Did Isaiah Directly Predict the Virgin Birth?

The Christmas season is filled with many holiday traditions and religious celebrations, including the visit of many to churches for annual Christmas Eve services. In the mix of homilies and seasonal sermons, one text that often is cited is the prophecy of Isaiah 7, said to be fulfilled by the virgin birth in Matthew 1:23. Yet when reading the original context of Isaiah 7, many have had trouble with Matthew’s claim that it was indeed a prophecy, as the birth of the child originally functions to reassure the king in his particular state of distress over the threat of invasion.

While there are staunch defenders of the view that Matthew is claiming a direct fulfillment of Isaiah’s predictive prophecy, others have understood the passage differently. What is in question is not the virgin birth, which is a necessary component of the Christian gospel, but rather Matthew’s hermeneutical appropriation of the Old Testament.

Jim Hamilton, professor of biblical theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has argued that what Matthew envisioned in employing a fulfillment formula is not a “direct” fulfillment, but rather a typological fulfillment. I have found this article to be largely persuasive, and in the spirit of Christmas have linked to it below.

Click to access TheVirginWillConceive.7_19_05.pdf


Filed under Isaiah

8 responses to “Did Isaiah Directly Predict the Virgin Birth?

  1. Andrew T.

    It is tiresome seeing this question asked frequently, and the variety of answers both asserting the affirmative and negative. Isaiah’s prophecy was not typological, and yes it was predicting the birth of Christ. The fact that there is even debate about this shows people STILL do not understand Isaiah.

    Unlike [Isa 1-6], [Isaiah 7 to 12] is a prophecy to, for, and about the dynasty and thrown of the House of David (Isa 7:2); Ahaz, as horrid a king as he was, was still the representative and head. (Isa 7:2,13; 11:1,10 etc)

    This prophecy was given to allay the fears of the king, who feared David’s thrown (within the House of Judah) was about to fall (to the House of Israel and allies). Isaiah is sent to reassure him. Although Ahaz seems pious saying he would not tempt the Lord God, the truth was that he was more interested in Baal worship, and power. Even so, Isaiah was sent to reveal to Ahaz that his worries about the House of David were unfounded – this to expose his further lack of faith (in YHWH).

    What Ahaz knew, but apparently modern biblical scholars don’t is that a specific Messianic promise had been made to David when the ‘House of David’ and Davidic line was established, saying that the Messiah King would come from David’s line. Even if Ahaz was more enamoured of Baal, he, like all Davidic kings were aware of this promise (I Chron 17:10-14, 29:23) which was still yet future to Ahaz.

    So a prophecy predicting the birth of Christ centuries after Ahaz was indeed a sign to Ahaz as the representative of the House of David specifically because it had recalled back the oath God had sword to David, later to Solomon to maintain the throne through all generations through all ages. Thus an as of yet unfilled prophecy to Ahaz meant that the fortunes of the House of David were guaranteed by Divine oath, whoever occupied that thrown (and however bad). Thus Isaiah did indeed directly predict the virgin birth and it was a sign to Ahaz.

    (Because modern scholars don’t see old covenant scripture as messianic they miss what was evident to the recipient of the prophecy, Ahaz. This defect on the part of modern scholars can be addressed however, ISBN-13: 978-0805446548)

    • Andrew,

      Thanks for your comments. Hamilton, following Sailhamer and others, maintains a messianic telos of the Hebrew Bible (see his articles “The Skull Crushing Seed of the Woman: Inner-Biblical Interpretation of Genesis 3:15,” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 10, no. 2 [June 1, 2006]: 30; “The Typology of David’s Rise to Power: Messianic Patterns in the Book of Samuel,” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 16, no. 2 [2012]). The question is not whether there is a messianic trajectory present in the HB, the question is whether Isa 7:14 is disconnected from a historical fulfillment in its own context, as 7:16 would seem to indicate.

      Other examples of fulfillment formulas at the opening of Matthew (ie. Hosea 11:1 in Matt 2:15) show that Matthew was indeed thinking typologically (I would say that Micah 5:2 in Matt 2:6 is an exception). Otherwise, Matthew cannot be said to properly understand the passages cited in their original context.

  2. Andrew T.

    Thanks for your response.

