The New Testament writers did not always use Old Testament prophecy in a way that conforms to some people’s idea of how they think it should be used. For this reason, many allege that the New Testament writers take Old Testament Scriptures out of context, or that they “reuse” or “warm over” already fulfilled Old Testament passages in order to make their point. However, in response to this idea, logical solutions can be contemplated that clarify and justify the New Testament writers’ multiple use of Old Testament prophecy.
First, could it not be the case that that Holy Spirit, knowing what would happen in the future, directed the Old Testament writers to pen phrases and statements that had an immediate application and a distant future application as well? Well did Wayne Jackson write:
[I]s it not possible that the omniscient Holy Spirit, who guided both the Old Testament prophets and the New Testament inspired writers, could have directed certain prophecies to ancient Israel, but also could have known that a future event would ultimately fulfill the meaning of his words? What is wrong with such a view? Absolutely nothing. It surely is possible and preserves the integrity of the New Testament writers. Let me suggest an example to illustrate this point.
David declared: “Yea, mine own familiar friend, in whom I trusted, who did eat of my bread, hath lifted up his heel against me” (Psalm 41:9). During the last supper, Christ quoted from this passage as follows: “He that eateth my bread lifted up his heel against me” (John 13:18), applying it to the treachery of Judas, and declaring that such fulfilled the statement in David’s psalm. The Lord, however, altered the quotation. He omitted, “whom I trusted,” from the original source, the reason being, He never trusted Judas! Jesus knew from the beginning who would betray Him (John 6:64). It is clear, therefore, that Psalm 41:9 had an immediate application to one of David’s enemies, but the remote and complete “fulfillment” came in Judas’ betrayal of the Son of God. I personally do not believe that it is acceptable to suggest that prophecies have a “double fulfillment.” That is a meaningless expression. If a prophecy is filled full once, it can hardly be filled “fuller” later! It would be far better to speak of some texts which have an “immediate application” or “partial fulfillment,” and then a more “remote fulfillment” (1988, 8:29)
Indeed, many New Testament quotations of Old Testament prophecies could conceivably fall into the category of “remote fulfillment.” Consider the situation of Matthew’s use of Jeremiah 31:15. In Jeremiah, the Old Testament prophet obviously was dealing with a fairly immediate point in the not-too-distant future when the mothers of Israel would weep because of the captivity and punishment that the enemies of Israel would inflict upon them. However, Matthew employed Jeremiah’s prophecy—“A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children; And she would not be comforted, because they are not”—to refer to the mothers who wept over King Herod’s vicious slaughter of the innocent male children of Bethlehem. Taking Jackson’s comments into consideration, it is not a difficult stretch to maintain that the Holy Spirit certainly could have foreseen the dastardly deeds of King Herod and supplied Jeremiah with a prophetic utterance that could sufficiently describe the captivity and punishment in the Old Testament as well as depict the gruesome scene related in Matthew. Richards added to this explanation by saying:
The Jeremiah passage quoted is linked to this event. Jeremiah 31:15 portrays Rachel, the symbolic mother of the Jews, weeping as her descendants are torn from the Promised Land. Yet that prophecy is found in a context of the hope that despite the tears God promises the exiles will return. Now, despite the tears shed for the innocent victims of Herod’s slaughter, their deaths underline the escape of the child Jesus, whose survival ultimately means restoration of humankind to a personal relationship with God. As tears intermingled with joy in Jeremiah’s time, so tears and joy intermingle in Bethlehem (1993, p. 228)
It also is interesting to note that many times, Old Testament prophecies have not only immediate and remote applications, but also multiple, diverse uses. Jackson commented:
Still again, we may note that, consistent with His own purposes, the Holy Spirit may give a prophecy multiple applications. Consider the case of Psalm 2:7, where Jehovah said: “Thou art my son; this day have I begotten thee.” In the New Testament, this statement is applied to Christ in several different senses. First, it is employed to demonstrate that Christ is superior to the angels, for the Father never addressed any angelic being, saying, “You are my son, this day have I begotten thee” (cf. Hebrews 1:5). [This is a truth which the “ Jehovah’s Witnesses” (who claim that Christ was a created angel) would do well to learn.] Second, Psalm 2:7 is applied by Paul to Christ’s resurrection from the dead. The apostle argues that “God hath fulfilled the same unto our children, in that he raised up Jesus; as also it is written in the second psalm, Thou art my son...” (Acts 13:33). It was, of course, by His resurrection that Jesus was declared to be the Son of God with power (Romans 1:4). Thus, it was appropriate that the psalm be applied to the Lord’s resurrection. Third, the writer of Hebrews uses the psalm to prove that Christ glorified not Himself to be made our high priest; rather, such a role was due to His relationship as the Son of God (Hebrews 5:5). Again, we absolutely must stress that the Holy Spirit, who inspired the original psalm, surely had all of these various thoughts in mind as is evidenced by His guidance of the New Testament writers as they employed His language (8:29-30, bracketed statement in orig.).
After looking closely at the different ways in which the New Testament writers used the Old Testament Scriptures, it cannot be argued effectively that there was error or discrepancy on their part. Although they might not have used certain passages in a way that some people might prefer, they did use the prophecies without contradiction or discrepancy in a manner consistent with the plan and purpose of the Holy Spirit.
Richards, Larry (1993), 735 Baffling Bible Questions Answered, (Grand Rapids, MI: Revell).
Jackson, Wayne (1988), “Principles of Bible Prophecy,” Reason & Revelation, 8:27-30, July.