(1) It came to pass in the days of Ahaz.—The whole reign of Jotham comes between Isaiah 6, 7. On Isaiah’s life during that period, see Introduction. The work of the prophet now carries him into the main current of history, as recorded in 2 Kings 15, 16; 2 Chronicles 28, and in Assyrian inscriptions. The facts to be borne in mind are—(1) that the kingdom of Israel under Menahem had already become tributary to Assyria (2 Kings 15:19-20); (2) that the object of the alliance between Pekah, a bold and ambitious usurper, and Rezin, was to organise a resistance against Assyria, such as that in which Uzziah had taken part (Schrader, Keil-Inschriften, pp. 395-421, quoted by Cheyne), that first Jotham (2 Kings 15:37), and then Ahaz, apparently refused to join the confederacy, and that the object of the attack of the allied kings was either to force Ahaz to join, or else to depose him, bring the dynasty of David to a close, and set a follower of their own, probably a Syrian, on the throne of Judah.
But could not prevail against it.—The words obviously refer to a special stage in the campaign. The king of Syria seems to have been the leading spirit of the confederacy. 2 Chronicles 28:5-15 represents Judah as having sustained a great and almost overwhelming defeat. Jerusalem, however, though besieged (2 Kings 16:5) was not absolutely taken (2 Kings 16:5); 2 Kings 16:6 records the capture of the port of Elath, on the Gulf of Akaba, by Rezin.
(1) We may deal with it as though the Gospel of St. Matthew had never been written, as though the facts which it records had no place in the history of mankind. From this point of view we get what seems at first a comparatively simple exposition. The prophet offers a sign to the faithless king, and the sign is this: he points to some young bride in either sense of that word, and says that she shall conceive and bear a son. The fulfilment of that prediction in a matter which lay outside the range of human knowledge was to be the sign for Ahaz and his court, and she should give that son a name which would rebuke the faithlessness of the king. Immanuel, “God with us,” would be a nomen et omen, witnessing, not of an incarnate Deity, but of His living and abiding presence. Who was the mother of the child on this theory we have no data for deciding. As the two other children of the prophet bore, like Hosea’s (Isaiah 7:3; Isaiah 8:3), mysterious and prophetic names, the most probable conjecture seems to be that it was Isaiah’s own wife, still young, and, as it were, still a bride, or possibly a second wife whom he had married, or was about to marry, after the death of his first. Other guesses have pointed to one of the women of the harem of Ahaz who may have been with him when Isaiah spoke. The hypothesis of some critics that such a one became the mother of Hezekiah, and that he was the Immanuel of the prophet’s thoughts, breaks down under the test of dates. Hezekiah, at the time the prophecy was uttered, was a boy of at least nine years of age (2 Kings 16:2; 2 Kings 18:2). Of this child so born Isaiah predicts that he shall grow up in a time of suffering and privation (Isaiah 7:15), and that before he has attained to manhood the confederacy of Rezin and Remaliah shall come to a disastrous end. So far all is at least coherent. Immanuel, as a person, stands on the same level as Shear-jashub, representing a great idea to which Isaiah again appeals in Isaiah 8:8; Isaiah 8:10, but not identified with the Christ, or even with any expectations of the Christ. On the other hand, there are phenomena in Isaiah’s prophetic work at large which this explanation does not adequately include. The land of Israel at least appears to be described as in some peculiar sense the land of Immanuel (Isaiah 8:10). Isaiah is clearly expecting, even in the first volume that bears his name, not to speak of Isaiah 40-66, the arrival, at some undefined point in the future, of one whose nature, work and character, shall be represented by the marvellous series of names of Isaiah 9:6, in whom the spirit of Jehovah, the fear of Jehovah, shall dwell in their fulness—who shall be of the stem of Jesse, and whose reign shall be as the realised ideal of a golden age (Isaiah 11:1-10). That expectation connects itself with a like prophecy, associated as this is with the childbirth of a travailing woman, in Micah 5:3-5. In what relation, we ask, did Immanuel stand to these confessedly Messianic predictions?
His heart was moved.—There was a general panic. King and people alike asked, How could they resist? Would it not be better to join the confederacy, and take their chance with it in attacking the king of Assyria? The image of the trees is generic, but suggests something like the quivering of the aspen leaves.
