by James M. Hamilton Jr.
What’s a narrative made of? Narratives have a setting, characterization, and plot. Plots are built out of episodes and conflict, and if successful they communicate themes.
The Bible is set in the world as we know it. Most of its story happens on the three bodies of land around the Mediterranean Sea, but the story is about the whole world. The Bible presents an interpretation of its own setting that gets at the meaning and purpose of this world God created.
Shakespeare showed his genius in a theater named the Globe. The place was aptly named, as Shakespeare held the mirror up to nature and depicted the world as it is. The real world where God shows his genius is the archetype of the theater where Shakespeare showed his. God built this stage to show his craft. The world is a theater for the display of God’s glory.
God built the set (created the world) so there would be a place where he is known, served, worshiped, and present. Places where gods are known, served, worshiped, and present are called temples. God built the earth as his temple, and in it he put his image and likeness. The realm that God has created is a cosmic temple; the image God put in the temple to represent himself is mankind. Everything God made was good, but the characters in the drama rebelled against God and defiled his temple. In response to the sin of Adam, God subjected creation to bondage, offering hope, however, that there would be a restoration.
Don’t miss the connections between the setting and the characters. God made and owns the setting. It’s his. It’s for him. It’s about him.
The worldwide setting of the Bible’s story is presented as God’s cosmic temple. The tabernacle and later the temple God gave to Israel were small-scale versions of the cosmos, microcosms (Ps. 78:69). This understanding of the story’s setting has implications for the story’s characters: that the world is a cosmic temple means that it’s a place in which God is known, served, present, and worshiped. The human characters in the temple are the real thing imitated by idolaters who build temples to false gods and then put wood or stone “images” of those gods in those temples. In the real story, the image of God in God’s temple is a living, breathing, worshiping human being. Then there are the enemies: the serpent and his seed are trying to usurp God, but all they accomplish is the (temporary) defilement of God’s temple.
As the setting of the story is related to the characters in the story, so also the setting is key to the plot. The plot begins with the making of the cosmic temple, which is defiled by sin. Once it is defiled, however, God makes statements that hint at restoration. Eventually God gives to the nation of Israel a small-scale version of the setting, a microcosm, when he gives them first the tabernacle and later the temple. The judgments visited on the microcosms (when tabernacle and temple are destroyed) point forward to the judgment that God will bring on the macrocosm (the world), and then God will bring about a new and better cosmic temple, a new heaven and earth. At this restoration God will make things better than they were at the beginning.
No offense, but you aren’t the main character in the big story of the world. One of the best things that can happen to us is discovering our role in the real story of the world.
The triune God is the protagonist of this cosmic drama, with Satan as the (infinitely outmatched) antagonist, and there are other heavenly beings involved in the story. God and Satan are locked in conflict, each seeking the allegiance of humans made in God’s image. Protagonist and antagonist are contending for dominion over the world God made. It doesn’t take a genius to predict victory for the Creator, but it takes the power of the Spirit to side with him.
Humans are either seed of the woman or seed of the serpent. The Hebrew word rendered “seed” or “offspring” or (less felicitously) “descendants” in English can refer to one “seed” or to a handful of “seed.” There are individual (Gal. 3:16; Rev. 12:5) and collective (Rom. 16:20; Rev. 12:17) manifestations of the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent in the Bible. There are good guys and bad guys.
Those who call on the name of the Lord (Gen. 4:26; Rom. 10:13) are “born of God” and “God’s seed abides” in them (1 John 3:9). They have been made alive by the Holy Spirit (John 3:5–8; Eph. 2:5). They are the collective seed of the woman against whom that ancient dragon, who is the Devil and Satan, rages (Rev. 12:17). They trust the singular seed of the woman, who saved them by crushing the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15; John 12:31). The guys in the black hats, rebels who gather together against the Lord and his anointed (Ps. 2:1–3), are the seed of the serpent (John 8:44). The serpent’s seed are not literal snakes but people who speak and act like the dragon (cf. Rom. 16:17–20; Rev. 13:11). Like their father the Devil, they dishonor those whom God has blessed, and for that God curses them (Gen. 3:14–15; 4:11; 9:25; 12:3).
God cursed the serpent and his seed: to the serpent he said, “Cursed are you” (Gen. 3:14), and then he spoke the same words to Cain after Cain killed Abel (Gen. 4:11). Then Canaan was cursed after Ham’s sin against Noah (Gen. 9:25), and God told Abraham that he would curse those who dishonored him (Gen. 12:3). Those who kill like Cain, exalt themselves like Lamech (Gen. 4:23), scoff like Ham, and oppose God’s purposes by fighting against Abraham and his offspring are, in the figurative words of Jesus, of their father the Devil (John 8:44). They are seed of the serpent, or in the words of John the Baptist, a “brood of vipers” (Matt. 3:7).
