biblical-hermeneutics

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Isaiah 7:14 (ASV, ESV, NASB, HCSB, NIV, LEB)[1]

14 Behold, the virgin [ha almah] shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.

The Virgin and Immanuel

After the 1952 RSV rendering of “young woman,” and the subsequent Bible burnings by radical conservative evangelicals, one must wonder if the above translation (aside from the ASV 1901) are following the evidence, or are reluctant to go against the grain.

Even though the Hebrew word bethulah means “virgin,” another term (almah) appears at Isaiah 7:14 (RSV, NET): “Behold, a young woman [ha almah] shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” Alma means “maiden,” “girl,” or “young woman” and can relate to either a non-virgin or a virgin, depending on the context (what the author meant by the word that he used). Moses in the 16th century B.C.E. wrote of Rebekah,

Genesis 24:16 Revised Standard Version (RSV)

16 The young woman was very attractive in appearance, a maiden [bethulah] whom no man had known. She went down to the spring and filled her jar and came up.

Genesis 24:43

43 behold, I am standing by the spring of water. Let the virgin [ha almah] who comes out to draw water, to whom I shall say, “Please give me a little water from your jar to drink,”

Matthew under inspiration used the Greek parthenos (virgin)[2] when showing that Isaiah 7:14 found final application in connection with the virgin birth of Jesus Christ. (Matt 1:18-25) The translators of the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek (280-150 B.C.E.), used parthenos at Isaiah 7:14.

Excursion: New Testament use of Old Testament

Let us take a moment to consider how we are to understand a prophecy written by an Old Testament writer that is then used by a New Testament writer. Both the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament had meaning to the original audience. It served as means of guidance for the initial people, as well as for succeeding generations, down to our day. This is not to say that the prophetic message itself always had immediate application, but that its meaning is beneficial to all. Let us say that Isaiah the prophet, for example, uttered a prophecy about a child that was going to be born. This child would set matters straight in some future prophetic sense, no immediate application.

They do not know when to expect this child any more than the Christians knew when the day and hour of Jesus’ second coming was going to take place. (Matt. 24:36) However, the prophecies about Jesus’ return still offered the initial hearer(s) hope, as well as every succeeding generation until now. Just as Christianity has held on to the hope of Christ’s return, even though, it has now been 2,000 years, the Old Testament prophetic message of a coming child, for a distant future, unknown to the people, would still serve an immediate purpose to the people, who initially heard it. Second, with grammatical-historical interpretation, there is only one meaning of a text, which is ascertained by:

  • understanding the words that the author used,
  • the arrangement and construction of those words in sentences,
  • as well as the historical setting.

In addition, we need to understand some other essential elements. We can only get at the meaning of any given text by grammatical-historical interpretation, which is an objective approach. We are not under inspiration while we are interpreting Scripture; otherwise, we would never err. We have to understand how the New Testament writers interpreted the Old Testament and see how we differ because we are not inspired. We will take a brief look at three different areas.

Allegorical Interpretation is an approach in which the characters and events are viewed as being beyond the plain literal sense of a text, to be understood as representing other things and symbolically expressing a deeper, often spiritual or moral meaning. For example, Genesis 3:22 in Bagster’s Greek Septuagint of the Old Testament, which says, “The Lord God made for Adam and his wife garments of skin, and clothed them.” Philo[3] found symbolism in that verse and stated, “The real meaning, then the garment of skins is a figurative expression for the natural skin, that is to say, our body; for God, when first of all he made the intellect, called it Adam; after that he created the outward sense, to which he gave the name of Life. In the third place, he of necessity also made a body, calling that by a figurative expression, a garment of skins.”[4] Thus, Philo endeavored to make the historical act of God clothing Adam and Eve an allegory. Consider also the historical and geographical account of Genesis 2:10-14.

Genesis 2:10-14

10 A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden, and there it divided and became four rivers. 11 The name of the first is the Pishon. It is the one that flowed around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold.12 And the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. 13 The name of the second river is the Gihon. It is the one that flowed around the whole land of Cush. 14 And the name of the third river is the Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.

