on Isaiah 7 :15
That he may know "When he shall know" - "Though so much has been written on this important passage, there is an obscurity and inconsequence which still attends it, in the general run of all the interpretations given to it by the most learned. And this obscure incoherence is given to it by the false rendering of a Hebrew particle, viz., ל le, in לדעתו ledato. This has been generally rendered, either 'that he may know,' or 'till he know.' It is capable of either version, without doubt; but either of these versions makes Isaiah 7:15 incoherent and inconsistent with Isaiah 7:16. For Isaiah 7:16 plainly means to give a reason for the assertion in Isaiah 7:16, because it is subjoined to it by the particle כי ki, for. But it is no reason why a child should eat butter and honey till he was at an age to distinguish, that before that time the land of his nativity should be free from its enemies. This latter supposition indeed implies, what is inconsistent with the preceding assertion. For it implies, that in part of that time of the infancy spoken of the land should not be free from enemies, and consequently these species of delicate food could not be attainable, as they are in times of peace. The other version, 'that he may know,' has no meaning at all; for what sense is there in asserting, that a child shall eat butter and honey that he may know to refuse evil and choose good? Is there any such effect in this food? Surely not. Besides, the child is thus represented to eat those things, which only a state of peace produces, during its whole infancy, inconsistently with Isaiah 7:16, which promises a relief from enemies only before the end of this infancy: implying plainly, that part of it would be passed in distressful times of war and siege, which was the state of things when the prophecy was delivered.
"But all these objections are cut off, and a clear, coherent sense is given to this passage, by giving another sense to the particle ל le. which never occurred to me till I saw it in Harmer's Observat., vol. i., p. 299. See how coherent the words of the prophet run, with how natural a connection one clause follows another, by properly rendering this one particle: 'Behold this Virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and thou shalt call his name Immanuel; butter and honey, shall he eat, when he shall know to refuse evil, and choose good. For before this child shall know to refuse evil and choose good, the land shall be desolate, by whose two kings thou art distressed.' Thus Isaiah 7:16 subjoins a plain reason why the child should eat butter and honey, the food of plentiful times, when he came to a distinguishing age; viz., because before that time the country of the two kings, who now distressed Judea, should be desolated; and so Judea should recover that plenty which attends peace. That this rendering, which gives perspicuity and rational connection to the passage, is according to the use of the Hebrew particle, is certain. Thus לפנות בקר liphnoth boker, 'at the appearing of morning, or when morning appeared,' Exodus 14:27; לעת האכל leeth haochel, 'at mealtime, or when it was time to eat,' Ruth 2:14. In the same manner, לדעתו ledato, 'at his knowing, that is, when he knows.'
"Harmer (ibid.) has clearly shown that these articles of food are delicacies in the East, and, as such, denote a state of plenty. See also Joshua 5:6. They therefore naturally express the plenty of the country, as a mark of peace restored to it. Indeed, in Isaiah 7:22 it expresses a plenty arising from the thinness of the people; but that it signifies, Isaiah 7:15, a plenty arising from deliverance from war then present, is evident; because otherwise there is no expression of this deliverance. And that a deliverance was intended to be here expressed is plain, from calling the child which should be born Immanuel, God with us. It is plain, also, because it is before given to the prophet in charge to make a declaration of the deliverance, Isaiah 7:3-7; and it is there made; and this prophecy must undoubtedly be conformable to that in this matter." - Dr. Jubb.
The circumstance of the child's eating butter and honey is explained by Jarchi, as denoting a state of plenty: "Butter and honey shall this child eat, because our land shall be full of all good." Comment in locum. The infant Jupiter, says Callimachus, was tenderly nursed with goat's milk and honey. Hymn, in Jov. 48. Homer, of the orphan daughters of Pandareus: -
Κομισσε δε δι' Αφροδιτη
Τυρῳ και μελιτι γλυκερῳ, και ἡδει οινῳ.
Odyss. XX., 68.
"Venus in tender delicacy rears
With honey, milk, and wine, their infant years."
Τρυφης εστιν ενδειξις; "This is a description of delicate food," says Eustathius on the place.