By contrast, a line of descent is carefully traced through the Old Testament that begins from Adam, continues through Noah to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, carries on through David right down to Jesus the Messiah. The Bible’s genealogies carefully preserve this line of descent from Adam to Jesus. Jesus is the singular seed of the woman. Those who embrace God’s promises and align themselves with God’s purposes identify with the Promised One by faith. They are the collective seed of the woman.
When God made the setting, the cosmic temple, he gave dominion over it to the man and the woman (Gen. 1:28). When they sinned, Satan took control as “the prince of the power of the air,” and with him are the “sons of disobedience,” the “children of wrath” (Eph. 2:2–3). God has promised, however, that the son of David will rule (Ps. 110). He will receive dominion over God’s restored cosmic temple (Rev. 11:15–19).
What part do you play in this drama? Have you embraced the role you were made to enact, or are you trying to be God? Are you with God, who will triumph, or with Satan, who looks good for the time being?
In broadest terms, the Bible’s plot can be summarized in four words: creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. This isn’t Satan’s story. He has introduced the plot conflict that will be resolved. He will be defeated. Don’t side with him, don’t aid and abet his causes, and don’t envy those who side with him.
God created a cosmic temple. God’s good creation was defiled by sin that resulted from the temptation of the serpent, who turns out to be the archenemy seeking to usurp God’s throne.
God responded to Satan’s pride with the humility of Jesus. God answered the rebellion of Satan with the obedience of Jesus. All the misery and rage of Satan is overwhelmed by the grace and love of Jesus, who for the joy set before him endured the cross (Heb. 12:2). That cross is the plot’s great twist: the long awaited hero came, and he was not only rejected but killed. Killed dead. Put in the tomb. Then hope rose from the dead. The death of Christ was not his defeat but his conquest. God judged sin, condemned it, and Christ died on the cross to pay the penalty for it. Through the judgment that fell on Jesus, God saves all who will trust in him. The demands of justice satisfied by the death of the Son, the Father shows mercy to those who repent and believe. Jesus died to give abundant life (John 10:10), to complete joy (John 15:11).
One of God’s great accomplishments as the author of all is that he brought this to pass. God orchestrated the events that accomplished salvation. He sent the Redeemer, who was not welcomed but rejected, not hailed but killed, and thereby God ensured the plot’s resolution.
One of the great accomplishments of the biblical authors is that they are able to tell this story with such skill that we never recoil from the Bible, shake our heads, and set the story aside as unbelievable. The authors tell the story so well that we not only believe that the Jews rejected and killed their own Messiah but also understand how the events came to pass. It rings true.
The plot will culminate in the return of Jesus to judge his enemies and save his people. The people Jesus saves will know, serve, and worship God, seeing his face in a new cosmic temple, a new heaven and new earth. The plot will be resolved. The characters will be transformed into the image of Christ. And the world, the setting, will be made new.
Isn’t it a relief that the world’s plot is not limited to the brief span of our lives? We make sense of our days in light of this overarching narrative. The big plot of the Bible, with its guarantee of resurrection and new creation, gives confidence even in the face of death. The Bible’s big story opens the windows on stale, stuffy rooms of deadlines and due dates, deaths and disappointments, and fresh winds of the creation-to-new-creation breezes blow through.
Now that we’ve overviewed the plot, we circle back for another look at the great conflict that drives it and at some of its key episodes, and in these we see its main theme.
PLOT: CONFLICT, EPISODES, AND THEME
The prince of the power of the air, that ancient serpent who is the Devil and Satan, has engaged in a cosmic campaign to unseat the Lord of the universe, to take from God the Father what rightfully belongs to him. Satan and his seed are at war with God and his children (Eph. 6:12; 1 John 3:9–15).
In the mystery of his wisdom, God chooses mostly weak and insignificant people as his own. He wants no humans boasting (1 Cor. 1:29), and he wants us relying on him, not ourselves (2 Cor. 1:9). When God sets out to make a great nation of one man’s descendants, he starts with a man whose wife is barren. When he wants to choose a king, he picks a young boy whose own father didn’t think he would be king, and so when the prophet comes to anoint one of his sons, Jesse doesn’t summon David until Samuel has passed over David’s older brothers (1 Sam. 16:10–11). When God wants to save the world, he sends his Son to become a baby, born to a peasant girl in questionable circumstances, and he sends him not to a great world capital but to a small town in Galilee. It’s almost as though God repeatedly gives a head start to the opponent who will never outrun him.
Satan always seems to have the upper hand. The seed of the serpent are always impressive by worldly standards, and they don’t shrink from draconian tactics: Cain kills Abel; wicked Israelites reject Moses; Saul persecutes David; the Jewish leadership crucifies Jesus; and the world has treated Christians the way it responded to Jesus.
But God raises the dead, and if something is impossible with man, all things are possible with God. So in the face of what appears to be the triumph of the wicked, all the weakness and folly of love and humility and joy and hope show the power and wisdom of the true and living God, against whom no foe can prevail.
