(1) We may deal with it as though the Gospel of St. Matthew had never been written, as though the facts which it records had no place in the history of mankind. From this point of view we get what seems at first a comparatively simple exposition. The prophet offers a sign to the faithless king, and the sign is this: he points to some young bride in either sense of that word, and says that she shall conceive and bear a son. The fulfilment of that prediction in a matter which lay outside the range of human knowledge was to be the sign for Ahaz and his court, and she should give that son a name which would rebuke the faithlessness of the king. Immanuel, “God with us,” would be a nomen et omen, witnessing, not of an incarnate Deity, but of His living and abiding presence. Who was the mother of the child on this theory we have no data for deciding. As the two other children of the prophet bore, like Hosea’s (Isaiah 7:3; Isaiah 8:3), mysterious and prophetic names, the most probable conjecture seems to be that it was Isaiah’s own wife, still young, and, as it were, still a bride, or possibly a second wife whom he had married, or was about to marry, after the death of his first. Other guesses have pointed to one of the women of the harem of Ahaz who may have been with him when Isaiah spoke. The hypothesis of some critics that such a one became the mother of Hezekiah, and that he was the Immanuel of the prophet’s thoughts, breaks down under the test of dates. Hezekiah, at the time the prophecy was uttered, was a boy of at least nine years of age (2 Kings 16:2; 2 Kings 18:2). Of this child so born Isaiah predicts that he shall grow up in a time of suffering and privation (Isaiah 7:15), and that before he has attained to manhood the confederacy of Rezin and Remaliah shall come to a disastrous end. So far all is at least coherent. Immanuel, as a person, stands on the same level as Shear-jashub, representing a great idea to which Isaiah again appeals in Isaiah 8:8; Isaiah 8:10, but not identified with the Christ, or even with any expectations of the Christ. On the other hand, there are phenomena in Isaiah’s prophetic work at large which this explanation does not adequately include. The land of Israel at least appears to be described as in some peculiar sense the land of Immanuel (Isaiah 8:10). Isaiah is clearly expecting, even in the first volume that bears his name, not to speak of Isaiah 40-66, the arrival, at some undefined point in the future, of one whose nature, work and character, shall be represented by the marvellous series of names of Isaiah 9:6, in whom the spirit of Jehovah, the fear of Jehovah, shall dwell in their fulness—who shall be of the stem of Jesse, and whose reign shall be as the realised ideal of a golden age (Isaiah 11:1-10). That expectation connects itself with a like prophecy, associated as this is with the childbirth of a travailing woman, in Micah 5:3-5. In what relation, we ask, did Immanuel stand to these confessedly Messianic predictions?
(2) The other interpretation sets out from an entirely different starting-point. The words of Matthew 1:23 are taken as, once for all, deciding the entire meaning of the Immanuel prophecy. The prophet is supposed to have passed into a state of ecstasy in which he sees clearly, and with a full consciousness of its meaning, the history of the incarnation and the marvel of the travail-pangs of the Virgin mother. The vision of the future Christ thus presented to his mind, colours all his after-thoughts, and forms the basis of his whole work. The article emphasises the definiteness of his visions. He sees “the virgin mother” of the far-off future. And the prophet learns to connect the vision with the history of his own time. The growth of that Christ-child in the far-off future serves as a measure of time for the events that were passing, or about to pass, within the horizon of his earthly vision. Before the end of an interval not longer than that which separates youth from manhood, the Syro-Ephraiminitic confederacy should be broken up. So far, here also, we have a coherent and consistent view. It is attended, however, by some serious difficulties. A “sign,” in the language of Hebrew prophets, is that which proves to the person to whom it is offered that there is a supernatural power working with him who gives it. If a prediction, it is one which will speedily be tested by a personal experience, the very offer of which implies in the prophet the certainty of its fulfilment. He stakes, as it were, his reputation as a prophet on the issue. (Comp. Isaiah 37:30; Isaiah 38:7; Exodus 4:8-14; 1 Samuel 12:16.) But how could the prediction of a birth in the far-off distance, divided by several centuries from Isaiah’s time, be a sign to Ahaz or his people? And what would be the meaning, we may ask again, of the words “butter and honey shall he eat,” as applied to the Christ-child? Do not the words “Before the child shall know to refuse the evil . . .” point, not to a child seen as afar in vision, but to one who was to be born and grow up among the men of that generation? Should we not have expected, if the words had implied a clear revelation of the mystery of the virgin-birth, that Isaiah himself would have dwelt upon it elsewhere, that later prophets would have named it as one of the notes of the Messiah, that it would have become a tradition of the Jewish schools of interpretation? As a matter of fact, no such allusion is found in Isaiah, nor in the prophets that follow him (see Note on Jeremiah 31:22, for the only supposed, one cannot say even “apparent,” exception); the Jewish interpreters never include this among their notes of the Christ. It is indeed, as has been said in the New Testament portion of this Commentary, one of the strongest arguments for the historical, non-mythical character of the series of events in Matthew 1, Luke 1, 2, that they were contrary to prevailing expectation. (See Note on Matthew 1:23.)
