Immanuel - Our God is With Us - Part V - Matthean Application

This is the fifth installment of a series on Isaiah 7:14. 

“Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel.” Isaiah 7:14 (Cf. Matt 1:23)

Matthean Application.

This begs the question, “how does Isaiah's Immanuel relate to the birth of Jesus according to Matthew”? While there are no writings per se detailing the messiah being born of a “virgin”, the concept of a chaste, pure, virgin Israel metaphorically as the wife of her husband (the God of Israel) bearing him “children” is present within the prophets.[1] It must be stated emphatically that the virgin birth of Jesus is verified by Matthew and Luke and not reliant on Matthew’s quotation of Isaiah; Luke claims a virgin conception and birth without quoting Isaiah once.

“The motif of virginal conception has been borrowed neither from paganism nor from pre-Christian Judaism…The only place where a Jewish tradition of virgin birth could be claimed is in relation to Isa 7:14. The MT with its use of עלמה, ˓almâ (“young woman”), is not sufficient to establish a virginal conception tradition, עלמה is quite consonant with virginity and may even normally create a presumption of virginity, but the focus of the word is not there... After the event of Jesus’ conception, a special significance for Isa 7:14 in light of the event is quite understandable, but the text is quite inadequate to “create” the event.” [2]

Joseph took Mary as wife after she was pregnant with the child that began in her womb as a result of the spirit of God, and she participated in no “marital relations” (cf. 1:25) until Jesus was born. Mary was a virgin at her conception.

“While difficulties no doubt remain, there seems to be no adequate basis for abandoning the essential historicity of the tradition of a virginal conception of Jesus.” [3]

It is of significance that Matthew uses the Septuagint rendering of Isa. 7:14, although many debate the implications. [4] Speaking on Isaiah 7:14 N.T. Wright notes:

“numerous learned articles have been produced to show that the Hebrew word in question doesn't necessarily mean ‘virgin’ in our sense, and that Matthew simply misunderstood the passage. That conclusion has been waved around wildly by those who want to deny Jesus' virginal conception, but actually it is an irrelevant issue. The fact that Luke has a birth narrative, quite different from Matthew's, in which shows Jesus is described as having been conceived without a human father, indicates...that the belief was quite widespread in the early church. It wasn't a matter of Matthew making it up on the basis of a misreading of Isaiah.”[5]

It is also of substantial significance that the oracle (in 7:14) begins this way in 7:13,

“Listen now, O house of David…” 

Under the direction of the angelic messenger, Joseph was addressed as “Joseph, son of David, (v. 20).[6] The sign of Immanuel was firstly to the house of David in Isaiah, and the Matthean writer keeps it within its contextual sphere. Once again it is heard, 

“attention House of David, the Lord is giving you a sign…he will save his people from their sins.”

The summary of the Isaiah “Immanuel theme” is that the nations will devise schemes, and though enemies may plan to destroy, even in the darkest of times, God is with us. What is also clear in Matthew’s use of 7:14, is that he intends the name Immanuel symbolically, not literally. Joseph was instructed to name the child Yeshua, not Immanuel, and that name is never referenced again in relationship to Jesus.

The Hebrew text of Isaiah 7:14 was not directly announcing a future time when a virgin would give birth to a son, rather that God’s sign of salvation was among or “with” them. What Immanuel was in Isaiah’s context is what Jesus became in his. What Immanuel signified was not merely a phonetic name but a picture of salvation through a prophetic sign. Matthew ties the salvific sign of Judah and Israel’s well known history to the sign of another child of promise, in another time of uncertainty and oppression. Meaning, by the sign of this child, deliverance was once again among them. The writer of Luke, through the words of Simeon seems to have a similar take, 

“Listen, this child is destined to cause the fall and the rising of many in Israel, for a sign, which will be spoken against” (Lk. 2:34).

It is often assumed though a “vertical” reading of the text that the Matthean writer presupposes a pre-existent and incarnational event where the “son of God” (or more traditionally perhaps “God the Son”) comes from Heaven[7] (in the literal sense of “leaving his throne”) into Mary. Thus when examining or teaching from this text, traditionally it is taught that way. There is no reasoning or indication within this text itself to draw such a conclusion, let Matthew speak on its own. In order to be honest with the author’s intention, the pre-existing divine logos cannot be presupposed or overlaid on every christological text in the NT (infancy or otherwise).
End notes:
[1] Revelation 12 is a recapitulation of Sinai speaking of the “woman” (Israel) that bears a son. God had taken Israel to be His bride: Ezekiel 16:4-7 - God came upon this young one who had been abandoned. He took her in and cared for her. Hosea 11:4 – He spent much time raising her, then he courted her himself. Ezekiel 16:8 – He gave his covenant promise to take her in marriage (Sinai being a symbolic wedding ceremony) 23:4 – They had children. 16:32 - She was unfaithful with other lovers (deities) through which she had borne “strange sons” (Hosea 5:7). Mary plays out what Israel was metaphorically pictured to be, “virgin Israel”, while her son Jesus, was the ultimate depiction of “servant Israel” with whom God would covenant (cf. 2 Kings 19:21; Isa 37:22; Lam 1:15; 2:13 Ezek 16:32, Hosea 2, Isaiah 49:18, 50:1, 54:5, Jeremiah 2:2; 3:14; 18:13; 31:4, 21; Amos 5:2;31:32, Revelation 21:2, 9).
[2] J. Nolland, Word Biblical Commentary: Luke 1:1-9, 61 vols. (Dallas, TX.: Word Inc., 2002), 35A:28.[3] Ibid.
[4] It is possible that the Matthean narrative references Isaiah 7:14 as a result of the LXX understanding in the future tense (will conceive and bear) along with it portraying a futuristic virgin (in the sense of not having been with a man). This however is not upheld by the context of the Hebrew text, nor does it fit in the context of the Immanuel theme, seeing that the sign was not contingent on the sexual status of the young woman, but rather the presence of the child. Furthermore, there was a child in Isaiah 7-8 born to a young woman as a sign to Ahaz, Greek or Hebrew matters not in knowing this was the case. To interpret this event (birth) as a miraculous conception, it cannot be interpreted “virgin” in a strict sexual status in Matthew’s recitation, but not “virgin” the same way for Isaiah’s context. In other words, was the Immanuel in the 8th B.C.E. century a virgin birth in the same way the 1st century Immanuel? Or rather is there an alternative intention for the Matthean writer’s quotation of Isaiah? Perhaps the Matthean author was more interested in the “child” and what he represented, keeping in sync with the Isaiah theme more so than the “virgin”.
[5] Wright, N.T., Who was Jesus (1992), William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, pg. 77f
[6] Luke has it, “he was of the house and family of David” Luke 2:4
[7] In the years of doctrinal development that led to what Christians would eventually believe about “heaven”, it is assumed from that evolution that the word “heaven” includes within its definition a dwelling place for “dead saints.” Heaven was a word used by the Jews as a replacement of God’s name (e.g. Luke 15 prodigal saying, “Father, I have sinned against heaven [aka. God] and in your sight”. If you compare the parallel passages from the synoptic gospels, you will find the kingdom of God and Heaven used interchangeably (see Matt 19:23-24). There is no sense of “going to heaven” in the use of “heaven” or kingdom of heaven. That “Jesus came from heaven” does not communicate another type of existence “somewhere else” but rather communicates that he came from God. John the Baptist also “came from God”, “there was a man sent from God whose name was John”.

The next segment will investigate the Hebrew use of "names" and the name Immanuel.

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