The Annunciation: Why did Isaias prophesy that “a Virgin shall be with Child”? – Fr H.J. Coleridge SJ, 1885

“In abandoning your House, he would be abandoning his own promises.”

Image: Wiki Commons Public Domain. Some line breaks added below, with some headings taken from the original Table of Contents.

Editors’ Notes

To mark the feast of the Annunciation, we are sharing the below extracts from Fr Henry James Coleridge, who asks a question which we might not have considered before.

Exactly how and why was the “sign” of the Virgin with Child given to the King Achaz, and what did this prophecy mean?

We all know that the prophecy is fulfilled in Christ. But what was the’ purpose in Isaias giving this prophecy to at this time, centuries before Christ came?

Fr Coleridge gives a fascinating and encouraging answer – with application to our own time. We round it off with his account of the world on the eve of the Annunciation, and two mysteries from our own Old Testament Rosary.

Our Lady, Tower of David – Pray for us!

The Preparation of the Incarnation
Fr Henry James Coleridge SJ


Burns and Oates, London, 1915
pp 81-7, 370-2

Isaias and Achaz

The occasion of the first and most famous prophecy of Isaias on this subject, which is quoted by St. Matthew at the beginning of his Gospel, for the purpose of showing that our Blessed Lord was the Son of the Virgin therein spoken of, is plain enough from the narrative which the holy writer has himself given of the facts.

He tells us that in the reign of Achaz the two neighbouring kingdoms of Syria and Samaria had leagued together against the House of David, then reigning in Jerusalem, and had determined to take the capital city by force, and set up in it a new King and a new dynasty. It does not appear that there was any design of destroying the kingdom, as distinct from the dynasty.

It was the House of David, in particular, that was threatened.

The alliance between its two enemies was of course a cause of great alarm to the comparatively weak State.

“They told the House of David, saying, Syria hath rested upon Ephraim, and his heart was moved, and the heart of his people, as the trees of the wood are moved by the wind.”

Then the Prophet is sent by God to encourage the wicked King Achaz.

“Thus saith the Lord, it shall not stand, and this shall not be. For the head of Syria is Damascus, and the head of Damascus is Resin, and within threescore and five years Ephraim shall cease to be a people. And the head of Ephraim is Samaria, and the head of Samaria the son of Romelia. If you will not believe, you shall not continue.”

Then follows the well known passage about the sign which the King is told to ask, and the refusal of Achaz to ask a sign.

“And he said, hear ye therefore, O House of David, is it a small thing for you to be grievous to men, that you are grievous to my God also? Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign. Behold a Virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and His name shall be called Emmanuel,” and the rest.[1]

The Prophecy Explained

It is not our purpose here to go into the details of the prophecy, or to point out their historical fulfilment as far as relates to the promised deliverance of the House of David from the danger which had been occasioned by the league against it of the two neighbouring kingdoms, each of which was more than a match for its feeble forces. The whole interest of the prophecy for us at present lies in the fact, that the virginal conception of the Blessed Mother of our Lord was to be the sign to the House of David in the days of Achaz, that the threatened overthrow and extinction would not befall it.

Now, it may surely be very fairly asked, how it comes to be so? How could a miraculous conception, so many centuries later, be a sign to a particular family that their present imminent danger of extinction would be averted? It may fairly be said that the sign would have conveyed no ray of hope or consolation to the incredulous and profane King and his Court, unless indeed the sign was the fulfilment of a promise already known to them, and in which they already believed as certain of accomplishment, a fulfilment which could not come about at all if the family was to be extinguished altogether.

The extinction of a particular family would be nothing impossible or uncommon. But if the existence of that particular family was necessary for the accomplishment of a Divine promise, then the existence of that Divine promise was a sign that the family in question was not to be extinguished.

As soon as the words of this prophecy come to be so understood all things become plain. Isaias is sent to remind the King and his house that they are the true heirs of the promise originally made to the race of man on its Fall, which was renewed to Abraham at a later time, and then to Isaac and to Jacob, and after that had been settled, as it were, in the House of David. But if this were so, how was it possible that that House could be extinguished? How could God permit the execution of the design against it which now caused so much alarm?

It is as if the Prophet had said:

“You indeed are weak and your sins deserve any punishment at the hands of God. You are afraid, and with apparent reason, as far as outward circumstances may be trusted to guide us as to the future course of events, that your House is to be destroyed and extinguished, as has been the case with so many of the royal houses which have succeeded one another on the throne of Samaria.

