"Behold, the Virgin Shall Conceive" (2 Kings 16:5; Isaiah 7) March 20
Israel and Syria are mounting a new offensive against Judah, either sometime later in 734 B.C. or, more likely, in 733 B.C. (as Assyria invades Israel immediately after, in 733). Isaiah, with his son Shear-Jashub (meaning "Remnant Shall Return"), is sent to meet Ahaz and tell him that the Syro-Ephraimite alliance will not prevail. This was announced not for the sake of Ahaz himself but for the line of David. God would not allow the line of David to be removed at this time. Furthermore, it was time for Israel's national punishment—and this would serve as a warning to all Judah.
Isaiah 7:8 says Ephraim, representative of the northern tribes, would cease to be a people—a visible nation—within 65 years. If the message was delivered around 733 B.C., then this prophecy was given around 11 years before the final fall of Samaria (722 B.C.). And while that would fit a time frame of "within 65 years," 65 seems a peculiar number of years to indicate an indefinite period. So where does counting 65 years from 733 B.C. put us? The year 668 B.C. At this time the Assyrian king Esarhaddon (681-668 B.C.) was succeeded by his son Ashurbanipal (668-626 B.C.), called Osnapper in the book of Ezra. And these two kings were responsible for resettling the land of the northern kingdom with people from other parts of the Assyrian Empire who became known as Samaritans (compare 2 Kings 17:24; Ezra 4:2, 10)—though they were completing a process that had begun earlier. No doubt there still were a few Israelite escapees left in the land following the Assyrian deportations. But even they were no doubt completely overwhelmed by the introduction of great numbers of foreign settlers. And the Israelite tribal territory names, such as Ephraim, then disappeared from the land. This, then, would seem to be the most likely fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy.
During the course of the prophecy, Isaiah tells Ahaz to ask for a sign from God that this would happen. When he refuses, God gives His own sign, over which there has been much debate: "Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel…" (Isaiah 7:14). Throughout Christianity, this is rightly understood to refer to Jesus Christ's supernatural conception in the womb of Mary, who was a virgin at the time of conception—for Matthew 1:23 quotes the prophecy in this regard. However, Jews, who don't believe in the virgin birth of Jesus—or that He even was the Messiah—assign different meanings to the prophecy. And even many Christians allow for a secondary, partial fulfillment that was more immediate to when the prophecy was spoken than was the coming of Christ, which was yet more than 700 years away.
Controversy surrounds the Hebrew expression translated "the virgin," ha'almah. Some maintain that this word may be translated "young woman of marriageable age." Yet the early Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, rendered the word as parthenos, "a word that has the specific meaning of 'virgin.' But what does the Hebrew mean? When all the passages in the Old Testament are investigated, the only conclusion one can come to is that the word means 'virgin.' To date, no one has produced a clear context, either in Hebrew or in the closely related Canaanite language from Ugarit (which uses the cognate noun glmt), where 'almah can be applied to a married woman. Moreover, the definite article with this word must be rendered 'the virgin'—a special one God had in mind. Added to this is the question of what would be so miraculous ('sign') about a 'young woman' having a baby?" (Kaiser, Davids, Bruce and Brauch, Hard Sayings of the Bible, 1996, note on Isaiah 7:14).
Yet some fulfillment of this prophecy in Isaiah's day is still plausible. For it may be that a particular woman was a virgin when Isaiah spoke but would soon marry and bring forth a son. The miraculous sign in this case (and remember that it's a sign that Ephraim would be gone within 65 years) would not be so much the birth itself—but that Judah's dreaded enemies, Israel and Syria, would be spoiled lands forsaken by their kings in a very short time, while the child was still an infant. And indeed, Israel and Syria were waylaid within the next couple of years by Assyria.
Some have put forth the possibility that Isaiah was telling Ahaz that Ahaz's royal wife would bring forth an heir, referring to his illustrious son, the righteous Hezekiah. Of course, this would have to have been a woman not yet married to Ahaz in order to have been a virgin. But the real problem with this idea is that various chronologies of the period reveal that Hezekiah was already born when the prophecy was given—and was even already between 9 and 22 years old. Of course, the reference could still have been to another son of Ahaz who was not yet born.
Others believe the reference was to a new son of Isaiah. For, while the prophet already had a son, he fathers another son in the very next chapter, Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz (meaning "Quick to the Plunder, Swift to the Spoil"). And a very similar prophecy to the one in chapter 7 is given about him: "…for before the child shall have knowledge to cry 'My father' and 'My mother,' the riches of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria will be taken away before the king of Assyria" (8:4). He even appears to be addressed as "Immanuel" (8:8), although some believe this is a reference to Judah as a whole. In either case, Immanuel (meaning "God With Us") would refer to God's intervention and guiding of events. (Incidentally, for the prophesied child of chapter 7 to be Isaiah's new son of chapter 8, the prophetess of 8:3, the child's mother, would have to have been a new wife of Isaiah—not the mother of any previous children.)
Given such possibilities, it may be that a child born in Isaiah's day was part of what God intended by the prophecy of Isaiah 7. But we might wonder why the sign to Ahaz was not simply the soon-coming defeat of Syria and Israel. Why even include the child? And here we come to a much deeper meaning of the prophecy. This sign was not just for Ahaz. It was for the whole "house of David" (verse 13). The Lord, it says, "will give you [the Hebrew is plural] a sign…" (verse 14). And as the prophecy concerned the deliverance of God's people, He gave them the sign of their ultimate deliverance—the Son born of the virgin. This Son would be an heir of David. And even beyond that, He would be the true Immanuel, for He would be very God made flesh ("Mighty God," as the "Child...born" and "Son…given" of Isaiah 9:6 is called, which appears to tie directly back to the Son of Isaiah 7:14). Moreover, His coming into the world would be a sign that all dread enemies would one day be no more.
"It is not uncommon," explains The Nelson Study Bible, "to have one level of fulfillment in the immediate future, and a final fulfillment many years later in the person and work of the Savior, Jesus. Thus the pregnancy of Isaiah's new wife and the birth of her son (8:3) could have been a sign to King Ahaz. However, this would have been a fulfillment, not the fulfillment. The prophecy was completely fulfilled in the coming of God's only Son to the earth. He is the only Child who can truly be called Wonderful, Counselor, and Prince of Peace ([again] see 9:6)" ("INDepth: Immanuel," sidebar on Isaiah 7:14).
Verses 18-25 of chapter 7 may be dual, focusing on the invasions and destruction of Israel in both Isaiah's time and in the latter days—"in that day" (verses 18, 21, 23).