Agreeably to the observations communicated by the learned person above mentioned, which perfectly well explain the historical sense of this much disputed passage, not excluding a higher secondary sense, the obvious and literal meaning of the prophecy is this:" that within the time that a young woman, now a virgin, should conceive and bring forth a child, and that child should arrive at such an age as to distinguish between good and evil, that is, within a few years, (compare Isaiah 8:4), the enemies of Judah should be destroyed." But the prophecy is introduced in so solemn a manner; the sign is so marked, as a sign selected and given by God himself, after Ahaz had rejected the offer of any sign of his own choosing out of the whole compass of nature; the terms of the prophecy are so peculiar, and the name of the child so expressive, containing in them much more than the circumstances of the birth of a common child required, or even admitted; that we may easily suppose that, in minds prepared by the general expectation of a great Deliverer to spring from the house of David, they raised hopes far beyond what the present occasion suggested; especially when it was found, that in the subsequent prophecy, delivered immediately afterward, this child, called Immanuel, is treated as the Lord and Prince of the land of Judah. Who could this be, other than the heir of the throne of David; under which character a great and even a Divine person had been promised? No one of that age answered to this character except Hezekiah; but he was certainly born nine or ten years before the delivery of this prophecy. That this was so understood at that time is collected, I think, with great probability, from a passage of Micah, a prophet contemporary with Isaiah, but who began to prophesy after him; and who, as I have already observed, imitated him, and sometimes used his expressions. Micah, having delivered that remarkable prophecy which determines the place of the birth of Messiah, "the Ruler of God's people, whose goings forth have been of old, from everlasting;" that it should be Bethlehem Ephratah; adds immediately, that nevertheless, in the mean time, God would deliver his people into the hands of their enemies: "He will give them up, till she, who is to bear a child, shall bring forth," Micah 5:3. This obviously and plainly refers to some known prophecy concerning a woman to bring forth a child; and seems much more properly applicable to this passage of Isaiah than to any others of the same prophet, to which some interpreters have applied it. St. Matthew, therefore, in applying this prophecy to the birth of Christ, does it, not merely in the way of accommodating the words of the prophet to a suitable case not in the prophet's view, but takes it in its strictest, clearest, and most important sense; and applies it according to the original design and principal intention of the prophet. - L.
After all this learned criticism, I think something is still wanting to diffuse the proper light over this important prophecy. On Matthew 1:23 I have given what I judge to be the true meaning and right application of the whole passage, as there quoted by the evangelist, the substance of which it will be necessary to repeat here: -
At the time referred to, the kingdom of Judah, under the government of Ahaz, was reduced very low. Pekah, king of Israel, had slain in Judea one hundred and twenty thousand persons in one day; and carried away captives two hundred thousand, including women and children, together with much spoil. To add to their distress, Rezin, king of Syria, being confederate with Pekah, had taken Elath, a fortified city of Judah, and carried the inhabitants away captive to Damascus. In this critical conjuncture, need we wonder that Ahaz was afraid that the enemies who were now united against him must prevail, destroy Jerusalem, end the kingdom of Judah, and annihilate the family of David? To meet and remove this fear, apparently well grounded, Isaiah is sent from the Lord to Ahaz, swallowed up now both by sorrow and by unbelief, in order to assure him that the counsels of his enemies should not stand; and that they should be utterly discomfited. To encourage Ahaz, he commands him to ask a sign or miracle, which should be a pledge in hand, that God should, in due time, fulfill the predictions of his servant, as related in the context. On Ahaz humbly refusing to ask any sign, it is immediately added, "Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son; and shall call his name Immanuel. Butter and honey shall he eat," etc. Both the Divine and human nature of our Lord, as well as the miraculous conception, appear to be pointed out in the prophecy quoted here by the evangelist: He shall be called עמנואל Immanuel; literally, The Strong God with Us: similar to those words in the New Testament: The word which was God - was made flesh, and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; John 1:1, John 1:14. And God was manifested in the flesh, 1 Timothy 3:16. So that we are to understand God with us to imply, God incarnated - God in human nature. This seems farther evident from the words of the prophet, Isaiah 7:15 : Butter and honey shall he eat - he shall be truly man - grow up and be nourished in a human natural way; which refers to his being With Us, i.e., incarnated. To which the prophet adds, That he may know to refuse the evil, and choose the good; or rather, According to his knowledge, לדעתו ledato, reprobating the evil, and choosing the good; this refers to him as God, and is the same idea given by this prophet, chap. Isaiah 53:11 : By (or in) his knowledge, בדעתו bedato, (the knowledge of Christ crucified), shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their offenses. Now this union of the Divine and human nature is termed a sign or miracle, אות oth, i.e., something which exceeds the power of nature to produce. And this miraculous union was to be brought about in a miraculous way: Behold, a Virgin shall conceive: the word is very emphatic, העלמה haalmah, The virgin; the only one that ever was, or ever shall be, a mother in this way. But the Jews, and some called Christians, who have espoused their desperate cause, assert that "the word עלמה almah does not signify a Virgin only; for it is applied Proverbs 30:19 to signify a young married woman." I answer, that this latter text is no proof of the contrary doctrine: the words דרך גבר בעלמה derech geber bealmah, the way of a man with a maid, cannot be proved to mean that for which it is produced. Besides, one of De Rossi's MSS. reads בעלמיו bealmaiv, the way of a strong or stout man (גבר geber) In His Youth; and in this reading the Syriac, Septuagint, Vulgate, and Arabic agree; which are followed by the first version in the English language, as it stands in a MS. in my own possession: the weie of a man in his waxing youth: so that this place, the only one that can with any probability of success be produced, were the interpretation contended for correct, which I am by no means disposed to admit, proves nothing. Besides, the consent of so many versions in the opposite meaning deprives it of much of its influence in this question.