This happens over and over again, as can be seen when we look at the plot’s episodes.
A plot is made up of events or episodes. Here I want to draw attention to five episodes in the Bible’s plot: the exile from Eden, the exodus from Egypt, the exile from the land, the death of Jesus on the cross, and the promise of his return in glory.
Exile from Eden. Adam and his wife were in that perfect place with that one prohibition. They transgressed it. They tried to cover themselves. They heard footsteps. They panicked. They hid. God had made this place. They were accountable to him. They broke his law. He had promised death for that. They grabbed fig leaves. There was nowhere to go. He called—and into words of judgment he folded hope.
Exodus from Egypt. God sent ten plagues. The firstborn died. The lamb’s blood marked lintel posts. Unleavened bread was eaten in haste.
As at the flood, waters closed over rebels. As Noah was saved through those waters, Israel passed through the Red Sea on dry ground.
Later biblical authors treat the events of the exodus as a paradigm of God’s salvation. The details are worthy of note: Moses floated in an ark covered with tar and pitch on waters where others died (shades of Noah). God humbled the strong and proud Pharaoh by means of the ten plagues and the death of the firstborn. God identified the nation of Israel as his firstborn son. The death of the Passover lamb redeemed the firstborn of Israel. The people fled into the wilderness having plundered the Egyptians and were baptized in the cloud and in the sea (1 Cor. 10:2).
In the wilderness God sustained his people on manna from heaven and water from the rock, spiritual food and drink that nourished hope for the promised Redeemer (1 Cor. 10:3–4). God entered into a covenant with Israel at Mount Sinai and gave instructions for the building of the tabernacle, symbol of the universe. God then filled the microcosm—the small-scale version of the cosmos—with his glory, showing Israel his purpose for all things. Israel journeyed toward the Land of Promise, which was held by giants, whom the small army with inferior technology overthrew by means of weak and foolish battle strategies (march around the city for seven days and the walls will fall down).
Exile from the land. Once in the Promised Land, Israel did exactly what Moses prophesied they would do (Deut. 4:26–31). The nation of Israel was like a new Adam in a new Eden. Like Adam they transgressed. Like Adam they were driven out. Like Adam they left with words of hope folded into prophetic denunciations. Idolatry and immorality caused them to hear the footsteps, the sound of Yahweh coming in the cool of the day, but this time the footsteps were from tramping boots of soldiers. The prophets told them that God’s judgment would be like a new flood: storm clouds would gather, the heavens go dark, and the waters overflow. It wasn’t literal water but an army (Isa. 8:7–8). The foreign army left the cities desolate, the land waste, and the temple ruins. Exile from the land was like de-creation. The temple, symbol of the world, torn down. Sun dark, moon blood, mountains melted.
When God called Adam and Eve to account for their sin, words of hope came in the judgment God spoke over the snake. When God called Israel to account for their sin, words of hope came in the judgment God spoke through the prophets. Announcing that God would drive Israel from the land, the prophets also declared that God would save Israel again as he had done at the exodus—a new exodus (Isa. 11:11–16); that God would raise up for them a new David (Hos. 3:5); that Israel would enter into a new covenant with Yahweh (Jer. 31:31; Hos. 2:14–20); that as the Spirit was given to Moses and the seventy elders, he would be poured out on all flesh—a new experience of the Spirit (Joel 2:28–32); that there would be a new conquest of the land (Hos. 2:15), which itself would become a new Eden (Isa. 51:3; Ezek. 36:35). From all this we see a key truth worthy of italics: Israel’s prophets used the paradigm of Israel’s past to predict Israel’s future.
The cross. In his teaching before the cross, and when he opened their minds after it (Luke 24), Jesus taught his disciples to understand him through the paradigmatic events of the fall, the flood, the exodus, and the exile. In other words, the events of Israel’s history function like schematics or templates, and they are used to communicate the meaning of who Jesus was and what he accomplished. This is why John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus with the words of a “return from exile” text (see the Baptist’s use of the words of Isa. 40:3 in John 1:23). This is why Matthew highlights the way Jesus recapitulates the history of Israel—born of a virgin, threatened in infancy by Herod as the infant Moses was threatened by Pharaoh, called out of Egypt, tempted in the wilderness, hailed as a Lamb, cursed to exile in his death, raised to bring restoration.
God saved his people through the judgment that fell on Jesus, fulfilling the way he saved them through judgment at the fall, the flood, the exodus, and the exile.
Jesus is the new Adam whose obedience overcomes Adam’s sin (Rom. 5:12–21). God identified Israel as his son, and Jesus came as Israel’s representative, the Son of God. Jesus redeemed his people from the curse of the law by becoming a curse (Gal. 3:13), making it possible for the Gentiles to receive the blessing of Abraham in him (Gal. 3:14). Jesus typologically fulfilled the substitutionary death of the Passover lamb—not one of his bones was broken (John 19:36; 1 Cor. 5:7)—when he died to initiate the new exodus. The authors of the New Testament speak of Christians as those who are liberated from bondage, made alive, moving toward the Land of Promise, exiles returning to their true home, the city that has foundations. The whole story of the Bible hinges on the death and resurrection of Jesus to accomplish redemption, and it will culminate in the return of Jesus in judgment to consummate his kingdom.
