A frequently challenging part of Scripture for many Christians is the Old Testament prophets. Sometimes, understanding their message can be a little confusing. Especially, when that message might apply (or is applied) to the New Testament. When the prophets do look into the future that God revealed to them, what do their words refer to?
I find it helpful to think of three major possible horizons of their vision. That is to say, as the prophets launch their words into the future, we can see three places where their words land, three places where their words are relevant and fulfilled—or still will be.
Horizon one: The Old Testament era
This is the horizon of the prophets’ own time or the wider Old Testament era as a whole. Most of what they predict happens either in their own lifetimes or at some point within the history of Old Testament Israel.
For example, many prophets warn that God will send Israel, and then Judah, into exile because they persistently break the covenant and rebel against him. That is fulfilled, as we have seen, within the Old Testament period itself, in 721 BC for the northern kingdom of Israel, and in 587 BC for the southern kingdom of Judah. Those prophecies are fulfilled at horizon one.
Some of the prophets also predict that God will bring the exiles of Judah back to their land. He will bring their exile to an end. The covenant will be renewed, and they will rebuild the temple. Those prophecies are also fulfilled within the Old Testament period. After the edict of Cyrus, king of Persia, in 538 BC, several waves of exiles return to Jerusalem, and the temple is rebuilt by 515 BC. Fulfillment at horizon one.
However, sometimes we will find that an Old Testament prediction that is made and fulfilled at horizon one can also carry forward and have even more significant fulfillment later. A good example is Isaiah’s sign to Ahaz in Isaiah 7. Since it is a sign (something that is supposed to be meaningful for Ahaz), we have to assume that a child is indeed conceived and born soon afterward and that what Isaiah predicts about the defeat of Israel’s enemies does indeed come true within approximately nine months—all at horizon one. God is indeed with them (“Immanuel”) and delivers them from their enemies. However, we also know, of course, that Matthew finds an even greater level of fulfillment of that Immanuel prophecy in the birth of Jesus. That brings us to horizon two.
Horizon two: The New Testament era
There are some passages in the prophets that speak in terms that we now know could only ultimately be true in and through Jesus Christ and the gospel of salvation through his death and resurrection. Sometimes this is called messianic prophecy, though the word messiah (anointed one) itself does not often occur. The prophets do not only speak about a coming person, but rather they describe things that can only be perfectly true through Jesus.
For example, when Jeremiah speaks about God making a new covenant (Jer. 31:31–33), much of what he says is similar in principle to the Sinai covenant. But when he says that part of that new relationship will include the complete forgiveness of sins, then we know that is accomplished only by Jesus Christ. Similarly, when Isaiah speaks about the Servant of the Lord, there are several things said about the Servant that are also said about Israel (chosen and loved by God, given as a light for the nations). But when Isaiah speaks about how the Servant will bear the sins of many and die vicariously for us (Isa. 53), then we can only see such words fully embodied in the Lord Jesus.
Thus we need to be alert to a possible gospel horizon in the words of the prophets. Please understand that this does not mean that we have to “find Jesus” in every verse of the prophets (or the Old Testament as a whole). Rather, it means we should be aware that these texts are all part of a great historical and scriptural journey that leads to Christ.
Horizon three: The new creation
There are times when prophets speak of a future that is described in terms that go way beyond anything we have experienced, in the past or the present. For example, we know that the prophets speak about God judging Israel and also other foreign nations. But sometimes they describe God’s judgment engulfing the whole earth and all nations in cataclysmic destruction of all that is wicked and evil (for example, Isa. 24). Such a universal vision takes us to the ultimate horizon, of the second coming of Christ and the final judgment.
Thankfully, however, the prophets more often have such long-term visions in relation to God’s future blessing. Their words about the world of the future are filled with immense joy and excitement. We find ourselves imagining a world in which everything is perfect. Nature is full of abundance. The earth itself rejoices in its Creator. Human life is safe and fulfilling and free from violence, injustice, hunger, and danger. War and violence are no more. People and animals live in harmony and peace. People never again turn away from God in disobedience. People from all over the world and all nations reject their false gods and turn to the living God and worship him with joy and gifts (for example, Isa. 25:6–9; 35; 65:17–25; Jer. 32:37–41; 33:6–9; Joel 3:17–18).
That kind of vision is certainly not fulfilled at horizon one. The Israelites do return to their land (as we’ll see in a moment). But they are still sinful and far from perfect—as books like Nehemiah, Ezra, and Malachi show. What about horizon two? Well, of course we know that Christ accomplished the redemption of the world in his death and resurrection, but we have not yet seen the fulfillment of all that the prophets describe, a world of perfect peace and justice. We have to take such passages on to the ultimate horizon three—or the eschatological horizon, to use technical terms.
