Please see below a transcript (more or less) of a talk I gave at the Christian Fellowship here at work recently. My thanks to Samson the chair for the invitation and for the members for coming. The opportunity to speak is a great incentive to think ideas through thoroughly, I hope you appreciate the results.
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign:
The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son,
and will call him Immanuel.
Spoken approximately 700 years before Jesus Christ, these words of Isaiah are a clear Messianic prophecy. They are quoted in Matthew 1:23 in the account before Jesus's birth, and will be familiar to some as an aria from Handel's Messiah.
What I'm looking to do this afternoon is to unpack this verse firstly by considering the nature of Messianic prophecy in general, and then looking at the verse in its immediate historical context and seeing how these two things fit together. I will then conclude with some thoughts about Bible study and trusting in God. Before I go any further I need to tell you that I'm drawing heavily on:
Beyer, M (2007). Encountering the book of Isaiah: a historical and theological survey. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic.
I bought it whilst in the UK and have found it the most superb resource - the first Bible commentary I've come across which actually answers the questions I'm asking!
Types of Old Testament Messianic prophecies
According to Beyer (2007) Old Testament Messianic prophecies broadly fall into three categories. The first is direct prophecy, there is no contemporary meaning, the prophecy is entirely forward looking. The following would appear to be an example of this:
He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by mankind,
a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.
Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
An examination of the immediate context would seem to indicate that this is entirely looking forward to a period beyond the time when a Messiah would come usher in a new era.
The second type of Messianic prophecy is when there is both an immediate relevance to the words with also a clear pointer to Jesus. An example of this would seem to be:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?
My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, but I find no rest.
Psalm 22: 1-2
These words, quoted by Jesus on the cross (Matthew 27:44) were originally said by King David and were intended by him (David) to be a statement of his own suffering at the time. I wonder whether David realised the additional significance of what he was saying? So, a statement with immediate meaning is also a Messianic prophecy.
The third time is where parallels are drawn. So, the following passage:
So [Joseph] got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
is quoting from Hosea 11:1, which in context appears to be talking about the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt with Moses. So, the intention here appears to be to draw a parallel with Jesus's life and Old Testament prophecy.
As so often with these kinds of distinctions, they are perhaps not as clear in practice as they would seem to be in principle. Particularly, I'm not entirely happy that there is a clear difference between the second and third types. However, let's now return to Isaiah 7 and see how these types of prophecy can be applied there.
Isaiah 7:14 in context
A brief summary of Isaiah 7:1-9 is as follows. The Middle East was in turmoil. The main aggressor was Assyria. Surrounding countries were forming alliances to defend themselves. Israel, the Northern Kingdom also known as Ephraim, had formed an alliance with Aram, and tried to 'persuade' Judah, the Southern Kingdom, to join also. God through Isaiah told King Ahaz of Judah not to join this alliance but to trust only in Him.
Then in verse 10 God through Isaiah offers Ahaz a sign. Ahaz refuses to ask, saying, “I will not ask; I will not put the Lord to the test.” These are the same words as Jesus used when being tempted by Satan (Matthew 4:7), both being quotations from Deuteronomy 6:16. Now, signs are a fascinating area - but, alas, are beyond the scope of the current talk. Can we agree for the moment: sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn't right to ask God for signs, it is clear here that King Ahaz should have asked for a sign. In effect, God through Isaiah was saying to him, "I know that refusing an alliance and trusting in Me alone is a huge step of faith, let Me help you believe that this is the right thing to do." So, how do we interpret Ahaz's refusal? Arrogance? Lack of faith?
At this stage Isaiah gets annoyed with Ahaz. "Is it not enough to try the patience of humans? Will you try the patience of my God also?" (Isaiah 7:13b). And now we come back to where we started, the Messianic prophecy of 7:14.
Which on the face of it is rather puzzling. Isaiah gets annoyed with the King for refusing a sign when having to decide whether to join an alliance, and then we get a Messianic prophecy, how does this make sense? Well, once again I turn to Beyer (2007) for help.
Understanding the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14
Beyer suggests that there are three ways of understanding what is going on here. The first is that this is a direct Messianic prophecy with no immediate relevance. So, God through Isaiah is in effect saying, "I offered you a sign, and you refused it. All right, I won't give you a sign about your current situation, instead, I'll give you a sign about a wonderful future event way beyond this immediate situation."
The second makes a link with the next chapter, 8:3-4, in which God tells Isaiah to call his son Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz, meaning "He has made haste to the plunder!" and a reflection of the problems of the times. So, therefore, Isaiah 7:14 has an immediate reference point as Isaiah's own son. I don't know whether there is any evidence to support this view, and I'm not confident that I'm fully understanding it.
The third interpretation makes a huge assumption, that there is a pregnant woman present during this interchange. So God through Isaiah can be understood to be saying here to King Ahaz, "You may not have faith that I'm going to look after you, but look at this woman! Not only is she bearing a child in these troubled times, but she's going to call him Immanuel, God with us! She trusts in Me even if you don't!"
I think on balance I would incline to the first of these three views, that this is to be understood as a direct Messianic prophecy with no immediate relevance. But whatever view we take, we thank God for the interconnections in the Bible, and for the prophetic words in the Old Testament, pointing to Jesus Christ, our Saviour and friend.
Before I finish I'd like to make a more general point about Bible study. The parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30) teaches us that it is right for us to use our God given talents and abilities in His service. Particularly, He has given us intelligence, so it right to use our intellect to study the Bible, looking to understand its meaning at the time and to apply it to ourselves today, looking to interpret one Bible pasage in the light of another. And this is consistent with the following:
In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.
So, 'milk' here would be the basics of Christianity, eg. the nature of sin, Jesus's death and resurrection. Can I suggest to you the study today would be an example of 'solid food' as we look more deeply to understand His Word.
But - and there's a big but. Consider the following passage:
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
Imagine a young girl being looked after by her parents. Sometimes (if she thinks about it, I'm not sure that young children do!) she can relate her parents actions' - eg. providing food and drink - directly to looking after her. Other times, eg. insisting on washing of teeth before bedtime, these actions may be more difficult to understand. But: why is Mummy allowing that nasty man to hurt me? Because - that nasty man is a doctor, and that pain is an injection to stop you getting dreadful illnesses in the future. But we can't expect this young child to understand this.
Similarly, we cannot expect to understand God's ultimate purposes nor where seemingly random and appalling acts fit into them. There's a time to study, to analyse, to think, and there's a time to let go of our intellect and simply trust in God. If I may speak specifically as a westerner to Africans for a moment, a mistake made in the west, I think, is to go too far down the line of analysing rather than trusting, resulting in a liberall rationalistic view of the Bible. My impression having been living here in East Africa for the last 18 months is that the tendency here is to go the opposite way round, I see a great deal of faith in God and praise to Him, without much sense of application of intelligence to Biblical principles to think matters through.
So, as we turn to prayer, let us thank God for His Word, and for the intelligence He has given us to study it. Let us thank God for His Son Jesus Christ, and particularly for the Old Testament prophecies which relate to Him coming as Messiah, Saviour and Lord. Let us pray asking God's help as we study the Bible and grapple with its meaning and let us ask God's help to trust in Him completely. And finally, let us pray for wisdom to discern when to apply our intellect, and when to let go and let God.