Is Isaiah 7:14 really about Jesus? What does that have to do with Syria, Ephraim, and Assyria? This is easy to see if you understand the flow of thought in Isaiah 7-12. Chapter 7 begins with a problem: Syria and Ephraim (Ephraim here is the northern kingdom of Israel) have joined forces, and they plan to conquer Judah and establish another king there. Ahaz, the king of Judah, is afraid of these two kings, so Isaiah goes to rebuke him for fearing the kings rather than God. Isaiah says the same thing three times (7, 8:1-9:7, 9:8-12:6): Isaiah says the conspiracy of Syria and Ephraim will fail, because Assyria will conquer them and also fill the land of Judah, but afterward a child will be born in the family of David. The meaning of 7:14 can be debated if it’s viewed alone, but each time Isaiah repeats the pattern he gives more details, until there is no doubt that the child is the divine Son of David.
The Lord says the plan of Syria and Ephraim will fail (5-9). Isaiah tells King Ahaz to ask for a sign, but he refuses to ask. So Isaiah gives a sign, not just to him, but to the family of David (13-14). The sign is that the virgin will conceive and bear a son, and will call his name Immanuel. This sign for the house of David means that their dynasty will survive long after Syria and Ephraim fall to Assyria. But Immanuel will not be prosperous. He will be eating curds and honey as part of a poor and oppressed people (15-17). The Lord will call Assyria against Judah like a man brings a razor against his hair, destroying the land and leaving the people in poverty (18-25).
Who is this Immanuel? Some modern Jews claim he’s Hezekiah, and some scholars say he’s a son of Isaiah. Hezekiah is much too old to be Immanuel, because he is a grown man when Assyria attacks, and Immanuel will grow up in poverty after Assyria attacks. We will see in the next section that Isaiah’s son is given a different name, and it is not a sign of hope like Immanuel. With Christian hindsight, we know that Assyria was just the first of many nations to trample Judah. The Jews were still in poverty when a divine Son of David was conceived by a virgin. Jesus is God with us, and the everlasting heir of David’s kingdom. He is a sign to the house of David that proves that God will keep all of His promises to David.
This section begins with another birth: Isaiah has a son with the epic name of Maher-shalal-hash-baz, which is a sign of the coming disaster. Israel refused the Lord’s gentle waters, and so they will be flooded and plundered by Assyria. Assyria will also sweep into Judah, submerging him up to the neck, but Judah will keep his head above water.
The kingdom of Judah is here called Immanuel’s land (8:8). Then the meaning of Immanuel’s name becomes clear: nations conspiring against Judah will be crushed, because “God is with us” (8:10). While Isaiah’s son is named for the coming judgment, Immanuel’s name is a comfort. Assyria will plunder Judah, but not overcome him. God will thwart the plans of nations to keep his promises to David.
Isaiah then gives moral instruction that will not be heeded by most of his people: fear the Lord instead of foreign kings, and inquire of Him instead of the dead. Becuase the people will refuse to honor God, they will wander the land in hunger, distress, and darkness. This, again, is the meaning of Maher-shalal-hash-baz.
In contrast to this darkness is the light that will shine when Immanuel is born (9:1-7) (note: he’s not called Immanuel by name here, but he is called “Mighty God”). The child yet to be born will multiply the nation, throw off the yoke of oppression, and put an end to war, because he will rule over the whole world. He will be a divine Son of David, the perfect king. He is called “Mighty God,” is which is exactly what the Lord is called in 10:22. This is the true meaning of Immanuel: God will become a human king in the line of David, and who can stand against him?
Israel is being punished for deceitful leaders (9:16), inter-tribal violence (9:21), and oppression of the poor and vulnerable (10:2). The Lord has already struck them with Syria and Philistia (9:11-12), but Israel didn’t learn his lesson, and boasted that he would rebuild his nation even stronger (9:9-10). And so the Lord now wields Assyria against them as the rod of His anger (10:5).
Though Assyria is like an axe in God’s hand, it boasts against God and His people . So when God is done punishing Israel and Judah, he will also punish Assyria (10:5-19, see Isaiah 36-37). A remant of Israel will surely be saved from Assyria, and they will learn to lean on the Lord instead of Assyria. The Lord’s salvation will require no help from the people, just like in Gideon’s battle against Midean and in the exodus (10:26). After the Lord wields Assyria as an axe, He will wield an axe against Assyria, leaving only a small remnant (10:19). Seriously, if you’re not sure what this is about, read Isaiah 36-37. You’ll be glad you did.
In chapter 11, we get another incredible description of Immanuel, here called the Branch from the roots of Jesse (which is a fancy way of saying the son of David). The Spirit of the Lord rests on him, and this Spirit is described with similar language to the son of David in 9:1-7. The branch’s most notable quality here is his perfect righteousness and justice. He will be he perfect ruler, defending the poor from injustice and killing the wicked (11:4).
The Branch’s righteousness will bring perfect peace. “The wolf will lie down with the lamb,” (11:6), and “the lion will eat straw like the ox” (11:7). Children will not fear snakes (11:8). The Lord’s holy mountain (i.e. His temple) will be free from sin through the knowledge of the Lord that will fill the whole earth (11:9). Verse 9 implies that God’s “holy mountain” will be expanded all over the earth. this is gradually fulfilled as the gospel fills the earth with the knowledge of the Lord, gathering believers into the temple of God (1 Peter 2:5). We preach a message of peace and reconciliation, building a worldwide kingdom that transcends ethnic boundaries. This perfect peace has been truly accomplished, but it’s not always visible now, because the knowledge of the Lord has not yet completely filled the earth.
The Branch will be a greater Moses. The Israelites came to Moses to judge their cases, but multiple nations will inquire of the Branch (11:10). There will be a new exodus, in which the Lord gathers his people from all nations (11:11-12). A united kingdom of Israel will plunder and subdue the nations, just like David did (11:13-14). In the first exodus the sea was temporarily split, but in the coming exodus the sea and river will be permanently scattered (11:15-16) so anyone can easily come to Zion, the glorious resting place of the Branch (11:10). This is being fulfilled today. Jesus is king over the Israel of God and over the whole world, and he is gathering his chosen people from all nations. He commands all peoples to repent and obey him, and anyone who doesn’t will be judged. He lives in the glorious heavenly Zion, and everyone who trusts in him joins him there.
Any exodus would be incomplete without a song of praise (see Exodus 15), and so in chapter 12 Isaiah writes the song that will be sung in the days of the Branch’s kingdom. We sing about how the Lord turned his anger from us and comforts us (12:1), and how we trust him and do not fear (12:2). As we “draw water from the well of salvation” (12:3) we thank the Lord, call on His name, and tell the peoples what He’s done (12:4-5).
This post is already too long, so I’ll end where Isaiah ends:
“Shout, and sing for joy, O inhabitant of Zion,
for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel” (12:6).