Reusing or Misapplying Prophecies

In the Bible, prophecies that have already been fulfilled are referenced again in connection with later events.

A good example of this is in Matthew 1:22-23:

Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.

Matthew is referring to a portion of a prophecy in Isaiah 7 concerning war and destruction. The portion quoted by Matthew is in verse 14:

Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel…For before the child shall know to refuse the evil, and choose the good, the land that thou abhorrest shall be forsaken of both her kings.

The growing child of which Isaiah speaks serves as sort of poetic clock to measure the time during which the prophesied events are to occur. The word translated here as virgin is the Hebrew word almah, which can also be translated as young woman or damsel. Isaiah’s prophecy was given as a sign to King Ahaz of Judah, and so must have been fulfilled within his lifetime, with the birth of a son to a young woman. There is no need to believe that it was a virgin birth.

Much later, when Christ was born of the virgin Mary, this prophecy also fit, this time with almah understood to mean virgin. That the prophecy had long been fulfilled doesn’t really matter. Matthew may have understood that it had been, or not. In either case, he was making a connection that asserted to his audience that Jesus was Emmanuel, or “God with us.” If Matthew had mistakenly believed that this was the one and only fulfillment of the prophecy, that’s OK. Matthew was a fallible mortal and his writing was subject to error. We honor Matthew and appreciate and cherish his writing for its power to bring us to Christ, but we worship neither him nor the scripture he produced. We worship only God, and need only that he be perfect.

But’s just as likely, Matthew and his audience knew of the prior fulfillment of the prophecy, and understood his statement as a literary allusion, a sort of cross reference to Isaiah’s prophecy and what it teaches about God’s relationship with his people.

Matthew makes a similar connection to the Old Testament in the next chapter, when he tells of Herod’s slaughter of the children of Bethlehem in Matthew 2:17-18:

Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying, In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.

This refers to Jeremiah 31:15:

Thus saith the LORD; A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, and bitter weeping; Rachel weeping for her children refused to be comforted for her children, because they were not.

Jeremiah’s prophecy was literally fulfilled when the tribes of Judah and Benjamin were carried into Babylonian captivity. Benjamin was the son of Jacob by his wife Rachel, and she figuratively mourned for her descendants. Later, when King Herod had the children of Bethlehem slaughtered, there was mourning again. To the Jews, Rachel was a mother figure for all of Israel, and in Matthew’s mind, the prophecy had been echoed, or fulfilled again. The Jews would have taken comfort in knowing that their sorrow had already been memorialized in scripture and shared figuratively by their revered mother, Rachel.

The young Jesus escaped the slaughter by going to Egypt. Matthew saw his later return to Judea as an echo of another Old Testament scripture. In Matthew 2:15, he states:

And was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son.

He was referring to Hosea 11:1:

When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt.

Here Matthew is talking of a prophecy being “fulfilled” that was never really a prophecy. Hosea’s words refer to the Exodus of Israel from Egypt, which occurred long before he spoke. Although using the language of prophecy, Matthew is simply making a literary connection, saying in effect that Hosea’s words foreshadowed an event in Jesus’ life. Authors in the New Testament made frequent use of these kinds of allusions or cross references to the Old Testament. Authors in the Book of Mormon did the same thing.

For example, Nephi (Nephi 26 and 27) does something similar when he uses Isaiah’s words (from Isaiah 29) in forming his own prophecy of future events unrelated to the Jews. For this very interesting case of reusing prophecy, see Reincarnation of Isaiah 29.

Robert Eisenman noted in his analysis of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the practice of “citing a biblical passage or quotation out of context or even sometimes slightly altered.” He adds that “the text then proceeds to give an idiosyncratic interpretation having to do with the history or ideology of the group, with particular reference to contemporary events. The process is a familiar one to those conversant with the New Testament, particularly the Gospel of Matthew.”

There is an interesting case in Acts 2:16-21, where Peter misapplies the prophecy in Joel 2:28-32. The prophecy in Joel applies to the last days. Peter applies it too early — to his day. So Peter was wrong. Some Bible scholars go through incredible mental gymnastics to try to show that Peter had it right — as if it wasn’t permissable for Peter to ever be wrong. Let’s allow Peter (and the Peters since) the right to be occasionally wrong. Peter’s error doesn’t prevent us from putting the scriptures to their intended use — to bring us to Christ. And if Peter could be such an effective missionary without a perfect understanding of Old Testament prophecy, there’s hope for me and you.

The Bible and Book of Mormon were not intended as history or science books. They are sacred literature meant to bring us to God. To make sense of them, we must read them as literature, and understand their allegories, foreshadowing, and allusions for the literary devices they are. We must also accept that authors of scripture may be occasionally mistaken in their application of prophecy, just as  we sometimes are.

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