During Advent I typically preach on the topic of messianic hope in the Prophets, and in this regard no book is more important than Isaiah. So much of our Advent terminology and even liturgy finds its source in Isaiah–Immanuel, Wonderful Counselor, the Shoot from the Stump of Jesse. No book is quoted more frequently by the writers of the Gospels, to the point that they sometimes even attribute the words of other prophets to Isaiah (e.g., Mark 1:2). Isaiah was also a favorite of Jewish apocalyptic sects like the Essenes, and Isaiah 40-55 (the so-called “Second Isaiah”) has sometimes been called the father of apocalyptic.
On the other hand, much of the material in Isaiah that became the source of messianic expectation did not originally refer to an eschatological (distant future) messiah–at least not directly. Like biblical prophets in general, Isaiah spoke primarily to his own time (although there is also clearly eschatological material, such as Isaiah 2 and Isaiah 24-27). Much of what Christians see as references to Jesus originally referred to persons and events in the 8th century BC. That is not to say they do not really refer to Jesus. But they originally referred to someone or something else, which foreshadowed Jesus and which, from a later perspective, proved to be insufficient as fulfillment of the prophet’s vision.
Before getting into some specific passages, a bit of background on the Book of Isaiah is in order. Isaiah is one of the most complex books in the Old Testament. The prophet Isaiah, for whom the book is named, lived in the second half of the 8th century BC and served as a court prophet in Jerusalem from approximately 734-701 BC, during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah (Isaiah 1:1). This time period saw the destruction of the northern Israelite kingdom by the Neo-Assyrians (721 BC) and the near-destruction of Judah by the same (701 BC). Not surprisingly, the Neo-Assyrian threat looms large in the first half or so of the book. However, a sudden shift takes place half-way through the book. Assyria disappears and is replaced by Babylon as antagonist. But a careful reading reveals that Babylon has already destroyed Jerusalem and that the Jews are already living in Babylon. Isaiah 40:1-3 reads:
“Comfort, O comfort my people!” says the LORD your God. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and proclaim to her that her term of hard service has ended, that her iniquity has been atoned for, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins!”Isaiah 40:1-3
Over the next sixteen chapters, the picture that emerges is that Jerusalem has been destroyed and lies in ruins, that it was Babylon who destroyed it, and that the people are soon to leave Babylon and return to Jerusalem to rebuild. Even the name of the king who will liberate Judah from Babylonian captivity is explicitly stated–Cyrus (Isaiah 45:1). This is Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Persian Empire, who conquered Babylon in 539 BC and subsequently authorized the return of conquered and deported peoples (including the Jews) to their ancestral homelands (cf. 2 Chronicles 36:22-23; Ezra 1:1-4). In addition, the whole style and tone of the writing change in chapter 40, and the prophet Isaiah completely disappears. He appears frequently in chapters 1-39, but never in chapters 40-66. Taken together, the evidence has led most scholars to conclude that the Book of Isaiah is actually a multi-author work written in different stages in at least two different centuries. The most common view is that there are three “books” in the canonical Book of Isaiah, written by three different authors: First Isaiah (chapters 1-39), Second Isaiah (chapters 40-55), and Third Isaiah (chapters 56-66). First Isaiah dates to the 8th century BC. Second Isaiah dates to the mid-6th century–toward the end of the Babylonian Exile. Third Isaiah dates shortly after the return from Exile, in the late 6th or early 5th century.
There are, of course, a lot of specifics involved that I cannot dive into right now. A fuller discussion of the dating and division(s) of Isaiah will wait for another day. For now, our concern is with First Isaiah (chapters 1-39), at least most of which presumably does come from the prophet Isaiah himself. Thus, we are talking about the words of an 8th century prophet whose main focus was on events in and around Judah in the 8th century BC, especially the Assyrian invasions of Israel and Judah. This is the primary context for several key passages that the New Testament points to as prophecies fulfilled in the birth of Jesus. In my sermons on December 2 and 9, I spoke on two of them: the sign of Immanuel (Isaiah 7:10-17) and the shoot from the stump of Jesse (Isaiah 11:1-10). I’d now like to take a bit of time to explain in greater detail what these prophecies originally referred to and how they came to be applied to Jesus.
