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Hints, Allegories, and Mysteries: The New Testament Quotes the Old

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The Ideal

Although its detractors use terms like “hyper-literalism,” the grammatical-historical method of Bible study has much to commend it. Who can fault a system that strives for objectivity in its pursuit of the knowledge of God? The grammatical-historical method encourages us to read and study without predefined doctrinal lenses. It encourages us to seek out, recognize and put aside long held presuppositions about Christianity and the Bible. Consequently, with the Holy Spirit, an open mind, and hard study anyone can discover important truths and discern the amazing internal consistency of the scriptures.

The grammatical-historical method reads poetry as poetry, history as history, and prophecy as prophecy. At every juncture, the common idiomatic sense of language is what rules. In other words, the primary meaning of a passage of scripture is never an allegory, unless it is so declared by the author.

The Dilemma

Although one might be an ardent practitioner and defender of the grammatical-historical method, it must be recognized that it has a fundamental problem. That problem, simply stated, is this, “If grammar and historical context are so vital to correctly dividing the word of truth, why did the New Testament authors sometimes violate it? Should they not have been the very models of scriptural correctness?”

Apparently not: for the very first Old Testament reference in the New Testament has no sound connection to its original Old Testament context. And the third and fourth quotes are no better! As we read and compare the New with the Old, we uncover usages that sometimes strike us as odd. To see this, take a look at some New Testament quotes of the Old Testament.

The Example of Matthew 1:22,23

Compare Matthew’s quotation of Isaiah 7:14 and the extended quote from Isaiah which follows:

Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel,” which translated means, “God with us.” (Matthew 1:22,23)

Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel. He will eat curds and honey at the time He knows enough to refuse evil and choose good. For before the boy will know enough to refuse evil and choose good, the land whose two kings you dread will be forsaken. The LORD will bring on you, on your people, and on your father’s house such days as have never come since the day that Ephraim separated from Judah, the king of Assyria. In that day the LORD will whistle for the fly that is in the remotest part of the rivers of Egypt and for the bee that is in the land of Assyria. (Isaiah 7:14-18)

Isaiah’s prophecy really outlines a timetable for the destruction of two troublesome foreign kings named Rezin and Pekah. Isaiah says to Judah’s king Ahaz, in effect, that by the time a particular maiden1 marries, has a son, and sees him through his “Bar Mitzvah”, these two kings will be gone. Some commentators try to say that Isaiah is not speaking to Ahaz, but to the whole “House of David.” They take this mental handle and try to stretch the meaning to make it fit the true virgin birth to come. But verse 16 ties the prophecy to the two kings and verse 18 calls upon Egypt and Assyria to be the instruments of their destruction. What have Egypt and Assyria to do with the conception and birth of Jesus?2

Note how the New English Translation phrases Isaiah 7:14:

For this reason the sovereign master himself will give you a confirming sign. Look, the young lady over there is about to conceive and will give birth to a son. You, young lady, will name him Immanuel3. (Isaiah 7:14)

The NET Bible completely captures Isaiah’s original sense. So what was Matthew thinking when he so boldly proclaimed the fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14?

The Example of Matthew 2:15

Now compare Matthew 2:15 and Hosea 11:1

He remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” (Matthew 2:15)

When Israel was a youth I loved him, And out of Egypt I called My son. (Hosea 11:1)

Hosea’s prophecy specifically refers to the nation of Israel and the Exodus from Egypt. Whereas, Isaiah 7:14 has some interesting handles to grab and stretch, Hosea 11:1 just doesn’t! His words are what they are and cannot possibly be said to predict that a future Messiah would spend any time in Egypt. Why would Matthew say that Hosea’s words were fulfilled?

The Example of Matthew 2:17,18

Then what had been spoken through Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled: “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children; and she refused to be comforted, because they were no more.” (Matthew 2:17,18)

Thus says the Lord, “A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; She refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.” Thus says the Lord, “Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears; for your work will be rewarded,” declares the Lord, “And they will return from the land of the enemy. There is hope for your future,” declares the Lord, “And your children will return to their own territory.” (Jeremiah 31:15-17)

Jeremiah refers to the land weeping for the Israelites who have been dispersed to foreign lands. Following the verse about weeping, Jeremiah says, “‘Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears; for your work will be rewarded,’ declares the Lord, ‘And they will return from the land of the enemy.’” There is nothing about a king slaughtering children, because of the birth of Messiah. Rather the tears are a precursor to joy; not the hopeless despair of the young mothers whose children Herod destroyed.

The Example of John 13:18

Even Jesus abandoned strict grammatical-historical usage when He quoted Psalm 41.

“I do not speak of all of you. I know the ones I have chosen; but it is that the Scripture may be fulfilled, ‘He who eats my bread has lifted up his heel against me.’” (John 13:18)

Note the broader context of Psalm 41:

As for me, I said, “O Lord, be gracious to me; Heal my soul, for I have sinned against You.” My enemies speak evil against me, “When will he die, and his name perish?” And when he comes to see me, he speaks falsehood; His heart gathers wickedness to itself; when he goes outside, he tells it. All who hate me whisper together against me; against me they devise my hurt, saying, “A wicked thing is poured out upon him, That when he lies down, he will not rise up again.” Even my close friend in whom I trusted, Who ate my bread, Has lifted up his heel against me. (Psalm 41:4-9)

It is difficult to conclude that this Psalm’s author intended it to refer to Jesus the Messiah, because verse 4 reads, “As for me, I said, ‘O Lord, be gracious to me; Heal my soul, for I have sinned against You.’” Did Jesus have some secret sin in His life? To ask the question is to answer it. Of course, He didn’t.

