“Therefore Yahweh Himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14)
When you hear this verse, who do you think of? Jesus, of course. Jesus is Immanuel. Everyone knows this, which is why we stand around singing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” at Christmastime. And yet in real life, trying to say that Jesus has anything to do with this Immanuel prophecy is utterly absurd. Immanuel was a God given nickname for another little boy whose legal name was Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz. You’ve never heard of that child, have you? This is how sad things have gotten in the Church today, for there’s nothing vague about the fact that the Immanuel prophecy was fulfilled in the lifetime of the prophet Isaiah, who lived about 700 years before the birth of Christ. Yahweh Himself confirms that Immanuel and little Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz are the same person, and the original context of this prophecy doesn’t leave any room whatsoever for a Messianic association.
So if the fulfillment of this prophecy is so clear in the book of Isaiah, and if this prophecy never had anything to do with Christ, why do we all think it does? Because we’ve all taken Matthew’s word for it. Matthew was one of our Gospel writers and his blatant misapplication of Old Testament passages is as bad as the apostle Paul’s, only as a tax collector, Matthew has the excuse of not knowing better. As a Pharisee, Paul would have received extensive training in the Old Testament, so when he slices and dices verses to make them say whatever he wants, it’s reasonable to assume he is intentionally deceiving us. Matthew was probably bumbling around out of ignorance, so we can cut him more slack, but what’s our excuse? Why are we just believing whatever the New Testament writers tell us without looking things up for ourselves? These days, cross checking references to the Old Testament is a breeze with all of those handy notes we’re given in the margins of our Bibles. When we look up the Immanuel prophecy that Matthew quotes in his Gospel, we quickly learn that this prophecy had nothing to do with Christ. It’s little Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz that we should all be thinking of whenever we hear the name “Immanuel”. Now let’s learn why.
To tell the Immanuel story right, we need to start in Isaiah 7. At this point in her history, the nation of Israel is divided into two kingdoms: Israel in the north and Judah in the south. Sometimes the two Jewish rulers of these kingdoms get along with each other, and sometimes they don’t. Right now they don’t. King Ahaz (A-has) rules in the south, and King Pekah (PEE-kah) rules in the north. Pekah hates Ahaz and he’s cooking up plans to sack Jerusalem and seize all of Judah for himself. For this plan to work, Pekah will need to find some extra muscle. Aram (aka Syria) is Pekah’s northern neighbor, and even though Aram and Israel have a long history of warring with each other, Pekah has recently formed an alliance with King Rezin of Aram so that they can both join forces against Judah.
The prophet Isaiah lives in the southern kingdom of Judah where Ahaz reigns. Having just learned about Pekah and Rezin joining forces against him, Ahaz is scared out of his wits. There’s no way that Ahaz’s small army can win against the death machine that is speeding towards them from the north. Israel’s capital city of Jerusalem is close to Judah’s northern border. It won’t take Rezin and Pekah long to reach it, and once Jerusalem falls under siege, Ahaz knows his days are numbered. All of the people living in Judah are terrified. It’s now that Yahweh sends His prophet Isaiah to go and speak to the king.
The news had come to the royal court of Judah: “Aram is allied with Israel against us!” So the hearts of the king and his people trembled with fear, like trees shaking in a storm.
Then Yahweh said to Isaiah, “Take your son Shear-jashub and go out to meet King Ahaz. You will find him at the end of the aqueduct that feeds water into the upper pool, near the road leading to the field where cloth is washed. Tell him to stop worrying. Tell him he doesn’t need to fear the fierce anger of those two burned-out embers, King Rezin of Aram and Pekah son of Remaliah. Yes, the kings of Aram and Israel are plotting against him, saying, ‘We will attack Judah and capture it for ourselves. Then we will install the son of Tabeel as Judah’s king.’ But this is what the Sovereign Yahweh says:
“This invasion will never happen; it will never take place; for Aram is no stronger than its capital, Damascus, and Damascus is no stronger than its king, Rezin. As for Israel, within sixty-five years it will be crushed and completely destroyed. Israel is no stronger than its capital, Samaria, and Samaria is no stronger than its king, Pekah son of Remaliah. If you do not stand firm in your faith, Ahaz, then you will not stand at all.’” (Isa. 7:2-9)
Notice how Yahweh predicts that in less than 65 years, Israel (also called Ephraim in some versions) will be a shattered nation, which means she’ll have too many problems of her own to come against anyone. This prophecy will come true in Isaiah’s lifetime when Assyria defeats the northern kingdom of Israel and drags her people off into captivity in 722 BC (see Know Your Bible Lesson 23: The Fall of Samaria).
