Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.
As a Christian reading this verse as translated in the NIV, and then seeing Matthew’s reference to it in Matthew 1:22-23, it is very easy to say that this is really cool, and then just keep on going. If we do that, we miss something that is both problematic and fascinating. Here is Matthew’s statement:
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).
This is the first time Matthew cites the fulfillment by Jesus of an Old Testament prophecy, but scholars have struggled with it for centuries because the original Hebrew of Isaiah doesn’t exactly say what we have just read. In fact, there really isn’t any record of a messianic interpretation of this verse prior to Matthew. There are two reasons for this: First, as I mentioned, the Hebrew doesn’t quite say anything about a virgin, for the Hebrew word Isaiah used was “’almah” which means a young woman of marriageable age; she may or may not still be a virgin. This ambiguity is important to us because Mary’s virginity is the point of the exercise in our Matthew passage.
The second problem for scholars is the fact that this verse falls within the larger context set in Isaiah 7:1-2:
When Ahaz son of Jotham, the son of Uzziah, was king of Judah, King Rezin of Aram and Pekah son of Remaliah king of Israel marched up to fight against Jerusalem, but they could not overpower it.
Now the house of David was told, “Aram has allied itself with Ephraim”; so the hearts of Ahaz and his people were shaken, as the trees of the forest are shaken by the wind.
Here’s what happens in Isaiah 7: The kings of Syria and Israel (Northern Kingdom) join in league together to oppose the Assyrians. They ask King Ahaz of Judah (Southern Kingdom) to join with them, but he refuses, so they march on Jerusalem to dethrone him and put a favorable king on the throne (Is. 7:6). God dispatches Isaiah to Jerusalem to tell Ahaz that the two kings will fail if Ahaz will believe God (Is. 73-9). Ahaz doesn’t take Isaiah’s advice, and even considers an alliance with the Assyrians (cf. 2 Kings 16:5, 7; Is. 7:17). The Lord sends Isaiah to Ahaz a second time, this time offering to give Ahaz a sign so that he will believe God, and once again Ahaz refuses (Is. 7:10-12). In 7:14, God, who through Isaiah, gives him a sign anyway.
The sign God gave Ahaz in 7:14 that Matthew quotes is explained further in Isaiah 7:16:
for before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste.
The prophet goes on to explain that their lands will be laid waste by the king of Assyria, which is what happened, and Ahaz and his kingdom were saved from the threat. Thus, it probably never occurred to Isaiah, or anyone else for that matter, that the son of 7:14 was the future Messiah at all; that is until Matthew got it.
What Matthew saw was a broader meaning that applied to the ultimate fulfillment of God’s promises; consider the larger context of Isaiah 7-11: It is full of the theme of exile (7:18-25; 8:1-10, 19-22) right beside the theme of God’s presence (Immanuel, 8:8, 10) and the clear promise of a great son of David (9:6-7; 11:1). What Matthew understood was that there may well have been a fulfillment in Isaiah’s time of certain prophetic promises, and that those early fulfillments might very well foreshadow an ultimate fulfillment by the Person of Jesus Christ, which is an important concept for us to keep in mind as we go forward in his Gospel.