This is a classic bone of contention in Jewish/ Christian debate. However, the outcome of this has often been held to be highly significant on deciding the Messiahship of Jesus. In view of all the other evidence available, this should not be the case.
" The Lord Himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel" .
This being spoken to King Ahaz, it is evident that this must have a primary application to his time. But it can be proved that most Messianic prophecies have a dual application, to an individual contemporary with the time of the prophecy, and also on a far grander scale to the future Messiah. Jewry seems reluctant to accept this; yet the promises to David provide an example which cannot be gainsaid. He was promised a seed who would build a temple, and whose kingdom would be established by God (2 Sam.7:12-16). David's son was Solomon, and he fulfilled these aspects of the prophecy (1 Chron.22:6-11; 28:5-7). However, the following considerations show that there is another, greater descendant referred to:
- David recognized that God's promise was about his family " for a great while to come" (1 Chron.17:17).
- He confessed that his present family was not the real fulfilment of the promises, and that this must lie in the far distant future (2 Sam.23:5).
- The seed would have an everlasting Kingdom and rule on an everlasting throne (2 Sam.7:13,16); i.e. he would have eternal life.
- This state of affairs would be seen by David, in his presence (2 Sam.7:16). This rules out application to Solomon, and suggests that David would have to be resurrected to behold this.
- Solomon ended his days sunk in apostasy. He hardly fits this prophecy of an everlasting seed of David who will rule the everlasting Messianic Kingdom.
It is, however, clear that the prophecy must have some reference to Solomon. Similarly, many other Messianic prophecies can be expected to follow a similar pattern. We need to imagine Isaiah standing before the court of Ahaz, pronouncing that " The virgin shall conceive" (R.V.margin). The Hebrew word 'almah' means a mature, unmarried woman, who by inference was a virgin. Its other uses in the Old Testament are all with regard to young women who were also virgins, e.g. Rebekah (Gen.24:43) and Miriam (Ex.2:8). The reason why the word 'bethulah' is not used (meaning a virgin in the strict sense of the word) is because the prophecy had a dual application, to a young woman in Isaiah's time, and also to the virgin who was to bear God's son, the Messiah. The Lord gave a " sign" (Hebrew: a marvel, a token, a wonder). For a young woman to have a baby would not be a great sign in that sense; therefore it is fitting if the prophecy also had a more significant future fulfilment. It is noteworthy that the Jewish translated Septuagint version uses the Greek word 'parthenos' for " virgin" here, which definitely means a virgin in the sexual sense. This is the basis of the word " parthenogenesis" , which is used to describe greenfly, wasps and other species reproducing without males. The book of Isaiah in this version " was translated in the second century B.C." (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th Ed., 1986), contrary to some desperate Jewish claims. Later Greek versions produced by the Jews after the time of Jesus change 'parthenos' to 'neanis', meaning a young woman. This very fact shows that the Jews have something to explain away here. It is clear from this that the Jews of the first and second centuries B.C. themselves understood the secondary application of this prophecy to be to a virgin miraculously giving birth to a child.
However, it could be argued that the sign was not bound to have relevance to Ahaz and his generation; " The Lord will give you a sign" could be referring to Israel nationally, rather than Ahaz individually. Thus God told Israel at Moses' time " The Lord thy God will raise up unto thee a prophet from the midst of thee" (Deut.18:15), referring to Messiah. Yet that generation of Israel who first heard those words only saw that prophecy have a primary fulfilment in Joshua- its greater fulfilment in Messiah was to be after their time.
The objection that Jesus was called 'Jesus' and not 'Immanuel' is surely on weak ground seeing that Isa.9:6, which many Jewish commentators accept is about Messiah, lists several titles by which he would be called: " His name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of peace" . It should be obvious that he could not have each of these as his personal name. And if, as the Jews agree, the prophecy of Isa.7:14 has a primary fulfilment at the time of Ahaz, which of his sons was called Immanuel? The reference to " The virgin" implies that she was a woman known to Ahaz- perhaps the woman he was engaged to? She of all people would be a young woman whose virginity he felt assured of.
However, " the virgin" also suggests reference to one particularly significant woman who would bear a child who would be the dwelling place of God among men -" God with us" . Such a child would therefore have to grow up to be of perfect character, and would display this to the Jewish world in the first instance (" God with us" is primarily referring to Israel). In the light of this, any application of this to a child born in Ahaz' time must at best be only a primary reference. The main fulfilment must be in one who was of perfect character and represented God's dwelling with flesh. In the light of this we can now link in the fact that the word for " virgin" does have some reference to a woman who has not had intercourse with a man. For her to conceive must therefore be due to God's begetting a child through her who would therefore be His son. This is exactly what is required by the promise to David, that David's great seed would be the begotten son of God (cp. Ps.2:7). Abraham's natural seed, Isaac, was born by the miraculous intervention of God's power on a woman; Abraham's greater Messiah-seed would also be born in a similar, yet even more miraculous way. In view of this the Christian concept of a virgin birth should not be such anathema to Jews. Thousands of people who met Jesus in person recognized that in Him was a perfection of character and holiness which was quite extraordinary. Millions of people worldwide are convinced from the New Testament record of Him, piecing together the records of His ways as recorded there, that He was perfect in character, and therefore a manifestation of God in the flesh, " God with us" .
