Undermining God’s Word by Subtle Study Bibles

Jeffrey Khoo

There are over 50 Study Bibles in the Christian market. Not all of them are good. Many of them are gravely mistaken in their commentary on Isaiah 7:14—“Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign: Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” Of late, this prophecy of the virgin birth of Christ has come under attack. The view that Christ did not directly fulfill Isaiah 7:14 is gaining popularity, and this is reflected in the Study Bibles. Many commentators are saying that Christians in the past have misunderstood Isaiah 7:14. They argue against translating the Hebrew, ‘almah, as “virgin” in an effort to prove that Isaiah 7:14 is not directly Messianic. Isaiah 7:14 is considered to be literally fulfilled by a certain difficult-to-identify woman in the time when the prophecy was given.

Isaiah 7:14 Attacked in the Study Bibles

The majority of Study Bibles today teach that the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 was fulfilled twice. Consider the following examples,

The Believer’s Study Bible, edited by W. A. Criswell,

7:14 ‘Almah (Heb.) is one of two words translated as “virgin.” The other term, betulah (Heb.), is very specific, only meaning “virgin,” whereas ‘almah is more general and can sometimes mean “a young woman of marriageable age.” The ambiguity of this term is reflected in its being translated “virgin” in some places and “maiden” in others. … it is puzzling why Isaiah chose the ambiguous term, ‘almah, over the more frequent and specific one, betulah. The answer may be related to vv.16, 22, which suggest a double fulfillment of the prophecy. The prophet may have used ‘almah instead of betulah because the impending birth which would be a sign to Ahaz would not be a virgin birth, but the future birth of Immanuel … would be the Virgin Birth.

The Evangelical Study Bible, edited by Harold Lindsell,

7:14 a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son. Before we can understand this verse, we need to consider two Hebrew words. One is betulah and the other almah. The former means virgin, and the latter an unmarried female. Almah is used here. Its use in this context covers two cases. One has to do with the wife of Isaiah and her newborn son (Isa. 8:1–4). Isaiah’s wife was a virgin until she was married. She was no longer a virgin when married. Of course, one supposes that an unmarried female is a virgin. The second case covers that of the virgin Mary. She was a virgin before the conception of Jesus. And she remained a virgin then, because Joseph was not the father of Jesus. The Holy Spirit was [sic]. Stated another way, Isaiah’s wife was no longer a virgin when she conceived; Mary was still a virgin after she conceived, for she had not yet known a male. Interestingly, the Septuagint translates almah by the use of the Greek word parthenos which means virgin. And Matthew uses the word parthenos for Mary’s case. The word almah thus covers both births involved in this prophecy and we learn that Mahershalal-hash-baz, the son of Isaiah, had a human mother and father and his birth was a natural one. Jesus, on the other hand, had a human mother but not a human father. His birth was supernatural. Almah allows for both prophetic views.

Life Application Bible, edited by Ronald A. Beers,

7:14–16 The Hebrew word used here sometimes means “virgin” and sometimes “young woman.” Its immediate use here refers to Isaiah’s young wife and her newborn son (8:1–4). This, of course, was not a virgin birth. God’s sign was that before this child was old enough to talk, the two invading kings would be destroyed. However, Matthew 1:23 tells us that there was a further fulfillment of this prophecy, in that virgin (Mary) conceived and bore a son, Emmanuel, the Christ.

The NIV Study Bible, edited by Kenneth Barker,

7:14 sign. A sign was normally fulfilled within a few years (see 20:3, 37:30; cf. 8:18). virgin. May refer to a young woman betrothed to Isaiah (8:3), who was to become his second wife (his wife presumably having died after Shear-jashub was born). In Ge 24:43, the same Hebrew word (‘almah) refers to a woman about to be married (see also Pr 30:19). Mt 1:23 apparently understood the woman mentioned here to be a type (a foreshadowing) of the Virgin Mary. Immanuel. The name “God with us” was meant to convince Ahaz that God could rescue him from his enemies. … “Immanuel” is used again in 8:8, 10, and it may be another name for Maher-shalal-Hash-Baz (8:3). If so, the boy’s names had complementary significance. … Jesus was the final fulfillment of this prophecy, for he was “God with us” in the fullest sense (Matt 1:23; cf. Isa 9:6–7).

