Announcing the Messiah

We have so far assumed that the Seed of the Woman who would crush the head of the Serpent (Genesis 3:15), thus redeeming humanity from sin, would be the same Person as the Ruler from the tribe of Judah to whom belongs the obedience of the nations (Genesis 49:10). And we have been referring to Him as the Messiah (or Christ).

The term “Messiah” means in Hebrew, the “Anointed One,” and it is from its Greek equivalent that the term “Christ” is derived. Though originally the Hebrew term refers “primarily to someone anointed by Yahweh [the LORD] into a specific role as a prophet, priest or (especially) king, [it] is also applied more widely to cover a hoped for redeemer figure who emerges in the OT and whom Christians affirm finds fulfillment in Jesus” (Firth 2012: 537).

What then is the basis of the assumption, given that the Seed fulfills a spiritual goal while the Ruler plays a political role? And the implication of the assumption is far-reaching: The Messiah would then be both Lord and Savior, whose salvation for humanity would be both spiritual and political, which naturally extends to the social and the economic as well.

In 735 BC King Ahaz of the Southern Kingdom of Judah was tempted to trust in Assyria instead of God when he faced a serious threat from the Northern Kingdom of Israel and Syria, the kingdom north of Israel (Isaiah 7:1-2; cf. 2 Kings 16:5-9). God assured Ahaz through Isaiah that the evil plan of the two kingdoms he feared “shall not stand nor shall it come to pass” (Isaiah 7:7). God then commanded Ahaz to trust in Him, offering to give him a sign, whatsoever sign of his choice, to help him believe. When Ahaz refused the offer, God gave to the house of David a sign of His own expressed through the well-known Immanuel prophecy (see Isaiah 7:14-16).

This prophecy concerns a boy about to be born, whose name is to be called Immanuel (which means in Hebrew, “God with us”). The Gospel of Matthew identifies this boy with Jesus, born of the virgin Mary (1:23). We will not dispute here that the Hebrew word for the woman in Isaiah 7:14 does not actually mean a virgin but a young (marriageable) woman who is not yet married (cf. Young 1965: 287-89). However, in that historical context such a woman was most likely, though not necessarily, a virgin. And since she turned out to be the virgin Mary, in retrospect, it is appropriate to translate the word as virgin.

This assumes that, even in its original context, the prophecy was already referring to Jesus, as is traditionally understood by the Church. However there have been objections raised by even Christian scholars today that in its original context the prophecy could not be referring to Jesus, but to a boy to be born in Ahaz’s time. Some claim he was Maher-shalal-hash-baz, Isaiah’s son in Isaiah 8, others believe he was Hezekiah, Ahaz’s son who succeeded him as king of Judah.

The traditional understanding, still held by many Christians, but in recent years by relatively few Christian scholars, must be defended. For in light of the thematic unity and narrative flow of Isaiah 7-12, the boy yet to be born in Isaiah 7:14 is also the son prophetically announced to have been born in Isaiah 9:6 (cf. Motyer 1993: 86), and is the man presented in Isaiah 11:1-5 as one who would be anointed by the Spirit of God (cf. Isaiah 61:1). So if in the original context the boy in Isaiah 7:14 cannot be Jesus, then the son in Isaiah 9:6 also cannot be Jesus.

And we will not be taking Scripture seriously if we deny that, even in its original context, the son in Isaiah 9:6 has to be Jesus. For the complex “name” that he is called includes “Mighty God” and “Everlasting Father,” and according to Isaiah 9:7 there will be no end to the increase of the government that rests on his shoulder and to peace, as he reigns on the throne of David to establish and uphold his kingdom with justice and righteousness from then on and forevermore. This cannot be referring to anyone who is merely a human being.

Naturally scholars who do not accept the New Testament teaching that Jesus is the incarnation of God, will find ways to avoid this plain reading of the Hebrew text (for a discussion see Brown 2000: 44-47). Again it is a matter of one’s presupposed beliefs.

Hence the boy to be born in Isaiah 7:14 has to be, first of all, a descendant of David who would eventually become king (cf. Isaiah 8:8, which implies that Immanuel has to be a Davidic king). This rules out Maher-shalal-hash-baz. And, more importantly, this Davidic king has to be more than human, thus ruling out also Hezekiah, as well as anyone other than Jesus. This then explains why this Davidic king would be supernaturally conceived and born of a virgin and his “name” would be called Immanuel, “God with us.”

Further it implies that, like the complex name in Isaiah 9:6 the name “God with us” refers to who the boy really is, and not how he is actually called. So there is no contradiction when the angel Gabriel told the virgin Mary to name her son “Jesus,” to whom God would give the throne of His father David, and that His kingdom would have no end (Luke 1:32-33), just as Isaiah 9:7 predicted.

