Our last post noted that the New Testament authors recognize that the Old Testament is Christian Scripture and that the Old Testament authors themselves knew full understanding of their words would come only in the messianic era. This post shows that the Old Testament itself affirms these views.
The seers, sages, and songwriters who gave us the Old Testament testify that they were speaking and writing not merely for old-covenant saints but also for new-covenant believers—those who would enjoy a relationship with God in the days of the Messiah and the new creation after Israel’s exile. This post demonstrates this through four examples: Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Daniel. At the conclusion, we’ll consider some implications of this fact for Christians approaching the Old Testament today.
Moses Anticipates an Age When Those Yahweh Restores Will Heed Moses’s Law
Moses’s three most frequently used words to characterize Israel were “stubborn” (Deut 9:6, 13; 10:16; 31:27), “unbelieving” (1:32; 9:23), and “rebellious” (9:7, 24; 31:27). His immediate audience was wicked (9:4–6, 27), and he affirmed that “even today while I am yet alive with you, you have been rebellious against the LORD. How much more after my death!” (31:27). Thus, Yahweh promised that the people’s defiance would result in his pouring out his curses upon them (31:16–17).
Deuteronomy 29 tells the ultimate reason why Moses’s immediate audience would not heed his words: Israel was spiritually ignorant of God’s ways, blind to his glories, and deaf to his word (vv. 2, 4). They had been rebellious from the day Moses first met them (9:24), and their stubbornness was still present and would continue into the future (9:6; 31:27, 29). In Moses’s day, Yahweh had not overcome the resistance of the majority’s hearts, and in alignment with his sovereign purposes for salvation history, he created the old covenant to bear a “ministry of death” and “condemnation” so that through Christ a superior new covenant might bear a “ministry of righteousness” (2 Cor 3:7, 9).
Yahweh determined that he would not overcome Israel’s crookedness and twistedness (Deut 32:5; Acts 2:40; Phil 2:15) until the prophet like Moses would rise (Deut 18:15; 30:8; cf. Matt 17:5). In the age of restoration, Yahweh would change the remnant’s hearts and enable their love (Deut 30:6). In this end-times period, the age we now identify with the new covenant and the church (cf. Rom 2:29; 2 Cor 3:6), Moses’s message would finally be heeded (Deut 30:8). Moses believed that his instruction would serve those in the age of heart circumcision far more than the rebels of his day.
Isaiah Anticipates a Day When Those Once Spiritually Deaf Will Hear His Words
Israel’s threefold spiritual disability (heart, eyes, ears) continued in the days of Isaiah, whom Yahweh called to “make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes” (Isa 6:10). This would be the prophet’s judgment cry until his land was laid waste, his people were destroyed, and all that remained was a “stump” or “holy seed” (6:11–13). Yahweh purposed that Israel’s history would be characterized by “deep sleep” and the inability to “read” the Word. It was as if the Scriptures were sealed for the bulk of Isaiah’s contemporaries (Isa 29:9–11).
Nevertheless, God promised that one day there would be a broad acceptance of the prophet’s message (52:6; 54:13). Yahweh’s law would go forth in “the latter days,” and its recipients would include many from the “nations/peoples” (2:3; 51:4–5). That is, God would one day disclose himself to many who never sought him (Isa 65:1; Rom 10:20), and kings from many nations would see “that which had not been told them” (Isa 52:15; Rom 15:21). Isaiah associates the proclamation of this end-times instruction with the royal Servant (Isa 42:1, 4).
Jesus indicated that through his own teaching God was fulfilling these promises by drawing a multiethnic people to himself (John 6:44–45; cf. Isa 52:13). Christ’s sheep would include some not from the Jewish fold (John 10:16; 11:51–52), yet all his sheep would “believe,” “hear,” and follow (10:27). To these awakened and responsive believers, the Lord would supply “the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything [would be] in parables, so that ‘they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven’” (Mark 4:11–12; citing Isa 6:9–10). Isaiah himself saw that his writings would benefit a future generation more than they would the spiritually disabled of his day.
