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Preaching the Messianic Prophecies

By Emma Maggs.

What principles should be applied by Christian preachers when addressing Isaiah’s allegedly messianic oracles, particularly the ‘Immanuel’ prophecy of Isaiah 7.14?

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign.  Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.

When I was a spiritual seeker exploring Christianity, I was taught that there were dozens of Old Testament prophecies which contained predictions concerning Jesus’ life and death. For example, the miraculous nature of Jesus’ birth to the virgin Mary was alleged to be predicted in Isaiah 7.14, and the place of Jesus’ birth was foretold in Micah 5.2-5 (‘But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah… from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel…’). A few years later, very early in my preaching ministry, I was asked to speak at a local church during Advent, and chose that latter passage. When I consulted an academic commentary in preparation, however, I realised with dismay that the connection between this ‘messianic’ prophecy and Jesus of Nazareth might not be as straightforward as I had always assumed. With this new-found knowledge acquired by the simple act of picking up a commentary, I began to feel that the approach to Hebrew prophecy which I had learned thus far had been very misleading.

In this essay, I aim to evaluate different approaches to interpreting the ‘messianic’ oracles found in Isaiah, focusing on the ‘Immanuel’ prophecy in 7.14, a text often read as part of Christmas liturgies and traditionally understood as being a prophecy concerning the messiah. Then I will suggest some principles Christian preachers should observe when preaching texts such as Isaiah 7.14 in order to convey the ideas they present without misleading congregations with a simplistic interpretation.  

From Matthew’s use of Isaiah in the writing of his gospel until the advent of historical criticism in the 18th century, a Christian approach to the book was characterised by the notion of prediction and fulfilment. Isaiah was seen as a ‘fifth gospel’, containing many messianic oracles foretelling the coming of Jesus Christ.[1] Matthew concludes the passage in which the birth of Jesus is announced to Joseph with these words:

All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means, “God is with us” (Matthew 1.22-23).

Matthew sees Isaiah 7.14 as a prediction of the virgin birth of the messiah, Jesus Christ, God with us. The Church, Father St Jerome, in the prologue to his Latin translation of Isaiah, commented that the prophet:

…records all the mysteries of Christ and the Church… so clearly that you would think he was describing what had already happened, rather than foretelling the future.[2]

The advent of historical criticism in the 18th and 19th centuries brought new critical methods to bear on the biblical text, as scholars asked questions about authorship, context and genre. The goal of scholarship was assumed to be the historical context and ‘original meaning’ of the text, i.e. the author’s original intent, rather than traditional interpretations such as that of St Jerome.[3] Historical critical study reveals, for example, that it is by no means clear that Isaiah is writing of a virgin birth or that he is describing an event in the distant future. The fact that the Greek translation of the Old Testament (which Matthew used) rendered the more general Hebrew term for ‘young woman’ using the more specific Greek word meaning ‘virgin’ is well known. In addition to ‘Immanuel’, there are two other sign-children referred to in Isaiah 7-8, both of which are clearly born in the prophet’s lifetime. Since Isaiah is speaking into a current crisis, it seems much more reasonable to conclude that in 7.14, too, he is speaking of a pregnancy which is imminent. Examination of the Hebrew text has also raised questions about whether the young woman is already pregnant or due to become pregnant at some point in the future. An enormous amount has been written about this one verse in Isaiah and space does not allow all the arguments to be rehearsed here. A glance at a few critical commentaries provides an enormous amount of material to consider.

John F A Sawyer notes that one effect of focusing on the text’s historical meaning “is to rule out many of the traditional Christian interpretations as scientifically impossible.”[4]  Taking a purely historical critical approach, one could conclude that Isaiah 7.14 is simply a sign given to King Ahaz through a child born at the time. The prophecy means what it meant at the time – what the author originally meant to say – although one would have to concede that there is no way we can be sure of the author’s original intention. Thus there is no messianic content to the oracle at all, and one would have to conclude that Matthew was misguided when he applied it to Jesus.