A truer way of interpretation than either of those that have been thus set forth, is, it is believed, open to us. We may remember (1) as regards St. Matthew’s interpretation of Isaiah’s prophecy, that two other predictions cited, as by the Evangelist himself, in the history of the Nativity, in Matthew 1, 2 are, as it were, detached from their position, in which they had a distinct historical meaning, and a new meaning given to them (see Notes on Matthew 2:15; Matthew 2:18). and that this holds good of other prophecies cited by him elsewhere (see Notes on Matthew 21:5; Matthew 27:9). It was not, as some have thought, that facts were invented or imagined that prophecies might appear to be fulfilled, but that the facts being given, prophecies were shown to have a meaning which was fulfilled in them, though that meaning may not have been present to the prophet’s own mind. In this case the use of the word for “virgin” in the LXX. version may have determined St. Matthew’s interpretation of the words. Here, in the history which had come to him attested by evidence which satisfied him, he found One who, in the truest and highest sense, was the “Immanuel” of Isaiah’s prophecy. We must not forget (2) the limits within which the prophets lived and moved, as they are stated in 1 Peter 1:10. They “enquired and searched diligently” as to the time and manner of the fulfilment of their hopes; but their normal state (the exceptions being only enough to prove the rule) is one of enquiry and not of definite assurance. They had before them the ideal of a righteous king, a righteous sufferer, of victory over enemies and sin and death, but the “times and the seasons” were hidden from them, as they were afterwards from the apostles, and they thought of that ideal king as near, about to burst in upon the stage that was filled with the forms of Assyria, Syria, Ephraim, Judah, as the apostles appear to have thought afterwards that the advent of the Lord would come upon the stage of the world’s history that was filled with the forms of Emperors and rebellious Jews and perverse heretics and false prophets (1 Thessalonians 4:15; 1 Corinthians 15:51; 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4; 1 Peter 4:7; 1 Timothy 4:1-3; 1 John 2:18). And neither prophets nor apostles, though left to the limitations of an imperfect knowledge, were altogether wrong. Prophecy has, in Bacon’s words, its “springing and germinant accomplishments.” The natural birth of the child Immanuel was, to the prophet and his generation, a pledge and earnest of the abiding presence of God with His people. The overthrow of Assyria, and Babylon, and Jerusalem were alike forerunners of the great day of the Lord in which the ultimate and true Immanuel, the name at last fulfilled to the uttermost, shall be at once the Deliverer and the Judge.
(3) Go forth now to meet Ahaz . . .—At this crisis the prophet, already recognised as such, and gathering his disciples round him (Isaiah 8:16), is told to deliver a message to the king. He finds him halting between two opinions. He is making a show of resistance, but in reality he is not depending either on the protection of Jehovah, or the courage of his people, but on a plan of his own. Why should he not continue to pay tribute to Assyria, as Uzziah and Menahem (2 Kings 15:19) had done, and write to Tiglath-pileser to attack the territories of the invading kings, as he actually did at a later stage in the war (2 Kings 15:29)?
Thou and Shear-jashub thy son.—Assuming Isaiah 6 to give the first revelation of the idea of the “remnant,” it would follow that the birth of the son whose name (Remnant returns—the return being both literal and spiritual—i.e., “is converted”), embodied a prophecy, must have followed on that revelation, and he was probably, therefore, at the time a stripling of sixteen or eighteen. It may be noted that Isaiah had in the history of Hosea 1, 2 the example of a prophet who, as his children were born, gave them names which were terribly or hopefully significant. Each child was, as it were, a sign and portent (Isaiah 8:18). The fact that the mother of his children was herself a prophetess (Isaiah 8:3), sharing his hopes and fears, gives a yet deeper interest to the fact.
