The first part of Chapter 7 is a messenger speech in which the prophet functions as the Lord’s emissary to king Ahaz regarding a war that Ephraim and Syria would wage against Judah, foretelling the outcome of the war. Isaiah’s Immanuel prophecy of the virgin birth of Christ is presented to Ahaz as a sign of the truthfulness of Isaiah’s words. A prophecy predicting the destruction of Ephraim and Syria at the hands of the Assyrians comprises the latter part of Isaiah’s message to Ahaz. The final verses of the chapter describe the desolate condition of Ephraim and Syria—and later, most of Judah—after their depopulation at the hands of the Assyrian king. Nephi quotes this chapter in full with few modifications. Compare 2 Nephi 17; the few differences in the Book of Mormon version are shown in italics.
This war, waged by Syria and the northern kingdom of Israel against Judah, was in response to Ahaz having refused to form an alliance with these two parties for their mutual defense against Assyria. They planned to conquer Ahaz and place a king over Judah who would cooperate with them in unified defense against Assyria. Because Ahaz had refused the Lord’s instructions delivered to him by Isaiah, the armies of Rezin and Pekah were permitted to invade Judah, killing or taking captive many thousands of Ahaz’ subjects. Those taken captive were later returned.1 Ahaz then formed an alliance against Syria and the northern kingdom of Israel with Tiglath-pileser, king of Assyria, for his defense against his two conspiring neighbors. Accordingly, Tiglath-pileser invaded and conquered Syria and the northern kingdom of Israel, killing Rezin.2
Verse 1 states that a war commenced between Judah and her adversaries: “And it came to pass in the days of Ahaz the son of Jotham, the son of Uzziah, king of Judah, that Rezin the king of Syria, and Pekah the son of Remaliah, king of Israel, went up toward Jerusalem to war against it, but could not prevail against it.” This war began during the reign of Ahaz, who was king of Judah beginning in 742 B.C. Ahaz’ genealogy is also given: Ahaz was the son of Jotham, who was king of Judah from 758 B.C.; and Jotham was the son of Uzziah, who was king of Judah from 811 B.C.3 The war occurred sometime during the early part of Isaiah’s ministry, from 740 to 726 B.C.4 But Judah’s adversaries “could not prevail against it.”
In verse 2, “And it was told the house of David” refers to King Ahaz and his aristocracy, since the kings of Judah were descendants of David. The message that “Syria is confederate with Ephraim” caused great distress, not only for the king but also his people: “And his heart was moved, and the heart of his people, as the trees of the wood are moved with the wind.”
Verses 3 through 9 comprise Isaiah’s messenger speech in which the prophet delivers the message to king Ahaz. Verse 3 begins: “Then said the LORD unto Isaiah,” but it is not clear at what point in the text it becomes Isaiah speaking to Ahaz. First, the Lord commands Isaiah to “Go forth now to meet Ahaz, thou, and Shear-jashub, thy son.” The Lord tells him where the meeting will take place: “at the end of the conduit of the upper pool in the highway of the fuller’s field.” The Hebrew meaning of the name of Isaiah’s son, Shear-jashub, is “the remnant shall return.”5 At that time, Shear-jashub must have been a babe in arms or a toddler; he would serve as an object lesson in Isaiah’s conversation with Ahaz.
In verses 4, 5, and 6 the Lord gives Isaiah prophetic words to speak to the king. Verse 4 begins: “And say unto him, Take heed, and be quiet; fear not, neither be fainthearted for the two tails of these smoking firebrands, for the fierce anger of Rezin with Syria, and of the son of Remaliah.” The Lord admonishes Ahaz not to fear, despite the seriousness of the threat.
Verse 5 continues: “Because Syria, Ephraim, and the son of Remaliah, have taken evil counsel against thee, saying—” The rulers of these two neighbor countries had formed an alliance against Ahaz.