What is going on?

Matthew, Paul, the writer to the Hebrews, Jesus and the other New Testament authors often quote scriptures out of grammatical and historical context. Note the troubling word “fulfilled” in the four verses above. In what way can anyone say that a verse quoted out of context is “fulfilled?”

The issue, of course, is that we cannot actually complain. We are not reading the papers of young biblical scholars. We are reading inspired Scriptures. It is not up for correction. We cannot give it a bad grade. One can find and read case-by-case attempts to say that the problem text, if read just so, is not a problem4. In truth, though, the more firmly one holds to the grammatical-historical method, the larger the problem looms! Either you accept the violation or bend the method to remove the violation. Either way the strict application of the grammatical-historical method falters. It seems better to discover a paradigm for understanding the scriptural anomalies. But how might one go about it?

Coming to Grips

There are, of course, scholars for whom this is not an issue. For them, the grammatical-historical methodology is good for everything except prophecy. They understand prophecy to have a large symbolic element, and thus, for example, see the Church as the fulfillment of the Messianic Kingdom. As Robert P. Lightner wrote in his The Last Days Handbook:

All evangelicals do use the literal method for their understanding of most of the Bible, but some, namely those of amillenial and postmillenial persuasion, think it best to use a less than literal hermeneutic with much unfulfilled prophecy. It is at this point that the evangelical world is divided over things to come and this is what puts prophecy in the middle of the debate. Premillenialists cannot understand why their brothers and sisters insist on using a different method in interpretation with some unfulfilled prophecy but not with all of it. They wonder on what grounds is the less-than-literal approach to be restricted to only some themes of unfulfilled prophecy?5

Based on how Matthew, Paul, Jesus, and others sometimes quoted the Old Testament do the amillenial and postmillenial scholars have a better grasp of prophetic meaning? Should we abandon the grammatical-historical hermeneutic for interpreting unfulfilled prophecy? It is my thesis that this is not the case, but a satisfactory resolution only comes from coming to grips the hermeneutic used by the New Testament authors.

The Jewish Connection

One promising avenue of research toward resolving this issue emerges when we realize that the authors of these mysterious quotations were Jews writing and living in a Jewish context. This becomes especially apparent when we observe that the preponderance of the problem quotations exist in those books that have a distinctly Jewish focus. It is generally acknowledged that Matthew’s highlights Jesus as the King of the Jews. The gospel of John is increasingly regarded as a Jewish book. The writer to the Hebrews clearly wrote to the first century Jewish believers. These are the books that contain the most problematic of the New Testament quotes of the Old.

If one examines the Jewish roots of Christianity, one discovers that there is a long standing “rabbinical” hermeneutic that can explain the New Testament use of the Old Testament. Dr. David H. Stern, a Messianic Jew and translator of the Jewish New Testament, in his Jewish New Testament Commentary, describes four rabbinical modes of scriptural interpretation. According to Dr. Stern, the Jewish authors of the New Testament both understood and used these four modes. In his words:

We must understand the four basic modes of Scripture interpretation used by the rabbis. These are:

(1) p’shat (“simple”)—the plain, literal sense of the text, more or less what modern scholars mean by “grammatical-historical exegesis,” which looks to the grammar of the language and the historical setting as background for deciding what a passage means. Modern scholars often consider grammatical-historical exegesis the only valid way to deal with a text; pastors who use other approaches in their sermons usually feel defensive about it before academics. But the rabbis had three other modes of interpreting Scripture, and their validity should not be excluded in advance but related to the validity of their implied presuppositions.

(2) Remez (“hint”)—wherein a word, phrase or other element in the text hints at a truth not conveyed by the p’shat. The implied presupposition is that God can hint at things of which the Bible writers themselves were unaware.

(3) Drash or Midrash (“search”)—an allegorical or homiletical application of a text. This is a species of eisegesis—reading one’s own thoughts into the text—as opposed to exegesis, which is extracting from the text what it actually says. The implied presupposition is that the words of Scripture can legitimately become grist for the mill of human intellect, which God can guide to truths not directly related to the text at all.

(4) Sod (“secret”)—a mystical or hidden meaning arrived at by operating on the numerical values of the Hebrew letters, noting unusual spellings, transposing letters, and the like. For example, two words, the numerical equivalents of whose letters add up to the same amount, are good candidates for revealing a secret through what Arthur Koestler in his book on the inventive mind called “bisociation of ideas.” The implied presupposition is that God invests meaning in the minutest details of Scripture, even the individual letters.

The presuppositions underlying remez, drash and sod obviously express God’s omnipotence, but they also express his love for humanity, in the sense that he chooses out of love to use extraordinary means for reaching people’s hearts and minds. At the same time, it is easy to see how remez, drash and sod can be abused, since they all allow, indeed require, subjective interpretation; and this explains why scholars, who deal with the objective world, hesitate to use them. These four methods of working a text are remembered by the Hebrew word “PaRDeS,” an acronym formed from the initials; it means “orchard” or “garden.”6

Here, then, are the tools to understand the New Testament’s uses of the Old Testament and to derive their intended meanings. There is even an English word, like the Hebrew “pardes”, that can help remember these strange terms: p’shat, remez, drash, and sod. That word is “paradise,” in which the consonants provide a mnemonic for the four terms. Interestingly, both words can mean “garden.”

