The Old Testament prophets speak at times of future events whose fulfillment is not so easy to identify. The book of Joel, for example, describes divine deliverance from the locust plague, but does so in remarkably extensive language. Not only is the locust army expelled, Jerusalem is said to dwell in everlasting safety: “And my people shall never again be put to shame” (Joel 2:26, 27). What is more, after this event is the outpouring of the Spirit of God followed by the great and awesome day of the Lord; God will gather the nations in a particular locale – the Valley of Jehoshaphat – and enter into judgement with the nations (3:2). Indeed, Judah and Jerusalem will be inhabited forever (3:20).
Does this refer simply to the events of the day of deliverance from the locust plague? Or does it refer to the return from exile? Or does it instead refer to the end of time?
Which is it? Or is this even the right question to ask?
In his book, Handbook on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament: Exegesis and Interpretation, G.K. Beale presents a very fine discussion of typology. He defines typology as follows: “the study of analogical correspondences among revealed truths about persons, events, institutions, and other things within the historical framework of God’s special revelation, which, from a retrospective view, are of a prophetic nature and are escalated in their meaning” (pg. 14). He expands and clarifies this definition in the following pages, but one paragraph in particular stood out as particularly relevant to our questions above using Joel as an example:
A similar kind of typology involves OT prophets who issued prophecies that were to be fulfilled in the short term, at least at some point within the OT epoch itself. When the prophecy is fulfilled, it is clear that the full contours of the prophecy have not been consummately fulfilled. Then the partial historical fulfillment itself becomes a foreshadowing of or points to a later complete fulfillment in the latter days. Good examples of this are prophecies of the “day of the Lord,” which predict judgment on a catastrophic scale. Although these “day of the Lord” prophecies are fulfilled in various events of judgment within the OT period itself (such as parts of the prophecy of Joe, where the phrase occurs five times), all the details of the predicted destruction are not. Consequently, the nature of the fulfillment within the OT itself contains a pattern that points yet forward to the climactic period of such fulfillment when the pattern is fully filled out (the “day of the Lord” par excellence).
This approach reorients our expectations and questions, causing us to think of prophecies and types not as focusing on one event at the utter exclusion of others, but as drawing our attention to a culminating or “consummate” event anticipated and foreshadowed by other typological fulfillments, what Beale nicely calls “partial” fulfillments.
When I purchased Beale’s massive A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New in late 2011 I was hesitant to purchase his Handbook on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament that appeared just a few months later. What a mistake! The handbook covers some of the same ground as the larger volume, but is much more geared toward methodological instruction, not just methodological demonstration. As it turns out, both volumes complement each other exceptionally; I regret not purchasing the handbook sooner!
R. Andrew Compton
Christ Reformed Church (URCNA)