At the end of the conduit . . .—The king was apparently superintending the defensive operations of the siege, probably cutting off the supply of water outside the walls, as Hezekiah afterwards did (2 Chronicles 32:3-4). The “upper pool” has been identified with the Upper Gihon pool (Birket-el-Mamilla) or the “dragon’s well” of Nehemiah 2:13. A lower pool meets us in Isaiah 22:9. The “fuller’s field” was near En-rogelim (Isaiah 36:2; 2 Samuel 17:17).
(4) Take heed, and be quiet . . .—The prophet meets the fears of the king by words of comfort. The right temper for such a time was one of calm courage, waiting on the Lord (Isaiah 30:15).
Neither be fainthearted.—Literally, let not thine heart be soft.
For the two tails of these smoking fire brands.—The two powers that Ahaz dreaded were, in the prophet’s eyes, but as the stumps of two smoking torches. Their flame was nearly out. It would soon be extinguished.
The son of Remaliah.—There is a touch of scorn in the omission of the king’s name. So men spoke scornfully of Saul as “the son of Kish” (1 Samuel 10:11), and Saul himself of David as “the son of Jesse” (1 Samuel 20:30). It pointed out the fact that Pekah was after all but an upstart adventurer, who had made his way to the throne by rebellion and murder.
(6) Let us make a breach therein for us . . .—The words imply an assault on the line of fortresses that defended Judah (2 Chronicles 26:9-10; 2 Chronicles 32:1). If they were won the issue of the war would be practically decided. Jerusalem itself does not appear to have been actually besieged.
The son of Tabeal.—The mode of description, as in the last verse, indicates that the man was of low origin. The name “good is God” is Aramaic, and points to his being an officer in Rezin’s army. It meets us again in Ezra 4:7, among the Aramæan adversaries of Israel, and appears in the term Tibil in Assyrian inscriptions, which give us his actual name as Ashariah (Schrader, Keil Inschrift., p. 118). Tubaal appears in an inscription of Sennacherib as appointed by him as governor of Zidon (Records of the Past, i. 35). Dr. Kay, connecting the name with Tab-rimmon (“Rimmon is good”), conjectures that the substitution of El (“God”) for the name of the Syrian deity may indicate that he was the representative of the family of Naaman, and, like him, a proselyte to the faith of Israel.
(8) The head of Syria is Damascus . . .—The prediction of the failure of the alliance is emphasised. Each city, Damascus and Samaria, should continue to be what it was, the head of a comparatively weak kingdom, and should not be aggrandised by the conquest of Judah and Jerusalem. There is an implied comparison of the two hostile cities and their kings with Jerusalem and its supreme King, Jehovah. Bolder critics, like Ewald, assume that a clause expressing that contrast has been displaced by that which now follows, and which they reject as a later interpolation.
Within threescore and five years shall Ephraim be broken.—Assuming the genuineness of the clause, we have in it the first direct chronological prediction in the prophet’s utterances. Others follow in Isaiah 16:14; Isaiah 17:1; Isaiah 21:6; Isaiah 23:1. Reckoning from B.C. 736 as the probable date of the prophecy, the sixty-five years bring us to B.C. 671. At that date Assyrian inscriptions show that Assurbanipal, the “Asnapper” of Ezra 4:2-10, co-regent with his father Esarhaddon, had carried off the last remnant of the people of Samaria, and peopled it with an alien race (Smith’s Assurbanipal, p. 363). This completed the work which had been begun by Salmaneser and Sargon (2 Kings 17:6). Ephraim then was no more a people.
(9) If ye will not believe . . .—The prophet reads the thoughts that were working in the king’s mind. He had no faith in these predictions terminating at a date which he was not likely to live to witness. By look, or possibly by words, he showed his incredulity, and Isaiah offers to meet it, in the consciousness of a Divine power that will not fail him. From Heaven to Hades, Ahaz may take his choice. The method of giving a sign by predicting something in the near future as a pledge for predictions that belong to a more remote time is specially characteristic of Isaiah. (Comp. Isaiah 37:30; Isaiah 38:7.) There is something significant in “the Lord thy God.” Ahaz, idolater as he was, had not formally abandoned the worship of Jehovah. The tone of authority in which Isaiah speaks may be either that belonging to his consciousness of his mission, or may imply some previous relation to the young king as a counsellor and teacher. (See Introduction.)