Philo made an effort to go beyond the words and look to a so-called deeper meaning. He wrote,

Perhaps this passage also contains an allegorical meaning; for the four rivers are the signs of four virtues: Phison being the sign of prudence, as deriving its name from parsimony; and Gihon being the sign of sobriety, as having its employment in the regulation of meat and drink, and as restraining the appetites of the belly, and of those parts which are blow the belly, as being earthly; the Tigris again is the sign of fortitude, for this it is which regulates the raging commotion of anger within us; and the Euphrates is the sign of justice, since there is nothing in which the thoughts of men exult more than in justice.[5]

Certainly, one can see the danger of allegorical interpretation, because the interpreter can align it with whatever he wants it to mean. If we could talk with many of the liberal Bible scholars today, they would say things like, “the book of Genesis, including Adam and Eve, are allegorical.” In other words, Adam and Even are fictional characters, not real persons. This is why the reformers of the Reformation of the 16th century abandoned allegorical interpretation. However, it has hung on through the writings of some religious groups, as well as some Bible scholars. Did any of the New Testament writers use allegorical interpretation in their writings? Moreover, should we mimic them if they did use allegorical interpretation? Please see what Paul wrote to the Galatians below, which is one of the few places that are viewed as allegorical.

Galatians 4:24-26

24 Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. 25 Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. 26 But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother.

The first part of verse 24 could be rendered differently. Such as, “these things are illustrations” or “these things are symbolic.” Regardless, Paul sounds pretty much like what Philo sounded like, correct? Thus, for the sake of making our point, we will say Paul is interpreting allegorically here. What is the difference between Philo and Paul? Yes, Paul is an inspired Bible writer, who is penning his book under inspiration, and it is subjective. Subjective means that something is based on somebody’s opinions or feelings rather than by facts or evidence. Objective means that something is free of any bias or prejudice caused by personal feelings, based on facts rather than thoughts or opinions.[6]

Allegorical interpretation is subjective, based on opinion. Paul’s opinion just so happens to be under the inspiration of God, as Holy Spirit moved him along. In other words, it is God’s opinion. This is perfectly acceptable. Philo’s allegorical interpretation is subjective too, meaning it is not based on any facts, but rather based on his personal feelings and is his opinion. This is not acceptable. Thus, we do no interpret Scripture allegorically. If the New Testament writer has done it for us; then, we accept it as the Word of God. We also arrive at our understanding based on historical-grammatical interpretation, which is primarily objective. The New Testament writer did not need to use historical-grammatical hermeneutics because Holy Spirit led him. We, on the other hand, are not lead by Holy Spirit in the same sense and the same way as were inspired Bible writers.[7]

Finally, if a New Testament writer uses allegory for an Old Testament people, object, institution or event, this does not mean that the New Testament writer’s allegorical interpretation is to be carried back to the Old Testament, as though that was what the Old Testament writer meant to convey. That allegorical meaning would be a different meaning, belonging to the New Testament writer alone. Finally, we are not inspired, so we do not use allegorical interpretation unless it is what the New Testament writer penned.

Typological Interpretation is the study of religious texts for identifying entities (people, objects, institutions and events) in them that appear to prefigure subsequent corresponding entities. For example, King David is viewed as a type of Christ.

A biblical “type” is an illustration, an example, or a pattern of God’s activity in the history of his people Israel and the church through persons, events, or institutions. Typology is not the same thing as an exegesis of a passage, for a biblical text has only one meaning, its natural or normal meaning as determined by means of grammatico-historical study. If the typical sense is not indicated by the original author or his text, then it probably is not consistent with the normal or natural (some read: literal) meaning of the text.[8]

Like allegory, typological interpretation is subjective, meaning one’s opinion. Therefore, it is fine that a New Testament writer used typological interpretation, because they were inspired, and the result was/is the Word of God.[9] However, we are not inspired, so like allegory, we do not use typological interpretation, unless we are using what the New Testament writer already established as typological. Again, the New Testament writer did not need to use historical-grammatical hermeneutics, because Holy Spirit led him.

Fulfillment is the result of a prophetic message, prophecies that are fulfilled. Luke 24:27 tells us “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, [Jesus] interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” Matthew especially, referenced many prophecies that were fulfilled in Jesus. Let us look at one from Hosea in Matthew.

Hosea 11:1

1 When Israel was a [boy], I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.

Matthew 2:15

15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

Some argue that we need to see Matthew’s meaning in Hosea. In other words, Hosea meant to convey the meaning that Matthew expressed. This just is not the case. Did Hosea mean his words to be prophetic, or were they a reference to a historical event, to make a point to his current readers? His audience would have understood what Hosea meant, by their use of historical-grammatical interpretation. “When Israel was but a boy” is a reference to the nation’s early beginnings, when they were young, while they were in Egypt. “I” is Jehovah God speaking through the prophet Hosea, their loving father, who ‘out of Egypt called his son.’

