The Immanuel Prophecy

The idea of the Messiah, gradually gathering to itself the attributes of a divine King, reaches one of its clearest expressions in the great Immanuel prophecy, extending from Isaiah 7 to 9:7, and centering in the declaration: “The Lord Himself will give you [the unbelieving Ahaz] a sign; behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isa. 7:14; Cf. 8:8, 10). This is none other than the child of wonder extolled in chapter 9:6, 7: “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder; and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, [Father of Eternity], The Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom,” etc. This is the prophecy quoted as fulfilled in Christ’s birth in Matt. 1 .23, and it seems also alluded to in the glowing promises to Mary in Luke 1:32, 33. It is pointed out in objection that the term rendered “virgin” in Isaiah does not necessarily bear this meaning; it denotes properly only a young unmarried woman. The context, however, seems clearly to lay an emphasis on the unmarried state, and the translators of the Greek version of the Old Testament (the Septuagint) plainly so understood it when they rendered it by parthenos, a word which does mean “virgin.” The tendency in many quarters now is to admit this (Dr. Cheyne, etc.), and even to seek an explanation of it in alleged Babylonian beliefs in a virgin-birth. This last, however, is quite illusory.[1] It is, on the other hand, singular that the Jews themselves do not seem to have applied this prophecy at any time to the Messiah — a fact which disproves the theory that it was this text which suggested the story of a Virgin birth to the early disciples.

Echoes in Other Scriptures

It was, indeed, when one thinks of it, only on the supposition that there was to be something exceptional and extraordinary in the birth of this child called Immanuel that it could have afforded to Ahaz a sign of the perpetuity of the throne of David on the scale of magnitude proposed (“Ask it either in the depth, or in the height above.” Ver. 10). We look, therefore, with interest to see if there are any echoes or suggestions of the idea of this passage in other prophetic scriptures. They are naturally not many, but they do not seem to be altogether wanting. There is, first, the remarkable Bethlehem prophecy in Micah 5:2, 3 — also quoted as fulfilled in the nativity (Matt. 2:5, 6) — connected with the saying: “Therefore will he give them up, until the time that she who travaileth hath brought forth” (“The King from Bethlehem,” says Delitzsch, “who has a nameless one as mother, and of whose father there is no mention”). Micah was Isaiah’s contemporary, and when the close relation between the two is considered (Cf. Isa. 2:2-4, with Micah 4:1-3), it is difficult not to recognize in his oracle an expansion of Isaiah’s. In the same line would seem to lie the enigmatic utterance in Jer. 31:22: “For Jehovah hath created a new thing in the earth: a woman shall encompass a man” (thus Delitzsch, etc.).

Testimony of the Gospel

The germs now indicated in prophetic scriptures had apparently borne no fruit in Jewish expectations of the Messiah, when the event took place which to Christian minds made them luminous with predictive import. In Bethlehem of Judea, as Micah had foretold, was born of a virgin mother He whose “goings forth” were “from of old, from everlasting” (Micah 5:2; Matt. 2:6). Matthew, who quotes the first part of the verse, can hardly have been ignorant of the hint of pre-existence it contained. This brings us to the testimony to the miraculous birth of Christ in our first and third Gospels — the only Gospels which record the circumstances of Christ’s birth at all. By general consent the narratives in Matthew (chapters 1, 2) and in Luke (chapters 1, 2) are independent — that is, they are not derived one from the other — yet they both affirm, in detailed story, that Jesus, conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, was born of a pure virgin, Mary of Nazareth, espoused to Joseph, whose wife she afterwards became. The birth took place at Bethlehem, whither Joseph and Mary had gone for enrollment in a census that was being taken. The announcement was made to Mary beforehand by an angel, and the birth was preceded, attended, and followed by remarkable events that are narrated (birth of the Baptist, with annunciations, angelic vision to the shepherds, visit of wise men from the east, etc.). The narratives should be carefully read at length to understand the comments that follow.

