Some thoughts about the nature of Biblical prophecy,
and the Principle of Double Fulfillment.
No one who really believes in God would ever intend to behave like a “false prophet.” And if any among us actually said some things that in the end turn out to be false prophecies, I seriously doubt that it was done consciously. So, no rebuke is intended. You will not find any condemnation or judgment of any well-meaning student of the Bible in my writings. Every minister of the Gospel that I have ever known has probably seen something in the Bible that compelled them to change their minds about something.
I change my mind a lot. Not necessarily because of mistakes, although that does happen, but usually because I keep studying, and seeing things that I had missed. Sometimes this comes through reading or hearing the teachings of others, past and present. But often, if I ask a question I had not heard of thought of before, the result will be a whole new way of looking at things. I call this a “paradigm shift.” The material you are about to read might make you feel as if you are riding a series of waves of new ideas. It might even feel like your first day in a Calculus class. That is how it feels to me. And I love it! It’s been 46 years since I started this journey, and I have never been more enthusiastic about Bible Study than I am today.
This is not new research, maybe just unfamiliar. Many people, much smarter than me, have poured over these Bible passages throughout the centuries and not seen, or at least not recorded, what I hope to show you. It is not because they were wrong, it is because I am building on what they said. I hope to take you a little further than they could have gone, given their times and circumstances. If I seem to be saying that everyone before me was wrong, I really am not. If I had been in their place I doubt that I would have been as thorough or precise as they were. And it would not surprise me one day to find that everything I am about to tell you has already been taught by in many places by people I have never heard of. All that I can say is that what you are about to read was new to me when I wrote it.
Did Matthew use Double Fulfillment when he described Jesus' birth?
Please read Isaiah 7,8 before continuing.
We have to go back in time, more than 700 years before Jesus was born, to understand what Isaiah’s words to Ahaz really meant then. A prophecy was given to King Ahaz, king of Judah, that both of the kings who threatened him were about to die. This prophecy came true in about three years. The purpose of the prophecy was to impress upon Ahaz, whom the Bible does not speak highly of, that God was going to be present with the nation of Judah, and protect it.
Isaiah already had at least one child, “Shear-yashub” meaning ‘a remnant shall return.’ Isaiah’s wife is presumed to have died by this time. Isaiah later says that he and his children were “signs” to Judah, from God. Their names reveal the message that they represent.
18 Here I am with the children the Lord has given me to be signs and wonders in Israel from the Lord of Hosts who dwells on Mount Zion.
There was a prophetess in Jerusalem. Since she was a prophetess, and since Ahaz was not a good King in God’s sight, it would seem to be a certainty that some of her prophecies were about him and annoyed him. Ahaz would have had an attitude toward her, and I think he used the phrase, “The Virgin,” as a derogatory term. Ahaz knew who “The Virgin” was. Maybe everyone in Jerusalem knew who she was.
3 I was then intimate with the prophetess, and she conceived and gave birth to a son. The Lord said to me, “Name him Maher-shalal-hash-baz, (meaning: ‘hurry to the plunder and the spoils’) 4 for before the boy knows how to call out father or mother, the wealth of Damascus and the spoils of Samaria will be carried off to the king of Assyria.”
The Bible says that Isaiah took her and fathered a child by her. It is assumed that he married her. There is nothing in the text that hints at anything not being done properly. The child she bore was given a special name, which referred to the doom of the two kings which was swiftly approaching. And we are told that the prophecy of the death of the two kings was fulfilled while this child was still too young to even say ‘daddy or mama’. Finally, we are ready to look at the verse that set all of this in motion.
14 Therefore, the Lord Himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive, have a son, and name him Immanuel. 15 By the time he learns to reject what is bad and choose what is good, he will be eating butter and honey. 16 For before the boy knows to reject what is bad and choose what is good, the land of the two kings you dread will be abandoned.