We begin with Isaiah 7:10-17, which Matthew 1:22-23 cites as fulfilled by the virgin birth of Jesus.
All of this happened in order to fulfill what was spoken by the LORD through the prophet, saying, “Look! The virgin will conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name ‘Emmanuel,’ which is translated, ‘God [is] with us.'”Matthew 1:22-23
The trouble is that when one turns back to Isaiah 7, it becomes clear that the prophet’s original words could not have been about Jesus–at least not directly. In Isaiah 7, the prophet Isaiah speaks to King Ahaz against the background of the Syro-Ephraimite War, when the northern kingdom of Israel and Aram (Syria) invaded Judah in order to force Ahaz to enter into their anti-Assyrian alliance (see Isaiah 7:1-3). This happened in 734 BC. In response, Isaiah encourages Ahaz to remain strong and trust in God to save Judah, for Israel and Aram will soon be destroyed (Isaiah 7:4-9). This occurred in 721 BC, when Assyria destroyed Samaria and brought the kingdom of Israel to an end. Following Isaiah’s initial oracle of encouragement, he instructed Ahaz to ask for a sign from God (Isaiah 7:10-11). Apparently Ahaz continued to doubt that God would save Judah, so the prophet offered a confirming sign to strengthen his faith. Ahaz, however, refuses to ask for a sign, saying, “I will not ask, nor will I test the LORD” (Isaiah 7:12). While this might at first seem to be an affirmation of faith, it is clear that it is not. Ahaz does not ask for a sign because he has already given up hope. Nothing will convince him. Instead, he put his trust in Assyria for protection–a decision that would later prove disastrous for Judah, as their reliance on Assyria carried with it the subjugation of Judah as Assyria’s vassal (cf. 2 Kings 16:7-18).
When Ahaz refuses to ask for a sign, Isaiah responds with one anyway:
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: Look! The young woman has conceived and is giving birth to a son, and you shall call his name ‘Immanu-El.’ He will eat cream and honey, and he will know to reject evil and choose good. Because before the boy knows to reject evil and choose good, the ground of the two kings you dread will be deserted.Isaiah 7:14-16
Read in context, it is immediately obvious that whoever this child is–the top two suggestions are Isaiah’s son or Ahaz’s son, the future King Hezekiah–he must be someone who was born during the lifetime of Ahaz, or else he would be meaningless as a “sign” to Ahaz. Moreover, in order for the sign to have the kind of rhetorical impact Isaiah implies here, his birth would need to be very soon after the words were spoken. The Hebrew grammar and syntax suggests that the woman is already pregnant. At the very least, a birth before the destruction of Israel in 721 BC is required in order for the prophet’s words to make any sense at all.
Further complicating the matter is the status of the pregnant woman. Matthew cites Isaiah 7:14 in reference to the virgin birth of Jesus to Mary. However, the best reading of the Hebrew text of Isaiah 7:14 is that the woman is not a virgin, but merely a young woman, and the birth is not miraculous. The Hebrew word used to describe the woman in Isaiah 7:14 is ha’almah, which does not necessarily refer to virginity, but rather the time between when a woman achieves marriageable age and when she gives birth to her first child. It is less specific than “virgin,” although it can certainly include it. But in the absence of any indication that the woman was a virgin and that the conception was miraculous, there is no reason, in the context of Isaiah 7, to see the woman as anything but a married woman who became pregnant through normal means.
So where does Matthew get the idea that this verse points to a virgin birth? The answer lies in the third century BC Greek translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint (LXX). In some cases the translators of the LXX not only translated the Hebrew text into Greek, they interpreted it, and their translation reflects their interpretation. This is one of those instances. The LXX translates ha’almah with the Greek word parthenos, which does mean “virgin.” This is the version of Isiah 7:14 that Matthew quotes. Matthew did not invent this interpretation, nor did he misread Isaiah. He drew on a Jewish interpretation that already existed in the third century BC, which saw the woman as a virgin, not just a young, first-time mother. Moreover, the LXX changes the verb tense from perfect (usually past-time action) to future. The virgin will conceive. This reading opens the text up a bit more to an eschatological interpretation. But it still does not get us all the way to reading this passage as a messianic prophecy. But for now we will move on to a second Isaiah text often interpreted as referring to Jesus.
