Isaiah 7:14 and the Single-Meaning Hermeneutic
It is impossible to raise each of the numerous
questions that this text has occasioned. Our purpose is much more
restricted; we propose to focus on the problem of Isaiah’s
awareness of the meaning of this text and the legitimacy of relating
it simultaneously to Ahaz’s day and to the first advent of
Messiah. Succinctly stated, our problem is this: if Isaiah intended
to predict the advent of Messiah (and this must first be
demonstrated that he did), how can this event which occurred seven
centuries later be depicted in Isaiah 7 as proximately and
inseparably linked with a definite historical event in the immediate
future of these eighth century recipients?
What, then, is the central issue which will help
us to keep perspective in the midst of the welter of baffling
questions? We believe that it is the assurance Isaiah gives in this
passage of the permanence of "the house of David" (Isa.
In fact, the six chapters of Isaiah 7-12 might be
entitled, "The Discourse of the three Children" with the
pivotal verses coming in Isaiah 8:17-18:
I will wait for Yahweh, Who is hiding
his face from the house of Jacob. I will put my trust in Him. Behold
I and the children whom Yahweh has given me are signs and symbols
in Israel from the Yahweh of hosts The One dwelling in Mount
Each of these three children are "signs"
and each child is born in fulfillment of the promise made to David
that his seed should be eternal and that he would have an eternal
dominion wielding a peaceful scepter. The three children are:
1. Shear-Jashub =
"Remnant-will-return" (7:3) (Compare Isa. 10:20, 21, 22;
2. Immanuel = God-with-us" (7:14) (Compare
Isa. 8:8, 10)
3. Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz =
"Hasten-spoil-Hurry-prey" (8:1, 3, 4) (Compare Isa.
Consequently, each of the three children is the
subject of one introductory prophecy and each is featured later in
the argument. In this fact, and in the statement that each of the
three children are "signs," the children are on the same
But the second child, Immanuel, emerges with a
distinctive bearing, separate from the other two children. For one
thing, the phraseology used in Isaiah 7:14 would have been
reminiscent to Isaiah himself, as well as to his listeners in the
eighth century, of previous theophanic appearances of Yahweh. Note
these similarities found in the births of Ishmael, Samson and Isaac:
(a) Isaiah 7:14 "Behold (you) the virgin
(b) Genesis 16:11 "Behold thou are
(c) Judges 13:5,7 "Behold thou are
(d) Genesis 17:19 "But Sarah your
(a1) "and bearing a son, and
shall call his name Immanuel."
(b1) "and bearing a son, and
shall call his name Ishmael."
(c1) "and bearing a son."
(d1) "is bearing to thee a son,
and you shall call his name Isaac."
No doubt Isaiah’s words were
deliberately cast in this familiar phraseology so that the
prophet’s original hearers would associate this new
"sign" of God with those earlier and well-known promises
to his people.25
But even more impressive is the
mention of Immanuel twice in the fourth26 of these introductory
prophecies: Isaiah 8:5-10. Even though he prophesies the fact that
the Assyrians will be successful (as exhibited in the fact that Ahaz
found more delight in the gods to which he sacrificed in Damascus [Isa.
8:6; II Chron. 28:23; II Kgs. 16:10-16] when he later on went to
meet their Assyrian conqueror, Tiglath-Pileser) that
land—Immanuel’s land—will survive. The reason it will survive
is simply stated: because of Immanuel himself—"God is with
us" (Isa. 8:10). Therefore, "Do your worst, you
nations…. Devise your strategy…. Propose your plan, but it will
not stand, because (I am) Immanuel" (Isa. 8:9-10; NIV and NIV
The truth that God was with them was detailed
further in Isaiah 9:1-6 and in Isaiah 11. A child would be born who
would sit on the throne of David; a shoot from the stem of Jesse! As
Willis J. Beecher concluded:
It may be doubted whether any of
them had in mind the idea of just such a person as Jesus, to be
born of a virgin, in some future century; but they had in mind
some birth in the unending line of David which would render the
truth "God with us," especially significant.27
Our argument is that this passage cannot be fairly
handled until it is seen as another prediction in the series of
promises made with "the house of David." Once this
proposition is grasped, it is possible to proceed to the more
difficult question: how is the promise made with the house of David
to be linked with a "sign" which functions for Ahaz’s
generation and that final "shoot" that will come from the
"stump of Jesse," whose name will be "Wonderful
Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace?"
