In my last post, I argued that when biblical writers such as Matthew speak of a prophecy being “fulfilled,” they don’t mean that a foreseen future has come to pass. Rather, they mean that sayings or events from an earlier point in the biblical story have taken on a fuller and deeper meaning in light of later redemptive-historical developments.
We may appeal to American history for an illustration of this sense of “fulfillment.” When Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence in 1776 that “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” he said this to challenge the premise that kings rule by divine right and that their subjects therefore ow them the kind of unquestioning loyalty they would offer to God. (That is, he said this to justify a revolutionary independence movement.)
But when Abraham Lincoln observed in his Gettysburg Address of 1863 that our nation was “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” he meant instead that slavery was incompatible with the fundamental premises of American society.
And when Martin Luther King said, in his “I Have a Dream” speech of 1963, appropriately delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, that he longed for the day when our nation would “rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal,’” he explained that in such a nation, people would “not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” This is how the “true” or “fulfilled” (fullest and deepest) meaning of Jefferson’s words would be realized, according to King.
By this same analogy, in Matt. 1:23 the gospel writer is announcing that Isaiah’s words have taken on a fuller and deeper meaning. The Greek translation of Isaiah’s original words has helped this happen: Isaiah uses the term “maiden.” (The original Hebrew term refers to a young woman, married or unmarried, who has not yet had a child; in Isaiah’s original context, it probably indicates Ahaz’s queen, who became the mother of Hezekiah.) The Greek reads, more intensively, “virgin.” Moreover, “Emmanuel” is no longer the boy’s name, but rather an explanation of his identity — “God with us.” These two intensified aspects of meaning are brought out when the original statement is heard in the light of later developments as the plan of God unfolds.
The case is similar with “out of Egypt have I called my son.” “Son” is no longer a metaphorical description of the nation of Israel, but another accurate disclosure of Jesus’ identity.
As for “he shall be called a Nazarene,” the best explanation seems to be that this was a geographic term of derision (as in John 1:46, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”), much like “Okie” during the Dust Bowl years. This term “Okie” was applied to people from Oklahoma and nearby areas similarly affected by prolonged drought who migrated West in search of work and food. It ceased to mean “someone from Oklahoma” and came to mean something closer to “gypsy.” Matthew, in his appeal to the prophets, is summarizing their many statements that the servant of God would be “despised and rejected.” (The quotation here is indirect, not direct like the preceding ones, and thus does not belong within quotation marks, although some modern Bibles present it that way.) Other announcements of prophetic “fulfillment” may be understood similarly.
None of this should be taken to mean, however, that those who knew God could not have spoken in prescient ways about the deliverance He would send. They were able to do this, and did so, precisely because they knew the ways of God. Moreover, we must not rule out the existence of an actual “gift of prophecy,” given to humans, through which God discloses details of what He will work to bring about in the future, so that those in the present may take moral warning.
One clear example of prophecy-as-foreseeing is the prediction a prophet made to Jereboam, recorded in 1 Kings 13:2, that a king named Josiah would one day defile the altar he had built to rival the one in Jerusalem. This prediction was fulfilled, not in the Matthean sense, but quite literally, three hundred years later, as described in 2 Kings 23:15-18. Another example is Jesus’ prediction that Peter would deny him three times before the cock crowed the following morning (Luke 22:34 and 54-62, with parallels in Matthew and Mark). Jesus’ estimate of Peter’s impetuous character could certainly have led him to predict that despite his bravado, Peter would deny him. But how would Jesus have known, without divinely-granted insight, how many times, and by when? So there are indeed examples in the Bible of prophetic fulfillment in the sense of “a future foreseen come to pass.”
Nevertheless, these examples do not provide proof of the supernatural inspiration of the writer who recorded them. They take place, after all, within a single continuous narrative that has been recorded after the fact. So they are not offered to demonstrate prophetic insight on the part of the writer. These predictions and fulfillments are rather recounted for other reasons. The far-off but inevitable doom of Jereboam’s altar is proclaimed from its very foundation as a warning against idolatry. And Jesus’ prediction about Peter shows that even as he went to his death, he was full of divine power and knowledge, and that it was therefore willingly that he surrendered himself for our sakes. The account is meant to fill us with gratitude and admiration for Jesus, in other words—not for Luke!
As we seek to understand the Bible’s concept of “fulfillment,” we must also recognize the significance of “intertextuality,” that is, of the new meanings texts take on when they are read in the presence of other texts. For the Christian who believes that the Bible is the inspired word of God, one implication is that it is God Himself who has juxtaposed the texts in question. Divine intention can therefore be seen in connections that would have been impossible for the original authors to have made, since they wrote far apart from one another in both time and place.
The word spoken to the serpent in Genesis 3:15, for example, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel,” may have meant in its original context only that animals formerly subject to humans would now turn wild and dangerous. But within the pages of the biblical collection, there is now an intertextuality by which these words can be understood validly as a Messianic prophecy, even though the New Testament itself does not make this connection expliclity. This prophecy was fulfilled by the victory of Jesus over the devil at the cross.
But if such “fulfillments” are instead to serve as our guarantee of the divine inspiration of the Scriptures, all of them, without exception, must be examples of uncannily accurate prediction. It simply does not suffice for Isaiah to look 700 years into the future, see a boy miraculously born to a “maiden” or “virgin,” but then get his name wrong. We have a right to expect better than this from God, if we are looking for supernatural proofs.
And if what we think should be happening really isn’t, then we must re-examine our expectations themselves. Has God really promised us that his word can be recognized as his word even without faith? Did not Jesus say that it is “an evil and adulterous generation that seeks a sign” (Matthew 12:39)? If no such signs were granted in the case of the living Word, we should not expect them in the case of the written word, either.