The promised return. Daniel 7:13 speaks of a son of man coming on clouds of heaven to receive everlasting dominion (cf. Gen. 1:28), and in Acts 1:9–11, Jesus ascended to heaven and was received into the clouds, with an angel announcing that Jesus will come again as he was seen to go—on the clouds of heaven. The slain Lamb will come as the ruling Lion (Rev. 5:5–6). The humble servant will be King of kings. The last will be first, the least greatest. Enemies will be slain by the sword that comes from his mouth, rebels cast into the lake of fire. The worm won’t die. The flames won’t be quenched. Hallelujahs and hosannas ring, bells peal, trumpets blare, kingdom comes. Christ is Lord. He will reign.
What do these plot episodes have in common? In each God shows his glory by saving his people through judgment.
The severity and kindness of God shine in each of these episodes: God judged Adam and Eve by banishing them from the realm of life, Eden. Adam would return to the dust from which he was made, but he went out with a promise that the seed of the woman would crush the head of the serpent. This promise came in the word of judgment spoken to the serpent. The word of salvation, kindness, came in the word of judgment, severity.
And so it was at the exodus: Israel was redeemed through the death of the Passover lamb and the Egyptian firstborn. So also at the exile: as Adam left the garden with the promise, Israel was exiled from the land with prophecies of a glorious end-time restoration ringing in her ears. These instances of salvation through judgment pointed forward to the cross, where Jesus was judged so his people could be saved. When he returns, the salvation of his people will come through the judgment of the serpent and his seed.
The Bible is, of course, brimming with themes, and every one of them shimmers with God’s glory. These themes all flow out of and feed back into the glory of God. Founding and launching them is the bedrock of God’s justice, on which he builds a tower of mercy to make a name for himself. If there were no justice, if God did not keep his word and punish transgressors, there would be no such thing as mercy, for no one would need it since no one would stand condemned. If God were not just, he would not be holy, he would not be true or faithful, and there would be no such thing as a promise kept or a sinner justified by faith.
As God brings salvation through judgment, justice serves as the dark cloth on which God will display the diamond of mercy. The sparkling stone, the contrasting cloth, and the light that shines on both result in a breathtaking display of God’s glory. The Bible’s central theme is the glory of God in salvation through judgment.
God is going to fill the earth with the knowledge of his glory as he saves and judges. The world was created for this purpose, as the previews in the tabernacle and temple show. God himself announced that he would fill the earth with his glory (Num. 14:21). The seraphim proclaimed the earth full of his glory (Isa. 6:3). David looked to the day when his seed would reign and the earth be filled with the glory of Yahweh (Ps. 72:18–19). Isaiah said it would come to pass (Isa. 11:9), and Habakkuk echoed him (Hab. 2:14). God’s ways are unsearchable, past finding out, and he owes nothing to anyone. He cannot be made a debtor or in any way bribed. From him, through him, and to him are all things. His is the glory forever (Rom. 11:33–36).
WHAT ARE THESE GOLD COINS ON THE PATH?
As we read through the Bible, we find gold coin after gold coin on the pathway of biblical promises. These gold coins appear to have been minted in the same place, and as we examine them, we notice two things. First, there is a definite relationship between them. The later ones assume the design and impress of the earlier. Second, as we make our way through the development of the designs on the coins, we find that there are curious combinations of earliest and latest designs as well as a kind of story that can be traced through the images.
I am not talking about literal gold coins. I’m talking about the promises God makes about a coming Redeemer who will set things right and the way the growing pile of promises influenced later biblical authors as they chose what to include in their narratives. The earliest promises caused later biblical authors to notice patterns and similarities between earlier characters, with the result that the later authors highlighted similar patterns and characteristics in their own material.
When we see a later author present a repetition of an earlier pattern, which was informed by a promise, as readers we begin to sense that we are dealing with a sequence of events (a type, pattern, or schema) that the biblical authors saw to be significant, even if they were puzzled by it (cf. 1 Pet. 1:10–12). The repetition of these patterns creates a kind of template that represents the type of thing God does or thetype of thing that happens to God’s people. When we start thinking about what typically happens, we are dealing with typology, and since this is what has typically happened in the past, we begin to expect that this is the type of thing God will do in the future. That is, the type is prospective, forward looking, as it points beyond itself to its fulfillment.
The promises appear to have prompted the prophets to notice the patterns, so we might think of this as promise-shaped typology. Hearing the promises formed an expectation in the minds of the prophets, and then a pattern of events was interpreted in light of the expectation generated by the promises.