Isaiah 7:14-16, HSCB
About the verse, those translations which have “a” virgin, have deleted the definite article. The correct translation is “The Virgin.” Those who ate milk and honey were forced to do so, according to Isaiah 7:22-25. Thelocal farm lands were devastated by the soldiers of Assyria, and there was nothing else to until the next harvest. Jesus would never have eaten “butter and honey.” His life did not occur during such a time. But this does describe the situation in Jerusalem about 732 BC, at the time of the death of those two kings. That was the year this prophecy was fulfilled, when Aram and Israel lost their kings. Those two lands were abandoned to their fate at the hands of the King of Assyria.
Unless you have studied Isaiah, you would have only known this text as it relates to Jesus. But, you can see here that there was no reason for anyone in Isaiah’s time to have thought of this as a Messianic prophecy. No one would have taken the term “virgin” here to mean “virgin birth” in the way which we now apply it to Mary’s experience. If this were not the case, then we are left trying to explain two different boys, both the result of a virgin birth. The alternative is to consider Isaiah a false prophet. Most would say that neither of these is acceptable.
Matthew (and all of the original 12 disciples) would have known Mary, Jesus’ mother. He would have seen her on several occasions, and may have interviewed her concerning this material. Luke also seems to have spoken to Mary, and his gospel included more detail about those days of her life than Matthew did. They both describe a woman who miraculously gave birth to Jesus, while she was still a virgin.
What was Matthew doing when he quotes Isaiah 7:14 and says that Jesus’ virgin birth fulfilled that prophecy? Here is the entire passage:
18 The birth of Jesus Christ came about this way: After His mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, it was discovered before they came together that she was pregnant by the Holy Spirit. 19 So her husband Joseph, being a righteous man, and not wanting to disgrace her publicly, decided to divorce her secretly.
20 But after he had considered these things, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because what has been conceived in her is by the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to name Him Jesus, because He will save His people from their sins.”
22 Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
23 See, the virgin will become pregnant
and give birth to a son,
and they will name Him Immanuel,
which is translated “God is with us.”
24 When Joseph got up from sleeping, he did as the Lord’s angel had commanded him. He married her 25 but did not know her intimately until she gave birth to a son. And he named Him Jesus.
Matthew 1:18-25 HSCB
In both of these passages, the Holman translation says that he is “named” Immanuel, but the term “called” used by some other translations is preferable, since neither Jesus nor the son of the Prophetess were actually named Immanuel. The son of Isaiah and the Prophetess was a sign that God was with Judah, hence, “God is with us,” but Jesus really was “God with us”! This is what Matthew knew.
Two things should now be apparent. The original prophecy of Isaiah 7:14-16 was a completely fulfilled, fully natural event. Jesus’ birth was a totally supernatural event, which was not expected by anyone based on Isaiah’s writing. Matthew’s interpretation of Isaiah 7 is new! Really new! It would have shocked its first readers if they had not already known about Jesus’ birth. The numerous well known pagan myths that spoke of a virgin birth would have been familiar to some of Matthew’s readers, and they must have had some very interesting reactions to this. For those Jews who were well trained in Isaiah, this would have been very difficult. For us, there is a great mystery here.
This is not exactly a case of double fulfillment of a prophecy. Jesus’ birth has nothing in common with the original prophecy, its intent or its fulfillment. Matthew changed the meaning of the prophecy, redirecting it toward Jesus, and separating it from its original context and meaning. This is not the result of human interpretation, this is revelation. Matthew did not make this up.
As the resurrected Jesus was walking with two men headed toward the village of Emmaus, He was explaining how the prophets had foretold His suffering. Then, for 40 days He was with the disciples, doing the same thing with them. After His ascension, for 10 more days, while fasting and praying and waiting for Pentecost, there was a large group of disciples, pouring over the prophetic texts looking for Jesus, and they were finding Him everywhere. Matthew was there. I imagine they discussed every passage, and that a variety of reasons for and against each instance was considered, but that with great enthusiasm, they agreed on many passages as having been about Jesus, directly or indirectly. The similarities between Jesus’s birth and Isaiah 7, would have opened their eyes to something else. Here was a clear case of seeing a new meaning in an Old Testament prophecy. It now looked like a true ‘double entendre,’ one that could not in any way have been anticipated by its readers. Superstitious people might have been comfortable with this, but I doubt that the Disciples were like that. They would have seen it and believed it, but they would have known God had actually hidden this from them. Jesus had taught them on several occasions to expect a hidden or deeper meaning, a spiritual meaning, which was the real meaning of His own words. In John 6, when Jesus describes Himself as the bread of heaven, He was doing this. Now they will have to stay alert for other scriptures which may have this same property. Someone should write a dissertation about how Isaiah 7 morphed into Matthew 1.