The Ryrie Study Bible, by Charles C. Ryrie,

7:1–16 God’s sign to Ahaz was that of a virgin (when the prophecy was spoken, it probably referred to the woman, a virgin at that time, whom Isaiah took later as his second wife, 8:1–4) and whose son would not be more than 12 to 14 years old before Syria and Israel would be captured. The virgin of Isaiah’s prophecy is a type of the virgin Mary, who, by the Holy Spirit, miraculously conceived Jesus Christ (see Matt 1:23). The Hebrew word that is here translated virgin is found elsewhere in the O.T. in Gen. 24:43; Exod. 2:8, Psa 68:25; Prov, 30:19; Song of Sol. 1:3, 6:8, and in these instances refers only to a chaste maiden who is unmarried.

Spirit Filled Life Bible, edited by Jack W. Hayford,

7:14 This prophetic sign was given to Ahaz as an assurance of Judah’s hope in the midst of adversity. It therefore had an immediate, historical fulfillment. Its usage in the NT shows that it also has a messianic fulfillment. The Hebrew word for virgin (‘almah) means either a “virgin” or a “young woman” of marriageable age. Isaiah’s readers could have understood it to be either. Messianically, it irrefutably refers to the Virgin Mary (Matt 1:23; Luke 1:27), where the Greek parthenos (virgin) removes any question. The optional form of the Hebrew word was essential for the prophecy to serve the dual situation, relating both to the Messiah’s birth in the future and to a more immediate birth in the kingly line. A Son to Isaiah’s readers would have been an unidentified heir from Ahaz’s house, perhaps his son Hezekiah. Messianically, it was fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

The Student Bible, edited by Philip Yancey,

7:14 A Famous Sign. Like so many prophecies, this one probably had two meanings: one for Isaiah’s time and another much later. Isaiah urged King Ahaz to seek a sign from God about Judah’s safety from its neighbors. Ahaz, notoriously stubborn and ungodly, refused.

Isaiah told the sign anyway: a young boy would be born, and before he grew out of childhood Judah’s feared enemies would be destroyed. … The New Testament sees a further meaning in this prophecy, applying it to the birth of Jesus Christ (Matthew 1:23).

The Quest Study Bible, edited Marshall Shelley,

Is this a prediction of the Messiah? (7:14–16) Like many prophecies, this passage seems to have a double meaning. First, a child, perhaps another son of Isaiah, would be born to a virgin (which could simply refer to a young woman) during the time of Ahaz. By the time he was grown, Judah’s two enemies (Israel and Aram) would be destroyed. The second meaning was later applied to the birth of Christ (Matt 1:23). The name Immanuel, God with us, became a title for the Messiah.

In summary, the above Study Bibles say that (1) the word ‘almah has two meanings: “a young woman of marriageable age,” and “a virgin”; (2) the virgin refers to either Ahaz’s wife or Isaiah’s second wife (who were virgins before marriage, but no longer virgins after that), and finally to the virgin Mary; and (3) the son to be born refers to either Mahershalalhashbaz or Hezekiah, and finally to Jesus Christ. Therefore, Isaiah 7:14 has two meanings, requiring two fulfillments: (1) an immediate fulfillment in a son born in the time of Isaiah, and (2) an ultimate fulfillment in the Messiah. The insistence that the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 required an immediate fulfillment in the time it was written is symptomatic of a Kaiserian approach to Scriptural interpretation already discussed in the previous chapter.

It must be categorically stated that there was but one Virgin Birth fulfilled only in Christ. This is clearly revealed in Matthew 1:22–23: “Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.” Matthew 1:22–23 is the inspired commentary on Isaiah 7:14. Matthew meant exactly what Isaiah meant in his application of the Immanuel prophecy to Jesus Christ.