Should we, however, discard his very early application of Isaiah, which formed the basis of hundreds of years of interpretive tradition? Let us consider two approaches to interpreting Isaiah which hold in tension Matthew’s use of the book and more recent scholarship.

Most scholars of Isaiah navigate a middle way between traditional notions of prediction and fulfilment and a rationalistic historical critical approach which seeks simply the text’s historical meaning. Christopher R Seitz and James Luther Mays both view oracles such as 7.14 as reflections of the longing of Israel for an ideal king, a hope which Jesus later fulfilled. The Old Testament, they argue, does not provide us with predictions which Jesus fulfils; instead it tells us of hopes which he satisfies. As Seitz explains: 

“The church confesses that out of the messiness of earthly government, specifically rooted in the house of David, God prepares a place for his son to rule as King… Israel’s own vision of kingship, and from time to time its own historical kings, prepared the church to see in Jesus a King like no other.”[5]

According to Seitz, we can accept that the original context of oracles such as 7.14 concerned the human kings of Israel, but that ultimately the messianic hopes were not fulfilled by these men, but by Jesus Christ. Mays takes a very similar view, arguing that “the promise endured where the instruments failed.”[6]  He goes on:

“Christian theology can do without messianic prophecy as prediction and fulfilment, but it cannot do without the messianic trajectory to make clear what is claimed for the one who is called King, messiah, son of God. Prophecy does not tell us who the Christ is, but it does teach us what office he fulfils in the reign of God.”[7]

This strikes me as a potentially fruitful way forward. It allows us to retain the messianic dimension of oracles such as 7.14 by seeing them as expressing a future hope. Seitz and Mays argue that oracles like this express messianic hopes which lasted even though human kings failed. Their approach does not, however, load these oracles with a predictive meaning they cannot bear. 

Another approach which seeks to reconcile the historical critical material with more traditional messianic readings of Isaiah is to use the language of reapplying Old Testament prophecies to Jesus Christ. Accepting the results of historical criticism, John F A Sawyer concludes that in its original context Isaiah 7.14 was a judgement oracle concerning an ordinary birth. However, “taken out of context, it is a marvellously rich prophecy of the coming of Jesus Christ, and has functioned as such in Christian tradition ever since.” Sawyer thus accepts the results of historical critical work but maintains that the text does not only mean what it meant at the time. Christian re-readings of the text, for him, are valid. John Goldingay, commenting on Matthew’s use of Isaiah 7.14, makes a similar point:

“Understood to mean virgin, these words will eventually turn out to be much more telling in another connection than Isaiah dreamed… [applications of Old Testament prophecies to Jesus] do not depend on a link with the actual meaning of the passages in question. They are inspired reapplications of the inspired words.”[8]

This line of argument, favoured by Sawyer and Goldingay, maintains that it is quite valid to reread prophecies messianically even if no historical connection exists between the oracle in question and Jesus Christ. This strikes me as a helpful way of affirming the way in which Matthew uses Isaiah in his gospel. Rather than searching for predictions which could be seen to fit with the life of Jesus, perhaps Matthew was reapplying the prophet’s words in creative, fresh new ways. Fee and Stuart argue that this is an example of a ‘second meaning’ found by an inspired New Testament writer. Matthew is re-using Isaiah in a way that goes beyond both the original context and the prophet’s intention, which is valid because he is an inspired writer of scripture.[9]

A similar but more radical approach is that of Walter Brueggemann, an Old Testament scholar influenced by postmodernism. He argues that biblical texts are open to a number of different faithful interpretations which are not mutually exclusive.[10] Thus the traditional understanding of Isaiah 7.14 as a prophecy of the virgin birth of the messiah “cannot be said to be ‘wrong,’ but it can be said to go in a quite fresh direction, surely other than the Isaiah text itself.”[11] Brueggemann accepts Matthew’s use of Isaiah as a valid re-reading of the text because he rejects the idea of one ‘true’ meaning. He refers to Jewish midrashic interpretation, in which many readings stand side by side; in which “the voice of the text is variously heard and is not limited by authorial intent.”[12] 