Today, are we trying to do what Matthew did? Have we looked at the prophecies in the Bible which have a clear historical fulfillment, and imagined a new meaning? If we did so, were we right? Before we try to answer those questions, let’s look at the other cases in the infancy narrative where Matthew surprises us with his references to prophecy.
When the Magi arrived and asked to be directed to the Messiah’s birthplace, Matthew tells us how a genuinely unfulfilled prophecy was handled correctly by the first century Jewish leaders.
4 So he (King Herod) assembled all the chief priests and scribes of the people and asked them where the Messiah would be born. 5 “In Bethlehem of Judea,” they told him, “because this is what was written by the prophet:
6 And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the leaders of Judah:
because out of you will come a leader
who will shepherd My people Israel.”
Matthew 2:4-6 HSCB
I am unaware of any historical figure prior to Jesus’ birth who was a Jewish leader and was also born in Bethlehem, other than David himself, and he predates this prophecy by many years. The Jewish religious authorities indicate that they clearly consider this a valid and unfulfilled prophecy. I think this is what most of us expect when we think of Bible prophecy. It is a clear passage, never before fulfilled, which has only one future fulfillment in mind. These authorities were smart, and right. As a result, the Magi were able to deliver their precious gifts, and one of Herod’s most infamous actions followed, forcing the hasty escape of Jesus’ family all the way to Egypt. This sets up Matthew’s next prophetic surprise.
Matthew again changes the meaning of a prophecy.
13 After they were gone, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Get up! Take the child and His mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you. For Herod is about to search for the child to destroy Him.” 14 So he got up, took the child and His mother during the night, and escaped to Egypt. 15 He stayed there until Herod’s death, so that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled: Out of Egypt I called My Son.
Matthew 2:13-15 HSCB
Compare v. 15 with the original from Hosea 11
11 When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called My son.
2 The more they called them,
the more they departed from Me.
They kept sacrificing to the Baals
and burning offerings to idols.
3 It was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
taking them in My arms,
but they never knew that I healed them.
This passage is extremely important, far more important than it might seem right now. This is not a prophecy at all. God is talking about the past, in which He treated the nation of Israel like a son. He is contrasting His past love for them with their present rebellion against Him. Here, Matthew isn’t changing the meaning of a prophecy, or even suggesting a second fulfillment of a prophecy, he is creating a prophecy where there wasn’t one before! But even that is not the whole story, because it is what the Jews did with this text that caused them to misinterpret all of the prophecies of Jesus as the suffering Messiah. If you have read Psalm 22 or Isaiah 53 and wondered how the Jews could have missed these prophecies about Jesus, the answer is here. This is one of several Old Testament texts that have been used to justify interpreting the suffering Messiah passages as if they all referred to Israel.
When a rabbi connected this verse from Hosea with Psalm 2, he could teach that Israel was God’s son, God’s favored son, God’s firstborn son. Even today, when a Jew reads about the Suffering Servant, he is likely to see it as referring to the history of Israel. So, when Matthew changed the meaning of this verse, he was destroying one of the building blocks of the Jewish resistance to Jesus. This could be purely by inspiration, but I think Matthew knew exactly what he was doing. Matthew does not call the Hosea passage a prophecy, but when he speaks of it being fulfilled, he is now treating it as one. He knew that it was not a prophecy until it’s new meaning was understood, and that couldn’t happen until Jesus’ birth brought new light to it. It’s almost as if God planned this so that it wouldn’t become a prophecy until it happened. There is probably more to discover about this process.
If I were Matthew, I would have thought that God did this on purpose, and that this was some new kind of ‘unmarked’ prophecy, whose meaning and fulfillment were completely unknowable until it was fulfilled. I can even imagine a situation where this might have mattered. Since the Priests got the Bethlehem passage right, what if this passage had been as obvious? They might have been able to show this to Herod and say that the baby he was trying to kill had gone to Egypt. He would have quickly sent a delegation there to seek the approval of the officials in Egypt to pursue the family, and Jesus would not have been safe. It would have made more sense for God not to have given these words to Hosea, or not to have preserved them.