On many occasions, a New Testament writer would quote or cite an Old Testament Scripture. Many times the New Testament writer would be using the Old Testament text contextually, according to the setting, and intent of the Old Testament writer (observing the grammatical-historical sense). However, at times the New Testament writer would add to or apply the text differently than what was meant by the Old Testament writer (not observing the grammatical-historical sense). This is either a new or a progressive revelation of God, where he has inspired the New Testament writer to go beyond the intended meaning of the Old Testament writer, and carry out what is known as Inspired Sensus Plenior Application (ISPA). In this latter case, the New Testament writer is using the Old Testament text to convey another meaning to another circumstance. This does not violate the principle that all texts have just one single meaning. The Old Testament text has one meaning, and the New Testament writer’s adaptation of that text is not a second meaning, but another meaning.

Now, (1) was Matthew intending to interpret the message of Hosea, because it was supposedly prophetic, or (2) was he using Hosea’s meaning of a historical reference, and giving it a sensus plenior meaning, by way of inspiration of Holy Spirit? It was the latter, number (2). Hosea’s meaning was a historical reference to the Israelite nation when they were in Egypt. Matthew’s meaning is to take Hosea’s words, and add new additional meaning to them, not suggesting at all that Hosea meant his new meaning.

Dr. John H. Walton’s approach to dealing with this sort of circumstance is that we need to grasp the difference between (1) message and (2) fulfillment. The message of Hosea was not prophetic and was understood by his audience. “Fulfillment is not the message but is the working out of God’s plan in history. There are no hermeneutical principles within the grammatical-historical model that enable one to identify a fulfillment by reading and analyzing the prophecy.”[10] In other words, we need not concern ourselves with trying to shove a square peg into a round hole. We do not have to fit Matthew’s meaning into Hosea, as though Hosea’s meaning was prophetic, and this justifies Matthew’s conclusions. We are not causing any ripple in Scripture because these two have different meanings from each other. Walton is in harmony with Dr. Robert L. Thomas, with the exception of his seeing Matthew’s use of Hosea’s words as a fulfillment, while Thomas sees them as a completion, “some sense the transport of Jesus by His parents from Egypt completed the deliverance of Israel from Egypt that had begun during the time of Moses.”[11] Bold is mine

It is difficult to see Matthew’s use of Hosea’s words as a fulfillment, because, Hosea’s words were not prophetic. Without an intended prophecy, how can there be a fulfillment? We should see Matthew’s use of Hosea’s words as completing whatever historical reference Hosea was referring too. What we do know is that if Matthew assigns a different meaning to Hosea’s words, it is his meaning, and it is subjective. Which if you recall, we are perfectly fine with because he has the authority to offer subjective meaning; he was an inspired Bible writer, who had been moved along by Holy Spirit. Matthew was not interpreting the message Hosea penned; he was giving us a sensus plenior, a completion to Hosea’s words.

Therefore, we need to look at the Greek word behind fulfillment (pleroo). Pleroo has a range of meaning, and the context will give us which sense was meant. It can mean, “to fulfill, to complete, carry out to the full, accomplish, and perfect.”[12] What is the sense that we find at Matthew 2:15 and other places that New Testament writers use it, when they are referring to an Old Testament Passage? Bible scholar Dr. Robert L Thomas has this to say on the subject, “Most (if not all) English translations frequently render the Greek verb pleroo by the English word fulfill. In some instances, this is unfortunate because the two words do not cover the same semantic domain. In English, fulfill, when used in connection with Old Testament citations, carries the connotation of a historical occurrence of something promised or predicted. The Greek pleroo, however, covers more linguistic territory than that.”[13] New Testament Scholar Douglas J. Moo adds,

Pleroo cannot be confined to so narrow a focus [as referring to fulfillment of an Old Testament prophecy]…. What needs to be emphasized, then, is that the use of pleroo in an introductory formula need not mean that the author regards the Old Testament text he quotes as a direct prophecy; and accusations that a New Testament author misuses the Old Testament by using pleroo to introduce nonprophetic texts are unfounded.’[14]

