Prophecy in the NT, 1st Principle: Multiple Fulfillments

maryThat which has been fulfilled in spirit may be fulfilled again in both spirit and letter in the Messiah.

The very first prophecy of the Tanakh that is openly cited in the New Testament is Isaiah 7:14, as quoted in Matthew 1:23: “‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel’ (which means, God with us).”

Well, obviously this is a straightforward prophecy that the Messiah would be born of a virgin, right? Well, hold on a moment. Let’s read the prophecy in context:

The LORD spoke again to Ahaz, saying, “Ask a sign of the LORD your God; ask it either in the depth, or in the height above.”

But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, neither will I tempt the LORD.”

He said, “Listen now, house of David. Is it not enough for you to try the patience of men, that you will try the patience of my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the almah will conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. He shall eat butter and honey when he knows to refuse the evil, and choose the good. For before the child knows to refuse the evil, and choose the good, the land whose two kings you abhor shall be forsaken. (Isa. 7:10-16)

king-ahaz-sacrificed-his-son-to-molech
Isaiah had to confront this guy.

Anti-missionaries (Jewish teachers who focus on attacking the New Testament claims) love to attack Matthew’s quotation of this verse in regards to the Virgin Birth of the Messiah. To their credit, there are several points in their favor:

First, the Hebrew word almah does not unambiguously mean “virgin.” It literally means simply “young woman,” e.g., a teenager. The masculine equivalent is elam, which is used in 1 Samuel 17:56, where King Saul says of David, “Inquire whose son the boy (‘elam) is.” I don’t think he was concerned with whether David had engaged in sexual relations or not.  Virginity is implied, both by the root word (‘alam means “to conceal”) and by the context (of the seven times almah is used in the Tanakh, not once is it used of a non-virgin), but it is not the main meaning of the word.  (For the record, betulah doesn’t necessarily mean “virgin” either, as evidenced by its use in Joel 1:8.)

Second, this was to be a sign specifically to Ahaz, and so had to take place while he was still alive. Likewise, the child was supposed to be old enough for solid food but below the age of accountability when the deliverance came, not seven hundred years away from being born, as Yeshua was.

And third, the apparent fulfillment is given in the very next chapter:

The LORD said to me, “Take a large tablet, and write on it with a man’s pen, ‘For Maher Shalal Hash Baz; and I will take for myself faithful witnesses to testify: Uriah the priest, and Zechariah the son of Jeberechiah.”

I went to the prophetess, and she conceived, and bore a son. Then the LORD said to me, “Call his name ‘Maher Shalal Hash Baz.’ For before the child knows how to say, ‘My father,’ and, ‘My mother,’ the riches of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria will be carried away by the king of Assyria. . . . now therefore, behold, the Lord brings upon them the mighty flood waters of the River: the king of Assyria and all his glory.” (Isa 8:1-4, 7)

However, while all of the above is true, there are specific details in the prophecy that demonstrate that it also must have a future fulfillment:

First, Isaiah already had a child old enough to go before the king, Shear-Yashuv (7:3), so his wife must have been in her twenties at the very least, which would not be young enough to be the almah spoken of in this prophecy.

Secondly, Hashem tells Isaiah to name his son something other than Immanuel—in effect, God himself deliberately messes up the prophecy.  Why?  Why not tell Isaiah to name his son Immanuel?  The only answer that comes to mind is that the Holy One wanted to make it clear that while Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz was indeed to be a sign in that deliverance would come while he was still a very young child, he was not the final sign to the House of David of the Holy One’s fidelity to His covenant.

And third, the prophecy does not end in chapter 8, but continues through chapter 9-11, which everyone acknowledges to be Messianic prophecy:

For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be on his shoulders, and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, God (or Judge), Mighty One, Father, Everlasting, Prince, and Peace.  There will be no end to the increase of his government or of peace, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness from then on and forevermore.  The zeal of the LORD of Hosts will accomplish this.  (9:6-7)

(Some anti-missionaries try to dispute that the above is a Messianic prophecy, but they dispute their own honored sages in the process. There’s an excellent article on the Heart of Israel website that provides rabbinic witness to the Messianic importance of Isaiah 9.)

Now if the Almah’s Son spoken of in chapter 7 saw its complete fulfillment in chapter 8, we have an obvious problem:  Isaiah’s son never reigned on David’s throne.  This has led the Talmudic sages to interpret Isaiah 9 to refer at least in part to Hezekiah’s reign (b. Sanhedrin 94a). They believed that Hezekiah could have been the promised Messiah, but he had a flaw in his character (pride, as exhibited in 2 Kings 20:12-19) which disqualified him.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPerhaps we should separate the two passages and understand them as two completely unrelated prophecies. That would deny not only the whole principle of Davar Hilmad Me’anino (Explanation obtained from context) that Jewish hermeneutics relies on, but also ignores G’zerah Shavah (Equivalence of Expresions):  “What applies to a word, root, or phrase in one passage applies equally to it in another, even when they are not thematically or contextually linked.” In short, it would be absurd according to normal, Jewish interpretive methods to completely separate the ‘Almah’s Son in chapter 7 from the Given Son in chapter 9, since chapters 7-12 all flow together as a single prophecy.

But could we understand, as some rabbis evidently did, that the entire passage (chapters 7-12) refers to Hezekiah, with no special reference to the Messiah?  Again, no.  Ahaz ruled for sixteen years (2Ki. 16:18) and Hezekiah ascended the throne when he was twenty-five (18:2), which means that he would have already been an ‘elam (a young man, the male equivalent of an almah) himself, most likely already at the age of accountability (“knowing good from evil”), at the time the prophecy was given. This means that Matthew is absolutely correct to see a future Messianic King in the prophecy–but how then do we deal with the immanent language the “interruption” of chapter 8?