This is the question that has made interpreters return to this text
time and time again.
The historical setting is well knownby now to all
interpreters, even if it can only be sketched in general terms.
Rezin, the reigning monarch in Damascus, Syria and Pekah, the ruler
of the Israelite throne in Samaria, plotted together to teach the
house of David and its present holder of the throne, Ahaz, a lesson.
They proposed to set "The son of Tabeel" (Isa. 7:6) on the
throne in Jerusalem in place of a scion of David.
Even before Ahaz became King, Rezin
and Pekah had already begun to encroach on Judean territory during
the reign of Ahaz’s predecessor, Jothan, (II Kgs. 15:37). Clearly
these two northern nemeses wanted Jothan, and then Ahaz, to join
their anti-Assyrian coalition, but these Davidites and the
population of Jerusalem wanted no part in stirring up the wrath of
Nineveh. Miller and Hayes28 suggest that the cities denounced by the
prophet Micah in his first chapter may indeed have been towns in the
prophet’s neighborhood who were anti-Assyrian and therefore
opposed Ahaz’s pro-Assyrian policy.
It is extremely important to note, therefore, that
the attack on Jerusalem in Ahaz’s reign was the climax to a war
that had originally broken out in Jothan’s reign and the
intervention of the Assyrians was not the cause of it, nor its
In place of the current Davidic
ruler, Pekah and Rezin intended to place "the son of Tabeel."
What were the motives that impelled Pekah and Rez in to challenge
Jotham and Ahaz? Was the key to be sought in the military struggle
for Transjordania as B. Obed29 suggests is the case on the basis of
II Chronicles 27:5 where Jotham defeated the Ammonites and exacted a
heavy tribute from them? Obed believes that this "ben-Tobeel"
can be traced back through Tobiah the Ammonite servant (Neh. 2:19;
6:17; Zech. 6:10) to a grandson of the Tobiah known from the Lachish
letters, up to Ben Tobeel in the time of Ahaz.30
Others make the unnamed son of Tabeel
a son or relative of King Tubail = Tabeel, the ruling house in Tyre
who were strong supporters of the anti-Assyrian coalition.31 It is
impossible to say who he was or from whence he came.
For our purposes, the challenge to the Davidic
dynasty, and thereby to the program of redemptive history, is the
only point which emerges clearly in this complicated issue. Isaiah
assured a worried Ahaz that the two Northern partners opposing him
with all their threats would be doomed to failure.
Whether the movements of the Assyrian
King Tiglath-pileser were motivated by Ahaz’s request for help in
11 Kings 16:7, or by strategies that may even have preceded that, is
an open question. What is known is that Tiglath-pileser did
undertake a campaign against Syria-Palestine in 738 B.C. In the
Annuls of Tiglath-pileser III, paragraph 772,32 we are told of the
number of captives he took from each city along with the fact that
he received tribute from a Menihumnu (=Menahem) of Samaria and
Hahianu (= Rezin) of Aram (Damascus). Four years later in 734 B.C.,
again according to the Assyrian annals, Tiglath-pileser invaded
What, then, is the chronological relation between
the Syro-Ephraimite War and the 738 and 734 campaign of
Tiglath-pileser? We know that 732 ended the allies adventure, but as
Michael Thompson asks, "How is it possible to conceive of Rezin
and Pekah essaying an anti-Assyrian movement when the Assyrian
army was already in
Thompson is forced to conclude, as we
are, that "The war must have occurred, there, before
Tiglath-pileser’s 734 campaign against Philistia, and it is
credible that its associated anti-Assyrian mood should have been
strengthened and encouraged in the years following the earlier
Assyrian campaign in 738."35
Herbert Donner 36 objects to this
reconstruction arguing that there is not enough time between
Pekah’s accession to the throne in 735 B.C. and
Tiglath-pileser’s intervention in 734. But Pekah’s reign is
shrouded in such darkness that none can set any firm date for his
accession to the throne. In Edwin Theile’s37 construction, he
began his reign in 752 B.C. and reigned, perhaps at first in the
Transjordanean territory just south of Damascus, and then in Samaria
for a total of twenty years until his death in 732 B.C.