    The verse [Isa 7:16] doesn’t disconnect [Isa 7:14] from a later historical fulfilment since the first part is a qualifier for [Isa 7:14] and the second part a sign-post guarantee. The first part of verse [Isa 7:16a] cannot be taken to be historically contemporary with Ahaz. It references ‘the boy’ prophesied in [vs 14] and so is contemporary with that event (whenever). It is clearly noted to be sometime after the event prophesied in the second part of the verse [Isa 7:16b]. Ahaz would see the ‘land of the two kings’ he feared, desert BEFORE the messianic sign. It doesn’t say contemporary. With this first sign then (the destruction of Remaliah and Damascus) Ahaz would know the second also to be true.

    The second part of [Isa 7:16] is establishing the certainty of the sign (both [Isa 7:14] and [Isa 7:16a]), and both the Messianic sign and the destruction of Remaliah and Damascus are still future events to when the prophecy was delivered by Isaiah. Therefore, arguing that [Isa 7:14] would need to be historically contemporary with Ahaz because of [Isa 7:16b] is circular logic. Whenever [Isa 7:16a] would be, it would be contemporary with [Isa 7:14] which would be sometime after the conquest of Remaliah and Damascus.

    When did Remaliah and Damascus become ‘abandoned’? It was Ahaz who appealed for help to Tiglath-Pileser III, who sacked Damascus and annexed Aram [2 Kings 16:7-9] then executed Rezin. Likewise, it was Tiglath-Pileser who sacked Samaria (Ephraim) [2 Kings 15:29]. Tiglath-Pileser records all this on his inscriptions.

    As prophesied, this all happened before the boy (the Messiah) was born, so before he knew right from wrong; which was from his birth [Isa 11:2][Luke 1:15][Luke 2:40]. Thus when Ahaz saw Damascus and Remaliah fall, as Isaiah prophesied, he knew the subsequent Messianic sign to be true too.

    That said, I don’t quite hold [Matt 2:15]’s quote of [Hos 11:1] to be topological (in the same sense) either. The House of Israel had not returned from Assyria was still in captivity [John 7:35] (and (Josephus, Antiquities, X, ix. 7; XI, v. 2.; IX, xiv. 1)), though the House of Judah had [Ezra 1;5]. It was not the Messiah’s return from Egypt that was t

    Since the Messiah was to reunite the two throwns (of the House of Israel and the House of Judah) [Eze 37:16-20][Hos 1:11] as King of the House of Israel [Hos 11:1] prophecy was literally true when Israel was in the wilderness both the first and the second instances. (That the House of Israel’s rejection from ‘the land’ was a consequence of the Abrahamic covenant resulted in a literal returned to the wilderness, what was topological was Egypt (for Babylon), not the Messiah’s return (for the House of Israel).

    • Andrew,

      I may be missing your point, but it seems that the temporal adverb present at the beginning of 7:16 is an indication of the nearness of the fulfillment. So, before the child of 7:14 comes of age, the enemy invasion will be brought to nothing, thus fulfilling the promise given by Yahweh. To argue that the undoing of the Syro-Ephraimite threat functioned to bolster Ahaz’s messianic hope, rather than the birth of the child affirming the word of Yahweh that the threat would be unsuccessful, seems a bit backwards.

      I think some of the text was cut out of your comments on Hosea 11:1, but I would like to hear them.

  3. Andrew T.

    I took בְּטֶרֶם to mean ‘before’, so the order suggested is Damascus and Remaliah would fall (“land whose two kings you dread will be abandoned”), before the birth of the boy at some unspecified time (before).

    The land whose two kings Ahaz did dread was conquered towards the end of his (Ahaz’s) life (by Tiglath-Pileser III). Since this was the first part to happen, if the order of these events is correct, and it happened towards the end of Ahaz’s life the length of the intermediate period separating these two events wouldn’t matter since this would be before the birth of the boy and Ahaz died shortly after the fall of Samaria/Ephraim. (Even if the birth of the boy was contemporary, it’s doubtful he lived to see it given the order of events in relation to his life)

    This is what I meant by it (the fall of Damascus and Remaliah) being a sign post. “Thus when Ahaz saw Damascus and Remaliah fall, as Isaiah prophesied, he knew the subsequent Messianic sign to be true too.”
    Damascus and Remaliah becoming abandoned happened before the birth of the boy and if the first event was predicted, so was the second! If Isaiah could predict what Ahaz’s would not believe ( Damascus and Remaliah ceasing to be a threat) Isaiah’s prophecy about the unassailability of the House of David must also be true (thus YHWH would also prove himself the true God).

