Saturday, February 7, 2009

Behold the Glory of the Coming of the Lord: An Exegesis of Isaiah 7

Gustave Dore's depiction of Isaiah 7

Behold the Glory of the Coming of the Lord: An Exegesis of Isaiah 7

To most fundamentalist Christians, Isaiah 7 is welcomed as a harbinger of the coming of Jesus Christ. The references to Immanuel are seen as explicit prefiguations of the advent of the Savior, Jesus the Christ.

However, as this academic paper below argues, there’s another interpretation to this famed Biblical text. When he wrote this scripture, the Hebrew prophet Isaiah didn’t have on his mind the unique political ferment to come in the Galilee under the reign of the emperor Tiberius. He was thinking about trouble at home, right then. Specifically, he was talking about the oppression the Israelites were suffering under the yoke of the brutal Assyrian conqueror Tiglath-pileser III.

Tiglath-pileser III

This fact doesn’t discount the possible interpretation that this chapter represents one of the heralds of the Advent of the Christian Lord. But also let’s remember that not everything in the Old Testament has to pertain to the New.

A note: There is a famous controversy regarding the Biblical interpretation of Isaiah 7: 17, known as the Isaiah 7:14 controversy. As the Wikipedia entry summarizes:

The original Hebrew text of Isaiah 7:14 reads as follows (translated):

"Therefore the Lord Himself shall give you a sign: behold, the young woman [ha-almah] shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanu-el".[1]

Jewish scholars reason that [ha-almah] ("young woman") does not refer to a virgin and that had the Tanakh intended to refer to such, the specific Hebrew word for virgin [bethulah] would have been used. This view is often disputed by Christians (see below), and has been a point of contention between Jews and Christians since the formation of the modern Church. Jerome, in 383 CE, wrote in "Adversus Helvidium" that Helvidius misunderstood just this same point of confusion between the Greek and the Hebrew.

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A striking contemporary rendering of the Virgin Mary

An original transcription of Isaiah 7

ISAIAH 7 – King James Version

Isaiah's Message to Ahaz

1 And it came to pass in the days of Ahaz the son of Jotham, the son of Uzziah, king of Judah, that Rezin the king of Syria, and Pekah the son of Remaliah, king of Israel, went up toward Jerusalem to war against it, but could not prevail against it.

2 And it was told the house of David, saying, Syria is confederate with Ephraim. And his heart was moved, and the heart of his people, as the trees of the wood are moved with the wind.

3 Then said the Lord unto Isaiah, Go forth now to meet Ahaz, thou, and Shearjashub thy son, at the end of the conduit of the upper pool in the highway of the fuller's field;

4 And say unto him, Take heed, and be quiet; fear not, neither be fainthearted for the two tails of these smoking firebrands, for the fierce anger of Rezin with Syria, and of the son of Remaliah.

5 Because Syria, Ephraim, and the son of Remaliah, have taken evil counsel against thee, saying,

6 Let us go up against Judah, and vex it, and let us make a breach therein for us, and set a king in the midst of it, even the son of Tabeal:

7 Thus saith the Lord GOD, It shall not stand, neither shall it come to pass.

8 For the head of Syria is Damascus and the head of Damascus is Rezin; and within threescore and five years shall Ephraim be broken, that it be not a people.

9 And the head of Ephraim is Samaria, and the head of Samaria is Remaliah's son. If ye will not believe, surely ye shall not be established.

10 Moreover the Lord spake again unto Ahaz, saying,

11 Ask thee a sign of the Lord thy God; ask it either in the depth, or in the height above.

12 But Ahaz said, I will not ask, neither will I tempt the Lord.

13 And he said, Hear ye now, O house of David; Is it a small thing for you to weary men, but will ye weary my God also?

14 Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.

15 Butter and honey shall he eat, that he may know to refuse the evil, and choose the good.

16 For before the child shall know to refuse the evil, and choose the good, the land that thou abhorrest shall be forsaken of both her kings.

17 The Lord shall bring upon thee, and upon thy people, and upon thy father's house, days that have not come, from the day that Ephraim departed from Judah; even the king of Assyria.

18 And it shall come to pass in that day, that the Lord shall hiss for the fly that is in the uttermost part of the rivers of Egypt, and for the bee that is in the land of Assyria.

19 And they shall come, and shall rest all of them in the desolate valleys, and in the holes of the rocks, and upon all thorns, and upon all bushes.