The advantage of placing the
beginnings of the Syro-Ephraimitish War before the Assyrian campaign
of 734 B.C. is clear: "…we can perhaps more easily understand
why Rezin and Pekah might have thought that their anti-Assyrian
plans had some hope of succeeding. For they enjoyed a period of
years—perhaps three, or even longer—when they had been free of
the Assyrian and had thus had time (due to Tiglath-pileser’s
occupation with matters in the north and the south of his empire so
that the west was spared any incursions)."38
All of this only peaks our curiosity all the more:
what was the year that Isaiah delivered his message to Ahaz? It had
to be prior to 734 B.C. How much more we cannot say.
But the door is now opened for a new
look at the old question: What child born in Ahaz’s day served as
a sign to his generation while also embodying the wonderful names of
that coming Davidic prince? We believe the best working hypothesis
still is the one that says that Ahaz’s son Hezekiah is the best
However, that suggestion raises the most
nettlesome problem of all. To say that the chronology of this period
is obscure is to understate the magnitude of the difficulty. The
principle areas of difficulty come in harmonizing the chronological
data of II Kings 15-18. The issues may be listed as follows:
1. If Hezekiah was 25 years old at his accession
according to II Kings 18:2, and if his accession is placed in 714
B.C. (the latest date anyone proposes), he must have been born in
2. If Hezekiah’s father was 20 at his own
accession to the throne and he reigned for 16 years (II Kgs.
16:1-2), he would have died when he was 36 (when Hezekiah
apparently was 25), making Ahaz only 11 when his son
Hezekiah was born!
3. To exacerbate matters still
further, the chronological data of II Kings 18:1, 9, 10 make the
fifth year of Hezekiah’s reign the same year that Samaria fell in
722 (II Kgs 18:10); therefore Hezekiah succeeded his father Ahaz in
726-27 B.C., meaning Hezekiah would have been born twenty-five years
earlier in 752-51! Very few opt for the 752 B.C. date, for most
equate Hezekiah’s fourteenth year of his reign with
Sennacherib’s invasion in 701 B. C. 40
The year 701 B.C. appears to be the
pivotal year. For the moment let us not decide whether that is
Hezekiah’s fourteenth or twenty-fourth reigning year. Instead, let
us skip down in the list two rulers to King Josiah who met his death
at 39 years of age in 609 B.C. after ruling for 31 years (II Kgs
22:1). This 609 B.C. date is secure because the events associated
with Josiah’s death are recorded in Babylonian Chronicle on a year
by year basis.41
Josiah was preceded by Amon, who reigned for two
years (II Kgs. 21:19) and he in turn was preceded by Manasseh who
ruled for 55 years (II Kgs. 21:1). Now 609 plus 31= 640, plus 2 =
642, plus 55 = 697 B.C.
But there must be a co-regency between Manasseh
and Hezekiah since Hezekiah’s 29 years (II Kgs. 18:2) would last
until 686 B.C if his fourteenth year matches Sennacherib’s
invasion of 701 B.C. Moreover, II Kings 20:1 states: "In those
days Hezekiah became ill and was at the point of death" when
Isaiah told him "Put your house in order, because you will die;
you will not recover." What would be more natural than for him
to place his son on the throne as a co-regent at such a desperate
point in his life?
No doubt when Manasseh had reached the age of
twelve (the accepted year of maturity in the Jewish community, cf.
Lk. 2:42, 49), he made him a co-regent. And in response to
Hezekiah’s prayer, God extended his life fifteen years—eleven of
which he ruled with his son as co-regent from 697-686 B.C.
