In the Christmas story recorded in the Gospel of Matthew, the Apostle does a very odd thing. He connects the virgin birth of Jesus with a prophecy given by Isaiah to Ahaz, the king of Judah, 700 years earlier:
23 “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which translated means, “God with us.” (Matthew 1:23 NASV based on Isaiah 7:14)
For many it has been a controversial connection. But it makes sense when we understand what was happening when Isaiah gave this prophecy with what Matthew emphasized in his account of the birth of Christ.
In Isaiah 7, the prophet was dealing with a situation that was taking place in Judah. By this time, Israel and Judah had been ripped apart. Israel had fallen into abject idolatry, and Judah was the last remnant of God’s kingdom.
In the first two verses, we read that back-slidden Israel and Syria had joined to rage war against Judah intending to remove Ahaz and set up a new vassal king , a Syrian named Tabeel (Isaiah 7:5-7).
The threat here is not Judah’s destruction, but the removal of David’s descendant off the throne of Judah. This was a direct challenge to the prophetic word given David that one of his descendants would reign on the throne of God’s kingdom forever:
5 I will establish your royal throne over Israel forever, as I promised David your father when I said, ‘You shall never fail to have a successor on the throne of Israel.’ (1 Kings 9:5 NASV)
We see this connection clearly when Isaiah refers to Judah as the House of David. Ahaz was a descendant of David and there was now a threat to this dynasty:
2 When it was reported to the house of David, saying, “The Arameans have camped in Ephraim,” his heart and the hearts of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake with the wind. (Isaiah 7:2 NASV)
When the plot was exposed, Isaiah gave a prophetic word to Ahaz, that God was going to intervene and preserve Ahaz’s throne and more importantly the Davidic dynasty.
God even offers Ahaz a sign (any sign he wants) to confirm the promise’s validity.
But out of stubbornness or unbelief Ahaz refuses, so God promises a sign anyways because He was fulfilling His commitment to King David. God declared that a virgin would give birth to a child and along with this a promise that both Israel and Syria would be destroyed (Isaiah 7:5-8).
However, King Ahaz, who was the back-slidden son of the godly king Uzziah, was more concerned about saving his own neck than preserving the legacy of David and makes a treaty with Assyria. That move resulted in devastation as the armies battled through Judah’s countryside.
But despite Ahaz’s disobedience God fulfills His sign to Ahaz and promise to Kind David.
The part of the prophecy that Matthew cites is where the controversy lies, because Isaiah said “Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son (Isaiah 7:14 NASV).
The Hebrew word translated virgin in Isaiah is ‘alma’ and it refers to a young woman of marriageable age. According to Hebrew tradition, there was an expectation she was a virgin. ‘Alma’ is used seven other times in the Old Testament and in each case the context suggests it is referring to a virgin (see Gen 24:43; Ex 2:8).
But there was no guarantee she was and in the Hebrew there was a more specific word that described a virgin — ‘betula.’ Some argue that if Isaiah was describing a virgin he would have used ‘betula’ instead of ‘alma.’
Others are not convinced. In fact, many ancient Jewish commentators said that this passage was referring to a virgin and only after Christians claimed this as being fulfilled in Christ did they change the meaning to refer to a young woman.
Whatever the case, this verse was obviously talking about an unusual birth in Ahaz’s day and through it the king would know God was with him. Some have suggested Isaiah was referring to the birth of his own son but more likely it was the surprise birth of a child in Ahaz’s harem. It was notable and different enough to be considered a ‘sign’, but we don’t necessarily know why.
In a matter of three or four years after the birth of this son, the threat of both Israel and Syria was removed and the Davidic dynasty preserved.
But as Matthew read this passage in light of the virgin birth of Jesus, he understood that this verse in Isaiah was prophetically looking ahead to the coming Messiah.
More importantly, Matthew understood what was happening with Ahaz as the Syian/Israel alliance tried to end the Davidic dynasty and to install a heathen king on the throne of Judah.
The miraculous birth of Jesus meant that God’s promise to install a descendant on the throne of David forever was now being fulfilled.
Why was this so significant? Because guided by a star, the Magi came to Palestine in search of the new KING OF THE JEWS:
2 Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, 2 “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.” (Matthew 2:1-2 NASV)
Matthew also noted another similarity. King Herod’s desire to kill Jesus was similar to Syria and Israel’s plot to kill Ahaz and install their own vassal king. In both instances, God intervened and spared the Davidic dynasty.
At Christ’s crucifixion, Matthew tells how the Romans put a sign above the Lord’s head describing Him as the King of the Jews (Matthew 27:37).
But Jesus’s birth was much different.
When Christ rose from the dead, a descendant of David was permanently installed as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords (1 Timothy 6:15).
Jesus, born of a virgin, was the prophetic fulfillment of the promise given David that his descendants would sit on the throne of Israel forever. Since Jesus is head of the Church (Colossians 1:18), this also makes the Church the Israel of God.