We can see that the context of Matthew 2:15 leads us to the rendering “This was to complete what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’” In other words, “In the Matthew 2:15 citation of Hosea 11:1 Matthew uses [pleroo] to indicate the completion of a sensus plenior meaning he finds in Hosea 11:1.”[15] As we have already said, the single meaning of Hosea 11:1 is not prophetic, but rather a historical reference to the time of Moses, when God called the Israelite nation out of Egypt. For this reason, to use the English rendering fulfill is “misleading.” “Matthew’s meaning is that in some sense the transport of Jesus by His parents from Egypt completed the deliverance of Israel from Egypt that had begun during the time of Moses.”[16]

Now, it is time for a little warning. We should be very cautious of writers who give us interpretations of an allegory, typology, and fulfillment that are not expressly given by a Bible writer. No human writer at present, or that lived after the Apostle John died in 100 C.E., has the authority to give us fulfillment unless it was stated by a Bible author. Humans are very curious about what the future holds, especially Christians with the fulfillment of Scripture. This is why books by authors telling us they have unlocked Scripture or that they can explain the fulfillment of things that no Bible writer expressed as a fulfillment, are very dangerous. We cannot reproduce the interpretive skills of the New Testament writers because they did not always follow the historical-grammatical interpretation (objective), they at times gave a message that was subjective. We do not have the authority to imitate them by our skipping over historical-grammatical interpretation to give revelations about allegory, typology, and fulfillment of Scripture. Therefore, let us stay far from the shores of subjective interpretation, by either penning it, or reading it.

Recap of New Testament Use of Old Testament

Again, the New Testament writers used Old Testament writers in one of two ways. (1) The New Testament writer took the one grammatical-historical interpretation of the Old Testament passage. In this case, we are talking about a fulfillment of the Old Testament passage and we are perfectly fine to word it that way. In other words, the Old Testament passage was written as a prophecy for that future event, not some immediate fulfillment. (2) The New Testament writer goes beyond what the Old Testament writer penned, assigning it additional meaning that is applicable to the New Testament context. In other words, the Old Testament writer’s grammatical-historical interpretation would have been a fulfillment for him and his audience, not just a hope. The New Testament writer then made the information applicable to his situation, by adding to it, which fit his context. With number (1), we have the New Testament writer staying with the literal sense of the Old Testament writer. With number (2), we have the New Testament writer adding a whole other meaning.

Dr. Robert L. Thomas calls number (2) “inspired sensus plenior application” (ISPA), which we will adopt as well.[17] It is inspired because this is an inspired Bible writer adding the additional sense or fuller sense than what had been penned in the Old Testament.

When interpreting the Old Testament and New Testament each in light of the single grammatical-historical meaning of each passage, two kinds of New Testament uses of the Old Testament surface, one in which the New Testament writer observes the grammatical-historical sense of the Old Testament passage and the other in which the New Testament writer goes beyond the grammatical-historical sense in using a passage. Inspired sensus plenior application (ISPA) designates the latter usage. Numerous passages illustrate each type of New Testament use of the Old Testament. The ISPA type of use does not grant contemporary interpreters a license to copy the method of New Testament writers, nor does it violate the principle of single meaning. The ISPA meaning of the Old Testament passage did not exist for humans until the time of the New Testament citation, being occasioned by Israel’s rejection of her Messiah at His first advent. The ISPA approach approximates that advocated by John H. Walton more closely than other explanations of the New Testament use of the Old Testament. “Fulfillment” terminology in the New Testament is appropriate only for events that literally fulfill events predicted in the Old Testament.[18]

Most conservative evangelical scholars believe that some biblical prophecies possess more than the initial fulfillment, an extended fulfillment. This writer and many others would also point out that the prophecies in both the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament had meaning to those who the prophecy was written to; it served as means of guidance for the initial audience, as well as for succeeding generation, down to our day. This is not to say that the prophetic message itself was applicable from then until now, but that its meaning is beneficial to all. In many cases, the fulfillment took place within that first generation.

At times, there are New Testament writers that give another fulfillment during the New Testament era, 02 B.C.E. up unto 100 C.E. In addition, there are some cases where a prophecy has a final fulfillment in what the Bible calls the “last days” or “end times,” or even during the millennial reign of Christ. Revelation 21:1; Isaiah 65:17; 66:22; 2 Peter 3:13

Here I should qualify what I mean by having meaning to the initial audience and being fulfilled during the lifetime of the first audience. Isaiah 65:17 informs the initial audience, the contemporaries of Isaiah “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered, and they shall not come to mind.” What do “new heavens and a new earth” mean, and when was this to take place?

