Did the Old Testament Prophets Know What They Were Saying?

Is it possible that the Old Testament prophets did not understand the meaning of what they wrote?

Expository Thoughts is a blog dedicated to accurate Bible study, preaching, and teaching
Updated Feb 14, 2023
Did the Old Testament Prophets Know What They Were Saying?

When reading Scripture, many Christians tend to think in terms of what this verse means to them. What the Bible means to a given individual, however, is completely irrelevant, for the true meaning of Scripture is found not in the subjective impression of the contemporary reader but rather in the specific intention of the original author. For this reason, we often speak of “authorial intent” as the goal of Bible interpretation.

But this only raises a further question: exactly whose intent are we seeking to ascertain? The intent of the human author or the intent of the divine author? Or is it possible that there is actually no tangible difference between the two? Herein lies one of the key issues in the field of hermeneutics today—the question of whether the human intention and divine intention of Scripture are one and the same.

A Closer Look at a Difficult Passage

Some interpreters point to 1 Peter 1:10 as evidence of a sharp distinction between of the human and divine intention of OT prophecy. In this passage, the apostle Peter writes:

(10) As to this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that would come to you made careful searches and inquiries, (11) seeking to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow. (12) It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves, but you, in these things which now have been announced to you through those who preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven—things into which angels long to look.

According to this view, 1 Peter 1:10-12 teaches that the OT prophets did not understand the meaning of their own prophecies. For this reason, it is said, the human and divine intent of Scripture cannot be regarded as one and the same.

At issue here is perspicuity of the Old Testament. The term “perspicuity” refers to the overall clarity of God’s Word in which the meaning of Scripture was basically clear and comprehensible to its original audience. Some interpreters effectively deny the perspicuity of the Old Testament by insisting that its true meaning could only be understood hundreds of years later in light of the New Testament. This was the conviction of George Eldon Ladd, who insisted that “the New Testament frequently interprets Old Testament prophecies in a way not suggested by the Old Testament context.”

Many who embrace this view refer to this as the sensus plenior of the Old Testament. Sensus plenior means “fuller sense,” and it refers to an additional, deeper meaning of an OT passage which was (a) intended by God, (b) not intended or understood by the human author, (c) not understood by the original audience, and (d) not known to exist until it was discerned and revealed by the NT writer. According to the sensus plenior view, the Holy Spirit embedded a hidden meaning in the OT passage even though the original human author and audience were completely unaware of it, and the NT citations of the OT often bring out this fuller meaning. If 1 Peter 1:10-12 teaches that the OT prophets were unaware of the meaning of their prophecies, it would seem to provide biblical justification for this view.

On the contrary, the ignorance of the OT prophets as described in 1 Peter 1:10-12 has been greatly overstated. As Walt Kaiser observes, 1 Peter 1:10-12 “decisively affirms that the prophets spoke knowingly on five rather precise topics: 1) the Messiah, 2) his sufferings, 3) his glory, 4) the sequence of events (for example, suffering was followed by the Messiah’s glorification), and 5) that the salvation announced in those pre-Christian days was not limited to the prophets’ audiences, but it also included the readers of Peter’s day (v. 12).” In other words, what the prophets unsuccessfully strived to understand was not the meaning of their prophecies but rather the identity of the Messiah and the time of His coming.

To clarify the difference, it is helpful to distinguish between the “sense” and the “referent” of a given word or prophecy. The “sense” of a word is its meaning, the actual concept conveyed by the word itself. In contrast, the “referent” of a word is the specific thing/person/event that the word refers to in a given context. For example, the sense of the word “man” is an adult male, but its referent will vary according to the specific man being identified or referred to in a given context. With this distinction in mind, 1 Peter 1:10-12 does not teach that the OT prophets were curious about—and yet often ignorant of—the meaning of what they wrote, for their careful search was not for the sense of their prophecies but rather for the identity of the referent, as well as the time of His arrival. Ignorance of the referent does not imply ignorance of the sense.

A Surprise Meaning?

To illustrate, consider the following scenario. A man decides to surprise his family with a trip to the beach after work. So he calls his wife from the office and asks her to tell the children that he has a “surprise” for them when he gets home, but he doesn’t tell her what the surprise is. As a messenger to the children, the man’s wife doesn’t possess the full picture of his plans for the future because she doesn’t know the identity of the actual surprise. But when she gathers the children and tells them, “Daddy has a ‘surprise’ for you when he comes home,” she accurately understands the meaning of the message she has delivered on his behalf, and she has delivered the entire message that her husband intended her to deliver.

In this way, her ignorance of the referent of the word “surprise” (a trip to the beach) doesn’t render her ignorant of the sense/meaning of the message she has communicated. Furthermore, her ignorance of the referent of the word “surprise” does not mean that there is a gap between the man’s intention as the ultimate author of the message and her intention as the one who delivered his message. After all, his intended meaning and her intended meaning are one and the same: “Daddy has a surprise for the children when he gets home.” He obviously knows much more about the surprise than she does, but this is indeed the entirety of the message he has chosen to reveal to her—and communicate through her—at least at this point in time.

In the same way, even though the divine author of the OT prophecies understood full well all of the specific referents in those prophecies, the fact that the prophets themselves didn’t necessarily know the identity of these referents does not indicate that they didn’t understand the meaning of their own messages. Nor does it indicate that there were deeper, secondary meanings in their words that went beyond their own intention as the human authors of Scripture (see Acts 2:30). God obviously knew much more about the bigger picture than the prophet, but the prophecy contains the entirety of the message He has chosen to reveal to him—and communicate through him—at least at this particular moment in redemptive history. Additional details (and therefore clarity) would come later, often through a different prophet.

Furthermore, even though the prophets understood the meaning of their prophecies, this does not mean they always understood all of the yet-to-be-revealed events surrounding the fulfillment of their prophecies. A given prophet understood the unique contribution of the piece that he was adding to the puzzle, but not necessarily how his piece fit into the yet-to-be-added-later pieces that would eventually surround his piece and fill out the overall picture. Sometimes this would leave the OT prophet unaware of exactly how and when his prophecy would be fulfilled, but this does not mean he didn’t understand what he was saying. The human and divine intention are one and the same.

Matt Waymeyer is a regular contributor to Expository Thoughts. He is a husband and father of five and an Instructor in Bible Exposition and New Testament at the master's seminary in Sun Valley, CA. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain Images/Rembrandt


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