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Matthew's Old Testament Passages in the Christmas Story: Isaiah 7

As we move toward Christmas, we are likely to read and reflect on the Christmas story and the details recounted in Matthew 1 & 2 and Luke 1 & 2 (Jesus’s birth is not recorded in Mark and John). In these chapters we read how Jesus fulfilled various Old Testament prophecies. Matthew especially focuses on this as he begins with the genealogy of Jesus that references key figures in the Old Testament, notes four times that how Jesus “fulfills” what was spoken by the prophets (1:22; 2:15, 18, 23), and quotes an Old Testament prophecy (2:6).

Closer examination of the passages that Matthew says fulfills what was spoken by the prophets, however, can lead to some confusion since it is not always immediately clear how what was said looked forward to the Messiah. Over the next four weeks as we move toward Christmas, I am going to look at these four quotes in Matthew to help us see what they mean and what they reveal about the Christmas story. We will begin with Isaiah 7:14, which is quoted in Matthew 1:23.

The Context in the Christmas Story

The quotation of Isaiah 7 occurs after Matthew describes the angel appearing to Joseph to tell him to take Mary as his wife because the child is from the Holy Spirit and he is to name the child Jesus because he will save his people from their sins. Matthew then notes that “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel’ (which means, God with us)” (Matthew 1:22-23). Joseph then takes Mary to be his wife (as before he was going to divorce her quietly) and the child is born. The child is an unexpected and miraculous sign that God is going to save his people from their sins - which, as we see in the Gospel of Matthew, is not through being a conquering king but through shedding his blood for the forgiveness of our sins.

The Context of the Original Quotation

The statement in the book of Isaiah does not directly say that this birth will happen when the Messiah comes. These words come in the context of the Syro-Ephraimitic war, when Syria and the northern kingdom of Israel (also known as Ephraim) battled against Assyria, but the southern kingdom of Judah refused to join the alliance. This around 735 BC, when King Ahaz ruled over Judah. Ahaz was faithless, and when God asked for him to ask for a sign, he refused -- with God declaring through the prophet that He would give Ahaz a sign, as a young woman, one who had not born a child yet, would have a child as a sign to show that God was with the people. This seems to be a child born during this time, as it says in Isaiah 7:15-16 that before this child grows up, the two kings will be defeated but the land of Judah will be oppressed by Assyria. If this child was born shortly after the prophecy was given, why in the world is it then quoted in Matthew?

Digging Deeper Reveals Mysteries

During my graduate studies, I did more research into this passage and found some interesting elements in the passage. While the child seems to be born in the time period of the prophet, it is not clear who exactly this child is. In fact, there has been great debate about his identity -- some say it is the king’s child, others say it is the prophet’s child -- and no consensus has ever been reached. This is, in large part, because the text never tells us who this child is...the text leaves some mystery. 

In addition, the text does not explicitly link this child with the figure described in Isaiah 9, who is clearly the Messiah, but there seems to be some connection. The discussion in Isaiah 7 seems to refer to a descendant of David (King Ahaz was a descendant of David), as is the promised figure of Isaiah 9 and 11. In addition, the Immanuel child is discussed in chapters 7 and 8 and then this messianic figure is discussed in chapter 9 and 11; these are in such close proximity that there seems to be some connection. This mysterious child, therefore, is connected to the promised king to come.

Moreover, there is something odd in the way the woman who will have a child is described, using a Hebrew word (almah) that appears six times in the Old Testament (Genesis 24:42; Exodus 2:8; Psalm 68:26; Proverbs 30:19; Song of Songs 1:3; 6:8), rather than the more common word for woman. The use of such an uncommon word seems to show that this common birth has an unusual manner. Those who translated Isaiah from Hebrew to Greek seemed to notice something unusual in the passage, as they translated the Hebrew word in a unique way with the word for “virgin” rather than the more common word for a young woman. 

Therefore, there is something mysterious in the birth that seems to point beyond this child born during Isaiah’s time to a figure who will bring ultimate peace to God’s people. While not an explicit prediction of the Messiah, there is what I call a  “latent messianic” hope in this text. This hope was seen in Jewish interpretation even before Jesus’s time as found in the translation of the text by Greek-speaking Jews and then drawn upon by Matthew when he wrote about Jesus’s life.

Mystery Revealed In Jesus

In the birth of Jesus, we see the ultimate fulfillment of this prediction of the birth of a child that is a sign of hope and judgment, of God’s presence with His people. In fact, Jesus’s birth goes a step further in that it is not just a “young girl”, but a “virgin” who is having a child -- something that is impossible! Therefore, one impossible and mysterious thing (the birth of Jesus) is a sign that what seems impossible (peace on earth, God’s good will toward those in whom he is well pleased) is possible. That the virgin was with child should be a sign of hope for us, that God is doing something in our midst, and present for us even when we cannot see it, even when it seems impossible. 

May we respond to the promises and hope of Christmas in obedience and hope like Joseph, as we see in the birth of Jesus the hope that our sins will be forgiven and all forces of evil will be defeated. May we know in the birth of Jesus that God is truly with us. Let us not be faithless like Ahaz, but respond in faith to the amazing good news in the gospel.