“A Virgin Shall Conceive”


By Wayne S. Walker

     In Isaiah chapter seven, Ahaz was king of Judah, and Isaiah was the prophet of God.  At that time the kings of Syria and Israel were in league to attack and conquer the southern kingdom.  God promised to deliver Judah and asked Ahaz to request a sign.  The king, trusting more in Assyria than in God, refused, and so God gave a sign anyway.  “Therefore the Lord Himself shall give you a sign; behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call His name Immanuel” (v. 14).

The immediate application of this statement to Ahaz is somewhat unsure.  One explanation is that Isaiah’s wife would conceive and bear a son who would symbolize God’s deliverance of His people.  Since this occurred in Isaiah chapter 8, it could be that Isaiah had not yet married her when the prophecy was made, and hence she was still a virgin at that time.  However, to me, this does not fully explain the use of the word “virgin.”

Another explanation is that this does not refer to an actual event, but means that in the time that it would take for a virgin to marry and bear a son, God would deliver Judah.  This is a definite possibility, but it also still lacks something regarding the word “virgin.”  Or it could be saying that a God who is powerful enough to have even a virgin conceive a son is powerful enough to save His people from their enemies.  This is even more likely.  However, regardless of what this passage meant to Ahaz, we know how it is used by inspiration in the New Testament to refer to Christ when it says, “A virgin shall conceive.”

Isaiah said that this event would be a sign.  This word literally means a flag or standard, also a memorial; hence, any pledge, token, or proof of a divine mission; evidence of the fulfillment of what is predicted; especially a miracle wrought in attestation of a divine promise or message.  In Exodus 4:1-17, two miracles by Moses—his rod’s turning to a serpent and his hand’s becoming leprous—were given as signs to the Israelites and to Pharaoh.  In Isaiah 38:1-8, God gave Hezekiah a sign to show that his life would be spared by turning back the sundial ten degrees.

There were many signs given to identify Jesus as the Messiah.  Nicodemus said, “Master, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these signs that thou doest, except God be with him” (John 3:2, ASV).  The King James Version uses the word “miracles” to explain the signs.  Then in Acts 2, Peter told the Jews that Jesus was “a man approved of God among you by miracles, and wonders and signs” (v. 22).  Among the first of these signs was that “a virgin shall conceive.”

The word translated “virgin” is the Hebrew almah, which comes from a root which literally means one who is concealed, hidden, or covered up.  It was generally applied to youth, young men and women, those who are growing up, one in the stage of puberty.  The feminine form is equivalent to “maiden.”  Modernistic, liberal scholars have seized upon this word in an effort to deny the virgin birth of Christ by defining it solely as a “young woman of marriageable age.”  Thus, the Revised Standard Version and the New English Bible translate it merely as “young woman.”

Please read these comments made by Professor George R. Stevenson taken from a written debate with Evangelist Dan Gilbert, in which Stevenson defends the Revised Standard Version and particularly its rendering of Isaiah 7:14:

     In his bitter diatribe against the “New Bible,” Dr. Gilbert raises a cry of outrage against this superb work of scholarship because in his words, “It casts doubt upon the Virgin Birth of Jesus Christ.”

     Certainly the “New Bible” does contain passages which raise a question as to whether or not Jesus was actually born of a virgin.  But in so doing, the New Bible merely expresses the studied viewpoint of modern science.  Modern science cannot accept the idea that any man, at any time, was born of a virgin.

     Liberal religious thinkers cannot fly in the face of the deliberate verdict of modern science.  All my life, I have been in association with the foremost leaders of religious liberalism.  I have been on the faculties of outstanding seminaries and religious institutions that adhere to the enlightened liberal point of view.  I have spoken in some of America’s most famous liberal pulpits.  I am personally acquainted with the intellectual leaders of religious liberalism.  I know what they think.

     Now if Dr. Gilbert finds doubt in the New Bible regarding the virgin birth of Christ, let me assure him that he will find the same doubt in the honest thinking of the leading liberal clergymen of the twentieth century.

     The translators of the New Bible have handled the matter in a most fair and scholarly manner….The have surrounded this alleged miracle with a fair measure of the skepticism with which modern science views such an irregular occurrence—or, more precisely, the allegation of such an irregular occurrence.  (Stevenson, George R., and Gilbert, Dan; Debate Over the New Bible; S. A. Davis, Moulton, IA; n.d., but c. 1950s.)

To me, this is a very damaging statement, by a supporter no less, regarding the motives and purpose of those who translated the Revised Standard Version.  Was the aim of the R.S.V. simply to convey the text of the Bible, or was it to reflect humanistic, liberal thinking?

However, the meaning of a word is determined not only by dictionary definition but also by the way it is used.  And whenever almah is used in the Old Testament, it has the idea of a young, unmarried woman or virgin.  In Genesis 24:43-45 it is used of Rebekah before she married Isaac.  In Exodus 2:4-8 it is applied to Miriam as she watched over her baby brother Moses in the reeds.  The Scriptures do not tell us that Miriam ever married; and certainly at this time, living at home, she was unmarried—a virgin.  In Song of Solomon 1:3 it is found to describe the young ladies who desired to marry the Shunemite maid’s intended.  Obviously, they were unmarried, virgins.  Dr. Robert Dick Wilson, one of the greatest Hebrew scholars of America, wrote the following:

     Finally, two conclusions from the evidence seem clear; first, that “almah,” so far as is known, never meant “young married woman;” and secondly, since the presumption in common law and usage was, and is, that every “almah” is virgin and virtuous, until she is proved not to be, we have a right to assume that Rebekah and the “almah” of Isaiah 7:14, and all other “almahs” were virgin until, and unless, it shall be proven that they were not.  If Isaiah 7:14 is a prediction of the Conception, and if the events recorded in Matthew 1:18-25 and Luke 1:26-38 are true, and the Holy Spirit of God really did overshadow the Virgin Mary, all difficulties are cleared away.  The language is not the difficulty.  The great and only difficulty lies in disbelief of predictive prophecy and in the almighty power of God; or in the desire to throw discredit upon the divine Sonship of Jesus.  (Wilson, Robert Dick; “The Meaning of ‘Alman’ in Isaiah 7:14” in Princeton Theological Review; Princeton Theological Seminary, Princeton, NJ; 1936).

