“the young woman.” Isaiah 7:14 is quoted in Matthew 1:23. Isaiah 7:14 has much in it is that is unclear, which make sense when we realize that it is a prophecy with two separate fulfillments separated by over 700 years. It was a prophecy about a young woman in the time of Isaiah and Ahaz, and it was a prophecy about the birth of Jesus Christ. The Hebrew text has many words that can have two meanings, which is one reason there are so many different English translations of the verse. Of course that makes sense when we realize that God is trying to give both a present-tense prophecy of what is happening at the time, and a future prophecy of what will happen in another 700 years. The Hebrew is grammatically like “Therefore the Lord himself will give [future tense verb] you all [plural; you all] a sign. Behold, the young woman is pregnant [the verb is present tense, but can be taken as a future in some circumstances] and about to bear [a participle; more literally, “bearing”] a son, and you [feminine singular], young woman, will call his name Immanuel.”
Although many English versions of the Bible have “virgin” instead of “young woman,” the Hebrew word is `almah (#05959 עַלְמָה), and it refers to a young woman, either of marriageable age but not yet married (and therefore presumably a virgin), or a young woman who is married. Whether an `almah is a virgin or not gets determined from the context, but the immediate context of Isaiah 7:14 is not completely clear. The text note in the NET states: “Though the Hebrew word used here עַלְמָה), 'almah( can sometimes refer to a woman who is a virgin (Gen 24:43), it does not carry this meaning inherently. The word is simply the feminine form of the corresponding masculine noun ) עֶלֶם'elem, ‘young man’; cf. 1 Sam 17:56; 20:22(. The Aramaic and Ugaritic cognate terms are both used of women who are not virgins. The word seems to pertain to age, not sexual experience, and would normally be translated ‘young woman.’” Also, there is a Hebrew word that more clearly means “virgin,” bethulah (#01330 בְּתוּלָה; although even bethulah does not always mean “virgin” (cp. Gary Smith; The New American Commentary)) so if God had wanted to more clearly say “virgin” in Isaiah 7:14, He could have. There are no examples in the Old Testament, however, that use 'almah of a married woman, which is probably why the Septuagint used parthenos, usually understood as “virgin,” in their translation of Isaiah (for more on the use of “virgin,” see commentary on Matt. 1:23).
There is good evidence that in Isaiah 7:14, 'almah should be translated “young woman” and not “virgin.” One is that the “sign” of the young woman was specifically given to Ahaz that Israel and Syria would be shortly defeated in war. Isaiah said, “…the Lord himself will give you [king Ahaz] a sign. Behold, the young woman will conceive and bear a son, and will call his name Immanuel...before the child knows to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you abhor [Israel and Syria] will be forsaken” (Isa. 7:14, 16). That event took place around 730 BC, long before Christ was born. This is also supported by the fact that Isaiah said to Ahaz, “the young woman,” not “a young woman,” indicating a young woman that they were aware of.
Some of the best evidence that Isaiah 7:14 does not specifically refer to a virgin birth is in the text of the Bible itself. We have just seen that the “sign” was for Ahaz in his time, about 730 BC, and so the birth that occurred at that time was not a virgin birth. Also, Ahaz was not surprised when Isaiah spoke of the “young woman,” but he well might have been if Isaiah had said “virgin.” Even better evidence that Isaiah 7:14 refers to a “young woman” and not a “virgin” comes from the fact that no one in the New Testament times was expecting a virgin birth. Mary and Joseph were both God-fearing people, and neither of them were (Matt. 1:18-21; Luke 1:34). The experts in the Old Testament were not either, and so accused Jesus of having been born out of wedlock as a bastard child (John 8:41). If the Old Testament had clearly foretold a virgin birth, then people, especially a godly woman from the line of David like Mary, would have been expecting to be able to get pregnant without a husband involved.
We should note, however, that translating Isaiah 7:14 as “young woman” does not forbid a virgin birth, it just does not clearly foretell one. Thus, the “young woman” who gave birth to the Messiah, Mary, turned out to be a virgin, as we see in the New Testament. A growing number of English versions have “young woman” and not “virgin” in Isaiah 7:14 (cp. BBE; CEB; CJB; JPS; Moffatt Bible; NAB; NEB; NET; NJB; NRSV; RSV; TNK).
To add to the ambiguity in Isaiah 7:14, the Hebrew text can be translated as a future tense verb, “the young woman will become pregnant” (CJB; cp. HCSB; JPS; NASAB; NET; NIV), or as a present tense verb, “the young woman is pregnant” (CEB; cp. BBE; NAB; NJB; NRSV). Just as with the word “young woman,” this double possibility of translating the verb opens the door for the double fulfillment of the prophecy. In Isaiah’s time, the woman was most likely already pregnant, although her getting pregnant may still have been in the very near future, and in any case her getting pregnant soon would have been a sign to Ahaz, whereas when used as a prophecy of the birth of the Messiah, the pregnancy was in the future.
Messianic prophecies sometimes involve a double fulfillment, just as we see here in Isaiah, and require an understanding of the history of Israel and the complexity of the text to see and appreciate. It is amazing that God could give king Ahaz a prophecy that his kingdom, and thus the line of David, would be rescued from his enemies, and at that same time give a much more hidden prophecy about the Greater David, the Lord Jesus Christ.
“is pregnant.” The Hebrew text is unclear because it can be translated either “is pregnant,” or “will conceive.” The whole temporality of the verse is in question because the verse can be translated “the young woman, pregnant, is bearing a son,” or, “the young woman, pregnant, is about to bear a son” (cp. NAB). Young’s Literal Translation reads, “Lo, the Virgin is conceiving, And is bringing forth a son.”
“and you, young woman.” The “you” is feminine singular, referring to the woman who will bear the child, she will name the child.
“about to bear a son.” The Hebrew is a participle, “bearing,” likely meaning “about to bear.”
“will call.” The Hebrew verb is feminine, and thus means, “she will call.”
“Immanuel.” Some people believe that because Jesus was to be called Immanuel (meaning “God with us”) that he must therefore be God incarnate. That is not the case. The name “Immanuel” means “God with us,” and it was symbolic of the fact that God would be with His people to support and deliver them. The name “Immanuel” fits the double prophecy well both at the time of Isaiah and at the time of Jesus.
In the time of Ahaz and Isaiah, things looked bad for Judah. Syria and Israel were both larger nations than Judah, and Judah would not stand much of a chance in a war against them. But Isaiah foretold Judah’s deliverance, bolstered by the fact that God would be with them to deliver them, symbolized by the birth of a child who would be named “Immanuel,” and indeed God was with Judah and they were delivered from the enemy. Then, more than 700 years later, at the birth of Christ, the name Immanuel was again symbolic and appropriate because God was working powerfully in Christ to support and deliver His people and make salvation available to everyone, which Jesus did.
[For more information on this verse, which is quoted in Matthew, including more on the name “Immanuel,” see the commentary on Matthew 1:23. For more information on Jesus being the fully human Son of God and not being “God the Son,” see Appendix 10, “Jesus is the Son of God, Not God the Son.” For more on “the Holy Spirit” being one of the designations for God the Father and “the holy spirit” being the gift of God’s nature, see Appendix 11, “What is the Holy Spirit?”].