The New Testament quotes the Old Testament using all four rabbinical modes. The p’shat, of course, is easy to discern. So, the remainder of this paper will bring to light some examples of hints, allegories, and mysteries. It will then discuss whether it is appropriate for us to incorporate these modes in our teaching and what the ground rules might be. Lastly, It will discuss how these four interpretive modes can bring together the covenant and dispensational theologians.

Remezim (Hints)

Let me start with the three passages from Matthew. Somewhat arbitrarily, one might categorize them as remezim or “hints.” The principle reason for this choice comes from Matthew’s use of the word “plhrow,” translated “fulfill.” Although our tendency is to think of prophetic fulfillment in a predictive sense with “fulfill” meaning, “coming to pass,” plhrow can also mean “complete,” “fill full,” or “fill to the brim.” This, then, is the sense that Matthew had in mind for these quotations.7

From this viewpoint, when Mary, while yet a virgin, conceived and gave birth to Jesus, it filled up or gave enhanced meaning to Isaiah 7:14. In other words, the significance of the historical event forever adds a shade of meaning to the prophetical event. A remez recognizes that God wired us with associative memories. Who can read “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” and not think of Jesus, His virgin birth, and the fact that He was God among us? Regardless of the p’shat meaning of Isaiah’s words to Ahaz, they will forever afterwards also speak by association of the virgin birth of our Lord. The verse has a fuller meaning that it had before8.

Similarly, when Jesus’ parents took Him to Egypt and later returned, it “filled full” the meaning of Hosea 11:1. Israel is called “God’s son,” but how much greater is the One who is more truly God’s Son? That He would also dwell, for a time, in Egypt communicates God’s desire that the Messiah would completely identify with His people. One can imagine that Matthew, who composed his gospel to reveal Messiah as Israel’s King, decided to bring the subtle hint, contained in Hosea 11:1, into sharp focus.

Likewise, the words of Jeremiah are a perfect description for the grief of the mothers whose children Herod killed. And so the scripture, after the historical event, hints at and speaks to the horrible grief experienced by Bethlehem’s mothers.

Here is an interesting example of the remez principle at work! You will not find it in the New Testament, but it illustrates the rabbinical concept of “hint” in a very fresh and enlightening way.

And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; now he was a priest of God Most High. (Genesis 14: 18)

Have you ever thought of the Sacrament of Communion when you read this passage? Have you ever looked more closely at the event to see if there was a prophecy of communion? Although there is no prophecy of the Last Supper here, the central importance of Communion in the Church provides an associative link between this verse and church practice. Genesis 14:18 is a remez of Holy Communion. Matthew recognized the same principle when he quoted Isaiah 7:14, Hosea 11:1, and other passages.

The point is this. A scriptural text may carry semantic associations that go beyond the simple meaning of its words and context. It is a right-brained connection and, therefore, violates the western-enlightenment-left-brained preference for propositional logic. The importance of this has been stated well Dr. Daniel Wallace:

The Holy Spirit does not work just on the left brain. He also works on the right brain: he sparks our imagination, causes us to rejoice, laugh, sing, and create. Few Christians are engaged and fully committed to the arts today. Where are the hymn writers? Where are the novelists? Painters? Playwrights? A very high-powered editor of a Christian magazine told me two weeks ago that he knows of only one exceptional Christian fiction writer. What are our seminaries doing to encourage these right-brainers? What is the Church doing to encourage them?9

The interpretive modes of remez, drash, and sod are right brained, non-linear, associations of meaning that we can imagine that God intended from the beginning. Furthermore, their proper use may help encourage right brain activity in the church. Of course, there must be guidelines. We do not want them to become a source of strange doctrines and confusions.

Here is a remez from the Apostle Paul.

For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing.” God is not concerned about oxen, is He? Or is He speaking altogether for our sake? Yes, for our sake it was written, because the plowman ought to plow in hope, and the thresher to thresh in hope of sharing the crops. If we sowed spiritual things in you, is it too much if we reap material things from you? (1 Corinthians 9:9-11)

The strict exegete must chuckle uncomfortably whenever he reads “God is not concerned about oxen, is He?” From a strict grammatical-historical exegesis, God cares about them very much! The tension only increases with the words, “Or is He speaking altogether for our sake?” This seems to say that oxen are of no account whatsoever. Paul, it would seem, totally discounts the p’shat of the text.

But Paul discerns that the commandment hints at a higher principle. That principle has no better translation than these words of Abraham Lincoln,

“It is the eternal struggle between two principles---right and wrong---throughout the world. It is the same spirit that says: ‘You toil and work and earn bread---and I’ll eat it...’ No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle.”

But note how terse and handy the scripture reference is. It is easy to memorize and communicates to young and old.

But how does Paul get away with minimizing the importance of the ox? It is the rule of proportionality. If the commandment is good for oxen, how much more is it for mankind. If it is good for mankind, how much more is it for preachers of the gospel. For Paul, this commandment, by protecting the bottom of the agricultural food chain, protects those whom God most cares about.