Why then do Christian scholars who accept the truthfulness of Scripture and believe in predictive prophecy object to the traditional Christian understanding that, even in its original context, Isaiah 7:14 was primarily referring to Jesus? And then argue instead that Jesus is only a secondary fulfillment of the prophecy?

The most common objection raised is that if the prophecy originally referred to Jesus, who was born more than 700 years later, how could it be a sign relevant to Ahaz? First of all, the text explicitly says it was a sign given “to you” (plural), the house of David, which would include Ahaz, his immediate, as well as future, descendants. So its relevance transcends the time of Ahaz and his generation. Even then, as we will now see, the sign was relevant to Ahaz and his immediate descendants.

For this we turn to the most serious objection raised: Isaiah 7:16 specifically says, before the boy “knows to refuse the evil and choose the good,” that is, before the age of moral discrimination, “about age thirteen” (Walton, Matthews & Chavalas 2000: 593), the land of the kings of Syria and Israel will be forsaken (that is, the respective kingdoms will have collapsed and its population exiled). This means that the boy in Isaiah 7:14, still in his mother’s womb at the time of the prophecy, had to be born at least 13 years before both these separate events have happened. This seems to create an insurmountable problem for identifying Immanuel with Jesus.

First of all, not only the wording but also the grammar of Isaiah 7:14 are similar to that of Genesis 16:11, where the “Angel of the LORD” said to (the already pregnant) Hagar, “Behold, you are with child, And you shall bear a son, And you shall call his name Ishmael.” This means, unless the context indicates otherwise (as in the case of Judges 13:3), Isaiah 7:14 is to be read in the present tense: “The virgin is with child, and not: becomes with child” (Hengstenberg 1956: 47). Hence, assuming she was already nine months pregnant, within 13 years from the time of prophecy (735 BC), Israel and Syria would be forsaken.

The good news is that Syria fell under the Assyrians, and the people exiled, in 732 BC (3 years later), followed by Israel in 722 BC (13 years later), thus accurately fulfilling the prophecy. The bad news is that, if the woman was already nine months pregnant in 735 BC, how could she be the virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus, and not a woman who existed then?

We have already established that, in view of Isaiah 9:6-7, even in its original context, Immanuel has to be identified with Jesus. All we need to do now is find a plausible, not necessarily proven, explanation how Isaiah could be referring to Mary as though she already existed then.

The great Old Testament scholar E. W. Hengstenberg (1956: 44) has long provided such an explanation. He argued that “the Virgin is present to the inward perception of the Prophet—equivalent to ‘the virgin there’.” This makes sense because God spoke to the prophets in dreams and visions. In other words, Isaiah saw in a vision a pregnant woman about to give birth, who later turned out to be the virgin Mary (cf. Young 1965: 286-87,289,293-94). So when he said, “Behold! the virgin is with child” he was referring to an unknown young and unmarried woman whom he saw (though only) in his vision (Young 1965: 287; cf. Hengstenberg 1956: 44).

Whether Isaiah realized that she was actually a woman from the future is irrelevant. As far as his prophecy was concerned, he was referring to her as though she existed then, and she was about to give birth to a son. So as far as the prophecy is concerned, Isaiah was referring to a baby going to be born in his own time, and used his impending birth as a point of reference as to when Syria and Israel would be forsaken.

To appreciate what Isaiah was saying to the house of David, we need to imagine ourselves there with them in 735 BC hearing these prophetic words: “Look! there is a young and unmarried pregnant woman about to give birth to a son…. Before the boy turns thirteen, the lands of the two kings Ahaz feared will be forsaken.” In other words, Isaiah was actually saying, “Look! within 13 years from now the kingdoms of Syria and Israel would no longer exist.” This then was the sign given to the house of David.

This is the only interpretation of Isaiah 7:14-16 that satisfies the two conditions: Immanuel had to be more than human, and within thirteen years from his birth, Syria and Israel would be forsaken. And the only objection raised is that it requires us to accept the supposition that Isaiah did indeed speak as though the woman he saw in his vision already existed then (see Alexander 1992: 166-73, especially 172). But, “who are we to set limits upon the categories and devices which the prophet might employ?” (Young 1965: 294). This response is most appropriate here because we only need a plausible, not proven, theory to explain how Isaiah 7:14 could be referring to Mary as though she existed then.

What then was the purpose of this sign to the house of David? Immediately following the utterance of the Immanuel prophecy Isaiah predicted a massive Assyrian invasion of Judah (Isaiah 7:17-19), which later turned out to be the Assyrian invasion under Sennacherib in 701 BC during the reign of Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:13-19:36; Isaiah 36-37). So when Syria and Israel fell within 13 years, Judah could be certain that this invasion was coming. In its context the prediction of a massive Assyrian invasion served as a devastating rebuke to Ahaz for seeking to trust in Assyria instead of God. So the sign to authenticate this prediction cannot be more relevant to Ahaz and his descendants.

Following the Immanuel prophecy and the prediction of the Assyrian invasion of Judah, Isaiah gave another prophecy concerning Syria and Israel. This time it involves his own wife giving birth to his son Maher-shalal-hash-baz (which means in Hebrew, “swift is the plunder, speedy is the prey” (Isaiah 8:3). According to this prophecy, “before the boy knows to cry out ‘My father’ or ‘My mother,’ the wealth of Damascus (capital of Syria) and the spoil of Samaria (capital of Israel) will be carried away before the king of Assyria” (Isaiah 8:4).

Since a child learns to call his parents within one to two years of age, both these events must happen within two years. So unlike the previous prophecy it could not be referring to the forsaking of both Syria (732 BC) and Israel (722 BC), as this pair of events happened ten years apart.

What then is this second prophecy about? It explicitly says that it was about the taking of wealth and spoil from Syria and Israel to Assyria, which may or may not coincide with the collapse of the respective kingdoms. Syria fell in 732 BC to the Assyrians, and its wealth would naturally be taken to Assyria. Before that, “in 733 BC the Assyrians greatly reduced the territory of Israel, leaving the capital, Samaria, and its environs. The remainder of the country was annexed” (Walton, Matthews & Chavalas 2000: 593; see 2 Kings 15:29), and naturally spoil would be taken to Assyria. Since this pair of events happened within two years, they accurately fulfilled the Maher-shalal-hash-baz prophecy.

Just as in the case of the Immanuel prophecy, immediately following this prophecy, Isaiah again predicted the Assyrian invasion of Judah. This time he highlighted that because of Ahaz’s refusal to trust in God, the overflowing waters of Assyria would flood the breadth of Judah, reaching “even to the neck” (Isaiah 8:5-8). As we have seen in our exposition on the Davidic Covenant with respect to the exile of the Southern Kingdom, this prediction was accurately fulfilled by Sennacherib, who with a large army managed to conquer the entire land of Judah except Jerusalem, thus quite literally flooding Judah “even to the neck,” since Jerusalem is the capital (or head) of Judah and it is located on a hill.

The Maher-shalal-hash-baz prophecy thus served as another sign to the house of David concerning Sennacherib’s devastating invasion, which we saw was the final warning to Judah to repent of her sins before her exile to Babylon.

Significantly, God told Isaiah to write down the prophecy concerning Maher-shalal-hash-baz on a big tablet (Isaiah 8:1). And this was to be witnessed by two trustworthy persons, who “would be able to testify that the prophet had written and exhibited the prophecy a long time before its fulfillment” (Young 1965: 302). This was evidently in view of the unbelief of the people, who, when the prophecy comes to pass may say Isaiah wrote it after it has happened. This is exactly what modernist scholars, whose belief-system cannot accept the supernatural, have been saying about predictive prophecy recorded in the Bible.

And after predicting the Assyrian invasion following the Maher-shalal-hash-baz prophecy, Isaiah had “the testimony” and “the law” bound and sealed up among his disciples (Isaiah 8:16). Like in the case of the big tablet, this was to secure “Isaiah’s message against any accusation that he did not say this or that and against subsequent tampering or addition by others” (Motyer 1993: 95-96). What was bound and sealed would have included the predictions above.

This means that by 701 BC, when all the above predictions have been fulfilled, Isaiah would have been publicly confirmed as a true prophet of God. This authentication of Isaiah is particularly important because even in the prophecies we have seen above, there were still predictions that were not fulfilled within his lifetime, what more the prophecies that we will be seeing in Isaiah 40-66? For even the pregnant woman Isaiah saw and prophesied about as though she existed then turned out to be the mother of Jesus. So she was actually also a subject of prediction and a sign not fulfilled within Isaiah’s lifetime. This justifies the future tense in Matthew’s citation of Isaiah 7:14 in Greek.

Also, the prophetic announcement in Isaiah 9:6 that the son that is born is God Himself is so mind-boggling that in comparison, even the shocking idea of a virgin birth is mundane. God does not expect His people to be gullible, or even seen to be gullible. So the bearer of this mind-boggling message had to be confirmed publicly as a true prophet of God.

The announcement is part of a prophecy that begins with, “The people who walk in darkness have seen a great light; Those who live in a dark land, the light has shone on them” (Isaiah 9:2). Who are the people referred to and where is this dark land? And what or who is the great light that shines on them? Since the reason for this rejoicing is Immanuel having been born, the great light refers to Him (cf. John 1:5).

Though anyone who does not live according to the “testimony and the law,” that is, God’s revelation, is said to be in darkness (Isaiah 8:20-22), Isaiah 9:2 is referring specifically to those who live in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali, “Galilee of the Gentiles” (Isaiah 9:1). This was the place captured by Assyria in 733 BC (2 Kings 15:29), just as Isaiah predicted in the Maher-shalal-hash-baz prophecy. Isaiah 9:1 also says that Immanuel will honor this place in the future. So being the first to be humiliated, this place and its people would be compensated by being the first to receive the great light of Immanuel.

Matthew takes note that Jesus fulfilled this aspect of the prophecy when He began His public ministry not in Judea, as we would expect since He was baptized there, but in Galilee “in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali” (Matthew 4:12-17). This is another reason for Matthew to identify Immanuel with Jesus.

The rest of Isaiah 9 and the whole of Isaiah 10 are about God using Assyria to discipline Israel and Judah, and God’s judgment on Assyria for her unrighteousness. Then Isaiah 11 looks forward to the anointing of Immanuel by the Spirit of God. This anointing completes and confirms His calling as the Messiah, “the Anointed One,” the “hoped for redeemer figure that emerges in the OT” as early as in Genesis 3:15 (Seed) and Genesis 49:10 (Ruler).

Though Matthew does not cite this prophecy, he does provide evidence that Jesus fulfilled it by recounting that at the baptism of Jesus, the Spirit of God descended like a dove on Him, followed by “a voice out of the heavens, saying, ‘This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased’” (Matthew 3:16). This baptism scene, which reveals the involvement of a divine Person other than the Messiah and the Spirit of God when Isaiah 11:2 is actually fulfilled, alerts us that implicit in Isaiah 7-12 is already a nascent form of the doctrine of the Trinity—God the Father, Son and Spirit.

The Trinity is not self-contradictory. For there is contradiction only if it affirms that there are three Gods in one God, but not so when it only affirms that there are three Persons in one God (cf. White 1998: 168-71). People who see a contradiction presuppose that God is like human beings: there can only be one person in one human being. But God is not a human being. Who are we to say that there cannot be three Persons in one divine Being?

Isaiah 11-12 gives a preview of the Messiah’s mission that will be elaborated in Isaiah 40-66. The Spirit-anointed Messiah “will not judge by what His eyes see, Nor make a decision by what His ears hear” (11:3), that is, unlike human judges, He does not need to hear testimonies or see evidence to determine the truth of a case. Justice even for the poor and oppressed is thus assured.

Actually under His reign, “it will be the very opposite of what now is found in human kingdoms. All enmity will disappear, not only from among men, but even from among beasts, and even between men and beasts all will be in harmony” (Young 1965: 388, commenting on 11:6-9). And the nations will be drawn to Him (11:10; cf. 2:1-4).

To inaugurate His reign, He “will again recover the second time with His hand the remnant of His people” who are in exile all over the world (11:11-16). No doubt this refers to the restoration of the nation, but we need to take note of the choice of words used in this statement. For “the Lord’s ‘hand’ is a primary exodus motif (see Ex. 3:19-20; 6:1; 13:3; Dt. 6:21). A second time emphasizes the thought of a repeated action and deliberately contrasts the coming act with the Lord’s classic act at the exodus (cf. verse 16b)” (Motyer 1993: 125-26).

In other words, this is the second Exodus. And since it refers to how the New Covenant will be fulfilled through the Messiah, it is better to call it the New Exodus. As the New Covenant has the same goal as the Mosaic Covenant, the New Exodus has the same goal as the old Exodus, only much more glorious, which will be elaborated in Isaiah 40-66.

Isaiah 12 is an anticipated song of thanksgiving to God for the New Exodus, including making known God’s deeds to the nations (verse 4). And “the words In that day (1, 4) link the song to the day when the old exodus will be superseded by the new (11:10-11). And just as the old exodus occasioned individual (Ex. 15:1) and communal (Ex. 15:21) song, so will the coming exodus (1-2, 4-5)” (Motyer 1993: 127).

What is particularly significant is that the term “salvation” is repeatedly used to refer to what the New Exodus will accomplish (verses 1-3). And this “salvation” involves God’s anger (because of sin) having somehow been turned away, revealing its spiritual nature. Yet like the old Exodus, the New Exodus is also about social, economic and political redemption. This then provides a preview to the basis for assuming that the Messiah is both the Seed and the Ruler.

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