“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” – Is. 7:14
If you have ever read the New Testament you probably have stumbled upon various prophesies from the Old Testament that are fulfilled in Christ. Upon a closer look into some of quoted prophesies, we may become disappointment because it may seem like the passages are taken out of context when referenced in the New Testament. We become confused because we cannot reconcile the prophesy with what was originally intended by the author to the readers and what is quoted by the New Testament writers as being fulfilled in Christ. Yet the whole problem here is not the text, but rather the way we 21st century readers view prophesy. We define prophesy by our linear thinking but the Jewish culture viewed prophesy very differently. Prophesy was understood to have various themes and ideas that could be applicable in various contexts and situations. Prophesy can be given to a specific situation, but then that specific situation can also be a reflection of something that is to come in the future.
Let us look at an example to fully grasp this definition. In Matthew we read that the Angel of the Lord told Mary that she will bear a child and shall call his name Jesus. In that context Matthew cites Isaiah 7:14 and says that Jesus is that “Immanuel” who ultimately fulfills this prophesy. The difficulty arises when we read the Isaiah passage in the context of Isaiah 7 and 8. It seems that this text is not referring to Jesus but to a specific war between Judah and Assyria. In the context we see that Israel and Assyria have formed an alliance against Judah. But God sends word to Ahaz, the king of Judah, that he will deliver them and tells Ahaz to ask God for a sign; but Ahaz, being a corrupt king does not listen to the word of God, and refuses to ask for a sign. Yet God responds to Ahas saying that a sign will still be given to him and that sign will be the birth of a child under very specific conditions as we see in v. 16 we read “… before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted”. In Chapter 8, we read about the birth of “Maher-shalal-hash-baz” to a prophetess; and the Assyrians besieged Jerusalem. While the child was still very young, he ate honey and curds, which was the only food available in the besieged city; but before he grew up enough to know right from wrong, the Assyrians were defeated and Judah was saved.
So this prophesy is specifically spoken to Ahaz, the King of Judah, about how God will indeed save Judah and the birth of the child is the sign of that fulfillment. So how does this refer to Christ? In Isaiah 8:16-18 Isaiah looks at the whole situation and says: “Bind up the testimony; seal the teaching among the disciples. I will wait for the Lord who is hiding his face from the house of Jacob, and I will hope in him. Behold I and the children whom the Lord has given me are signs and portents in Israel from the Lord of hosts, who dwells on Mount Zion”. This passage explains that the prophesy in chapter 7 was ultimately meant to be fulfilled in future generations. The current situation was a “sign and portent in Israel” for something far greater to come. Yes the prophesy was for Ahaz the king about a child being born during his time, but when we look into Chapter 9, we read of an “ultimate fulfillment,” which is in Christ. We read Isaiah 9:2,6 “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone….For to 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.”
So Isaiah 7 is “the prophesy”, Isaiah 8 shows “a fulfillment” for Ahaz king of Judah, and Isaiah 9 points to “the ultimate fulfillment” which is in Christ. Understanding all these details helps us see that the prophesy is not just a prediction of a specific event or situation, but rather it can be “a theme or a pattern that has many manifestations” (Dr. Duane Garret). God sends people a prophesy and it has a practical fulfillment for a specific nearby situation, yet that specific situation points to something much more great, which is to come in the future. Isaiah 7:14 is the central idea of chapters 7-9, which are all about “the birth of a son”.
When we read prophesies, let us realize that by their nature they have a bigger function that we give them at times. Prophesy that is quoted by the New Testament is usually applicable both for a specific circumstance in the times during which it was written and a sign for an ultimate fulfillment in the future.
(*the origins of this idea came from SBTS “Duane A. Garrett”)