Why “fulfillment” isn’t about when predictions come true.
Matthew 1.22-23 KWL
- 22 All this happened so the Lord’s word through the prophet could be fulfilled,
- saying, 23 “Look, the maiden will have a child in the womb,
- and they will declare his name Immanúël, which is translated ‘God with us.’”
This one’s probably the most famous “Messianic prophecy”… which, it turns out, isn’t. Seriously, isn’t.
Back in 735
The prophets Isaiah ben Amóch and his son Sheüryahsúv had come to King Akház ben Yotám (
Isaiah 7.10-17 KWL
- 10 The L
ORD’s word to Akház, saying, 11 “Request a sign from your L ORDGod,
- made deep as a grave, or made high as outer space.”
- 12 Akház said, “I won’t ask.
- I won’t test the L
- 13 Isaiah said, “House of David, listen please.
- It takes little for you to tire people, because you also tire God.
- 14 For this, my Master himself is giving you a sign.
- Look, a pregnant maiden gave birth to a son.
- She declared his name Immánuël/‘God with us.’
- 15 He’ll eat curds and honey,
- and learn to reject evil and choose good.
- 16 But before the boy learns to reject evil and choose good,
- the nations you fear will be laid waste before the face of two kings.
- 17 The L
ORDis bringing upon you, your people, and your father’s house days which haven’t been
- since the days before Ephraim turned away from Judah to Assyria’s king.”
Meaning the days before Peqákh had allied Ephraim with the Assyrian Empire, back when there was relative peace in the region.
God had Akház’s back. Proof? Little Immánuël.
We don’t know the situation of the “pregnant maiden” whom Isaiah pointed out. Was she pregnant at the time? Dunno. Usually fathers would name their kids, but maybe he died in the siege. Regardless, she wasn’t killed by the invaders, and named her boy Immánuël. It doesn’t take toddlers long to learn right from wrong; the “terrible twos” are what happens when they test those boundaries. And in fact the siege would lift relatively soon: Aram and Ephraim would abandon Judah to fight for their lives against the Assyrians. And lose.
So what does this story have to do with Jesus? Nothing.
But it’s got a lot of significant similarities, which is why Matthew pointed to it.
See, the reason Christians think this is a messianic prophecy is because very few of us know what plirothí/“might be filled” means. “Filled” isn’t the word most bibles use; they follow the King James Version’s lead and go with “fulfilled.” Same meaning. Same misinterpretation, too.
Imagine you’re reading the news. On that website, there’s an article about a man whose father died under mysterious circumstances. Soon thereafter, the man’s uncle married the man’s mother and took over the family business. Sounds like William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, right? So of course the author of the piece brought that up. Sounds similar.
Now, did William Shakespeare foresee these present-day events? Is Hamlet a prophecy of things to come? Of course not. There just happen to be obvious similarities. Historical fiction represents stuff that actually does happen to people; less-than-historical fiction, if well-written, resembles truth too. And history, as we all know, repeats itself. A lot. ’Cause human nature hasn’t changed any.
And that’s what we have in the New Testament. The events of the gospels are obviously similar to bible quotes in the Prophets. So the Prophets got quoted. It’s not because they foretold each of these events in the New Testament. Sometimes they did. But sometimes these are nothing more than literary references. That’s all.
It’s just like when we use the phrase “skin of my teeth”
Christians do this all the time with popular phrases. Like “passeth understanding”
But when the phrase suits us, we use it. Because that phrase fits. Or fills, as the ancients used to put it.
Our culture, not understanding this, guesses “fulfillment” means “to accomplish what’s been foretold.” As a result we figure the Prophets were speaking about John, and no one else; and John “fulfilled” their prophecies by doing as they predicted.
And of course we’d assume that. We don’t read the Prophets, and don’t bother to find out what they really wrote about. Or worse: We do, but we figure the
But this is why it appears the
Now, sometimes they totally cared about context. (Pay attention to the Old Testament context when Paul tries to make arguments about grace!) But when the authors of the gospels point to verses which Jesus “fulfilled,” they weren’t writing about predictions of Jesus which he made come true. They were evoking biblical ideas which we oughta be familiar with if we read our bibles regularly. That’s all.
Jesus’s similarities to Immánuël happen to stand out a lot. First of all, Immánuël is Hebrew for “God with us.” It’s a prophetic name, ’cause his mother named him that, preemptively trusting God. Named him that before God had proved he was with Jerusalem by driving away the enemies. As for Jesus: He’s literally God with us, God incarnate.
But if this prophecy were literally about Jesus, he’d be named Immánuël. Not Yeshúa/“Jesus,” as the angels instructed his parents.
Whenever I point that out, suddenly now people wanna ditch literalness. “Well, Jesus being literally God with us, merits the name Immánuël more than the literal Immánuël.” Yes he does. That’s much of the reason why Matthew brought it up. Jesus is a better, fuller example of Immanuel. Though not the Immanuel. More like our Immanuel.
Secondly, Jesus’s mother Mary was a maiden. In Hebrew this’d be almá; in Greek parthénos. In Jesus’s culture, a maiden was a young woman of marriageable age—someone our culture would consider a teenager, from about 13 to 16 years old—and if she didn’t have a man yet, it was expected she’d be a virgin. So the concept of “virgin” was included in both words, and it’s why a lot of bibles translate ’em both “virgin.” Why this is particularly significant: Mary was a virgin when she conceived Jesus.
Jesus’s life reflects this story better than the original, in a more profound and complete way. That’s fulfillment for you.
The problem is when Christians insist, “No, Isaiah wasn’t speaking of a literal boy named Immánuël; he really meant Jesus.” They’ve misunderstood what fulfillment means. But this’d mean Isaiah was telling Akház something totally unrelated, totally useless, to his situation in the year 735
But seriously: In their zeal to make this prophecy about Jesus, they’re nullifying any relevance Isaiah had to the eighth century
Another problem is when Christians insist, “Okay, Isaiah meant Immánuël. But God was using that prophecy to look far, far forward—look ahead to a Messiah who’d be born 728 years later—and cleverly inserted that more profound message into another message. God has multiple levels of messages built into each of his messages. He’s just that awesome.”
True, if anybody could pull off that multiple-levels-of-messages thingy, it’d be God. But he didn’t. Every message has one meaning. If it has two—like a parable, an apocalypse, or even a double entendre—it’s because we’re meant to be distracted by the obvious meaning, but dismiss it and wisely seek out the hidden meaning. Not embrace both meanings. One is the relevant meaning. The other is not. Two possibly relevant meanings, means a message has been poorly communicated, or we’ve misinterpreted it badly. Or—when it’s from a false prophet—it’s rigged so you can interpret it any way you like, which gives the fake prophet an escape when it turns out wrong: “No, I meant it this way.” It’s designed to deceive. The only escape clause God permits himself are conditions on our behavior: “If you do X, I’ll do Y; if not, then not.” But there’s no ambiguity in God’s will. The only ambiguity is when we don’t wanna believe or follow him.
Nope. Isaiah meant Immánuël. But Matthew meant Jesus, and we mean Jesus. We’re borrowing Isaiah’s language—out of context, but it’s okay; we know Isaiah didn’t really mean Jesus—and saying, “Isn’t this interesting?” ’Cause it is. Makes it more memorable.
But don’t read anything more into it. It doesn’t apply.