One of the aspects of Brueggemann’s work I find most interesting is his acknowledgement of the power dynamics of biblical interpretation. He rejects the notion of absolute knowledge as anything other than “the agreement of all those permitted in the room,” maintaining that those who seek absolute truth are seeking absolute power. He does not reject the insights of historical criticism, but does not find them to be adequate. Brueggemann argues that historical criticism is “a handmaiden of certain kinds of power”, a form of absolutism among “the elitely educated”.[13] These comments are particularly relevant as we consider the use of Isaiah in preaching, an act which often, though not always, involves those with a theological education interpreting and presenting biblical texts for the benefit of those who have not had this privilege. There is a sense in which, whether or not it is a desirable situation, theologically educated preachers are caretakers of privileged knowledge and need to make decisions about how that knowledge is shared. Whatever one’s theology of preaching, there is a very real power dynamic which must be acknowledged. It can be very disorientating to come face to face with historical critical material when all one has known is the traditional reading of a text.

Having considered the issues surrounding the interpretation of Isaiah 7.14 and reviewed a number of approaches to this text, I would now like to suggest four principles for Christian preachers to observe when working with these texts.

1. Avoid the language of ‘prediction.

Bearing in mind the weight of scholarship concerning the original context of Isaiah 7.14, I believe that to continue using prediction language is at best naïve and at worst dishonest. When one considers the exegetical issues, it seems indefensible to cling to a dogmatic insistence that the ‘young woman’, who seems very likely to be a contemporary woman experiencing a natural pregnancy, is in fact the Virgin Mary. As we have seen, there are ways of affirming the messianic hope which Jesus fulfilled without claiming that Isaiah was making predictions. For this reason, I do not believe that it is appropriate to use Isaiah 7.14 in apologetics as a ‘proof’ of the messiahship of Jesus Christ. Jesus did not fulfil predictions; he satisfied hopes.

2. Introduce the congregation to historical critical issues when preaching.

Historical criticism has given us insights which have transformed the way we approach texts such as Isaiah 7.14 and those insights need to be shared with congregations.  I have argued that it is not appropriate to speak of predictions fulfilled, and yet this is likely to be the language many Christians use when speaking of Old Testament prophecy. Why, then, should the insights of historical criticism not be more widely shared? John Sawyer makes the point that many of the results of historical criticism have been slow to impact the church, and may never do so. Speculations about Isaiah have remained ‘within the four walls of academia’.[14] If we are committed to the belief that the Bible is one of the principle ways in which God speaks to his people, any scholarship which helps us to understand its meaning better can only be a good thing. Granted, to focus exclusively on the text’s ‘original meaning’ and ignore what it has meant to the church over the centuries, and what new things it might be saying now, is to take too narrow a view, but a biblical faith which stubbornly holds on to old readings of a text and which ignores historical insights is surely blind faith.

3. Let the Old Testament speak for itself. 

In order to allow scripture and tradition to be in dialogue, the Old Testament scriptures must be allowed to speak for themselves rather than being put through a christological filter. There “must not be an uncritical or unconscious introduction of Christian theology without first hearing the Old Testament’s own voice”.[15] In the 19th century, it was widely believed that exegesis should be without theological presuppositions.[16] It is now recognised that that is impossible; we all bring assumptions, beliefs and worldviews to a text. Nevertheless, we can try to name what we bring to a text and, as far as we can, set it aside in order to enter into the world of the text and hear what it meant to the people of the time, before we ask what it means for us now. By first understanding what Isaiah 7.14 may have meant to contemporaries and then moving on to consider what it means for us now, we end up with a rich, fully rounded interpretation which acknowledges multiple meanings.

