The Old Testament prophets foretold many details about of the coming of Jesus, His birth, death, resurrection, forgiveness and earthly kingdom. The prophecies do not come neatly arranged, organized by topic or even given in chronological order. The prophecies are sometimes difficult to understand, are scattered throughout the prophetic messages to Israel and often rely on dramatic imagery to make the point. Bible students struggle to understand what the prophets said about Jesus, which makes many wonder how much the prophets themselves understood about what they were writing.
We know the prophets did not know all the details of Jesus’ life and death. Few, if any, of the prophets would have had been familiar with crucifixions, so even though they prophesied a painful death for the Messiah, they probably did not understand He would be hung on a cross. The words of 1 Peter 1:10-11 show that the prophets did not understand everything about the coming Messiah. “Of which salvation the prophets have enquired and searched diligently, who prophesied of the grace that should come unto you: Searching what, or what manner of time the Spirit of Christ which was in them did signify, when it testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow.” They understood some things and they did not understand everything. How much did they understand?
Two dangerous assumptions need to be avoided. The modern reader cannot assume the Old Testament prophets were not as smart or thoughtful as we are today. The men who wrote the Bible gave a lot of thought and attention to the things of God. Consider Psalm 119. That Psalm reveals an incredible amount of thought was put into its crafting and its subject matter. In 176 verses the Psalmist describes in great detail the wonders of the Word of God and the effect of the Word on the lives of the people of God. David is not alone in giving evidence of much meditation on the Word of God. The prophets writing show they were diligent to search Scripture and able to understand in great depth the declarations and implications of the Word.
The second assumption that must be avoided is that the prophets shared the same attitude towards the Messiah as the people of Jesus’ day. The New Testament indicates many people in Jesus’ day were looking for a Savior from Roman occupation. They were not looking for one to save them from their sins, but from their political bondage. However, the prophets did not share the delusion of a purely political Savior. They recognized the work of the Messiah was a work to make His people righteous. “And I will cleanse them from all their iniquity, whereby they have sinned against me; and I will pardon all their iniquities, whereby they have sinned, and whereby they have transgressed against me.” (Jeremiah 33:8)
The prophets understood that the Messiah would live, die and rise again for the forgiveness of sin. Possibly the clearest statement to this effect comes from the mouth of Peter in Acts 2. Peter was speaking of David’s prophecy of the death and resurrection of Jesus in Psalm 16:10. “Therefore being a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him, that of the fruit of his loins, according to the flesh, he would raise up Christ to sit on his throne; He seeing this before spake of the resurrection of Christ, that his soul was not left in hell, neither his flesh did see corruption.” Peter says that David knew the oath of God. David knew the Messiah would be raised back to life to sit on the throne of God. David understood the death and resurrection of Jesus.
It is impossible to know exactly what the Old Testament prophets knew. We can be confident they had a robust understanding of the broad outlines of the work of the Messiah. They knew He was coming to bring forgiveness and to make His people righteous. They knew He would suffer and die. They knew He would rise again. They knew He would reign over a righteous people in a righteous kingdom. The prophets understood the significance of what they wrote. They may not have understood the work of Jesus as fully as we do today, but they understood it enough.