If this seems hazy, at points it is! The disciples of Jesus were surprised by what he did, and yet everything he did was foreshadowed in the Old Testament. We can’t look at every gold coin in this short study, but let’s examine a few.
MINTED BY ONE MAKER
Our aim here is to see the connections between key promises in the Old Testament that prompted prophets to recognize patterns. If a promise is a gold coin, then the presence of these promises in the Bible means that the biblical authors saw them as coming from God and relating to God’s plan. This makes the promises like gold coins minted at the same place.
The earliest prophetic impress comes in the word of judgment God spoke to the snake in Genesis 3:15. The man and woman had every right to expect that they would die that day they ate of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:17). But as God cursed the snake, Adam and his wife heard that there would be ongoing enmity between the snake and the woman, and between his seed and hers. Moreover, while the seed of the woman would be bruised on the heel, the serpent would receive a much more serious bruise on the head (Gen. 3:15). The ongoing enmity and the reference to the woman’s seed both indicate that Adam and his wife would not die immediately but continue to live, though they had experienced spiritual death (Gen. 3:7–8). When Adam named his wife Eve, because she would be the mother of all the living (Gen. 3:20), he responded in faith to the word of judgment God spoke over the snake. Apparently faith came at the hearing of the word of the seed of the woman (Gen. 3:15; cf. Rom. 10:17). Adam and Eve believed they would not immediately experience physical death: they would live in conflict with the serpent, and their offspring would bruise his head.
Eve’s responses to the birth of Cain (Gen. 4:1) and Seth (4:25) indicate that she was looking for her seed who would accomplish this victory over the tempter. The line of descent from the woman is carefully traced in Genesis 5, and in Genesis 5:29 Lamech expresses a hope that his son Noah will be the one to bring relief from the curse stated in Genesis 3:17–19. When we read Genesis 5:29 in light of Genesis 3:14–19, it seems that those who are calling on the name of the Lord (Gen. 4:26) are looking for the seed of the woman whose bruising of the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15) will reverse the curse on the land (Gen. 5:29; cf. 3:17–19).
Another genealogy in Genesis 11 continues to trace the descent of the seed of the woman. Then God’s promises to Abraham in Genesis 12:1–3, like a pile of gold coins on the path, answer the curses of Genesis 3:14–19 point for point:
Answering the enmity God put between the seed of the woman and the serpent and his seed (Gen. 3:15), God promises to bless those who bless Abraham and curse those who curse him (Gen. 12:3).
Answering the difficulty God put in childbearing and marital relations (3:16), God promises to make Abraham into a great nation (12:2) and to bless all the families of the earth in him (12:3).
Answering the curse on the land (3:17–19), God’s promise that Abraham will be a great nation also implies territory (12:2), and a few verses later (12:7) God promises to give the land to Abraham and his seed.
After Abraham’s death, God promised to confirm to Isaac the oath he made to Abraham (Gen. 26:3–4), and then Isaac passed the blessing of Abraham on to his son Jacob (28:3–4).
With these coins in hand, we can set them side by side and see that in addition to being promises of God, they set a story in motion. The promises apparently caused Moses to recognize a pattern.
Moses appears to have heard that there would be enmity between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman. So he noticed—and for that reason recorded—the way the seed of the serpent persecuted the seed of the woman: Cain killed Abel; Ham mocked Noah, as Ishmael did Isaac; Esau wanted to kill Jacob. This pattern of persecution probably prompted Moses to notice the way Joseph’s brothers responded to him, prodding Moses to give extended treatment to the suffering and exaltation of Joseph. His brothers wanted to kill him, but sold him into slavery instead. In Egypt, Joseph was exalted, blessed the whole world by providing food in the famine (cf. Gen. 12:3), and then forgave his brothers, preserving their lives from the curse on the land.
The blessing of Abraham had been passed to Isaac, then to Jacob, and Jacob appears to have bestowed it on the sons of Joseph (Gen. 48:15–16). God told Abraham that kings would come from him and Sarah (Gen. 17:6, 16), and we might expect the king to come from the line that receives the blessing. Surprisingly, however, when Jacob blessed his sons, he spoke of Judah in royal terms (Gen. 49:8–12). This prompts the explanation in 1 Chronicles 5:2 that though the birthright and blessing went to Joseph, the “chief” came from Judah.
In Numbers Moses gathers several gold coins and puts them side by side for us. As Balaam failed to curse Israel and blessed them instead, Moses presents him saying something in Numbers 24:9 that combines statements from the blessing of Judah in Genesis 49:9 with statements from the blessing of Abraham in Genesis 12:3. This means that Moses thought God was going to fulfill the promises to Abraham through the promised royal figure from Judah. Just a few verses later, in Numbers 24:17, head-crushing imagery from Genesis 3:15 is combined with language and imagery from the blessing of Judah in Genesis 49:8–12. Numbers 24:19 then speaks of the “dominion” this one from Jacob would exercise, showing that he would exercise the dominion God gave to Adam in Genesis 1:28. God would fulfill the promises to Abraham through the King from Judah, who is the seed of the woman who would crush the head of the serpent and his seed, and in this way God would accomplish the purposes he began to pursue at creation.
