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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible

Matthew 1

 

 

Verse 1

The Opening Declaration (Matthew 1:1).

‘The book of the generation of Jesus Messiah (Christ), the son of David, the son of Abraham.’

This may be seen as the heading of the whole book, or as the heading of the genealogical introduction, or indeed as the heading of both. Compare for this Mark 1:1 where there is a similar opening. Its emphasis is on Jesus Christ, on where He came from, and on Who and What He is. As the son of Abraham He is a pure bred Jew and heir to the promises given to Abraham (Genesis 12:2-3 and often), as the son of David He is the Expected Coming One (2 Samuel 7:12-13; 2 Samuel 7:16; Isaiah 9:6-7; Isaiah 11:1-4; Ezekiel 37:24-28; Daniel 7:13-14), as the Messiah He is the fulfilment of both, with the expectation therefore of being a blessing to the world (Genesis 12:3), and of bringing about deliverance for His own people resulting in worldwide rule (Isaiah 9:7; Isaiah 11:1-4; Psalms 2:8-10; Daniel 7:14). Both these terms, ‘son of Abraham’ and ‘son of David’, are used Messianically in other Jewish literature, but not on a regular basis.

‘The book of the generation of Jesus Messiah (Christ).’ Almost the exact phrase, apart from the name, can be found in Genesis 2:4; Genesis 5:1, ‘the book of the generation of --’ (although LXX translates with the definite article, while Matthew does not have the article). There, in the case of Genesis 5:1, it could indicate either the ‘family history’ of Adam which has preceded it, as a tailpiece or colophon to it, or it could signify the following genealogy. Which Matthew read it as we do not know.

The Hebrew for ‘generations’ (Hebrew - toledoth; Greek - geneseows) can mean simply ‘family history’ (see Genesis 37:2). Thus here in Matthew also ‘geneseows’ may refer to the whole Gospel as signifying the ‘historical record’ of Jesus Christ, or it may specifically have in mind the genealogy. Some, however, see ‘geneseows’ here as signifying ‘origin’ or ‘birth’ (as with ‘genesis’ in Matthew 1:18), thus seeing it as describing the book of the origins, or birth and subsequent life, of Jesus Christ, and thus as indicating the new Genesis.

Alternately relating the use of the phrase here with Genesis 2:4 it might be seen as indicating that in Jesus Christ a new creation was seen as beginning (Galatians 6:15; 2 Corinthians 2:17), replacing the old. This would fit in with John the Baptist’s cry that God (as Creator) is able from the stones to raise up children to Abraham, and with the fact that the result of Jesus’ coming is to be a ‘regeneration’ (palin-genesia - Matthew 19:28). There may also be a deliberate contrast of ‘the beginnings (geneseows)’ here in Matthew 1:1 with the coming of ‘the end’ (sunteleias) in Matthew 28:20.

Another possibility is that the connection of the phrase with Adam in Genesis 5:1 might indicate that Jesus is to be seen as ‘the last Adam’, the ‘second Man’ (compare Romans 5:12; Romans 5:17-19; 1 Corinthians 15:45-49), which would again link with the idea of a new creation, or ‘beginning’. But this idea appears nowhere else in Matthew and must therefore probably be discounted. Matthew’s concentration is on Jesus’ royalty, not on His relationship with Adam. As the Son of Abraham (the progenitor of royalty) He is the final ‘King Who will come from him’ (Genesis 17:6 compare Genesis 35:11) and as the Son of David He is the promised Davidic King (2 Samuel 7:13; 2 Samuel 7:16; Psalms 2; Isaiah 9:6-7; Isaiah 11:1-4 and often).

(Luke in his introductory chapters also looks back to Abraham and the promises related to him (Luke 1:55; Luke 1:73; Luke 3:8; Luke 3:34), and even more to the Davidic Kingship (Luke 1:27; Luke 1:32-33; Luke 1:69; Luke 2:4; Luke 2:11), and he sees the source of Jesus’ coming as firmly rooted in Israel. But in Luke the mention of Abraham is secondary to the great project from Adam as the source of mankind (Luke 3:38). To him Jesus is connected with the source of all men. Mark’s Gospel emphasises His coming as being directly from God. John takes us even further back into eternity. It is these emphases which reveal why we needed four Gospels revealing Jesus as the Son of Abraham, the Son of Adam, the Son of God, and the eternal Word).


Verses 1-17

SECTION 1. INTRODUCTION TO JESUS THE CHRIST (1:1-17).

The introduction to the Gospel is in the form of a genealogy which indicates that Jesus is ‘the son of David’ and ‘the son of Abraham’. This description reveals His descent from, and intimate connection with, two of the greatest figures in salvation history. Indeed we might even say the two figures around whom salvation history pivots. For great though others like Moses may have been, they were never the foundations on whom the promises were laid.

Abraham was the man who was called by God in the midst of a dark world to commence the process of building up a new community of God, (which was to become the ‘congregation (or church/ekklesia) of Israel’ - Deuteronomy 4:10; Deuteronomy 9:10; Deuteronomy 18:16; Deuteronomy 23:3; Deuteronomy 23:8; etc. LXX Psalms 22:22; Psalms 22:25 and often; Joel 2:16), and was counted as righteous because he believed God (Genesis 15:6). He was the one to whom God gave promises of blessing which would come to the whole world through his descendants (Genesis 12:3). He was the rock from which Israel was hewn (Isaiah 51:1-2). He was to be the springboard of all God’s purposes. David on the other hand was the archetypal ruler, the man after God’s own heart, who because of his faithfulness to God was to be the precursor to the everlasting king (2 Samuel 7:16; Psalms 2:7-9; Isaiah 11:1-4) as he ruled over God’s community, and was its life (Lamentations 4:20).

Both mirror their great Descendant who has come to pick up and restore that community/congregation (Jeremiah 30:20; Psalms 22:25), cutting out the dead wood, and building a new community from the ashes of the old, on the basis of His Messiahship (Matthew 16:16; Matthew 16:18; Matthew 21:43), repurchasing it as it had once been purchased of old (Matthew 20:28; Psalms 74:2). He was to ‘gather the people and sanctify the church/congregation (of Israel)’ (Joel 2:16 LXX). He was to be the greater David, and the greater Abraham.

His direct descent from Abraham also revealed Him as a pure bred Israelite (Jew), Who was to inherit and fulfil the promises given to Abraham, and His descent in the line of David revealed Him as heir to the throne of Israel, and indicated that He was the final inheritor of the promises given concerning the Davidic house, and was thus the Messiah.

The themes of this introduction will then be directly taken up in the following narrative in Matthew 1:18 to Matthew 3:17, and be expanded throughout the remainder of the Gospel.

Analysis of Matthew 1:1-17.

a The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham (Matthew 1:1).

b Genealogy from Abraham (whose descendants were to be kings - Genesis 17:6) to ‘Judah and his brothers’ (Matthew 1:2).

c Genealogy from Judah (who was promised the kingship - Genesis 49:10) to ‘David the King’ (Matthew 1:3-6 a), who was guaranteed the everlasting Kingship for his seed (2 Samuel 7:16).

c Genealogy from David to ‘Jeconiah and his brothers (who lost the kingship) at the time of the carrying away into Babylon’ (Matthew 1:6-11).

b Genealogy from Jeconiah (and his brothers) to ‘Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus who is called the Christ (Messiah, Anointed One)’ and thus regains the Kingship (Matthew 1:12-16).

a So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David to the carrying away to Babylon fourteen generations; and from the carrying away to Babylon to the Christ fourteen generations (Matthew 1:17).

Note that in ‘a’ the sources of Jesus’ line are described, and in the parallel ‘a’ they are described in the reverse order. In ‘b’ we have Abraham, the rock from which Israel is hewn, and in the parallel we have the Son of Abraham, Who is the rock on which the new Israel will be built, and from Whom it springs (John 15:1-6). In ‘c’ we have the gradual growth towards Kingship, culminating in David, and in the parallel we have the history of that kingship as it deteriorate and collapses The whole of Israel’s history and its kingship is thus seen to be summed up in Jesus, including the promises to Abraham, the promises in respect of the house of David, and the experience of Israel as it went into Exile. All are themes that will be taken up in the ensuing narrative. He will be:

a Born as the Son of David and Saviour and receive homage from the Gentiles (Matthew 1:18 to Matthew 2:12).

b Suffer exile in Egypt (Matthew 2:13-18).

c Be brought forth by God to humble surroundings (Matthew 2:19-23).

d And finally be proclaimed as Messiah in the power of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 3:1-17).

And in the end it will be:

a As the Davidic Messiah and Saviour that He will be put to death receiving homage from a Gentile (Matthew 20:28; Matthew 27:17; Matthew 27:22; Matthew 27:29; Matthew 27:37; Matthew 27:54).

b As the suffering Messiah that He will be exiled from God (Matthew 27:46).

c As the triumphant Messiah that He will rise again and be brought forth by God (Matthew 28:5-6).

d As the glorious Messiah that He will be given all authority in Heaven and earth (Matthew 28:18-20).

The idea of ‘the Anointed One’ (Messiah in Hebrew, Christ in Greek) arises early in the Old Testament. Quite apart from its application to priests and kings in general, to the patriarchs (Psalms 105:15), and at least once to a prophet taking over the mantle of another prophet (1 Kings 19:16), it came to indicate the one specially chosen of YHWH (1 Samuel 2:10; 1 Samuel 24:6; 1 Samuel 24:10; 1 Samuel 26:9; 1 Samuel 26:11; 1 Samuel 26:16; 1 Samuel 26:23; Psalms 2:2; Lamentations 4:20; Daniel 9:25-26 compare Isaiah 45:1 where it is used figuratively of one who unconsciously was taken up in God’s purposes), and was later a special expression applied to the expected Coming King of the house of David as ‘the Messiah’.

The opening verse is then followed by a full history of salvation, expressed genealogically, from Abraham to Jesus the Messiah (Matthew 1:2-15). We can divide these verses up in terms of the indications given in them. Thus the phrase ‘and his brothers’ occurs twice, each paralleling the other, and indicating on the one hand the establishment of the twelve tribes (Matthew 1:2), and on the other the chaos in the house of David at the Exile (Matthew 1:11); while ‘David the King’ (Matthew 1:6) and ‘Jesus Who is called the Messiah’ (Matthew 1:16) parallel each other, indicating the bud and the flowering. These expressions provide us with natural divisions.

Surrounding Matthew 1:2-16 are the opening and closing paragraphs (1 & 17) which introduce Jesus’ ancestry in summary form in one order, and then provide a final summary in reverse order. So the account is succint and beautifully planned. The fourteenfold patterns into which it is divided then also reveal a special emphasis on Abraham, David the King, the Exile, and Jesus the Christ.

