In some ways, from the perspective of those new to the Bible, it’s quite a reasonable question. For those in many countries the name “Emmanuel” (KJV) or “Immanuel” (ESV etc.) is used almost exclusively in the context of Christmas carols such as ‘O come, O come, Emmanuel’, and in the reading of Matthew’s account of the virgin birth:
“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). (Matthew 1:23)
So Immanuel refers in Matthew to Jesus.
It may then come as quite a surprise to readers not familiar with Old Testament history to find that the original context in Isaiah 7:14 and Isaiah 8:8 is very clearly related to events from Isaiah’s own time back in the 8th Century BCE. Namely the death of two enemy kings from the time of King Ahaz of Judea, and the coming Assyrian invasion.
First Emmanuel prophecy : the death of the two kings (732 BCE)
Again in Isaiah 7:10 the Lord spoke to Ahaz:
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. (Isaiah7:14)
The context here clearly shows that Isaiah’s prophecy is made during the time of the betrothal of Ahaz to the maiden, Abi, who would become mother of Hezekiah, and that the Immanuel child – almost certainly Hezekiah – would still be an infant (7:15-16) when the prophecy came to pass. The “two kings” mentioned in Isaiah 7:1 and 16 are the southern kingdom of Judah’s enemies, Pekah, king of the Northern kingdom of Israel (died 732 or 731 BCE), and Rezin, king of Syria (died 732 BCE).
Second Emmanuel prophecy : the siege of Jerusalem by the army of Tiglath-Pileser (701 BCE)
The second prophecy concerning the Assyrian invasion 30 years after the deaths of the two kings, starts with chiding Judah for not having repented after the Assyrian conquest of Damascus and Samaria:
5 The Lord spoke to me again: 6 “Because this people has refused the waters of Shiloah that flow gently, and rejoice over Rezin and the son of Remaliah, 7 therefore, behold, the Lord is bringing up against them the waters of the River,[c] mighty and many, the king of Assyria and all his glory. And it will rise over all its channels and go over all its banks, 8 and it will sweep on into Judah, it will overflow and pass on, reaching even to the neck, and its outspread wings will fill the breadth of your land, O Immanuel.” (Isaiah 8:5-8)
Although less famous to modern readers, it is actually the second Immanuel prophecy in 8:8 that is more important to understanding why Matthew would apply Isaiah’s prophecy about Hezekiah to Jesus.
So why did Matthew re-use this prophecy, and did he expect his readers to know the historical context?
We’ve seen above that it’s immediately obvious to any reader that Isaiah 7 and 8 concern the events of the days of King Ahaz of Judah and his son King Hezekiah.
So did Matthew realise that the original “Emmanuel” prophecy (Isaiah 7:14) refer to the deaths of King Pekah of Samaria and King Rezin of Damascus (Isaiah 7:1, 16)? And if so why did he apply the first prophecy to Jesus?
So there are effectively three modern responses to this fact.
- 1. Matthew was illiterate to the context, and was himself mistaken
- 2. Matthew was dishonest, being aware of the context, but wresting it to convince gullible readers
- 3. Matthew was not an idiot, nor dishonest, but making an argument which he expected Old Testament-literate Greek-speaking Jews (which was the audience of his Gospel) to understand.
Anyone who thinks either (1) that Matthew was illiterate, or (2) that Matthew’s audience was illiterate, probably needs to look in the mirror for a few minutes and ask – do I really know more about 1st Century Jewish Greek writings than a first Century Jewish Greek writer. Am I as clever as I think I am?
Sorry – but that’s a useful exercise at times for all of us when reading any ancient text. So we’re going to go with answer 3 – that neither author nor audience were idiots.
An answer – Isaiah, the original Emmanuel and the siege of Jerusalem.
To recap: the “two kings” mentioned in Isaiah 7:1 and 16 are the southern kingdom of Judah’s enemies, Pekah, king of the Northern kingdom of Israel (died 732 or 731 BCE), and Rezin, king of Syria (died 732 BCE). Matthew not only realised that the original “Emmanuel” prophecy (Isaiah 7:14) refers to the deaths of King Pekah of Samaria and King Rezin of Damascus (Isaiah 7:1, 16), but expected that his competent readers would know this.
But, the context of Isaiah 7 is not particularly applicable to Jesus. Beyond the “maiden birth” – which in both Isaiah’s Hebrew and Matthew’s Greek implies a virgin, as all unmarried women were expected to be in Isaiah’s day and Matthew’s – there is no immediate parallel with Jesus.
That’s because the parallel between Jesus and Hezekiah occurs in the next chapter Isaiah 8:8. Matthew is expecting literate Greek speaking Jewish readers to be able to do what competent modern readers can also do, read both of the Emmanuel prophecies in Isaiah together to get the full picture.
Matthew’s use of Isaiah 7:14 Emmanuel is about the virgin birth, yes. But equally Matthew’s use of Isaiah’s Emmanuel in the full context of the Hezekiah prophecies of Isaiah (two chapters, not one verse) is not about the parallel with Jesus’ birth but about the parallel between Hezekiah’s near-death and near-resurrection and the destruction of the Assyrian army by the angel of death and Jesus as saviour.
Christ and Hezekiah – a subject for further study
This is a much larger subject – this answer on Matthew 1:23 only opens the door to the broader subject of Hezekiah as one of the major ‘types’ of Christ in the Old Testament.