The wondrous story of the miraculous birth of the Lord Jesus Christ in the Gospel account records the fulfillment of the Immanuel prophecy to its minutest detail. The Messiah was born of a virgin of the house of David (Matt 1:18–25, Luke 1:26–38). It was the angel Gabriel who brought the message from God that all this happened in order that Isaiah 7:14 might be fulfilled. The incarnate Son of God was truly the Immanuel, for in every sense of the term, He was “God with us.” The grandeur of the Immanuel prophecy demands a strictly Messianic fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14.

The double fulfillment view of Isaiah 7:14 must be rejected. If a predictive prophecy can have more than one fulfillment, then the question of prediction and fulfillment is rendered dubious. If there can be more than one fulfillment in a single prophecy, why stop at two then?

Hosea 11:1 has often been cited as an example of Matthean typology as though the existence of such usage by the Apostle settles the issue concerning his use of Isaiah 7:14. It must be pointed out that the analogy is false. A comparison of Isaiah 7:14 and Hosea 11:1 reveals a significant difference between the two passages. It should be noted that Hosea was not giving a prophecy in 11:1, but reminding Israel of her past in an attempt to prove that Israel had broken the covenantal relationship she had with Jehovah. Isaiah 7:14, on the other hand, is undoubtedly prophetic, and thus clearly demands a fulfillment. Isaiah 7:14 anticipated a literal fulfillment. Hosea 11:1, on the other hand, had no indications whatsoever that its statement was intended to be prophetic, and thus may be legitimately used by Matthew, under divine inspiration, to introduce a type.

Matthew 1:22–23 is the anchor text which determines the meaning of Isaiah 7:14. But some may question: Since the people in the time of Isaiah did not have the benefit of the information given in Matthew 1:22–23, could they have seen Isaiah 7:14 to be strictly Messianic? Does Isaiah 7:14 itself provide sufficient information for them to understand that the prophecy refers only to the coming Messianic Saviour? The answer is yes.

Isaiah, the prophet, was at this time told to deliver a word of hope to the distressed king (Isa 7:3–9). He declared to Ahaz that the plans of Rezin and Pekah would be thwarted. It is significant to note that the Lord told Isaiah to bring his son Shearjashub to meet Ahaz. The prophet’s sons were meant for “signs” (Isa 8:18). Shearjashub’s name meant “a remnant will return.” It sought to confirm the promise of deliverance in the prophecy of the Virgin Birth. God had already promised that the Davidic throne would be permanent (2 Sam 7:14–17). The Judean throne was reserved for the Son of David, and not the Son of Tabeal. Thus, Isaiah 7:14 ought to be read in the light of the Messianic motif.

Who will this virgin-born Son be? Isaiah 9:6 tells us that this child is God Himself. His name is not only “Immanuel,” but also “Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.” Verse 7 reveals that this child is David’s greater Son, “Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever” (2 Sam 7:8–17, cf. Acts 15:14–17). Only the Lord Jesus Christ fits the description of the Child in Isaiah 9:6–7. This climatic text of the “Son” aptly closes the Immanuel section (Isa 7:1–9:7).

By virtue of the fact that God was going to give a miraculous sign to the house of David in involving a virgin-born Son who bears the divine title, “Immanuel,” it is necessary to conclude that this virgin-born Son of God can be none other than the Messiah Himself.

The main question raised by those who oppose the strictly Messianic view is this: What is the meaning of Isaiah 7:15–16 in the light of verse 14 if a strictly Messianic birth was intended?

In answer to this, it must first be said that there is no need to insist on an eighth century fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14 just because verses 15–16 had a contemporary significance. The chronology of prophetic oracles is not always sequential. To see a distant fulfillment of 7:14 and a near fulfillment of 7:15–16 posed no difficulty to the prophet’s bifocal foresight. Tow explains,

Like a man looking out of his window into the distance, the seer and the prophet, insofar as prophetic history is concerned, can see a panorama of four mountain ranges, as illustrated above.1

The prophet was thus able to predict both immediate and future events in different sections of the same passage all at the same time. In a single vision, Isaiah saw the Virgin Birth of Christ in verse 14, and then the imminent destruction of Rezin and Pekah in verses 15–16.