We should thus note that this fourfold division indicates Jesus descent from Abraham, His descent from the twelve tribes of Israel (Judah and his brothers), His descent from David the King, and His descent from the suffering ones of the exile (Jechoniah and his brothers/relatives). The whole of Israel’s experience was summed up in Him.


Verse 2

Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat Judah and his brothers.’

Matthew then begins his seemingly long and detailed genealogy, but before we switch off we should notice that for Israel each name, especially here and in the middle section, was pregnant with history. These were not just names in a list but leaders and kings of the past who had had their own effect on Israel’s history for good or bad, a history which is revealed throughout the Old Testament. Every name would have a meaning. Indeed in this very verse we have the names of those who led to the founding of God’s people Israel. And yet their being in the list, and not at the end of it, is the indication that they did not finally achieve the hope of Israel, the establishing of God’s everlasting Kingly Rule. Abraham is the source, but otherwise they are but steps on the way.

Having commenced with Abraham, in whom the new purposes of God began after man’s opening rebellions against God (Genesis 1-11), the genealogy follows with the major patriarchs, and the first indication of an important stage in the list is indicated by Judah ‘and his brothers’. Thus we have an emphasis, first on Jesus’ begetting by Abraham, with whom it all began, and then an emphasis on His begetting directly from the tribe of Judah, while at the same time being linked with the whole twelve tribes of Israel. It was to the tribe of Judah that the sceptre and ruler’s rod was promised, and it was from the tribe of Judah that the mysterious ‘Shiloh’ was to come to whom the peoples would gather (Genesis 49:10-12). Thus Jesus was in line to fulfil the promises. But there is also an emphasis here on His being a true son of Israel as descended from the joint patriarchs of the twelve tribes.

‘And his brothers.’ This connects Jesus with all the tribes of Israel. He is related to them all and has come on behalf of all, for they are all the seed of Abraham through the chosen line (Genesis 17:16; Genesis 17:19; Genesis 17:21). ‘The twelve tribes’ are later stressed in Matthew (Matthew 19:28; compare also Luke 22:30; Acts 26:7; James 1:1; Revelation 21:12). That is why there are to be twelve Apostles (Matthew 19:28). It is a reminder that the Messiah does not stand alone. He comes on behalf of His people, through whom His purposes will achieved. We can compare how both the coming Servant in Isaiah, and the coming Son of Man in Daniel are both individual and corporate figures. Jesus and His true people are one. And even the King is seen as in a sense the very ‘centre of being’ of His people (Lamentations 4:20).

The genealogy that follows contains known gaps. This is because names have been deliberately omitted. This was not unusual in a genealogy. It was quite normal to omit names which were not seen as important, especially when, in this case, there was a special reason for it, the making up of fourteen names. The same is probably true of the lists of names in Genesis 5, 11, although in that case the names were limited to ten in order to indicate a full span.


Verses 2-16

The Pre-History (Genealogy) Of Jesus The Messiah (1:2-16).

The genealogy of Jesus now follows being in reverse order to Matthew 1:1. Matthew 1:1 refers from Jesus the Messiah back to His sources in David and Abraham, while Matthew 1:2-16 are in chronological order, referring forward from Abraham and revealing the onflowing of sacred history. Abraham is followed by Judah, from whom the sceptre will come (Genesis 49:10), is followed by David ‘the King’, is followed by ‘Jesus the Messiah (Christ)’, but with the Exile introduced as another focal point. This comes in with a jarring note emphasising to us that not all goes smoothly, because of man’s waywardness. And all this will then be amplified in what follows, for:

· Matthew 1:18 to Matthew 2:8 refers to a miraculous birth to the house of David of the heir to the Davidic throne, from the house of Judah (Matthew 2:6).

· Matthew 2:1-12 introduces the King of the Jews (Matthew 2:2) from the house of ‘David the King’ to whom the nations come to pay homage in the form of the Magi (Matthew 2:11).

· Matthew 2:13-23 parallels the previous going into Exile, and speaks of the exile of Jesus (Matthew 2:13-15), and His subsequent return from Egypt (Matthew 2:19-23), from which, in His Son, God will now give the final deliverance that has been awaited by the faithful for so long.

· Matthew 3:1-17 parallels the mention of the coming of Jesus the Messiah, God’s beloved Son, in chapter 1, Who as Messiah receives the Holy Spirit on behalf of His people, so that He might drench them with the Holy Spirit in accordance with the words of the prophets (Isaiah 44:1-5; Joel 2:28-29).

Without chapter 3 the full significance of His coming as described in Matthew 1:1-17, and amplified in what follows, would tail off without being completed. The introductory explanation of the genealogy would be incomplete. Thus the three chapters are clearly to be seen as a unity.

Chapter 4 then reveals the commencement of the career of the Anointed One. As such He goes into the wilderness, as Israel had before Him, and there He too, like Israel, is tested as to whether He will prove faithful to God and His word. And there too He is called on to determine what His choices must be for the future (Matthew 4:1-11). Having triumphed from both viewpoints, this then results in His emerging as God’s true light in preparation for His revelation as the Coming One Who is to have worldwide dominion (Matthew 4:12-17 with Isaiah 6:2-7), and the nature of how this will be achieved is indicated in terms of His coming as a light in the darkness (Matthew 4:16), a light which will come through the proclamation of the Good News. It results initially in a call to Israel to repent (Matthew 4:17), in a calling of disciples who are to become ‘fishers of men’ in order to win men to Him (Matthew 4:17-22) and by the commencement of His own powerful preaching and healing ministry (Matthew 4:23-25). He is revealed by this as having come, not in order to conquer by force of arms or by crude politics, nor as having come to succeed by compromising with the world, but as having come in order to both succeed and conquer by proclaiming God’s truth to the nations and calling men to the Kingly Rule of Heaven. This Kingly Rule of Heaven, God’s present transforming Rule over the hearts of His true people, which will culminate in the everlasting glorious Kingdom, will take a prominent place from now on.

So having commenced with Abraham, and having connected Jesus firmly with Israel’s past, Matthew sets Him firmly on the road to the fulfilment of His purpose, which is to bring back Israel to Him; to be a light to both Israel and the Gentiles (Genesis 12:3; Isaiah 42:6; Isaiah 49:6); and to establish the Kingly Rule of Heaven, through His word (and through the words of His disciples).


Verses 3-6

‘And Judah begat Perez and Zerah of Tamar; and Perez begat Hezron; and Hezron begat Ram; and Ram begat Amminadab; and Amminadab begat Nahshon; and Nahshon begat Salmon; and Salmon begat Boaz of Rahab; and Boaz begat Obed of Ruth; and Obed begat Jesse; and Jesse begat David the king.

This next group leads down from Judah to ‘David the King’. As the ones who follow David are also kings, this specific designation of David as ‘the king’ is clearly intended to highlight David and to reveal him as the fountainhead of kingship. It is also to bring out the contrast of ‘David the King’ with ‘Jesus the Messiah’ (Matthew 1:16, compare Matthew 22:42-45). A greater than David was to be seen as then having come, finally arising in the name of David’s house. Furthermore ‘David the King’ is in great contrast to ‘Jehoiachin’ who heads up in the next section, but is given no title. He had lost his kingship. This was only to be restored at the coming of Jesus the Messiah.

Note the mention of Tamar (Genesis 38:1-30), Rahab (Joshua 2:1 ff) and Ruth. This is unusual because women’s names do not usually appear in a genealogy. It is possibly significant that Rahab and Ruth were both Gentiles (and even more significantly a Canaanite and a Moabite, both ‘rejected’ races), and Tamar might well also have been, while Rahab and Tamar were also both connected with doubtful sexual behaviour. But each of them, who were not so originally, did became true Israelites by adoption, and all of them revealed their fierce loyalty to God’s people. Thus it may be intended that David be seen as having come of combined Israelite/Gentile blood (but truly converted blood), and as having a ‘tainted’ ancestry, illustrating the fact that Jesus had come to save His people from their sins (Matthew 1:21; Matthew 1:24), and that that included David. David was not the perfect man that Jesus was. Yet David could be declared to be a man whose heart was acceptable to God (1 Samuel 16:7), demonstrating by this a welcome within the purposes of a merciful God of both Jews and Gentiles, and of the tainted and forgiven, once their hearts are right before Him, for they too were summed up in David.

However the significance of these names must surely also be seen as including the fact that they expressed the faithfulness of their bearers. Tamar went to extreme lengths in order to produce an heir for her dead husband, which was her right and her duty (Judah admits that his was the greater sin). Rahab sacrificed everything in order to help Israel in their battle against Jericho, establishing her life among them (Joshua 6:25). Ruth’s faithfulness to Naomi was proverbial so as to produce seed to her deceased husband. Each was concerned with the preservation of Israel. Thus the mention of them together in the first section (the threefoldness indicating completeness) may very much have had this faithfulness to God’s purposes in mind, and there can be no doubt that most Jews would have honoured these names. They would have seen them as only adding distinction to the list. A further distinction is that they reveal the particular and unique activity of God at work in producing David the King.

The ‘wife of Uriah’ stands alone and unnamed in the second section. Her mention is not seen as adding distinction to the list. Her unfaithfulness resulted in the murder of her husband, and because of her sin her name is seen as ‘cut off’. Her presence in the genealogy helps to explain why the Exile finally followed. It was in fact her son who began the deterioration which resulted in the final collapse of the monarchy. Those in this second section are not noted for their faithfulness to God. Some stood out but even the best failed in the end.

But womanhood is restored in the third section in the mention of Mary of whom was born Jesus. Here pure womanhood is central in the production of the Messiah.

So the idea in the end is that God can take all kinds of materials in the bringing about of His purposes, and can in the process bring about His will. After all, apart from Jesus, every person in the list was a sinner, but it reveals that a gracious God can bring about His purposes through sinners, especially forgiven sinners.

However, probably the main purpose of the inclusion of the women is to remind us that God brings about His purposes in unusual ways. It indicates that we need not therefore be surprised when the Messiah Himself is born in an unusual way. Matthew may have been intending to counter the suggestion that Jesus’ inheritance from Joseph was irregular in view of the unusual birth, by indicating that it would not be the only irregularity in the lineage of David, which abounded in such irregularities, including the presence of Canaanites, and a Moabitess (see Deuteronomy 23:3). It is stressing that in spiritual matters nothing is straightforward.

