How do you say something slightly nasty, nicely? Two stories, one about an actress that is nasty; and the other, well, it is also about an actress and, unfortunately, it too is nasty. Miriam Hopkins was more than an American actress. She was highly regarded for her intellectual prowess and for her friendships with many of the country’s intellectual elite. As a result, many actors felt it was their duty to upstage her at any opportunity. For instance, an anonymous starlet, whose prominence was more the result of her looks than her talent, once bragged, “You know, my dear, I insured my voice for fifty-thousand dollars.” Hopkins replied, “That’s wonderful. And what did you do with the money?” That was nasty. Ilka Chase was also a celebrated actress, but she also was a fairly-successful author. Green with envy, many of her rivals disliked Ilka and believed she was a fraud. There was no way she could write these books. She must be using a ghostwriter. One actress, in particular, ran into Chase and decided not to let the opportunity slip by to pay her a backhanded compliment. She quipped: “I enjoyed reading your book. Who wrote it for you?” Chase took the sting in stride, smiled and returned fire: “Darling, I’m so glad that you liked it. Who read it to you?”
I want to be nice to Levine and Brettler. I really do. They have written a wonderful book that I have thoroughly enjoyed. And yet, at times, I feel that when they are discussing Isaiah 7:14, they aren’t reading the same Bible I am. And by that, I do not mean that they are reading the Hebrew Bible while I am reading my Christian Bible, but that we aren’t even reading the same Hebrew Bible. And as a result, I feel they are missing what Isaiah is trying to say. And that is so frustrating, so much so that I want to shout: “You need someone to read Isaiah to you because you are missing the point!” But I don’t want to be nasty. I really want to be nice. But it is hard to do when Levine and Brettler repeatedly accuse Christ followers of proof-texting the Bible so that it reads like we want it to, when it seems they are reading their Bible through a distinctively Jewish lens and doing a little proof-texting of their own. It’s enough to make one say nasty things. But I won’t. Instead, let me go back and “read the text” for everyone. And let’s start with Matthew because, in Levine and Brettler’s opinion, Matthew is the one who has created this whole mess by his insistence that Isaiah 7:14 is a prophecy of the virgin birth. After all, if Matthew never tagged this strange verse as a prophecy of the virgin birth, few would even know it exists. But that raises the question, why did Matthew choose this particular verse? After all, the Old Testament is full of them! He could have chosen at least a dozen other passages! But he chose this one. Why?
Here’s how Levine and Brettler surmise this happened. Matthew was in desperate need to show that this new Christian religion was really connected to Judaism. The fate of a successful Jewish outreach depended on his ability to show that Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecy. One morning, during his devotions, Matthew is reading Isaiah when he spots all sorts of similarities. There’s a “round young virgin! There’s the promise of a son. There’s a statement that God is with us. And once Matthew saw all of this, he shouted out, “Eureka! We have a prophecy!” But was Matthew that clueless about Isaiah’s intended meaning? And was he so “needy” that he was willing to rip Isaiah’s words out of their original context in hopes that with a little smoke and mirrors he could convince some gullible Jews that Jesus was the Messiah based solely on some 700-year-old words from Isaiah? I can’t believe Matthew would have done that, and I can’t believe that any first-century Jew would fall for this creative exegesis, if this was indeed Matthew’s intent. Honestly, if it doesn’t convince Levine and Brettler, why would it have convinced someone ancient Jew back in Matthew’s day?
Here’s problem number 1: Levine and Brettler assume there is only one type of prophecy, that being predictive (or direct) prophecy. We talked about this in our last post. But Matthew obviously knew of more types of prophecy than that since in 2:23 he says “So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene” when there was no Old Testament verse that ever said that! Far from being a direct prophecy, Matthew 2:23 is very, very indirect. So, when Matthew says Jesus’ birth fulfills Isaiah 7:14, maybe he is alluding to a different type of prophecy. But if so, what gave him the warrant for saying Jesus fulfilled that prophecy? I think Isaiah told him so.