Remez vs. Sensus Plenior

The Roman Catholic Church has long promoted a view called sensus plenior, or fuller meaning. By this they mean that God crafted different levels of meaning into verses like Isaiah 7:14 and Hosea 11:1. The idea has some merit, but has the weakness of being “after the fact.” Sensus plenior describes, but does not explain why Matthew and others would use the Old Testament the way they did. It does not link the concept to a tradition of interpretation in the same way that remez does. Except for that weakness, sensus plenior is a close synonym for remez.

Along lines similar to sensus plenior, Tracy L. Howard coined the term analogical correspondence. He writes:

Having evaluated the different options, the most satisfactory answer to the problem of Matthew’s use of Hosea 11:1 is “analogical correspondence,” in which Matthew saw an analogy between the events of the nation described in Hosea 11:1–2 and the events of Messiah’s life in Matthew 2:13–15. As Matthew drew these correspondences he saw Jesus as the One who actualizes and completes all that God intended for the nation.10

Tracy L. Howard’s paper provides a good description of the mental processes behind remezim. Compare his phrase “actualizes and completes” with the Greek plhrow. Unknowingly, it seems, he has captured Matthew’s intention for using this word in the first place.

It is interesting to compare Matthew’s use of the Greek plhrow with the Latin sensus plenior; i.e. the old text is endowed with a fuller meaning. The main value, once again, of the term remez over sensus plenior is that the Jewish connection helps us discern why Matthew could and would employ the device in his gospel. It does not appear as much of a scholarly trick to get out of a difficult situation11. It also helps resolve an issue debated among scholars as to whether the original author in some way had to “know” or “intend” the full scope of the revelation his words could carry12. The Jewish thought, of which Matthew and others were partakers, is that God could intend additional meanings to surface later. As David Stern wrote, “The implied presupposition is that God can hint at things of which the Bible writers themselves were unaware.”

Drashim (Allegories or Types)

The rabbinical concept of drashim has a parallel with the Christian concept of “types.” For example, there was a time during the wilderness wanderings of the Israelites when poisonous snakes came into the camp. People, when bitten by the snakes, died. So, the Lord directed Moses to craft a serpent out of bronze and lift it up in the camp. After that, if a snake bit someone, he could look at the snake and be cured. Christian theologians say that the “serpent in the wilderness” is a “type” of Christ. Both were lifted up for the sake of dying men. In fact, Jesus gave us the allusion of the bronze snake (John 3:14). He also gave us the connections between His burial and Jonah’s great fish (Matthew 12:39-41). These are examples of drashim.

There is a classic allegory that Paul penned to the Christians in Galatia.

Tell me, you who want to be under law, do you not listen to the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the bondwoman and one by the free woman. But the son by the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and the son by the free woman through the promise. This is allegorically speaking, for these women are two covenants: one proceeding from Mount Sinai bearing children who are to be slaves; she is Hagar. Now this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free; she is our mother. For it is written, “Rejoice, barren woman who does not bear; break forth and shout, you who are not in labor; for more numerous are the children of the desolate than of the one who has a husband.” And you brethren, like Isaac, are children of promise. But as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so it is now also. But what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the bondwoman and her son, for the son of the bondwoman shall not be an heir with the son of the free woman.” So then, brethren, we are not children of a bondwoman, but of the free woman. (Galatians 4:21-31)

Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, defined, with God’s direction, a doctrine of Gentile faith that was independent of the Laws and traditions of Judaism. In making his case, he quoted frequently from the Old Testament. Most of the time, he used the p’shat or simple sense so that:

  • To declare the pre-eminence of Faith he quoted Genesis 15:6, “And Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”
  • To declare the hopelessness of justification by Law, he quoted Deuteronomy 27:26, “Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, to perform them.”

But in this section, Paul switched from p’shat to a drash drawn from Abraham’s life. Although Abram believed that God would fulfill the covenant, he decided that God needed help. So Abram went into Hagar, who conceived and gave birth to Ishmael. Much later, Sarah miraculously conceived and gave birth to Isaac. Paul saw a parallel, in these events, between those who seek justification by human effort and those who trust God alone for their salvation. On the one hand, he showed the allegorical correspondence of Flesh-Hagar-Slave. On the other hand, he showed the correspondence of Promise-Sarah-Freedom. By way of the allegory, Paul asked the Galatians, “Whose son are you? Whose son do you want to be?”

But Paul also used the allegory to exhort the Galatians to action when he writes, “Cast out the bondwoman.” If they were children of the free-woman, then allegorically speaking they needed to cast out the son of the slave woman, i.e. those who were pressuring them to find justification through obedience to the Law and the traditions of men. Yes, Paul spoke allegorically, but the allegory was strong and full of meaning. It became the vehicle to communicate strong action.

However, Paul also believed the allegory to be, in some sense, inspired. That is, Paul believed that God intended for Sarah and Hagar to represent two covenants. What else could he mean by beginning this section with the words, “Tell me, you who want to be under law, do you not listen to the law? For it is written…?” Real history becomes a parable for the ages by the inspired hand of the Holy Spirit.

Sodim (Mysteries)

There are also places where the New Testament either quotes or alludes to an Old Testament passage in a way that reveals a hidden meaning. One is in John’s Gospel. Several are in the Book of Hebrews.