Does Isaiah 7:14 need to be immediately fulfilled in order for it to have an eighth century relevance? J. Barton Payne’s insightful observation is noteworthy. A prophecy, he wrote,

may serve as a valid force in motivating conduct, irrespective of the interval preceding its historical fulfillment, provided only the contemporary audience does not know when this fulfillment is to take place. Even as the Lord’s second coming should motivate our faithful conduct, no matter how distant it may be …, So Isa 7:14, on His miraculous first coming, was equally valid for motivating Ahaz, 730 years before Jesus’ birth.2

Although this is reason enough, it still does not fully answer how Isaiah 7:15–16 is related to verse 14. Tow explains,

Though we know that the event of the birth of Christ through Mary did not occur until 700 years afterwards, the prophet in ecstasy saw it as an accomplished fact. In vivid sequences, he saw also the dissolution of the Syria-Israel coalition in a matter of a few years, the period of early infancy of a child when he should know between good and bad.3

This prophetic phenomenon was also observed by McClain, “The prophet sometimes saw future events not only together; but in expanding their description of these events, they seem occasionally to reverse the same sequence in their record of the vision.”4

The foreboding Syro-Ephraimic attack threatened to annihilate the whole Davidic dynasty. God will not allow this to happen because He is faithful to keep His promise to David, viz., through him will come the Messiah, and Jehovah “will establish his kingdom for ever” (2 Sam 7:13, 16). The privilege of knowing how the Messianic King will proceed from the line of David (2 Sam 7:12) was given to Isaiah and the faithful remnant of David’s household, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isa 7:14). God assured His people that the northern invasion would not happen. The prophet, in his vision-experience, used the infancy of the Messiah symbolically as a measure of time to predict the imminent destruction of Rezin and Pekah.

In opposition to the Study Bibles which attack the traditional view that Isaiah 7:14 is a strictly Messianic prophecy, we want to promote the few Study Bibles which remain faithful to the precious doctrine of the Virgin Birth by upholding the fact that it was only Jesus who fulfilled the Immanuel prophecy.

The Hebrew-Greek Key Study Bible, edited by Spiros Zodhiates,

7:14 The famous prophecy of Christ’s virgin birth is contained in this verse ….

Few passages have provoked such controversy as this verse. … Recent studies have a uniform tendency to downplay the miraculous aspects, and rationalize that this verse is a prophecy that some young woman would shortly bear a child in the normal way. … It is believed that these approaches do not do justice to the text, ….

The child born … cannot be just any child for … the “son” to be born … is clearly a divine Person. No child of normal parentage could be so understood; certainly not the child of Isaiah or Ahaz, as some commentators have suggested.5

The King James Study Bible,

7:14 Therefore is a transitional word used to connect verse 14 to the preceding statements. The Lord here is Adonai. Behold is used to call attention to the unusual birth that is about to be announced. (See also Gen. 16:11 and Judg. 13:5). A virgin is better read, “the virgin.” The Hebrew definite article ha indicates that a specific woman is in view. The word virgin used here is the unique Hebrew term ‘almah. A comparison of the six other instances where it occurs (Gen. 24:43; Ex. 2:8; Ps. 68:25; Prov. 30:19; Song 1:3; 6;8) shows that it is the most precise term the prophecy could have chosen to indicate that the young woman in view was indeed a virgin. The more common word betulah is used twice to refer to a married woman (Deut. 22:19 and Joel 1:8). Thus the Septuagint translation of ‘almah as parthenos (virgin) is correct, as is Matthew 1:23. Shall conceive is a feminine adjective connected with an active participle (“bearing”) and should be translated “is pregnant.” Thus the scene is present to the prophet’s view, and he sees the pregnant virgin about to bear a Son. That this prophecy must refer to the virgin birth of Christ is obvious since the virgin is pregnant and is still a virgin! Immanuel is a symbolic name, meaning “God with Us.” He is the incarnate Son of God who is further pictured as the Child-Prince in 9:6, 7.6

The Defender’s Study Bible by Henry M Morris,

7:11 a sign. The Lord was willing to give King Ahaz a sign involving any great miracle, but Ahaz was unwilling even to consider God’s Word.