I believe that God was doing what He often does. When He has reached a decision, and He is preparing the nations for the punishment of a particular nation, He works to prevent the condemned peoples from repenting. This is the true basis for Isaiah’s entire ministry, according to Isaiah 6:9-13. Isaiah’s job was to prevent Israel from repenting; now that God has begun to prepare for their punishment.
Matthew has another surprise for us.
16 Then Herod, when he saw that he had been outwitted by the wise men, flew into a rage. He gave orders to massacre all the male children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under, in keeping with the time he had learned from the wise men. 17 Then what was spoken through Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled:
18 A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping, and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children;
and she refused to be consoled,
because they were no more.
19 After Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, 20 saying, “Get up! Take the child and His mother and go to the land of Israel, because those who sought the child’s life are dead.” 21 So he got up, took the child and His mother, and entered the land of Israel.
Here is the passage in Jeremiah which Matthew quotes:
15 This is what the Lord says:
A voice was heard in Ramah,
a lament with bitter weeping—
Rachel weeping for her children,
refusing to be comforted for her children
because they are no more.
16 This is what the Lord says:
Keep your voice from weeping
and your eyes from tears,
for the reward for your work will come—
this is the Lord’s declaration—
and your children will return from the enemy’s land.
17 There is hope for your future—
this is the Lord’s declaration—
and your children will return to their own territory.
Jeremiah is talking to those women of Judah whose children had been taken captive to Babylon. God is telling them to stop crying. They are gone, but they have not died. Their descendants will return.
This is a prophecy, but it was fulfilled long before Herod brought bloodshed to the area surrounding Bethlehem, including this little area just a mile north of town (not the modern area of Ramah, but the location of Rachel’s tomb). So how did this become a prophecy about the “Slaughter of the Innocents?” This, like the other texts we have seen so far, is not a case of double fulfillment. The New Testament event is very different from the one Jeremiah addressed. It involves a violent massacre, not merely a deportation. There is nothing in the Jeremiah passage remotely connected to the 1st century, the reign of Herod, or the birth of Jesus. If this had been understood as a prophecy, do you think any women would have chosen to live there? Instead of Rachel’s tomb being a site of pilgrimage, as it still is even today, the region would have been neglected and abandoned. In Jesus’ time, it was clearly populated, and it lost its sons to wrath of Herod, which was aimed at Jesus.
Matthew transformed this verse into a memorial for those who were sacrificed for Jesus, even though they could not have understood it at the time. Matthew would have known the original meaning of this prophecy, but as he heard of the suffering of the mothers in the region of Bethlehem, he saw a connection, even if we don’t. We could speculate about what he was thinking, but learn no more. What must be understood is that this is not double fulfillment, since it was only a single prophecy, whose historical fulfillment is well understood. It is something else. Matthew made it into a prophecy that was very different from the original. In Jeremiah, the descendants of Rachel were weeping, and that is all the passage has in common with the situation at Bethlehem in the first century.
Does anyone today claim the spiritual authority to take a fulfilled prophecy and give it a new meaning, just because it is similar to something else in the present? I am not Matthew, and the Holy Spirit has not inspired my pen, certainly not with the kind of authority to alter the meaning of an Old Testament prophecy. What concerns me is that I do think this has happened, and that is has had an inordinate influence on Christian beliefs globally. But, it didn’t happen like this. It was not this obvious, and it was by a different process.
We have taken prophecies which were complete and have treated them as unfulfilled, and then merged them with genuinely unfulfilled prophecies, and not kept them separated. We have treated our own re-interpretations of fulfilled prophecies as equal to the prophecies of the Revelation. At the end of the Revelation, there is a prohibition against adding to those prophecies, and it is starting to look as if many have done exactly that. Something very dangerous may have taken place among us, and we don’t even know it.
If we are to understand the principle of double fulfillment, we need to find a place in the Bible that shows us one. I’m still looking.