Jeremiah Anticipates Days When His Book Will Guide Those Who Know Yahweh
As with Isaiah, Yahweh told Jeremiah that his writing was intended for a post-exilic, restored community of God (Jer 30:2–3). While some of Jeremiah’s contemporaries would repent (36:2–3), most would not, for they retained the same stubbornness that characterized previous generations (7:23–28). Moreover, Jeremiah noted that only in the latter days would full understanding of his writings come. “The fierce anger of the LORD will not turn back until he has executed and accomplished the intentions of his mind. In the latter days you will understand this” (30:24–31:1). The “you” in this passage is plural, referring to the members of the new-covenant community.
Jeremiah’s “latter days” of “understanding” are connected to (a) Israel/Judah’s restoration from exile and reconciliation with God (30:10–11, 17–22; 31:1–40), (b) God’s punishment of enemy nations (30:11, 16), (c) the rise of a ruler from the people’s midst (30:21), and (d) the incorporation of foreigners into the one people of God (30:8–9). Christ and his church are now fulfilling Jeremiah’s new-covenant hopes (Luke 22:20; 2 Cor 3:6; Heb 8:13; 9:15), which include every covenant member enjoying new knowledge and forgiveness of sins (31:34; cf. Heb 10:12–18; 1 John 2:20–21). This new knowledge aligns with the earlier promise of “understanding” (Jer 30:24) and recalls Isaiah’s promise that, following the work of the Servant, “all your children shall be taught by the LORD” (Isa 54:13). God has “taught” all who have come to Christ, so that every Christian “knows” God in a personal way (John 6:45; cf. Matt 11:27).
Daniel Anticipates the Time of the End When the Wise Will Understand His Prophecies
The book of Daniel is filled with symbolic dreams, visions, and declarations—“mysteries” (Dan 2:18–19, 27–30, 47; 4:9) that God partially reveals to Daniel, so that “he understood the word and had understanding of the vision” (10:1; cf. 10:11–14). Indeed, Daniel grasped something of both the person and time of the Messiah’s ministry (9:24–25; cf. 1 Pet 1:10–11). Nevertheless, there are elaborations on these latter-day prophecies such that Daniel asserts, “I heard, but I did not understand” (Dan 12:8) and that the Lord tells his prophet to “shut up the words and seal the book, until the time of the end” (12:4). The “end” is God’s appointed period in salvation history when he would fully disclose his purposes to the wise.
Daniel envisioned that only at “the time of the end” would some people grasp the full meaning of his revelations. That is, the hiddenness of the Old Testament’s meaning would be temporary for the remnant but permanent for the rebels. From a New Testament perspective, the first coming of Christ has inaugurated the promised days of realization, when the wise can both hear and understand God’s words in this book. We see this in Matthew’s Gospel, where, after speaking of “the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel” (Matt 24:15; cf. 11:31; 12:11), an intrusive parenthetical comment appears: “Let the reader understand” (24:15). Matthew believes his readers can grasp the mysteries of Daniel.
The texts above from Deuteronomy, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Daniel all suggest that Yahweh’s prophets knew “that they were serving not themselves” but us (1 Pet 1:12), believers upon whom the end of the ages has come (1 Cor 10:11). The various passages indicate that God withheld the full meaning of his messages in at least two ways.
First, the prophets were convinced that the unbelieving majority could not (due to God’s punishment) and would not (due to their sinfulness) heed any of their words. Nevertheless, they also envisioned a day when Yahweh would overcome spiritual disability, thus enabling a life-changing encounter with him. At the rise of the child-king (Isa 9:6–7), “the people who walked in darkness” would see “a great light” (9:2; cf. Matt 4:15–16). “In that day the deaf shall hear the words of a book, and out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see” (Isa 29:18).
Second, Yahweh’s prophets themselves did not always fully grasp the meaning of their predictions and declarations. Accordingly, Daniel could “understand” some visions (Dan 10:1) while not “understanding” others (12:8). The faithful remnant would only fully comprehend God’s intended meaning in “the latter days” (Jer 30:24), “the time of the end” (Dan 12:4, 9–10). Thus, Jesus could say, “Many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it” (Luke 10:24). A supernatural healing and revelation would be required to create fresh responsiveness to the Lord, thus awakening the heart to God’s intended meaning of the Scriptures.
This blog series summarizes Jason S. DeRouchie’s forthcoming book, Delighting in the Old Testament: Through Christ and for Christ (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2024). You can pre-order your copy here.