The First Oracle

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. (Isa. 7:14 ESV)

Who was the child named Immanuel in Isaiah 7:14? Was he the son of a young Judahite girl born c.735 BC who would forever be known as “the virgin”? Or was Immanuel the promised Messiah born to the virgin Mary? Or can both be true? The 18th century rationalist philosopher, Thomas Paine, was quick to dismiss the Christian interpretation of the prophecy. He argued instead that all of the events foretold by the prophet were fulfilled during the prophet’s lifetime.

But it is first necessary that I explain the occasion of these words being spoken by Isaiah. The reader will then easily perceive that so far from their being a prophecy of Jesus Christ, they have not the least reference to such a person, nor to any thing that could happen in the time that Christ is said to have lived, which was about seven hundred years after the time of Isaiah.1Thomas Paine, An Examination of the Prophecies

Paine was a keen observer but his animus against Christianity prevented him from seeing the bigger picture. The prophecy of Isaiah did clearly have to do with events which occurred in his day. But it was not limited to these events. But before looking at the prophetic element in 7:14, let’s consider first how it relates to the events which occurred in Isaiah’s day. As Paine pointed out, Isaiah promised king Ahaz that his enemies, Pekah, king of Israel, and Remaliah, king of Aram, would be destroyed. Isaiah even set a date for their destruction. The two northern kings would be destroyed before the child born to “the virgin” was old enough to know good from evil.

Paine argued that Isaiah’s prophecy turned out to be false since Pekah and Remaliah did in fact attack Judah and took many captive (2 Chron. 28:6). But Isaiah does not promise that Remaliah and Pekah would not attack, but that their attack would not be successful. Ultimately Ephraim and Aram were destroyed, as Isaiah predicted, and Judah was saved, although it too suffered the ravages of war. The suffering of Judah is hinted at in 7:15. Isaiah declares that the child would grow up eating curds and honey. This food was the ancient equivalent of K-rations. As has always been the case during wartime, farm fresh produce disappears from the shelf. Even when the invading enemy is defeated, they will still likely have had enough time to sow fields with rocks and cut down orchards, etc. The inhabitants of the land were therefore forced to return to a ‘nomad’ diet which is whatever nutrition that can be derived from flocks (curds) and whatever can be gleaned from the countryside (honey). It takes at least a year to sow the fields and reap a crop from them and several years before fruit trees are producing again. Thus “curds and honey” portended trouble for a people who expected to eat the food from the fields and orchards. Curds and honey is certainly not the rich food of the court! If Thomas Paine read the Scriptures more sympathetically, he would have allowed for this possibility, but Paine was looking for contradictions.

More importantly, Thomas Paine argued that because the prophecy of Isaiah referred to a young woman and child who were alive when the prophecy was made, it cannot refer to the birth of Christ which took place many centuries later. This is a sensible conclusion if all we had of Isaiah were the few verses in chapter 7 which Paine cites. But the book of Isaiah is much more profound than Paine is willing to allow. While the text of Isaiah chapter 7 clearly does relate to events which occurred in the prophets day, it also transcends them.

Already in Isaiah 7 we sense that the child, Immanuel, is different from the other children named in the text: Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz and Shear-Jashub. We know who the latter two children are. They are Isaiah’s sons. But of Immanuel and the almah we know nothing. There is no indication that Immanuel is Isaiah’s child or that the almah is Isaiah’s wife. The word almah was used to refer to a young girl of marriageable age who is presumably a virgin (which, of course, is why it is translated “virgin” in the Greek). However, the identity of the virgin and child remain hidden.

The name Immanuel is also unusual. There are no other instances of a child given this name that I am aware of. Certainly not in the Bible, and none in ancient inscriptions as far as I know. The name clearly bore great significance.

The Second Oracle

The first oracle is followed by a second:

Since Israel and Judah have rejected the gently flowing waters of Shiloah that bubbled down the Kidron Valley between citrus and olive, they will instead be forced to contend with the mighty water of the Euphrates that will sweep through the land, rising up even to the neck and its outspread wings will fill the breadth of your land, O Immanuel!” (Isaiah 8:6-8, my paraphrase)

The raging torrent is, of course, the Assyrian army. The rapidly expanding “banks” of the river are described as “wings” (“banks” and “wings” are the same Hebrew word), as though the flooding waters were a giant bird whose outspread wings cover the land. Such language brings to mind the Assyrian gods Assur and Shamash who are depicted in Assyrian art as winged deities hovering above the Assyrian king on the battlefield. For listening Judahites, the words of Isaiah must have conjured up an image of one of those nazguls in Tolkien’s novels. But what are we to make of the reference to Immanuel seemingly tacked onto the end of this prophecy of doom?