For details of the genealogy as a whole see Ruth 4:18-22; 1 Chronicles 2:3-15. We have shown the names here as ‘modernised’, not as shown in the Greek text where they are ‘Hellenised’, but thereby less discernible to us. Greek transliterations were in fact varied (as often were Hebrew originals. Names were flexible and altered freely in order to convey ideas). Nahshon is described as ‘a prince of the sons of Judah’ in 1 Chronicles 2:10, suggesting his outstanding prominence and importance, and was the prince who led forward the tribe of Judah at the Exodus (Numbers 1:7). Salmon married Rahab, while Boaz, who is mentioned in Ruth 2:1 as a ‘prominent’ man, later married Ruth. Unimportant names have been omitted as is common in genealogies.


Verses 6-11

Matthew 1:6-11 ‘And David begat Solomon of her that had been the wife of Uriah; and Solomon begat Rehoboam; and Rehoboam begat Abijah; and Abijah begat Asa; and Asa begat Jehoshaphat; and Jehoshaphat begat Joram; and Joram begat Uzziah; and Uzziah begat Jotham; and Jotham begat Ahaz; and Ahaz begat Hezekiah; and Hezekiah begat Manasseh; and Manasseh begat Amon; and Amon begat Josiah; and Josiah begat Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the carrying away to Babylon.’

This next section of the genealogy shows the royal line from David to Jechoniah, with omissions (see 1 Chronicles 3). Their lives are described in some detail in the books of Kings and Chronicles. Some think that the omissions of Ahaziah, Joash, and Amaziah arise from the curse placed on the house of Ahab in 1 Kings 21:21-24; 1 Kings 21:29, with it being seen as covering three generations until it was purged, for the house of Judah were associated with the house of Ahab at that time by marriage. Ahaziah was the son of Ahab’s daughter, and followed in Ahab’s ways (2 Kings 8:26-27) and was therefore implicated in the curse. All three kings who are omitted (both good and bad) met a violent end and were slain by conspirators. The kings that are, however, mentioned in the list also make up both good and bad, so that there is no distinction on those grounds. The connection with Ahab seems to be the significant factor.

When we come to the time of Jehoiakim and Jehoiachin the name ‘Yoakim’ (Jechoniah) was used in Greek and in LXX for both Jehoiakim and Jehoiachin. ‘And his brothers’ may suggest that the former is intended, but Matthew may in fact have intended both kings to be read in here, with the description ‘brothers’ indicating ‘relatives’ and intended to cover Jehoiakim’s different relatives who were associated with the throne over the period (thus including Jehoiachin his son and Zedekiah his brother, who both reigned, the latter at the same time as the former who was then in exile), and thus covering the final complicated situation of kingship over that period of three progressive exiles, with the new Jechoniah then seen as taking up from the old in the third part of the genealogy, for the name(s) ‘Jechoniah’ is/are needed in both lists to make up the fourteen, and he would not want to say ‘Jechoniah begat Jechoniah’ (i.e. that Jechoniah was Jechoniah’s heir). This would explain the mention of ‘his brothers’ in this case, for, unlike in the case of Judah, there is no real reason otherwise for mentioning Jehoiakim’s ‘brothers’. We should note that here in this middle section of the list there is the clear indication that this is a genealogy depicting heirs to the throne rather than actual direct descent.

Note the mention of ‘the wife of Uriah’, and the deliberate non-mention of her name (which differentiates her to some extent from the other three). The non-mention of her name, plus the link with her murdered husband, may suggest here a disapproving reference. Omission of names often indicates disapproval (compare the omission of Simon in Deuteronomy 33 after the sin at Baal-peor). The line was thus to be seen as not whiter than white. And yet she had no doubt sought and found forgiveness, as David also had (Psalms 51). We are reminded by this that the descent includes those who had been involved in deep sin. In the end even David was to be seen as marred, something which the mention of his adulterous wife and the man he murdered emphasises. This was indeed one reason why Jesus had to be born of a virgin. It is doubtful if the fact that Uriah was a Hittite is in mind here, otherwise Matthew would have mentioned the fact. Indeed it seems probable that Uriah was seen as a fully acclimatised proselyte, along with many of David’s mighty men, and was also possibly descended from one. But ‘the wife of Uriah’ was both the cause of David’s partial decline, and the mother of the king who started so promisingly and ended up totally discredited, something which led on to the division of Israel into two parts, and the final decline of both of those parts which resulted finally in the Exile.


Verses 12-16

‘And after the carrying away to Babylon, Jechoniah begat Shealtiel; and Shealtiel begat Zerubbabel; and Zerubbabel begat Abiud; and Abiud begat Eliakim; and Eliakim begat Azor;and Azor begat Sadoc; and Sadoc begat Achim; and Achim begat Eliud; and Eliud begat Eleazar; and Eleazar begat Matthan; and Matthan begat Jacob; and Jacob begat Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.’

We now have the final list of fourteen names from the Exile to Jesus the Christ. Israel had descended to its lowest point in the Exile and the way could now begin for the raising up of the Messiah. But apart from a brief flurry under Zerubbabel (Zechariah 4:6-7; Haggai 2:21-23) the names now descend into insignificance. Time passes them by. It is a time of waiting, and of hoping.

Jechoniah is required in the list in order to make up fourteen names. Alternately Matthew may have intended us to ignore Jechoniah and distinguish between Jesus while on earth, and Jesus risen as the Christ. His idea may have been to draw attention to Jesus the man, and then to the eschatological nature of the Christ. On the other hand Matthew may in fact not have been too concerned about the mathematics and the consistency as long as there were fourteen names on the list. He was more interested in getting over his point, which the fact that there were fourteen names in the list achieves whether the names were mentioned before or not. Perhaps he was not as pedantic as we can sometimes be. He understood what illustrations were all about. This last list disagrees with that in Luke 3:23-31, but that is probably because Luke shows the line of actual blood descent, while Matthew shows the line of royal descent in terms of the heirs to the throne, the latter including switches to other relatives when there was no direct heir. Thus there could have been a movement from Jacob to Heli’s son, with Heli’s son Joseph having become the heir of a sonless Jacob. We must also take into account the possible effect of Levirate marriages where a brother produced an heir for his dead brother, the latter being the heir to the throne. ‘Begat’ did not necessarily indicate blood relationship. This wider use of ‘begat’ is well attested by archaeology.

But there is no reason to doubt the genuineness of the genealogies, whatever problems we might have with them. All ancient and important Jewish families who were proud of their purity of descent maintained the genealogies of their families, and many were kept on public record. Indeed it was regularly necessary for descent to be proved in order to enjoy certain privileges, such as that of providing the wood for the altar. Josephus mentions such records and Herod the Great in fact tried to destroy some of them through jealousy because he was not a true-born Israelite. There is therefore no need to doubt that the genealogies of the house of David were carefully preserved (and there is in fact also external evidence of the fact that the genealogy of the house of David was claimed to be known by some who cited it to prove their own claims).

The names here in Matthew cover a period of over four hundred years. It must thus be seen as very probable, indeed certain, that Matthew omits some names in order to achieve his fourteen names, doing it in line with normal practise at the time. Compare the much larger number of names in Luke over the same period.

(With regard to genealogies, we may incidentally note here how the genealogical line to the throne of Scotland was remembered orally over hundreds of years in a much more primitive country than Israel, and was repeated at every coronation, because of their pride in the ancestry of their kings. It is even more likely then that this would occur in a country famed for its interest in genealogies and in its history. To ancient peoples genealogy was considered important).

‘Jacob begat Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.’ Jacob begat Joseph, that is, Joseph succeeded to the royal line through Jacob, who may not have been his father but an heirless relative. Note that Joseph is deliberately not said to have ‘begotten’ Jesus, Who is rather said to be born of Mary. In fact as he had adopted Jesus as his heir ‘begat’ could have been used, (someone who was adopted could be described as ‘begotten’), but Matthew clearly wanted to avoid any possibility of misunderstanding. The emphasis is being laid here on His unusual birth, a ‘virgin conception and birth’ through Mary as Matthew 1:19-20; Matthew 1:23; Matthew 1:25 demonstrate.

(The suggestion that Mary had been raped is untenable. In those days, had she been raped Joseph, in view of his position and status, would not have married her, for we know that, while revealed as a compassionate man, his original purpose, even when he thought that she had committed adultery, is made clear (Matthew 1:19). Rape would actually have been seen as even worse. So the honour of his house would have demanded at the very minimum a quiet withdrawal. There was no way in which he would have overlooked it).


Verse 17

‘So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David to the carrying away to Babylon fourteen generations; and from the carrying away to Babylon to the Christ fourteen generations.’

The pattern of ‘fourteen’, deliberately brought about by omitting names, is now emphasised. The idea is probably of ‘seven intensified’, indicating here divine perfection (compare the ‘fourteen’ made up of two seven year periods in Genesis 31:41). The further threefoldness would then indicate further perfection. The idea of six sevens (three fourteens) may be intended to indicate that they are followed by a seventh seven, either the tumultuous ‘seven’ which is to sum up the period leading up to the end (Daniel 9:27), or a seven which expresses the ultimate perfection of the Messianic age, as summed up in the Messiah (note the sevenfold attributes of the coming King in Isaiah 11:2). Note here that the carrying away into Babylon is now emphasised along with Abraham and David. It is to have a significant part to play in what follows.

Others have seen in the fourteen either a reference to ‘David’, for the letters of his name in gematria (dwd = 4 + 6 + 4) add up to fourteen, or as being patterned on the number of high priests from Aaron to the establishment of the Temple (Aaron to Azariah - 1 Chronicles 6:6-10), followed by the fourteen named priests, leading up to Jaddua (1 Chronicles 6:11-15; Nehemiah 12:10-11), the last high priest mentioned in the Old Testament. In either case the significance would still be of the divine perfection of the number. Thus the explanation in terms of ‘seven intensified’ multiplied three times is the more likely emphasis. It would be seen as indicating the divine perfection of God’s working. Such numbers were regularly seen as having an emphatic significance.

The device of splitting the genealogy by the means of mentioning important happenings in Israel’s history is paralleled in 1 Chronicles 6:6-15, and is as old as the ancient Sumerian king lists.


Verse 18-19

‘Now the birth of Jesus Christ came about in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found with child of the Holy Spirit, and Joseph her husband, being a righteous man, and not willing to make her a public example, was minded to put her away privately.’

The verse opens with what almost seems to be a public announcement. This is what we would expect for the birth is of Jesus the Messiah, and how it came about is thus to be seen as important. Note that Mary is not seen as doing anything positive towards the child’s conception. It is simply seen as something that happens to her. She was ‘found with child’. All is of God’s activity through the Holy Spirit, and she remains secondary. After that Joseph takes over. Unlike the ancient myths where gods mated with earthly women there is no suggestion here of any kind of sexual activity, even spiritual sexual activity. Indeed in Jesus’ eyes (and Matthew’s eyes) heavenly beings do not engage in such activity, for that is very much an earthly phenomenon (Matthew 22:30), while what happens here is heavenly.