Four chapters later, Isaiah speaks of a “shoot” that will grow up from the “stump” of Jesse.
A shoot will come forth from the stump of Jesse, and a branch will sprout from his roots. The spirit of the LORD will rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and fear of the LORD.Isaiah 11:1-2
The text goes on to describe an “ideal king” for Judah, who rules with righteousness and justice, but as it goes on its description of his reign grows more utopian.
The wolf will live with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the goat. The calf and the young lion will feed together, and a small child will lead them. The cow and the bear will graze, and their offspring will lie down together. The lion will eat straw like an ox. The nursing child will play over the snake’s hole, and the toddler will reach his hand over the serpent’s pit. They will no longer cause hurt or destroy on my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea. On that day the root of Jesse will stand as a signal to the peoples. The nations will seek him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.Isaiah 11:6-10
What we have here is, once again, a prophecy that originally seems to have referred to persons and events in the time of the prophet, but which later Christian interpretation connects with Jesus. Following the fall of Israel to Assyria in 721 BC, the Assyrians continued their march southward into Judah. For the next 20 years, Judah lived precariously under Assyrian domination and the constant threat of annihilation. Although the Babylonians are vilified in the Old Testament as the destroyers of Judah and the captors of the Jewish people, the Assyrians deported far more Jews than the Babylonians did. Sennacherib, who invaded Judah in 701 BC, claimed to have taken over 200,000 Jewish prisoners and to have laid waste to all of the major cities of Judah–except Jerusalem.
The king during this dark time in Judah’s history was Hezekiah, who, unlike his father Ahaz, is held up as a pious king in the Old Testament. Where Ahaz doubted the comforting words of Isaiah, Hezekiah believed them (cf. Isaiah 37). In fact, a poetic oracle in Isaiah 9:2-7–which also supplies abundant language and imagery for Advent/Christmas–was most likely originally spoken about Hezekiah.
The people walking in darkness have seen a great light. On those living in a pitch-dark land, light has dawned. You have made the nation great; you have increased its joy. They rejoiced before you as with joy at the harvest, as those who divide plunder rejoice. As on the day of Midian, you’ve shattered the yoke that burdened them, the staff on their shoulders, and the rod of their oppressor. Because every boot of the thundering warriors, and ever garment rolled in blood will be burned, fuel for the fire. A child is born to us, a son given to us, and authority will be on his shoulders. He will be named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. There will be vast authority and endless peace for David’s throne and for his kingdom, establishing and sustaining it with justice and righteousness now and forever. The zeal of the LORD of heavenly forces will do this.Isaiah 9:2-7
In many ways, Hezekiah represented a new dawn for Judah. His early years saw the destruction of Israel, but Judah survived. In fact, during Hezekiah’s reign Jerusalem swelled in size, largely due to northern refugees fleeing south. Many biblical scholars believed this period fostered the fusion of northern and southern biblical traditions that contributed to the formation of important biblical books like Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. And from a theological perspective, Hezekiah was a pious reformer who steered Judah away from idolatry. But from another perspective, his reign saw the near-destruction of Judah and the devastation of most of the country. Although Jerusalem survived the Assyrian onslaught, for most Jews the “Exile” began in the late 8th century, rather than the 6th century.
Against this background it makes perfect sense to describe the kingdom of Judah under Hezekiah as a “stump.” The once great kingdom of David had been cut down to its base. But Isaiah sees better days ahead, and they hang upon a “shoot” that will grow out of the stump of Jesse (i.e., the David dynasty). In the context of Isaiah 1-39, the most obvious identification of this “shoot” is Hezekiah.
Although Hezekiah marks perhaps a spiritual high water mark for pre-exilic Judah, his kingdom did not become the utopia described in Isaiah 11:6-10. Far from it. Judah survived another century after Hezekiah, but eventually Jerusalem fell, and with it the Davidic monarchy. After the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon in 586 BC, no David king ever ruled over Jerusalem. But amazingly, the promise of the Davidic Covenant (see 2 Samuel 7:12-16) did not die. Nor did the hope for the ideal king of Isaiah 11 and his reign of peace and harmony. Instead, these prophetic oracles were reinterpreted as referring to a future king who would restore the kingdom of David and realize prophetic hopes. Already in Isaiah 11:6-10 we see a prophetic vision that begins to move out of the historical time of 8th century politics and into an eschatological world in which nature itself is transformed.
