A Woman Shall Encompass a Man

Jer 31:22

How long wilt thou go about, O thou backsliding daughter? for the Lord hath created a new thing in the earth, A woman shall encompass a man.

Try sometime checking the smorgasbord of commentaries on the internet, and you will find a dizzying array of disagreement and very unsatisfying suggestions to what all will agree is a very cryptic and controversial passage. But I say, what did you expect where there is hidden glory like this?, as the example I showed in the debate over how Isa 49:5 should be translated.

I took greatest comfort to learn that in many of the commentaries it was acknowledged that the early church fathers understood this of the virgin conception of the Messiah. I am 100% sure they were right. They affirmed this in the face of the nay saying of the sophisticated scholarship of their day. Today, only a rare few “fundamentalist hillbillies’ affirm such an antiquated notion. But I say, behold the context!

It is given by Jeremiah as God’s remedy for Israel’s perpetual backsliding. It is presented as the basis for the righteousness that enables Israel to receive the promised salvation the restoration of ‘a pure language’. As always, the setting is the post-tribuational day of the Lord.

What makes this cryptic statement commend itself as a reference to the virgin birth of the woman’s seed? It is ultimately transitional. It is placed between Israel’s continual tendency to backslide and the promise of final salvation and inheritance of the Land. This mysterious insertion is made the pivot on which all else turns. Israel’s long awaited inheritance of the promise begins as the result of this new thing that Yahweh will created in the earth, first this, then that.

Notice too it’s remarkable parallel language to the Song of Isaiah (Isa chapters 7-12). It makes you wonder how conscious Jeremiah was of Isaiah’s prophecy of the virgin when he would use such similar terms at this juncture in a context announcing the end of backsliding and the everlasting salvation of covenant promise.

Recall Yahweh’s challenge to Ahaz to ask a sign, but not just any sign. Make it hard, Ahaz! Ask for a sign as great as anything that can be conceived in the heights of heaven or the depths of the earth. Now THAT’S quite a sign!

Of course, Ahaz waxes pious and declines. This is when the Lord seizes upon the king’s feigned modesty to give, not only Ahaz, but now all Israel a sign of His own choice (notice the pronoun, ‘you’, goes from singular to plural in the Hebrew, expanding the recipients of this sign to all Israel).

In keeping with the context of the question and the answer of God, this sign must exceed anything within the conceivable bounds of nature in heaven above or earth beneath. It is, of course, the sign of the virgin conception whereby a woman encompasses a man (goes around, avoids, circumvents, bypasses).

This is the new thing in the earth that has never been created before. It is without precedent, since on it turns the turning of Israel’s captivity. And so, in a wondrous providence of unimagined, inconceivable, transcendent glory, we sing “Oh come, Oh come, Immanuel, and ransom captive Israel ….” Exactly!, as only a manchild conceived by a virgin WITHOUT, APART FROM the help of man could bypass the fallen nature and be in a position to reverse the curse for all who had fallen under it through sin.

How does one reverse the curse that has passed upon all humanity through the transmission of a fallen nature that none can escape (in sin I was conceived) unless that one is brought into the world in a unique way that bypasses the fallen nature?

This is the logic of the virgin birth, and it is fully present in the original promise. Remember too, Adam and Eve knew the experience of paradise and would have been intimate with the magnitude of the change that passed on the whole observable created order. But they had this promise. When this would come, they did not know, but they knew how it would come. It would come by a man born to the woman (already implying some distinct contrast from the role of the man in procreation).

The woman’s son would reverse the curse through a substitutionary wound that he would endure on behalf of those who had fallen under the curse through sin. (Remember, God had taught them the principle of sacrifice as necessary to any covering of sin). How, therefore, does this not imply sinlessness? The prophets surely recognized this, as the scripture is clear that they understood that Messiah should suffer and be “cut off” before His exaltation to glory (Dan 9:26; 1Pet 1:11). It is therefore, much easier to see then the implication of Eve’s exclamation, “I have gotten a man by the help of the Lord!” However, in the Hebrew text, the word “help” does not appear. It is supplied by translators. It is more accurately translated, “I have gotten a man (or ‘manchild’), the Lord”, some translate, “even the Lord”.

Very probably, Eve thought she was the woman who would bring the savior into the world. Obviously wrong about the time and the person, she nonetheless understood that for the curse to be reversed and paradise restored, a very extraordinary power would have to attend the promised manchild. Is it possible she thought this power might by the Spirit of Lord with whom she had walked and communed in the garden? That is speculative, but the predominant conditions in which the freshly fallen pair found themselves certainly implied a great power would have to attend the one born to conquer the one who had brought them, and the whole of creation under the power of death observed all around them.

Obviously, Eve didn’t understand that the promised seed would come without the help of the man in the sense of natural procreation, but her jubilant exclamation may suggest that she might have intuited that the only one who could conceivably accomplish to the conquer the power of sin and death would have to be, in some sense, God. Perhaps, as in the case of Caiaphas, Eve spoke not of herself, but in the position as the mother of all living, prophetically anticipates the necessary deity of the manchild. In any event, it is at least inviting to consider the possibility in view of the unique form of the Hebrew text. But this is not at all critical to our argument.

Even if we take the more natural assumptions of most commentators that Eve could never have been in possession of even an incipient shadow of such a ‘high Christology’, it is no less a plain fact that the promise of Gen 3:15 carries in it the seed of just such a high Christology of virgin conception and substitutionary atonement. How so? Because in order for one to reverse the curse, that one cannot be under it.

THAT is the maxim the whole of scripture anticipates and demonstrates gloriously. Through later revelation, particularly the episode with Isaac’s stay of execution, by which Abraham was able to look ahead and see Jesus’ day, it became clearer and clearer that only an innocent sufferer, free from the taint of sin, could ever break its dominion through a sacrifice that would avail for all the election of grace and secure the everlasting inheritance of all the seed. How would this be? Answer: “a woman shall encompass a man.”

But there is something that points even more decisively to the necessity of the unique begetting of the coming One. It is the issue of the nature of the sin nature. Sin must be overcome, not by an “hero” who would master the inclination towards the sin that all flesh is born ‘under’. That would be works. On the contrary, the Messiah would be free of the false presumption of strength, i.e., the human view of strength. In a sense, none born of woman was ever so weak and blind as He who could see and judge so perfectly whose only strength was the Spirit of the Lord.

By bypassing the help of man in his conception and perfect life of obedient faith, the divine Messiah would bypass the curse of self reliance. Though tempted beyond our ability to conceive, He would never venture one word or action on His own initiative or strength. By never speaking or doing anything of Himself, His humanity was preserved and perfected as the habitation of all the fullness of God.

It was His glorious weakness, free of any mixture of ‘man’, receiving nothing of the help of man. This is how His humanity could be the habitation of all the fullness of God in a body (a body you have prepared me). To this one, uniquely begotten Son, the Spirit could be given without the measure, because there was nothing of our common fallenness in Him to hinder or limit that fullness.

It was this perfection that alone could be accepted as substitute and sacrifice for sin. The author of sin and death would bruise ‘His’ heel, and God would turn this bruising to mortally wound the head of Satan who has the power of death and thus reverse the curse, bringing the kingdom of God to earth as it in heaven.

It’s all right there in the most pregnant promise in the Bible, as nothing in all subsequent unfolding revelation is not found fully present in that first seed of promise. Simply glorious to contemplate. “Known unto God are all His works from the beginning …”


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The Lamb of God, The Mystery of Godliness
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