…and its outspread wings will fill the breadth of your land, O Immanuel!” (Isa. 8:8 ESV)

Most of the major translations make the name exclamatory by adding an “O” to Immanual, and they treat Immanuel like a personal name rather than translating it “God with us”. The context seems to require a personal name since the possessive pronoun “your” needs someone to do the possessing (a pronoun needs an antecedent!). The verse therefore seems to suggest that the land that is about to be invaded is Immanuel’s land. We could go one step further and say that Immanuel must be the king and that the land that is about to be invaded is the king’s land. But as we will see, if Immanuel is the king, he is not an ordinary one.

The deity Shamash or Assur hovering above the Assyrian king, Ashurnasirpal (mid 9th century BC). The British Museum.

The Third Oracle

Isaiah’s oracle of destruction is immediately followed by an oracle of victory.

Be broken, you peoples, and be shattered; give ear, all you far countries; strap on your armor and be shattered; strap on your armor and be shattered. Take counsel together, but it will come to nothing; speak a word, but it will not stand, for God is with us. (Isa. 8:9 ESV)

Rau amim ve chotu! Be broken you armies and be shattered! One may well imagine these words being shouted by men banging swords on shields as they prepare to hurl themselves into the battle fray. Modern translations have chosen to translate the word immanu-el in this final instance. Therefore we read “for God is with us”. The reason it is translated is due to the presence of the particle “ki” which may be translated “for” or “because.” Thus it seems more natural to translate the phrase “for God is with us”. However, it is the same Hebrew word that is translated Immanuel in the other two places where the name appears in this section of text.

What are we to make of these references to Immanuel? Are they veiled references to Hezekiah as many scholars maintain? And is the victory referred to in this oracle a victory over the Assyrians and nothing more? As with the first oracle, there may be a historical element to this prophecy that was fulfilled when Sennacherib’s army was destroyed in 701 BC. This was a momentous event recorded not only in Isaiah and 2 Kings but also probably in the Histories of Herodotus and most likely also in the Assyrian Annals (but this is a topic for another day). However, as we argued previously, just because a passage may have a historical interpretation, it does not follow that it cannot also foreshadow a future event. The Exodus and the Passover are cases in point. Moreover, the breaking and shattering of armies is an important theme in Isaiah and in other places in the Bible where it appears in the context of the War to End all Wars. Take for example this passage from Psalm 46.

The nations rage, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah

Come, behold the works of the LORD, how he has brought desolations on the earth. He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the chariots with fire. “Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!” The LORD of hosts is with us (yahweh tsevaot immanu); the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah (Ps. 46:1-11 ESV)

“Yahweh of Hosts is with us” is repeated twice in this psalm. As with Immanuel in Isaiah 8:9, the name appears in the context of the breaking and shattering of armies. The book of Zechariah also looks forward to a time of peace when Zion’s king rides into Jerusalem on the back of a foal. Then will the horse and chariot be cut off and the battle bow broken. The king will speak peace unto the nations and his dominion will extend from sea to shining sea (Zechariah 9:10). There is no reason, in light of the passages cited above, to confine the redemption foretold by Isaiah to redemption from the Assyrians. Nor must the reference to Immanuel in these passages be limited to a reference to a historical king of Judah. But if doubt remains, the fourth and final oracle should dispel it completely. But first let us try to understand the historical context for this oracle.

The Fourth Oracle

Approximately three years have passed since Isaiah uttered his first oracle in the hearing of Ahaz and all all the people. Summarily dismissed by Ahaz from the court, the prophet must have cut a lonely figure among his fellow Judahites, who were convinced that the deal Ahaz made with Assyria had won peace for their time. While his countrymen spun intrigues and cemented alliances, Isaiah stood helplessly by and watched as the Assyrian nazguls circled overhead. The two northern tribes of Israel, Zebulun and Naphtali, had already fallen to the Assyrian king, Tiglath Pileser III. Damascus would fall one year later. This momentous event brought Ahaz scurrying northward to pay obeisance to the Assyrian king, his supposed ally. Before returning to Jerusalem, Ahaz sent a messenger ahead of him with instructions to remove the ancient altar that stood in the center of the temple courtyard in Jerusalem and replace it with a new design modeled after an altar he had seen in Damascus. The apparent urgency with which Ahaz made the altar swap was no doubt prompted in part by the watchful eye of his benefactor, Tiglath Pileser III. It was a token gesture, apparently harmless, but it opened the floodgates for all manner of wickedness. Unspeakable acts were committed in Jerusalem at this time.

It was during during these tumultuous days that the LORD appeared to Isaiah and spoke to him a fourth time.

For the LORD spoke thus to me with his strong hand upon me. Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread. But the LORD of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread. (Isa. 8:11-13 ESV)

The fourth oracle continues for the next eighteen verses until 9:7. This is an important point because scholars tend to break this section into fragments which they date to different periods, rendering much of it meaningless, and stripping what is left of its power. But the whole thing hangs together nicely. Based on its contents, the oracle should probably be dated to sometime between the fall of the two northern tribes of Israel in 732 BC and the fall of Samaria in 721 BC. As mentioned previously, this period witnessed a rapid decline in faith and morals, even as increasing numbers of Judahites turned to mediums and necromancers for guidance. With hearts full of contempt, they raised their eyes to heaven and cursed God. And when they looked to the earth, behold the land was enveloped in thick darkness, black as night, impenetrable gloom. The prophet uses seven different words for darkness and distress in just several lines of text.

It is in this context that Isaiah pens one of the most beautiful and hope-filled passages in the Bible. “But there will be no more gloom for those living in darkness,” says the prophet. The land which was held in contempt, Zebulun and Naphtali, on the Way of the Sea, Galilee of the Nations, shall be made glorious. Isaiah provides a peculiarly precise description of the two northern provinces situated between the mountains of Lebanon and the Sea of Galilee that were the first to fall before the Assyrian onslaught and be incorporated into the Empire of Darkness. The apostle Matthew would later point out to his readers that Capernaum lies in this very same region and that Christ is the fulfillment of this prophecy (Matt. 5:14). Isaiah continues by picking up on a theme which he introduced in the third oracle.

For the yoke of his burden, and the staff for his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult and every garment rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire. (Is. 9:4)

Who will break and shatter the Empire? The child born of a woman, the son who is given. And what is the child’s name? We should expect Isaiah to repeat the name “Immanuel” as in the previous oracles but we are met, instead, with a barrage of new names. And he shall be called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” And the government (hamisra) shall be upon his shoulders. It is strange that Isaiah should choose to use this word for government. Hamisra only appears in this one place in the Bible.2Qumran Scroll A has mswrh. See Godfrey Rolles Driver, “Isaiah 9:5-6,” Vetus testamentum 2, no. 4 (1952). And for a good reason. It is not a Hebrew word but rather the Assyrian word for government (meshorah). Furthermore, the word sar in the title “Sar Shalom” (translated “Prince of Peace”) also seems to be playing on the Assyrian word for king ‘sarru‘. Isaiah has adopted the language of the Assyrian kings who frequently boasted of having placed their yoke on the shoulders of the peoples. But Isaiah radically transforms their metaphors. The “child who is born” does not impose his government on the shoulders of his subjects, but rather takes the meshorah upon his own shoulders. Instead of vain and violent boasting, the “son who is given” will be called the “King of Peace” and of the increase of his government, and of peace, there shall be no end!

Syrian, probably Israelite men, harnessed to a rope. Each man has a strap across his chest which is attached to a heavy double rope. They are pulling a giant block of stone which will eventually be formed into a lamassu, a bull-man, which stands guard in the palace of the Assyrian sarru. An Assyrian soldier is beating the men with a staff.   “The yoke of the oppressor will be lifted from their shoulder and the oppressor’s staff will be broken (9:3)”


I’ve heard several socially conservative commentators pronounce orthodox Christianity intellectually untenable. They have adopted instead a highly psychologized interpretation of the Bible . Christ is, according to their interpretations, just another mythical subject of the hero’s journey. They look for truth by analyzing the subconscious and following the teachings of spirits which appear to them in trances (I am thinking specifically of Jung’s Red Book and Campbell’s A Hero with a Thousand Faces). We have Isaiah’s view of this approach.

And when they say to you, “Inquire of the mediums and the necromancers who chirp and mutter,” should not a people inquire of their God? Should they inquire of the dead on behalf of the living?

To the teaching and to the testimony! If they will not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn. (Isa. 8:19-20 ESV)

Isaiah does not give us an archetype for our subconscious but Immanuel, God with us.

For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. (Lk. 2:11 KJV)


I left out Isaiah 11, which I should not have done. It fits with the theme of Isaiah 7-9 but is separated from these chapters by a series of Woes pronounced against Israel (the Woes actually begin in Isaiah 5, where they are directed exclusively towards Judah whereas the second set of Woes in chapter 10 are directed solely towards Israel). Why the book of Isaiah is arranged this way, I cannot say, but this is what makes it such an interesting and precious book.