(12) I will not ask . . .—The king speaks as in the very accents of faith. He will not put Jehovah to any such test. Not, perhaps, without a sneer, he quotes almost the very formula of the Law: “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God” (Exodus 17:2; Deuteronomy 6:16). Was the prophet going to forget his own teaching, and become a tempter to that sin? That which lay beneath this show of humble trust was simply self-will and utter unfaith. He had already made up his mind to the Assyrian alliance, against which he knew Isaiah was certain to protest. The fact that the words that follow are spoken to the whole house of David, may, perhaps, imply that the older members of the royal family were encouraging the king in his Assyrian projects, and had, perhaps, suggested his hypocritical answer.
(13) Is it a small thing for you to weary men . . .—The thought that men may try the long-suffering of God till He is “weary to bear them,” is specially characteristic of Isaiah (Isaiah 1:14). We mark the changed note of “my God,” as compared with “the Lord thy God” in Isaiah 7:11. Ahaz has involved himself in a sentence of rejection. In the first part of the question Isaiah becomes the mouthpiece of a wide-spread hopeless discontent. Men also were ‘weary’ of this idolatrous and corrupt misgovernment (Isaiah 8:6).
(14) Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son . . .—Better, behold, the young woman, or perhaps the bride, shall conceive. The first noun has the definite article in the Hebrew, and the word, though commonly used of the unmarried, strictly speaking denotes rather one who has arrived at marriageable age. “Bride,” in the old English and German sense of the word as applied to one who is about to become a wife, or is still a young wife, will, perhaps, best express its relation to the two Hebrew words which respectively and distinctively are used for “virgin” and for “wife.” In Psalms 68:26, the Authorised Version gives “damsels.” The mysterious prophecy which was thus delivered to Ahaz has been very differently interpreted.
(15) Butter and honey shall he eat, that he may know . . .—Better, till he know, or, when he shall know. . . .—By a strange inversion of the familiar associations of the phrase (Exodus 3:17; Deuteronomy 31:20), probably, as the prophet spoke them, not without a certain touch of the irony of paradox, the words describe a time, not of plenty, but of scarcity. (Comp. Isaiah 7:22.) Fields and vineyards should be left uncultivated (Isaiah 5:9), and instead of bread and meat, and wine and oil, the people, flying from their cities and taking refuge in caves and mountains, should be left to the food of a nomadic tribe, such, e.g., as the Kenites (Judges 5:25; 1 Samuel 14:26; Matthew 3:4). The “butter” of the Bible here, as in Judges 5:25, is the clotted milk which has always been a delicacy with Arabs.
(16) For before the child shall know . . .—The words imply the age of approaching manhood, and predict the downfall of Pekah and Rezin, as the longer period of Isaiah 7:8 predicted the entire downfall and annihilation of one of the two kingdoms which they represented. The words “good and evil” are better taken of moral choice (Genesis 3:5; Deuteronomy 1:39) rather than (with some critics, who appeal to 2 Samuel 19:35) of the child’s discernment of food as pleasant or the reverse. (See Genesis 2:9; 1 Kings 3:9.)
The land that thou abhorrest.—The words imply the “horror” of fear as well as of dislike. The prediction was fulfilled in the siege of Samaria by Salmaneser, and its capture by Sargon (1 Kings 16:9; 1 Kings 17:6), a fulfilment all the more remarkable in that it was preceded by what seemed an almost decisive victory over Judah (2 Chronicles 28:5-15), of which the prophet makes no mention.
(17) The Lord shall bring upon thee . . .—The prophet’s language shows that he reads the secret thoughts of the king’s heart. He was bent on calling in the help of the king of Assyria. Isaiah warns him (reserving the name of the king, with all the emphasis of suddenness, for the close of his sentence) that by so doing he is bringing on himself a more formidable invasion than that of Syria and Ephraim, worse than any that had been known since the separation of the two kingdoms (we note the use of the event as a chronological era), than that of Shishak under Rehoboam (2 Chronicles 12:2), or Zerah (2 Chronicles 14:9), or of Baasha under Asa (2 Chronicles 16:1), or of the Moabites and Ammonites under Jehoshaphat (2 Chronicles 20:1), or of the Philistines and Arabians under Jehoram (2 Chronicles 21:16). So in 2 Chronicles 28:19-20, we read that “the Lord brought Judah low and made it naked,” that “Tilgath-pilneser, king of Assyria, came unto Ahaz and distressed him,” and this was but the precursor of the great invasions under Sargon and Sennacherib.
