The preacher reads aloud the Old Testament lesson from Isaiah 7:1-17. Immediately the congregation is faced a host of strange names and events. It appears that two obscure kings named Rezin, King of Aram, and Pekah, son of Remaliah, King of Israel are marching up to Jerusalem to fight King Ahaz, son of Jotham, son of Uzziah, the King of Judah. Ahaz is worried and afraid. To alleviate his fear Isaiah comes to Ahaz with a threefold word from God: “be careful, keep calm, don’t be afraid and don’t lose heart.”
Isaiah couples this with a prophecy predicting that the plans of Rezin and Pekah will not succeed and warning that he must stand firm in his faith, not trusting in his own strength or devices. If these promises were not enough, Isaiah grants Ahaz the privilege to ask for a sign to assure him that his kingdom will not fall to Kings Rezin and Pekah. Strangely Ahaz refuses. So God gives him a sign anyway stating that “the virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son and she will call him Immanuel.”
Nothing miraculous, simply the birth of a child indicating the time at which the Kings of Israel and Aram will be destroyed. At this point the congregation is probably slightly bemused wondering who these people are? Why wouldn’t Ahaz take the opportunity to ask for a sign? Why give a future birth as a sign? Who is this virgin? Why call him Immanuel?
Then the preacher reads out the New Testament lesson from Matthew 1:18-25, which includes the key Isaiah text “the virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son and she will call him Immanuel.” He states that he will be focusing his sermon on the New Testament text and in particular this verse. The Old Testament text is disregarded, apart from the throw-away comment that “Matt. 1:23 is a fulfilment of Is. 7:1-17.”
Now the congregation is really confused as they try to figure out how the birth of Jesus could be related to, let alone fulfil, the story in Isaiah 7 about some feuding kings. So does this preacher really mean to say that the purpose of the sign of a baby boy born of a virgin in Isaiah is only pointing forward to the birth of Jesus? Is the story in Isa. 7:1-17 written for our sake 2,600 years later? Surely Isa. 7:14 has significance for the original audience to whom Isaiah is writing, does it not? If Isaiah 7 is indeed God’s inspired word then certainly this text, understood in its original context, must have a message for the present reader too?
This problem is largely related to some preachers’ understanding of prophecy and because these preachers view the Old Testament only through a Christocentric lens. The result is that they fail to preach an Old Testament text, which is quoted in the New Testament , from an Old Testament perspective and thereby too quickly move to a New Testament perspective and miss so many jewels buried in the original context. The aim of this article is to correct our view of prophecy with respect to Old Testament texts that are quoted in the New Testament , to show what types texts are so misused and to present some reasons for preaching these texts from an Old Testament perspective as well.
Understanding Old Testament Prophecy with respect to the New Testament
A prophet is someone who has been called by God (Gen. 20:7; Ex. 3:1-4:17; Is. 6). A prophet is therefore a chosen person who is inspired by the Spirit of God with a message that he or she then proclaims to others. Because the message belongs to God, a prophet would often preface his prophecy with the words “thus says the Lord” or give the prophecy in the first person with God speaking. The purpose of a prophet was primarily to enforce the covenant by reminding Israel of the blessings and curses which would befall them depending on their faithfulness or unfaithfulness to the covenant. Therefore most prophecies begin with identifying Israel’s (or some individual’s) particular sin followed by a prediction of the consequential blessing or curse.
Thus in Isa. 7, Ahaz’s sin is his lack of faith in God’s ability to help him and his resistance to ask God for a confirming sign (because deceitfully Ahaz had already made a pact with Assyria for their help; 2 Kings 16:7). The prediction is the birth of a boy from a virgin which will mark the time when the kings of Aram and Israel will be destroyed.
