Liberals have long scrutinized Matthew 1:22–23 and the passage it quotes, Isaiah 7:14, leading them to deny the virgin birth. They say that since Isaiah uses almah, a Hebrew term literally translated as “maiden,” he is not affirming the virgin birth. This argument has no merit, for almah almost always refers to a young woman who is also a virgin. Also, the Septuagint, an ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament, understands that Isaiah is talking about a virgin as it renders almah with parthenos, the normal Greek word for “virgin.”
We wholeheartedly affirm the virgin birth of Jesus based on today’s passage and Luke 1:26–38. But let us note that Matthew may not be reading Isaiah as has been often supposed. When we look at the word “fulfill” in Matthew 1:22–23, we tend to think Isaiah saw into the future and made a prediction that could only come true for Mary. However, Isaiah 7:14 would then have no meaning to its original readers, Israelites living centuries before Jesus.
The context of Isaiah 7:14 explains why Matthew cites this verse. When Ahaz reigned in Judah, Syria and Israel threatened to invade Judah if he would not join them against the Assyrian empire (v. 1). Yet this threat actually tempted Ahaz to seek aid from Assyria against these foes. God promised him protection if he did not join with Assyria, telling the king to ask for a sign to confirm His pledge (vv. 2–11). But Ahaz did not trust the Lord and would not ask for a sign. God gave Ahaz a sign anyway — a sign of cursing, not blessing! A child’s birth would signify that God would use Assyria to judge faithless Judah (vv. 12–25).
By natural means, Isaiah and his wife — formerly the virgin maiden — would produce Maher-shalal-hash-baz (8:1–4), a sign of God’s curse on those who trusted in an alliance with Assyria. (vv. 5–22). And as the prophet warned, Ahaz would be humiliated in his deal with the Assyrian Empire (2 Chron. 28).
If this curse foretold by Isaiah came to pass, how can we escape the curse if we do not trust God when the sign is the very Son of God, born of a virgin? Just as Isaiah’s son signified a curse on Judah’s unbelief, so too does Jesus’ miraculous birth signify disaster for those who do not submit to God’s royal Son.
The fulfillment of prophecy in Jesus can only be understood if we first understand the meaning and application of the prophetic word for its original audience. In this case, Jesus fulfills or “fills up” the word of Isaiah because He, as a Son brought forth by extraordinary means, is the sign of a greater curse or blessing depending on how we respond to the Gospel. Let us follow Him alone as Savior and Lord so that we may receive the greater blessing.