(2) The other interpretation sets out from an entirely different starting-point. The words of Matthew 1:23 are taken as, once for all, deciding the entire meaning of the Immanuel prophecy. The prophet is supposed to have passed into a state of ecstasy in which he sees clearly, and with a full consciousness of its meaning, the history of the incarnation and the marvel of the travail-pangs of the Virgin mother. The vision of the future Christ thus presented to his mind, colours all his after-thoughts, and forms the basis of his whole work. The article emphasises the definiteness of his visions. He sees “the virgin mother” of the far-off future. And the prophet learns to connect the vision with the history of his own time. The growth of that Christ-child in the far-off future serves as a measure of time for the events that were passing, or about to pass, within the horizon of his earthly vision. Before the end of an interval not longer than that which separates youth from manhood, the Syro-Ephraiminitic confederacy should be broken up. So far, here also, we have a coherent and consistent view. It is attended, however, by some serious difficulties. A “sign,” in the language of Hebrew prophets, is that which proves to the person to whom it is offered that there is a supernatural power working with him who gives it. If a prediction, it is one which will speedily be tested by a personal experience, the very offer of which implies in the prophet the certainty of its fulfilment. He stakes, as it were, his reputation as a prophet on the issue. (Comp. Isaiah 37:30; Isaiah 38:7; Exodus 4:8-14; 1 Samuel 12:16.) But how could the prediction of a birth in the far-off distance, divided by several centuries from Isaiah’s time, be a sign to Ahaz or his people? And what would be the meaning, we may ask again, of the words “butter and honey shall he eat,” as applied to the Christ-child? Do not the words “Before the child shall know to refuse the evil . . .” point, not to a child seen as afar in vision, but to one who was to be born and grow up among the men of that generation? Should we not have expected, if the words had implied a clear revelation of the mystery of the virgin-birth, that Isaiah himself would have dwelt upon it elsewhere, that later prophets would have named it as one of the notes of the Messiah, that it would have become a tradition of the Jewish schools of interpretation? As a matter of fact, no such allusion is found in Isaiah, nor in the prophets that follow him (see Note on Jeremiah 31:22, for the only supposed, one cannot say even “apparent,” exception); the Jewish interpreters never include this among their notes of the Christ. It is indeed, as has been said in the New Testament portion of this Commentary, one of the strongest arguments for the historical, non-mythical character of the series of events in Matthew 1, Luke 1, 2, that they were contrary to prevailing expectation. (See Note on Matthew 1:23.)
A truer way of interpretation than either of those that have been thus set forth, is, it is believed, open to us. We may remember (1) as regards St. Matthew’s interpretation of Isaiah’s prophecy, that two other predictions cited, as by the Evangelist himself, in the history of the Nativity, in Matthew 1, 2 are, as it were, detached from their position, in which they had a distinct historical meaning, and a new meaning given to them (see Notes on Matthew 2:15; Matthew 2:18). and that this holds good of other prophecies cited by him elsewhere (see Notes on Matthew 21:5; Matthew 27:9). It was not, as some have thought, that facts were invented or imagined that prophecies might appear to be fulfilled, but that the facts being given, prophecies were shown to have a meaning which was fulfilled in them, though that meaning may not have been present to the prophet’s own mind. In this case the use of the word for “virgin” in the LXX. version may have determined St. Matthew’s interpretation of the words. Here, in the history which had come to him attested by evidence which satisfied him, he found One who, in the truest and highest sense, was the “Immanuel” of Isaiah’s prophecy. We must not forget (2) the limits within which the prophets lived and moved, as they are stated in 1 Peter 1:10. They “enquired and searched diligently” as to the time and manner of the fulfilment of their hopes; but their normal state (the exceptions being only enough to prove the rule) is one of enquiry and not of definite assurance. They had before them the ideal of a righteous king, a righteous sufferer, of victory over enemies and sin and death, but the “times and the seasons” were hidden from them, as they were afterwards from the apostles, and they thought of that ideal king as near, about to burst in upon the stage that was filled with the forms of Assyria, Syria, Ephraim, Judah, as the apostles appear to have thought afterwards that the advent of the Lord would come upon the stage of the world’s history that was filled with the forms of Emperors and rebellious Jews and perverse heretics and false prophets (1 Thessalonians 4:15; 1 Corinthians 15:51; 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4; 1 Peter 4:7; 1 Timothy 4:1-3; 1 John 2:18). And neither prophets nor apostles, though left to the limitations of an imperfect knowledge, were altogether wrong. Prophecy has, in Bacon’s words, its “springing and germinant accomplishments.” The natural birth of the child Immanuel was, to the prophet and his generation, a pledge and earnest of the abiding presence of God with His people. The overthrow of Assyria, and Babylon, and Jerusalem were alike forerunners of the great day of the Lord in which the ultimate and true Immanuel, the name at last fulfilled to the uttermost, shall be at once the Deliverer and the Judge.