There is a second Hebrew word that demands our attention.  It is bethulah, which is the term that actually means “virgin,” or is supposed to.  The liberal scholars say that if Isaiah meant to denote a real virgin, he would have used bethulah.  But according to usage again, this was not always true.  In Isaiah 23:12-16, God prophesied the destruction of Tyre.  He called her a “virgin” (bethulah), but went on to talk of her as a harlot.  Here the word is used about a city which was spiritually impure.  Then in Lamentations 1:8-15, Jeremiah wept over the fall of Jerusalem.  He identifies the spiritual adultery of the city, but then calls it a “virgin” (bethulah).  So obviously, this word is not used to mean an actual “virgin,” at least as we would use it, even in these figures of speech.  Rather, it is used with a sense of irony or sarcasm.  Thus, if Isaiah had used it in 7:14, he would have been saying something entirely opposite from what he intended.

Furthermore, all this arguing over the Hebrew words is pedantic and moot.  In Matthew 1:22-23, the angel appears to Joseph to inform him of Jesus’s coming birth as the fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14.  The inspired text uses the word parthenos which, in Greek, always means one who has abstained from all uncleanness and whoredom and has so kept chastity.  In its every occurrence in the New Testament (Matthew 25:1-13, Acts 21:9, 1 Corinthians 7:25-36, 2 Corinthians 11:2, and Revelation 14:4) it refers to someone who is pure and undefiled.  We know that this was the case with Mary because when the angel appeared to her in Luke 1:34 and told her that she was to have a child, she replied, “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?”  This also helps to explain other passages such as Genesis 3:15 (seed of the woman) and Galatians 4:4 (born of a woman) which do not mention the agency of the male.  If one believes the Bible, he must believe that Jesus was indeed born of a virgin!

Isaiah goes on to say that this virgin would “bear a son.”  A similar prophecy is also found in Isaiah 9:6.  There are two terms applied to the Messiah which carry the idea of Sonship.  The first is “Son of God” (John 20:30-31), which emphasizes His deity.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses take this to mean that Jesus was the offspring of God—first there was God the Father, and then by some process of creation or birth, there was the Son.  But this phrase “son of” does not always necessarily refer to generative power but can be used figuratively with other meanings such as “having the nature of” in that a son partakes of the same nature as his father.  Thus, it implies that Jesus possesses the nature of God, “on an equality with” (Philippians 2:6).

In Mark 3:17-18 James and John are called “sons of thunder,” not because their father’s name was Thunder but because they possessed the nature of thunder.  The term also indicates that Jesus is the heir of God.  Because He is the unique Son (John 3:16—this is the meaning of the word translated “only-begotten” in our King James Bibles), He is in the position of a first-born Son (Colossians 1:15), and is therefore God’s primary heir (Hebrews 1:2).  If we become children of God, we shall be “joint-heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:17).  It further shows that Jesus is God’s special representative to man (Matthew 11:27, cf. 21:37).  The other title of Sonship used of Christ is “Son of Man” (Mark 9:6).  This emphasizes His humanity and brings us to the final point of our text.

“And shall call His name Immanuel,” which Matthew explains means “God with us.”  There are two lessons that we can learn from this.  First, Jesus is God.  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1).  The Jehovah’s Witnesses render this, “The word was a god.”  However, no reputable Greek scholar supports this translation, and there are rules in Greek grammar which demand the rendering in our Bibles.  But not only is Jesus God.  “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us…” (John 1:14).  He was God in the flesh, who became man—God “with us.”  Christ was made of the same flesh, bone, and blood as you and I (Luke 24:39).  According to Hebrews 2:6-9, 16-17, the purpose for this was two-fold: that He might die for our sins, and that, having experienced humanity, He can be a faithful and merciful High Priest to succor us in our afflictions.  As Paul identified the mystery of godliness (1 Timothy 3:16), he begins by saying, “God was manifest in the flesh.”  The one who does not confess that Jesus Christ came in the flesh is not of God (1 John 4:3-4).

A few years ago I read a book in which someone interviewed different ministers and theologians from various denominations and religious groups about the beliefs of their churches.  The vast majority of these religious leaders said that it is not necessary to believe in the virgin birth to be a “Christian,” that one can deny the virgin birth and still accept the “heart” of Christianity,  that Christ’s teachings do not depend on a virgin birth.  Such is the state of modern “Christendom.”  However, God’s word claims that Jesus was born of a virgin.  Christ never denied it.  If the Bible does not tell us the truth on that point, we can never really be sure that it is telling the truth about Him on any points, including His love for mankind and His power to save from sin.  If we throw the virgin birth out the window, then everything else in Christianity falls.  This is why a proper understanding of Isaiah 7:14 as it applies to Christ is extremely important.

—taken from Gospel Anchor; March, 1980; Vol. VI, No. 7; pp. 3-5, 8


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