65:17-19. The new condition of salvation for only a portion of God’s people could occur because God had created something entirely new. The new creation would differ greatly from the old one, being dominated by joy instead of mourning and weeping. The joy would be shared by the people and by God. This new creation would share some features with the old. It would still have both heavens and earth. And it would center in the holy city of Jerusalem.[19]

I certainly would agree with Dr. Trent C. Butler’s assessment, but is this applicable to the time period of Isaiah’s prophesying, 778-732 B.C.E.? The words can merely refer to the future, in general, as opposed to what we think of as the last days or end times. In other words, the Israelites could place their hope in a bright future, but not knowing the day and the hour. There is nothing in Scripture where another inspired writer took Isaiah words and gave them meaning of fulfillment. They could have taken place already, but we cannot speak of that in absolute terms, because as was stated earlier, we are not inspired, to be able to speak of fulfillment. However, let us offer a possible time when they could have been fulfilled in the past, but after Isaiah was written.

It could have been fulfilled almost 200 years after Isaiah when the Israelites would come back from the seventy years that they were going to spend in Babylonian captivity. Butler said, “The new condition of salvation [was] for only a portion of God’s people.” Only a small remnant of Israelites returned home from Babylonian captivity in 537 B.C.E. This would mean that there was no immediate fulfillment for the people of Isaiah’s day or even the next generation. However, there was meaning for the Israelites, because they knew destruction and desolation of Jerusalem was coming, but they also knew that a remnant was going to come through this, and purified worship would be restored to Jerusalem, which offered them hope.

Returning to Isaiah 7:14

Before we delve into the correct translation of “young woman” or “virgin,” we need to talk about how we are to arrive at the meaning of almah. There are four stages of the process: (1) the semantic range of meaning,[20] (2) the authors intended meaning by his use of the word within the cotext and context,[21] (3) the meaning that his readers should have perceived it to be, and  (4) the distant reader in time and place having to ascertain the intended meaning. If one has arrived at the correct understanding, stages 2-4 should all be the same. In short, the meaning is what Isaiah meant by his use of the word in the text, within his cotext[22] and the historical context, at the time of his penning it. While other Old Testament author’s use of almah, the Greek Septuagint’s use of parthenos (virgin), and Matthew’s quotation and use of  parthenos, are all interesting, and help us with the range, they do not affect what Isaiah meant by his use. It is the translator’s job to set aside his theological bias, and determine what Isaiah meant by his use of almah within his context and context.

Thus, what was Isaiah’s intended meaning when he used almah? What is our semantic range? (Girl, maiden, young woman, and virgin) Even if we ascertain that our choice should be “virgin,” what was the sense in Isaiah’s day? Today in the United States, when we hear the word virgin, the primary sense for us is somebody who has never engaged in sexual intercourse. However, for Isaiah, the main sense of almah would be a young woman of an age that is ready to marry but is not married, who has reach puberty. Of course, because of the culture, it is assumed, without focusing one’s mind on such, she would also be somebody who has never engaged in sexual intercourse. However, it could also refer to a young woman who has recently been married.

What Was the Cotext and Context?

Isaiah 7:14-16 NEUTRAL TRANSLATION

14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you [Ahaz and the people] a sign. Behold, ha almah [girl, maiden, young woman, virgin] shall conceive [is with child] and bear a son [participle is functioning as a verb: immanent action.],[23] and shall call his name Immanuel [God with us]. 15 He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16 For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted.

In the eighth century B.C.E., King Pekah of Israel and King Rezin of Syria, were looking to remove from power Ahaz, king of Judah, with the purpose of putting the son of Tabeel upon his throne. (Isa 7:1-6) In verses 12-13, Ahaz has just been offered a sign of his choice, an evident demonstration that God is with his people, in hopes that he [Ahaz] will turn back to pure worship. Ahaz begs off, seemingly referencing Deuteronomy 6:16, “I will not put Jehovah to the test.” However, it was not as though he was loyally obeying the law; his trust was going out to Assyria, looking for assistance against his northern adversaries. (2 Kings 16:7-8) In the meantime, the Syro-Israelite army surrounds Jerusalem and the siege is on.

Isaiah’s words of good news here in verses 14-16 were directed to Ahaz and his people, who had to be under tremendous stress. God is not going to allow the covenant he made with David come to an end. God overlooks the fact that Ahaz just rejected his offer of a sign, and he gives him and the Israelite people one anyway. There is a young woman, who is pregnant with child, who is imminently about to give birth to a son, and will name her son, “Immanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” Before the boy is old enough to tell the difference between good and bad, God will destroy the enemy nations. All of this came true!