7:14 Lord himself. Since Ahaz refused the proffered sign, God would in due time give the whole “house of David” (Isaiah 7:13) a sign, a miracle unique in all of history.

7:14 a virgin. This should read “the virgin,” indicating a very specific virgin, long awaited by the entire human race. This could be nothing less than the primeval promise of the coming “Seed of the Woman” (Genesis 3:15), who would someday defeat Satan and redeem not only the House of David but all mankind.

7:14 virgin. Many critics have argued that the Hebrew word means simply “young, unmarried woman,” rather than “virgin,” and some translations have translated it such. This is nothing but a device to avoids the miracle of Christ’s virgin birth. The word is used six or more times in the Old Testament and in all instances the context favors (or at least does not preclude) its rendering as “virgin.” Conception by a “young unmarried woman” would hardly be a sign of anything except sin, for such events occur frequently. A virgin conception would require a mighty act of creation by God Himself. The quotation of this verse in the New Testament (Matthew 1:23) should remove any lingering doubt, for the Greek word parthenos used there can only mean “virgin” (Jeremiah 31:22).

7:14 Immanuel. “Immanuel” means “God with us”—that is, God incarnate in human flesh, the unique miracle implied by the Edenic promise of the conquering “Seed of the Woman” in Genesis 3:15. … A true virgin conception has only occurred once in human history, leading to the birth of Christ.”

The Kaiserian approach to Biblical interpretation which leads to a double-fulfilment view of Isaiah 7:14 ought to be rejected because it limits the meaning of the text to the human intent; the divine intent is dismissed. The Holy Bible is thus being treated like an ordinary book. Again, it must be stressed that in Biblical interpretation, it is not the mind of the human author that needs to be sought, but the divine. The divine intent is located in subsequent Scripture.

What is the divine intent of Isaiah 7:14? Gromacki has well answered,

the divine intent of Isaiah 7:14 involved true virginity. … The clear interpretation of Matthew 1:22–23 should explain whatever ambiguity one might find in Isaiah 7:14. This is the proper order of Christian exegesis.7

Isaiah 7:14 is, indeed, a very special Messianic prophecy. As such, only a strictly Messianic view of Isaiah 7:14 does justice to the language of the prophet. There is absolutely no necessity to spurn the traditional view that Isaiah 7:14 is exclusively predictive of the Virgin Birth of Christ.

In the light of Matthew 1:22–23, Isaiah 7:14 must be seen as strictly Messianic. The prophecy was fulfilled only in Christ. There is only one meaning to the text, and it calls for only one fulfillment. Buswell wrote,

It should be clear that we may accept Matthew’s record of the supernatural revelation of the angel, which included a specific interpretation of the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14, without the slightest embarrassment either on linguistic or historical or literary contextual grounds. A frank examination of what Isaiah prophesied in its context shows that he gave a prediction of precisely such an event as took place in the virgin birth of Christ.8

The sign of Isaiah 7:14 is therefore the sign of the Virgin Birth.


1 Timothy Tow, The Gospel Prophets (Singapore: Christian Life Publishers, n.d.), 11.

2 J. Barton Payne, Encyclopedia of Biblical Prophecy (New York: Harper and Row, 1973), 292.

3 Tow, Prophets, 45. See also Machen, Virgin, 291; Young, Isaiah, 293–4; Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, s.v. “Isaiah,” by R. Laird Harris.

4 Alva J. McClain, The Greatness of the Kingdom (Chicago: Moody Press, 1959), 138.

5 Spiros Zodhiates, ed., The Hebrew-Greek Key Study Bible (Chattanooga: AMG Publishers, 1991), 861–2.

6 The King James Study Bible (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1988), 1028–9.

7 Robert Glenn Gromacki, The Virgin Birth: Doctrine of Deity (New York: Thomas Nelson Inc., 1974), 141.

8 James O. Buswell, A Systematic Theology of the Christian Religion, two vols. in one (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1962), 2:44.

Dr Jeffrey Khoo is the academic dean of Far Eastern Bible College.