Isaiah’s Immanuel: perhaps one other than the Christ

Although the advent of Jesus Christ may reverberate with an echo of Isaiah’s prophecy concerning Immanuel, that prophecy’s focus is not the mortal Messiah.

I do not contend against the divinity of Jesus Christ, neither the prophecies of Isaiah. In effort to avoid contention altogether, I refer you to my statement on doctrinal authority. (Yes, I am aware that LDS authorities have applied the prophecy of Immanuel to Jesus Christ; if this knowledge prevents you from enjoying the following text, you may yet appreciate the antepenultimate section of this document, entitled “If the prophecy refers to Jesus, then what?”)

The heart of the matter

“Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” — Isaiah 7:14.

Certainly there have been many who opined that this prophecy referred to the birth of Jesus Christ. Notable among them are George Frederic Handel (composer of the oratorio “The Messiah”) and Henry Sloane Coffin & John Mason Neale (writers of the advent antiphon “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”).

On the authority of St. Matthew

Presumably, these and others arrived at their conclusion because of St. Matthew’s statement: “Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, [the text from Isaiah 7:14].” (Matt 1:22–3)

My intent is not to cast doubt on St. Matthew, but before we place great weight on the assertion in the first chapter of his gospel, I invite the reader to reflect on the genealogy rendered by Matthew in the same chapter: given for effect and not accuracy.[1]

A common understanding is that St. Matthew endeavours to cater to the Greek culture, wrapping things up into nice packages and excluding facts where they prevent his doing so.[2] In other words, asserting a connection between Isaiah 7 and Jesus Christ may have been similar in motive to asserting that the generations between Abraham and David, then David and Jesus numbered 14 each.

The virginal conception

Some readers will not entertain the idea that “a virgin shall conceive” but that her son should be Jesus Christ. We must suppose Jesus Christ to be the only one begotten of virgin, but we need not suppose that the Hebrew word rendered “virgin” in Isaiah 7:14 meant what we interpret virgin to mean.

The Hebrew word used there is ‘almâh (עלמה), which Strong’s concordance points out to be the feminine form of ‘elem, which merely means “young man” or “stripling.” Strong’s concordance gives “lass” as a suitable definition and “damsel, maid, virgin” as glosses that appeared in the KJV.[3] Brown, Driver, and Briggs’ Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament adds that an ‘almâh may even be newly married and specifies her as a young woman who is ripe sexually.

Significantly, 38 of the 42 times that the word of virgin(s) appears in the Old Testament, it is translated from the Hebrew bethûwlâh.[4] Of the four cases where ‘almâh is used for “virgin(s),” two appear in Song of Solomon (which we shall eschew)[5], one is in the account of Abraham’s servant seeking a wife for Isaac (Gen 24:43), and one is in Isaiah 7.

In other cases where ‘almâh appears in the Bible (there are three of them), it is rendered “maid” or “damsel.”

Consequently, we see that the mother of the Immanuel mentioned in Isaiah 7 need not have been a virgin in the modern English sense.

What we know about Immanuel

We know but little concerning the Immanuel spoken of in Isaiah 7; however, we do know that:

  • his name shall be Immanuel
  • he shall eat curds and honey
  • Ephraim and Samaria should lose their kings while he be yet young

One might contend that the Greek name “Jesus” (God is help; saviour) is an effective fulfillment of the prophesied name “Immanuel” (God [is] with us). However, the latter two of the foregoing points signify much and refute a connection with Jesus. These will be discussed under the next heading.

The subject of Isaiah 7

This chapter comprises two prophecies in series. It concerns the menace of Ephraim (i.e. The northern kingdom of Israel) and Samaria.

Ephraim and Samaria should lose their kings while he be yet young.

God instructs the king of Judah not to fear because within 65 years Assyria will destroy Ephraim and Samaria. Moreover, as the previous section pointed out, this destruction should take place before Immanuel were old enough to know good from evil. (The NIV makes this more clear than the KJV: “before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste.”)

It is true that Jesus of Nazareth was not old enough to know right from wrong when Assyria conquered Ephraim and Samaria, but since their destruction took place 721 years before he was born, the sign spoken of must be largely meaningless if it refers to him.

He shall eat curds and honey.

(The KJV renders this “butter and honey.”) The footnotes in both the KJV (LDS) and NIV Study Bible explain the significance of curds and honey, particularly as they relate to later verses in the same chapter (22–25). They “meant a return to the simple diet of those who lived off the land. The Assyrian invasion would devastate the countryside and make farming impossible.”[6]

This description does not apply to Jesus of Nazareth. He did not live in a depopulated area, neither do we suppose that he lived on a nomad’s diet (curds and honey) — more importantly, it is certain that not everyone in the land subsisted on a nomad’s diet, which verse 22 assures us was to be the case.