“Certainly there is no human prospect of your being able to resist the coalition which has now been formed against you. Nor do you seem to draw much comfort from your faith, which ought to be your great support.

“But you must remember that your House is not as other houses are, and that you inherit the great promise on which the hopes of mankind, as well as of the people of Israel, have rested from the beginning. This it is which ought to make you certain that God will not abandon you. He might well do that, for all that you, the present generation, deserve, but in abandoning you He would be abandoning His own promises.

“This is the sign which should assure you against your present fears and all others like them: ‘Behold that Virgin, conceiving and bearing a Son! and His Name shall be called EMMANUEL!’

“It has been promised to the House of David, that of it this glorious Mother and her Child shall be born, and therefore it is that your enemies cannot destroy you, as your own sins and perversity richly deserve, if in you God saw nothing more than one family among many that He has raised on high in this world, and that have returned His favours by ingratitude and unfaithfulness.”

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A sign to the House of David

Now it must be again repeated that these words are not simply a prophecy to the House of David of that day – they are spoken as conveying a sign. A sign is something known, which signifies something less known. What the House of David required was an assurance against imminent extinction. This assurance is conveyed in the sign given. If this is so, that sign must be an appeal to some knowledge on the part of those to whom it was addressed which would make it an assurance of safety.

If the words are a simple prophecy of a thing of which the hearers had never heard before, and which was in itself in the distant future, then it is difficult to understand how they could have conveyed to the House of David any assurance at all of the protection of God against the danger of which they were at that time afraid, except by the simple promise which they contained, which in itself was a promise which required the faith of which the hearers to whom Isaias spoke were devoid.

But, if the House of David was in the habit of looking forward, like the rest of the holy people, to the fulfilment of the original promise of the redemption of the world by the seed of the woman who had been spoken of in Genesis as the enemy of Satan, and if they had come to consider, in consequence of the selection of their ancestor and the founder of their dynasty, that the blessed seed was to come from among themselves, then they had the same security against the fears of their own extinction which they had of the fulfilment of the original promise made in Paradise itself.

A parallel with the Church

In this way, the words of the prophet convey a true sign, a sign which conveys a true assurance of the stability and permanency of the Royal House, and therefore of the early defeat of the enemies, however powerful they might be, who were now leagued against it.

It is a sign conveying the same sort of assurance which has often buoyed up the failing hearts of the Church in the days of her deepest and darkest adversities, when it has seemed as if she were about to be engulfed in the storms raised against her on every side. At such times a saint might say to the Holy Pontiff, or to his few faithful adherents:

“Fear not, the Lord will give you a sign, that sign shall be that He has promised that the gates of Hell shall not prevail against the Church built on the Rock. As that promise remains firm for ever, therefore you may be sure that the present dangers, which seem so threatening, will pass away, like so many others before them.”

In the one case the promise is negative, in the other it is positive, but this makes but little difference in the argument which we are urging.

This view of the great prophecy of Isaias which is applied by St. Matthew to our Lord and to His Blessed Mother, is quite in harmony with what seems to be the natural interpretation of other positive prophecies, both of Isaias himself and of the other prophets of the same great epoch. But it must always be remembered that, as the stream of prophecy as recorded in Scripture is one and unbroken, though it is, indeed, a stream which only meets the eye at intervals, so also is the prophetic testimony of any one great servant of God to the promise of Redemption a true whole, although it may be scattered here and there throughout the book which records his predictions.

We must take together, and not separately, the passages in such a prophet as Isaias which bear on our subject, and then endeavour to represent to ourselves the general picture in the prophet’s mind and writings, of the subject of the prophecy.

The Eve of the Incarnation
pp 370-372

All the great works of God are done in silence, but surely never did God do a greater work than the work of the Incarnation, and never did He work more silently and secretly than in this. The missions of the Angels are swifter than the rays of light, swifter than the currents of electricity. The moment that the command was given to Gabriel, the same moment he was at Nazareth, and the Angelic choirs may have known that one of their chief princes was sent on an errand of marvellous mercy.