Now Isaiah is a father at this point, but when career prophets like Isaiah and Hosea have kids, those kids are often given strange names that are intended to remind people of Yahweh’s messages. Isaiah’s son Shear-Jashub’s name means “a remnant shall return”. At this point, Yahweh has prophesied that one day He’ll scatter all the Jews in both Judah and Israel to foreign lands as an act of Divine discipline. But He’s also promised that some time later, He’ll bring some of the exiled Jews back to their homeland and richly bless them. Shear-Jashub is a walking reminder of that hope.
So what is the bottom line of Yahweh’s message to Ahaz? He’s told the king to calm down and stop worrying because Israel and Aram will never succeed in their planned invasion. Well, promises like this can sound too good to be true and be too hard to absorb when you’re really scared. God knows that Ahaz is still very upset, so He makes a very generous offer. He will back His promises up with a miraculous sign—anything that Ahaz wants. The sky’s the limit.
“Ask Yahweh your God for a sign of confirmation, Ahaz. Make it as difficult as you want—as high as heaven or as deep as the place of the dead.”
But the king refused. “No,” he said, “I will not test Yahweh like that.”
Then Isaiah said, “Listen well, you royal family of David! Isn’t it enough to exhaust human patience? Must you exhaust the patience of my God as well?” (Isa. 7:11-13)
Ahaz’s claim to not want to test God sounds reverent at first glance, but Isaiah’s furious reaction tells us that something isn’t right in Ahaz’s heart. We learn in 2 Kings 16 and 2 Chronicles 28 that Ahaz is actually a zealous idol worshiper. He has been massively insulting Yahweh by bowing down to every idol he can get his hands on, yet now he pretends to suddenly care about respecting God. It’s far more likely that he doesn’t want a sign because he has no faith in Yahweh, therefore a sign wouldn’t mean anything to him.
Well, Yahweh isn’t going to take no for an answer. After all, Ahaz isn’t the only one freaking out. All of Judah is worried as well, and a lot of people are anxiously tracking Isaiah’s every move, knowing that he is a prophet of Yahweh. Predicting the fall of Israel and Aram is a perfect way for Yahweh to glorify Himself and He now wants to memorialize this prophecy so that everyone won’t forget what He said. If Ahaz won’t choose a sign, Yahweh will choose one Himself.
Then Isaiah said, “All right then, Yahweh Himself will give you the sign. Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel (which means ‘God is with us’). By the time this child is old enough to choose what is right and reject what is wrong, he will be eating yogurt and honey. For before the child is that old, the lands of the two kings you fear so much will both be deserted.
Then Yahweh will bring things on you, your nation, and your family unlike anything since Israel broke away from Judah. He will bring the king of Assyria upon you!” (Isa. 7:14-17)
What’s interesting about this passage is that the Hebrew term that’s translated virgin here simply means a young woman. By the time we get done with this lesson, you’ll understand why virgin isn’t a very good translation of this word, because the woman God is talking about here is actually Isaiah’s wife, who is probably not a virgin. So why do scholars translate it virgin, and thus open the door for this passage to be mistaken as a reference to Mary? There are two reasons. One is Matthew’s absurd claim that this passage is referring to Jesus. Since Mary was both young and a virgin, either translation of this word could apply to her. Even if the text Matthew was working off of had said “a young woman shall conceive”, he would still have associated the passage with Jesus because Matthew was clearly fixating on the fact that Immanuel means “God with us”. Jesus is God. On earth, He was clearly “God with us,” therefore Matthew sees Jesus as Immanuel. But of course Matthew is being absurd. Yes, Immanuel does mean “God with us”, but Yahweh is the God that is being referred to, not Jesus. Immanuel is going to be a sign that Yahweh is going to side with Judah against her enemies in this very specific military crisis. If Matthew had read the entire Immanuel account in Isaiah instead of just yanking one line totally out of context, he would have seen how utterly foolish he was being to say that Jesus’ birth had anything to do with Immanuel. Jesus was not a sign that Yahweh would defend Judah from her enemies. Immanuel was.