Isaiah 7:14 is a prophecy given in a time of dire circumstances. Judah was being actively threatened by the Syrian-Israel coalition and by Assyria. Any of those armies could annihilate Judah. In short, it was utterly hopeless. It is at this moment that Isaiah shows up and offers a different option: King Ahaz could trust God. Isaiah even promises that if Ahaz would turn to God, God would deliver the nation. But Ahaz was not known as the wisest king ever, and he refused to listen to Isaiah. And from that point in the story, things only get worse. Assyria moves closer and closer, and the story gets darker and darker. In fact, in Isaiah 8, the Syrian-Israel coalition is almost brushed aside because the real threat all along was Assyria. And Isaiah 8 depicts Assyria as destroying any army that stands in its way and flooding over the entire land of Judah, except for Jerusalem. But inserted into this miserable section of hopelessness, Isaiah adds a “but.” He speaks to the faithful remnant in Judah; and he reminds them of God’s goodness and faithfulness, in effect saying, “No matter how hopeless things look, God will always remember his people and his promises.” Now actually, the “But” is a “Nevertheless”; and it is found in the first verse of chapter 9 where we read (1-7): “Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan. . . .” And suddenly, we are celebrating Christmas because Isaiah will conclude this section with this promise (Is. 9:6-7): “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.” Look at what Isaiah is doing here! Not only is he prophesying of the coming of the Messiah, but in doing so, he is defining what it means for God to be with us. That’s the reason Isaiah puts the accent on “for to us” and not “a child is born.” Everything in this passage tells us what the Messiah will do to reveal that God is truly and powerfully with us. God says to Isaiah, “When Assyria marches towards Jerusalem, she will destroy everything in her path; and Galilee will be left desolate. But there is coming a day when I will move to redeem my people. And I will turn Galilee’s pain into rejoicing and her darkness into light. And I will remove her oppressors, and she will be free. And I will give her peace. For out of Galilee will come the Messiah King. And he will be called: “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” And when the Messiah comes, God will truly be with us.
But notice what else Isaiah is doing here. He sees that while Assyria is a huge problem, it is not the real problem. Isaiah knows there will be other invaders and other tyrants until the Messiah comes and heals Israel from her sin. And so, Isaiah uses this discussion of God’s deliverance from Assyria to proclaim a greater day of salvation! He says that the sign-child, Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz, will prove to the people in that day that God is with them; but one day, the Messiah will come, and when he does, God will really be with his people. In other words, Isaiah 7:14, while not being a prophecy of the coming of the Messiah, is the preface for one of the greatest prophecies of the coming of the Messiah.
To put it another way, Isaiah looks at how God is working in his day, and he sees these acts as signs or types or patterns that speak of a greater day. He sees everything through the lens of God’s promise to send his Messiah to redeem his people. And that changes how he looks at everything.
Fast forward seven-hundred years into another hopeless age. Rome occupies the land of Judah. The people of Israel are enslaved. Injustice sits on the throne. Evil is winning, and the people were worried that God was no longer with them. In fact, it looked like, at any moment, the Roman Legions could sweep through the land and that would be the end of Israel. But then, the angel comes with good news. A virgin will give birth to a son; and they will call this boy, Immanuel. And this boy will be the promised Messiah, and he will be marked by these names: “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
So, is Isaiah 7:14 a prophecy of Jesus? No. And kind of. And yes. No, because Isaiah’s Immanuel was clearly fulfilled in Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz. He alone fits the chronology, the situation and the context. But Isaiah saw this one as having messianic overtones, for in this section of Isaiah, the promise of Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz morphs into the promise of the Messiah who will save his people, not only from tyrants, but from their sin and alienation. And yes, because Isaiah was looking for Immanuel to come and truly and completely reveal that God was with his people. And if Isaiah saw his promise of Immanuel as a prophecy of the Messiah, then Matthew was absolutely right in seeing Jesus as the ultimate fulfillment of Isaiah’s longing for the coming of the day when God would dwell with his people forever.
The legendary playwright, George Bernard Shaw, once sent two tickets for his new play, Buoyant Billions, to Winston Churchill. He enclosed this note: “Have reserved two tickets for opening night. Come and bring a friend, if you have one.” Churchill replied: “Impossible to come to the first night. Will come to second night, if you have one.” They were nasty. I hope I wasn’t. But trust me, I wanted to be!