4. Offer possibilities rather than certainties.

We have seen that the connection between Isaiah’s ‘Immanuel’ prophecy and Jesus Christ is not straightforward or clear-cut.  The name ‘Jesus Christ’ (i.e. Jesus Messiah) connects Jesus with Old Testament hopes; and in Isaiah 7.14 we find an early reference to these hopes which later developed into the expectation that the ideal king was coming. There are, however, so many interpretive possibilities that it seems most appropriate to make suggestions rather than to insist upon any one meaning. Brueggemann argues that respectful conversation is needed between those with different readings of Scripture, giving us the opportunity to receive new truth together. As a preacher, Brueggemann argues, one must propose, advocate, but not conclude.[17] Given the number of complex exegetical issues we have considered and the variety of hermeneutical approaches to Isaiah’s ‘messianic’ texts, this seems very wise advice with which to finish.

Bibliography

Brueggemann, Walter.  Isaiah 1-39.  Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 1998.

Brueggemann, Walter.  The Word Militant: Preaching a Decentering Word.  Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2007.

Childs, Brevard S.  Isaiah.  London, Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.

Childs, Brevard S.  The Struggle to Understand Isaiah as Christian Scripture.  Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2004.

Fee, Gordon D. and Douglas Stuart.  How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 3rd ed.  Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2003.

Goldingay, John.  Isaiah.  Milton Keynes, Paternoster Press, 2001.

Mays, James Luther.  ‘Isaiah’s Royal Theology and the Messiah’ in Christopher R. Seitz (ed.), Reading and Preaching the Book of Isaiah.  Eugene, Augsburg Fortress Press, 2002.

Sawyer, John F. A.  ‘Isaiah’ in Michael Lieb, Emma Mason and Jonathan Roberts (eds), The Oxford handbook of the reception history of the Bible.  Oxford, OUP, 2011, pp. 52-63.

Sawyer, John F. A.  The Fifth Gospel: Isaiah in the history of Christianity.  Cambridge, CUP, 1996.

Seitz, Christopher R.  Isaiah 1-39.  Louisville, John Knox Press, 1993.

[1] John F.A. Sawyer, ‘Isaiah’ in Michael Lieb, Emma Mason and Jonathan Roberts (eds), The Oxford handbook of the reception history of the Bible, Oxford, 2011, pp. 52-56.

[2] Sawyer, ‘Isaiah’, p. 56.

[3] John F.A. Sawyer, The Fifth Gospel: Isaiah in the history of Christianity, Cambridge, 1996, p. 194.

[4] Sawyer, ‘Isaiah’, p. 58.

[5] Christopher R. Seitz, Isaiah 1-39, Louisville, 1993, p. 75.

[6] James Luther Mays, ‘Isaiah’s Royal Theology and the Messiah’ in Christopher R. Seitz (ed.), Reading and Preaching the Book of Isaiah, Eugene, 2002, p. 48.

[7] Mays, pp. 49-50.

[8] John Goldingay, Isaiah, Milton Keynes, 2001, p. 67.

[9] Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 3rd ed., Grand Rapids, 2003, pp. 201-204.

[10] Walter Brueggemann, The Word Militant: Preaching a Decentering Word, Minneapolis, 2007, pp. 22-23.

[11] Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 1-39, Louisville, 1998, p. 70.

[12] Brueggemann, The Word Militant, p. 23.

[13] Brueggemann, The Word Militant, pp. 21-22.

[14] Sawyer, The Fifth Gospel, pp. 177-179; 194.

[15] Brevard S. Childs, The Struggle to Understand Isaiah as Christian Scripture,Grand Rapids, 2004, p. 269.

[16] Childs, Struggle, p. 277.

[17] Brueggemann, The Word Militant, p. 22.

Emma Maggs

Minister of Leigh Road Baptist Church, Essex

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You are reading Preaching the Messianic Prophecies by Emma Maggs, part of Issue 60 of Ministry Today, published in April 2014.

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