This lack of sexual activity is confirmed by the phrase ‘ek Pneumatos Hagiou’ which, apart from its being without the article, parallels the description of the four women in the genealogy (ek tes Thamar; etc). The Holy Spirit is thus seen as cooperating with Mary in the conception and birth, not as impregnating her.

Note Matthew’s great emphasis on Joseph’s side of things, and this to such an extent that he puts Mary deliberately into the background, and plays down her part in things. This being his aim it is not surprising that he tells us nothing about the Annunciation and other activities in which Mary was involved. It would have placed too much attention on her and diverted his readers’ thoughts away from his main purpose, which was that of establishing Jesus as the heir of Joseph, and thus the titular son of David, even though at the same time he was emphasising His birth through a virgin.

Mary was at the time betrothed to Joseph, who was the heir to the throne of David, and thus a man of high honour from a proud family. Betrothal was a binding state from which it was only possible to be released by divorce or death. It was at betrothal that the marriage covenant was signed and sealed, and all settlements agreed on. The wedding was only the final confirmation. But it would not have been seen as acceptable in the best families that sexual intercourse take place during this period. She would still be living at her father’s house, awaiting the marriage. Indeed Joseph and Mary may well have had little to do with each other. Their marriage would have been arranged.

It is apparent that she had given him no notification of the pregnancy, but eventually the fact would have to come out, and the expression ‘she was found with child’ may possibly express this idea. Once this was clear her parents no doubt contacted Joseph and informed him of the situation. Recognising the situation as he saw it, and being a ‘righteous man’, that is, one who would do the right thing, he then determined to divorce her. It was not a matter of having an option. For him not to do so would bring disgrace on his name and on his family, and would be to be in breach of the Law and of public decency.

It would have been a very ‘liberal’ minded man who would not have done so, and it would have revealed one who would not have been respected in the best circles, for it would have been to go against the very principles of the Law which was that she now ‘belonged’ to the man who had ‘known her’. She had been made one with him. (See 1 Corinthians 6:15-16. This is also confirmed in the Mishnah). Love would thus not have come into it for a man in Joseph’s position. It would have been even more so if she had been raped.

But being also genuinely righteous in a godly fashion, in a way exceeding the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 5:20), he did not wish to bring her into total and open disrepute by a public investigation (compare Numbers 5:11-31 for such an investigation, although that was where a child was not involved), so he decided to come to an arrangement for the divorce to proceed privately. This would involve the granting of a certificate of divorce before two witnesses and her then remaining at home in her father’s house until a suitable marriage could be arranged with someone else. He would probably by this forego his right to recover marriage settlements and confiscate her dowry, but he was a compassionate man and did not consider such things. In view of the fact that he knew that the child was not his, which emphasises the fact that he had not had sexual relations with her, no trial was necessary unless he wanted one. The matter could thus be quietly resolved, with as little public shame as possible to Mary. She would then be able to accept any offer that she might receive, probably from an older close relative looking for a nubile second wife who would recognise her place. That would be the best that she could hope for.


Verses 18-25

SECTION 2. THE BIRTH AND RISE OF JESUS THE MESSIAH (THE CHRIST) (1:18-4:25).

In this section, following the introduction, Matthew reveals the greatness of Jesus the Christ. He will now describe the unique birth of Jesus, the homage paid to Him by important Gentiles, His exile and protection in Egypt followed by His subsequent bringing forth out of Egypt to reside in lowly Nazareth, His being drenched with the Holy Spirit as God’s beloved Son and Servant, His temptations in the wilderness which would then determine how He was to fulfil His role, and His coming forth to begin His task by the spreading of the Good News of the Kingly Rule of Heaven, to be entered by repentance and by looking to Him as the One Who is over that Kingly Rule. To this end He appoints disciples who are to become ‘fishers of men’, and begins His ministry of preaching and of ‘Messianic’ works in order to demonstrate the nature of the Kingly Rule.

The section (Matthew 1:18 to Matthew 4:25) may be analysed as follows:

a Jesus the Christ is born of a virgin as ‘the son of Joseph’ and revealed as the Messianic Saviour by the miraculous working of the Holy Spirit which accomplishes His birth and by His being named by God (Matthew 1:18-25).

b Gentile Magi come seeking him bringing Him expensive gifts and paying Him homage (Matthew 2:1-12).

c Jesus goes into exile in Egypt and escapes the Bethlehem massacre at the hands of the earthly king Herod, and then returns and takes up His abode in lowly Nazareth in Galilee, choosing the way of humility (Matthew 2:13-23).

d Jesus is introduced by John and drenched with the Holy Spirit on behalf of His people, being declared to be God’s beloved Son and unblemished Servant (Matthew 3:1-17).

c Jesus goes into the wilderness and is tempted by Satan, who tries to persuade Him to reveal His Sonship by misusing His powers, and by achieving an earthly worldwide kingship, with all its glory, by false means, rejecting the way of humility (Matthew 4:1-11).

b Jesus demonstrates the way that He will take by coming as a light into Galilee of the Gentiles and proclaiming the need to repent, and the nearness of the Kingly Rule of Heaven, seeking out four disciples who are to pay Him homage, surrender everything and become fishers of men (Matthew 4:18-22).

a Jesus proclaims the Good News of His Kingly Rule, and reveals His Messiahship by His miraculous and wonderful works, which reveal the working of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 4:23-25, compare Matthew 12:28).

Note how in ‘a’ the miraculous working of the Holy Spirit reveals His true sonship, and in the parallel similar miraculous working of the Holy Spirit reveals Him for Who He is. In ‘b’ men who are Gentiles seek Him with expensive gifts to pay Him homage, and in the parallel He seeks men in Galilee of the Gentiles and demands from them the yielding of full homage to Him, and the giving of the most expensive gift of all, their whole lives. In ‘c’ He goes into exile from the earthly king Herod, and returns taking the way of humility, and in the parallel is Himself offered an earthly kingship and is tempted not to take the way of humility. In ‘d’ and centrally He receives the Holy Spirit on behalf of His people and is declared to be God’s beloved Son and blameless Servant.


Verse 20

‘But when he thought on these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, you son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.” ’

Joseph dropped off to sleep thinking over how he would go about the arrangements, and probably deeply grieved over it. How natural this sounds. And then while he was asleep he had a dream. Such dreams were not common in the New Testament. Note that none of Luke’s accounts indicate such a dream situation, for Luke almost ignores Joseph at this stage, while here in Matthew there was no prophecy by Joseph and thus a dream was sufficient. This was taking place away from the centre of things in the house of Joseph. There is nothing of the excitement of Luke, only grief. It is a private situation between him and the Lord. And there is no imitation of Luke (or vice-versa).

And in the dream he is addressed by ‘an angel of the Lord’. This situation is unique. The angel of the Lord appears in the service of God regularly in the Old and New Testaments, but never, apart from to Joseph, in a dream (see Matthew 1:20; Matthew 1:24. Matthew 2:13; Matthew 2:19). Usually the angel only appears where there is a face-to-face confrontation. Furthermore in the Old Testament the ‘angel of the Lord’ is usually, but not always, synonymous with God. Thus this situation is unique. This is further demonstration that Matthew is describing it as it was, not inventing it on the basis of Old Testament ideas. Furthermore of the evangelists only Matthew ever speaks of ‘the angel of the Lord’, a further sign of his own Jewishness, and the fact that he has Jews very much in mind. Note also that there is no physical ‘appearance’ of an angel described. It is all in Joseph’s dream.

Some may not be happy with information received in a dream. But history (even recent history) contains many examples of accurate information received through dreams and premonitions, too many to be totally discounted, for it is a way by which God sometimes chooses to speak (Genesis 23:6; Genesis 28:12; Genesis 31:24; 1 Kings 3:5). Drugs can also speak through dreams too, but not reliably. However this was no drug induced dream. The Israelites in fact seem to have expected that information would sometimes come through dreams (Numbers 12:6; Deuteronomy 13:1; 1 Samuel 28:6). But it was very much a secondary method of revelation (Numbers 12:6-8).

On the other hand Scripture has also warned against over-reliance on dreams, and against the danger of ‘dreamers of dreams’ (Deuteronomy 13:1-5). Thus in the New Testament, in spite of God’s words through Joel (Acts 2:18) mentioned at Pentecost, dreams are a rarity. Both Jewish and Gentile believers receive information from God through visions rather than dreams (Acts 9:10; Acts 10:3; Acts 16:9; Acts 18:9). A vision of the night was not necessarily a dream. Paul may well have been consciously engaged in prayer. It must be seen as more than a coincidence then that Joseph alone is seen as receiving all his messages, usually from the angel of the Lord, in dreams, and that over a period (see also Matthew 2:13; Matthew 2:19; Matthew 2:22). This suggests that Joseph was in fact unusually susceptible to dreams, and had the gift mentioned in Acts 2:18, which would explain their unusual prominence in this account. That the Magi (Matthew 2:12) and Pilate’s wife (Matthew 27:19) also received their messages through dreams is explicable by the fact that they were not strictly ‘believers’, even though the Magi may have been well on the way to being so. Unbelievers did not receive direct visions, unless with the purpose of making them believers. Warnings to unbelievers thus necessarily came through dreams, as they had to people like Laban of old (Genesis 31:29).

In his dream the angel of the Lord tells Joseph not to be afraid of finalising his marriage to Mary his (betrothed) wife, because what is conceived in her is ‘born of the Holy Spirit’, ‘ek Pneumatos Hagiou’ (see on Matthew 1:18). What is happening is the work of God and Him alone. ‘The Holy Spirit’ (or ‘Spirit of God’) is a term which is always used to describe God in invisible action where the results are outwardly apparent, and in the Old Testament it is very closely associated with the idea of God Himself. The Holy Spirit is never thought of as having a form. He is pure Spirit. (There is only one remarkable exception to this in the whole of Scripture, and that a unique one for a unique purpose, as found in Matthew 3:16).

‘Do not be afraid.’ Normally to take someone as a wife who was bearing someone else’s child would be seen as degrading and disobedient to the Law. It would be the equivalent of adultery. Under normal circumstances Joseph would not even have considered it. It went against everything in which he believed. Thus it is clear that Joseph certainly came to believe in the virginal conception of Jesus, and he would have taken some convincing! Those who do not accept the virgin birth have to explain how Joseph, the Son of the Davidic house, was persuaded to go against all his breeding at a time when such things were seen as all important (he could hardly have been in doubt about whether the child was his or not). However, by saying nothing at the time he at least kept their shame in the eyes of others down to the thought that they had had sexual relations when only betrothed, something not really satisfactory in the most righteous circles, but certainly understandable and something which in some ways would be sympathised with. The Mishnah sees sexual relations as sometimes bringing about a betrothal, and never specifically frowns on the idea.