The Sod in John 1:1-5

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it. (John 1:1-5)

Both John’s Gospel and the Book of Genesis begin with the phrase, “In the beginning.” The first subject, in both, is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and both separate light from darkness. But John calls Jesus “the Word.” Why? As you ponder both passages side by side, you might begin to see a connection between Genesis’ “God said” and John’s “the Word.” It is as if John looked at the phrase “God said” and saw Jesus hidden in the verb. As the Father speaks, the “spoken” Word executes.

Many have seen the parallel between the opening of Genesis and the opening of John. However, there is reason to think that it goes still deeper. This derives from a somewhat mystical understanding of Genesis 1:1. In Hebrew it reads, “.Jra*h* ta@w+ <y]m^V*h^ ta@ <yh@l)a$ ar`B* tyv!ar}B=” Some rabbis have noted that the first Hebrew word after “In the beginning God created…” is ta. This word is rarely translated into English, because it is redundant with the h^ prefix of the next word. But this word, ta, is made up of the Hebrew letters aleph and tov, which are the first and last letters of the Hebrew alefbet. By extension the first and the last include all the ones in between. So one might mystically read, “In the beginning God created ta.” That is He created the capacity for language in the Universe by which it could respond to “God said.” What is behind the capacity for language? For John, it is, perhaps, the eternal Word.

What makes this idea not quite so far fetched are the words of Jesus, also recorded by John in Revelation 1:8, “I am the Alpha and the Omega.” In Hebrew, He would have said, “I am the Aleph and the Tov.” Therefore, it is possible that both John 1:1 and Revelation 1:8 have roots in the hidden revelation in Genesis 1:1. Also, the Old Testament authors frequently employed the letters of the Hebrew alefbet in special ways. Psalm 119 has 22 sections of 7 verses each. The 7 verses in the first section all begin with the letter Aleph; the 7 verses in the second section all begin with the letter Bet; and so forth through all the Hebrew letters in order. Psalm 119 is, therefore, a 22 by 7 acrostic poem that uses the device to emphasize how the Word of God can make a man complete (all 22 letters) and perfect (7 verses per section). The virtuous woman in Proverbs 31:10-31 is portrayed by a 22-verse acrostic. And perhaps the most amazing use of the alefbet occurs in Zephaniah 3:8 in which all 22 of the Hebrew letters plus the 5 special final forms occur in a single verse. Such constructions require author intent and show the literary importance of the Hebrew letters in Hebrew literature.

It is not, therefore, impossible that as Moses penned Genesis 1:1 that he chose to use ta to mean more than just emphasis. John, then, seems to pick up on this hidden usage in uses it in John 1:1 and Revelation 1:8.

The Sod in Hebrews 7:1

Then there is the great connection, brought to light by the writer to the Hebrews, between Jesus and Melchizedek.

For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, who met Abraham as he was returning from the slaughter of the kings and blessed him, to whom also Abraham apportioned a tenth part of all the spoils, was first of all, by the translation of his name, king of righteousness, and then also king of Salem, which is king of peace. Without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but made like the Son of God, he remains a priest perpetually. (Hebrews 7:1)

Look at the hidden details the writer to the first century Jewish believers extracts from the text of Genesis 14:18. “Melchizedek”, in Hebrew, means “King of Righteousness”. “King of Salem” means “King of Peace.” Scripture records no genealogy, no parents, no birth and no death for Melchizedek. Scholars with a strict grammatical and historical perspective would still assume that Melchizedek had parents, was born, and died. And, of course, they would be correct. But the writer to the Hebrews, taking a hint from Psalm 110:4, sees in their absence a hidden connection with Jesus, who is our eternal High Priest. Jesus, as the Son of God, had no parents and no genealogy. Jesus has always been and always will be.

It makes little difference that the writer to the Hebrews is also expounding on Psalm 110:4. Where did the psalmist get the idea? If the answer is, “From the Lord,” that is fine. It only affirms that there can be hidden meanings below the surface of the p’shat or simple meaning of the text. Furthermore, the author alludes to there being more to know about the relationship between Melchizedek and Jesus (Hebrews 5:11)13.

Perhaps we could conclude that Hebrews 7:1 is a remez or a drash. That is certainly possible. What decides the issue for me is the effort the writer of Hebrews must take to bring the connection to light. It does not have the immediate and easy semantic association of Isaiah 7:14, nor does it have the human connection of Paul’s allegory. Instead, it is more abstract and requires real decoding.

Is it for Today?

Must one be an inspired writer of sacred scripture to employ hints, allegories, and hidden meanings from the scriptures? There is no suggestion in the scriptures that this is so, and many who employ a grammatical-historical hermeneutic also acknowledge the existence of types (drashim). All that’s left is to add the use of hints (remezim) and possible discovery of hidden meanings (sodim) to our interpretive toolkit. The scriptures model all four and, therefore, they seem to be legitimate.

The fundamental issue with this notion is quality control and purity of doctrine. One can dialog over the simple meaning of the text and arise at consensus meaning (most of the time). How might one dialog over subjective interpretations? How do we avoid the pitfalls of error and protect people from falling prey to cults? Look at the following membership class notes that illustrate the core problem:

The Kingdom of God, like any other kingdom has a culture and a language all of its own. Its language is of divine origin. It is the way in which deity has chosen to communicate with humanity. If we are going to dialogue with God in his word or in prayer we best learn the Language of his Kingdom. One cannot understand much of the Bible, without understanding the language of symbols, types, and shadows. Until we see the divine intent in the OLD TESTAMENT we will never fully comprehend the contents of the NEW TESTAMENT.14 (Emphasis is in the original.)