Unfounded Objections

Against the acceptance of these early, well-attested narratives, what, now, have the objectors to allege? I pass by the attempts to show, by critical elimination (expurging Luke 1:35, and some other clauses), that Luke’s narrative was not a narrative of a Virgin birth at all. This is a vain attempt in face of the testimony of manuscript authorities. Neither need I dwell on the alleged “discrepancies” in the genealogies and narratives. These are not serious, when the independence and different standpoints of the narratives are acknowledged. The genealogies, tracing the descent of Christ from David along different lines, present problems which exercise the minds of scholars, but they do not touch the central fact of the belief of both Evangelists in the birth of Jesus from a virgin. Even in a Syriac manuscript which contains the certainly wrong reading, “Joseph begat Jesus,” the narrative goes on, as usual, to recount the Virgin birth. It is not a contradiction, if Matthew is silent on the earlier residence in Nazareth, which Luke’s object led him fully to describe.

Silence of Mark and John

The objection on which most stress is laid (apart from what is called the evidently “mythical” character of the narratives) is the silence on the Virgin birth in the remaining Gospels, and other parts of the New Testament. This, it is held, conclusively proves that the Virgin birth was not known in the earliest Christian circles, and was a legend of later origin. As respects the Gospels — Mark and John — the objection would only apply if it was the design of these Gospels to narrate, as the others do, the circumstances of the nativity. But this was evidently not their design. Both Mark and John knew that Jesus had a human birth — an infancy and early life — and that His mother was called Mary, but of deliberate purpose they tell us nothing about it. Mark begins his Gospel with Christ’s entrance on His public ministry, and says nothing of the period before, especially of how Jesus came to be called “the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). John traces the divine descent of Jesus, and tells us that the “Word became flesh” (John 1:14); but how this miracle of becoming flesh was wrought he does not say. It did not lie within his plan. He knew the church tradition on the subject: he had the Gospels narrating the birth of Jesus from the Virgin in his hands: and he takes the knowledge of their teaching for granted. To speak of contradiction in a case like this is out of the question.

Silence of Paul

How far Paul was acquainted with the facts of Christ’s earthly origin it is not easy to say. To a certain extent these facts would always be regarded as among the privacies of the innermost Christian circles — so long at least as Mary lived — and the details may not have been fully known till the Gospels were published. Paul admittedly did not base his preaching of his Gospel on these private, interior matters, but on the broad, public facts of Christ’s ministry, death, and resurrection. It would be going too far, however, to infer from this that Paul had no knowledge of the miracle of Christ’s birth. Luke was Paul’s companion, and doubtless shared with Paul all the knowledge which he himself had gathered on this and other subjects. One thing certain is, that Paul could not have believed in the divine dignity, the pre-existence, the sinless perfection, and redeeming headship, of Jesus as he did, and not have been convinced that His entrance into humanity was no ordinary event of nature, but implied an unparalleled miracle of some kind. This Son of God, who “emptied” Himself, who was “born of a woman, born under the law,” who “knew no sin” (Phil. 2:7, 8; Gal. 4:4; 2 Cor. 5:21), was not, and could not be, a simple product of nature. God must have wrought creatively in His human origin. The Virgin birth would be to Paul the most reasonable and credible of events. So also to John, who held the same high view of Christ’s dignity and holiness.

The Real Christ

Doctrinally, it must be repeated that the belief in the Virgin birth of Christ is of the highest value for the right apprehension of Christ’s unique and sinless personality. Here is One, as Paul brings out in Romans 5:12 ff., who, free from sin Himself, and not involved in the Adamic liabilities of the race, reverses the curse of sin and death brought in by the first Adam, and establishes the reign of righteousness and life. Had Christ been naturally born, not one of these things could be affirmed of Him. As one of Adam’s race, not an entrant from a higher sphere, He would have shared in Adam’s corruption and doom — would Himself have required to be redeemed. Through God’s infinite mercy, He came from above, inherited no guilt, needed no regeneration or sanctification, but became Himself the Redeemer, Regenerator, Sanctifier, for all who receive Him. “Thanks be unto God for His unspeakable gift” (2 Cor. 9:15).