Prophetical Types (Part 1)

This continues a discussion of the classes of types:

  • Old Testament Institutions
  • Historical Types
  • God’s Word in Creation
  • Prophetical Types

The previous blog covered the first three on the list. This and a couple other blogs will now cover the fourth class on that list.

Prophetical Types

Fairbairn notes that because type and prophecy both look forward, the line between them isn’t always sharply drawn. To distinguish them, he says prophecy looks forward with words and typology does so with images.1 But all of Scripture speaks through words, not the least, prophecy with its frequent “Thus saith.…” and canonical written form. And every part of Scripture makes free use of theologically rich imagery, not the least, prophecy with all of its evocative imagery of multi-hued horses, women in flying baskets, chariots of fire, locust armies, and plumb lines. So I’m not sure Fairbairn’s given us a very helpful distinction between prophecy and typology under with that rubric.

Fairbairn subdivides prophetical types under four wordy subheadings, which I’ve generally found difficult to translate into contemporary idiomatic English subheads. I tend to settle for “Possibility 1,” “Possibility 2,” and so forth; then I just quote his long nineteenth-century head sentences just in case my readers can make more sense of them than I can. But fear not: I don’t think you’ll find it difficult to understand the dynamic in play with examples as you see them, it’s just that the language he uses in his headings seems obscure.

Possibility 1

A typical action might, in some portion of the prophetic word, be historically mentioned; and hence, the mention of a prophetic circumstance or event would come to possess a prophetic character. (1.108, see 108–11)

Here he’s talking about human experience, both the common experience of all humanity in any time and everywhere and what was specific to Israel’s redemptive-historical experience. Often these experiences are, in their original Old Testament setting, pretty ordinary. So in these cases, it’s the New Testament use of the human experience that alerts us to typological potential.

General Historical Experiences

Sometimes the New Testament looks back at general human experiences but sees typological truth manifested in them. For example, after Jesus cleared the temple of the money changers, “The disciples remembered this prophecy from the Scriptures: ‘Passion for God’s house will consume me’” (John 2:17; quoting Ps 69:9), which gave the psalmist’s rationale for his hope of deliverance from persecution:

I endure insults for your sake; humiliation is written all over my face. Even my own brothers pretend they don’t know me; they treat me like a stranger. Passion for your house has consumed me, and the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me. (Ps 69:7–9)

Perhaps the Septuagint gives us a hint that interpreters were taking this to have a forward-looking sense well before the New Testament used it as a reference to the suffering Messiah. The Hebrew reads, כִּֽי־קִנְאַ֣ת בֵּיתְךָ֣ אֲכָלָ֑תְנִי, which English Bibles translate, “For zeal for your house has consumed me” (e.g., ESV). The critical text of the LXX also sees this as a past tense, using an aorist: ὅτι ὁ ζῆλος τοῦ οἴκου σου κατέφαγέν με. But it’s interesting to note that Vaticanus and Sinaiticus (68:10 LXX) use a future (“will consume me”), perhaps interpreting the Hebrew as a so-called prophetic perfect: ὅτι ὁ ζῆλος τοῦ οἴκου σου καταφάγεταί με. Maybe the New Testament is drawing on this understanding.

Another example: When Jesus predicted Judas Iscariot’s forthcoming betrayal, he said, “This fulfills the Scripture that says, ‘The one who eats my food has turned against me’” (John 13:18; quoting Ps 41:9), which was language from the psalmist’s plea for healing—not something Jesus was seeking at the time:

All who hate me whisper about me, imagining the worst. “He has some fatal disease,” they say. “He will never get out of that bed!” Even my best friend, the one I trusted completely, the one who shared my food, has turned against me. Lord, have mercy on me. Make me well again, so I can pay them back!” (Ps 41:7–1)

This certainly wasn’t a prophecy in the Psalter, and it even envisioned paybacks. It probably reflected a fairly common problem of backstabbing treachery, nothing so specific as to serve even as predictive symbolism—except it was the Davidic king’s complaint, and he not the occasion in and of itself is the type of Jesus’s experience.

Another example: Jesus described the tendency of the world to hate him and his disciples, saying “This fulfills what is written in their Scriptures: ‘They hated me without cause’” (John 15:25; quoting Ps 69:4), which was the psalmist’s prayer for deliverance from unfair persecution.

Save me, O God, for the floodwaters are up to my neck.… My eyes are swollen with weeping, waiting for my God to help me. Those who hate me without cause outnumber the hairs on my head. Many enemies try to destroy me with lies, demanding that I give back what I didn’t steal. (Ps 69:1–5)

Again, this would have been a fairly common human experience, and these are even the words of an admitted sinner: “O God, you know how foolish I am; my sins cannot be hidden from you” (Ps 69:11). The typology here rests on the note that this is recounted by the head of the Davidic dynasty, who is the type of the Christ.

One final example: Matthew explains why Jesus spoke in parables, “This fulfilled what God has spoken through the prophet: ‘I will speak to you in parables. I will explain things hidden since the creation of the world’” (Matt 13:35; quoting Ps 78:2), which were words from the psalmist’s reflection on Israel’s rebellious history—and rebellion wasn’t part of Jesus’s contribution to Israel’s history.