The Holy Spirit is sometimes connected with the birth process in the Old Testament (see Job 33:4; Psalms 104:30), but here it is different. He takes it over completely in His creative power. Mary is merely a passive instrument. This is unquestionably totally different from anything that has happened before.

(It is completely different from the so-called virgin births of Greek mythology where they were not really virgin births at all but the result of gods having sexual relations with the woman in question).


Verse 21

“And she will bring forth a son, and you shall call his name JESUS, for it is he who will save his people from their sins.”

Mary is to bear a son and His name is to be called Ye-sus, ‘YHWH is salvation’, for he will save His people from their sins. We can compare here Psalms 130:8, where it is said, ‘and He (YHWH) shall redeem Israel from all her iniquities’. So Jesus is to act on behalf of YHWH as a Saviour. As in Luke the emphasis is on a Saviour acting on behalf of God the Saviour (compare Luke 1:47; Luke 2:11). Here at the very commencement of the Gospel then we have the declared purpose of His coming. It is for the salvation of people from their sins (from their comings short, their missing the mark), and from the consequences of their sins. Its deliberate connection with His name means that the idea is thus to be seen as emphasised throughout the whole Gospel wherever the name of Jesus is mentioned. We can always therefore replace the name ‘Jesus’ with ‘God the Saviour’ (see especially Matthew 20:28. Also Matthew 10:22; Matthew 18:11; Matthew 24:13; Matthew 24:22).

While saving from sin was undoubtedly a trait of the ‘popular Messiah’, it was not a prominent one, certainly not as prominent as it is made to be here where it is pre-eminent. It was certainly a part of the future hope in general (Isaiah 1:18; Isaiah 43:25; Isaiah 44:22), but not as a major aspect of Messiah’s work, for Messiah was seen as coming to establish justice and to judge (Isaiah 11:1-4; Psalm of Solomon 17:28-29, 41), although that would necessarily involve a measure of forgiveness. But the thought of forgiveness was not prominent, and that is why Jesus had to emphasise that as the Son of Man He had the right on earth to forgive sins (Matthew 9:6). Thus it is made clear that this was to be a different form of Messiah from the One Who was usually expected, One Who would equate with the Servant, Who would suffer on behalf of His own. Compare Matthew 9:2; Matthew 9:5-6; Matthew 26:28; and see Isaiah 53; Jeremiah 31:31-34; Ezekiel 36:24-31. We note from the Lord’s prayer (Matthew 6:12; Matthew 6:14-15; see also Matthew 18:21-35) how central forgiveness was to the ministry of Jesus. Forgiving and being forgiven were both essential aspects of the Kingly Rule of Heaven.


Verse 22

‘Now all this is come about that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying,’

Here we have the first prophetic formula, and yet this one shares its uniqueness with one other, for it is only here and in Matthew 2:15 that it is said to be ‘spoken by the Lord’. Matthew is very careful in his use of formulae (see introduction), and while he is quoting Isaiah here he does not mention his name. The mention of Isaiah’s name is reserved for a special section of Matthew which is openly based on the fulfilment of Isaianic prophecy (Matthew 3:3; Matthew 4:14; Matthew 8:17; Matthew 12:17; Matthew 13:14; Matthew 15:7) in which is revealed the coming of the Messiah (Matthew 4:14) and Servant (Matthew 8:17; Matthew 12:17), and which is preparing for the revelation and reinterpretation of His Messiahship in Matthew 16:16; Matthew 16:21, His revelation in glory in Matthew 17:1-8, and the confirmation of His Redemptive Servanthood in Matthew 20:28.

The reason for the emphasis on ‘the Lord’ here and in Matthew 2:15 is that what is being described is God’s direct action through His Son. The point is that He Himself is bringing His Son into the world, and in Him He will bring His people out of ‘Egypt’ (Matthew 2:15), that is out of the tyranny of darkness and of the world and under His own heavenly Kingship. The word ‘fulfilled’ means ‘fill to the full, bring to completion, bring to its destined end’. It is never to be read in Matthew as though it was just a glib ‘fulfilment of prophecy’. It always means more than that, indicating the bringing about of a greater purpose.


Verse 23

“Behold, the virgin will be with child, and will bring forth a son, and they will call his name Immanuel,” which is, being interpreted, God with us.’

This quotation is taken from Isaiah 7:14. There the birth of an heir to the throne of David (Isaiah 9:6-7) was to be by a virgin (in LXX, translating ‘almah - an unmarried woman of marriageable age who can be assumed to be a virgin (see Excursus below)). The reason for this was that God had rejected the house of David in His rejection of Ahaz because of his refusal to ask for the miraculous sign that God had offered him, which was simply because he did not want to have to do what God required. Ahaz wanted rather to trust in Assyria (with no real conception of what it would involve). Thus because of his refusal a miraculous sign was thrust on him, one that he did not want, and one which would signal the doom of his house. And that was that he must now recognise that the future hopes of the house of David would no longer rest in his seed, because the Coming One would be born of a virgin. God would by-pass the then current house of David.

(‘God Himself will give you a sign’ (Isaiah 7:14) meant,‘God will now give you a sign which is expressed in the words that He now declares to you concerning a great wonder to occur in the future, a wonder which will indicate your rejection. It will be a wonder greater even than any you could ask for in Heaven and earth, and it will later be accomplished as a result of His miraculous power and be the end of the hopes of your house, for by it the Coming King will be born of no seed of man’.It was not intended to be a sign like the one that God had originally promised. Ahaz had forfeited that).

The virgin would bear a son without human father, thus supplanting the house of Ahaz, and this son would then be called ‘GOD WITH US’, a reminder to Ahaz that, while God had by Him come among His people, He would no longer be with him. The child would bring about what by his unbelief he had lost. So the point behind the sign is not as something from which Ahaz could take hope, something for Ahaz to believe in, but as something by which he would be made to recognise his own failure and rejection. When it actually took place would therefore not be important. What mattered was Gods’ emphasis on the fact that it would take place on the basis of His word, and that it could feasibly be sufficiently imminent for lessons to be drawn from it.

Now, says Matthew, we see that prophecy being filled to the full. It is being brought to completion in that now a virgin will produce a child who will truly be the indication that ‘God is with us’ in a unique sense.

‘They will call.’ When ‘they’ is used as a vague subject, as it is here in Matthew’s version of the quotation, it is a regular Semitic generalisation indicating ‘Many will call Him’. (MT has ‘she will call’. LXX has ‘you will call’).

The names applied to the coming babe are important in Matthew, and are emphasised. Here He is Immanu-el, an indication of ‘God with us’. This is His prophetic name, a prophetic declaration of what He is. His given name, given by both God and man, will be ‘Jesus’, an indication that He is the Saviour from sin. In these two names are summed up the Christian message. He is God, He is with us, He is our Saviour.

EXCURSUS on Isaiah 7:14.

This is a prophecy concerning Immanuel, the expected Chosen One of God. The ‘prophecy’ (forth-telling) which is cited here in Matthew is, “Behold a virgin will be with child and will bring forth a son, and they will call His name Immanuel” which is being interpreted, ‘God with us’. As we have seen this is especially emphasised by Matthew as having been spoken by ‘the Lord’ and it is taken from Isaiah 7:14. It need hardly be pointed out that huge discussions have resulted from a study of this verse. To examine all those views is, however, beyond the scope of what we are trying to do here and we must therefore limit ourselves to what we see as the main points that come out of it.

The first is that the verse in Matthew refers to a ‘virgin’ (parthenos) who will bring forth a son, ‘conceived by the Holy Spirit’ (Matthew 1:20). And we should note in this regard that Matthew 1:24-25 in Matthew certainly affirm that Mary had had no sexual intercourse with her husband until after the birth. So however sceptical some readers might be about his conclusion, there is no doubt that Matthew is indicating by this a ‘virgin conception and birth’, and moreover is indicating by it a supernatural birth in which only one party has been involved. This last fact is important. It demonstrates that it bears no resemblance to other so-called ‘virgin births’ in extant literature which are often cited as parallels. In those cases a god in the form of a man had had intercourse with a human maiden. But that idea is excluded here. It has therefore to be considered as coming from a totally different sphere and environment. Here this unique birth is seen to be the result of the working of the Holy Spirit producing a child ‘miraculously’ without any hint of sexual activity whether human or divine. It is not modelled on a pagan myth.

More likely parallels than pagan myths are ‘and the Lord visited Sarah as He had said’ (Genesis 21:1); and ‘and it came about that Hannah conceived and bore a son’ (1 Samuel 1:20), in both cases with divine assistance. But these are more parallel with the birth of John the Baptiser than with that of Jesus, for in those cases intercourse is assumed to have taken place.

But how then can the birth of Jesus be seen as the ‘fulfilment’ or ‘filling full’ or ‘bringing to completion’ of the words taken from Isaiah, which are seen as specifically the words of YHWH?

In Isaiah the promise was of an unmarried young woman of marriageable age (‘almah in Hebrew, parthenos in LXX) who would bear a child which would reveal to Israel that God was with them, and would be a sign to Ahaz that God had rejected him and his house.

The Hebrew word used for young woman in Isaiah 7:14 (‘almah) is never, as far as is known, used of a non-virgin or a married woman. It refers to a young woman of marriageable age, with growing sexual desires, who is not yet married, and thus is assumed to be a virgin. The use of ‘almah in Song of Solomon 6:8-9 especially confirms this. There it is contrasted with queens and concubines and clearly describes those who are in the same situation as the loved one also being described, unmarried and virginal, and in Matthew 1:9 is associated with ‘the daughters’ of their mothers, (they have not yet left their own households), the many compared with the one. It is a word containing the idea of sexual purity, without the taint that had come on the often cited word bethulah (often translated ‘virgin’). Bethulah was specifically linked with pagan deities of doubtful morality at Ugarit, and could be used to describe fertility goddesses, who were certainly not virgins. It did not strictly mean a pure virgin at the time of the prophecy, whatever it came to mean later. Compare Joel 1:8 where a bethulah mourning the husband of her youth is described where there are no grounds at all for considering that they had only been betrothed.

