October 29, 2013

Did the Prophets Know What They Were Saying?

by Matt Waymeyer

Manuscript FragmentWhen reading Scripture, many Christians focus on the question, “What does this verse mean to me?” 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 in the objective intention of the original author. For this reason, we often speak of “authorial intent” as the proper goal of Bible interpretation, and rightly so.

But this only raises the 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 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 1:10-12 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 argument, 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 undermine 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 appears to have been 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.”

Some who embrace this view refer to it as the sensus plenior of the Old Testament. Sensus plenior means “fuller sense,” and it generally 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, Scripture Writingand (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 in a given context. In contrast, the “referent” of a word is the specific thing/person/event that the word stands for in that 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 often ignorant of the meaning of what they wrote, for their 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?

SurpriseTo illustrate, consider the following scenario. A man decides to bless 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 did not necessarily know the identity of these referents does not indicate that they did not 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 2:30-31). 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, oftentimes 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 did not understand what he was saying. The human and divine intentions are one and the same.

Matt Waymeyer


Matt teaches hermeneutics and Greek at The Expositor's Bible Seminary in Jupiter, FL.
  • That is excellent. I hope there is a followup post describing in more detail some of the implications of this and how some popular teachings of today are inane in light of what you wrote.

    On a editorial note, this sentence is long and hard to read. I like the point you make and I’m afraid too many will stumble.

    “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 did not necessarily know the identity of these referents does not indicate that they did not understand the meaning of their own messages.”

    There are too many words and too many “negatives” (not) which makes is hard to read and understand. In the hopes that readers will get your point, I suggest making it more concise for people less apt to re-read. Just a suggestion.

  • kevin2184

    This was very helpful. Thanks, Matt, for writing this.

  • Rick

    Does the principle of single meaning make the ignorance of the OT prophets irrelevant?

    Matt 2:17-18 is one of the reasons I ask this question. Through the use of a grammatical-historical hermeneutic it doesn’t seem possible to arrive at Matthew’s interpretation of Jeremiah 31:15.[Note I don’t think NT authors abused OT texts]. We would only know that Jeremiah was speaking prophetically of Herod’s atrocity [noting Matthew’s use of fulfillment language] when Matthew tells us so.

    So it seems that at least for the NT authors a fuller sense did exist in certain OT texts.

    • Andrew

      Maybe I can help with that passage. First of all, one thing I’ve learned in dealing with NT use of OT is that every time a NT writer quotes from the OT you absolutely need to understand what the OT text is saying (including any other previous text that might be connected to it).

      If you study Matt. 1-2 in depth, you’ll come to realize that Matthew is arguing for the kingship of Jesus trying to convince his Jewish audience. Then you get to Matthew’s quote of Jeremiah and it looks like a problem because Jeremiah means one thing and it seems like Matthew is applying it to the children murdered by Herod. However, the text of that Matthew pulls from is in the context of the New Covenant. If you look at the next two verses in Jeremiah he speaks of hope, reward, land, and children (i.e. blessings).

      In the Historical context of Matthew, they do not have any of those blessing mentioned by Jeremiah… they are still in the state of weeping (they dont really have land since its all controlled by rome). In considering verses 13-18 of Matt., you see that he is emphasizing God’s fatherly protective love over Jesus (i.g. “out of Egypt I called my son”) and subsequently this Jesus is the hope of the nation. Matthew piggy backs off the event of Herod murdering the children to connect it Jeremiah to convince his audience that there is still hope for New Covenant blessings, and that hope is found in this Jesus who is protected by the Father.

      Also, the greek word translated as fulfilled doesn’t necessarily mean the full completion of prophecy. Jer. 31:15 isn’t prophecy anyway. The word simply implies “filling up”… think of it as building upon

      So, I would argue that Matthew completely understands Jeremiah’s intent and uses Jeremiah’s meaning to build his own argument, which is still consistent with Jeremiah’s intent.

      Long post, but I hope it helps

    • Alex


      I am not sure how your point relates to your question, but in keeping with the puzzle metaphor, consider a 3d puzzle?, are all peices are 2d? no, some connect the individual sides.

      Matt 2.17-18 is a 3d puzzle peice, and obvious allusion to the captivity, but also fulfilled in Herod’s murdering of the children. To borrow Mathew Henry’s sentiment “See and adore the fulness of the scripture!”

  • Rick

    I don’t think that on the basis of this text alone we should go ferreting around the OT finding fulfillments in every verse. But I think that NT authors did practice in some of their uses of the OT a hermeneutic that is not grammatical historical.

    So the OT prophets ignorance of the 5 topics noted in this post may not answer the specific issues raised by proponents of a fuller sense. Especially if it is an inspired fuller sense application.

    • Andrew Bussell

      I would argue that any time the NT quotes from the OT, the NT writer is consistent with the meaning and intent of the OT text. So there is no “fuller sense”, but the NT authors understand how to apply or interpret that same meaning into their current circumstance. I haven’t studied every NT use of OT to say that definitively, but based on what I have studied it seems to be the case.

      When a biblical scholar argues that the NT writer is reinterpreting or bringing out the fuller sense of the OT, it is usually because the scholar misunderstands either the intent of the NT writer or the meaning of the OT text. I think Matthew 2:17-18 is a good case example

    • Alex

      I think that it is important to note that the NT authors were prophets.

    • Andrew

      good point Alex, that means that there is validity in the message that the NT writers proclaim. Doesn’t mean, however, that they find the deeper meaning or reinterpret the OT. That’s not part of the job description of a prophet. Otherwise, Isaiah and Jeremiah would have done the same thing to Moses, but they didn’t. Instead they built upon what Moses had already said… as well as revealing new things, but all consistent with the foundation that moses had laid

      • Rick

        I think I understand the point that you are all making. The NT uses of the OT do not violate a grammatical historical hermeneutic. The idea of a fuller meaning or sense in OT passages should be dismissed since careful observation of the passage cited and it’s use are consistent.

        So can we apply the Hermeneutics of NT authors to the OT?

      • Andrew

        I believe the NT authors provided a hermeneutical model for us to follow, yes. I believe that its the same model employed by the the latter prophets of the OT. I argue that there is a consistent hermeneutic that started in the beginning of time and follows us through to today.

        To say that the hermeneutic changes because of the first advent of Christ destroys any real meaning in communication. For example, how do we know that the NT means what we think it means? Maybe there is a fuller meaning to the NT that wont be revealed till the second advent of Christ? In sensus plenior you lose the foundation of meaning in communication.

        I dont know if that made sense.

  • Andrew

    The issue of perspicuity or ambiguity of the OT goes into the issue of whether God communicates in generalities or in particularities. Is God precise when he communicates? As in, is every detail relevant? Or does God just want you to get the general idea of what he is saying? If the OT was ambiguous to the original audience, then God isnt precise or clear in his communication, which i believe shakes the foundation of even the gospel if taken to its logical conclusion.

    I would argue that the most consistent hermeneutic to employ is to say that the OT was just as perspicuous to the original audience as it is to us today, and since Truth does not change, the NT writers build upon the foundation in light of the 1st coming of Christ without changing the OT or finding the deeper meaning