We have spoken previously of the necessity of two comings of Messiah to fulfil the prophecies about him. Isa.11:1 describes the seed of David " coming forth" -a phrase which in the Hebrew suggests a physical going out, or public manifestation. At this time, " the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom...and might...he shall not judge after the sight of his eyes" . Thus Messiah was to have vast access to God's spirit-power, both to perform miracles (" might" ) and in terms of supreme spiritual understanding of God. An examination of the teaching of Jesus clearly shows that he did have immense knowledge of God's ways, and contemporary records attest to the extraordinary miracles he performed. However, this was but a minor fulfilment of what he will achieve when he 'comes forth' in the future.
That prophecies about the " branch" can have both primary and secondary fulfilments is indicated by the fact that these prophecies are all set in a context of the return of Israel from a time of suffering and captivity, with God re-establishing their Kingdom (Isa.4:2; 11:1; Jer.23:5; Zech.3:8; 6:12). Those references in Zechariah show that in some measure the branch prophecies were fulfilled at the time of the restoration under Zerubbabel. But there are many descriptions of the Kingdom of the branch which just do not fit in with the Kingdom which was established in Zerubbabel's time. Some examples:
" The branch...He shall build the temple of the Lord; and he shall bear the glory, and shall sit and rule upon his (God's) throne; and he shall be a priest upon his throne" (Zech.6:12,13 -untrue of Zerubbabel, seeing he never ruled in Jerusalem but returned to Babylon after rebuilding the temple).
" A righteous branch...a king shall reign and prosper, and execute judgment and justice in the earth...he shall be called, the Lord our righteousness" (Jer.23:5,6). This implies that the branch would have a worldwide Kingdom and would be a King. Israel never had a king again after the exile to Babylon, and so this cannot primarily apply to the Restoration. Further, the Branch being " The Lord our righteousness" shows that it was through him that God would provide the necessary covering of righteousness which was needed for the proper forgiveness of sins through the imputation of God's righteousness. Thus the Branch had to be a perfect man who made that willing sacrifice which we have seen earlier was required by the types of the Law.
Isa.11 prophesies of the branch that he will bring about a time when " the wolf also shall dwell with the lamb...they shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain" . This lifting of the Edenic curse did not happen at the restoration. Therefore the branch prophecies must also refer to the future Messianic Kingdom.
However, Zech.3:8 and 6:12 clearly show that the Branch prophecies did have a fulfilment at the time of the Restoration. We have laboured this point to show that these prophecies can have one or more partial applications, but still await a fuller one in the future. The prophecies about the Branch being perfect, having the Spirit of God and supreme understanding of Him received some fulfilment at the first coming of Jesus, as we have shown above. But those describing the lifting of the Edenic curse and His ruling over a worldwide Kingdom will be fulfilled at his second coming.
To argue from the phrase " In that day" in v.10 that all these things must happen simultaneously is spurious; the phrase is introducing another strand of the prophecy, which follows in the rest of that verse 10. The A.V. recognizes this by inserting a paragraph break at v.10. However, the real answer to this is as outlined above, that " the Branch" prophecies are capable of more than one fulfilment, and that those fulfilments covered only some parts of the whole picture of " The Branch" , pointing forward to the day when Messiah will come and fulfil all the prophecies by setting up the Kingdom on earth, having redeemed Israel from their sins by His own perfect sacrifice.
a) " They shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for they shall all know me...for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more" (Jer.31:34) is describing the effects of " the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel" (v.33) upon Israel, not the world. Those Jews who are truly forgiven are therefore under the new covenant. Real forgiveness is only made possible by the offering of the perfect human sacrifice which the Law constantly pointed forward to; that sacrifice was in the death of the Lord Jesus, and because Israel generally will not associate themselves with that sacrifice, they are not under the new covenant of forgiveness. The Jewish claim that they are not now under the new covenant is devastating, seeing that true forgiveness for Israel only comes from this covenant: " I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel...not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers (when) I took them out of the land of Egypt (i.e. the covenant at Sinai); which my covenant they brake...but..I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more" (Jer.31:31-34). The old covenant has been broken by Israel, and in response God has divorced Israel, confirming their breaking of the covenant. To this day the Rabbis openly accept Israel's divorce from God and the subsequent breaking of the old covenant. If they are not now under the new covenant, then they are under no covenant -they have no relationship with God whatever. The only way out is to accept the new covenant of forgiveness, which we have shown elsewhere to be related to the promises to Abraham of forgiveness through his seed/Messiah. Therefore only with the coming of and acceptance of Messiah can Israel be under this new covenant. Again the point must be emphasized that this total, permanent forgiveness of sins (which will not have to be brought up again at the day of Atonement), can only be possible through a perfect, human sacrifice being made. If Israel wish to have any covenant relationship with God, they have to have it through the new covenant, seeing the old covenant has been broken. And that new covenant requires that Messiah die for their sins. In the face of this, and the knowledge we should all have of God's desire to see Israel repent, it should be obvious that this sacrifice has already been made -in the person of Jesus. Small wonder there will be such joy and yet tears of sorrow that for so long they have not realized this.
b) The old covenant made at Sinai was clearly a set of laws as well as a definition of a relationship between God and Israel. The new covenant is also a set of (albeit different) laws and a definition of an even closer relationship -but " not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers" at Sinai (Jer.31:32). It is therefore faulty to argue that the new covenant does not fundamentally change the old covenant, as this objection reasons if taken to its logical conclusion. There was evidently a problem with the old covenant; due to man's weaknesses rather than any intrinsic fault in that covenant, it did not bring man to a full relationship with God. Therefore a new covenant was needed, in which God would write His law in human hearts (v.33) rather than on tables of stone, the " tables of the (old) covenant" .
See also notes on how the old covenant was broken and replaced under 'Miscellaneous Objections'.