Maher-shalal-hash-baz

The next two chapters of Isaiah may be part of the series begun in chapter 7 and may contain the fulfillment of the prophecy of Immanuel. In chapter 8, Isaiah has a son whom he names Maher-shalal-hash-baz. (This name is not equivalent to Immanuel, but it’s significance — “to speed the spoil, he hasteneth the prey” — may be linked to “God [is] with us.”)

For your reading, Keith A. Meservy (professor emeritus of ancient scripture at BYU) delineates a rather clean association between Maher-shalal-hash-baz and the prophecy of Immanuel in his essay “God Is with Us.”[7] (not discussed here)

Ephraim and Samaria should lose their kings while he be yet young.

in Isaiah 8:4, Isaiah says of Maher-shalal-hash-baz that “before [he] shall have knowledge to cry, My father, and my mother, the riches … of Samaria shall be taken away before the king of Assyria.” The reader presumes that before the child learns right and wrong, Assyria should have destroyed Ephraim as well. These are two halves of the prophecy given in Isaiah 7:16.

He shall eat curds and honey.

We do not have the details of Maher-shalal-hash-baz’ life, but we may presume that he lived to see the depopulation spoken of earlier.

Regarding chapter 9.

Unequivocally, Isaiah 9 is part of the prophetic series incorporating chapter 8, and it is unequivocally Messianic. However, this is not to signify that the series has been Messianic all along; a Messianic prophecy follows logically at this point because the devastation of Israel was just described, and the means of the restoration of Israel is the next logical step.

If the prophecy refers to Jesus, then what?

Harmony is found across the ages of Judeo-Christian history. The birth of Jesus Christ may have been orchestrated to echo the birth of Immanuel; however, if it was meant, instead, to fulfill the prophecy of Immanuel (i.e. the prophecy did not bear its fullness until it was realized twice, once in Isaiah’s time and once in the meridian of time), what is the significance of the prophecy? How does Jesus fit into the prophecy?

It has been pointed out by more than one scholar that the prophecy of Immanuel speaks of deliverance and that Christ epitomized this as the great deliverer (from sin and death). I find this highly inappropriate, however, since the Immanuel in Isaiah’s time had nothing to do with the execution of deliverance: deliverance arrived at the hands of the cruel and frightful Assyrians, and the advent of Immanuel at that time was merely to stand as a sign of Isaiah’s prophecy. In contrast, the deliverance which Jesus Christ offers is effected by himself; in this, he bears no resemblance to the Assyrians nor Immanuel.

Furthermore, in the case of Immanuel, deliverance was to arrive before he knew right from wrong. In the case of Jesus Christ, on the other hand, deliverance came when he was an adult and had the profoundest understanding of right and wrong.

LDS voices

Yes, LDS authorities, including current Pres. Thomas S Monson have used Isaiah 7:14 in reference to Jesus Christ, but (I refer you again to my statement on doctrinal authority) I don’t believe that any president of the church has applied any other verse in that chapter to the Saviour, and it appears to me that in order to apply the prophecy of Immanuel to Jesus Christ, exactly that must be done: verse 14 must be extricated and isolated from context.

Why does this matter?

So some people believe that Isaiah’s prophecy of Immanuel refers to Jesus Christ. Why does this writer care?

Because there are those of us who remain, despite much fervor and effort, without the ministrations of God or heavenly messengers. We rely upon the instruction and apparent hope of earthly messengers until the day that either the testimony of Jesus is planted in our hearts or we take our own lives in despair.

What are we to do when these, our teachers, profess things to which they have devoted (in our estimation) very little thought or study? What are we to do when those we rely upon strongly assert an interpretation of a scripture of whose context and location they are ignorant?



[1] Comparing Matthew 1 with 1 Chronicles 3, we see five generations omitted.

[2] For a secular example, reflect upon the Greek models of astronomy which relied upon circles, not permitting ellipses.

[3] Strong, James. Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. Abingdon press, Nashville. 1974. Hebrew word number 5959.

[4] Strong. Hebrew word number 1330.

[5] According to the Bible dictionary (LDS), “The JST manuscript contains the note that ‘the Song of Solomon is not inspired Scripture.'”

[6] The NIV Study Bible. Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, MI: 1995. p. 1021.

[7] Jackson, Kent P. Studies in Scripture. Deseret Book Company, Salt Lake City: 1993. v. 4 p. 95–6.

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