This isn’t the only time you’ll find an Old Testament passage being badly translated as a conscious effort to try and support some absurd claim being made by New Testament authors. Today there are still a few English translations of the Bible that capitalize pronouns for God as a way of expressing reverence. In such versions, you’ll find certain Psalms having pronouns capitalized in order to indicate that those psalms are referring to Christ, when in reality they aren’t referring to Christ at all. In these cases, it’s usually the absurd claims of the apostle Paul that scholars are trying to support by forcing certain psalms to appear Messianic. Paul is a notorious Scripture abuser and we find him yanking statements out of context all the time.
Now the Hebrew word being translated “virgin” in Isaiah 7:14 is pronounced almah (al-maw), and it only shows up six other times in the Old Testament. Anytime a word is used this infrequently, it’s impossible to feel like you have a good understanding of it. Let’s remember that when we study Old Testament manuscripts, we’re working with a version of Hebrew that is thousands of years old. Just as no modern day English speaker goes around saying “thee” and “thou”, modern day speakers of Hebrew don’t use the same Hebrew that we find in ancient biblical manuscripts. This is why examining context is such a critical part of language translation, for the only way we can feel certain about the definition of a word like almah is by examining how it is being used in sentences. When we compare the seven times almah is used in the Old Testament, there are some obvious patterns. Almah is clearly a reference to a woman. But what kind of woman? Definitely not an old one. It seems there is a clear pattern of almah being used to describe women who are fairly young in age, and in several cases, we know for certain that the young women being referred to are not married, which in Jewish culture would mean they are virgins. Isaac’s bride Rebekah is referred to as an almah in Genesis 24:43. Moses’ sister is called an almah in Exodus 2:8. The sister’s name isn’t given, so we don’t know how old she is or what her marital status is. In Psalm 68:25, we find a general reference to a group of almahs playing tambourines. That doesn’t help us much. Then in the lusty Song of Songs, we find two references to almahs. Since the focus of that book is raging sexual lust, it’s fair to assume the almahs there were young, unmarried babes. But then we come to Isaiah’s almah, who we’re about to learn is a prophetess that Isaiah sleeps with. Since Isaiah is a moral fellow who is very dedicated to Yahweh, it’s fair to assume that this almah is his wife–likely his young wife. It was not at all unusual for there to be large difference in age between Jewish men and their wives, so Isaiah’s wife can easily be much younger than him. There’s no reference to how long they’ve been married, nor do we know that this prophetess is the mother of Shear-Jashub. Perhaps Isaiah’s first wife died and he’s taken another. We simply have no idea. But if this almah is Isaiah’s wife, then she certainly isn’t a virgin, and that means we shouldn’t be assuming virginity in our translation of almah in Isaiah 7:14. A more responsible interpretation of this passage would be:
“Therefore Yahweh Himself will give you a sign: The young woman will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14)
Notice that God does not say there will be anything supernatural about how this child is conceived. There’s not even a hint about God miraculously impregnating this young woman. Today we just project these meanings onto this passage because we like to idolize all biblical writers as flawless. It’s our incessant idolatry that has turned us into such fools when it comes to applying Scripture. If we stop with this rot about every word in the Bible being inerrant and God-breathed, we can get back to truth. The truth is that all Yahweh has said is that a young woman will have a son. That son will be called Immanuel. That son will serve as a timeline for when Yahweh’s prophecy about trashing Israel and Aram will be fulfilled. Yahweh says that when the kid is still very young, this current military crisis will be resolved. Indeed it was. Right now it’s 734 BC. By 732 BC both Aram and Israel were defeated by Assyria–an expanding empire which is looming to the north of Aram and will soon rule over this entire region.
So then, if baby Immanuel is to serve as a prophetic sign of events that are going to happen two years from now, that boy needs to hurry up and be born. But first, Yahweh wants to finish talking about His plans to trash Judah. After all, Ahaz and his citizens are idolatrous little rebels who have been spitting in God’s face for quite some time. Yahweh’s going to save them from the hands of Israel and Aram, but then He’s going to hand them over to get royally spanked by Egypt and Assyria.
