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Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

Immanuel

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IMMANUEL . The name occurs in Isaiah 7:14 ; Isaiah 8:8 , Matthew 1:23 , and is a Heb. word meaning ‘God is with us’; the spelling Emmanuel comes from the LXX [Note: Septuagint.] (see Matthew 1:23 AV [Note: Authorized Version.] , RVm [Note: Revised Version margin.] ). Its interpretation involves a discussion of Isaiah 7:1-25 , esp. Isaiah 7:10-17 .

1. Grammatical difficulties . The RV [Note: Revised Version.] should be consulted throughout. The exact implication of the word ‘virgin’ or ‘maiden’ (RVm [Note: Revised Version margin.] ) is doubtful (see art. Virgin); it is sufficient here to say that it ‘is not the word which would be naturally used for virgin , if that was the point which it was desired to emphasize’ (Kirkpatrick, Doctrine of the Prophets , p. 187). The definite article may either indicate that the prophet has some particular mother in mind, or be generic, referring to the class. In Isaiah 7:16 the renderings of RV [Note: Revised Version.] and RVm [Note: Revised Version margin.] are both admissible, but the former is more probable; in Isaiah 7:16 RV [Note: Revised Version.] should be followed, AV [Note: Authorized Version.] being quite misleading. In Isaiah 8:8 there may be no reference to Immanuel at all; a very slight alteration of the vowel points would give the reading ‘… of the land; for God is with us’; the refrain occurs in Isaiah 8:10 .

2. Historical situation . In b.c. 735 the kings of Syria and Ephraim formed an alliance against Judah, with the object of setting Tabeel, a nominee of their own, on the throne of David, and forcing the Southern Kingdom to join in a confederacy against Assyria. Ahaz had only lately come to the throne, and the kingdom was weak and demoralized ( 2 Kings 16:6 ). The purpose of Isaiah was to calm the terror of the people ( Isaiah 7:2 ), and to restore faith in Jehovah ( Isaiah 7:9 ). But the policy of Ahaz was to take the fatal step of Invoking the aid of Assyria itself. Hence, when the prophet offered him a sign from God, he refused to accept it, for fear of committing himself to the prophet’s policy of faith and independence. He cloaked his refusal in words of apparent piety. A sign is, however, given the birth of a child, who shall eat butter and honey ( i.e. poor pastoral fare; cf. Isaiah 7:22 ) till (?) he comes to years of discretion. Before that time, i.e. before he is four or five years old, Syria and Ephraim shall be ruined ( Isaiah 7:16 ). But Ahaz and his own kingdom shall become the prey of Assyria ( Isaiah 7:17 ); the rest of the chapter consists of pictures of desolation. The interpretation of the sign is by no means clear. Who is the child and what does his name imply? Is the sign a promise or a threat? It should be noticed, as probably an essential element in the problem, that it is the house or dynasty of David which is being attacked, and which is referred to throughout the chapter ( Isaiah 7:2 ; Isaiah 7:13 ; Isaiah 7:17 ).