Isaiah does not reveal who the child is in his writings. However, since young Immanuel was to be a sign and Isaiah states later at 8:18, “the children whom Jehovah has given me are signs and portents in Israel from Jehovah,” it is possible that this is a son of Isaiah. Under inspiration, Isaiah was obviously inspired by God to leave out the identity of Immanuel in the days of Ahaz, which would mean he could move another inspired writer to identify the fulfillment of Isaiah’s words to the Greater Immanuel, Jesus Christ. (Matt 1:23) The birth of the first Immanuel had served as a sign that Jehovah had not abandoned his covenant with David. The birth of the Greater Immanuel was a sign that he had not abandoned his covenant promise with humankind that he had made at Genesis 3:15, his covenant promise to Abraham (Gen 12:1-3), or his Kingdom covenant with David.–Luke 1:31-33.

John H. Walton writes: (Walton, Isaiah 7:14: what’s in a name? 1987)

On a very superficial level, if the word clearly means “virgin” we might wonder why the NASB has felt no compulsion to translate (almâ as “virgin” in any of the other occurrences of the word in the OT. This discrepancy certainly takes much force out of the argument that the term means “virgin.”

Why is it never mentioned that there are two masculine occurrences of this noun elem? In 1 Sam 17:56 David is described as an elem, and the same term is applied to Jonathan’s servant in 20:22. In neither of these cases is the sexual chastity of the individual a viable issue. Furthermore the abstraction of the noun occurs in four passages (Job 20:11; 33:25; Ps 89:45; Isa 54:4). If the word meant “virgin,” we would expect its abstraction to mean “virginity.” Yet in Isa 54:4 it is used to describe a rejected barren wife.

These occurrences over and over again rule out “virgin” as a viable lexical choice for describing the basic meaning of the word. On the other hand there is no question that an ‘alma can at times be a virgin. This is just semantic overlapping. In English a fiancée is often also a virgin (though the percent of semantic overlapping of these two words is in sad decline).

Let us look at the last point first. Walton is talking about how fiancée is losing its meaning of “virgin.” However, he has no problem referring to the use of almah by Moses in the 16th century B.C.E., as a means of deciding its use in the 8th century B.C.E. by Isaiah, some 700 years later.

While his other points all seem reasonable, is it not also true that each Hebrew and Greek word has a semantic range, and context determines the meaning of the word, not how it was used elsewhere, even by the same author.[24] While it might be interesting to find all of the uses of a word, and see that 95 percent of the 37 times, a word is used with one particular meaning, this does not demand that this be the case on 38 and 39.

Immanuel “God is With Us”

THE identification of Immanuel and his mother in Isa 7:14 has been an object of heated debate for centuries. There is scarcely any other passage which has been subjected to so many varying analyses with regard to the translation of key words, the overall historical context, the nature of the passage, and its relation to ch. 8. Theological considerations have complicated the problem in view of the quotation in Matt 1:23, identifying the mother with Mary and Immanuel with Christ. Many Christian scholars have refused to admit any other interpretation for Isa 7:14: calmäh must mean “virgin,” and Immanuel, “God with us,” and Matthew clinches the identification with Mary and Jesus.1 On the other hand, the context of ch. 7 demands some sort of contemporary fulfillment as a sign to King Ahaz. What is the precise nature of the historical thrust of the passage and how does this relate to the NT usage? (Wolf 1972, 449)

The name-title Immanuel was first given, as we saw in the above, during the reign of King Ahaz of Judah. Then, in Isaiah 8:1 Jehovah told Isaiah, “Take a large tablet and write on it in common characters,[25] ‘Belonging to Maher-shalal-hash-baz.’”[26] Thereafter, Isaiah describes just how the threat to Judah was to be removed: When the Assyrians come, they will be broken and shattered, because “God is with us” [Immanuel]! (Isa 8:5-10) Some commentators have suggested that Isaiah had another son after Maher-shalal-hash-baz, perhaps by a second wife of the prophet. Others tried to apply the prophecy of Immanuel to Hezekiah, the son of Ahaz. (Wolf 1972, 449) However, this is not possible, because as we saw in the above, the moment Isaiah uttered the prophecy, the maiden (ha almah) was with child, and was at the point of giving birth, and Hezekiah was already about nine years old at the time.–2 Kings 16:2; 18:1-2.