Verse 6 continues the sentence from the previous verse: “Let us go up against Judah, and vex it, and let us make a breach therein for us, and set a king in the midst of it, even the son of Tabeal.” The Book of Mormon renders “yea, the son of Tabeal.”6 “Make a breach therein for us” is translated from a Hebrew word meaning “cleave” or “break open” for us.7 Rezin and Pekah wished to conquer Judah, set their own king over it, and divide it and its wealth between themselves.
In verse 7, Isaiah proclaims: “Thus saith the Lord GOD, It shall not stand, neither shall it come to pass.” The comforting words are that their evil plan would not succeed.
In verse 8, Isaiah prophesies further: “For the head of Syria is Damascus, and the head of Damascus is Rezin; and within threescore and five years shall Ephraim be broken, that it be not a people.” The end of Israel, the northern kingdom—also known as Ephraim—took place in 721 B.C, when the kingdom was destroyed and the inhabitants, the ten tribes of Israel, were killed or carried away captive by Assyria. The demise of Ephraim actually occurred within about one-third of the time designated by Isaiah in this prophecy.8
Verse 9 proclaims: “And the head of Ephraim is Samaria, and the head of Samaria is Remaliah’s son [Pekah]. If ye will not believe, surely ye shall not be established.” Isaiah’s meaning is that as surely as the head of Ephraim is Samaria, and as surely as Remaliah’s son Pekah is the king of Samaria, the wicked king Ahaz would not believe his words of prophecy.
Following Isaiah’s delivery of this message, verses 10 and 11. declare: “Moreover the LORD spake again unto Ahaz, saying, Ask thee a sign of the LORD thy God; ask it either in the depth, or in the height above.” The Lord states His willingness to give Ahaz a sign to overcome his incredulity regarding the message delivered by Isaiah.
Verses 7 through 10 contain a chiasm:
A: (7) Thus saith the Lord GOD,
B: It shall not stand, neither shall it come to pass.
C: (8) For the head of Syria is Damascus, and the head of Damascus is Rezin;
D: and within threescore and five years shall Ephraim be broken,
D: that it be not a people.
C: (9) And the head of Ephraim is Samaria, and the head of Samaria is Remaliah’s son.
B: If ye will not believe, surely ye shall not be established.
A: (10) Moreover the LORD spake again unto Ahaz, saying—
In this chiasm “the head of Syria is Damascus” compares with “the head of Ephraim is Samaria,” naming the two conspirators. “It shall not stand” matches “ye shall not be established.” Because of Ahaz’ incredulity his own kingdom would not be established—the same result as the treacherous plan designed against him. The central statement of the chiasm attests that “Ephraim [would] be broken, that it be not a people.” In order for either Ahaz’ kingdom or the plan against him to succeed, the Lord’s intervention would be required.
Verse 12 reports: “But Ahaz said, I will not ask, neither will I tempt the LORD.” This is not the voice of humility, but the voice of flippant disinterest from a wicked king. Isaiah is enraged.
Verse 13 continues: “And he [Isaiah] said, hear ye now, O house of David; Is it a small thing for you to weary men, but will ye weary my God also?” Ahaz’ incredulity is offensive to the Lord and to Isaiah.
Then Isaiah delivers an astounding prophecy concerning the virgin birth of the Lord Jesus Christ, beginning in verse 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.” Even though the King James translation renders “Lord” instead of the usual rendition in all caps, the Great Isaiah Scroll renders “Jehovah” for “Lord.”9 The Hebrew meaning of Immanuel is “God with us,”10 which describes in one word the Lord’s divine heritage and position in the antemortal world. Despite the prophecy that Ahaz’ kingdom would not remain established because of his incredulity, the Messiah would be born as a babe among Ahaz’ people at a future time. The Messiah, in fulfillment of prophecy doubtless known to Ahaz, would be born a descendant and heir of the Davidic kings.11
Why did the Lord offer this information concerning the Messiah as a sign to a wicked king? Although Ahaz’ reign would not long endure because he was wicked, the nation over which he ruled would continue to exist at least until the foretold time when the earthly ministry of the Messiah would unfold. This knowledge was given as divine assurance that despite the menace of war that he faced at that time, Ahaz’ people and his royal lineage would persist for hundreds of years yet into the future. Furthermore, the birth of the Savior is one of the most powerful manifestations of God’s love for all mankind, even including this wicked king.
Verse 14 is quoted in the New Testament by Matthew, describing the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem as fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy.12 Matthew includes the interpretation of “Immanuel” as “God with us.” Of Isaiah’s prophecies cited in the New Testament as relating to the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ, this passage is one of the more important.13
The words of verse 14 are memorialized in Handel’s Messiah, Part 1 No. 8, Recitative for Alto: “Behold! A Virgin Shall Conceive.”
Concerning this passage, Gordon B. Hinckley exhorted:
Believe in him who was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who was the source of inspiration of all the ancient prophets—as they spoke as they were moved upon by the Holy Ghost. They spoke for him when they rebuked kings, when they chastised the nations, and when as seers they looked forward to the coming of a promised Messiah, declaring by the power of revelation, “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”14
Nephi, who was well-versed in the writings of Isaiah, was shown the events foretold in this verse in response to his request to know the meaning of the tree of life, shown in vision both to him and his father Lehi:
And I beheld the city of Nazareth; and in the city of Nazareth I beheld a virgin, and she was exceedingly fair and white.
And it came to pass that I saw the heavens open; and an angel came down and stood before me; and he said unto me: Nephi, what beholdest thou?
And I said unto him: A virgin, most beautiful and fair above all other virgins…
And he said unto me: Behold, the virgin whom thou seest is the mother of the Son of God, after the manner of the flesh.
And it came to pass that I beheld that she was carried away in the Spirit; and after she had been carried away in the Spirit for the space of a time the angel spake unto me, saying: Look!
And I looked and beheld the virgin again, bearing a child in her arms.
And the angel said unto me: Behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Son of the Eternal Father! Knowest thou the meaning of the tree which thy father saw?
And I answered him, saying: Yea, it is the love of God….15
Nephi, strongly feeling the influence of the Spirit as he saw the wondrous events that would occur in Nazareth and Bethlehem at the meridian of time, concluded correctly that the tree of life represented the love of God toward His children—the wicked as well as the righteous. We learn from the Book of Mormon that the mortal birth of the Messiah is a superlative manifestation of God’s love.
Verse 15 continues Isaiah’s prophecy: “Butter and honey shall he eat, that he may know to refuse the evil, and choose the good.” Because eating butter and honey—or, curds and honey, the only foods available to the poor at times16—result in the Savior’s knowing “to refuse the evil and choose the good,” it is apparent that these refer to spiritual rather than merely physical nourishment. He would be born and raised at a time of great spiritual deprivation among a people who would not seek after spiritual enlightenment.
Concerning the early nurturing of the mortal Messiah, the Lord in modern revelation quotes a portion of the record of John the Baptist:” And I, John, saw that he received not of the fulness at the first, but received grace for grace…but continued from grace to grace, until he received a fulness; And thus he was called the Son of God, because he received not of the fulness at the first.”17
The Son of God received spiritual nourishment upon spiritual nourishment until He ultimately received a fulness. From what source came such nourishment? John the Baptist testifies as to the reality of natural, progressive development in the growth of Jesus from childhood to maturity. His sources for spiritual nourishment clearly were not limited to earthly parents or teachers; He received enlightenment from on high. Consider the scene when, at the age of twelve, Jesus was found in the temple:
And it came to pass, that after three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking them questions.
And all that heard him were astonished at his understanding and answers.
And when they saw him, they were amazed: and his mother said unto him, Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? behold, thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing.
And he said unto them, How is it that ye sought me? wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?
And they understood not the saying which he spake unto them.18
Jesus’ gentle rebuke asserts that God was His literal Father, not Joseph. Clearly, He had not received His very remarkable understanding from His earthly parents, who “understood not the saying which he spake unto them.”19 His understanding came by revelation from His Heavenly Father, just as Isaiah foretold.
