Hermeneutics,  Old Testament,  Scripture

Did the Prophets Understand Their Prophecies?

photo of question about prophets understand prophecies

Sometimes it is claimed that prophets in the Old Testament did not fully understand their own prophecies. This is often an argument for sensus plenior, which is the idea of finding a “fuller meaning” behind the text—a meaning which the original author may not have known. One of the key texts which is used to support the idea that prophets did not fully understand their prophecies is 1 Peter 1:10–12.

10 Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, 11 inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. 12 It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look. (ESV, cf. NASB, NET)

Following these translations, some people will argue that the prophets did not understand the content of their prophecies concerning the Christ. It could thus be argued that the prophets did not understand that the person they were prophesying about was the Messiah! However, this passage can be translated differently.

They inquired into what time or what circumstances the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating (1 Pet 1:11a, CSB; cf. NIV, KJV)

As the CSB has it, the prophets did not understand the time or circumstances which would see the fulfillment of their prophecies. Thus, there is no indication they did not understand the content as much as the timing. In other words, they were eager to understand the timing of their prophecies. Why is there such significant disagreement about how to understand this verse?

The issue is the two descriptors in the Greek phrase τίνα ποῖον καιρόν (“what person/time or circumstances”). In Greek, τίνα is a word which could be referring to a person as a standalone descriptor, or it could also be modifying the word for time (καιρὸν) like the other part of the sentence (ποῖον). Both are grammatical possibilities.

Those who understand τίνα as a standalone descriptor of a person argue that it is unlikely two similar modifiers would describe the same noun in this context. However, some Greek grammarians have noted this could be an example of repetition for emphasis (e.g., Robertson and BDF). In support of this, we could look to Acts 7:49 which uses a similar parallelism with the same adjectives (although in Acts 7:49 they each occur with a synonymous noun). There is also a passage in Dionysius (non-biblical Greek) which uses the same adjectives in reverse order, “what and what manner of road is this?” (On the Sublime, 13.2, Aristotle XXIII, 199).

In addition to the grammatical evidence, there are theological and biblical considerations which must be evaluated. First, the prophets routinely note that they did not understand the timing of their prophecies (cf. Dan 12:4, 9, 13; Ezek 12:27; Zeph 3:20). Second, it is unlikely that the prophets did not know their prophecies dealt with the Messiah—something that seems very clear from a contextual reading of the OT texts. Third, the whole context of 1 Peter 1:10–12 is highlighting the difference of time between the OT prophets and the NT Christians (thus, an emphasis on time would be appropriate).  

Finally, it should also be acknowledged that communication is successful only when the receiver understands the communicator. In his book on Hermeneutics, Walt Kaiser has noted that the prophets repeatedly demonstrate that they understand their message from God. He gives the following points to show this reality.

1. The prophets were aware of the results of their prophecies.

Examples of this are in abundance. Jonah knew his prophecy would lead to the opportunity for salvation for Nineveh (Jonah 4:3). Micaiah knew his prophecy would be displeasing to the kingly court (1 Kgs 22:15).

2. The prophets were aware of the implications of their prophecies.

Amos shows prophetic certainty of judgment (Amos 7:1-6). Jeremiah shows similar sensitivities (Jer 7:16; 11:14; 14:11).

3. The prophets were told things that were humanly impossible to know.

This is obviously one of the signs of a true prophet (cf. Deut 18:19-22). Elisha (2 Kgs 6:9) and Ezekiel (Ezek 8:3–11:25) are both listed as examples by Kaiser, but there could be many more.

4. The prophets related their predictions to contemporary events and circumstances.

Obviously the prophets had to understand their prophecies in order to provide appropriate application to the current generation. Amos 3:7-8 indicates that God intentionally reveals His will clearly to the prophets so that there is no question about God’s power and control.

God communicated through the prophets in a clear and understandable way. This is not to say that the prophets had to understand all of the implications or applications of their prophecy. But, in order for prophecy to accomplish its goal it must be able to be verified. In order for prophecy to appropriately apply to the generation of the prophet, it needed to be understandable  

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He is a husband, father, and sports enthusiast.

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