Thou and Shear-jashub thy son.—Assuming Isaiah 6 to give the first revelation of the idea of the “remnant,” it would follow that the birth of the son whose name (Remnant returns—the return being both literal and spiritual—i.e., “is converted”), embodied a prophecy, must have followed on that revelation, and he was probably, therefore, at the time a stripling of sixteen or eighteen. It may be noted that Isaiah had in the history of Hosea 1, 2 the example of a prophet who, as his children were born, gave them names which were terribly or hopefully significant. Each child was, as it were, a sign and portent (Isaiah 8:18). The fact that the mother of his children was herself a prophetess (Isaiah 8:3), sharing his hopes and fears, gives a yet deeper interest to the fact.
At the end of the conduit . . .—The king was apparently superintending the defensive operations of the siege, probably cutting off the supply of water outside the walls, as Hezekiah afterwards did (2 Chronicles 32:3-4). The “upper pool” has been identified with the Upper Gihon pool (Birket-el-Mamilla) or the “dragon’s well” of Nehemiah 2:13. A lower pool meets us in Isaiah 22:9. The “fuller’s field” was near En-rogelim (Isaiah 36:2; 2 Samuel 17:17).
Neither be fainthearted.—Literally, let not thine heart be soft.
For the two tails of these smoking fire brands.—The two powers that Ahaz dreaded were, in the prophet’s eyes, but as the stumps of two smoking torches. Their flame was nearly out. It would soon be extinguished.
The son of Remaliah.—There is a touch of scorn in the omission of the king’s name. So men spoke scornfully of Saul as “the son of Kish” (1 Samuel 10:11), and Saul himself of David as “the son of Jesse” (1 Samuel 20:30). It pointed out the fact that Pekah was after all but an upstart adventurer, who had made his way to the throne by rebellion and murder.
The son of Tabeal.—The mode of description, as in the last verse, indicates that the man was of low origin. The name “good is God” is Aramaic, and points to his being an officer in Rezin’s army. It meets us again in Ezra 4:7, among the Aramæan adversaries of Israel, and appears in the term Tibil in Assyrian inscriptions, which give us his actual name as Ashariah (Schrader, Keil Inschrift., p. 118). Tubaal appears in an inscription of Sennacherib as appointed by him as governor of Zidon (Records of the Past, i. 35). Dr. Kay, connecting the name with Tab-rimmon (“Rimmon is good”), conjectures that the substitution of El (“God”) for the name of the Syrian deity may indicate that he was the representative of the family of Naaman, and, like him, a proselyte to the faith of Israel.
Within threescore and five years shall Ephraim be broken.—Assuming the genuineness of the clause, we have in it the first direct chronological prediction in the prophet’s utterances. Others follow in Isaiah 16:14; Isaiah 17:1; Isaiah 21:6; Isaiah 23:1. Reckoning from B.C. 736 as the probable date of the prophecy, the sixty-five years bring us to B.C. 671. At that date Assyrian inscriptions show that Assurbanipal, the “Asnapper” of Ezra 4:2-10, co-regent with his father Esarhaddon, had carried off the last remnant of the people of Samaria, and peopled it with an alien race (Smith’s Assurbanipal, p. 363). This completed the work which had been begun by Salmaneser and Sargon (2 Kings 17:6). Ephraim then was no more a people.
The land that thou abhorrest.—The words imply the “horror” of fear as well as of dislike. The prediction was fulfilled in the siege of Samaria by Salmaneser, and its capture by Sargon (1 Kings 16:9; 1 Kings 17:6), a fulfilment all the more remarkable in that it was preceded by what seemed an almost decisive victory over Judah (2 Chronicles 28:5-15), of which the prophet makes no mention.
The uttermost part of the rivers of Egypt.—The phrase points to the whole extent of the Delta of the Nile, probably to the whole Egyptian course of the Nile itself. Historically the prophecy found its fulfilment in the invasion of Pharaoh Necho in the reign of Josiah (2 Kings 23:29), or, nearer Isaiah’s time, in the movements of Tirhakah’s arms (2 Kings 19:9).
(21:22) A man shall nourish a young cow, and two sheep . . .—Better, two ewes. Not only should cultivation cease, but the flocks and herds that had before been counted by hundreds or thousands should be counted now by units, two ewes and a heifer for a man’s whole stock, and yet (we note the prophet’s irony once more in the use of the word “abundance”) even that should be enough for a population reduced in proportion. There should be “milk and honey” for the scattered remnant. They should have that, and nothing but that, to eat, ad nauseam usque. The words are grouped together with a grim irony as reminding men of the proverbial words of praise which spoke of Canaan as “a land of milk and honey” (Exodus 3:17).