Before embarking on this discussion, I wish strongly to disavow any intention of engaging in a dispute with anyone who believes that Jesus was the Messiah (albeit in a different sense from the one Jews have always understood by that term); that he was the son of God born to a virgin; and that in being crucified he took upon himself, and atoned for, the sins of all mankind--or at least that portion of it which accepted all this as true. As a Jew, I am by definition not among that portion, but the last thing in the world I want to do is challenge its faith. What I do feel it necessary to challenge, however, is the idea held by many pious Christians throughout the past two millennia that the Book of Isaiah foretells the coming of their faith.

The contention over this idea begins with the sign God gives to King Ahaz: the imminent birth of a boy whose name will be Immanuel (a transliteration of the Hebrew for "God-with-us"). So far, there is nothing to argue about, but endless debates have been conducted over the nature of the female now, or about to become, pregnant with this baby. In Hebrew she is haalmah, which means "the young woman," but which has until very recently been understood by all Christian translators, including the King James Version, as "a virgin." "...Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel." The problem is that the word for virgin in Hebrew is b'tulah, and since that very word appears twice within the first thirty-nine chapters of Isaiah (and twice more in Chapters 40-66), it seems highly unlikely that the author or editor of 7:14, whoever he may have been, would not have used it here if what he had wanted to say was "virgin."

An equivalent level of dispute has centered on the identity of Immanuel. Again until relatively recent times, Christians have assumed that he is Jesus, but few if any biblical scholars, even those who are devout Christians, still hold to that belief. The most popular candidate is Hezekiah, the son of Ahaz, who will succeed his father on the throne of Judah in 715 B.C.E. It is Hezekiah as well who has come to be accepted by most commentators as the kings of whom Isaiah rhapsodizes (in a verse familiar from Handel's "Messiah" to many who do not know the Bible): "For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The might God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace."

The extreme hopes that the First Isaiah, as a Davidic "legitimist," voices here for the young Hezekiah must have been produced by his disgust with and rage against Ahaz. But it seems probable that in the second of the two utopian (or eschatological) prophecies for which the First Isaiah is best known, he is thinking not of Hezekiah but of some future Davidic king. If the first of these two prophecies--the one that also appears in Micah--envisages a day when all nations will stream to the Temple in Jerusalem and accept the sovereignty of the God of Israel, the second ties that day to an infinitely more secure establishment of the Davidic monarchy than Hezekiah can or will ever achieve.

It is a day that will come, however, only after much suffering has been endured as a result of Ahaz's submission to Assyria--an act of policy that to Isaiah constitutes an abandonment of God. The Northern Kingdom will have been utterly destroyed, and Judah itself will be afflicted by no end of grisly curses. But God will then set about to punish Assyria for its arrogance in failing to understand that it has been nothing more than His instrument, the "rod" He has used to chastise his own sinful people:

Wherefore it shall come to pass, that when the LORD hath performed his whole work upon mount Zion and on Jerusalem, I will punish the fruit of the stout heart of the king of Assyria, and the glory of his high looks. For he saith, By the strength of my hand I have done it, and by my wisdom...Shall the axe boast itself against him that heweth therewith? Or shall the saw magnify itself against him that shaketh it? As if the rod should shake itself against them that lift up, or as if the staff lift up itself, as if it were no wood.
The devastation of Assyria having been accomplished, and Judah liberated from its ungodly and tyrannical grasp, a faithful "remnant" of "the house of Jacob" will return to God. Conditions will then be ripe for the enthronement of a true scion of the house of David the son of Jesse:

And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall row out of his roots: And the spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD; And shall make him of quick understanding in the fear of the LORD: and he shall not judge after the sight of his eyes, neither reprove after the hearing of his ears: But with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth: and he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breadth of his lips shall he slay the wicked. And righteousness shall be the girdle of his loins, and faithfulness the girdle of his reins.
But this messianic kingdom will not only bring justice to men; it will also usher in an order of peace and harmony in the natural world such as has not existed since the Garden of Eden: