I’ve run into a handful of conversations recently concerning secondary fulfillments of biblical prophecy. The idea is that it is possible for a biblical prophecy to have an initial proximate fulfillment and then another distant future (and typically greater) fulfillment.
For example, Isaiah 7:14 is a favorite passage among Christians as a messianic prophecy anticipating Jesus. The prophecy was spoken some 700 years before Christ. Threatened by the kings of neighboring Aram and Remaliah, Ahaz frets over the security of his kingdom. Into that situation Isaiah speaks the word of the Lord to the insolent Ahaz: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel” (NIV).
We’re so very familiar with the messianic fulfillment. Matthew 1:23 quotes the passage and Luke 2:12 alludes to it. But in its original context, Isaiah seems to point toward a more immediate fulfillment of his own prophecy. “But before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste. The Lord will bring on you and on your people and on the house of your father a time unlike any since Ephraim broke away from Judah – he will bring the king of Assyria” (Isa 7:16-17, NIV).
Indeed, within a few years, both Aram and Remaliah are decimated by Assyria, from whom Ahaz sought rescue and to whom Ahaz made himself vassal (2 Kgs 16:7-9). But of course, as J. Alec Motyer puts it, Ahaz had “taken a tiger by the tail” (The Prophecy of Isaiah, 87), and it would come back to haunt him.
So there it is. Isaiah utters a prophecy that finds its initial fulfillment within a few years of its deliverance. One could imagine Isaiah pointing to a young woman before Ahaz and saying, “Before this woman has a child and before that child is able to eat solid food, this problem will pass…” Indeed, it does.
And yet, Christians are right to grab hold of Isaiah’s word as pointing towards the Christ, who would not come for another 700 years, a far greater secondary fulfillment.
More to come…