The pastor’s sermons, at this church, are filled with symbols, types, and shadows. Consequently, he can say anything that he wants. There are no controls. His approach removes understanding of the scriptures from the common person and places it in the domain of the enlightened, i.e. those who “understand the language.” If this leader develops cultic tendencies, his congregation will be ill equipped to challenge him. The situation could become bad indeed.

Paul also warns us to be careful.

As I urged you upon my departure for Macedonia, remain on at Ephesus so that you may instruct certain men not to teach strange doctrines, nor to pay attention to myths and endless genealogies, which give rise to mere speculation rather than furthering the administration of God which is by faith. (1 Timothy 1:3, 4)

In pointing out these things to the brethren, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, constantly nourished on the words of the faith and of the sound doctrine which you have been following. But have nothing to do with worldly fables fit only for old women. (1 Timothy 4:6,7a)

Remind them of these things, and solemnly charge them in the presence of God not to wrangle about words, which is useless and leads to the ruin of the hearers. Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth. But avoid worldly and empty chatter, for it will lead to further ungodliness, (2 Timothy 2:14-16)

If it were not for the contraindications of the New Testament authors’ use of the Old Testament (i.e. (remezim, drashim, and sodim), there would be no clearer proof texts for a strict grammatical-historical interpretation. Instead, we must take them as severe warnings about their misuse. We must work hard to discern when, why, and how to use them. The answer, it seems, is to use the scriptures as a model. That model contains these principles:

1. New Testament quotes of the Old Testament are largely in the p’shat sense. Christianity represented a dramatic change for the Jews and the Gentiles. It had to swim against the current of centuries of entrenched doctrine. Its champions had to show from the scriptures that the “new order” was not entirely new or unexpected. Nothing but a consistent presentation of plain simple passages from the Old Testament could win the day. They were the proof texts for New Testament doctrine and were quoted to convince the Jews and the Gentiles of the truth about Jesus the Messiah.

Our first rule must be to use the simple p’shat sense predominantly. People must first of all know what the Book says in order to benefit from its message.

2. New Testament quotes of the Old Testament never introduce or establish doctrine with anything other than the simple p’shat sense. Instead, the use of remez, drash, and sod serve to amplify and illustrate themes established by the sounder method. To put this another way, remez, drash, and sod are not a bridge to esoteric knowledge. They are servants of the p’shat. Paul, in Galatians, firmly laid a plain text foundation for justification by faith, before using an allegory to provide a human dimension. In the allegory, Paul was not trying to be deep, he was trying to be clear. The story of Hagar and Sarah would stick much better and longer than his propositional logic. On the other hand, without the logic the allegory has no power.

3. The more error prone is an interpretive model, the less frequently the New Testament uses it. Thus the New Testament employs p’shat, remez, drash, and sod in decreasing frequency.

Mysticism attracts people with a promise of a deeper experience with God that transcends the need for righteousness. Because of this, there is a persistent temptation to create a biblical mystique by emphasizing hints, allegories, and hidden themes above simple understanding. This is the area that Paul was warning Timothy about.

4. The New Testament books that favor a Jewish audience have the highest frequency of remez, drash, and sod. Matthew, Hebrews, and the writings of John contain the highest concentrations of this material, whereas Paul’s letters use it very sparingly. This suggests that their use today has favorable implications for Jewish evangelism. Also by communicating outright that these are Jewish authors using Jewish principles of interpretation, we disarm the efforts of the anti-missionaries, who stridently use the quotes in Matthew to turn the ears of seeking Jews from the claims of Messianic Judaism.

5. Remezim derive their meaning by semantic association with New Testament events or by communicating universal principles in pictorial form.

6. Drashim make room for expanded meditation on major p’shat themes. One can even see where the force of the allegory stems from the maxim, “History repeats itself.” Thus the choice of Abram to father a child by Hagar stems from the same misunderstanding driving the Galatian churches to choose justification by self-effort. The meaning of an allegory does not derive from a symbolic language of the scriptures, but on the common behaviors in the human heart that link past events to a current situation.

7. There is some room for seeking hidden messages in the scriptures, subject to the restrictions noted above. An important criterion before teaching from such a text, though, is for us to discern author intent. One could imagine the human author intentionally hiding a message in his text and that he gives clues to its presence. Such a criterion protects us from efforts like the equi-distant letter sequences concept discussed by Michael Drosnin in his book The Bible Code15.

This is certainly true of Genesis 1:1, where one can connect aleph and tov (the basics of language) with the phrase “And God said.”

The abrupt appearance and disappearance of Melchizedek, who was obviously of great significance to Abram, leaves us wondering who he was and why more is not said about him.

Practical Points

This is not a call for a radical change in scholarly hermeneutics. The grammatical and historical approach to the scriptures is the foundation of understanding Biblical truth. It remains the only basis by which we can objectively discuss the doctrines of our belief.

When it comes to communicating doctrine, we should allow ourselves greater latitude. This, of course, also means that we must communicate to our hearers the 4 interpretive modes, their principles and their boundaries. As in all that we do: “the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Timothy 1:5). It is not to sound mystical. It is not to sound enlightened. It is not to seek our own glory. Instead, like the writers of the New Testament, we have a gospel of regeneration to communicate to a lost and dying world. That world consists of right and left brained people, who have different learning modes. The use of p’shat, remez, drash, and sod can broaden our audience and enhance the effectiveness of our teaching.

