I want to start a series, but one connected to something I already began looking at many weeks ago. This is all centred around the topic of eschatology, which simply means ‘the study of last things’. Over the next few articles, I specifically want to look at the prophetic writings of the Old Testament and hopefully gain a general, as well as helpful, understanding of these oft-misunderstood words.
When it comes to the nature of the fulfilment of Biblical prophecies, especially in the Old Testament, there are truly many questions that arise:
- When will these words be fulfilled?
- How many times will a specific prophecy be fulfilled?
- Are these words spoken to Israel or the Church?
And I am sure the list could go on and on.
When looking to grasp the fulfilment of the words of the Old Testament prophets, I believe there are four terms that will be helpful in considering such a topic:
1. Single Fulfilment
This is when a prophecy is spoken and it is to be fulfilled one time and one time only. An example would be that of Isaiah 14:24-25:
The LORD of hosts has sworn: ‘As I have planned,
so shall it be,
and as I have purposed,
so shall it stand,
that I will break the Assyrian in my land,
and on my mountains trample him underfoot;
and his yoke shall depart from them,
and his burden from their shoulder.’
This is a specific prophecy about the destruction of Assyria. From studying history, we know that the nation of Assyria was destroyed in 612 BC, their lead role in the world assumed by the Babylonians. Due to this destruction, we recognize this prophecy has a single fulfilment.
2. Double Fulfilment
When we speak of double fulfilment of prophecy, we mean that the specific prophecy spoken will be fulfilled twice. Most times, it is first fulfilled in the not to distant future, probably sometime around the time it was spoken. Yet, there is also a greater fulfilment that is to come in the distant future. We could also look at an example in the writings of Isaiah:
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. (Isaiah 7:14)
From my understanding of the context and life of Isaiah, this prophecy was initially fulfilled through the birth of the uniquely named Maher-shalal-hash-baz, as found in Isaiah 8:1-10. Some scholars believe this was a son of Isaiah, born to him by his second wife, referred to as a ‘prophetess’ in Isaiah 8:3. Nevertheless, we are all aware that this prophecy was fulfilled in a greater way through the birth of Jesus Christ (see Matthew 1:18-25). He was the great sign of Immanuel, God with us in the flesh!
3. Cumulative Fulfilment
This might no be as common a term, but when we speak of something being cumulatively fulfilled, it means the prophecy will be fulfilled progressively, or increasingly throughout time. We can again look at an example in Isaiah:
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this. (Isaiah 9:6-7)
This is a prophecy concerning the coming increase of God’s kingdom. Though we could state that this prophecy was initiated through the birth of Christ (vs6), it is being fulfilled more and more throughout history (vs7). The ‘mustard seed’ of the kingdom of Jesus Christ is growing ever more into the full tree (see Matthew 13:31-32). It is quite like our promise to love our spouse at our wedding – we could say there is an initial fulfilment found at the wedding, but there is a lifetime of seeing it fulfilled more and more.
4. Prophetic Foreshortening
In his book, The Bible and the Future, Anthony Hoekema defines this as:
‘…events far removed in time and events in the near future are spoken of as if they were very close together.’
We can look at a mountain range for an illustration of this concept. When one stands far away from a mountain range, it seems as if each mountain peak follows one after the other, all with no gap in between them. Yet, as one walks, or drives, through the range, you realize that there are quite large gaps between each particular mountain, maybe even miles.
This is the idea behind prophetic foreshortening. We can specifically note this through prophecies concerning the coming of the Messiah. The prophets specifically spoke of Him as both a suffering servant (Isaiah 52:13-53:12) and a victorious king (Isaiah 11:1-4; Micah 5:2). When these prophecies were first spoken (or penned), the prophets might have imagined them as being fulfilled simultaneously as some point in the future. Yet, as history moved forward, we have seen that there was actually a ‘gap’ existing between these two prophetic descriptions of the Anointed One. In Christ’s first coming, He was mainly a suffering servant, but in His final return He will fully reign as the victorious King.
In all, I hope these four categories have been found helpful in learning the nature of the fulfilment of prophetic Scriptures. They have not been given so that we might categorise each and every prophecy found in the Bible. Rather, they are simply definitions to give us a working knowledge concerning the fulfilment of prophetic passages, especially those found in the Old Testament.
In the next article, I plan to look at the topic of understanding how to interpret the words of the Old Testament prophets.
Click here to read my articles about the topic of ‘the rapture’.