Conversational Theology

What does Isaiah 7:14 mean?

Posted on: July 17, 2009

Ask any crowd of OT scholars and before you get any answers to your question, you’ll be told most emphatically that it doesn’t mean Isaiah was prophesying the birth of Jesus. The context of the passage and the historical situation of Isaiah will be invoked, and any hint of a New Testament reference will be stamped on before the words are out of your mouth. Isaiah, of course, had not read Matthew’s gospel, nor was his concern for events that were to happen hundreds of years after his death. And so, as we read Isaiah’s prophesy, we ought not to let our knowledge of later history or later texts shape our reading.

The problem is, of course, that we do. We have to be told not to. We have to be chastised and corrected for ‘reading the New Testament back into the Old Testament.’ We have to consciously set aside our Christian understanding and try to recreate the mindset of the original author and hearers, to discover what the prophesy might have meant to them. We are taught to travel back to Corinth, as Dick Lucas likes to call it.

What is not altogether clear to me is why. Why is it more important to try to discover what a text once meant, than to understand what it means now? A text like Isaiah 7:14 does mean something different now from what it first meant, precisely because of its later association with the birth of Jesus. Its re-use in a later text adds new layers of meaning, new associations, new connotations, to the older text. That’s not to say that the later text completely over-rides the earlier meanings and the original context, but it certainly develops and influences the meaning which the text now holds.

So when I read Isaiah 7:14, I will always think of Matthew 1:23. And I will be glad that the canonical context of Isaiah includes a later text which appropriates this verse in a new – and more glorious – way. And I will be glad to be a Christian reader of the prophesy, rather than an ancient Israelite facing the threat of the Assyrian army. I will be glad to sing hymns celebrating Emmanuel, God with us, and know that to be true not only partially for the Israelites as they faced their enemies, but wholly, wonderfully, perfectly true for us all in the person of Christ. That’s what Isaiah 7:14 means when I read it as part of the canon and from the standpoint of a Christian believer, in community with the church as it has read the scriptures throughout the ages. And it seems to me that meaning is at least as valid as any other.

Is that Isaiah’s meaning or is that Matthew’s meaning? It’s both. Or, probably better, neither. It’s the bible’s meaning, which is always more than the sum of its parts.

4 Responses to "What does Isaiah 7:14 mean?"

It’s sad how “It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you” (1 Pet 1:12) is turned into “They had no idea they were serving you, they thought it was all about contemporary events.”

Great point, Glen! It’s always nice to have some bible in support of my theories.

Good stuff Ros. Though, of course, asking the question of what it meant in relation to contemporary events is all part of understanding the full depth and richness of a text’s biblical meaning, such that when reading Matt 1:23, a full sense of its meaning will be informed by the narrower as well as the broader historical, theological, and linguistic context of Isa 7:14.

Yes, exactly. The intertextual links work both ways in informing the meaning of both texts.

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Conversational theology:

the art of learning deep truths about God and man in the company of friends, whilst drinking tea and eating cake.

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