In order to properly understand this prophecy, we must take the context of the prophecy into account. A civil war was raging between Ahaz king of Judah and Pekah king of Israel who has made an alliance with Syria against Judah at the time of this prophecy, against this backdrop we must uncover the meaning of this tangled and complex oracle. It seems that this war was not caused by Assyria as some have speculated, rather this was fought over borders and territories within Judah and Israel, more on this here. It seems that there was some rebellion amongst the Judeans against Ahaz as well. This can be gleaned from Isaiah 8:6 and verse 12.
Ahaz turns to Assyria and pays for it
Now Isaiah was clearly on Ahaz’s side and was now coming to allay his fears, to predict his triumph over the Syro-ephraimite armies. This was in line with the prophets who lived before Isaiah who prophesized that the Davidic dynasty will last forever, and that God will never forsake his anointed. Indeed, this same judgment guides Isaiah years later when Hezekiah’s fate seemed hopeless and sealed by the Assyrian army of Sennacherib, but Isaiah insists that for the sake of David God will not forsake Jerusalem, see 37:35. However, when Isaiah asked Ahaz for a sign he refused to ask for one. This is uncharacteristic of Ahaz given that Isaiah was on Ahaz’s side and was foreseeing victory for him rather than doom. Why would he refuse to ask for one? It seems that Ahaz was hiding something from Isaiah. In 2 Kings 16:7-8 the bible recounts how Ahaz sent messengers to Tiglath-pileser to come rescue him from the Syro-ephraimite alliance against him. It’s quite likely that at this point Ahaz has already sent the messengers to Assyria and Ahaz was not in any need for a sign or reassurance from God, in Ahaz’s mind this was already a done deal. When Isaiah was told about this he was thunderstruck! He saw the futility of Ahaz’s actions, now not only would Ephraim and Aram be destroyed, but Israel itself would be devoured in its path by the mighty empire of Assyria.
The dichotomous prophecy
Isaiah now had to quickly revise his prophecy, while the original prophecy was full of hope and deliverance for Ahaz, now an element of despair and destruction was added to it, since Ahaz was not prudent and acted rashly without consulting the prophet of Yahweh first, and distrusting Yahweh as well. This is the reason why this prophecy seems so conflicting, since it is comprised of two opposing elements. On one hand, we find the prediction for abundance of milk and honey and an overflow of delicacies. This salvation, Isaiah tells us, will come even before the child Immanuel becomes a toddler. There would be so much milk that they would curdle some of it to make butter. On the other hand there is desolation and destruction all over the land, and the vineyards are overrun by animals and trampled by goats. This is not a contradiction as it first seems, rather this is reflecting different periods. In the first period following Assyria’s invasion of the north (Israel and Syria) indeed the land will be flowing with milk and honey, and these will be the days of Immanuel. But later on the trouble will start and Assyria will come back to haunt Judah as well, in that period there will destruction and desolation all over the land (indeed that was fulfilled in the days of Hezekiah).
Why is Isaiah mentioning the destruction of Judah now, since it is not happening in the near future anyway? Because he is upset with Ahaz for going to Assyria for help. This is evident from Isaiah 7:13: “[Isaiah] retorted, “is it not enough for you to treat men as helpless that you also treat my God as helpless”. i.e., you went to Assyria because you didn’t believe that God can deliver you from Israel, and that’s the reason for your refusal to ask for a sign (see also 10:20). Isaiah initially came to tell him the good news that the Syro-ephraimite alliance won’t succeed, but as soon as the call for help from Assyria was disclosed to him the tone of the prophecy changed considerably. Yes there will be an abundance of goods in the land, but not for long, Assyria ever hungry for power will come back and devour Judah and end up causing more trouble than good.
Immanuel: the double entendre
This dichotomous prophecy is reflected within the name Immanuel itself which is really comprised of two words. In Hebrew this term can be broken up in two possible ways. 1. עמנו אל 2. עם נואל. The first one meaning “foolish nation”. The second one meaning “God is with us”. This is a classic double entendre or case of paranosmia, and Isaiah himself employs it cleverly in chapter 8:10:
“Devise your strategy, but it will be thwarted; propose your plan, but
it will not stand, for God is with us.”
Here Isaiah is speaking to those who rebel against Ahaz as well as the armies of Syria and Israel who want to depose Ahaz and put in the son of Tabeel as king instead. To them the message is clear, “God is with us”, Ahaz will prevail. But there’s another message here meant for the nation and Ahaz himself, the tone of this message is quite different and much harsher:
“Because this people has refused the waters of Shiloah that flow
gently, and rejoice over Rezin and the son of Remaliah, 7therefore,
behold, the Lord is bringing up against them the waters of the River,c
mighty and many, the king of Assyria and all his glory. And it will
rise over all its channels and go over all its banks, 8and it will
sweep on into Judah, it will overflow and pass on, reaching even to
the neck, and its outspread wings will fill the breadth of your land,
O foolish nation.” (8:6-9).
In Isaiah’s mind the people of Judah deserve to be punished for rebelling against the house of David which has been anointed by God, this foolishness will bring upon them the wrath of Assyria. But this punishment though directed against the foolish nation, is also clearly directed against Ahaz himself. This is evident from 7:17 “The Lord will cause to come upon you and your people and your ancestral house…” Ahaz is to be punished for distrusting Yahweh and turning to Assyria instead for help.
So the meaning of the name Immanuel itself as we have seen is dichotomous. It has a hopeful meaning, yet it also has an element of rebuke to the foolish nation who distrusted Yahweh and the house of David, which ultimately leads to their destruction. This dichotomy evident in the name Immanuel I think is the key to decoding the entire seventh chapter.
I should note that the second meaning of Immanuel is not based on the MT, since according to the MT verse 9 should also read “God is with us”. However, this raises some obvious difficulties, because how can Isaiah predict doom for Judah and end off with “God is with us”, the ultimate message of hope. F. Zimmermann was the first one to suggest that this is a mistake, that it should rather read “foolish nation”. But unlike Zimmerman who believes that all instances of Immanuel should be emended to עם נואל “foolish nation”, I do not believe this to be the case. Rather, the name should be understood as a classic double entendre, having two different meanings which Isaiah employs dexterously each in its own context. So I would suggest to emend only the Immanuel at the end of verse 8 which the message overall is clearly harsh.
If we were to insist that the MT preserved the original text correctly, then the only option would be to say that Isaiah is addressing Immanuel directly, i.e., though Immanuel is not yet born, Isaiah is addressing him in the future and saying that Immanuel's land will eventually be overtaken by Assyria's army, so the correct translation would be "and its outspread wings will fill the breadth of your land, O Immanuel". However this interpretation also requires slight corrections to the text, since the MT has them as two separate words, not one as we would expect if Isaiah is addressing the young Immanuel.
It is also clear to me that verses 21-22 are out of place, and originally followed v. 16. Whether they are a scribal addition or were there all along they were clearly meant to follow v. 16. Only after the initial good news does Isaiah continue with v.17 to foretell the bad news that will come to pass the period after that.