In verse 16 Isaiah continues his messenger prophecy to Ahaz, attesting that the foretold military events would take place in the immediate future: “For before the child shall know to refuse the evil, and choose the good, the land that thou abhorrest shall be forsaken of both her kings.” Here the child in question is Isaiah’s own son, Shear-Jashub,20 in contrast to the child Immanuel, foretold in verses 14 and 15. Isaiah likely switched the subject from the holy child to be born of a virgin to his own son to keep Ahaz in his wickedness from comprehending fully the nature of the sign to be given.21 Isaiah had been instructed by the Lord to take his young son with him as he delivered his messenger prophecy;22 Shear-Jashub’s goodness and innocence compare with the sinless state of the Savior, Immanuel. The abhorred lands designated by Isaiah were Syria and the northern kingdom of Israel, whose kings, Rezin and Pekah, had conspired against Ahaz.23
In verses 17 through 20 Isaiah prophesies concerning the destruction that would soon result in the fall of Israel and Syria, and as a type, the destruction in the latter days. In verse 17 he describes the horror of the day of the king of Assyria: “The LORD shall bring upon thee, and upon thy people, and upon thy father’s house, days that have not come, from the day that Ephraim departed from Judah; even the king of Assyria.” Ephraim departed from Judah under Solomon’s servant Jeroboam in 975 B.C.24 The Book of Mormon account omits the word “even” from the final phrase of this verse.25
Verses 14 through 17 comprise a chiasm:
A: (14) Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son,
B: and shall call his name Immanuel.
C: (15) Butter and honey shall he eat, that he may know to refuse the evil, and choose the good.
C: (16) For before the child shall know to refuse the evil, and choose the good,
B: the land that thou abhorrest shall be forsaken of both her kings.
A: (17) The LORD shall bring upon thee, and upon thy people, and upon thy father’s house, days that have not come, from the day that Ephraim departed from Judah; (even) the king of Assyria.
The ascending side of the chiasm describes the birth and early life of the Messiah whereas the descending side reflects the innocence of Isaiah’s son Shear-jashub, the defeat of the Ephraim-Syria alliance and their destruction at the hand of the king of Assyria. “The Lord himself shall give you a sign” is reflected by “The LORD shall bring upon thee….” These related statements also demonstrate an additional part of the sign given to Ahaz—foreknowledge of the destruction of Ephraim and Syria and great tribulation to be brought upon Judah at the hand of the Assyrians. “Immanuel” compares with “the land that thou abhorrest shall be forsaken of both her kings,” denoting that the Lord Immanuel, the rightful heir to the throne of David, is He who would bring about the destruction of both Israel and Syria. The first instance of “to refuse the evil, and choose the good” refers to Immanuel, whereas the second instance of the same phrase refers to Isaiah’s son. Note that the phrase “butter and honey shall he eat” applies only to Immanuel.
Biblical scholars have struggled with some aspects of Isaiah’s Immanuel prophecy. They contend that the prophecy recorded in verses 14 and 15 refers to a child to be born of Isaiah’s wife, possibly a second wife other than the mother of Shear-jashub, which would serve as a type for the birth of Messiah. This child, whose growth and development would be observed by both Isaiah and Ahaz, would signal the fulfillment of the second part of the prophecy regarding the downfall of Syria and the northern kingdom of Israel.26
Several difficulties arise with this explanation. Most important, there was to be only one virgin birth—that of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, the “only begotten Son” of the Father.27 No one else other than the Son of God would be deserving of the descriptive name Immanuel because of the manner of His conception28 and His elevated position in the premortal life.29 No birth of anyone else could adequately serve as a type.