(18) The Lord shall hiss for the fly . . .—See for the phrase the Note on Isaiah 5:26. The legions of Egypt are represented by the flies that swarmed on the banks of the Nile (Exodus 8:24, and possibly Isaiah 18:1), those of Assyria by the bees of their forests and their hills (Deuteronomy 1:44; Psalms 118:12). The mention of Egypt indicates that some of the king’s counsellors were then, as afterwards (Isaiah 18:2; Isaiah 31:1), planning an Egyptian alliance, as others were relying on that with Assyria. The prophet tells them that each is fraught with danger. No help and much evil would come from such plans. Consistent in his policy from first to last, the one counsel he gives is that men should practise righteousness, and wait upon the Lord.
The uttermost part of the rivers of Egypt.—The phrase points to the whole extent of the Delta of the Nile, probably to the whole Egyptian course of the Nile itself. Historically the prophecy found its fulfilment in the invasion of Pharaoh Necho in the reign of Josiah (2 Kings 23:29), or, nearer Isaiah’s time, in the movements of Tirhakah’s arms (2 Kings 19:9).
(19) The desolate valleys . . .—The Hebrew adjective has rather the meaning of precipitous or steeply walled, and the noun that of torrent valley, like the Arabic wady. The whole verse is a graphic description of the characteristic features of the scenery of Judah.
(20) Shall the Lord shave with a razor that is hired.—Better, “with the razor.” The words find a parallel in the “made him naked” of 2 Chronicles 28:19. The term “hired” applies to the tribute which Ahaz was about to pay to Tilgath-pilneser. He thought that he was securing an ally: he was but hiring a razor (there is, perhaps, the implied thought that the razor is in other hands than his) that should sweep away all the signs of strength, and leave him an open shame and scorn to all who looked on him. (2 Samuel 10:4). From head to foot, not sparing even the beard, to maltreat which was the last extreme of Oriental outrage, he and his kingdom should be laid bare and naked to his enemies. Possibly there may be an allusive reference (Kay) to Leviticus 14:9. The nation, leprous in its guilt (Isaiah 1:6), needs the treatment which was prescribed for the leper.
() A man shall nourish a young cow, and two sheep . . .—Better, two ewes. Not only should cultivation cease, but the flocks and herds that had before been counted by hundreds or thousands should be counted now by units, two ewes and a heifer for a man’s whole stock, and yet (we note the prophet’s irony once more in the use of the word “abundance”) even that should be enough for a population reduced in proportion. There should be “milk and honey” for the scattered remnant. They should have that, and nothing but that, to eat, ad nauseam usque. The words are grouped together with a grim irony as reminding men of the proverbial words of praise which spoke of Canaan as “a land of milk and honey” (Exodus 3:17).
(23) Where there were a thousand vines at a thousand silverlings.—The words seem to contain an allusive reference to Song of Solomon 8:11, and are therefore worth noting as bearing on the date of that book. There, however, the sum represents the annual produce of the vineyard, here the rent of the vines at a shekel each, a high rent apparently, and indicating a choice quality of vine. The costly vineyards of the hills of Judah should be left to run wild without a keeper (Isaiah 5:10), and thorns and briers would rapidly cover it. “Silverling” was an old English word for any silver coin, and appears in Tyndale’s version of Acts 19:19, and Coverdale’s of Judges 9:4; Judges 16:5; here it stands for “shekel.” The modern rent is said to be a piastre (2¼d.) for each vine; the shekel was worth 2s. 3 d. (Kay).
(24) With arrows and with bows shall men come thither . . .—The words admit of two or three distinct interpretations: (1) the invaders shall march through the desolate vineyards shooting down any whom they found, or (2) the people shall carry bows as a protection against the invaders, or (3) the thickets of thorns and briars shall become coverts for the wolves and jackals, the hyena and the bear, and men shall need bows and arrows for their protection against the beasts of prey. Of these (3) has most in its favour.
(25) And on all hills that shall be digged . . .—Better, “that are digged” or that used to be digged with the hoe. The picture of devastation is completed. On the hill-sides, every inch of which was once brought under careful vine culture, “Thou wilt not enter for fear of thorns and briars” i.e., thou wilt not venture on the task of tilling the soil in face of such disarrangements. What would be the use of hoeing such a tangled mass of brushwood? At the best it must be left for such pasturage as oxen and sheep might find there as they browsed, and they by their trampling should but increase the mischief. The rendering of the Authorised version conveys the thought that where there was the careful culture thus described, there should be an exception to the general desolation. Below this, if we accept it, there may be a spiritual meaning like that of Jeremiah 4:3 (Kay).
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Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Isaiah 7". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/
the First Week after Epiphany