In understanding Old Testament passages related to the birth and ministry of Jesus Christ, it is important to grasp two very important factors. First, each passage must be understood in its proper historical and theological context.
The prophets, who proclaimed the divine promises related to the coming of the Anointed One of God, spoke and ministered to a specific group of people who lived in a precise moment in history. That moment in history gave meaning to and provided the background for the proclamation of the divine message. That same moment in history also provided the means by which the people could understand the message of the prophets. Thus, to separate the message from its historical and theological moorings is to neglect the primary intent of the prophets and of their message.
Second, each Messianic oracle must be understood within the parameters of the dialectic between promise and fulfillment. The divine promises made by the prophets were given first and primarily to Israel and were fulfilled within the history of the people of God in the Old Testament. However, the fulfillment of a divine promise brings in itself such an enrichment of the promise and transforms it so thoroughly that the fulfillment becomes a promise for a greater fulfillment in the future.
A good example is the promise of the land in the Old Testament. When the children of Abraham inherited the promised land, the Old Testament indicates that that alone would not mean the full realization of the promise. Thus, beyond the account of the fulfillment of God’s promise, there remains open the expectation of a promise yet unredeemed, waiting for another fulfillment. The gift of the land, then, is only an assurance of a greater promise yet to be fulfilled.
The whole history of Israel in the Old Testament is presented in terms of fulfillment of a prophetic word which always recurs anew. The words which came to the prophets by divine revelation were words of promise. These words were promises of judgment and salvation, to be sure, but they were divine promises mediated to the people by the prophets.
As a messenger of Yahweh, the prophet proclaimed the word of God as the divine will for Israel, and sometimes, for the nations. Between the time of the announcement of the divine word and the time of its fulfillment, there was an interval filled with tension.
This tension-laden interval was the time for the listener to react to the proclaimed word, a time to accept it or to reject it. When Yahweh sent Jonah to preach in Nineveh, Jonah’s message was simple: “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4). This interval of forty days was a time for the people of Nineveh to exercise their freedom and choose. They chose repentance and the judgment was averted.
Thus, the language of promise does not only carry divine condemnation but also the possibility of salvation. The message of hope and salvation proclaimed by the prophets, when interpreted correctly, proclaims the work and the will of God for the salvation of his people. The proclamation of the divine word is the proclamation of the divine will and only God himself can interpret all the ramifications of his promise when it is fulfilled. Divine interpretations can be full of surprises, even for the prophet who proclaimed the promise.
It is in this light that the true Messianic passages of the Old Testament should be interpreted. The promise of God to David in 2 Samuel 7 establishes the proper background to interpret Micah 5:1-4; Isaiah 7:14; Isaiah 9; Isaiah 11, and many other messianic passages. The king in Jerusalem is God’s anointed one (Hebrew: “Messiah”). He represents the continuation of God’s promise to David: “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me; your throne shall be established for ever” (2 Sam. 7:16).
Thus, when the time came after the monarchy had disappeared in Israel, many people questioned Yahweh’s power to fulfill the promise made to David. If God is faithful to his promise, and if God promised that the throne and the kingdom of David would last for ever, has God then failed to fulfill his promise? The answer to this question is found in the oracles of salvation in which the prophets announced the coming of a descendant of David who would continue the promise God had given to David. Thus, for instance, the promise of the stump of David, producing a new shoot (Isaiah 11:1) demonstrates how judgment and salvation, promise and fulfillment stand along side each other, giving meaning to the long ago past and the future that is not yet. Because of their certainty that God would act in the future, the prophets proclaimed to the people that if not now, then some day God would raise another son of David who would restore the kingdom of David, his father. In time this hope was transferred to the future and the coming son of David became the Messiah.
Even when a contemporary king is spoken of (such as Hezekiah), the prophetic language used to describe the king transcends in the direction of the superlative. However, this description of the king in ideal terms is never fulfilled in the contemporary king. This language of exaltation should not be dismissed as an exaggeration of the scribe or prophet. Rather, because the king as the anointed one of God (the king as God’s Messiah) has a significant role in the fulfillment of the divine promises to David, the superlative words used by the prophets become words to describe the present king’s righteousness, his power, and his special relationship to Yahweh as “the son of God.” But, because no contemporary king was ever able to meet popular and divine expectations, the language then promoted the expectation of a greater king, another son of David, who is yet to come.
In conclusion, events in the Old Testament find fulfillment within the history of Israel, but this fulfillment also raises the question of a deeper fulfillment. It is for this reason that the promises given by God find fulfillment in the history of God’s people, Israel, but the fulfillment of a promise of God becomes a promise for a greater fulfillment in the life and history of God’s other people, the church.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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