With the notable exception of the fourteenth verse the prophesy of Isaiah in chapter seven is extremely easy to interpret using literal hermeneutics. We are aware of the occasion of the prophecy, the target of the prophecy and we are given a plethora of names that can certainly be interpreted in a strictly literal context. I even believe it can readily be shown that a number of the images that may be viewed figuratively can even yield themselves to a reasonable literal interpretation. Further it is easy to see when and how the prophecy was fulfilled in an accurate manner.
However there is no doubt at all that the fourteenth verse casts considerable doubt upon the interpretation of the other verses. The verse is directly quoted as a vital piece of New Testament Christian doctrine and yet in a context that appears antithetic to the original interpretation. I do not have a solution to this puzzle that I consider adequate. Therefore in what follows I shall attempt to express the natural interpretation of Isaiah 7 as I believe it would originally have been read. I will then outline the contrasting interpretation that is mandated by the New Testament. I shall also offer one possibility for the resolution of the two interpretations.
There can be little reasonable doubt as to the occasion of Isaiah's prophecy. The kings of Syria and Ephraim had formed a federation against Judah. Ahaz king of Judah was extremely concerned and Isaiah was sent to him to inform him that the alliance would not prevail. The prophesy predicts the overthrow of Ephraim within sixty five years which occurred in 722BC which gives the period of the first portion of the prophesy unequivocally.
The Lord then asks Ahaz to name a sign that the first prophecy will stand. Ahaz refuses and then the Lord states that He Himself will provide a sign; that is the prelude to the famous fourteenth verse:
Isa 7:14Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. (KJV)
However the translation of this famous verse given in Isaiah is actually based upon the quotation of the verse rendered by Matthew that requires the use of the word virgin. The Hebrew word almah may certainly refer to a virgin but is really more general and applies to any woman that has recently become a sexually mature adult.
Baring this in mind it would appear to me that Isaiah 7:16 would be expected to have a near term fulfillment. The verse calls for the desolation of Syria and Samaria before the child born from verse 14 reaches the age of responsibility. Given that we have already been told that the land of Samaria would be destroyed within sixty five years and we actually know that the land of Syria was destroyed even sooner at the instigation of Ahaz then we must presume that the verses would have been viewed as fulfilled by the readers of the Old Testament from 722BC onwards.
Isaiah 7:17 then appears to change approach significantly. Far from assuring Ahaz of protection it explicitly states that the Lord will turn the Assyrians upon the Jews in a manner that had not occurred since the united monarchy. The verse does not have a specific timing marker either to suggest the present or future fulfillment. However the fact that it is the Assyrians that are being used in highly suggestive. Whilst it was the Babylonians that eventually sacked Judah it was the Assyrians under Tiglath Pilesar that essentially turned Judah from a sovereign to vassal state. This was of course the same Assyrian monarch that Ahaz had spoken to suggesting that verse 17 also had a relatively immediate fulfillment.
The latter part of the chapter is then introduced with the expression 'in that day'. This is an expression that is used to introduce eschatological passages although it has also been used by Isaiah in a non-technical sense. Therefore it is necessary to examine the following verses to see if they favor a heavily eschatological interpretation or if there is a more immediate fulfillment in view.
Verses 18 through 20 may be a metaphor hinting at a longer term fulfillment. The Lord has already said he will hiss for the nations and perhaps the Egyptian fly and the Assyrian bee are metaphors for the respective armies. However the metaphor appears overly elaborate and even counter intuitive in Is 7:19. Why would invading armies bivouac in deserted valleys, hide in rocks and then camp out amongst the thorns? I suggest it is actually more reasonable to view this literally. The flies of Egypt were enough to discomfort the Egyptians and the bees from Assyria could explain the abundance of honey in Is 7:22.
Is 7:20 certainly yields itself to metaphoric interpretation. The picture of a foreign army shaving the land clean is not unreasonable. Equally the image could denote the disgrace that an Easterner felt to have his hair shorn. However it should be noted that shaving prisoners of war or captured soldiers to bring disgrace upon them was not unknown either. The verse also does re-iterate that this is the king of Assyria. Normal hermeneutics would relate the reference to the one in Is 7:17 which was immediately fulfilled.
Is 7:21-25 provides a very graphic picture. However it is not one that relates to either the tribulation or the millennium. There is too much prosperity for the tribulation. Those that are left have relatively few resources but they are enough to provide an abundance of food. In other words the population has a very low density but is untroubled by the conditions provided they are prepared to live off the land. Conversely the land is uncultivated so this does not suggest millennial conditions of permanence and prosperity. The passage does give a message of desolation. The land is returning to wilderness conditions; effectively gaining its jubilee.
Based upon the foregoing I believe the natural interpretation of the temporal scope of Isaiah 7 is to give it an essentially immediate application. The judgments upon Samaria and Syria occurred within the stated time and the pronouncement upon Judah had already been set in motion by the faithless actions of Ahaz. The eventual fulfillment took decades but occurred during the deportation of the Jews to Babylon.
We now have to return to the fourteenth verse which Matthew plainly tells us is Messianic. The young woman was the virgin Mary and Immanuel was none other than our blessed Lord Himself. In fact Isaiah may have had some inkling that the fourteenth verse has special meaning because in the eighth chapter we see a woman conceiving and bearing a child and the two kings being spoiled before he reached the age of responsibility. However that child had a different name. Further the child was Isaiah's so he must have been tempted to call it Immanuel to make the previous chapter fit yet he didn't. There can therefore be no doubt that Is 7:14 has to be plucked from the immediate context and moved to around 4BC.
The accompanying verses do not appear to move with it in any reasonable way. There is nothing that happened in the early years of the Lord's life that fit this picture. When the Romans sacked Jerusalem, Egypt and Assyria were largely irrelevant. Also what can it possibly mean for the Lord of all Creation to reach an age where he knows right from wrong? Do we assume that He was ignorant of this and had to be filled in by His parents? Whilst the Lord may well have eaten butter and honey we are not told of such and how would it have taught Him right from wrong?
I personally believe that rather than view Is 7:14 as a direct Messianic reference we almost have to view it as a shadow where the truth to be revealed in the New Testament almost broke through but didn't quite manage it. This has happened elsewhere. In Gen 22:8 Abraham predicts that the Lord would provide a lamb. In Gen 22:13 we find that the Lord had provided a ram. The immediate fulfillment of Abraham's prediction was obvious but also sufficiently misaligned as to suggest that there was a piece missing. In a similar manner I believe the immediate and obvious fulfillment of Is 7:14 occurred in Is 8:3 but that the correlation was sufficiently loose to allow for a later and more amazing fulfillment.
In conclusion: I started this essay with a warning that the natural hermeneutics of this passage are difficult. I have then shown that Is 7:1-13 demand a fulfillment in Isaiah's time. Is 7:15-25 certainly allow for a fulfillment in Isaiah's time and shortly thereafter culminating in the Babylonian captivity. The fourteenth verse is one of those that essentially 'jars' with its surroundings and we need the New Testament to give it it's true meaning. However the slightly miss-fitting Old Testament interpretation is also compatible with the belief that Is 7 was fulfilled in the period 725BC-580BC.