The context of a prophecy may be thematic rather than chronological.
The birth of Yeshua in Bethlehem, “the city of David” (Luke 2:11), is iconic in Christian circles, the center of Christmas pageants in churches all over the world every December. I still enjoy the songs of the Christmas season (even though I know it’s closer to the Lord’s conception date than his birth-date), particularly the minor key, melancholic ones like “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”
But did you know that the prophecy that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem is one that, if we applied the standards of many or even most Christian scholars, is taken completely out of context?
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.
They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: “‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.'” (Mat. 2:1-6, cit. Mic. 5:2)
Now let’s turn to the book of Micah, from which this prophecy was taken, and really look at it in its historical-textual context: when it was written and why. And when we do, we find out that Micah’s immediate concern was not the future coming of the Messiah (unlike his contemporary Isaiah), but the near-term descent of the Assyrians on Judah. The immediate context is so clear that some Christian scholars have even argued that Micah’s prophecy “failed,” and must therefore have been contingent based on Judah’s reception to it. While we deal with that argument here, the fact remains that Micah’s prophecies seem entirely local to his situation, even if they do anticipate the later Babylonian captivity–except for chapter 5, verses 2-4, which speak of the Messiah.
The great Jewish rabbi and scholar Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchak (aka Rashi) wrote that this passage referred to, “the Messiah, son of David, and so Scripture says (Ps. 118:22): ‘The stone the builders had rejected became a cornerstone.'” His commentary on this passage probably deserves its own post, so for now let’s just point out that it’s an established fact in Judaism that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. So how then do we explain this out-of-context reference to him in the middle of a prophetic description of events 600-800 years before Yeshua’s birth?
From Micah’s prophecy, we actually learn an important prophetic principle: A prophecy can be thematically linked with its context without being chronologically linked to it. In other words, a section of prophecy can be linked to the theme of its surrounding verses, but still take place hundreds or thousands of years apart.
In Micah’s case, what is the connection? Well, as I explained in my rebuttal to Chisholm’s “prophetic contingency” theology,
While some translations (like the ESV) try to separate the clause, “And he [the Messiah] shall be their peace” from the following, “When the Assyrian [or Assyria] comes into our land . . .,” there is no hard break between the two. The passage can just as easily be understood as a continuance of the Messianic prophecy, e.g., “This [promise of the coming] Messiah will be our peace when Assyria comes into our land and treads on our palaces, because [we know there will come a day when] we will raise against Assyria seven shepherds . . .”
Micah 7:12 is parallel to Isaiah 19:19-25, which prophesies of the day when the enemies of Israel, both Egypt and Assyria, would be at peace with both Israel and with each other. The promise that these Gentile nations would be called by God “my people” and “the work of my hands” likewise parallels the promise of Amos 9:11-12 that the nations would one day be called by the name of the Lord. Since that latter passage was used by the Acts 15 council to make the decision to include the Gentiles as Gentiles and not as converted Jews, we can safely take all three of these OT passages to be eschatological, referring to the reconciliation of the nations to their original Creator through his Messiah–and thereby their reconciliation to the Creator’s nation of Israel as well.
In a way, this is a reiteration of the point from the previous post, but driven home in a different way. Before, we saw that a prophecy can have two fulfillments, one near to the prophet and one centuries later in the Messiah himself. Here we see that it is not always necessary to try to find a “local” fulfillment first.
Theme in Eschatology
One of the easiest places to illustrate the use of this principle is in Daniel 11-12. Pretty much all scholars agree that 11:21-35 was fulfilled by Antiochus IV and the Maccabean revolt in the 2nd century BCE. Some of us believe, on the basis of the “near-far” principle and direct NT citation (as discussed in the previous post) that they will be fulfilled again by the final Antichrist. But let’s set that aside for the moment and assume for the sake of discussion that we’re wrong, that there’s only one fulfillment to 11:21-35.
Now look at 11:36-12:13. These verses contain prophecies that no one has ever fulfilled, and which are alluded to several times in the NT. Does this mean that we have to take them “out of context” to use them in a futurist sense? Not at all. The theme of these verses is still the same: The great enemy of Israel and Israel’s God will arise in the last days to test the faithful, but will fall by the hand of the Most High himself. Whether or not you choose to recognize the “near-far” element of the prophecy, the connecting theme itself is still there.
The book of Revelation has 404 verses and, depending on who you ask, 800-1200 quotes and allusions from the Tanakh. Many of these may seem out-of-place or out-of-context at first glance, but are they really? Is there a linking theme that Revelation is drawing on that we can use as our guide? For example, most recognize that Joel’s army of locusts represents a human army, and that Revelation 9:1-11 alludes to Joel. What is the linking theme?
When we discover someone seemingly taking a prophecy out of its historical-textual context, Matthew 2:1-6 gives us a guide: Is the quote truly out of context, or has the person correctly identified an underlying theme?
All of this is obviously tricky, and even subjective to a point. However, it is Biblical, and serves as a baseline–or perhaps a safety railing–as we seek to understand our very strange days in light of God’s Word.