Old Testament stories can be confusing. What do they mean? What are they intended to teach us? How can we read them in a way that helps us hear the messages that God designed for us to hear?
In this post I’ll share two tools that can help us read OT stories well:
- A multi-purpose tool: Read each story on three levels.
- A more specialized tool: Distinguish between prophecy and typology.
I’ll illustrate these tools by discussing a couple stories from 2 Samuel—especially 1 Samuel 7, which tells the story of God promising David a “house.” (By the way, this chapter is so important that you should memorize the reference. Use the alliteration to help you: “Second Samuel Seven.”)
READING OLD TESTAMENT STORIES ON 3 LEVELS
In Fee and Stuart’s book on biblical interpretation, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, they distinguish three different levels of Old Testament narrative (historical story). When interpreting any one passage, you can (and, if possible, should) consider all three levels at which the narrative functions. What are the three levels?
First, there is Level 1—the over-arching narrative of the Bible’s big story of how God is sending a Redeemer to rescue a people from sin and for himself. Second, there is Level 2—the individual books of Scripture, or perhaps major “cycles” within books. For example, 1 Samuel contains a series of stories (one “cycle”) featuring Samuel, a series of stories featuring Samuel and Saul, and then a series of stories featuring Saul and David. Third, there is Level 3—the individual stories, such as last week’s story about David bringing the ark into Jerusalem. (I’m paraphrasing Fee and Stuart’s terminology. I also would add that one could suggest more than three levels, but let’s keep it simple.)
Fee and Stuart emphasize that each individual story plays a role at all three levels. Not all stories function equally clearly at all levels, but all are connected somehow. We should consider all three levels when trying to interpret Old Testament stories.
For example, when we read the story of David bringing the ark into Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6) we often focus on Level 3—on what we can learn from the story itself. So we often discuss what we can learn about how we should act in the presence of a holy God. If we focus on level 2, we might notice how this story is part of a series of stories from 2 Samuel 1-6. This series of stories describes how David’s reign was firmly established, beginning with Saul’s death and ending with David reigning from his newly-conquered city Jerusalem—reigning in the presence of Israel’s true King, God himself. We might also notice how the episode in chapter 6 about Michel serves to eliminate Saul’s line from the throne forever, preventing the mingling of David’s and Saul’s dynasties. And if we focus on Level 1? I would have to think about that for a while. Perhaps on that level chapter 6 says something about how the priestly and kingly roles were starting to be united—a unity that would find its ultimate fulfillment in Christ.
All the above is preamble for my comments about 2 Samuel 7. This chapter, unlike chapter 6, very obviously has great significance at Level 1. God’s promise to David that he (God) would build him a “house” (a dynasty) is interpreted by the rest of Scripture to find its ultimate fulfillment in the Messiah, Jesus. So I’ll limit my comments here to Level 1 interpretation, even though this story also works (and suggests applications for faith and practice) at the other two levels.
PROPHECY AND TYPOLOGY
So here is my question: Is God’s promise to David a prophecy of Jesus? I’m thinking specifically of 2 Samuel 7:12-16 (ESV):
12 “When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. 14 I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. When he commits iniquity, I will discipline him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men, 15 but my steadfast love will not depart from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. 16 And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever.”
When you start reading at verse 12, it indeed sounds like a direct prophecy of Jesus. You continue on through verses 13 and into 14, and it still sounds like a direct prophecy of Jesus. Especially when you read this: “I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son.” God only has one Son, right?
And then you hit 14b: “When he commits iniquity…” Wait a minute! The Messiah won’t sin! Suddenly we’re faced with the fact that this can’t be a direct prophecy about Jesus, but only a direct prophecy about Solomon.
Indeed, in the ancient world (both pagan and Israelite), it was common to think of the king as being a “son” of the gods/God. Being a son meant that you represented and mediated the authority of your “father.” So we should not be shocked to read that God calls Solomon his “son.”
So, if this is not a direct prophecy about Jesus, what is it? I would say, instead, that it is typology. It is prophecy about Solomon, and Solomon was a type of Jesus. Actually, there is some prophecy here that points directly to Christ, but let’s first define our terms.
Prophecy is easy: it is direct prediction. Often this is the only category we think of when we think of how the OT points to Christ. We find individual predictions (a king riding on a donkey, a king born in Bethlehem) and note their explicit fulfillment in the life of Jesus.
Typology is a little harder. Here I’ll rely on a favorite author, R.T. France. In his classic book Jesus and the Old Testament he distinguishes typology from both prediction and allegory. I’ll omit the discussion of allegory to keep it simple:
A type… represents a pattern of the dealings of God with men that is followed in the antitype, when, in the coming of Jesus Christ and the setting up of His kingdom, those dealings of God are repeated, though with a fulness and finality that they did not exhibit before… A type is not a prediction; in itself it is simply a person, event, etc. recorded as historical fact, with no intrinsic reference to the future. Nor is the antitype the fulfilment of a prediction; it is rather the re-embodiment of a principle which has been previously exemplified in the type. A prediction looks forward to, and demands, an event which is to be its fulfilment; typology, however, consists essentially in looking back and discerning previous examples of a pattern now reaching its culmination…. The idea of fulfilment inherent in New Testament typology derives not from a belief that the events so understood were explicitly predicted, but from the conviction that in the coming and work of Jesus the principles of God’s working, already imperfectly embodied in the Old Testament, were more perfectly em-bodied, and thus brought to completion. In that sense, the Old Testament history [all of it, not just isolated prophetic predictions!] pointed forward to Jesus.” [emphasis added]
Whew! Are you still with me?
To summarize: Prophecy directly predicts, but typology sets a pattern that only later is seen as being more perfectly fulfilled (or “filled full”) in Christ.
So, which do we have in 2 Samuel 6? Clearly, both. Again, I would say that we have prophecy about Solomon, and, from the perspective of the NT, we can now see that Solomon was a type of Christ. Solomon was a king of peace; Christ is the King of peace. Solomon’s throne was established; Jesus’ throne is established. Most directly for our text: Solomon built a temple; Christ is building the true temple where God will forever dwell—the gathered people of God.
Distinguishing between prophecy and typology helps me to understand how to read this chapter. Clearly, it points to Christ. Equally clearly, it is not all direct prophecy about him. But that doesn’t matter; it still points to him. Solomon was Israel’s grandest king. But he still sinned, as predicted in this chapter. A greater-than-Solomon (sound familiar? see Matt 12:42) was coming in Christ. He fulfilled God’s promise to build David a dynasty better than Solomon ever did. And we can be part of his kingdom!
Finally, I promised I’d explain how this passage does also directly prophecy of Christ. I think it does this when God says “I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever… And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever.” Solomon did not live “forever.” And, although this prophecy could have initially been understood as referring to David’s later kingly descendants, later history has proven that David’s merely earthly descendants have not always been established on a throne. Only in Christ has David’s throne been established forever.
(It might be observed that the Hebrew word translated “forever” in the OT does not always literally mean “forever.” In some cases it apparently means ” a very long time.” But “forever” might be the best translation here, given what I’m about to observe next.)
Most amazingly, David seemed to understand something of this prophesy about Christ! In Acts 2:31 Peter says that the “prophet” David “foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of Christ” based on the promise given here in 2 Samuel 7! If that intrigues you, here’s some further reading: Ponder Acts 2:25-36, then go back to Psalms 16 (vv. 8-11) and 110. It’s amazing what David understood.
And it’s amazing how the story of 2 Samuel 7 (when interpreted at Level 1) is our story! Truly, “O Lord God, you are God, and your words are true” (2 Sam 7:28).