It is, in fact, the failure of prophetic hopes to find full realization in their original contexts that gave birth to the messianic hope that became Christianity. Jews (and later Christians) in the post-exilic period (after 539 BC) took a second look at their old prophecies and saw a continued relevance for them. Often ignoring the original context of the prophecies, they read them as messages applying to their context. This method of interpretation is called pesher. It is found frequently in early Jewish texts like the Dead Sea Scrolls–and in the New Testament. In a pesher, the interpreter sees a text that, according to a straightforward reading, referred to something in the past, as actually referring to something in the distant future (i.e., in the time of the interpreter). A classic example is the Habakkuk Pesher from Qumran, one of the Dead Sea Scrolls. In this text, the Book of Habakkuk, which concerns the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem, is read as prophecy about the Essene community, its founder (the “Teacher of Righteousness”), and their struggle against both the Roman Empire and other Jews. For example, when Habakkuk 1:6 states that God will raise up the Chaldeans (Babylonians), the pesher interprets them as the Kittim (Romans). From the perspective of Habakkuk’s original context, this is clearly an incorrect reading. The Romans were not on his radar screen. The Babylonians were. But the Essenes saw the text as speaking to them, so there had to be a deeper meaning.
I would argue that we see a similar style of interpretation in Matthew’s use of Isaiah (as well as other Old Testament texts). When Matthew 1:23 reads–with the LXX–Isaiah 7:14 as finding fulfillment in the virgin birth of Jesus, he is ignoring the original context of the prophecy and seeing a deeper connection between Jesus and Immanuel that transcends the 8th century context. Immanuel is not Jesus, but in a very real sense, Jesus is Immanuel. He is an eschatological Immanuel. What Immanuel represented in the 8th century–God’s saving presence with his people–Jesus represents on an even grander scale.
With the “shoot” from the “stump of Jesse,” we have a similar situation. From the perspective of the New Testament, it is easy to see how a 1st century Jewish-Christian could interpret Isaiah 11:1-10 as a messianic prophecy fulfilled by Jesus. However, we do not see Matthew (or any other New Testament writer) making explicit reference to this passage as fulfilled in Jesus. We do find a likely allusion in Matthew 2:23, which cites Mary and Joseph’s settlement in Nazareth as a fulfillment of a prophecy that “he shall be called a Nazarean.” The trouble is that there is no such prophecy in the Old Testament. The closest candidate is Isaiah 11:1, in which the shoot from the stump of Jesse stands in parallel with a “branch from his roots.” Thus, the shoot and the branch are two different words for the same person. The Hebrew word for “branch” in Isaiah 11:1 is netzer, which is most likely also the root of the place name “Nazareth.” Matthew may be drawing a connection between Jesus’ hometown and the shoot/branch of Isaiah 11:1–with the implication then that the whole of Isaiah 11:1-10 is about Jesus. This playful (and rather loose) style of interpretation, in which close scrutiny of a Hebrew word leads to an interpretive connection that is not immediately apparent, is known as midrash. Like pesher, it was a way that post-exilic Jews continued to find deeper meaning in their Scriptures, thus allowing the text to continue to live and speak to their own contexts.
So does Isaiah really predict the coming of Jesus as the Messiah? According to the normal rules of historical-grammatical interpretation (basically, what did the words originally mean in their historical context), it is hard to see that it does. But according to the methods of interpretation used by Jews in the time of the New Testament, there is plenty in Isaiah that points to the coming of Jesus. This ought to cause us to pause and remember that we are not the first people to read the Bible. We are not even the primary, intended recipients. We can’t read it like we would a modern newspaper or history book. It plays by different rules, and in order to appreciate how its message has come down to us over the centuries in the form we have it, we need to humbly take off our modern glasses once in a while and see it through ancient eyes.
Further Reading ———–
Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament (Baker, 2005).
Karl Paul Donfried, Who Owns the Bible? Toward the Recovery of a Christian Hermeneutic (Crossroad, 2006).