This solution does not help us with
the synchronisms given with Hoshea in II Kings 18:1, 9, 10. In fact,
Edwin Thiele,42 that great solver of every other synchronism and
chronological fact in the chronologies of the Hebrew Kings simply
gave up when he came to this one in his doctoral study submitted to
the University of Chicago. Thiele argued that the reign of Hoshea
was over and the Kingdom of Israel no longer existed when Hezekiah
came to the throne. His evidence is this: one of Hezekiah’s first
acts was to repair the temple in the first month of his first year
(II Chron. 29:3, 17) and then to proclaim the celebration of the
Passover on the fourteenth day of the second month (II Chron. 30:2,
13, 15). His invitations, however, were not limited to Judah, but he
sent to "all Israel and Judah" including Ephraim,
Manasseh, Zebulun, and Asher (II Chron. 30:1, 6, 10, 11), areas once
securely in the hands of the Northern Kingdom who had issued strict
warnings against going to Jerusalem to celebrate anything. Indeed,
he sent his decree "throughout all Israel, from Beersheba even
to Dan" (II Chron. 30:5). Clearly, argues Thiele, Samaria had
Now if some emend II Kings 18:13 and Isaiah 36:1
to read "twenty-four" instead of "fourteen,"
John McHugh suggests that we emend II Kings 18:2 instead. He
proposes that Hezekiah was only "fifteen" years old, not
"twenty-five" when he came to the throne, therefore
Hezekiah would have been born in 731/730 B.C.43 and thus his birth
would have coincided with Judah’s deliverance from the
However, there is no more textual evidence for
this emendation than there was for the one suggested for II Kings
18:13 and Isaiah 36:1. in our view, the events that precipitated
Isaiah’s warnings may have come as early as 740 or 739 B.C., just
prior to Tiglath-pileser’s 738 foray into this territory. One fact
remains: this scrap did not begin with Ahaz; it had roots in the
last days of Ahaz’s predecessor, King Jotham.
When the data is further massaged and refined by
some new discoveries we believe it will locate Hezekiah’s birth
and Isaiah’s rebuke to Ahaz at some date early in this decade,
perhaps four to six years prior to the fall of Damascus and the
deaths of Pekah and Rezin in 732 B.C.
How would such an identity relate to Messiah who
came seven centuries later? The same way that many of the
"generic prophecies" of the Old Testament link the
immediate fulfillment with the distant fulfillment. Willis J.
Beecher defined a "generic prediction/promise" this way:
A generic prediction is one which
regards an event as occurring in a series of parts, separated by
intervals, and expresses itself in language that may apply
indifferently to the nearest part, or to the remoter parts, or the
whole—in other words, a prediction which, in applying to the
whole of a complex event, also applies to some of its parts. 44
This is not to argue for a double sense or
multiple meaning; instead, this definition seeks to represent the
biblical facts which demand that the near and the distant were, in
some real sense, linked in the prophetic revelatory vision from God.
Accordingly, Antiochus Epiphanes is the Antichrist in Daniel II even
though that same chapter, along with I John 2:18, looked forward to
a final future Antichrist even if "Many antichrists have
(already) come" (I Jn. 2:18b). Likewise, Elijah the prophet
must come before that great and dreadful day of the Lord (Mal. 4:5)
even if John the Baptist was Elijah (since he came in the spirit and
the power" of Elijah—Lk. 1:17). Both aspects of this identity
were in Jesus’ own words: "(John the Baptist) is Elijah
(Matt. 11:14) and "Elijah is corning and he will restore all
things" (Matt. 17:11).
If some protest, "yes but, Hezekiah was not
born of a virgin!", we will point out that neither Antiochus
Epiphanes nor John the Baptist mirrored every or even most of the
details which their final fulfiller will demonstrate. The only
critical point is that both share enough distinctive common elements
so that a single sense and meaning links them and thereby the one
heeding Scripture will be unerringly pointed towards the final
fulfillment. In this case, the most essential common feature shared
is that both Hezekiah and Messiah were from "the House of David
which God had promised would never perish."
1. Skinner, The Book of the Prophet Isaiah, Chapter
1-XXXIX, Cambridge Bible, Cambridge: Cambridge University,1905, p.
2. Brevard S. Childs, Isaiah and the Assyrian
Crisis, London: SCM, 1967, p. 120.
3. H. H. Rowley, "Hezekiah’s Reform and
Rebellion," in Men of God: Studies in Old Testament History
and Prophecy, London: Thomas Nelson & Sons, Ltd., 1963, pp.
4. Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., "The Single Intent
of Scripture," in Evangelical Roots: A Tribute to Wilbur
Smith, ed. Kenneth S. Kantzer, Nashville: Nelson, 1978, p. 138.
5. Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., "Legitimate
Hermeneutics," in Inerrancy, ed. Norman L. Geisler,
Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1977, p. 118.
6. Walter C. Kaiser. Jr., "A Response to
‘Author’s Intention and Biblical Interpretation’," in Hermeneutics,
Inerrancy, and the Bible, ed. Earl D. Radmacher and Robert D.
Preus, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984, p. 442 (italics my own).
7. See our essay "A Response to ‘Author’s
Intention and Biblical Interpretation’," ibid., pp.
441-447. Note also the seminal articles on this topic by C. F.
DeVine, "The Consequent Sense," Catholic Biblical
Quarterly 2 (1940): 145-55 and Rudolph Bierberg, "Does
Sacred Scripture Have A Sensus Plenior?" Catholic Biblical
Quarterly 10 (1948): 182-95.
8. Raymond E. Brown, "The Sensus Plenior in
the Last Ten Years," Catholic Biblical Quarterly 25 (1963):
9. Donald A. Hagner, "The Old Testament in
the New Testament," in Interpreting the Word of God, ed.
Samuel Schultz and Morris Inch, Chicago: Moody Press, 1976, p. 72
10. Vern S. Poythress, "Divine Meaning of
Scripture," Westminster Theological Journal 48 (1986):
11.Vern S. Poythress, Ibid., p. 263.
12.E. D. Hirsch, Validity in interpretation, New
Haven: Yale, 1967, pp. 61-2.
13.Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., "Legitimate
Hermenuetics," p. 127.
14.Raju D. Kunjummen, "The Single Intent of
Scripture—Critical Examination of a Theological Construct," Grace
Theological Journal 7 (1986): 100. The citation of Joseph
Coppens is found in his essay, "The Different Senses of Sacred
Scripture," Theological Digest 1(1953) 18.
15.Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Towards an Exegetical
Theology, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981, pp. 109-110.
16.Norbert Lohfink, The Christian Meaning of
the Old Testament, tr. R. A. Wilson, Milwaukee: Bruce, 1968, pp.
17.Bruce Vawter, Biblical Inspiration, Theological
Resources, Philadelphia: Westminster, 1972, p. 115. Also see Walter
C. Kaiser, Jr., "The Fallacy of Equating Meaning with the
Reader’s Understanding," Trinity Journal 6 (1977):
18.Bruce Vawter, "The Fuller Sense: Some
Considerations," Catholic Biblical Quarterly 26 (1964):
19.Raju D. Kunjummen, "The Single
Intent," p. 99.
20.Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., The Uses of the Old
Testament in the New, Chicago: Moody, 1985, pp. 75-6.
21.Raju Kunjummen, "The Single Intent,"
p. 99 (italics ours).
22.See our extended discussion of this extremely
important teaching passage on this doctrine: Walter C. Kaiser, Jr.,
"A Neglected Text in Bibliology Discussions: I Corinthians
2:6-16." Westminster Theological Journal 43 (1981):
301-19: especially pp. 315-18.
23.A point accurately made by Vern Poythress,
"Divine Meaning," pp. 273-76. Beautifully he declares,
"Hence, scholars are correct in taking care to distinguish what
comes from the psalm itself and what comes from the psalm seen in
the light of the whole Bible." I would just delete the second
"comes from the psalm." But Vern goes on to spoil this
division of labor by affirming, "God does say more, now,
through (Psalm 22) than he said to the OT readers. The ‘more’
arises from the stage of fuller revelation, and consequent fuller
illumination of the Holy Spirit, in which we live" (p. 275).
Apparently we believers have a revelation of interpretation parallel
to the revelation of the words which the authors received.
24.Translation and italics my own.
25.This point and the whole organization of the
argument about the three children has been taken from Willis J.
Beecher, "The Prophecy of the Virgin Mother: Isa. vvi.
14," in Homiletical Review 17(1889): 354-58. This essay
was reprinted in Classical Evangelical Essays in Old Testament
Interpretation, ed. Walter C. Kaiser. Jr., Grand Rapids: Baker,
1972, pp. 179-85. Note also the clear eight-scene outline of Louis
Brodie, "The Children and the Prince: The Structure, Nature and
Date of Isaiah 6-12," Biblical Theology Bulletin, 9
(1979): 27-31. Said he, "And just as there is a continuity
between the children of Isaiah (in scenes 1, 3, 5 and 7) so we
expect a continuity between Immanuel (Scenes 2 and 4) and the
Davidic prince (Scenes 6 and 8)" p. 29.