Double Prophecies

Larkin-peaks of prophecy
No, it’s not exactly like this, but I wish I could draw this well.

What we have here is a perfect example of a dual or near-far prophecy.  The overall theme of the prophecy–that as a show of his faithfulness to the line of David, the Eternal Creator would cause a child to be conceived and would bring about the rescue of Judah before the child reached a certain age–was fulfilled in the near term.  However, there are at least three specific details of the prophecy that had yet to be fulfilled: 1) Isaiah’s wife was no longer an almah, 2) Hashem specifically told Isaiah not to name the child Immanuel, and 3) Isaiah’s child never ascended the throne of David.  All three of these details have been or will be fulfilled in Yeshua the Messiah, the Scion of the House of David who stands as the ultimate proof of the Holy One’s fidelity to His covenant with David.

Matthew’s eye wasn’t drawn to this prophecy because he was looking for Messianic prophecies that could be written into the life of Yeshua.  Rather, he was starting with the knowledge that the Messiah had already been conceived in the womb of a virgin and was trying to understand that miracle in the light of the already-existing Scriptures. After all,  “the Lord GOD does nothing without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets” (Amos 3:7). Matthew could well have pointed to the miraculous conceptions of many of the Patriarchs and other leaders of Israel–the opening of barren wombs–but instead he found here in Isaiah the answer to his real question:  Who is Yeshua?  Answer:  Emmanu’el, God With Us, and the king who will reign forever from Jerusalem.

 Isaiah’s ‘Almah prophecy is far from the only double-prophecy or near-far prophecy in Scripture, and yet this fact of Scriptural interpretation is all too often overlooked by the academics, even leading some to the erroneous conclusion that certain prophecies failed. But how else can we understand Yeshua’s prophecy that the “abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel” (Mat. 24:15, cf. Dan. 9:27, 11:31, 12:11)? Everyone knew that those prophecies had already been fulfilled by Antiochus IV some two centuries before (1 Macc. 1:54), so why would Yeshua speak of it as being yet future?

The answer is that just as in the case of Isaiah’s ‘almah prophecy, there were elements of Daniel’s prophecies that had not yet been fulfilled. Oh, you could look at the overall prophecy and say, “Eh, close enough for government work,” but when you looked at the details, like the wars and end of the King of the North in Daniel 11:40-45, or the promise of the resurrection in 12:2-3, you’re left scratching your head and wondering if Daniel got it wrong–just like you’re left scratching your head at the fine details of Isaiah’s prophecy.

These unfulfilled details call to us and point to a future in which, indeed, all things will be set right, when the Righteous One will rule from David’s throne and resurrect the dead. The near-term fulfillment is a kind of down-payment on the eschatological promise: The kings of Syria and Samaria being destroyed by the Assyrians while Isaiah’s youngest son was still a toddler was the down-payment on the assurance that the Davidic line would never end, and that the Chosen One would indeed be born who would bring perfect and eternal justice to the world. The victory of the Maccabees over Anitochus was a foretaste of God’s promise of ultimate victory over the final Antichrist, a miraculous preservation of the nation until its purpose could be fulfilled.

Even a preterist is stuck with the reality of near-far double prophecies.

In the same way, when we do careful exegesis of prophecies like Ezekiel 29-30 and find details that just don’t fit with what we know of history, we should consider the possibility that those specific elements likewise await a future fulfillment. Obviously, that means that we need to do our homework to find out which prophecies have already been fulfilled and how–but when we find unfulfilled elements in a prophecy that seems to have been fulfilled in the broad details, those broad details themselves may be fulfilled again, just as in the ‘almah prophecy.

Peaks of Prophecy
Credit where credit is due

The Confusion of the Church

As a final note, let us look at Isaiah 8:14-18:

He will be a sanctuary, but for both houses of Israel, he will be
a trap and a snare for the inhabitants of Jerusalem.

Many will stumble over it,
fall, be broken, be snared, and be captured.”

Wrap up the testimony.
Seal the law among my disciples.

I will wait for the LORD, who hides his face from the house of Jacob, and I will look for him.  Behold, I and the children whom the LORD has given me are for signs and for wonders in Israel from the LORD of Hosts, who dwells in Mount Zion.

The fact that the Messiah would actually be a stumbling block to Israel is found in Isa. 28:16 and Psa. 118:22 as well.  But did you realize that we were told that his own disciples would be confused as well?

Look again at v. 16 with a different translation:  “Bind the tradition, seal the Torah among my disciples.”  To bind (Heb. tzor) is to bind, distress, and vex.  To seal (Heb. chatom) is to seal up a writing so that it cannot be understood, as in Dan. 12:4 and 9.  Here the Holy One warned us in advance that there would be a time in which the disciples of this Sanctuary would frustrate the tradition (cf. Ruth 4:7 for the use of this word) and would not understand the Torah. This is exactly what has happened in the Ekklesia, which lost its Jewish roots for nearly two thousand years.

And it is in that loss that our understanding of so much of the Bible has been diminished, most especially in the arena of prophecy. As the Church as a whole turns in love to its older brother in the faith, the bindings will continue to be loosed and the oracles of God unsealed for the encouragement of the faithful and the glorification of the Holy One and his Messiah.

Shalom

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