The Coming King — The Unfolding of Biblical Eschatology
The unifying theme of Isaiah 6–12 is the coming Messianic king. Chapters 6 and 12 frame the entire subsection, with chapter 6 telling of the call and cleansing of Isaiah and chapter 12 recording the song of salvation sung by the saved community. The subsection begins with the death of King Uzziah, the embodiment of the Davidic house. Chapters 7–11 then center on the coming of a holy and divine monarch. The two kingships, the divine and the Davidic, will ultimately merge in a Messianic King from the house of David (cf. 7:14; 9:6–7; 11:1–10).
The call of Isaiah is narrated in Isaiah 6. The chapter serves as an important transition because the previous chapters have raised a serious question. How is sinful and rebellious Israel ever to be the center of worldwide blessing (Isa. 2:2–4)? What will it take for a city that is now described as a “whore” (1:21) to become “the city of righteousness, the faithful city” (1:26)? In Isaiah’s personal experience of having his guilt taken away and his sin atoned for (6:7), we find the first hints of the answer. Isaiah’s experience must become Israel’s experience.i
In the year that King Uzziah died, Isaiah sees a vision that shapes the entire course of his ministry (6:1–7). Isaiah sees the Lord sitting exalted upon a throne, surrounded by seraphim who continuously sing: “Holy, holy, holy is Yahweh of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” (6:3). The holiness of God is the focal point of Isaiah’s vision. The Hebrew language expresses superlatives by means of repetition, but this is the only place in the Old Testament where a threefold repetition is found. As Motyer explains, it is as if to say that “the divine holiness is so far beyond anything the human mind can grasp that a ‘super-superlative’ has to be invented to express it…”ii The impact of this vision on Isaiah can be seen in the dominance of the theme of holiness in his work. In fact, the adjective “holy” is used in Isaiah more than it is used in the remainder of the Old Testament combined.iii
The commission given to Isaiah is striking. God says to Isaiah, “Go and say to this people: ‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’ Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed” (6:9–10). Through the prophetic ministry of Isaiah, God is going to prevent the repentance of the people in order that judgment might come. They have already rejected the truth repeatedly. Now they have passed the point of no return, and judgment is certain. However, as verse 13 indicates, judgment is not the final word. A stump, or remnant, will remain.
The historical context of chapters 7–12 is the threat to Judah caused by the alliance of Syria and Israel in 735 B.C. This anti-Assyrian coalition invaded Judah, but was unable to overpower it (2 Kgs. 16:5; cf. 2 Chron. 28:5–8). In their second invasion of Judah, Syria and Israel determined to replace Ahaz with a king of their own choosing (7:6; cf. 2 Chron. 28:17). Because Ahaz is tempted to turn to Assyria for assistance (cf. 2 Kgs. 16:7–9), Isaiah comes to him telling him that he need not fear Israel and Syria and that he must trust in God (7:3–9). The issue, as Motyer explains, is clear: “will Ahaz seek salvation by works (politics, alliances) or by simple trust in divine promises?”iv
It is in this context that the Lord offers to give Ahaz a sign of his trustworthiness (7:10–11). Ahaz feigns piety and refuses the proffered sign (vv. 12–13). Apparently, he has already decided to place his trust in Assyria, but the Lord promises a sign anyway in verses 14–17.
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted. Yahweh will bring upon you and upon your people and upon your father’s house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria.
Because of Ahaz’s refusal to trust God, the sign is no longer a sign inviting faith. It is a sign confirming God’s displeasure.
The “you” to whom the sign is to be given is plural, suggesting that the sign is to be given to the house of David (cf. v. 13).v It should also be observed that the time of the birth of Immanuel is not explicitly stated in this text. What Isaiah’s words do indicate is that however soon Immanuel is born, the existing threat posed by Israel and Syria will have passed before the child is even able to be aware of it. According to Matthew 1:18–23, the birth of Jesus to Mary fulfilled this prophecy.vi That this is true, we can be certain. The question remains, however, whether there was any preliminary or initial fulfillment in Isaiah’s day.
The similarities between 8:1–4 and 7:14–16 suggest that a child was born in Isaiah’s time as a preliminary fulfillment of the prophecy. In 7:14, Isaiah says, “the virgin shall conceive and bear a son.” In 8:3, Isaiah says that he went to the prophetess and “she conceived and bore a son.”vii In 7:16, Isaiah says, “For before the boy knows how…” In 8:4, he uses the identical phrase.viii Finally, in both texts, Isaiah declares that something is going to happen to Israel and Syria before the child reaches a certain age (cf. “the two kings you dread” in 7:16; “Damascus” and “Samaria” in 8:4). The similarities between these two texts do not appear to be coincidental. This would seem to indicate that in some sense the child born to the prophetess served as a kind of preliminary fulfillment of the prophecy.
After declaring that the nation in whom Judah trusted for deliverance would turn against Judah (8:5–10), and after calling upon Judah to trust in God (8:11–22), Isaiah again points forward to the coming Messiah (9:1–7). Verses 2–3 describe the unbounded joy of the people. This joy is due to their deliverance from oppression (v. 4), and their deliverance from oppression is due to the end of all war (v. 5). But how will God end war? He will accomplish this through the birth of a child (vv. 6–7).
For unto us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of Yahweh of hosts will do this.
This prophecy looks forward to the ultimate fulfillment of the Immanuel sign with the coming of Jesus (cf. Matt. 1:18–23). As Motyer explains, “The perfection of this King is seen in his qualifications for ruling (Wonderful Counselor), his person and power (Mighty God), his relationship to his subjects (Everlasting Father) and the security his rule creates (Prince of Peace).”ix The reign of this Messianic king will have no end. He will be the final king who will once and for all replace unfaithful kings like Ahaz.x God’s creational purpose to establish his kingdom on earth will be accomplished through this Messianic King.
i John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 1–39 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 174–5.
ii J. Alec Motyer, Isaiah: An Introduction and Commentary, TOTC (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1999), 71.
iii It is used 33 times in Isaiah and 26 times in the remainder of the Old Testament.
iv J. Alec Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1993), 82.
v The Hebrew is lakem, a preposition with a second masculine plural pronominal suffix.
vi Much debate has centered on the meaning of the Hebrew word ‘almah, translated “virgin” in the ESV. Some have argued that ‘almah simply means “a young woman of marriageable age” and should be translated “young woman” because had Isaiah meant “virgin,” he would have used the more specific term betulah. We do not know why Isaiah chose one term instead of the other, but as Oswalt (The Book of Isaiah: 1–39, 210) demonstrates, the translation is appropriate. “It would be axiomatic in Hebrew society that such a woman be a virgin.” Other scholars have also ably demonstrated the propriety of the translation “virgin” (cf. Motyer, Isaiah: Introduction and Commentary, 78–9).
viiv Forms of harah, yalad, and ben, occur in both verses.
viii The phrase is ki beterem yeda’ hanna’ar. What the child will know how to do is different in the two texts, but in both cases, the ability is one that is normally learned at a young age.
ix Motyer, Isaiah: An Introduction and Commentary, 89.
x Brevard S. Childs, Isaiah (Louisville: Westminster, 2001), 81.