…Conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the virgin Mary….
—The Apostles’ Creed (6th Century)
With War at Hand
Israel and Syria had been at each other’s throats for decades. But when a powerful and aggressive empire rose to the north, they put aside their differences and signed a mutual defense pact. The Assyrian Empire was a war machine without rival. No single nation could stand against it. So Israel and Syrian decided to form a coalition of Palestinian states for their own protection. They wanted to include Judah.
But Ahaz, Judah’s new king, had already fought Israel and Syria and had lost to both—badly (2 Kings 16; 2 Chron. 28). To him, Assyria actually looked like a better ally. The kings of Israel and Syria knew this, so they decided to replace him with someone they could trust. When Ahaz and his court received news of this confederacy, they were afraid; their hearts were moved “as the trees of the wood are moved with the wind” (Isa. 7:4). And then God intervened.
With war at hand, Ahaz went out to inspect the city’s water supply. He came to “the end of the conduit of the upper pool,” and there the prophet Isaiah met him with a message from God. Isaiah spoke encouragement: Don’t worry about these northern kings or their plans to set up a puppet ruler in Judah. Their purposes won’t stand. God will see to it. In fact, within sixty-five years, Israel will no longer be a nation (Isa. 7:4-9).
But Isaiah also spoke a warning to Ahaz and to all Israel: “If you won’t believe, surely you won’t be established” (v. 9). There were no automatic guarantees of safety for the southern kingdom or for the Davidic line. God required faith. Nonetheless, Isaiah made an amazing offer. He told Ahaz to ask for a sign from God: “Ask it either in the depth or in the height above” (v. 11). Ahaz could pick a sign—any sign!
But Ahaz wasn’t interested. He dismissed the prophet’s offer with contemptuous hypocrisy: “I will not ask, neither will I tempt Yahweh” (v. 12). Ahaz already had his schemes in place, and he wanted no outside interference, not even from God.
With righteous indignation, Isaiah turned on the young king: “Hear now, O house of David! Is it a small thing for you to weary men, but will you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign… ” (v. 13).
The Prophetic Sign
Through his unbelief, Ahaz had forfeited any claim on the kind of sign God would give. And so Isaiah pointed forward to a sign Ahaz wouldn’t appreciate at all: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (v. 14).
There are two parts to this sign. The first is the virgin conception and birth of a child. The second is the name and nature of that child: He would be Immanuel, “God with us.”
The verb forms Isaiah uses make the action immediate. With prophetic sight, Isaiah sees “the virgin,” a specific virgin, conceiving, bearing a son, and naming him Immanuel. This prophecy is so clear and natural in its language that unbelievers of all stripes have felt obligated to attack it. Many have argued that the Hebrew word rendered “virgin” (almah) really means nothing more than “young woman.” Others, appealing to the historical context, have argued that a birth hundreds of years in the future couldn’t possibly have been a relevant sign for Ahaz and his kingdom.
A Quick Word Study
Could Isaiah have been clearer? There is another Hebrew word that is usually translated “virgin”: bethulah. But twice in Scripture “bethulah” clearly refers to a married woman (Deut. 22:19; Joel 1:11). On the other hand, Song of Solomon uses almah twice to mean “virgin” (Cant. 1:3; 6:8). Scripture calls both Rebekah and Miriam almah; both were virgins at the time (Gen. 24:43; Ex. 2:8). And we should also take the “maid” of Proverbs 30:19 to be a virgin, whose way with her suitor stands in stark contrast to the way of the adulterous woman of v. 20. The remaining Old Testament uses of almah don’t tell us clearly whether the damsels in question are virgins or not, but their association with the worship of Yahweh implies that they are at least chaste (Ps. 68:25; 1 Chron. 15:20; cf. the title of Ps. 46:1).
The witness of the Septuagint is clear. The Jewish scholars who translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek chose the word parthenos for Isaiah 7:14. But parthenos means “virgin.” Since we are talking about a Jewish translation that predates the Christian era, there can be no question of Christian bias.
But most important of all is the witness of the New Testament. When the apostle Matthew quotes Isaiah 7:14, he follows the Septuagint. He calls Mary a virgin, a parthenos.
Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us (Matt. 1:22-23).
The apostles didn’t hesitate to produce their own translation from the original Hebrew when they felt the Septuagint was inaccurate. At times they even expanded on what the Hebrew originally said in order to drive home a theological point. Yet Matthew says that Isaiah prophesied a virgin (parthenos) conception and birth. And he wrote his gospel under divine inspiration. That is, he spoke authoritatively for God.
The Relevance of the Sign
But what about the historical context? How could the virgin birth of the Messiah, something still hundreds of years in the future, have any relevance for Ahaz? How could such a sign speak to the impending war? or to Ahaz’s plan to ally himself with Assyria?
The answer actually isn’t difficult either, and it harmonizes exactly with the whole of God’s redemptive revelation. The English poet Milton wrote, “God doth not need/Either man’s work or his own gifts.” Despite God’s promises, God didn’t actually need the house of David. Ahaz, too, wasn’t necessary to God’s plan of redemption. God could bypass the whole kingly line and still bring forth the Messiah from the seed of David. And in the end, He did just that. For Mary, Jesus’ mother, was a lineal descendant of king David through his son Nathan (Luke 1). But Joseph, who was a lineal descendant of David through Solomon and actually stood in the kingly line (Matt. 1), wasn’t Jesus’ father. He passed on to his adopted Son the title to the throne, but not a single drop of blood.
The Gospel of the Virgin Birth
The pagan world sometimes spoke of virgin births. The word “virgin” was often more honorific than accurate. But when true virginity was in view, the source of the conception was understood to be Nature. For pagans, Nature was alive with power and potential. Given enough time, its spontaneous generation of life was only natural. We see the same sort of religious faith today in those who cling irrationally to theory of evolution of life out of lifeless matter.
The biblical doctrine of the virgin birth of Christ points in exactly the opposite direction. This is because the virgin birth of Christ was indeed a miracle. The eternal Son of God took to Himself a true human nature in the womb of the virgin Mary through the operation of the Holy Spirit. He became, most literally, Immanuel, “God with us.” Hindson writes:
The dual concepts of incarnation and the virgin birth are actually interdependent upon each other. One cannot exist without the other, so that a virgin birth implies an act of God, and the incarnation likewise most naturally necessitates a virgin birth to bring forth the Eternal into the temporal confines of man (45).
The virgin birth means that humanity is spiritually barren, wholly dead in trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1, 5). Fallen man needs regeneration, a second birth (Titus 3:5-7; John 3:3-8), but he can’t regenerate himself. He can’t raise himself to spiritual life by his own volition or moral energies. Fallen man needs salvation from outside humanity, from outside Nature and history. He needs the salvation of God.
This is the real message of Christmas. Our world lay in sin and darkness, incapable of generating a single spark of life or light. And so God came down, living Light in human flesh, a spotless Lamb destined for sacrifice and resurrection. He came to save His people from His sins (Matt. 1:21). This is the true comfort of the gospel.
©2012 Off the Grid News
For Further Reading:
Edward Hindson, Isaiah’s Immanuel: A Sign of His Time or the Sign of the Ages (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1979).
Joseph Addison Alexander, The Prophecies of Isaiah (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1953 [1846-47].
Edward J. Young, The Book of Isaiah (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1965).
J. Gresham Machen, The Virgin Birth of Christ (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1930).