Some have used Proverbs 30:19 as an example of ‘almah being used of a non-virgin, when it speaks of ‘the way of a man with a maid’. But there are no real grounds at all for suggesting that that indicates sexual activity. Indeed it is the opposite that is more clearly indicated. There the writer is dealing with the movements of different creatures. Using sexual movements as an example of someone’s movements, as being watched by others, would, with an innocent couple in view, have been heavily frowned on. And we only have to look at what it is being compared with to recognise that it is being paralleled with flight and directional movement which is watched by others. The thought is thus more of a couple on the move in their flirtatious activity, or even of the man’s behaviour of which the young woman is not so much aware, the observers being the amused onlookers as he trails her and tries to be noticed by her. It thus rather supports the use of ‘almah for an unmarried maiden than the opposite.

We can therefore understand why here the LXX translators translated ‘almah by the word ‘virgin’ (parthenos), just as they did in Genesis 24:43. They recognised the emphasis that Isaiah was placing on this woman as being unmarried and pure.

It is true that the word used for ‘virgin’ (parthenos) does not always refer to what is today indicated by the term virgin, an intact virgin who has not had relations with a man, but there is nevertheless always behind it the thought of a kind of underlying purity. The term could, for example, be applied to sacred prostitutes in Greek temples, who were by no means intact virgins. But these were seen as having their own kind of ‘purity’ by those who wrote of them, for they were seen as daughters of the temples and of the gods, not as common prostitutes. They were ‘holy’. On the other hand, they were certainly not technically virgins. Furthermore after Dinah had been raped in Genesis 34:2 she was still called a parthenos in Matthew 1:3 (LXX). She was seen as pure at heart even though she had been violated and was no longer an intact virgin. And in Isaiah 47 the ‘virgin daughter of Babylon’ could lose her children and be brought to widowhood (Isaiah 47:1; Isaiah 47:9). In none of these cases then are parthenoi seen as intact virgins. On the other hand, the idea of purity might be seen as lying behind them all.

Nor did Hebrew at this time have a word for ‘intact virgin’. Virginity was assumed for all unmarried young women, unless there was reason to think otherwise, and then it was a shame to speak of it. The often cited ‘bethulah’ did not indicate that at that time. Nor did it necessarily indicate purity. As we have seen above it was specifically linked with pagan deities of doubtful morality at Ugarit, and could be used to describe fertility goddesses, who were certainly not virgins, or even pure. They were far more lascivious and lustful than human beings. And in Joel 1:8 a bethulah mourning the husband of her youth is described. There are no grounds for thinking that she was a virgin. Indeed if she had had a husband for even one night she would not have been. (It is true that a betrothed man could be called a husband, but in a general statement like that in Joel it would not be the obvious meaning). Furthermore the word bethulah sometimes has to be accompanied by the words, ‘neither had any man known her’ (Genesis 24:16; compare also Leviticus 21:3; Judges 11:39; Judges 21:12). That comparison would have been unnecessary if bethulah had specifically indicated a virgin. So a bethulah is a young woman, whether married or not, with no indication of her virginal state. An ‘alma is an unmarried young woman of marriageable age, who if pure (which she would be assumed to be) could in Israel be called a parthenos, a pure woman.

The next thing we note is that this unmarried and pure woman who is to bring forth a child is to be a sign to Ahaz of the rejection of him and his house (demonstrated by the coming of Assyria on them - Isaiah 7:17), and an indication that he will shortly see that God can really do what He says and can empty the lands of both his enemies, something which will also be a warning to him, for what can be done to them can also be done to him.

Who then was this son who would act as a sign in this way? A number of suggestions have been made of which we will select the three most prominent.

1) It was a child to be born of the royal house, or of Isaiah’s wife, whose very birth and weaning would act as a sign.

2) It was any child born at the time, the emphasis being on the fact that before it was weaned what God had said would happen.

3) It was the child described in Matthew 9:6-7, the coming One Who would be greater than David, Who would be called Wonderful, Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace, and would rule over the whole world.

In order to decide which one was meant we must consider the context. In context God had offered to keep Ahaz safe under his protection, and in order to give him assurance in the face of what lay before him, had offered to give him a sign ofmiraculous proportions(an example of which we find later on when the sun goes back ten degrees under Hezekiah - Isaiah 38:5-8). God says, ‘Ask a sign of YHWH, whether it be as high as Heaven or as deep as Sheol’ (Isaiah 7:11). This was an offer which Ahaz suavely rejected, because he preferred to look to the King of Assyria. But if only he had accepted it in faith this sign once given would have been the sign that Ahaz would be ‘established’. It was thus related not only to the deliverance from the current problem, but also to the guaranteeing of the future establishment of the house of David through the line of Ahaz, protecting him from all comers.

And it is on his refusal to respond to God’s offer that God says that He will nevertheless give him a sign, but that this time it will be a sign that he will not like. Rather than being a sign of God’s help and protection, it will be the sign of the king of Assyria coming on him, (thus he will not be established). And the sign will be ‘that the coming child will be born of an ‘almah’.

The first thing that must be said about these words is that it suggests in context that God intends to bring before him a sign that will indeed be one of miraculous proportions, ‘as high as Heaven or as deep as Sheol’, in accordance with what He has previously described, even though it is one which will not be of benefit to him at all. For only such a sign could demonstrate the certainty that the future of the house of Ahaz was no longer ensured. And if that was to be so then only a virgin birth would fit the bill. It was the virgin birth of the Coming One that guaranteed that He would not be of Ahaz’ house, and that, instead of that being so, God Himself would have stepped in, in the production of a royal child.

1) The suggestion that it refers to a child to be born of the royal house, or of Isaiah’s wife, whose very birth would act as a sign.

The birth of a son to the royal house in the normal course of events (Hezekiah had already been born) or to the prophetess could hardly have been such a sign as the Lord has described above. For one thing no one would have believed that the child was born of a virgin. And indeed it was not possible for the prophetess who was no longer a ‘virgin’ to produce a child in this way. It is true the prophetess bears two sons, both of whom by their names will be signs to Judah/Israel, as would their father (Isaiah 8:18), but note that while the prophetess was mentioned earlier in respect of one of the sons (Isaiah 8:3), she is not mentioned in Isaiah 8:18 where we have the mention of the ‘signs and portents’ referring to both sons and their father. There is therefore no emphasis on it being the prophetess who bears both sons who were ‘signs and portents in Israel’ (along with their father) even though she had in fact done so. The emphasis here is on the father.

However, the argument is often that that is the point. The emphasis is in fact on her bearing one of the sons, Maher-shalal-hash-baz (Isaiah 8:3), who will be a sign of the devastation of the two kings, something which in Isaiah 7:16 was to be gathered from the sign of the ‘almah with child. But here we should note that in Isaiah 8:3 this is not in fact specifically described as a sign. It is rather seen as a prophetic acting out of what was to be, which is not quite the same thing. Of course we may accept that it was an indication of what was to be, and in that sense a sign. But it was equally certainly not the kind of sign that the Lord had originally spoken of, a sign of startling proportions. Nor is it said to relate to the now greater matters that were involved, that Ahaz’s house would no longer be established, and that the king of Assyria was about to descend on him and his land because he had forfeited the Lord’s protection.

We may therefore justifiably see the birth of Maher-shalal-hash-baz as a partial sign, but not as the great sign. The child’s birth, through the name given to him, was indeed a sign that the kings would be destroyed from their lands within a short while, but that was all that he is described as being. But he was not born of an ‘almah, and he is not said to be a sign of the larger matter in hand, the rejection of the house of Ahaz as manifested by the coming of Assyria and devastation of Judah. Nor is he said to be the sign of the coming of a king who would achieve what Ahaz has failed to achieve (Isaiah 9:7), that is, of the fulfilment of the promises to the house of David. (A fact that will later be made even clearer by the rejection of his son Hezekiah and his seed - Isaiah 39:5-7). The same problems as these lie with any attempt to relate the birth of the child to the birth of any child in the house of Ahaz. The birth of such a child would hardly rank as an unusual sign, and would be even less significant than that born to the prophetess. For we must remember that the heir, Hezekiah, had already been born before this happened.

2) The suggestion that it refers to any child born at the time the emphasis being on the fact that before it was weaned what God had said would happen.

This suffers from even more disadvantages than the first, for it does not even have the partial support in context that the first interpretation has when related to the prophetess. It is fine as an evidence of how short a time it will be before both of Ahaz’s opponents are devastated, but it has nothing to say about the non-establishment of the house of Ahaz or of the coming of the king of Assyria, nor could it possibly be seen as in any way parallel with the kind of sign that the Lord had spoken about. For the truth is that if the Lord made His great declaration about ‘a sign almost as beyond the conception of man as it could possibly be’, and then gave one which was merely a birth in the usual run of things, it would appear to all that all that He had offered was a damp squib.

And this is especially so because in the past He had specialised in special births in that a number of past ‘greats’ had been born miraculously (even though not from an ‘almah), and almost with the same words. Thus Isaac was born ‘miraculously’ (Genesis 18:10-11; Genesis 18:14; Genesis 21:2 - ‘conceived and bore a son’), Samson was born ‘miraculously’ (Judges 13:3 - ‘will conceive and bear a son’), Samuel was born ‘miraculously’ (1 Samuel 1:5; 1 Samuel 1:20 - ‘conceived and bore a son’). And all these births would be engraved on Israelite hearts. But there is no suggestion that they were born of ‘almah’s, nor was the child of the prophetess in fact born ‘miraculously’, even though she ‘conceived and bore a son’. Indeed she had already previously had another son. It will be noted that the only exact parallel to ‘willconceive and bear a son’ in the whole of the Old Testament is Judges 13:3; Judges 13:5; Judges 13:7, and that of a birth that was certainly unusual and unexpected.

3) The suggestion that it refers to the child described in Isaiah 9:6-7, the coming One Who would be greater than David, Who would be called Wonderful, Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace, and would rule over the whole world, thus indicating that He would be miraculously born of an ‘almah (parthenos, virgin).

There can be no question that this suggestion of the virgin birth of the coming hope of the house of David has the most going for it from an Israelite’s point of view and from the point of view of the context. It would tie in with the past history of conceiving and bearing a ‘miraculous child’ as being signs to Israel. It would tie in with the Lord’s promise that He would give a remarkable miraculous sign. It would tie in with the following description of the ‘birth of a child’ in Isaiah 9:6. It would give full weight to the use of ‘almah. It would explain why it demonstrated that ‘God is with us’. It would confirm that the hope of the house of David was indeed coming, in spite of present appearances, even though Ahaz’ house would be excluded. And in the context of Matthew it would explain why He would be able to save His people from their sins.