To the rest of the universe all was as it had been the moment before. Hell had no conception of the work about to be accomplished. The “strong armed man” of whom our Lord speaks, was keeping his court in that kind of peace which is possible to realms such as his. At least he had no thought, with all his cunning, all his experience, all his knowledge of the prophecies and study of the ways of Providence, of the overthrow which was to be.

In the blessed abode of the saints who were awaiting their deliverance, there may have been some vague expectation, an insensible strengthening of hope and an instinctive feeling of consolation and joy.

Purgatory may have been stirred by a more intense longing, and the holy souls throughout the world, looking for redemption, may have felt as it were a wave of delight passing over their minds.

The great Roman world, we are told, was at peace. But the peace of the Roman world, what did it mean? It did not mean that sin was subdued, that passion was not raging, that lust, and anger, and hatred, and greed were not tearing the hearts of men and hounding them on against their fellows. It did not mean that the abominable idolatries and unutterable turpitudes of the heathen world were less rife than ever. It did not mean that the devils were not being worshipped on a thousand altars by the degradation of all that was noble in human nature. It did not mean that innocence was safe from pollution or weakness protected from violence and tyranny.

Where over the whole wide world could the eye of God rest, as it rested when the original creation was accomplished, and see that all was good?

But the wickedness of man could not defeat the faithfulness of God. In the cottage at Nazareth the chosen maid was waiting, unconscious of the divine purpose, but prepared by the most wonderful graces to make the blessed answer on which the salvation of the world hung.

The period of promises and predictions – and types of the divine patience struggling with human depravity – was at an end.

The fulness of time had come.

From Fr Henry James Coleridge, The Preparation of the Incarnation, Burns & Oates, London, 1885, pp 81-7, 370-1.

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Fr Henry James Coleridge SJ

What are the warnings that the final storm approaches?
The Church in the Last Days – Part I: How will we see her?
The Church in the Last Days – Part II: How will we know her?
One of the greatest pains of Purgatory and how to avoid it
What might Jairus’s Daughter tell us about the pains of Purgatory?
Our Lady, the Rosary and the Holy Souls
The Cleansing of the Temple – How Our Lord will come and purge our souls
The price of delay in relieving the souls in Purgatory
Our Lord’s expectation of his Nativity – Part I
Our Lord’s expectation of his Nativity – Part II
The Presentation of Christ – Candlemas, Passover and the buying-back of the firstborn
Persecution – What are its effects?
St Joseph – do the Gospels tell us more about him than we realise?

The Old Testament Rosary

Have you seen our “Old Testament Rosary,” which matches a prophecy from the Old Testament with each Hail Mary?

Aside from perhaps being helpful for prayer, it also shows how wonderfully Our Lord fulfilled all things in himself. Here is the First and Third Joyful Mysteries, which are relevant to the prophecy made by Isaias.

1. The Annunciation

I shall put enmities between thee and the woman. Our Father, etc. Gn 3.15.

  1. Behold a virgin shall be with child. Hail Mary, etc. Is 7.14
  2. And his name shall be called Emmanuel. Is 7.14
  3. He shall come down like rain on the fleece. Ps 71.6
  4. And a rod shall come forth from the root of Jesse. Is 11.1
  5. He shall sit on the throne of David. Is 9.7
  6. Drop down dew, ye heavens: let the clouds rain the Just. Is 45.8
  7. Let the earth bud forth a Saviour. Is 45.8
  8. Thou art my Son: this day have I begotten thee. Ps 2.7
  9. From the womb, before the daystar, I begot thee. Ps 109.3
  10. A body thou hast fitted to me: I come to do thy will. Ps 39.7

3. The Nativity of our Lord

A star shall rise out of Jacob. Nm 24.17.

  1. And thou, Bethlehem, art not the least in Juda. Mi 5.2
  2. From thee shall come the Captain to rule my people. Mi 5.2
  3. His going forth shall be from the days of eternity. Mi 5.2
  4. A Child is born to us, a Son is given to us. Is 9.6
  5. The Mighty God, the Prince of Peace. Is 9.6
  6. Before she was in labour, she brought forth a man. Is 66.7
  7. The ox knoweth his owner, the ass his master’s crib. Is 1.3
  8. But Israel hath not known me or understood. Is 1.3
  9. But the Kings of Tharsis shall offer presents. Ps 71.10
  10. And they from Saba bring gold and frankincense. Is 60.6


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[1] Isaias viii. 1-14.

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