20 In the same day shall the Lord shave with a razor that is hired, namely, by them beyond the river, by the king of Assyria, the head, and the hair of the feet: and it shall also consume the beard.

21 And it shall come to pass in that day, that a man shall nourish a young cow, and two sheep;

22 And it shall come to pass, for the abundance of milk that they shall give he shall eat butter: for butter and honey shall every one eat that is left in the land.

23 And it shall come to pass in that day, that every place shall be, where there were a thousand vines at a thousand silverlings, it shall even be for briers and thorns.

24 With arrows and with bows shall men come thither; because all the land shall become briers and thorns.

25 And on all hills that shall be digged with the mattock, there shall not come thither the fear of briers and thorns: but it shall be for the sending forth of oxen, and for the treading of lesser cattle.

Isaiah 7 in Arabic

Isaiah 7 – Revised Standard Version

[1] In the days of Ahaz the son of Jotham, son of Uzzi'ah, king of Judah, Rezin the king of Syria and Pekah the son of Remali'ah the king of Israel came up to Jerusalem to wage war against it, but they could not conquer it.

[2] When the house of David was told, "Syria is in league with E'phraim," his heart and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind.

[3] And the LORD said to Isaiah, "Go forth to meet Ahaz, you and She'ar-jash'ub your son, at the end of the conduit of the upper pool on the highway to the Fuller's Field,

[4] and say to him, `Take heed, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint because of these two smoldering stumps of firebrands, at the fierce anger of Rezin and Syria and the son of Remali'ah.

[5] Because Syria, with E'phraim and the son of Remali'ah, has devised evil against you, saying,

[6] "Let us go up against Judah and terrify it, and let us conquer it for ourselves, and set up the son of Ta'be-el as king in the midst of it,"

[7] thus says the Lord GOD: It shall not stand, and it shall not come to pass.

[8] For the head of Syria is Damascus, and the head of Damascus is Rezin. (Within sixty-five years E'phraim will be broken to pieces so that it will no longer be a people.)

[9] And the head of E'phraim is Sama'ria, and the head of Sama'ria is the son of Remali'ah. If you will not believe, surely you shall not be established."

[10] Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz,

[11] "Ask a sign of the LORD your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven."
[12] But Ahaz said, "I will not ask, and I will not put the LORD to the test."
[13] And he said, "Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also?
[14] Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman [now believed to read: “virgin”] shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Imman'u-el.
[15] He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good.
[16] For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.
[17] The LORD will bring upon you and upon your people and upon your father's house such days as have not come since the day that E'phraim departed from Judah -- the king of Assyria."
[18] In that day the LORD will whistle for the fly which is at the sources of the streams of Egypt, and for the bee which is in the land of Assyria.

[19] And they will all come and settle in the steep ravines, and in the clefts of the rocks, and on all the thornbushes, and on all the pastures.
[20] In that day the Lord will shave with a razor which is hired beyond the River -- with the king of Assyria -- the head and the hair of the feet, and it will sweep away the beard also.

[21] In that day a man will keep alive a young cow and two sheep;

[22] and because of the abundance of milk which they give, he will eat curds; for every one that is left in the land will eat curds and honey.
[23] In that day every place where there used to be a thousand vines, worth a thousand shekels of silver, will become briers and thorns.

[24] With bow and arrows men will come there, for all the land will be briers and thorns;
[25] and as for all the hills which used to be hoed with a hoe, you will not come there for fear of briers and thorns; but they will become a place where cattle are let loose and where sheep tread.

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Behold the Glory of the Coming of the Lord: An Exegesis of Isaiah 7

In the tradition of the authors of many other Scriptural passages, the author of Isaiah 7 wrote to meet the spiritual needs of his time and place, which, in the context of a God of history, embraced his age's social and political needs as well. The story told in Isaiah 7 is a page of Hebrew history; and although the reason behind the use of the third person can be debated, the third person certainly lends to the account an air of historical authority.

The Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem: the Way of Sorrow, the pathway Jesus staggered down beneath the weight of his Cross on the way to Golgotha, the Hill of Skulls

The first verse pinpoints the exact political circumstances in which the episode is taking place, to clarify the import of the lesson being taught; for Isaiah 7 was written to instruct the Jewish people how to cope in the days of the decay of the throne of David, during what the prophets saw as the reneging of the Davidic covenant by the kings of Judah.