3. Who is the child? (see Driver, Isaiah , p. 40 ff.). ( a ) The traditional interpretation sees in the passage a direct prophecy of the Virgin-birth of Christ, and nothing else. In what sense, then, was it a sign to Ahaz? The view runs counter to the modern conception of prophecy, which rightly demands that its primary interpretation shall be brought into relation to the ideas and circumstances of its age. The rest of the chapter does not refer to Christ, but to the troubles of the reign of Ahaz; is it legitimate to tear half a dozen words from their context, and apply them arbitrarily to an event happening generations after? ( b ) It is suggested that the maiden is the wife of Ahaz and that her son is Hezekiah, the king of whom Isaiah rightly had such high hopes; or ( c ) that she is the ‘prophetess,’ the wife of Isaiah himself. In both cases we ask why the language is so needlessly ambiguous. The chronological difficulty would seem to be fatal to ( b ), Hezekiah being almost certainly several years old in 735; and ( c ) makes the sign merely a duplication of that given in Isaiah 8:3 . It becomes a mere note of time (‘before the child grows up, certain things shall have happened’); it leaves unexplained the solemn way in which the birth is announced, the choice of the name, and its repetition in Isaiah 8:8 (if the usual reading be retained). It also separates this passage from Isaiah 9:1-7 , Isaiah 11:1-9 , which almost certainly stand in connexion with it. Similar objections may be urged against the view ( d ), which sees in the maiden any Jewish mother of marriageable age, who in spite of all appearances to the contrary may call her child, then about to be born, by a name indicating the Divine favour, in token of the coming deliverance. The point of the sign is then the mother’s faith and the period of time within which the deliverance shall be accomplished. ( e ) A more allegorical version of this interpretation explains the maiden as Zion personified, and her ‘son’ as the coming generation. But the invariable word for Zion and countries in such personifications is bethulah , not ‘almah (see art. Virgin). ( f ) There remains the view which sees in the passage a reference to a Messiah in the wider use of the term, as understood by Isaiah and his contemporaries. There probably already existed in Judah the expectation of an ideal king and deliverer, connected with the house of David ( 2 Samuel 7:12-16 ). Now at the moment when that house is attacked and its representative proves himself unworthy, Isaiah announces in oracular language the immediate coming of that king. The reference in 2 Samuel 8:8 , and the passages in chs. 9, 11, will then fall into their place side by side with this. They show that the prophet’s thoughts were at this period dwelling much on the fate and the work of the ‘wondrous child,’ who will, in fact, be a scion of the house of David ( 2 Samuel 9:7 , 2 Samuel 11:1 ). Strong support is given to this view by Micah 5:3 (‘until the time when she that beareth hath brought forth’); whether the passage belong to Micah himself, a contemporary of Isaiah, or be of later date, it is clearly a reference to Isaiah 7 , and is of great importance as an indication of the ideas current at the time. With regard to the beliefs of the time, evidence has been lately brought forward (esp. by Jeremias and Gressmann) showing that outside Israel (particularly in Egypt and Babylonia) there existed traditions and expectations of a semi-divine saviour-king, to be born of a divine, perhaps a virgin, mother, and to be wonderfully reared. That is to say, there was an already existing tradition to which the prophet could appeal, and which is presupposed by his words; note esp. ‘ the virgin.’ How much the tradition included, we cannot say; e.g. did it include the name ‘Immanuel’? The ‘butter and honey’ seems to be a pre-existing feature, representing originally the Divine nourishment on which the child is reared; so, according to the Greek legend, the infant Zeus is fed on milk and honey in the cave on Ida. But in the prophecy, as it stands, it seems to be used of the hard fare which alone is left to the inhabitants of an invaded land. We must indeed distinguish throughout between the conceptions of the primitive myth, and the sense in which the prophet applies these conceptions. The value of the supposition that he was working on the lines of popular beliefs ready to his hand, is that it explains how his hearers would be prepared to understand his oracular language, and suggests that much that is obscure to us may have been clear to them. It confirms the view that the prophecy was intended to be Messianic, i.e. to predict the birth of a mysterious saviour.

4. Was the sign favourable or not? The text, as it stands, leaves it very obscure whether Isaiah gave Ahaz a promise or a threat. The fact that the king had hardened his heart may have turned the sign which should have been of good omen into something different. The name of the child and Isaiah 7:16 speak of deliverance; Isaiah 7:15-17 and the rest of the chapter, of judgment. It is perfectly true that Isaiah’s view of the future was that Ephraim and Syria should be destroyed, that Judah should also suffer from Assyrian invasion, but that salvation should come through the faithful remnant. The difficulty is to extract this sense from the passage. The simplest method is to follow the critics who omit Isaiah 7:16 , or at least the words ‘whose two kings thou abhorrest’; ‘the land’ will then refer naturally to Judah; if referring, as it is usually understood, to Syria and Ephraim, the singular is very strange. The prophecy is then a consistent announcement of judgment. Immanuel shall be born, but owing to the unbelief of Ahaz, his future is mortgaged and he is born only to a ruined kingdom (cf. Isaiah 8:8 ); it is not stated in this passage whether the hope implied in his name will ever he realized. Others would omit Isaiah 8:17 , and even Isaiah 8:15 , making the sign a promise of the failure of the coalition. Whatever view be adopted, the inconsistencies of the text make it at least possible that it has suffered from interpolation, and that we have not got the prophecy in its original form. The real problem is not to account for the name ‘Immanuel,’ or for the promise of a saviour-king, but to understand what part he plays in the rest of the chapter. Connected with this is the further difficulty of explaining why the figure of the Messianic king disappears almost entirely from Isaiah’s later prophecies.

5. Its application to the Virgin-birth . The full discussion of the quotation in Matthew 1:23 is part of the larger subjects of Messianic prophecy, the Virgin-birth, and the Incarnation. The following points may be noticed here. ( a ) Though the LXX [Note: Septuagint.] (which has parthenos ‘virgin’) and the Alexandrian Jews apparently interpreted the passage in a Messianic sense and of a virgin-birth, there is no evidence to show that this interpretation was sufficiently prominent and definite to explain the rise of the belief in the miraculous conception. The text was applied to illustrate the fact or the belief in the fact; the fact was not imagined to meet the requirements of the text. The formula used in the quotation suggests that it belongs to a series of OT passages drawn up in the primitive Church to illustrate the life of Christ (see Allen, St. Matthew , p. lxii.). ( b ) The text would not now be used as a proof of the Incarnation. ‘Immanuel’ does not in itself imply that the child was regarded as God, but only that he was to be the pledge of the Divine presence, and endowed in a special sense with the spirit of Jehovah (cf. Isaiah 11:2 ). The Incarnation ‘fulfils’ such a prophecy, because Christ is the true realization of the vague and half-understood longings of the world, both heathen and Jewish.

C. W. Emmet.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Immanuel'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdb/i/immanuel.html. 1909.

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