The third possible suggestion for Immanuel is Isaiah’s second son Maher-shalal-hash-baz, of who it was said, “‘before the boy knows how to cry ‘My father’ or ‘My mother,’ the wealth of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria will be carried away before the king of Assyria.’” (Isa 8:1-4) This does seem to fit well with what was said about Immanuel at 7:16 of Isaiah, “Before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings [of Damascus and Samaria] you dread will be deserted.” In addition, the birth of the second son of Isaiah is offered in at the doorstep of further prophecy concerning Immanuel and, as was already mentioned above: “the children whom the Lord has given me are signs and portents in Israel.” Isaiah 7:14; 8:18 (Wolf 1972, 450)

The problem we face with this suggestion though, is the fact that Isaiah’s wife was referred to as “the prophetess,” not as “the maiden,” not to mention that she was by this time the mother of Isaiah’s first son, Shear-jashub, therefore no “maiden” in the strictest sense of the word. (Isa 7:3; 8:3) However, as was stated above, almah (young woman, even recently married woman) was used, which carries a broader sense of a young woman.

Isaiah’s words were actually prophetic, in that they prophesied what was shortly to take place. In other words, his words were applicable to the current historical situation. Isaiah’s meaning was a reference to an Immanuel for Isaiah and his readers. Matthew’s meaning is to take Isaiah’s words, and add a new meaning to them, not suggesting at all that Isaiah prophetically meant his new meaning.

The message of Isaiah was not prophetically meant for some distant future, but rather was understood by his audience. Again, “Fulfillment is not the message, but is the working out of God’s plan in history. There are no hermeneutical principles within the grammatical-historical model that enable one to identify a fulfillment by reading and analyzing the prophecy.”[27] We do not have to fit Matthew’s meaning into Isaiah, as though Isaiah’s meaning was prophetically reaching down to his day, and somehow justifies Matthew’s conclusions. These two have two different meanings.

Just as a reminder, seeing fulfillment is subjective, an opinion, just like our allegory and typology. If Matthew assigns a different meaning to Isaiah or Hosea’s words, it is his meaning, and it is subjective. Which if we recall, we are perfectly fine with because he has the authority to offer subjective meaning; he was an inspired Bible writer and was moved along by Holy Spirit. We accept Matthew seeing Jesus as the fulfillment (completion) of Isaiah or Hosea’s words, but see Hosea’s words, as a historical reference and Isaiah’s as prophetic, but applicable to the current setting. In other words, Matthew was not interpreting what Isaiah or Hosea penned, the message he was giving us the fulfillment (completion).

In the end, the final analysis is that we have no way of knowing just who Immanuel was when it came to Isaiah’s message, and God inspired his Word to be just that way. What we do know is, there was an Immanuel for Isaiah and his readers, and Matthew gives us another meaning with the fulfillment of Isaiah’s words, in the person of Jesus Christ. (Matt 1:23) In addition, we know Immanuel is a title name and need not be the actual name given to the child as his personal name, as it is simply representative of what the child symbolizes.

Review Questions

  • What two Hebrew words are we considering when discussing Isaiah 7:14, and what are their meanings(s)?
  • In what sense does a prophetic verse have meaning to the immediate audience, as well as succeeding generations, down to us?
  • What danger is there in allegorical interpretation?
  • What is the difference between Philo and Paul?
  • If a New Testament writer used Allegory in his interpretation of the Old Testament, why do we not carry that meaning back to what the Old Testament writer penned?
  • What is typological interpretation, and why is it as dangerous as allegory? Why is it fine for New Testament writers to use typological interpretation, but not fine for anyone else?
  • What is Inspired Sensus Plenior Application (ISPA)?
  • Why should we be very cautious of writers who give us interpretations of allegory, typology, and fulfillment that are not specifically given by a bible writer?
  • How could we understand Isaiah 65:7?
  • What was Isaiah’s intended meaning when he used almah? What is our semantic range? And even if we ascertain that our choice should be “virgin,” what was the sense in Isaiah’s day?
  • What was the cotext and context of Isaiah 7:14?
  • What is the final analysis as to Isaiah 7:14?

[1] Bible Gateway: LEB, NASB, NIV offer footnotes, letting the reader know of the alternative reading(s) ‘young woman.’

