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Monday, February 28, 2011

Prophecy: The first four fulfilled Messianic prophecies

The New Testament, especially the book of Matthew, which was apparently written with a Jewish audience in mind, frequently reminds us of Old Testament prophecies about Christ.

Matthew indicates Old Testament prophecies which were fulfilled by events related to Christ's life on earth. I'm going to muse about the first four of these. I shall use the World English Bible, which is public domain, throughout this post.

The first fulfilled prophecy is in Matthew 1:23:
“Behold, the virgin shall be with child,
and shall bring forth a son.
They shall call his name Immanuel”;
which is, being interpreted, “God with us.”
This is a quotation from Isaiah 7:14. However, I quote additional verses from that chapter:
7:10 Yahweh spoke again to Ahaz, saying, 11 “Ask a sign of Yahweh your God; ask it either in the depth, or in the height above.”
12 But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, neither will I tempt Yahweh.”
13 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? 14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin will conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. 15 He shall eat butter and honey when he knows to refuse the evil, and choose the good. 16 For before the child knows to refuse the evil, and choose the good, the land whose two kings you abhor shall be forsaken. 17 Yahweh will bring on you, on your people, and on your father’s house, days that have not come, from the day that Ephraim departed from Judah; even the king of Assyria. 18 It will happen in that day that Yahweh will whistle for the fly that is in the uttermost part of the rivers of Egypt, and for the bee that is in the land of Assyria.

Matthew says that 7:14 was a fulfilled prophecy about the birth of Christ, so it must have been. But it would have taken extraordinary wisdom to find such a prophecy in Isaiah's original proclamation, which, on the face of it, is given as a prophecy of God's judgment on the kingdom of Ahaz. There are other difficulties. Did Jesus ever have to learn to refuse evil? Was there a child born in Ahaz's time, who also fulfilled this prophecy? (My NIV study bible suggests that a betrothed wife of Isaiah may have been referred to.) What am I saying? I'm saying that it is unlikely that Ahaz, or even Isaiah, would have taken Isaiah 7:14 to be a prophecy about the coming of Christ. Matthew, and you and I, can see that it was, in hindsight.

An interesting sidelight about this prophecy is that some scholars have translated the Hebrew word from Isaiah, which the WEB has rendered as "virgin," as "young woman." This includes a recent translation, the New American Bible, Revised Edition, which has the approval of the U. S. Catholic Bishops. The Catholic Bishops, I'm sure, are not changing their belief that Mary was a virgin when Christ was conceived, but are apparently convinced that the Hebrew word did not have to mean "virgin."

The second prophecy listed by Matthew as fulfilled is in 2:6:
2:6 'You Bethlehem, land of Judah,
    are in no way least among the princes of Judah:
for out of you shall come forth a governor,
    who shall shepherd my people, Israel.'

The original statement is in Micah 5:
5:1 Now you shall gather yourself in troops,
    daughter of troops.
He has laid siege against us.
    They will strike the judge of Israel with a rod on the cheek.
2 But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
    being small among the clans of Judah,
    out of you one will come forth to me that is to be ruler in Israel;
    whose goings forth are from of old, from everlasting.
3 Therefore he will abandon them until the time that she who is in labor gives birth.
    Then the rest of his brothers will return to the children of Israel.
4 He shall stand, and shall shepherd in the strength of Yahweh,
    in the majesty of the name of Yahweh his God:
    and they will live, for then he will be great to the ends of the earth.
5 He will be our peace when Assyria invades our land,
    and when he marches through our fortresses,
    then we will raise against him seven shepherds,
    and eight leaders of men.
6 They will rule the land of Assyria with the sword,
    and the land of Nimrod in its gates.

It is clear that at least one scholar understood that verse 2 referred to the birth of the Messiah, because he communicated that to the Wise Men. But the context, before and after, involves warfare, in particular against the Assyrians. I wonder if anyone familiar with this prophecy, when it was given, would have understood that it was talking, in part, about the birth of God's Son, the Savior?

The third prophecy is this:
Matthew 2:14 He arose and took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt, 15 and was there until the death of Herod; that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

Here's the original:
Hosea 11:1 “When Israel was a child, then I loved him,
    and called my son out of Egypt.
2 They called to them, so they went from them.
    They sacrificed to the Baals,
    and burned incense to engraved images.
3 Yet I taught Ephraim to walk.
    I took them by his arms;
    but they didn’t know that I healed them.
4 I drew them with cords of a man, with ties of love;
    and I was to them like those who lift up the yoke on their necks;
    and I bent down to him and I fed him.
5 “They won’t return into the land of Egypt;
    but the Assyrian will be their king,
    because they refused to repent.

This seems to be speaking of the Exodus, and subsequent events. Apparently God meant this prophecy to cover more than one event, one national, and one related to the early life of Christ. For a discussion of this prophecy by a Bible scholar, Ken Schenck, see here.

The fourth prophecy, a sad one, is:
Matthew 2:18 “A voice was heard in Ramah,
    lamentation, weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children;
    she wouldn’t be comforted,
    because they are no more.”

The source is Jeremiah 31:11 For Yahweh has ransomed Jacob, and redeemed him from the hand of him who was stronger than he. 12 They shall come and sing in the height of Zion, and shall flow to the goodness of Yahweh, to the grain, and to the new wine, and to the oil, and to the young of the flock and of the herd: and their soul shall be as a watered garden; and they shall not sorrow any more at all. 13 Then shall the virgin rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old together; for I will turn their mourning into joy, and will comfort them, and make them rejoice from their sorrow. 14 I will satiate the soul of the priests with fatness, and my people shall be satisfied with my goodness, says Yahweh. 15 Thus says Yahweh: A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation, and bitter weeping, Rachel weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more. 16 Thus says Yahweh: Refrain your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for your work shall be rewarded, says Yahweh; and they shall come again from the land of the enemy. 17 There is hope for your latter end, says Yahweh; and your children shall come again to their own border.

It would seem that this, too, would have been difficult, or impossible, to read as a prophecy of Herod killing the boy babies to try to kill Christ. The passage, as a whole, is a prophecy of the restoration of Israel.

My point is that, based on these four prophecies, where we know that they have been fulfilled, at least partly, and how they were fulfilled, there would have been real difficulty for anyone to have understood what they were all about until Matthew told us. I mean this as a cautionary tale about prophecies of end times, so popular in our own day.

Here's a related post, about end time prophecy, and one asking whether the establishment of Israel in 1948 is fulfillment of prophecy. Here is a post by a Bible scholar, on the same subject.

Thanks for reading.

*  *  *  *  *  *

May 19, 2012: I have now considered the fifth prophecy about Jesus that Matthew treats as fulfilled. That case is, if anything, more difficult to understand than the four above. 

February 2, 2013: I added a link to a recent post from Ken Schenck to the discussion of the third prophecy.

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