The Lord commanded Isaiah to bring his young son, Shear-jashub, to the interview with Ahaz, indicating that the timing of Shear-jasub’s growth and development would signal the downfall of Syria and the northern kingdom of Israel. It is easy to visualize Isaiah nodding toward his son as he said “For before the child shall know to refuse the evil, and choose the good, the land that thou abhorrest shall be forsaken of both her kings.”30
Isaiah’s wife, the mother of Maher-shalal-hash-baz31 and most probably also the mother of Shear-jashub, is the only wife of Isaiah known through the scriptural record. If her second son, Shear-jashub, is the one whose birth typifies that of Messiah as some contend, the argument cannot be made that it would be a virgin birth or even a first birth. Neither of Isaiah’s sons is known to have been given the name of Immanuel, even as a second name.
Recognition of the chiastic structure of verses 14 through 17, diagrammed above, provides an explanation that requires no unverifiable suppositions. The Child to be born of a virgin and named Immanuel is described in the ascending side of the chiasm, whereas a different child whose growth and development would signal the destruction of Israel and Syria in the time frame of Ahaz and Isaiah is described in the descending side. Gradual development of personal responsibility—their knowing to refuse the evil and choose the good—is the common element linking the two different characterizations.
In verse 18, the subject changes to include both Assyria and Egypt: “And it shall come to pass in that day, that the LORD shall hiss for the fly that is in the uttermost part of the rivers of Egypt, and for the bee that is in the land of Assyria.” “In that day” indicates that Isaiah is foretelling latter-day events. The fly and the bee represent hordes of soldiers from two opposing superpowers typified by Egypt and Assyria, the two superpowers of Isaiah’s time. Egypt represents a latter-day western superpower whereas Assyria represents a latter-day Middle Eastern or eastern superpower.32 The ability of these soldiers to fly should not escape us, given the practices of modern warfare. Egypt was not directly involved in the conquest of Syria and Israel in 721 B.C., further indicating that this prophecy is a type to be fulfilled in the latter days.
In verse 19, the marauding hordes are further described: “And they shall come, and shall rest all of them in the desolate valleys, and in the holes of the rocks, and upon all thorns, and upon all bushes.” The invading hordes would effectively take over the land.
Verse 20 describes the total humiliation to be suffered at the hands of the king of Assyria: “In the same day shall the Lord shave with a razor that is hired, namely, by them beyond the river, by the king of Assyria, the head, and the hair of the feet: and it shall also consume the beard.” The Book of Mormon omits “namely.” “Them beyond the river” refers to the armies of Assyria from beyond the Euphrates, but it is also a type for a latter-day archtyrant. Shaving the head, the feet, and the beard are symbolic of utter defeat and humiliation—total destruction of the armies, with their combatants slain or taken as prisoners—to be suffered at the hands of the king of Assyria. Note that in the foretold conquests the invaders would be fulfilling the Lord’s will, as though they had been figuratively hired by him as mercenaries—the “razor that is hired.”33
The final verses of Chapter 7 describe the desolation of the land after the inhabitants of Israel and Judah are slain or carried away into captivity. In verses 21 and 22 the relative abundance of food because of the decimation of the population is described:
And it shall come to pass in that day, that a man shall nourish a young cow, and two sheep;
And it shall come to pass, for the abundance of milk that they shall give he shall eat butter: for butter and honey shall every one eat that is left in the land.
Those remaining would survive because of self-sufficiency. Butter and honey—or, curds and honey, at times the only foods available to the self-sufficient poor34—indicate the distress of the surviving people.
Note that butter and honey in verse 15 refer to spiritual nourishment to be had by the youthful Jesus. In verse 22 this same phrase has reference to both temporal and spiritual nourishment—temporal because of the distress of the decimated population, and spiritual because the leaders who led the people astray would be destroyed, putting an end to their evil priestcrafts. Those remaining would be free to follow righteousness.35
Cultivation of the land would virtually cease as described in verses 23 through 25 because of the great reduction in population. Verse 23 foretells: “And it shall come to pass in that day, that every place shall be, where there were a thousand vines at a thousand silverlings, it shall even be for briers and thorns.” The Book of Mormon renders “which shall be for briers and thorns.”36 Instead of valuable vines worth a thousand silver coins, only briers and thorns would grow.