And as no one knew when the child would be born (it could be at any time) the indication that both kings would be devastated before the child could possibly grow to boyhood was a sufficient indicator of time, especially when associated with the actual example of the birth of the son to the prophetess. Indeed the only question that it might raise is, how could such a birth in the future possibly be a sign to Ahaz?

The answer to this question lies in the nature of the sign. It should be noted that it was no longer intended to be a sign to Ahaz that he was to be established (Isaiah 7:9). But what it certainly was, was a sign of the fact that he would not be established, and while that did not really require a great present miracle at the time then current, God was determined that the one who had refused a miraculous sign would be given a miraculous sign which would demonstrate the fact in an inescapable way. Ahaz lived at a time when all hopes were on the coming of the future triumphant son of David, who would be of the line of David, and who would rule the world (Psalms 2). And Ahaz would pride himself in the fact that it would be of his seed. Thus to inform Ahaz that he was now receiving God’s words as a sign that this coming David would actually in fact be born of a virgin, and not be of his seed, was indeed a sign that he would not be established, and was an unwelcome sign indeed. It was an indication vouchsafed by the word of YHWH that the future throne would go to one not born of Ahaz’s seed. The sign was thus now not a matter of when the child would be born, but of what his birth would signify as regards the hopes for the future. Furthermore we have a good example in the past of precisely such an idea of a sign that was given as a sign to its recipient, with the actual working out of the sign being a future event. For such an example see Exodus 3:12. There the sign that Moses had been sent would be the fact that the people to whom he went would one day ‘serve God on this mountain’. The sign was a promise of a better future that had to be believed in, and that they could hold on to, and in which they had to continue to believe. It was a sign that had to be accepted on the basis of God’s promise. It was a sign of a future which would actually be the result of their response of faith, just as this sign in Isaiah 7:14 was a similar promise of a better future in which the people were called on to believe, in contrast to Ahaz (Isaiah 7:9).

Strictly speaking in fact Ahaz did not want or merit a sign. He had refused it. He had already made up his mind to look to Assyria. Thus the point here is that he was now to receive a verbal sign that he did not want, which demonstrated the very opposite of what the original promised sign would have indicated. And that sign was God’s own word that the Coming One would now be born of a virgin, and not of the seed of Ahaz. It demonstrated his rejection by God. Meanwhile Israel could indeed be confident that one day it would receive its promised king Whose coming would prove that God was with them, but they would now know that He would not be born of the seed of Ahaz, but would rather be born of a virgin. We should also note that while this might cause problems to our scientific age, it would have caused no problems to Israelites, nor indeed to Matthew. They would not be looking for some interpretation that avoided the ‘miraculous’. They would have seen no difficulty in the idea of the Creator bringing about a virgin birth.

This being so it is quite reasonable to see that to Matthew Isaiah was seen as promising that the great Son of David would be born of a virgin, and that it therefore directly related to what had happened in the case of Jesus, Who, as that Son of David had indeed been born of a virgin. He thus saw His birth from a virgin as ‘filling in full’ the prophecy which had only partly been fulfilled by Maher-shalal-hash-baz.

End of EXCURSUS.

EXCURSUS on Isaiah 7:14.

This is a prophecy concerning Immanuel, the expected Chosen One of God. The ‘prophecy’ (forth-telling) which is cited here in Matthew is, “Behold a virgin will be with child and will bring forth a son, and they will call His name Immanuel” which is being interpreted, ‘God with us’. As we have seen this is especially emphasised by Matthew as having been spoken by ‘the Lord’ and it is taken from Isaiah 7:14. It need hardly be pointed out that huge discussions have resulted from a study of this verse. To examine all those views is, however, beyond the scope of what we are trying to do here and we must therefore limit ourselves to what we see as the main points that come out of it.

The first is that the verse in Matthew refers to a ‘virgin’ (parthenos) who will bring forth a son, ‘conceived by the Holy Spirit’ (Matthew 1:20). And we should note in this regard that Matthew 1:24-25 in Matthew certainly affirm that Mary had had no sexual intercourse with her husband until after the birth. So however sceptical some readers might be about his conclusion, there is no doubt that Matthew is indicating by this a ‘virgin conception and birth’, and moreover is indicating by it a supernatural birth in which only one party has been involved. This last fact is important. It demonstrates that it bears no resemblance to other so-called ‘virgin births’ in extant literature which are often cited as parallels. In those cases a god in the form of a man had had intercourse with a human maiden. But that idea is excluded here. It has therefore to be considered as coming from a totally different sphere and environment. Here this unique birth is seen to be the result of the working of the Holy Spirit producing a child ‘miraculously’ without any hint of sexual activity whether human or divine. It is not modelled on a pagan myth.

More likely parallels than pagan myths are ‘and the Lord visited Sarah as He had said’ (Genesis 21:1); and ‘and it came about that Hannah conceived and bore a son’ (1 Samuel 1:20), in both cases with divine assistance. But these are more parallel with the birth of John the Baptiser than with that of Jesus, for in those cases intercourse is assumed to have taken place.

But how then can the birth of Jesus be seen as the ‘fulfilment’ or ‘filling full’ or ‘bringing to completion’ of the words taken from Isaiah, which are seen as specifically the words of YHWH?

In Isaiah the promise was of an unmarried young woman of marriageable age (‘almah in Hebrew, parthenos in LXX) who would bear a child which would reveal to Israel that God was with them, and would be a sign to Ahaz that God had rejected him and his house.

The Hebrew word used for young woman in Isaiah 7:14 (‘almah) is never, as far as is known, used of a non-virgin or a married woman. It refers to a young woman of marriageable age, with growing sexual desires, who is not yet married, and thus is assumed to be a virgin. The use of ‘almah in Song of Solomon 6:8-9 especially confirms this. There it is contrasted with queens and concubines and clearly describes those who are in the same situation as the loved one also being described, unmarried and virginal, and in Matthew 1:9 is associated with ‘the daughters’ of their mothers, (they have not yet left their own households), the many compared with the one. It is a word containing the idea of sexual purity, without the taint that had come on the often cited word bethulah (often translated ‘virgin’). Bethulah was specifically linked with pagan deities of doubtful morality at Ugarit, and could be used to describe fertility goddesses, who were certainly not virgins. It did not strictly mean a pure virgin at the time of the prophecy, whatever it came to mean later. Compare Joel 1:8 where a bethulah mourning the husband of her youth is described where there are no grounds at all for considering that they had only been betrothed.

Some have used Proverbs 30:19 as an example of ‘almah being used of a non-virgin, when it speaks of ‘the way of a man with a maid’. But there are no real grounds at all for suggesting that that indicates sexual activity. Indeed it is the opposite that is more clearly indicated. There the writer is dealing with the movements of different creatures. Using sexual movements as an example of someone’s movements, as being watched by others, would, with an innocent couple in view, have been heavily frowned on. And we only have to look at what it is being compared with to recognise that it is being paralleled with flight and directional movement which is watched by others. The thought is thus more of a couple on the move in their flirtatious activity, or even of the man’s behaviour of which the young woman is not so much aware, the observers being the amused onlookers as he trails her and tries to be noticed by her. It thus rather supports the use of ‘almah for an unmarried maiden than the opposite.

We can therefore understand why here the LXX translators translated ‘almah by the word ‘virgin’ (parthenos), just as they did in Genesis 24:43. They recognised the emphasis that Isaiah was placing on this woman as being unmarried and pure.

It is true that the word used for ‘virgin’ (parthenos) does not always refer to what is today indicated by the term virgin, an intact virgin who has not had relations with a man, but there is nevertheless always behind it the thought of a kind of underlying purity. The term could, for example, be applied to sacred prostitutes in Greek temples, who were by no means intact virgins. But these were seen as having their own kind of ‘purity’ by those who wrote of them, for they were seen as daughters of the temples and of the gods, not as common prostitutes. They were ‘holy’. On the other hand, they were certainly not technically virgins. Furthermore after Dinah had been raped in Genesis 34:2 she was still called a parthenos in Matthew 1:3 (LXX). She was seen as pure at heart even though she had been violated and was no longer an intact virgin. And in Isaiah 47 the ‘virgin daughter of Babylon’ could lose her children and be brought to widowhood (Isaiah 47:1; Isaiah 47:9). In none of these cases then are parthenoi seen as intact virgins. On the other hand, the idea of purity might be seen as lying behind them all.

Nor did Hebrew at this time have a word for ‘intact virgin’. Virginity was assumed for all unmarried young women, unless there was reason to think otherwise, and then it was a shame to speak of it. The often cited ‘bethulah’ did not indicate that at that time. Nor did it necessarily indicate purity. As we have seen above it was specifically linked with pagan deities of doubtful morality at Ugarit, and could be used to describe fertility goddesses, who were certainly not virgins, or even pure. They were far more lascivious and lustful than human beings. And in Joel 1:8 a bethulah mourning the husband of her youth is described. There are no grounds for thinking that she was a virgin. Indeed if she had had a husband for even one night she would not have been. (It is true that a betrothed man could be called a husband, but in a general statement like that in Joel it would not be the obvious meaning). Furthermore the word bethulah sometimes has to be accompanied by the words, ‘neither had any man known her’ (Genesis 24:16; compare also Leviticus 21:3; Judges 11:39; Judges 21:12). That comparison would have been unnecessary if bethulah had specifically indicated a virgin. So a bethulah is a young woman, whether married or not, with no indication of her virginal state. An ‘alma is an unmarried young woman of marriageable age, who if pure (which she would be assumed to be) could in Israel be called a parthenos, a pure woman.

The next thing we note is that this unmarried and pure woman who is to bring forth a child is to be a sign to Ahaz of the rejection of him and his house (demonstrated by the coming of Assyria on them - Isaiah 7:17), and an indication that he will shortly see that God can really do what He says and can empty the lands of both his enemies, something which will also be a warning to him, for what can be done to them can also be done to him.

Who then was this son who would act as a sign in this way? A number of suggestions have been made of which we will select the three most prominent.

1) It was a child to be born of the royal house, or of Isaiah’s wife, whose very birth and weaning would act as a sign.

2) It was any child born at the time, the emphasis being on the fact that before it was weaned what God had said would happen.

3) It was the child described in Matthew 9:6-7, the coming One Who would be greater than David, Who would be called Wonderful, Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace, and would rule over the whole world.

In order to decide which one was meant we must consider the context. In context God had offered to keep Ahaz safe under his protection, and in order to give him assurance in the face of what lay before him, had offered to give him a sign ofmiraculous proportions(an example of which we find later on when the sun goes back ten degrees under Hezekiah - Isaiah 38:5-8). God says, ‘Ask a sign of YHWH, whether it be as high as Heaven or as deep as Sheol’ (Matthew 7:11). This was an offer which Ahaz suavely rejected, because he preferred to look to the King of Assyria. But if only he had accepted it in faith this sign once given would have been the sign that Ahaz would be ‘established’. It was thus related not only to the deliverance from the current problem, but also to the guaranteeing of the future establishment of the house of David through the line of Ahaz, protecting him from all comers.