A king from the line of Judah arose in Israel. On the way to becoming king, this young man, untested in battle, went out to meet the mighty Goliath, whose head he crushed with a stone, then removed with a sword. Like the seed of the woman who preceded him, David was then persecuted by the seed of the serpent (Saul), who chased him through the wilderness of Israel.
We are not the first to attempt to read these promises in light of the patterns. The biblical authors of the Psalms and the Prophets have blazed this trail for us.
THE PSALMISTS AND PROPHETS INTERPRETED THESE COINS
God made astonishing promises to David (2 Samuel 7). The prophets and psalmists interpret the promises to David and the patterns that preceded him to point forward to what God will accomplish when he brings these things to pass.
Psalm 72 seems to be David’s prayer for Solomon (cf. the superscription and Ps. 72:20). David prays that the enemies of his son, the seed of promise (2 Samuel 7), will lick the dust like their father the Devil (Ps. 72:9; cf. Gen. 3:14). He prays that the oppressors will be crushed (Ps. 72:4; cf. Gen. 3:15). He prays that the seed of David will have a great name like what God promised to Abraham and that, as God promised to Abraham, the nations will be blessed in him (Ps. 72:17; cf. Gen. 12:1–3). All this culminates in David’s prayer that God will accomplish what he set out to do at creation and fill the earth with his glory (Ps. 72:19; cf. Num. 14:21).
One example of prophetic interpretation of these passages, and there are many, is Isaiah 11. Isaiah clearly has the promises to David from 2 Samuel 7 in view when he speaks of the “shoot from the stump of Jesse” (Isa. 11:1). The Spirit of Yahweh will rest on him in fullness (11:2), and he will bring justice and peace (11:3–5). These events are likened later in the chapter to the exodus from Egypt (11:16), and they pertain to the regathering of Israel after the exile from the land (11:11). These realities make what Isaiah says in verse 8 all the more remarkable:
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra,
and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den.
When the King from Jesse arises to accomplish the new exodus and return from exile, it will be not merely a return from the exile from the land of Israel but also a return from the exile from Eden. When this King from David’s line reigns, the enmity between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent introduced in Genesis 3:15 will be no more. That’s what Isaiah is getting at when he speaks of babies playing with snakes and fearing no ill. Evil will be abolished. No more curse. And when God keeps the promise of Genesis 3:15 through the promises made to David in 2 Samuel 7, as in Psalm 72:19, so in Isaiah 11:9,
the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea.
Most of what I have said about promises to this point has to do with redemption. Similarly, most of what I have said about patterns to this point has to do with the persecution and suffering of those who cling to the promises, those through whom the promises will be fulfilled. The mystery is in the interweaving of these two lines of development.
DARK SAYINGS AND RIDDLES
So the promises are piling up to the conclusion that God is going to defeat evil and reopen the way to Eden when the seed of the woman arises to receive the blessing of Abraham, and this seed of the woman will come from the tribe of Judah and descend from David. How is this complicated, enigmatic, or difficult?
The mystery develops around two main questions: First, what is this business about the conqueror suffering? And second, how exactly are the Gentiles going to be blessed? The picture we seem to get from the Old Testament is one of the nation of Israel conquering all other nations, subjugating them to Yahweh and his good law by means of military might. The anointed One from David’s line will rule them with an iron scepter (Ps. 2:8–9). The nations will come streaming to Zion to learn Yahweh’s law (Isa. 2:1–4; cf. Deut. 4:6–8).
What’s mysterious about this? For one thing, the program breaks down on Israel’s disobedience. The nations can’t see the glory of Yahweh’s law because Israel has profaned Yahweh in their sight (cf. Ezek. 20:9). Rather than subject the nations to Israel, Yahweh subjects Israel to the nations and the nations drive Israel out of the land. Then when Israel does return to the land, their disobedience is seen as they intermarry with unrepentant idolaters from the nations (e.g., Ezra 9:11, 14). How are the nations going to be blessed in Abraham and in his seed (Gen. 22:17–18)?
The other aspect of the mystery is connected to this one. As noted above, the patterns were recognized in light of the prophecies. These patterns that were recognized had to do with the death of Abel and the persecution of Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, David, and others. It seems that David reflected on this pattern of suffering in the Psalms, especially those psalms that deal with “the righteous sufferer,” such as Psalms 22 and 69 (there are many others).
