Without doubt the centuries have witnessed a lot of ignorance in regard to the topic of how biblical prophets used their own Scriptures. Besides ignorance, many also have not even thought to inquire about which methods were used by the prophets as they utilized their own Scriptures. A cursory investigation of the prophetic use of Scripture is not only helpful in understanding the great prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures, but it also provides guidance for us moderns who wish to more accurately understand how the prophet John utilized Scripture.
At the outset it is crucial to remember that the heart of the ministry of biblical prophets was not to give predictions concerning the remote future. In nuce, a straightforward reading of biblical prophets shows that they were messengers from God to call the people of YHWH to return to Moses and to the message of Mt. Horeb by rejecting idolatry and the mistreatment of others, both of which reflected their assimilation to the values of the surrounding pagan nations and cultures. It should surprise no follower of Christ that he correctly summarized the prophets when he stated the Golden Rule (Matt. 7:12).
An aspect of the prophetic use of Scripture that sheds light both on the Old Testament prophets and also on the use of the Old Testament by the prophet John is “typological allusion.” This technique or hermeneutical style is called allusion since the prophets do not quote or formally cite earlier Scripture; they allude to it by the use of reminiscent terms or phrases. It is typology, since through the particular message the prophet is hoping to create in the hearts of the audience points of correspondence between the stories contained in earlier Scripture and the message that God is giving through their contemporary ministry. The following example will clarify this often neglected dimension of biblical prophecy as a background to Revelation.
The latter part of the book of Isaiah deals in part with the hope of the redemption of the Jews from Babylonian captivity. With what words and pictures can the prophecies of the book of Isaiah dare offer hope and a future to those Jews who are dejected and without hope because of the decades spent by the waters of Babylon (Ps. 137:1). Isa. 43 boldly offers hope for a resilient future for those weary Jews of Babylon by portraying reminiscent images of the previous mighty acts of YHWH on behalf of his elect people.
For your sake I will send to Babylon and break down all the bars, and the shouting of the Chaldeans will be turned to lamentation. I am the LORD, your Holy One, the Creator of Israel, your King. Thus says the LORD, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, . . . I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. . . . I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise (Isa. 43:14-21).
How could any Israelite hearing these words from Isa. 43 not see the clear points of correspondence between what God had done for Israel in the Exodus, in the destruction of the Egyptian armies, and in the providential waters from God during the wilderness wanderings and what God would be doing in the liberation of Israel from Babylonian oppression?
This hermeneutical technique of “typological allusion” worked well and often in the book of Isaiah and in other Jewish prophets. It certainly helps the modern student better appreciate the prophetic use of Scripture by Old Testament prophets. This method clearly does not rely upon the idea that later prophets viewed earlier Scripture as predictive. It is a significant distortion to imagine that a later use of earlier Scripture by a prophet presupposed some kind of predictive prophecy understanding. Nor is it necessary to assume that the words of Isa. 43 had to be literally fulfilled for the ancient Jews in Babylon to see the correspondence between YHWH’s former deeds and his promised deeds for those Jews in captivity.
As we will see in later posts, the prophet John followed this pattern of typological allusion to employ Old Testament themes and images, without at all supposing that the Scriptures he was using were somehow predictive or that the imagery had to have a literal fulfillment.