Dr. Ray E. Heiple, Jr.
The Historical, Factual Virgin Birth of Jesus Christ
Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and she shall call His name Immanuel. Isaiah 7:14NKJ
Question 37 of the Larger Catechism asks: “How did Christ, being the Son of God, become man?” It gives the answer: “Christ the Son of God became man, by taking to himself a true body, & a reasonable soul, being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost in the womb of the Virgin Mary, of her substance, and born of her, yet without sin.”
Critics have long insisted that Matthew (and the visible church ever since) distorted this text of Isaiah. First, they claim that the Hebrew word used here, almah does not mean virgin, but only “young woman.” And that Matthew was led astray by the Septuagint translation of the passage, which uses the Greek word for virgin, Parthenos. This argument does not hold water for a number of reasons. The author of Matthew clearly knew Hebrew and so could not have been fooled by a Greek translation of Isa. 7:14. Also, while the Hebrew word almah is a general word for maiden and not the specific word for virgin, almah must mean an unmarried woman. In fact Luther once issued a challenge, “If a Jew or Christian can prove to me that almah means a married woman, I will give him 100 florins.” Moreover, the word almah is always used in a positive sense, that is, with reference to a morally upright person. Therefore, in accord with how the word is always used in the other six places it appears in the Hebrew Bible (Gen. 24:43; Exo. 2:8; Psa. 68:25; Pro. 30:19; Sol. 1:3; 6:8), here in Isaiah 7:14 we cannot interpret this woman as a married woman, a widow, or as an adulteress or fornicator. The woman in Isa. 7:14 can only be an unmarried, morally upright woman, & yet she is with child! Thus, she must be a virgin, as is also the strong implication in the other passages. Finally, if Isaiah had used the Hebrew word for virgin bethulah instead of unmarried woman almah, the prophecy would be thought to refer to a virgin, upon marrying, losing her virginity and conceiving in the usual way, but by using a word that demands an unmarried woman, it cannot have this meaning.
Another argument used against the Christian understanding of Isaiah 7:14 as a prophecy of the virgin birth of Christ claims that the verse refers to Isaiah’s wife’s son or to some unknown woman of Isaiah’s day, because 7:16-17 refers to an event that would happen in a few years: Syria and Samaria being conquered by Assyria. Now while this argument is more plausible in that it does no violence to the correct meaning of the words, it also cannot stand. First, when Isaiah’s wife conceives in 8:3, God tells him to call his name “Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz,” not Immanuel. Moreover in 7:14, it is the woman and not a man who names the child. Similarly, the boy referred to in Isa. 7:16, who is about to come to the age of moral discernment – “know to refuse the evil and choose the good” – is not the unborn child of the virging but Isaiah’s already born son who was there with Isaiah because God commanded him to take with him in 7:3 when He sent him out to speak this prophecy. God is thus saying that before Isaiah’s already born son gets a little older, Syria and Samaria will be conquered. But that is not the sign referred to in 7:14-15, where a child of a virgin is to be born, whose eating habits will be similar to Isaiah’s son’s eating habits and for the same reason: a time of scarcity and want. The key to correctly interpreting the text is in understanding to whom God is giving this sign. And here the text leaves us in no doubt whatsoever.
Isaiah is speaking to king Ahaz, David’s current heir, who is ruling over the nation of Judah. He has been sent to give a promise and a sign that God will not allow Syria and Samaria to achieve their boast in 7:6 of wiping out the line of David and setting up a new king and kingdom. But the Hebrew text, by the use of plural pronouns, reveals that the message and sign are not given to Ahaz personally but to the whole house of David. Thus, God warns David’s whole house of the danger of not believing and so not being established in 7:9, and then says to them in 7:13-14 (using perfectly good Pittsburgh English) “Then he said, ‘You’ns hear now, O house of David! Is it a small thing for you’ns to weary men, but will you’ns weary my God also? Therefore the Lord Himself will give you’ns a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and she shall call His name Immanuel.’” Here we clearly see that the sign of God keeping His promise to always have a son of David on the throne was not given to one king, but to all the house of David. The text demands this understanding. It was a humbling sign, a rebuking sign, and a sign of God’s power. For God would keep His promise to David to raise up a future son to rule forever, even without a male descendant of David begetting that son, even if the family and nation no longer believed in that promise. David’s line may have ended up being faithless, but God was still faithful to His promise: for the virgin conceived and bore a son without a human father. And she and now we call His name Immanuel, God with us. And His kingdom is forever.