Relevant Bible Verses: Isaiah 7
Leading Question: How does the Lord work with those who are disobedient?
Our lesson this week focuses on Isaiah 7, an event that takes place entirely during the reign of Ahaz, the only truly “bad” king of the four under who Isaiah ministered. According to the narrative in 2 Kings 16, Ahaz was far from the ideal. “He even made his son pass through fire” (16:3). Furthermore he made significant changes in the temple and worship services because of altar he had seen in Damascus when he went there to meet Tiglath-pileser, the Assyrian king.
Would the Lord work with such a king? The answer is a resounding yes. Two of the small-time kings – from Israel and Aram – had made an alliance to fight against Assyria. When Ahaz refused to join them, they planned to invade Judah and put the “son of Tabeel” on the throne, thus eliminating the house of David! It was a serious threat: “the heart of Ahaz and the heart of the people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind” (Isa. 7:2).
Question: God was clearly willing to work directly with the wicked king Ahaz. Is that still the case today?
The Prophet’s Two Sons
Isaiah’s wife bore him two sons whose names were significant signs for the king Ahaz. The first was named Shear-Jashub – “a remnant shall return” and became significant for the king when Isaiah went to meet Ahaz and took his son with him (Isa. 7:3).
Question: In what way was “a remnant shall return” a two-edged sword for Ahaz?
Comment: The context loads the name with remarkable ambivalence for Ahaz. The official study guide puts it this way:
“Ahaz would be startled when Isaiah greeted him and introduced his son, named “A Remnant Shall Return.” Remnant of whom? Shall return from what? Because the boy’s father was a prophet, the name sounded like an ominous message from God about people going into captivity. Or was it about returning to God in the sense of repenting (the verb “return” also carries the meaning of repentance)? The message from God to Ahaz was: It means what you make it mean! Turn from your sins or go into captivity, and from captivity a remnant will return. The decision is yours.”
Question: Given the king’s evil character, how could one expect such an appeal to work?
The second son, Maher-shalal-hash-baz – “the spoil speeds, the prey hastens” – (8:1-4) was held up to Ahaz as a more ominous sign, one that foreshadowed the Assyrian advance.
Question: How can God justify a second sign to wicked King Ahaz? This isn’t quite in the same league with Jesus 70 times 7 standard for forgiveness, but is it moving in that direction?”
The promise in 7:14 has triggered endless debates. Let’s look at the verse in the KJV and in the NRSV. Then we can address the crucial issues:
“Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” (KJV)
“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” (NRSV)
Does the shift from “virgin” to “young woman” undermine the virgin birth narrative in Matthew 1:23: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.” (NRSV)?
Comment: When the RSV (followed by the NRSV) used the phrase “young woman” in Isaiah, a great outcry went up from devout conservatives who saw the change as an attack on the virgin birth. It is worth noting, however, that however one might deal with Isaiah 7:14, no modern translation has attempted to translate Matthew 1:23 using the word “young woman.” That is because the context of Matthew 1:23 clearly demands “virgin.” In short, in Matthew, the teaching of the virgin birth is clear and unambiguous. It is Isaiah 7:14 that has raised the question.
- Does the virgin birth depend on the use of the “right” word in Isaiah 7:14?
- Since, in Isaiah, the birth was to be a sign to Ahaz, not just for Jesus’ day some 700 years later, would it matter whether the child’s mother was a virgin or not?
- Does a word have to have the same meaning in each passage that it appears? Can it have different meanings and different applications?
An excellent discussion of Isaiah 7:14 is found in Problems in Bible Translations, pp 151-169, a book published in 1953 by the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. Problems lists four primary approaches to Isaiah 7:14: “(1) Isaiah 7:14 constituted no true prophecy of events either in Isaiah’s time or in the time of Christ. (2) It was fulfilled in some unknown manner during the days of Isaiah, and not otherwise. (3) It pointed forward exclusively to the birth of Jesus. (4) It was a dual prophecy, applicable both to the days of Isaiah and to the birth of the Messiah” (Problems, 151).
At the end of the article, the editors expand slightly on their choice of #4 above: “The prophecy of 7:14, thus viewed, is a dual prophecy having an immediate and primary application to the days of Isaiah, and a secondary and later, but nevertheless a meaningful and vital, application to the birth of the Messiah” (Methods, 169).
Question: Can we identify some of the crosscurrents that tend to push people toward the extremes? The first two suggestions are from the “liberal” end of the spectrum; the third one is a typical evangelical/fundamentalist. The last one is a remarkably balanced view which has been articulated by Seventh-day Adventists, and allows the full context of the Old Testament and the New Testament to be confirmed.