“In that day Yahweh will whistle for the army of southern Egypt and for the army of Assyria. They will swarm around you like flies and bees. They will come in vast hordes and settle in the fertile areas and also in the desolate valleys, caves, and thorny places. In that day Yahweh will hire a “razor” from beyond the Euphrates River—the king of Assyria—and he will cut off the hair of your head, the hair of your feet, and all of the beard.” (Isa. 7:18-20)
The hair of the feet is a Hebrew euphemism for pubic hair. Since no one wants to face the fact that Yahweh is being this vulgar, today most English translators intentionally soften this passage by saying “hair of the legs”. Well, no, Yahweh isn’t talking about leg shaving. He’s talking about total degradation as ruthless invaders storm into Judah, strip people, manhandle their genitals, and shave off their body hair. When we play these kinds of games with the text, we aren’t doing ourselves any favors. When we test God’s patience for too long, He retaliates with some very shocking and brutal forms of discipline.
Yahweh now goes on to describe the Jews in Judah being dragged off as captives until only a handful are left. With so few people left to work the land, the farmlands become overrun with thorny weeds and domesticated animals run wild. Then we come to Chapter 8 where Yahweh returns to the subject of Immanuel being born. God is going to maximize this kid’s symbolic power by giving him two names. The positive “God is with us” Immanuel name will be secondary to the child’s legal name. The legal name will be much longer.
Then Yahweh said to me, “Make a large signboard and clearly write this name on it: Maher-shalal-hash-baz.” I asked Uriah the priest and Zechariah son of Jeberekiah, both known as honest men, to witness my doing this.
Then I slept with the prophetess, and she became pregnant and gave birth to a son. And Yahweh said, “Call him Maher-shalal-hash-baz. For before this child is old enough to say ‘Papa’ or ‘Mama,’ the king of Assyria will carry away both the abundance of Damascus and the riches of Samaria.” (Isa. 8:1-4)
Little Maher’s long name means “quick to the plunder” or “swift to the spoil”—this is a reference to Assyria’s coming attack on Israel and Aram–the two nations currently threatening Judah. Naturally Judah will be cheering when this happens. But then they’ll be screaming when the mighty Assyrian army comes after them next. Yahweh now launches into an angry speech about why He is going to send Assyria against Judah: because Judah has been such a little rat.
Then Yahweh spoke to me again and said, “My care for the people of Judah is like the gently flowing waters of Shiloah, but they have rejected it. They are rejoicing over what will happen to King Rezin and King Pekah. Therefore, Yahweh will overwhelm them with a mighty flood from the Euphrates River—the king of Assyria and all his glory. This flood will overflow all its channels and sweep into Judah until it is chin deep. It will spread its wings, submerging your land from one end to the other, O Immanuel.” (Isa. 8:5-8)
Notice how Yahweh ends this speech by directly addressing baby Immanuel, aka baby Maher-shalal-hash-baz who at this point is just a young little fellow who is totally oblivious to his own significance as a sign to Judah of the coming salvation and doom. It is the fact that Yahweh speaks directly to Immanuel which leaves no doubt in our minds that the Immanuel prophecy is a done deal. It’s been fulfilled in baby Maher, and it has nothing to do with baby Jesus. So when we sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” we’re being ridiculous. We don’t need baby Maher-shalal-hash-baz to come to us, and that’s who the real Immanuel was. Matthew was utterly absurd to suggest this passage had anything to do with a coming Messiah. And as usual, when we buy into the ridiculous doctrine of the Trinity, we end up insulting Yahweh by acting like references to Him were really references to Christ. Yahweh is the God who was with the people of Judah. Immanuel is a reference to Yahweh and only Yahweh.
Now we know nothing about the real Immanuel’s life, nor does it matter. His birth was prophesied by Yahweh, and he served as an important monument for the people of his day. As the prophet Isaiah said:
“I am here, and with me are the children Yahweh has given me. We are signs and proofs for the people of Israel from Yahweh Almighty, who lives on Mount Zion.” (Isa. 8:18)