By horizon three, I am referring to the picture of the new creation we see in Revelation 21–22. The whole scene in those chapters very deliberately echoes many of the themes in the prophets (the whole book of Revelation is saturated with Old Testament allusions). Read Isaiah 60 and 65:17–25 and then immediately read Revelation 21–22, and you’ll see what I mean.
The ultimate vision of the prophets will only be fulfilled when Christ returns and the earth is cleansed and renewed to be the dwelling place of God with us.
There are some passages in the prophets that seem to include all three horizons, and this may feel confusing at first. But remember that the prophets are looking into a future that, as far as they can see, is all one single vision. They do not (could not) know that it will be centuries before horizon two comes along, and unknown centuries further before horizon three will come (it still lies ahead). We, with our perspective, can now see that their words have stretched out over a vast period of time. They saw things from the front and saw things near and far as if they were all part of one big, single picture.
Bringing Good News
Isaiah 52:7–10 is a very good example of all three horizons. Take a look. Basically, this text is good news. That is what the running messenger of the beautiful feet announces. This is Old Testament gospel. It is good news at all three horizons.
How beautiful on the mountains
are the feet of those who bring good news,
who proclaim peace,
who bring good tidings,
who proclaim salvation,
who say to Zion,
“Your God reigns!”
Listen! Your watchmen lift up their voices;
together they shout for joy.
When the Lord returns to Zion,
they will see it with their own eyes.
Burst into songs of joy together,
you ruins of Jerusalem,
for the Lord has comforted his people,
he has redeemed Jerusalem.
The Lord will lay bare his holy arm
in the sight of all the nations,
and all the ends of the earth will see
the salvation of our God.
Good news for the exiles: Horizon one.
The messenger’s words are to encourage the exiles to get ready to go home to Jerusalem. Yahweh has won the victory (God reigns), and God is already returning to his city and taking them with him. As at the exodus, God is redeeming his people. They can rejoice and go home. Indeed, that does happen. The prophecy is fulfilled at horizon one.
Good news in Christ: Horizon two.
There are three aspects of the good news in these verses that are also true in Jesus Christ. Isaiah 52:7 speaks of the God who reigns. Isaiah 52:8 speaks of the God who returns. Isaiah 52:9 speaks of the God who redeems. All of those are true in Christ and the gospel. He preaches the kingdom of God. He goes to the temple (to which God promised to return). He is the Redeemer and Savior, through his death and resurrection. Jesus is God reigning, God returning, and God redeeming. Jesus adds a level of fulfillment to the messenger’s words at the gospel horizon two.
Good news for the world: Horizon three.
In Isaiah 52:10 the prophet moves to the global stage, to “all the nations” and “all the ends of the earth.” This is the Abrahamic promise again. Through the mission of the church, the gospel of the salvation of our God is indeed going to the ends of the earth. The ultimate vision of the prophecy lies at horizon three. It will be finally fulfilled when the Lord Jesus Christ returns to reign over all the earth and to redeem his people from every tribe and people and language.
God’s plan for the nations
Through all these horizons, there is a missional dimension to the prophets’ vision of hope for the future. They see that, because God’s promise to Abraham always envisaged God’s blessing extending to all nations, there must come a day when people from other nations beyond Israel will be gathered in to be part of God’s covenant people.
That is exactly what the apostle Paul realizes had to happen, now that Messiah Jesus has come and fulfilled God’s promised salvation through his death and resurrection. At the climax of Romans, as he prepares to use the church in Rome as his base for missionary work further west in Spain, he puts it like this: “For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God’s truth, so that the promises made to the patriarchs might be confirmed and, moreover, that the Gentiles might glorify God for hismercy” (Rom. 15:8–9; my italics). Then he immediately supports that point with four quotations from the Old Testament.
We don’t know what other scriptural texts Paul must have used in explaining his missionary commitment to take the good news to the Gentiles, but perhaps some like these, which envisage people from many nations being registered in God’s city (Ps. 87:3–6); coming to bring God worship (Ps. 86:8); being blessed with God’s salvation, even as former enemies (Isa. 19:20–25); being called by God’s name (Amos 9:11–12); and being joined with God’s people in Zion (Zech. 2:10–11).
That is where the story has to go—to the nations—and Paul will take it there. The apostolic mission has its roots in the Old Testament.
Christopher J. H. Wright is international ministries director of the Langham Partnership and an ordained priest in the Church of England. This article is an excerpt adapted from his forthcoming book The Old Testament in Seven Sentences: A Short Introduction to a Vast Topic (IVP, May 2019).
Excerpt taken from The Old Testament in Seven Sentences by Christopher J. H. Wright. ©2019 by Christopher J. H. Wright. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426. www.ivpress.com.