One of the delightful things about the New Testament is that we have 4 storytellers, 4 evangelists, recount the story of Jesus, and each has their own distinctive way of presenting the same narrative of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The Gospel According to Mark was the first to be written. One of the key themes identified by many commentators is the “Messianic secret”. Jesus tells his followers to keep things on the down low. And Mark’s way of revealing the divine presence in Jesus, comes through a series of winks and nudges and echoes and allusions to the OT. The Gospel According to John, the last to be written, features a theologically rich prologue which explains before the narrative who Jesus is. The Gospel According to Matthew is similar to John in that the cards are on the table, but it’s done in a different way. Matthew begins with a genealogy, and then a short (compared to Luke) birth narrative in which we see one of this book’s distinctive features; the prophetic fulfillment formula. We read:
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).
This of course is a quotation of Isaiah 7:14, our text for today. But when we read that sentence in it’s original context, we may be left scratching our heads as to what Matthew is doing.
Isaiah 7 describes events which occured during the reign of King Ahaz of Judah. To the North, the Kingdom of Israel (sometimes called Samaria or Ephraim) made an alliance with Aram (modern Syria) which threatened Judah, and was part of a larger agenda to build up a defense against the rapidly expanding Assyrian Empire. The allied kingdoms invaded Judah to press them into an agreement to fight with them.
Isaiah is called to take his son, Shear-Jashub to meet with Ahaz and deliver a message- to reassure him, and call him to trust in God (7:1-9). What he fears will not come to pass. Jerusalem will be ok. Ahaz is skeptical. So a second message comes through Isaiah- ask for a sign and it will be given to prove God’s intent. Ahaz says, no, I will not do the Gideon thing and demand a sign. So Isaiah declares:
Then Isaiah said, “Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of humans? Will you try the patience of my God also? 14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin [in Hebrew this word means more broadly young woman of marrying age, not the specific word for virign] will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. 15 He will be eating curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, 16 for before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste. 17 The Lord will bring on you and on your people and on the house of your father a time unlike any since Ephraim broke away from Judah—he will bring the king of Assyria.”
The text itself doesn’t actually say who this “young woman” and son are, but this isn’t speaking of a miracle baby through Mary, but a son born in Isaiah and Ahaz’s day- and by the time this child reaches the age of moral responsibility, the two kingdoms will be laid waste. Curds and honey are foods of peacetime, of time of doing well. This child will know a time of peace before reaching adolescence.
Ahaz was a young man when he assumed the throne, and died still relatively young leaving the crown to his son Hezekiah. Some interpreters argued that the son prophesied here is Hezekiah, but the dates don’t quite work (Hezekiah was almost certainly born before Ahaz became king). Roughly 10 years after Ahaz become king, Assyria invaded and destroyed the Northern kingdom (meaning Isaiah’s prophecy was entirely accurate), and not long after that, Ahaz died, and Hezekiah ascended to the throne, already an adult. Some interpreters therefore conclude this is a younger son of Ahaz. Others, myself included, tend to believe this son is a son of the prophet himself; not a hill I’m prepared to die on, but that seems most likely. Isaiah has two other sons mentioned, both given symbolic names (similar to the children of Isaiah’s contemporary Hosea, see Hosea ch 1-3). The book of Isaiah mentions Shear-Jashub (“a remnant will return”) and Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz (“swift to the plunder”). So this son, Immanuel, was to be a sign to Ahaz, God is with Judah, therefore, you will be ok.
So what does that have to do with the story Matthew tells? Is Matthew playing fast and loose with the text of Isaiah? To understand we have to know something about ancient Jewish interpretation. Repetition of words or images were often used to link two very different texts or ideas. We see a lot of this in Hebrews for example, but one real solid example is Paul’s interpretation in 1 Cor 10 that Jesus was the rock from which Israel received water. The water came from a literal rock, not Christ. So how can Paul say the rock was Christ? This is a figural or typological reaing (see Richard Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul).
When it comes to Isa 7:14, when it was translated into Greek the word “young woman” was translated as the more specific Greek word which means virgin. So Matthew sees in Isaiah the word virgin, a son born, and Immanuel- God with us, and links the two things. No, Isaiah didn’t predict a virgin birth of the Messiah, but Matthew sees a parallel in the words and images. The words used to describe Israel’s story can now be employed to describe the story of Jesus. Jesus is the fulfillment not of a specific prediction, but of the trajectory of Israel. What Matthew is trying to emphasize is the point Isaiah was making- God is with his people. Matthew’s first readers are believed to be Jewish Christians living probably in Syria, having fled the violence of the Jewish-Roman war which led to the destruction of the Temple in 70AD. They are wondering if they’ve been abandoned. Are we going to be wiped out? Has God left us here to be pillaged by the Romans? No- Christ is the presence of God with his people. God is not far off or aloof, but the opposite- he draws near in the midst of what appears to us as hopeless.
Matthew opens with this- with Jesus bringing God’s presence near. And how does he end? “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Our challenge is this- will we be attentive to that presence coming in our midst, or will we be like Ahaz, who was promised this, but turned to Assyria, and paid huge sums of money for protection? Or will we be like Ahaz’s son, Hezekiah, who at the darkest moment, went to the Temple- the dwelling place of God’s glory and presence?
God has drawn near to us in the person of Jesus- “the word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). In one of the most important theological works of the early church, On the Incarnation, Athanasius of Alexandria lays out a theology of the incarnation, with special attention to the question why? Why did the Word become incarnate? Athanasius argues that the Son became human “For this reason only, out of the love and goodness of his Father, for the salvation of us humans … and the renewal of creation.” (On the Incarnation 1.1.26). God, in his great love, has come to us, to be present with us, to be light shining in the darkness. That’s what Matthew hears in Isaiah, and in the incarnation- God coming to humanity. That’s the connection- the coming of a son as a sign that God is with his people in their most trying time. When the night seems darkest, the light begins to break in.
Joseph Blenkinsopp. Isaiah 1-39 (AB). New Haven: Yale, 2000.
Peter Enns. “The ‘Pete Ruins Christmas’ Series: The Virgin Shall Conceive”. Pete Enns (blog). https://peteenns.com/virgin-shall-conceive/
R.T. France. The Gospel of Matthew (NICNT). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007.
John Goldingay. Isaiah (UBCS). Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001.
— Old Testament Theology, Vol 2: Israel’s Faith. Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 2006.
— The Theology of the Book of Isaiah. Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 2014.
Donald Hagner. Matthew 1-13 (WBC). Dallas: Word, 1993.
Daniel J. Harrington, S.J. The Gospel of Matthew (Sacra Pagina). Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1991.
Richard B. Hays. Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels. Waco: Baylor, 2016.
J. Alec Motyer. The Prophecy of Isaiah: An Introduction & Commentary. Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 1993.
John Nolland. The Gospel of Matthew (NIGTC). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005.
John N. Oswalt. Isaiah (NIVAC). Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003.
Ben Witherington III. Isaiah Old and New: Exegesis, Intertextuality, and Hermeneutics. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2017.