Prophets did predict the future, but usually their prophecies pointed to the immediate future of Israel and the surrounding nations. Rarely do their prophecies refer to our future and only sometimes do they pertain to the New Testament . The main concern of Old Testament prophets was their immediate context, not the time of Jesus nor the end times. With respect to this issue Fee and Stuart suggest that, “Less than 2 percent of Old Testament prophecy is messianic. Less than 5 percent specifically describes the New Covenant age. Less than 1 percent concerns events yet to come.”1
So in the case of Isa. 7:1-17, the prophecy refers to the imminent destruction of Samaria and Aram and the subsequent invasion of Judah by Assyria. “Immanuel” probably refers to Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz (which means ‘quick to the plunder’) who is born of the prophetess in Isa. 8:3 (possibly Isaiah’s wife) thus signifying that God is in solidarity with Judah by ridding her of her enemies, Samaria and Aram. It is worth noting that some years later Assyria surrounds Jerusalem. This time it is Hezekiak (whose name means ‘holds fast to God’) who is faced with the same predicament as Ahaz (Isa. 36-37), to collude with the Assyrians or trust God. He holds onto God and the remnant of Israel is saved (Isa. 37:31).
Clearly Matthew did not feel the meaning of Is. 7:14 was exhausted in the original context. The human Immanuel in Isa. 7:1-17 points to the fact that the human dynasty of Judah will one day come to an end. Like Israel before, Judah will fall. The monarchy will end. But reading this text through the lens of Jesus, the human-divine Immanuel, one sees that God is still with David and Judah in covenantal love. Thus this texts finds its full or completed meaning in Jesus.
So in Isa. 7:1-17, the reader can see a thread running through the Old Testament to the New Testament which points to Christ. This shows that a Christocentric reading is valid and important. Clearly understanding Jesus as Immanuel in Mt. 1:18-25 shows us that God is with His people. Like Aslan in Narnia, God is present and He is about to act on their behalf to bring them freedom from all their enemies, not just human political enemies like Kings Rezin and Pekah, or Herod and Caesar, but sin too (Mt. 1:21).
But if the preacher reads Christ into Isaiah 7 too quickly and preaches this text from this perspective then he will miss the richness of this Old Testament text. Like Ahaz, who was facing daunting prospects, we often try to solve our own problems looking for someone bigger and stronger than our enemy. Like Ahaz, we try to protect our personal interests and hang onto our possessions rather than risk all of these in order to follow God. Like Ahaz, do we really want a sign from God whose plan may be quite different from what we have devised and with which we are comfortable?
God calls Ahaz, and us, to stand firm. This text is about trusting God in the tough places. Literally 7:9 says, “if you are not leaning [on me/God], then you shall not be supported.” Luther put it aptly: “Glaubt ihr nicht, so bleibt ihr nicht” (“if you do not believe then you will not remain”). Standing firm is about trust. It is about leaning on someone, resting our weight on someone greater than ourselves. A parallel thought is found in Is. 28:16, ‘See I lay a stone in Zion, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone for a sure foundation; the one who trusts [i.e. leans on me] will never be dismayed [LXX, “be put to shame”].
God wants Ahaz and the people to lean on Him in their time of crisis. God is asking for a faith in Him – in the midst of overwhelming odds – which is greater than the one they presently have. God is stretching them in their faith. In the midst of a tornado there is no safer place to be than in the eye of the storm with Immanuel. These thoughts comprise only a few gold nuggets mined by preaching this Old Testament text with an Old Testament perspective and I believe confirm the need to do so.
Commonly Misused Old Testament Texts
There are three types of Old Testament texts which are often misused in this way. One type is the prophetic text (e.g. Is. 7:1-17 and 9:1-6). These texts have a strong predictive element. Sometimes the fulfilment of this prediction takes place in the immediate future. For example, Isa. 9:1-6 refers to the time when Israel will be “walking in darkness” under the rule of Ahaz but one day will see a light, namely, Hezekiah who will bring a short period of peace. But sometimes the fulfilment of the prediction takes place in the distant future pointing forward to another individual or era of time beyond the immediate context. Thus Isa. 9:1-6 also points forward to the time when Jesus begins His earthly ministry (Matt. 4:15-16). This is a new era characterized by righteousness and peace, over which he will reign as eternal king.