Isaiah lived after David, and it appears that David’s reflection on these things influenced the way that Isaiah developed prophecy and pattern in his depiction of the suffering servant. The “shoot from the stump of Jesse” of Isaiah 11:1 seems to be the “young plant, . . . a root out of dry ground” of Isaiah 53:2. What is remarkable here, and elsewhere in Isaiah, is the way the One who will reign in the restoration is also said to be stricken, smitten, and afflicted (53:4), bearing griefs and carrying sorrows (53:4), wounded for transgression, crushed for iniquity, and chastised for the healing of his people (53:5). The righteous One made many to be accounted righteous by bearing their iniquities (53:11). Before Jesus came to fulfill these prophecies, the Old Testament prophets puzzled over the mysteries (1 Pet. 1:10–11). The way the disciples of Jesus reacted to his announcement that he was going to Jerusalem to be crucified shows that they did not have this aspect of the mystery figured out.
The lines of promise and pattern point to conquest and suffering. Building on Isaiah, the angel Gabriel informs Daniel that the Messiah will be cut off and have nothing (Dan. 9:26). Similarly, Zechariah speaks of Israel looking on the Lord, “him whom they have pierced,” and mourning over him “as one weeps over a firstborn” (Zech. 12:10). Zechariah goes on to speak of the Lord calling for the sword to be awakened against his shepherd, the man who stands next to him—the shepherd will be struck and the sheep scattered (13:7). As Isaiah said, “It was the will of the LORD to crush him” (Isa. 53:10).
PROMISE, PATTERN, MYSTERY
Perhaps summarizing the mysteries and highlighting the enigmas they represent will help us to contemplate them.
First, it’s clear that a Redeemer has been promised. This Redeemer will defeat the Evil One and those aligned with him, and that defeat will roll back the curses and result in a new experience of Edenic life. The land will be fertile; people won’t need weapons because they won’t need to defend themselves or want to attack others; the King will reign in justice, establishing peace; and Yahweh’s glory will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea.
Second, there is, however, the problem of the disobedience of the people of Israel in particular, and the sin of humanity in general. This problem results in man’s exile from Eden, then Israel’s exile from the land. If God is going to be true and just, these sins must be punished. Will exile from the land really pay God’s people back double for all their sins, as Isaiah 40:1 indicates? Is there a way for God to punish sinand show mercy?
Third, what about this theme of the persecution and suffering of the seed of the woman? Abel died at Cain’s hand. Joseph was lifted out of the pit and given to Gentiles. Moses was almost stoned by Israel. David was opposed first by Saul, then by Absalom. And then when God made promises to David, he mentioned something about discipline with the stripes of men (2 Sam. 7:14; the Hebrew term for “stripes” is used in Isa. 53:4, 8).
Fourth, in addition to the strong statements about how the Messiah will reign, along the lines of what we find in Psalms 2 and 110, we also have this mysterious talk about a suffering servant in Isaiah 53, a Messiah who will be cut off in Daniel 9:26, the Lord himself being pierced in Zechariah 12:10, and the sword awakened against the man who stands next to him in Zechariah 13:7, which speaks of a stricken shepherd and scattered sheep.
Fifth, what about the Gentiles? God said all the families of the earth would be blessed in the seed of Abraham (Gen. 12:3; 22:17–18), Isaiah says foreigners will be priests and Levites (Isa. 66:21), but at the end of the Old Testament Ezra and Nehemiah are making sure that Israelites don’t intermarry with non-Israelites. How is God going to bless the Gentiles in Abraham’s seed?
When we come to the end of the Old Testament, we have no answer to the question of how all these things will be resolved. How will the theme of the conquering Messiah be fulfilled in light of the pattern of suffering and the prophecies that the Messiah will even die? What about this new exodus and the promised return from exile?
WILL IT ALL FALL APART?
Has the story spun out of control? Or is there a way for the indications gleaned from these gold coins to be brought together into satisfying resolution?
The resolution is brought about by means of the greatest plot twist in the history of the universe: the conquest of the Messiah that looked like defeat. Satan seemed to have conquered. He seemed to have bruised a lot more than the heel of the seed of the woman.
The way the disciples reacted to Jesus announcing that he would go to Jerusalem and die shows how unexpected God’s secret stratagem was. Peter rebuked Jesus and told him it would never happen. It did.
Jesus fulfilled the pattern of the suffering seed of the woman. When he died on the cross he fulfilled the predictions that the Messiah would be cut off, the servant would suffer, the sword would awake against the man standing next to the Lord; indeed, those who saw him die looked on the Lord whom they had pierced. The sins of Israel were doubly paid (Isa. 40:2) because the death of Jesus provides complete forgiveness (Heb. 10:1–18). He died as the suffering servant (Isaiah 53). God called Israel his firstborn son (Ex. 4:23), and Jesus represented Israel as God’s Son. The death of Jesus satisfies the wrath of God, finishing the curse against covenant-breaking Israel.
At the transfiguration, Moses and Elijah were discussing with Jesus the “exodus he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (Luke 9:31,AT). Jesus died as the Lamb of God in a new exodus that typologically fulfilled the exodus from Egypt. Jesus fulfilled the promises from the Old Testament that God would redeem his people in a way that would eclipse the exodus from Egypt (e.g., Jer. 16:14–15; 23:7–8).
The death of Jesus set the new exodus in motion, and the followers of Jesus are described in the New Testament as “exiles” (1 Pet. 1:1) who are being built into a new temple (1 Pet. 2:4–5) as they make their way toward the Land of Promise (1 Pet. 2:11), the new heavens and new earth, where righteousness dwells (2 Pet. 3:13). When the authors of the New Testament speak this way, they are using the sequence of events that took place at the exodus from Egypt as an interpretive template to describe the significance of the salvation God has accomplished in Jesus.
And what about Gentiles? Well, Paul took the gospel first to the Jew, then the Greek (Rom. 1:16). When the Jews rejected the gospel, Paul went to the Gentiles (e.g., Acts 13:46). Paul teaches that when the full number of Gentiles have come in, Jesus will return and save his people (Rom. 11:25–27). All the families of the earth will be blessed in the seed of Abraham, Jesus the Messiah (Gal. 3:14–16).
Paul teaches in Ephesians that this was God’s hidden plan for the Gentiles: the mystery has been unfolded to Paul and the other apostles and prophets (Eph. 3:4–6). Though it was hidden for ages and generations, believers now know the whole story (Col. 1:26). Knowing Christ means understanding God’s great mystery (Col. 2:2–3). Moses prophesied it and displayed it in patterns, which were repeated in the histories and proclaimed in the prophets. Jesus fulfilled it all, and Paul explains that the mystery of God’s will was this plan set forth in Christ for the fullness of time, so that all things (Jews and Gentiles), in heaven and on earth, would be united in Christ (Eph. 1:9–10). Gentile Christians enjoy all the blessings given to Israel in the Old Testament (Eph. 1:3–14).
When the gospel has been preached to all nations (Matt. 24:14), when the two witnesses have completed their testimony (Rev. 11:7), when all the martyrs have been faithful unto death (Rev. 6:11), when the full number of the Gentiles have come in (Rom. 11:25), Jesus will come. Living Jews will see him and believe, have their sins forgiven, and be brought into the new covenant: “and in this way all Israel will be saved” (Rom. 11:26–27). The trump shall resound, the Lord shall descend, the kingdom of this world will become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever (Rev. 11:15).
NOT EVEN DEATH UNDOES IT
What God has accomplished in Jesus has brought resolution to the mystery left unresolved at the end of the Old Testament, and the consummation promised by the guarantee of the Holy Spirit will make all things new. The mystery has been solved, the outcome of the story has been revealed, and now we live in faith that the events that have been set in motion will bring to pass all our hopes (Rom. 8:18–30). We can live on these hopes because there is nothing that can turn God’s love into disregard, not even death (Rom. 8:31–39).
Do you fear death? Do you think about your death, or the death of someone you love, in light of the Bible’s big story?
Earlier in this book I related some of what happened the night of January 6, 2010, the night a friend of mine shuffled off his mortal coil. A few days later I had the privilege of preaching at his funeral. On that day we gathered to glorify God for giving us the joy of having known him.
Psalm 90:10 says,
The years of our life are seventy,
or even by reason of strength eighty;
yet their span is but toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away.
By strength my friend lived to be eighty-one years old. He was faithful unto death. He trusted in Jesus Christ and faithfully served Kenwood Baptist Church as a deacon. He now serves in the presence of the King of kings and Lord of lords. He has taken his place in the heavenly court and sees the throne of the Majesty on high.
My friend’s great conquest in life was overcoming the world. He rejected the world’s lies in favor of God’s truth. By trusting in Jesus, he conquered. His struggle is over. His battle is won. It was a lifelong epic conflict between good and evil, far more significant than any football game or election. At stake in his human life, as in every life, was the very glory of God.
He glorified God in his marriage. He loved his wife as Christ loved the church, giving himself up for her and being faithful to her to the end.
He glorified God in his commitment to Christ’s church. He was always ready to do what he could to make disciples of Jesus.
He and his wife glorified God together by adopting a daughter, just as their heavenly father adopted them.
His body was active for eighty-one years, and now it’s a corpse. We planted his lifeless remains in the ground, and the next thing those remains will experience is resurrection when Jesus returns, as described by the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:42–49.
Our first father was exiled from Eden. Israel was driven from the land. Every one of us lives outside the immediate presence of God. The Bible’s story is our story, and the mystery has been made known.
The hero came, experienced the deepest, darkest moment of exile for us, forsaken by his Father, and then he inaugurated the return from exile by his resurrection from the dead. The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world fulfilled the Passover, and we who believe have been liberated from slavery to sin. We are now traveling toward the Land of Promise. In order to understand how God leads us through this wilderness, we’ll take up some of the Bible’s symbols in part 2.
This is an excerpt from What Is Biblical Theology?: A Guide to the Bible's Story, Symbolism, and Patterns by James M. Hamilton Jr.