“Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz: ‘Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.’ But Ahaz said, ‘I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.’ And he said, ‘Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted. The Lord will bring upon you and upon your people and upon your father’s house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria!’”

(Isaiah 7:14-17)

In yesterday’s piece, we saw how Solomon failed to remain faithful to Yahweh, and served a plethora of idols. Although the book of Ecclesiastes is reckoned by many to show that Solomon did return to the true God, his actions nonetheless had grave consequences, with the kingdom being split into two: Israel in the north and Judah in the south.

After this we see a succession of kings, some doing good, most doing evil, but all of them failing to govern according to God’s laws at some stage or other of their kingship. Generally speaking, the kings of Israel outstrip the kings of Judah in their wickedness, but often it’s a close run thing.

In today’s passage, we meet with Ahaz, king of Judah. Here’s how the Book of Kings describes him:

“In the seventeenth year of Pekah the son of Remaliah, Ahaz the son of Jotham, king of Judah, began to reign. Ahaz was twenty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned sixteen years in Jerusalem. And he did not do what was right in the eyes of the Lord his God, as his father David had done, but he walked in the way of the kings of Israel. He even burned his son as an offering, according to the despicable practices of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel. And he sacrificed and made offerings on the high places and on the hills and under every green tree” (2 Kings 16:1-4).

Nonetheless, despite his wickedness, God still has an interest in protecting Judah, the royal tribe where the Temple of God is located. And so when Pekah, the king of Israel, forms an alliance with Rezin of Syria to wage war against Judah and mount an attack on Jerusalem, and when Ahaz and the people of Judah “shake as the trees of the forest shake before the wind” after hearing of the conspiracy, God sends Isaiah to reassure the king that “It shall not stand, and it shall not come to pass” (Isaiah 7:7).

Isaiah even offers Ahaz to ask for a sign from God that it should be so. Yet Ahaz being Ahaz, he refuses, albeit under a hypocritical cloak of piety: “I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.”  Nevertheless, God being God, he gives it to him anyway.

The sign is that the virgin shall conceive, and his name shall be Immanuel (God with us). Now we all know that this verse is used in the New Testament in reference to Jesus. And yet this presents us with somewhat of a problem. The virgin Mary conceiving Jesus some 700-odd years later isn’t much of a sign to Ahaz at that time. And indeed the next few verses – where it speaks of the defeat of Pekah and Rezin before the child is of an age where he understands the difference between good and evil – compel us to believe that there must have been some sort of fulfilment of the prophecy in Ahaz’s day. Does this mean that there was a virgin birth back then? Not as such. So what is the explanation?

The Hebrew word translated here as virgin is almah. Many non-Christian scholars insist that the word should be translated as young maiden. However, the Bible often uses this word to describe a woman who was unmarried, and who was expected to be a virgin. For example, the same word is translated virgin in Genesis 24:43, speaking about Rebekah: “Let the virgin who comes out to draw water, to whom I shall say, ‘Please give me a little water from your jar to drink…’”

Part of the difficulty here is our view of the word virgin. To a modern person, the word simply refers to someone who has not had sexual relations. However, in ancient times, the word more denoted the idea of covenantal faithfulness. For instance, Israel itself is many times likened to a virgin in Scripture, and her worshipping false Gods is likened to a betrothed virgin being unfaithful: “The virgin Israel has done a very horrible thing” (Jeremiah 18:13).

In other words, the prophecy could have been partially fulfilled by a young, unmarried woman, who was known to Ahaz and who conceived a child in the normal way, or it could be fulfilled miraculously by a young unmarried woman who had never had sexual relations. As it happens, it appears to be both.

In the following chapter, Isaiah tells us that he “went to the prophetess, and she conceived and bore a son”. He then tells us that “before the boy knows how to cry ‘My father’ or ‘My mother,’ the wealth of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria will be carried away before the king of Assyria,” which fits well with what was prophesied in the previous chapter.

But of course this is only a partial fulfilment, and Matthew tells us when it was fulfilled in the fullest sense:

“All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel’ (which means, God with us)”

But we mustn’t miss the point. The sign of the virgin in Ahaz’s day was not just about woman who wasn’t expected to conceive, conceiving. Rather, it was given to herald the defeat of God’s enemies – Rezin and Pekah – in order to protect his people and the royal city.

In Matthew’s day, the sign is the same. It is not just that a virgin, this time through a miracle, conceived a child, although that was of course massively important since Jesus could not come from Joseph, the son of Adam. Rather, the sign is again given in the midst of a disbelieving people, this time Judah (for the most part) playing the part of Ahaz. Only this time it is done to herald the defeat of an enemy far greater than the kings of Israel and Syria.

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