on Isaiah 7 :15
Butter and honey - The word rendered "butter" (חמאה chem'âh), denotes not butter, but thick and curdled milk. This was the common mode of using milk as an article of food in the East, and is still. In no passage in the Old Testament does butter seem to be meant by the word. Jarchi says, that this circumstance denotes a state of plenty, meaning that the land should yield its usual increase notwithstanding the threatened invasion. Eustatius on this place says, that it denotes delicate food. The more probable interpretation is, that it was the usual food of children, and that it means that the child should be nourished in the customary manner. That this was the common nourishment of children, is abundantly proved by Bochart; "Hieroz." P. i. lib. xi. ch. li. p. 630. Barnabas, in his epistle says, 'The infant is first nourished with honey, and then with milk.' This was done usually by the prescription of physicians.
Paulus says, 'It is fit that the first food given to a child be honey, and then milk.' So Aetius, 'Give to a child, as its first food, honey;' see "Bochart." Some have, indeed, supposed that this refers to the fact that the Messiah should be "man" as well as God, and that his eating honey and butter was expressive of the fact that he had a "human nature!" But against this mode of interpretation, it is hoped, it is scarcely needful now to protest. It is suited to bring the Bible into contempt, and the whole science of exegesis into scorn. The Bible is a book of sense, and it should be interpreted on principles that commend themselves to the sober judgment of mankind. The word rendered "honey" - דבשׁ debash - is the same word - "dibs" - which is now used by the Arabs to denote the syrup or jelly which is made by boiling down wine. This is about the consistence of molasses, and is used as an article of food. Whether it was so employed in the time of Isaiah, cannot now be determined, but the word here may be used to denote honey; compare the note at Isaiah 7:22.
That he may know - As this translation now stands, it is unintelligible. It would "seem" from this, that his eating butter and honey would "contribute" to his knowing good and evil. But this cannot be the meaning. It evidently denotes 'until he shall know,' or, 'at his knowing;' Nord. "Heb. Gram.," Section 1026. 3. He shall be no urished in the usual way, "until" he shall arrive at such a period of life as to know good from evil. The Septuagint renders it, Πρινη γνῶναι αὐτὸν Prinē gnōnai auton - 'before he knows.' The Chaldee, 'Until he shall know.'
To refuse the evil ... - Ignorance of good and evil denotes infancy. Thus, in Nineveh, it is said there were 'more than sixscore thousand perons that cannot discern between their right hand and left hand;' commonly supposed to denote infants; Jonah 4:11; compare Deuteronomy 1:39. The meaning is, that he should be nourished in the usual mode in infancy, and before he should be able to discern right from wrong, the land should be forsaken of its kings. At what particular period of life this occurs, it may not be easy to determine. A capability to determine, in some degree, between good and evil, or between right and wrong, is usually manifest when the child is two or three years of age. It is evinced when there is a capability of understanding "law," and feeling that it is wrong to disobey it. This is certainly shown at a very early period of life; and it is not improper, therefore, to suppose that here a time was designated which was not more than two or three years.
on Isaiah 7 :15