    {This makes it seem like this prophecy was personally tailored to address Ahaz’s personal (and unspoken, undocumented) doubts about YHWH’s role establishing the House of David}

    My point about the Hosea quote was simply that his prophecy was not topological in the sense that one event was emblematic of another. Rather it equally predicted two parallel but completely literal events (if we see the Messiah as King as the federal head of the House of Israel, and recognize that this same House (of Israel) was still being sifted through the nations [Amos 9:9] as with the sieve of destruction [Isa 30:28] unlike the House of Judah.

    It was Jesus’ return from Egypt as a boy that was emblematic, not the other way round. Discerning the signifier from the signified relies on us recognizing Jesus as the stone of stumbling [Matt 21:43-44] , and rock of offence [1 Peter 2:7-8] against the back drop of the mountain templated upon that rock; the House of Israel as the mountain of The Lord [Isa 30:29][Mic 4:1-2; 6:2] (see also how [Jeremiah 51:25-27] helps explain [Daniel 2:44-45]).

    Even the name Israel (“for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed” [Gen 32:28]) is templated upon Christ (which make sense for how can a God who gives his glory to no other [Isa 42:8] give Abraham a glorious name [Gen 12:2] except by giving him a name templated upon Himself?)

    • I go with those who take the reference to the boy knowing how to refuse the evil and choose the good not as birth, but rather “maturity.” I am in wholehearted agreement with the doctrine of total depravity, children as no exception (Ps 51:5; Prov 22:15), but I take this phrase to indicate a level of development in which moral judgments can be made, an ability that infants do not possess. Thus, before the child, who I understand to be imminently born, develops moral discernment, the threat will be dismantled. Distinguishing between good and evil functions this way in places such as Gen 3:5; Deut 1:39; and 1 Kings 3:9. John Oswalt suggests that this sense would involve an elapsed time of twelve to twenty years (John Oswalt, “The Book of Isaiah,” [Grand Rapids; Eerdmans, 1986], 214). So while I could agree that the devastation of the foreign threat will precede the time described in 7:16, I think we would disagree on when that time would be.

      I agree with your point regarding Hosea that makes Jesus status as true Israel central, but why not just call this a typological fulfillment. As you may have seen, Greg Beale has done some good work on this problem (see G. K. Beale, “A New Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New,” [Grand Rapids; Baker, 2011], 406-412).

      Thanks again for taking time to comment!

  4. TOTAL DEPRAVITY? Some theologians point to Psalm 51:5 as a proof text for “the doctrine of original sin” since the psalmist says he was conceived in sin. But the psalmist is simply abasing himself in typical ancient Near Eastern fashion, projecting his adult sins back as far as possible for more abasement, “I was evil. . . even in the womb! Even when conceived! Forgive me!” (Like when a husband and wife start fighting over something and later calm down and start to seek reconciliation by blaming themselves even beyond that one incident: One says, “I was wrong, I’ve always been more wrong than you,” to which the other replies, “No you weren’t, I was more wrong than YOU, and I’ve always been MORE wrong than you.” And then they embrace, smiling.) Therefore, by claiming “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me,” one is merely lowering one’s self as far as possible, “I’m so sinful I was sinful from the womb!” in hopes of forgiveness being granted. It is ancient Near Eastern HYPERBOLE.

    Furthermore, Psalm 51 only mentions that the psalmist himself was a sinner in the womb, not that everyone is. And other psalms speak about SOME BUT NOT ALL people being born wicked. Such statements were made before the Christian doctrine of “original sin” declared literally, uniersally, and without hyperbole that everyone is “wicked” from the womb. Take Psalm 58:3,8, which states, “The wicked are estranged from the womb [not that everyone is estranged from the womb]: they go astray as soon as they are born… let every one of them pass away: like the untimely birth of a woman, that they may not see the sun.”

    And Prov 22:15 is about foolish decisions kids make and why they need parents to train them to make wiser ones. Read the parallel translations and note the context here: http://bible.cc/proverbs/22-15.htm . It’s not about TOTAL DEPRAVITY.


    Jesus spoke about a “good man,” and put a positive spin on “the heart” when he taught that “The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart” (Luke 6:45 & Mat. 12:35), and he taught that people ought to “Love God with all their heart,” (Mat. 22:37). How is that possible if the “heart” is “wicked and deceitful above all things?”

    No doubt the “wickedness” of the “heart” as depicted in the book of Jeremiah, chapter 17, verse 9 (“The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked”) applies to some people at some times whenever they act deceitful and wicked, especially when they are at their lowest and weakest points. But to take the book of Jeremiah’s exaggerated ancient Near Eastern way of speaking, and bake it in an oven until it becomes as dry and hard as a brick of dogma, and make that brick a cornerstone of your theology, well, to do that takes a “heart” relatively dry of compassion and fair appraisals of others’ beliefs and actions, and a “head” devoid of learning about ancient Near Eastern hyperbole.


    And in so far as the discussion of prophecies goes, it’s easy to see NT writers ransacking the OT for any odd bits of info they could use, lifting tiny passages out of context to claim them as prophecies of the first coming of Jesus. But the OT does not provide much that is convincing. Not to Jews nor to any scholar who has looked into the matter and isn’t blinded by their wish to conform to inerrancy or to Catholic teachings that state the NT writers had full reign to reinterpret the OT without restraint.

    See the book The Jew and the Christian Missionary, and other works from Ktav Press. See Zvi’s “Messianic Verses in Tanach” website https://home.comcast.net/~fiddlerzvi/j4j_no.html and the link there for modern day Jewish rebuttals to the way Christians misread, miseuse, and stretch the meaning of their Scriptures. There was even a highly honored graduate of Harvard seminary in the early 1800s who wrote a book demonstrating the ways NT writers dipped into the OT and stretched passages out of context. His book spread like wildfire. The Grounds of Christianity Examined : By Comparing the New Testament with the Old (1852) http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/15968 or http://archive.org/details/groundsofchris00engl

  5. Andrew T.

    I don’t find fault with your view that ‘knowing how to refuse the evil and choose the good could indicate not birth but “maturity”. Even so, it doesn’t invalidate the point that whether birth or maturity the circumstance of the boy was phrophesied to come after the actual event that was contemporary with Ahaz, namely this business about Damascus and Remaliah.

    Thus (as you say) before the child, who you understand to be born and develops moral discernment, the threat will be dismantled. We agree.

    The question is ‘how imminent was the event surrounding the boy?’ The text doesn’t provide any answer to this however – it doesn’t speak to the time between the two events (as you note). I’d argue that what was imminent was the thing prophecies to come first (namely the threat being dismantled). Historically, we know this was contemporary with Ahaz (at least he lived to see it). If we assert the business with the boy was also contemporary with Ahaz (but subsequent to the dismantling of the threats), we require warrant for such an assertion.

    But again I don’t presuppose this proximity necessary given the lack of evidence in the text. Also, I find no problem with this apparent gap because Ahaz was worrying about his thrown falling. The prophecy was addressing that concern by providing not one sign, but two, though one would be seen by him, and the other not yet still known to be true (so doubly attested by prophetic witnesse – typical of divine witness).

    Ahaz would live to see the powers of Damascus and Remaliah destroyed in his life time AND he was told (more or less) a Messiah would subsequently be born (or mature if it suits you better) to inherit his thrown (if the first sign was true, so was the second). Thus he should not worry since his actual problem (2 threats) would be dealt with as a sign (in his lifetime no less), this would further provide assurance about a previously predicted Messiah, known to his forebears. Whereas emphazing a non-messianic boy as a sign isn’t much of a sign and makes no sense, in any sense (contemporary or not).

    Re: Hosea, it wasn’t just Jesus status as true Israel I was speaking about, but how what was happening to Him was also exactly happening to the House of Israel in parallel historically making it prophetically equivalent to the first wilderness (this a historical statement). This is what makes me contend Matthews understanding of Hosea was both correct and not typological – ‘Early Israelites from Egypt’, the ‘House of Israel in relation to Assyria, Babylon, Greece and Rome (Daniel’s beasts)’ and ‘Jesus out of Egypt as a baby’ are all literal prophetically equivalent things, previously predicted (and I think Matthew’s author understood them all [Matt 10:6; 15:24]

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