[2] One who has never engaged in sexual intercourse, virgin, chaste person (Arndt, Danker and Bauer 2000, 777)

[3] PHILO JUDAEUS: Early Jewish interpreter of Scripture known for use of allegory. Also known as Philo of Alexandria, he lived about the same time as Jesus (about 20 B.C. to A.D. 50). A member of a wealthy Jewish family in Alexandria, Egypt, He was well educated in Greek schools and used the Greek OT, the Septuagint, as his Bible. Philo’s writings, particularly his commentaries on the Scriptures, influenced the early church. A literal interpretation was all right for the average scholar, but for the enlightened ones such as himself, he advocated an allegorical interpretation.—James Taulman, “Philo Judaeus”, in Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, ed. Chad Brand, Charles Draper, Archie England et al., 1293-94 (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003).

[4] Philo of Alexandria and Charles Duke Yonge, The Works of Philo: Complete and Unabridged, 802 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995).

[5] Philo of Alexandria and Charles Duke Yonge, The Works of Philo: Complete and Unabridged, 793 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995).

[6] We are faced then with the fact that we possess two separate and distinct methods of interpretation. One is defined by hermeneutical guidelines and is objective in nature. The other is subjective in nature but finds its authority not in the science that drives it, but in its source—inspiration from God. If you have inspiration, you do not need historical-grammatical hermeneutics. If you do not have inspiration, you must proceed by the acknowledged guidelines of hermeneutics.―Page(s): 6, Inspired Subjectivity and Hermeneutical Objectivity by John H. Walton Master’s Seminary Journal March 01, 2002.pdf

[7] NT authors never claim to have engaged in a hermeneutical process, nor do they claim that they can support their findings from the text; instead, they claim inspiration.―Page(s): 6, Inspired Subjectivity and Hermeneutical Objectivity by John H. Walton Master’s Seminary Journal March 01, 2002.pdf

[8] Kaiser Jr., Walter C.; Silva, Moises (2009-08-12). Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics: The Search for Meaning (Kindle Locations 2100-2104). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

[9] The NT typologists did not get their typological correspondence from their exegetical analysis of the context of the OT. Hermeneutics is incapable of extracting a typological meaning from the OT context because hermeneutics operates objectively while the typological identification can only be made subjectively.―Page(s): 6, Inspired Subjectivity and Hermeneutical Objectivity by John H. Walton Master’s Seminary Journal March 01, 2002.pdf

[10] Page(s): 11, Inspired Subjectivity and Hermeneutical Objectivity by John H. Walton Master’s Seminary Journal March 01, 2002.pdf

[11] Robert L. Thomas. Evangelical Hermeneutics: The New Versus the Old (p. 263). Kindle Edition.

[12] W. E. Vine, Merrill F. Unger and William White, Jr., vol. 2, Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, 8 (Nashville, TN: T. Nelson, 1996).

[13] Robert L. Thomas. Evangelical Hermeneutics: The New Versus the Old (p. 262). Kindle Edition.

[14] Moo, Doulas J., “Problems of Sensus Plenior,” 191

[15] Thomas. Evangelical Hermeneutics: The New Versus the Old (p. 263).

[16] IBID., p. 263

[17] Robert L. Thomas. Evangelical Hermeneutics: The New Versus the Old (p. 242). Kindle Edition.

[18] Robert L. Thomas. Evangelical Hermeneutics: The New Versus the Old (p. 241). Kindle Edition.

[19] Anders, Max; Butler, Trent (2002-04-01). Holman Old Testament Commentary: Isaiah (p. 374). B&H Publishing.

[20] The semantic range of meaning is all the possible meanings of the norms of language of that time and place: girl, young woman, maiden, and virgin. “The lexical meaning is the range of senses of a word that may be counted on as being established in the public domain.” (Cottrell and Turner 1989, 140) Of course, this is at the time of its use.

[21] “Norms of language are the range of meanings allowed.” (Stein 1994, 54) Because writers are looking to be understood, by and large, they are going to stay within the confines of the semantic range.

[22] Surrounding text: sentences, paragraphs, chapters, etc.

[23] Christo van der Merwe, The Lexham Hebrew-English Interlinear Bible; Bible. O.T. Hebrew. (Logos Bible Software, 2004).

[24] [6625] עַלְמָה ʿalmâ 7x girl, young woman, (in certain contexts) virgin [5959] (Mounce 2006, 1010)

[25] Hebrew with a man’s stylus

[26] Maher-shalal-hash-baz means The spoil speeds, the prey hastens

[27] Page(s): 11, Inspired Subjectivity and Hermeneutical Objectivity by John H. Walton Master’s Seminary Journal March 01, 2002.pdf