the bad news-
Ahaz may have been comforted by this apparent reprieve, but Isaiah had not finished giving him God’s message-
For before the boy knows how to say ‘My father’ or ‘My mother’ the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste. The Lord will bring on you and your people..... He will bring the king of Assyria! (Isaiah 7 vv16-17)
The boy child may be a sign of political salvation, but he is also a sign of coming political judgement. The Assyrians were infamous for their cruel and blood-thirsty warlike practices. This was extremely bad news indeed.
In fact, if you read on into Isaiah Chapter 8, it appears that God’s choice of the name “Immanuel” is one of irony and even mild sarcasm:
Its (i.e. the Assyrian’s) outspread wings will cover the breadth of your land,
O Immanuel. (8 v8) and-
Devise your strategy, (you nations) but it will be thwarted;
propose your plan, but it will not stand,
for ‘God is with us’. (“Immanuel”) ( 8 v10)
It seems the people were in effect saying “Immanuel, Immanuel. God is with us! It does not matter who we worship or how we behave, we are God’s chosen people. God is always with us and against our enemies. We will always be safe. Immanuel, Immanuel”. A warning for God’s people in any age?
The Assyrian army, armed with recently-minted, mass-produced iron weaponry, crossed the Euphrates River, probably at the Carchemish fords which they controlled, and soon the crimson tide of their unbridled violence began to spread across the Levant and beyond; the northern kingdom of Israel, Aram, Edom, and Judah itself, though not Egypt, soon found their late Bronze Age weapons to be seriously out of date.
For Judah itself, it looked like a grizzly end. After overwhelming Judah’s second strongest city of Lachish in a violent conflict, later recorded in graphic detail upon the walls of the Assyrian royal palace in Ninevah, the Assyrian forces surrounded the only opposition left, the city of Jerusalem, taunting them. If the citizens slept at all that fearful night, most would have expected it to be their final evening on earth. God had finally deserted the city to its well-deserved fate. But:
That night the angel of the Lord went out and put to death one hundred and eighty- five thousand in the Assyrian camp. When the people got out the next morning- there were all the dead bodies! So Sennacherib the king of Assyria broke camp and withdrew. He returned to Ninevah and stayed there. (2 Kings 19 vv35-36)
God’s people were miraculously saved in a salvation event arguably ranking second in the Old Testament only to their Exodus miracle, and they contributed nothing to this momentous, almost un-believable event. They did nothing, but were merely witness to the work God accomplished on their behalf. (One may wonder what they did with the bodies).
However we must go back a few hours. For Isaiah the prophet was sent to King Hezekiah and his army leaders with this message from the Lord:
This is what the Lord says concerning the king of Assyria: He will not enter this city, or shoot an arrow here. He will not come before it with shield or build a siege ramp against it. By the way he came he will return; he will not enter this city declares the Lord. I will defend this city and save it, for the sake of David my servant. (2 Kings 19 vv32-36)
Amazing genuinely predictive prophesy!
New Testament application
So why does Matthew, in his description of the angel’s message to Mary, quote Isaiah 7 v14 as referring to Jesus?
All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel (which means ‘God with us’). (Matthew 1 v22-23)
By any logic this cannot be said to be predictive prophesy. One can only say it is predictive by completely ignoring the Old Testament context. It would be better to label it something like “Repetitive prophesy” or, put more simply “Here-we-go-again prophesy”.
What is Repetitive Prophesy?
To use the example outlined above- Isaiah 7 vv14-15 = Matthew 1 vv22-23:
In the past, in the Old Testament, God gave his people a sign, which in context was a sign of both Salvation and Judgement- salvation from twin enemies Israel and Aram, to be followed by judgement at the hands of the feared Assyrians, then unaided salvation again on the night 185,000 enemies perished.
Now, in the first pages of the New Testament, to use basic language, God “repeats the dose”. A virgin is to conceive. (Here, in the Greek, the word parthenos can only mean “virgin”, a woman who has never had sexual relations with a man.)
This child will also be a sign of Salvation and Judgement. Salvation towards those who put their trust in the sign, as their Saviour; judgement against those who reject this sign from God; salvation to those who enter by the narrow gate, judgement to those who choose the other gate, to their destruction; salvation to those who build their lives on the rock, judgement and destruction to those who wantonly choose to build otherwise. Alone and un-aided by any human effort, this obedient child will accomplish, in total loneliness, the ultimate and climatic salvation event, paling into insignificance both the Exodus and the Assyrian deliverances.
This is not to deny Predictive prophesy.
Continuing in Chapter 2 of Matthew, we almost immediately have a clear case of Predictive prophesy. God, through the prophet Micah, foretold that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, the city of David, and now, the prediction has come true. (Matthew 2 v6 = Micah 5 v2-4). Clearly predictive! But...
Only a few verses later in Matthew, we come across perhaps the clearest case of Repetitive prophesy. After Joseph and Mary are instructed to return from Egypt to Judah with the child Jesus, Matthew adds this comment-:
And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘Out of Egypt I called my son’. (Matthew 2 vv14-15)
Again, if we look at the Old Testament context, in Hosea 11 vv1-2, this out of Egypt prophesy has nothing directly to do with the incident recorded in Matthew:
“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.
But the more they were called, the more they went away from me.
The sacrificed the Baals and they burned incense to images”. (Hosea 11 vv1-2 NIV)
God is “repeating the dose”. Once, long ago, God brought a “son” out of Egypt- this son was the nation of Israel, under the leadership of Moses. This son proved to be rebellious and recalcitrant, and with chronic regularity ignored God’s First Commandment. Finally this son had to be severely corrected by the Exile in Babylon.
Now God “repeats the dose”- he brings another Son, out of Egypt, a son who will be very different.
He will obey his Father, even to death upon the cross.