I’ve asserted my thesis–Biblical prophecy is intentionally designed to be difficult to understand before the time of fulfillment—but to be quite clear afterwards—and I’ve given a couple of biblical passages that appear to confirm it. Now it’s time to work with an example, making the idea a little more concrete.
One of the most well-known prophetic passages in the entire Bible, at least among Christians, is Isaiah 53. It’s the fourth and last in a series of “Servant Songs” in Isaiah, and the most well known, primarily, I suppose, because Georg Friedrich Handel included much of it in his oratorio Messiah.
- He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;
- Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows;
- With his stripes we are healed;
- All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all;
- He is brought as a lamb to the slaughter;
- It pleased the LORD to bruise him.
We’ve heard the lines often, and they’ve become part of our consciousness, part of our culture, especially at Christmas.
Because of that familiarity, we’re unlikely to hear it the way Isaiah’s hearers—and Isaiah himself—did. The words were not familiar to them; they had to hear them, and try to understand them, for the first time.
And right in the middle of this song the Spirit has Isaiah write something that would have been quite puzzling to him and his Israelite audience:
- He made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death.
Put yourself in Isaiah’s sandals.
That statement doesn’t make any sense at all.
The wicked and the rich don’t die similarly, and they’re not treated the same at the time. The wicked—criminals—are executed, probably by stoning, and their bodies are thrown out with the trash into the Valley of Hinnom, where the vultures pick at their rotting corpses until only the bones remain (Prov 30.17). A very undignified treatment.
The rich, on the other hand, are celebrated and mourned in their death, and their corpses are placed reverently in the family tomb, often a cave, sometimes carved laboriously out of solid rock.
How can both of these things be true for the Servant of Yahweh? How can he die in both disgrace and honor? How can he be numbered with transgressors and yet be buried with the rich?
As I say, our familiarity with these words—and with the prophecy’s fulfillment—means that the words don’t even give us pause. We nod our heads appreciatively, envisioning the fulfillment with perfect clarity—
- Executed as a criminal, between two other criminals;
- Has a secret disciple, a member of the Sanhedrin, well respected and very wealthy, who uses his influence to acquire the body after execution and places it in his own personal tomb.
Well, as a friend of mine used to say, “Hindsight’s 50/50.” 🙂 It’s easy to understand the question if you already know the answer, and it’s easy to “solve” a problem if you already know what happens.
But Isaiah and his hearers didn’t have any of that. They scratched their heads, grimaced, and wondered.
What could this possibly mean?
It’s obscure for more than 700 years. And during those years, generation after generation wonders.
And then, in real time and in the sight of all, the prophecy is fulfilled. The promise comes to pass.
And in an instant, the wonder of puzzlement gives way to the wonder of delight, and the fog lifts and understanding comes.
So that’s what it means! Wow!
The prophecy is obscure until the time of fulfillment—but then it’s as clear as day.
This isn’t some meaningless musing of a Nostradamus, whose prophecies are so vague that they could be fulfilled by any number of unspectacular events. No, this is a specific but incomprehensible prophecy, one that is immediately recognizable at its unique and precise fulfillment.
Discovery is a really great teaching technique. You remember what you discover, especially when the discovery hits you hard, right between the eyes. Especially when you solve a puzzle that’s been stumping the experts for centuries.
Maybe that’s why God did it this way.
Next time, I’ll draw some conclusions and applications from all this.