Verse 24 describes the land, because it would revert to wilderness, as being suitable only for hunting: “With arrows and with bows shall men come thither; because all the land shall become briers and thorns” due to the lack of people to do the cultivating.
Verse 25 describes fields formerly cultivated: “And upon all hills that shall be digged with a mattock, there shall not come thither the fear of sending forth of oxen, and for the treading of lesser cattle;” or, these places formerly cultivated would be used as pasture for oxen, sheep or goats.37
The land would be desolate except for a few caretakers under Assyrian governance. Spiritually the Lord would not be with them, despite reference to butter and honey (spiritual nourishment) in verse 15; sacred things would be defiled, as by “oxen and the treading of lesser cattle.” False doctrines would arise as “briers and thorns,” to choke out the true doctrines originally given to them by the Lord.38,39
1. See 2 Chronicles 28:5-15.
2. See 2 Kings 15:29; 16:7-9.
3. See Bible Dictionary—Chronology.
4. See Bible Dictionary—Chronology; also Bible Dictionary—Isaiah.
5. F. Brown, S. Driver, and C. Briggs, The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon: Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, MA, 01961-3473, 1996, Strong’s No. 7610, p. 984.
6. 2 Nephi 17:6.
7. Brown et al., 1996, Strong’s No. 1234, p. 131-132.
8. See 2 Kings 17:6-8; Isaiah 8:4; 17:2; 42:24; 43:6; 49:12; 54:7.
9. Donald W. Parry, Harmonizing Isaiah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS) at Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, 2001, p. 58.
10. Brown et al., 1996, Strong’s No. 410, p. 41.
11. See Genesis 49:10; Matthew 1:1-16.
12. Matthew 1:22-23.
13. See Isaiah 6:10, pertinent commentary and endnote.
14. Gordon B. Hinckley, “Be Not Faithless,” Ensign, May 1978, p. 58.
15. 1 Nephi 11:13-15, 18-22.
16. Brown et al., 1996, Strong’s No. 2529, p. 326, 328; see also Isaiah 7:15, footnote 15a.
17. Doctrine and Covenants 93:12-14.
18. Luke 2:46-50.
19. Luke 2:50.
20. See Isaiah 7:3.
21. See Isaiah 6:9-10 and pertinent commentary; see also Doctrine and Covenants 82:3 and Luke 12:48.
22. See Isaiah 7:3.
23. See Isaiah 7:1.
24. Bible Dictionary—Chronology.
25. 2 Nephi 17:17.
26. See discussion by Victor L. Ludlow, Isaiah: Prophet, Seer, and Poet: Deseret Book Company, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1982, pp. 143-145.
27. See John 1:14; 3:16, 18; Alma 9:26; Doctrine and Covenants 76:22-24.
28. See Luke 1:31-35.
29. See Isaiah 40:28; 41:20; 42:5-6; 44:24; 45:12; Moses 1:33; 4:2.
30. Isaiah 7:16.
31. See Isaiah 8:1-4.
32. See Gileadi, pp. 72-73.
33. Terry B. Ball, “Isaiah Chapter Review: 2 Nephi 17/Isaiah 7,” Book of Mormon Reference Companion: Dennis L. Largey, ed., Deseret Book Company, Salt Lake City, UT, 2003, p.371.
34. Brown et al., 1996, Strong’s No. 2529, p. 326, 328.
35. Verse 22 contains a chiasm: Eat/butter/butter/eat. In Parry, Harmonizing Isaiah, 2001, p. 258.
36. 2 Nephi 17:23.
37. Brown et al., 1996, Strong’s No. 7716, p. 961.
38. See Isaiah 55:13; 5:6; 9:18; 10:17; 27:4; 32:13 and pertinent commentary.
39. Verses 21 through 25 contain a chiasm: a young cow, and two sheep/a thousand vines at a thousand silverlings/ briers and thorns/arrows/bows/briers and thorns/digged with the mattock/oxen…lesser cattle.