And it is on his refusal to respond to God’s offer that God says that He will nevertheless give him a sign, but that this time it will be a sign that he will not like. Rather than being a sign of God’s help and protection, it will be the sign of the king of Assyria coming on him, (thus he will not be established). And the sign will be ‘that the coming child will be born of an ‘almah’.

The first thing that must be said about these words is that it suggests in context that God intends to bring before him a sign that will indeed be one of miraculous proportions, ‘as high as Heaven or as deep as Sheol’, in accordance with what He has previously described, even though it is one which will not be of benefit to him at all. For only such a sign could demonstrate the certainty that the future of the house of Ahaz was no longer ensured. And if that was to be so then only a virgin birth would fit the bill. It was the virgin birth of the Coming One that guaranteed that He would not be of Ahaz’ house, and that, instead of that being so, God Himself would have stepped in, in the production of a royal child.

1) The suggestion that it refers to a child to be born of the royal house, or of Isaiah’s wife, whose very birth would act as a sign.

The birth of a son to the royal house in the normal course of events (Hezekiah had already been born) or to the prophetess could hardly have been such a sign as the Lord has described above. For one thing no one would have believed that the child was born of a virgin. And indeed it was not possible for the prophetess who was no longer a ‘virgin’ to produce a child in this way. It is true the prophetess bears two sons, both of whom by their names will be signs to Judah/Israel, as would their father (Matthew 8:18), but note that while the prophetess was mentioned earlier in respect of one of the sons (Matthew 8:3), she is not mentioned in Matthew 1:18 where we have the mention of the ‘signs and portents’ referring to both sons and their father. There is therefore no emphasis on it being the prophetess who bears both sons who were ‘signs and portents in Israel’ (along with their father) even though she had in fact done so. The emphasis here is on the father.

However, the argument is often that that is the point. The emphasis is in fact on her bearing one of the sons, Maher-shalal-hash-baz (Matthew 8:3), who will be a sign of the devastation of the two kings, something which in Matthew 7:16 was to be gathered from the sign of the ‘almah with child. But here we should note that in Matthew 8:3 this is not in fact specifically described as a sign. It is rather seen as a prophetic acting out of what was to be, which is not quite the same thing. Of course we may accept that it was an indication of what was to be, and in that sense a sign. But it was equally certainly not the kind of sign that the Lord had originally spoken of, a sign of startling proportions. Nor is it said to relate to the now greater matters that were involved, that Ahaz’s house would no longer be established, and that the king of Assyria was about to descend on him and his land because he had forfeited the Lord’s protection.

We may therefore justifiably see the birth of Maher-shalal-hash-baz as a partial sign, but not as the great sign. The child’s birth, through the name given to him, was indeed a sign that the kings would be destroyed from their lands within a short while, but that was all that he is described as being. But he was not born of an ‘almah, and he is not said to be a sign of the larger matter in hand, the rejection of the house of Ahaz as manifested by the coming of Assyria and devastation of Judah. Nor is he said to be the sign of the coming of a king who would achieve what Ahaz has failed to achieve (Isaiah 9:7), that is, of the fulfilment of the promises to the house of David. (A fact that will later be made even clearer by the rejection of his son Hezekiah and his seed - Isaiah 39:5-7). The same problems as these lie with any attempt to relate the birth of the child to the birth of any child in the house of Ahaz. The birth of such a child would hardly rank as an unusual sign, and would be even less significant than that born to the prophetess. For we must remember that the heir, Hezekiah, had already been born before this happened.

2) The suggestion that it refers to any child born at the time the emphasis being on the fact that before it was weaned what God had said would happen.

This suffers from even more disadvantages than the first, for it does not even have the partial support in context that the first interpretation has when related to the prophetess. It is fine as an evidence of how short a time it will be before both of Ahaz’s opponents are devastated, but it has nothing to say about the non-establishment of the house of Ahaz or of the coming of the king of Assyria, nor could it possibly be seen as in any way parallel with the kind of sign that the Lord had spoken about. For the truth is that if the Lord made His great declaration about ‘a sign almost as beyond the conception of man as it could possibly be’, and then gave one which was merely a birth in the usual run of things, it would appear to all that all that He had offered was a damp squib.

And this is especially so because in the past He had specialised in special births in that a number of past ‘greats’ had been born miraculously (even though not from an ‘almah), and almost with the same words. Thus Isaac was born ‘miraculously’ (Genesis 18:10-11; Genesis 18:14; Genesis 21:2 - ‘conceived and bore a son’), Samson was born ‘miraculously’ (Judges 13:3 - ‘will conceive and bear a son’), Samuel was born ‘miraculously’ (1 Samuel 1:5; 1 Samuel 1:20 - ‘conceived and bore a son’). And all these births would be engraved on Israelite hearts. But there is no suggestion that they were born of ‘almah’s, nor was the child of the prophetess in fact born ‘miraculously’, even though she ‘conceived and bore a son’. Indeed she had already previously had another son. It will be noted that the only exact parallel to ‘willconceive and bear a son’ in the whole of the Old Testament is Judges 13:3; Judges 13:5; Judges 13:7, and that of a birth that was certainly unusual and unexpected.

3) The suggestion that it refers to the child described in Isaiah 9:6-7, the coming One Who would be greater than David, Who would be called Wonderful, Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace, and would rule over the whole world, thus indicating that He would be miraculously born of an ‘almah (parthenos, virgin).

There can be no question that this suggestion of the virgin birth of the coming hope of the house of David has the most going for it from an Israelite’s point of view and from the point of view of the context. It would tie in with the past history of conceiving and bearing a ‘miraculous child’ as being signs to Israel. It would tie in with the Lord’s promise that He would give a remarkable miraculous sign. It would tie in with the following description of the ‘birth of a child’ in Matthew 9:6. It would give full weight to the use of ‘almah. It would explain why it demonstrated that ‘God is with us’. It would confirm that the hope of the house of David was indeed coming, in spite of present appearances, even though Ahaz’ house would be excluded. And in the context of Matthew it would explain why He would be able to save His people from their sins.

And as no one knew when the child would be born (it could be at any time) the indication that both kings would be devastated before the child could possibly grow to boyhood was a sufficient indicator of time, especially when associated with the actual example of the birth of the son to the prophetess. Indeed the only question that it might raise is, how could such a birth in the future possibly be a sign to Ahaz?

The answer to this question lies in the nature of the sign. It should be noted that it was no longer intended to be a sign to Ahaz that he was to be established (Matthew 7:9). But what it certainly was, was a sign of the fact that he would not be established, and while that did not really require a great present miracle at the time then current, God was determined that the one who had refused a miraculous sign would be given a miraculous sign which would demonstrate the fact in an inescapable way. Ahaz lived at a time when all hopes were on the coming of the future triumphant son of David, who would be of the line of David, and who would rule the world (Psalms 2). And Ahaz would pride himself in the fact that it would be of his seed. Thus to inform Ahaz that he was now receiving God’s words as a sign that this coming David would actually in fact be born of a virgin, and not be of his seed, was indeed a sign that he would not be established, and was an unwelcome sign indeed. It was an indication vouchsafed by the word of YHWH that the future throne would go to one not born of Ahaz’s seed. The sign was thus now not a matter of when the child would be born, but of what his birth would signify as regards the hopes for the future. Furthermore we have a good example in the past of precisely such an idea of a sign that was given as a sign to its recipient, with the actual working out of the sign being a future event. For such an example see Exodus 3:12. There the sign that Moses had been sent would be the fact that the people to whom he went would one day ‘serve God on this mountain’. The sign was a promise of a better future that had to be believed in, and that they could hold on to, and in which they had to continue to believe. It was a sign that had to be accepted on the basis of God’s promise. It was a sign of a future which would actually be the result of their response of faith, just as this sign in Isaiah 7:14 was a similar promise of a better future in which the people were called on to believe, in contrast to Ahaz (Isaiah 7:9).

Strictly speaking in fact Ahaz did not want or merit a sign. He had refused it. He had already made up his mind to look to Assyria. Thus the point here is that he was now to receive a verbal sign that he did not want, which demonstrated the very opposite of what the original promised sign would have indicated. And that sign was God’s own word that the Coming One would now be born of a virgin, and not of the seed of Ahaz. It demonstrated his rejection by God. Meanwhile Israel could indeed be confident that one day it would receive its promised king Whose coming would prove that God was with them, but they would now know that He would not be born of the seed of Ahaz, but would rather be born of a virgin. We should also note that while this might cause problems to our scientific age, it would have caused no problems to Israelites, nor indeed to Matthew. They would not be looking for some interpretation that avoided the ‘miraculous’. They would have seen no difficulty in the idea of the Creator bringing about a virgin birth.

This being so it is quite reasonable to see that to Matthew Isaiah was seen as promising that the great Son of David would be born of a virgin, and that it therefore directly related to what had happened in the case of Jesus, Who, as that Son of David had indeed been born of a virgin. He thus saw His birth from a virgin as ‘filling in full’ the prophecy which had only partly been fulfilled by Maher-shalal-hash-baz.

End of EXCURSUS.


Verse 24-25

‘And Joseph arose from his sleep, and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took to himself his wife, and knew her not until she had brought forth a son, and he called his name JESUS.’

Note how it is made clear that this was a genuine dream. There is no suggestion that the angel had actually been present, except in his thoughts. Thus far from so-called ‘legendary accretions’ the opposite is the truth. On the other hand Joseph had no doubt that a messenger from the Lord had spoken to him, and the result was that he altered his plans and invited Mary to be wedded to him and come to live with him. ‘He took to himself his wife’. But what he did not do was ‘know’ her, that is, have sexual relations with her. And he did not do so ‘until she had brought forth a son’. The Greek construction used here clearly indicates that after that he did so. Had there been any truth in the idea of her perpetual virginity this would have been the point at which it would have been emphasised.

‘Called His name Jesus.’ Joseph’s naming of Jesus was important. It was his final act by which he acknowledged Him as his son. From then on no one could deny it. Compare Isaiah 43:1, ‘I have called you by name, you are Mine’. Jesus was now the acknowledged heir to the throne of David. Passing on the heirdom through an adopted son was perfectly acceptable.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Matthew 1:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/matthew-1.html. 2013.


Lectionary Calendar
Sunday, September 24th, 2017
the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25
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