Here are some examples this point:

Moses, Joshua, and Caleb: A Drash and Remez

Moses the lawgiver could not lead the Israelites into Canaan, because he violated the command of God to speak to the rock. He struck the rock instead (Numbers 20:3-11). Instead, it was Joshua who led the Israelites into Canaan. Of all the first generation that left Egypt, only Joshua and Caleb entered the land.

Moses typifies the failure and sternness of the Law. Unless obedience is perfect, we are doomed to judgement and kept out of the Promised Land.

Joshua typifies salvation. Not only did Joshua and Caleb enter the land because of their faith, but Joshua’s name means “The Lord’s Salvation.” It was the “Lord’s Salvation” that led the Israelites into the Promised Land.

Caleb hints at the salvation of the Gentiles. Caleb means “Dog,” a euphemism for Gentiles, a remez of the coming salvation of the Gentiles by faith.

The Missing Name of God in Esther: A Sod

In his book, Explore the Book, J. Sidlow Baxter has this observation about the missing name of God in the Book of Esther.

As a matter of fact the name of God does occur in this Book of Esther, in a most remarkable way. The name “Jehovah” is secretly hidden four times in an acrostic form, and the name Eyeh (“I am that I am”) once. In several ancient manuscripts the acrostic consonants which represent the name are written larger, to make them stand out, as though we might write it in English thus – JeHoVaH. There are no other acrostics in the book, so that the intentionalness of these five is clear. The five places where the acrostics occur are i. 20; v. 4; v. 13; vii. 7; vii. 5.

In the four acrostics which form the name Jehovah, the four words forming the J H V H are in each case consecutive. Each of the four is spoken by a different person. In the first two cases, the acrostic is formed by the initial letters of the words. In the other two it is formed by the final letters of the words. In the first and third acrostics, the letters spell the name backwards and the speakers are Gentiles. In the second and fourth, the letters spell the name forwards and the speakers are Hebrews16.

Kingdom (p’shat) and Kingdom (remez)

Robert P. Lightner, in his The Last Days Handbook, wrote:

Those classified as evangelical (conservative, orthodox, or fundamental) have a great deal in common as they embrace the historic Christian faith. Yet they battle fiercely with each other over things to come. While they stand united when it comes to the great truths of the historic Christian faith, they are sorely divided in their understanding of God’s plan for the future. Why?17

He then goes on in his book to lay out the different viewpoints side by side, with a good effort towards impartiality. One of his chapters, Interpreting Scriptures, is as good a discussion of the differences between covenant and dispensational approaches to the scriptures as one might read. His concludes:

All evangelicals do use the literal method for their understanding of most of the Bible, but some, namely those of amillenial and postmillenial persuasion, think it best to use a less than literal hermeneutic with much unfulfilled prophecy. It is at this point that the evangelical world is divided over things to come and this is what puts prophecy in the middle of the debate. Premillenialists cannot understand why their brothers and sisters insist on using a different method in interpretation with some unfulfilled prophecy but not with all of it. They wonder on what grounds is the less-than-literal approach to be restricted to only some themes of unfulfilled prophecy?18

Do the rabbinical modes of scriptural interpretation provide firm footing for the interpretive work of the covenant theologians? Are they right in saying that there is no literal Messianic Kingdom on the earth? No, but it is time to understand that a merger is possible.

This paper has argued for the recognition of four rabbinical modes of scriptural interpretation; p’shat, remez, drash, and sod. It has shown that Old Testament verses clearly have both a grammatical-historical meaning and an extended meaning that comes from semantic associations arising from future revelation. Reflect again on what Isaiah 7:14 meant to King Ahaz. At that time and in that place, it was not about the virgin birth of the Messiah. It was about the timetable of the removal of two troublesome kings. That is the p’shat. With the virgin birth of Jesus, who is God in the flesh, Isaiah 7:14 becomes a remez (hint) of the virgin birth. It is worthy to note that the remez today has more relevance than the p’shat of yesterday, but the p’shat stands firm in its truth nonetheless.

There is Old Testament prophecy concerning a Kingdom in Israel that will be ruled by the Messiah on David’s throne. The p’shat of the Hebrew text reveals this. It is how the author of the book would have understood his own writing and it is what a Jew today would understand. It is also what a rabbi with his four rabbinical modes of interpretation would understand as well. So, a bible scholar should be free to hold such a position without being labeled a “hyper-literalist.”

But can the dispensational theologian really say, “That’s all there is?” Did not Jesus say, as record in John 18:36, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm?” Is there not a real sense that the spread of the gospel is the spread of the “Kingdom of God?” In Matthew 24:14 Jesus says, “this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come.” How excited can a gentile nation really get over a future and far off kingdom in Israel? How is that kingdom good news to an outback aborigine?

So the covenant theologians are on to something. The “Kingdom of God” is about the rule of God’s Law in the hearts of men. It is about the power and authority of God over Sin, Satan, and Sickness. The words of Jesus lend support to their viewpoint. A bible scholar should be free to hold such a position without being accused of “spiritualizing” the text.

We can use the New Testament quotes of the Old Testament as a model and embrace both viewpoints.

There is a p’shat interpretation of Kingdom prophecies that speak of the return of Jesus in battle array to defeat the armies that have surround Jerusalem. It will be the day that all Israel will be saved and the day that Jesus assumes the throne of David. It is the time when Ezekiel’s temple will be built. It is the age when the gentile nations will come to Jerusalem once a year to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles.