The situation described in Isaiah 7 is firmly set in the political context of the time. Syria and Israel forged an alliance against Assyria to drive into Judah, when it became apparent that Ahaz was content to placate the Assyrians. With the survival of the throne of David imperative, God, true to his obligation in the Davidic covenant, acted to save Ahaz. He sent Isaiah to reassure Ahaz that the Syro-Ephraimite invasion was fated to fail and that as a result of its perfidy, the state of Israel would disintegrate inside sixty-five years (vss. 7-8). The point of vss. 8-9 is illuminated by Bernhard W. Anderson in Understanding the Old Testament: "The head of Ephraim is Pekah, and the head of Damascus is Rezin; but these are men, not God!" (1) In v. 9, God advises that faith in Himself is the only sure foundation of the throne of David.

But as vss. 10-12 make clear, Ahaz lacks that faith. When offered a sign of the Lord's support, he declines, feigning piety, thus exposing his own lack of faith. In response, Isaiah offers a gratuitous sign. As a messenger of the Lord's word, he informs Ahaz of the future with which God intends to invest Jewish history. As a symbol of this destiny, Isaiah use the figure of Immanuel, whose very name, meaning "God is with us," signifies the concrete presence of God in the realm of human events.

From a modern viewpoint, many of the key details of Isaiah's description of the sign of Immanuel are obscure, but with a knowledge of their context, the significance of the sign becomes apparent. The sign of Immanuel heralds God's vastation of Judah for sundering the Davidic covenant. In his maturity ("when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good," v. 15), Immanuel will be forced to eat curds and honey ("the best food available to nomadic wanderers, but not the food of Ahaz's court" [2]), a portent of the times of ruination to come.

Before that time ("before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good"), Isaiah predicts, Yahweh will destroy both Syria and Israel for their malice (v. 16); yet for its faithlessness as manifested in Ahaz, neither is Judah to be spared. Initially Isaiah describes Judah's fate in symbolic terms. Like a pestilential swarm of insects, Assyria will ravage the land (vss. 18-19) with scathing humiliation (v. 20—"the hair of the feet" being a euphemism for pubic hair).

Then Isaiah foretells Judah's punishment with graphic realistic detail. Verses 21-22 warn of the poverty that will be visited upon the people: "a man with only one heifer and two sheep was a poor peasant (cf. II Samuel 12: 1-3).” (3) In a classic image of desolation, the land, once fertile, is described as destined to fall fallow, lapsing into a waste land (vss. 22-5). The chapter concludes in verse 25 with a picture of the land as fit only for livestock grazing, wholly devoid of human civilization.

In no uncertain terms, Isaiah 7 depicts the certain fate in store for the Hebrew people should they seek to abrogate the Davidic covenant with God. The narrative frame of verse 1, marking it as history, is designed to give the message added weight in that it emphasizes that a previous violation has already been punished, in such a manner; future infractions are sure to attract identical sparks from the Wrath.

Above all, Isaiah 7 stresses that the basis of the Davidic covenant (and so of the Hebrew state) is faith in God on the part of the Jewish rulers; had Ahaz followed Isaiah's advice. Judah never would have had to suffer the Lord's anger.

In the Old Testament, we see the spiritual leaders of the Jews striving to maintain the unique relationship of their people with God in the midst of changing circumstances. In the midst of the decline of the throne of David, Isaiah warns that straying from the Lord’s path will invite certain doom, a message that certainly resonates with us now.

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The joke's on us!

The wicked king: the false leader the Lord raised up to punish America for turning away from His path and not caring anymore

A hapless denizen of Sacramento's rapidly expanding new tent city, 2009: how come we have to pay the price for Bush's freebooting? And why isn't the Federal government helping her and the millions like her, instead of the big banks?

The original wicked king from Hollywood who paved the way for our current Babylonian Captivity


  1. Bernhard W. Anderson. Understanding the Old Testament (Englewood Cliffs, 1975), p. 310.

  1. R.B.Y. Scott, Exegesis, "The Book of Isaiah," The Interpreter's Bible. Vol. V (New York. 1956), p. 220.

  1. Ibid., p. 221.


Anderson, Bernhard W. Understanding the Old Testament. Englewood

Cliffs. 1975.

Scott, R.B.Y. Exegesis. "The Book of Isaiah." The Interpreter's Bible, Vol. V. New York, 1956.

Note: This is a revision of an academic paper I wrote for a Religion course while a senior at Princeton in April 1977.

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