26.The other three are: Isaiah 7:2-9; 7:10-25:
27.Willis J. Beecher, "The Prophecy of the
Virgin Mother." p. 358.
28.J. Maxwell Miller and John H. Hayes, A
History of Ancient Israel and Judah,
Philadelphia: Westminster, 1986, p. 344. This
anti-Assyrian thesis was first proposed by J. Begrich. "Der
Syrisch-Ephraimitische Krieg und seine weltpolitischen zusammenhange."
Zeitschrift der Deutsch morgenlandischen Gesellschaft 83
29. B. Obed, "The Historical Background of
the syro-Ephraimite War Reconsidered," Catholic Biblical
Quarterly 34 (1972): 155. For a critique of Obed’s views see
Michael E. W. Thompson, Situation and Theology: Old Testament
Interpretations of the Syro-Ephraimite War, Sheffield, Almond,
1982, pp. 107-109.
30. B. Obed, "The Historical
Background," p. 161. He cites B. Mazar, "The Tobiads,"
Israel Exploration Journal 7(1957): 233-34; 236-37.
31. Miller and Hayes. A History of Ancient
Israel, p. 342.
32. D.D. Luckenbill, Ancient Records of Assyrla
and Babylonia, New York: Greenwood, 1968, I:276.
33. More detailed information about the campaign
is contained in the inscription ND 400 which was discovered in 1950
in the excavations in Nimrud. See Donald J. Wiseman, "Two
Historical Inscriptions from Nimrud," Iraq 13 ( 1951): 21-26.
34. Michael Thompson, Situation and Theology, p.
35. MichaeI Thompson, Situation and Theology, p.
111. Two other scholars may be cited as agreeing with locating the
war prior to 734: John Bright, A History of Israel 2nd ed.
Phila.: Westminster Press, 1972, p. 272; Norman K. Gottwald, All
the Kingdoms of the Earth: Israelite Prophecy and International
Relations in the Ancient Near East, New York: Harper and Row,
1964, p. 149.
36. Herbert Donner, "The Separate States of
Israel and Judah," in Israelite and Judean History, eds.
John H. Hayes and J. Maxwell Miller, London: SCM, 1977, p. 429.
37. Edwin R. Thiele, A Chronology of the Hebrew
Kings, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1977, pp. 52-3.
38. Michael Thompson, Situation and Theology, pp.
39. This suggestion was previously favored by
Jewish interpreters and is currently advocated by scholars such as
John Lindblom, A Study on the Immanuel Section in Isaiah: Isa.
vii, i-ix, 6, London: C.W.K. Gleerup, l958, p. 25; John McHugh,
"The Date of Hezekiah’s Birth," Vetus Testamentum 14
(1964): 446-53; E. Hammershaimb, "The Immanuel Sign," Studia
Theologia cura ordinum theologorum Scandinavicorum edita, 111(1949):
40. It is true that H. H. Rowley,
"Hezekiah’s Reform and Rebellion," in Men of God,
p. 113 proposes to correct the Hebrew text ‘arba’ ‘eseh ("four
and ten"—"fourteen") to ‘arba’ w’
‘es’rim ("four and
twenty"—"twenty-four"). Likewise Gleason Archer, Encyclopia
of Bible Difficulties, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982, p. 211,
says "We must therefore conclude that the Masoretic text has
preserved an ancient textual error (which also appears in Isa.
36:1—where the error probably originated), in which a mistake was
made in the decade column. The word ‘fourteen’ was originally
41. Donald J. Wiseman, The Chronicles of the
Chaldaean Kings (626-556 B,C.) in the British Museum, London:
British Museum, 1956, p. 63.
42.Edwin Thiele, A Chronology, pp. 53-4.
43. John McHugh, "The Date of Hezekiah’s
Birth," p. 452.
44. Willis J. Beecher, The Prophets and the
Promise, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1963 (1905 r.p.), p. 130.