There is a remez interpretation of Kingdom prophecies that speak of the spread of the gospel through the earth. Its force in the world is through the Church with Jesus Christ as its head. The Law of God is written on the hearts of men. Its citizens are the true children of Abraham by reason of faith. It is no longer possible to read about the coming Messianic Kingdom without thinking of the Church. The semantic associations are there and we should recognize them.

Both streams are true. Both streams have support from the New Testament. Why do we persist that we must accept the one and reject the other? At the return of Jesus the Messiah, both will be brought into unity. There will be a King in Jerusalem, but all other nations in the world will call him King and bring Him tribute. As in the days of the British Empire when colonial peoples would acknowledge the English crown, so will there be a commonwealth that is centered in Jerusalem.

Conclusion

Many have grappled with how the New Testament authors quoted the Old Testament. It is an important subject. There is legitimate hope to be found in recognizing and adopting a Jewish approach to the problem. There is a logical basis for doing so, because the authors, themselves, were Jews. Furthermore, the approach holds forth the promise of reconciling covenant and dispensational theologies. This small effort only scratches the surface of possibilities.


1 The word translated “virgin” in Isaiah 7:14 is “almah” rather than the stronger and clearer “betulah.”

2 One possible reconciliation between Isaiah 7:14 and Matthew1:22, 23 lies in a remark that Isaiah makes in the section that extends from Isaiah 7:1 through 9:7. Briefly, in 8:18, Isaiah says, “Behold, I and the children whom the Lord has given me are for signs and wonders in Israel from the Lord of hosts, who dwells on Mount Zion.” Assuming that Maher-shalal-hash-baz is the son promised by Isaiah 7:14 for the short term prophectic fulfillment, Isaiah 8:18 leaves room for a second and more substantive fulfillment by a true virgin bearing the true Immanuel.

3 The New English Translation (Biblical Studies Press, 1996) [On-line]. Available: /netbible

4 It is amazing to me how often I read that Isaiah 7:14 is literally fulfilled with no indication that there is a contextual problem.

5 Lightner, Daniel P. The Last Days Handbook (Thomas Nelson Publishers 1990, pp. 130, 131)

6 Stern, David H., Jewish New Testament Commentary (Jewish New Testament Publications, 1992) 11, 12

7 This raises an interesting question about the use of plhrow in Matthew 5:17. Did Jesus “fulfill” the Law and the Prophets in the sense of walking perfectly in them? Or did Jesus “fill them to the brim” or “complete” them? If it is the latter, then the remainder of the Sermon on the Mount may be understood in the light of completing the Law. It is the backdrop for Jesus’ formula during the sermon, “You have heard that it was said <quote from the Law>, but I say <violation in the heart invisible to the eyes of men>” The Law is made complete by bringing the heart into the equation. In so doing, Jesus lays the groundwork and establishes the necessity of the new covenant that Jeremiah prophesied (Jeremiah 31:31-34). That is, the Lord will write His Law on our hearts (heart righteousness) and our sin He will remember no more (a permanent solution). By making obedience a heart issue and by sending the Holy Spirit for our sanctification, the Lord writes the “filled full” law on our hearts and we find the “obedience of faith.” [Romans 5:1] By His death and ressurection, He completely cleanses us from our sin.

8 It can be noted that the NET Bible translation of Isaiah 7:14, although accurate, no longer communicates the remez of the text. In my opinion, this is an unfortunate loss.

9 Wallace, Daniel B., The Uneasy Conscience of a Non-Charismatic Evangelical (Biblical Studies Press, 1994) [On-line]. Available: /docs/soapbox/estsw.htm

10 Howard, Tracy L., The Use of Hosea 11:1 in Matthew 2:15: An Alternative Solution (Bibliotheca Sacra, October-December 1985)

11 See Howard, Tracy L., The Use of Hosea 11:1 in Matthew 2:15: An Alternative Solution (Bibliotheca Sacra, October-December 1985) – Tracy Howard’s notion of Analogical Correspondence is an excellent parallel to my understanding of remez. Howard does a credible job of describing Matthew’s thought process and the term analogical correspondence is a good label for it. However, coining a new term to fix the hermeneutical problem does not fix the problem. It may define, but it does not explain. At best it only hides the problem. The concept of remez, however, has a plausible connection to the New Testament authors. Therefore, it is able to explain.

12 See Glenny, W. Edward, The Divine Meaning of Scriptures: Explanation and Limitations (Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, December 1995)

13 Certainly the reference to “bread and wine” would be part of this. Note also the relationship, brought out in Hebrews 5:11-14, between maturity and our ability to really understand the scriptures.

14 Scalf, Gary New Testament Biblical View of the Old Testament (Ecclesia Kingdom Seekers)

15 For an interesting debunking of Michael Drosnin’s book, see: McKay, Brendan Assassinations Foretold in Moby Dick (1997) [On-line]. Available: http://cs.anu.edu.au/people/bdm/dilugim/moby.html

16 Baxter, J. Sidlow Explore the Book (Zondervan, 1978), 261.

17 Lightner, Robert P. The Last Days Handbook (Thomas Nelson Publishers 1990, pp. xi, xii)

18 ibid. pp. 130, 131

Related Topics: Bible Study Methods