Skeptics often charge that the virgin birth of Christ is not really predicted by the Bible. They claim that Christians are reading the doctrine back into the Old Testament text, Isaiah 7:14, that reads: “Therefore the Lord Himself shall give you a sign; behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel” (KJV). These critics have argued that the Hebrew word for virgin used here simply means “young woman” and that the whole verse is taken out of context, and really applies only to some child contemporary with Isaiah. They also further charge that since Jesus wasn’t named Immanuel, his birth didn’t fulfill the conditions of the prophecy.
So is our Christmas story just an exaggeration of an Old Testament verse taken out of context? Let’s see:
One of the critic’s charges is that the Hebrew word “almah” was used, whereas if the writer had wanted to describe a virgin, he would have used the word “bethulah“. But the word “bethulah”, it turns out, didn’t always exclusively mean a virgin, such as in Joel 1:8 where the bethulah is mourning because of the death of her husband. And almah is the one Hebrew word which is never applied to a married woman, but simply means a grown or mature woman. and is never used of a woman who is not a virgin in the entire Old Testament. So actually to be more precise, the best word for Isaiah to use would have been almah. Furthermore, when the Greek Septuagint translation was made, they translated the Hebrew word for virgin as parthenos, which always implies virginity. So they understood the woman being referred to as a virgin, not simply a young woman. For further discussion, See Article here.
Besides, why would a normal situation of a young woman conceiving be considered a sign? A “sign” must be something out of the ordinary! So the only situation that fits the context is an unmarried woman who is a virgin, giving birth. In fact, the use of the word almah makes it unlikely that the passage refers to some contemporary birth, but rather to a supernatural event.
Jewish scholar S. A. Horodetsky, writing in the Jewish periodical Moznaim connects the person mentioned as “Immanuel” in Isaiah 7:14 to the person spoken of in Isaiah 9: 6-7 as the Mighty God, Eternal Father, and Prince of Peace: “Isaiah prophesied in God’s name, saying ” Behold, the almah conceives and gives birth to a son, and calls his name Immanuel…Isaiah prophesies about the same child, but calls him by a different name, namely, ‘ A child is born unto us, a son is given unto us… and his name shall be called, Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace'” (1) The fact that this is quoted in a prestigious Jewish periodical is significant, in that it flies in the face of the accusation by critics that applying the virgin birth passage to the Messiah is a Christian invention.
Further support is found in an ancient document called the Psalter of Solomon, written by an unknown Jewish author in about 50 B.C.E., referring to Isaiah 9:6-7 as a Messianic passage. (2) And who would “Immanuel”, “God with us”, be referring to, if not the Messiah?
There are other clues that indicate the context of the passage is future. First of all the account in Isaiah 7 shows that Ahaz, when commanded to ask for a sign, showed a lack of faith and declined. Then when Isaiah writes that “The Lord will give you a sign” , the “you” in this phrase is in fact plural and is referring back not to Ahaz alone, but to the “House of David” addressed in verse 13. In other words, responding to the unbelief of Ahaz, the Lord promises to give the whole House of David a sign in the future, namely that “the virgin” will conceive and bear the Messiah the King. The use of the definite term “the virgin” refers to someone who is yet unknown. And the child who was born in the time of Isaiah referred to in Isaiah 8:3 is actually not cited as a fulfillment of the virgin birth prophecy at all, nor is he referred to as Immanuel. Neither is Immanuel the child referred to in Isaiah 7:16, but Shear-Jashub (whose name means “a remnant shall return”) the child whom Isaiah was instructed to bring with him when he went to King Ahaz. He mentions that before this child shall know good from evil (that is, in a few years), the attacking kings Ahaz was worried about would be neutralized (See Commentary on Isaiah Chapter 7 here for further discussion)
But in fact, all the actual references to Immanuel in this section of Isaiah are passages that have a broader scope of history than the immediate context.
Finally, to say that the prophecy wasn’t fulfilled because Jesus wasn’t named Immanuel proves nothing, unless we will fault Mary for not also naming Him Everlasting Father, Mighty God, Wonderful counselor, or Prince of Peace, as in Isaiah 9:6-7! Obviously the name Immanuel refers not to Jesus’ given name, but the fact that He was God come to this earth to be “with us.”
So the virgin birth prophecy is really there in the Old Testament and it is supported by the context and the grammar of the passage in Isaiah 7:14. So don’t let the critics make you change all your Christmas cards just yet!
(1) S. A. Horodetsky, Moznaim, (“Balances” or “Scales”) Vol 1, No. 10: Nov-Dec, 1929, as quoted in Search for Messiah, Eastman and Smith, 2nd. ed., 1996, Costa Mesa, CA, pp. 42-43.