O my people, listen to my instructions. Open your ears to what I am saying, for I will speak to you in a parable. I will teach you hidden lessons from our past—stories we have heard and known, stories our ancestors handed down to us. We will not hide these truths from our children; we will tell the next generation about the glorious deeds of the Lord, about his power and his mighty wonders. (Ps 78:1–4)

Once again, it’s the voice of David that the New Testament picks up and uses typologically, but it’s not a prediction that the Messiah will teach through parables.

All of these are said to have found fulfillment in Jesus Christ, and sometimes even said to have been written by a prophet; however, when they were written, they were historical statements rather than predictions. More than that, they were typical of situations that “could scarcely fail to be often recurring in the history of God’s Church and people” (1.108). They narrated general human experiences, but those that found their highest realization in Jesus Christ, who was made like us in all manner, except for sin (Heb 2:17; 5:2). And the Davidic examples have the additional typological force in the whole Davidic-Messianic typology. It’s by this means that the New Testament authors attribute a prophetic element to these statements.

Specific Historical Experiences

Sometimes the New Testament focuses on specific circumstances from Israel’s past, which later came to be regarded as prophetically indicative of something similar under the gospel (1.109). For example, Matthew says the holy family’s escape to Egypt to await Herod’s death “fulfilled what the Lord had spoken though the prophet: ‘I called my Son out of Egypt’” (Matt 2:15; quoting Hos 11:1), which was Hosea’s historical recollection of the exodus that had occurred hundreds of years before his own time—and also comments on Israel’s idolatry:

When Israel was a child, I loved him, and I called my son out of Egypt. But the more I called to him, the farther he moved from me, offering sacrifices to the images of Baal and burning incense to idols. (Hosea 11:1–2)

Fairbairn is spot on when he says the connection “arose from the typical connection between Christ and Israel” (1.110). Matthew certainly saw this, but I’m less inclined to think Hosea, let alone Pentateuch’s earliest readers, would have considered this typological linkage.2

Hosea was commenting on an ungrateful nation that had been delivered, and it’s a bigger stretch to see ancient Israel supposing their experience would be echoed in a future Messiah’s own experience.

Another example: John explains that Jesus died quickly enough that no one had to break his legs to hasten death and noted that a soldier speared his side to verify death. On the omission of bone breaking, John explains, “These things happened in fulfillment of the Scriptures that say, ‘Not one of his bones will be broken’” (John 19:36), which may reflect the stipulation that the Passover lamb should not have broken bones (Exod 12:46; Num 9:12), or perhaps the psalmist’s assurance in the face of deep trouble.

The righteous person faces many troubles, but the Lord comes to the rescue each time. For the Lord protects the bones of the righteous; not one of them is broken! Calamity will surely destroy the wicked, and those who hate the righteous will be punished. But the Lord will redeem those who serve him. No one who takes refuge in him will be condemned. (Ps 34:19–22)

I think it likely that John would have had in mind both matters, since Jesus Christ is the Lamb of God and also the ultimate righteous man.

And on the spear thrust, John said, “another scripture says, ‘They will look on the one whom they have pierced’” (John 19:37 NET); quoting Zech 12:10). Zechariah doesn’t make it clear who the pierced one is; perhaps it’s as Calvin says, “Now, God speaks there after the manner of men, declaring that He is wounded by the sins of his people … in the same manner as a mortal man receives a deadly wound, when his heart is pierced.”3  In the New Testament context, the pierced one is Jesus. Just the language about piercing is enough to tie this into the circumstances of Jesus’s death. And the broader context in Zechariah is richly evocative:

On that day the Lord will defend the people of Jerusalem; the weakest among them will be as mighty as King David! And the royal descendants will be like God, like the angel of the Lord who goes before them! For on that day I will begin to destroy all the nations that come against Jerusalem. “Then I will pour out a spirit of grace and prayer on the family of David and on the people of Jerusalem. They will look on me whom they have pierced and mourn for him as for an only son. They will grieve bitterly for him as for a firstborn son who has died. The sorrow and mourning in Jerusalem on that day will be like the great mourning for Hadad-rimmon in the valley of Megiddo. “All Israel will mourn, each clan by itself, and with the husbands separate from their wives. The clan of David will mourn alone, as will the clan of Nathan, the clan of Levi, and the clan of Shimei. Each of the surviving clans from Judah will mourn separately, and with the husbands separate from their wives. “On that day a fountain will be opened for the dynasty of David and for the people of Jerusalem, a fountain to cleanse them from all their sins and impurity.” (Zech 12:8–13:1)

Reading the text in its own context will wave off a straightforward idea of prediction: The Lord didn’t use the time of Jesus’s death to destroy the nations that dared come against Jerusalem. Jerusalem didn’t weep much over Jesus’s death, and certainly “all Israel” didn’t mourn clan by clan. What probably makes this work as typology is implied linkage with the Suffering Servant (Isa 52:13–53:12).

The New Testament speaks of scriptures like these being fulfilled in the sense of fulfilling the typical character embedded in the historical note cited.


  1. Patrick Fairbairn, Typology of Scripture, 1.106–7.
  2. Contra John H. Sailhamer, “Hosea 11:1 an Matthew 2:15,” Westminster Theological Journal 63.1 (Spring 2001): 887–96.
  3. Commentary on the Gospel according to John, loc cit.

Author: Dale A. Brueggemann

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