A second type is the typological text. These are texts which refer to Christ or some event in the New Testament as a fulfilment of the same type of event or figure in the Old Testament (Matt. 2:15; 17-18; John 2:15). For example, God calling Jesus (i.e. My Son) out of Egypt in Matt. 2:15 is considered a fulfilment of the event when God called Israel (i.e. my son) out of Egypt in Hos. 11:1 even though the contexts are very different. In these texts the New Testament author has drawn out a second meaning by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (i.e. sensus plenior).
The third type is the apocalyptic text. These are New Testament texts which have a corresponding Old Testament text. The phrase “the abomination that causes desolation” is found in both Dan. 11:31 and Mark 13:14. The abomination that causes desolation in Dan. 11:31 refers to the altar set up for the pagan god Zeus Olympius by Antiochus Ephiphanes in 168 BC. This event prefigures the installation of Phanni by the Zealots in the winter of AD 67-68.
Reasons for Preaching an Old Testament text from an Old Testament Perspective
Avoiding the temptation of preaching Old Testament texts solely from a New Testament perspective has several benefits.
First, it preserves the Jewish background of our Christian faith. By looking at the Old Testament , and in particular Old Testament prophecies, only through a Christocentric lens, we strip these texts of their historical significance and respective application. For example, Matt. 2:18 is a quote from Jer. 31:15, “A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because her children are no more.” Preaching this Old Testament text only from a New Testament perspective will leave the listener thinking that the purpose of this text is simply to describe the event in which Herod killed all the boys in Bethlehem under two years of age. The congregation will miss the Jewish understanding of this text in Jeremiah.
Jeremiah writes these words to describe the desolation in Ramah because there are no children in the village since they have been exiled to Babylon. But hope soon follows as Jeremiah says in Jer. 31:16 that God will reverse this situation and bring the children back to Ramah, away from the land of their enemy. This text is predicting a time when Israel will return from Babylonian exile in 538 BC. This word is given to Jeremiah before Israel is exiled. This text is about being separated from God, repenting, experiencing God’s compassion and sovereignty as He uses our ‘exile’ experiences to lead us back to Him. What congregation doesn’t need to hear a message of hope like this?
Second, it gives the preacher permission to be more creative on the Christian festivals. Year after year we preach the story about Immanuel from Matt. 1:21. Think how creative and interesting it might be to look at this text from the perspective of Isaiah in the seventh century BC. Similarly listeners are used to hearing Isa. 40:1-11 as a reference to John the Baptist. What would it sound like to hear it through the experience of Hezekiah and Isaiah? I have done this in the subsequent sermon entitled, “God Our Hope in Ages Past.” (See the sermon on page __ of this issue.)
Third, it gives the congregation a deeper appreciation of the Old Testament and its relevance for their lives. In the second century AD, Marcion of Sinope distinguished between the Old Testament and New Testament as the works of two Gods. He rejected the Old Testament as the work of the “Just God, the Creator, harsh judge of men” but accepted the New Testament as the work of the “Good God.” Sadly, today, the church often views scripture in these categories. But by preaching the Old Testament from an Old Testament perspective, the listener can begin to gain a new familiarity with the Old Testament and to appreciate that the same God is the ultimate source author behind both testaments.
I have tried to emphasize the importance of preaching the Old Testament texts which are found in the New Testament from the perspective of their original Old Testament context. Equally I have tried to encourage preachers to avoid the tendency to see these Old Testament texts through Christocentric lenses. I have done this only to remove what I see as an unbalanced approach to preaching these texts.
In no way do I want to deny the need to see these texts through the eschatological kingdom of God and the person and work of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the telos (goal and end) of the Law. The Law and the Prophets testify about Him. But I think even Jesus wouldn’t mind if we tried to preach these texts from their original Old Testament context before we saw them in light of Him to whom all glory belongs.
Craig A. Smith is a lecturer in New Testament at Trinity College in Bristol, England.
1. See Gordon D. Fee and Stuart Douglas, How to Read the Bible for All its Worth (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982), p. 150.