[K:NWTS 7/1 (May 1992) 42-55]

Book Review

Gerard Van Groningen. Messianic Revelation in the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1991, 1018 pp., $39.95 cloth. ISBN: 0-8010-9307-4.


If Geerhardus Vos and his followers are correct, then the Bible is an organic revelation composed of a myriad of threads, the unifying story of which is the eschatological deliverance of God's people through God's Messianic Son, in both Covenants. Eschatology, considered redemptive-historically, is not just forward looking (typological), but also vertical or upward looking.

In this view God's Word is not a collection of moral tales which can rightly be disconnected from one another and used interchangeably with Mother Goose. Instead, the eschatologically sensitive reader wants to be faithful to Jesus' admonition, "How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?" (Lk 24:25,26).

Thus, a Vos-influenced hermeneutic sees Christ on every page of Scripture—not complete disclosure, nor strained typology, but organically, exegetically and eschatologically. We believe that the same Holy Spirit who "carried along" the gospel writers also carried along Moses and the prophets. The Spirit who moved over the face of the deep, who guided his people in Exodus, knew from before the foundations of history what he wanted to accomplish through his servants the prophets, i.e., to reveal the second person of the Trinity as the message and fulfillment of Abel's sacrifice (See Acts 10:43; 2 Tim. 3:16; 1 Pet. 1:10-12; 2 Pet. 1:20,21).

Here is where, perhaps, a Vos-influenced hermeneutic differs from Van Groningen's. I believe the Son of God, preincarnate and incarnate, is revealed directly and consistently in Messianic imagery throughout the Old Testament; e.g., calling Abraham's attention not just forward in history, but upward to the Son of God in the heavenlies. Moses was confronted with the Messianic Son, not just through "symbols" or "types" in his existence, but in face to face confrontation!


In seeking to illumine God's disclosure of the Messiah in the Old Covenant scriptures, Professor Gerard Van Groningen has written a very large book indeed!

Van Groningen begins with a judicious word study of the Hebrew verb Meshach with related forms and cognates. However, it might have been better to open with a broader theological introduction explaining the author's methodology, especially since it is extremely hazardous to presuppose a common understanding of the nature, method and presuppositions of Biblical-theological studies.

Since this is obviously intended to be a major work (of one thousand eighteen pages!), it would have been helpful if Van Groningen had given a brief explanation of where he places himself in the Biblical-theological tradition. This would also have been an appropriate place to briefly sketch the ideas behind the redemptive-historical approach. 

Given Van Groningen's obvious commitment to the redemptive-historical method, I think he should have taken a few pages to place his word study in a broader biblical context. What does the New Testament "do" to the concept? How does the New Testament's use of the concept affect Van Groningen's conclusions? Perhaps the professor's concern to let the Old Testament speak for itself influences him too much in this regard. In the next edition I suggest putting chapter two first. Presently, Van Groningen appears to be embarking on a thousand page word study!

The primary way in which most pastors will likely use this book is as a reference guide to approaching a certain portion of Scripture. To this end, Messianic Revelation has useful Scripture indexes and extensive bibliographies. But it lacks a topical index which would also be very useful, especially for biblical-theological-thematic studies.

Style, Presentation and Corrections

One of the weaknesses of much systematic and biblical theology is its lack of clarity and popularity. How many of us hand out unadulterated Vos to our congregants? This book is accessible and even enthusiastic. Though Van Groningen has an obvious grasp of the literature and uses extensive footnotes, he gives the reader a taste of the scholarly literature without losing him in a thicket of citations. For example, his footnotes on the introductory literature to the Psalms are first-rate. 

Full of text-critical notes and transliterated Hebrew, this book will be best used as a reference for specific sections of the word of God. Used thus, the book will be especially helpful for the pastor who is preaching through a passage. The historical context for each section of Scripture considered is stated dearly and briefly.

In some ways, because of the scope of this book, the amount of contextual, historical, sitz-im-leben information contained, it could serve as a supplement, or in some instances a replacement, to the standard Old Testament introductions.

The typeface is clear and pleasant. The binding is strong, but the cover design is ugly. For future editions it would be well to see the author interact briefly with the "Bible as literature" school. How does the literature of Scripture contribute to its self-understanding of the Messiah? How does its literature affect our understanding?

I have one complaint about the size of the work. A book this size needs careful editing. A more assertive editor would have replaced sentences such as, "In 1916 B. B. Warfield deemed it necessary..." with "In 1916 Warfield decided..." (p. 83) and eliminated redundancies.1


Van Groningen establishes his conservative evangelical credentials early and is unafraid to engage the liberal critics (pp. 273, 333, 512-13) as well as other evangelicals who have naively adopted a higher critical methodology (pp. 97, 98, n. 122).

Followers of John Murray's construction of the covenant will find Van Groningen's approach familiar. Without a covenant of works in the garden, Van Groningen's understanding of the Messianic failure of the theocracy is (in my opinion) somewhat weakened. Van Groningen does give, however, a helpful discussion of Adam as Messiah (i.e., Mediator) and Adam's fall as the ruin of "royal humanity".

This discussion establishes Van Groningen's basic approach to each passage as he considers whether the passage at hand reveals the Messiah in the "wider" (someone who serves as Yahweh's agent on earth) or "narrower" (a strictly royal personage) conception. Adam, who serves as God's agent and Vicegerent, is a messianic figure in the "wider" sense.

Near the end of each chapter Van Groningen (under the heading "Eschatological Perspectives") explains how the messianic concept unfolds and how redemptive history has moved closer to fulfillment. This approach to eschatology is a bit disappointing and misleading. It seems to me that the Old Testament is eschatological at its core. Van Groningen himself says: "eschatology is inseparable from messianic prophecy" (p. 247). However he seems to have a narrow conception of what qualifies as "eschatological".2 

The anointing of David (undergirding David's combat with and triumph over the Philistine hero) is an eschatological event. It is the Holy Spirit who enables David to slay Goliath, not David's intelligence or native skill. Saul is not a truly anointed leader in this eschatological sense. He is the usurper, pretender, the proto-Judas. 

Van Groningen does not draw very many startling conclusions. He defends the unity of authorship of Isaiah and seems quite comfortable with Roland K. Harrison and Edward J. Young's critique of higher critical liberalism. However, he does seem to say that he believes there was some sort of proto-virgin which fulfilled for Isaiah's contemporaries the prophecy of the virgin (Isa. 7:14; cf. p. 536). In much the same way as Elijah was a forerunner to John the Baptist, this anonymous virgin was a forerunner to Mary. This is a very strained and strange interpretation. The same is true of his interpretation of Ahaz. Van Groningen concludes that Ahaz should have believed that his son was going to be "divine and would serve as the Deliverer and King whose kingdom would never be overthrown or vanquished" (p. 553). 

This is a highly subjective interpretation. It would have been better to say that Ahaz, Israel and Judah should have looked forward to the eschatological Servant-Messiah, Jesus. It is certainly true that evangelicals have sometimes given the historical context of the Old Testament short shrift. But by these interpretations Van Groningen tries too hard to contextualize the promises of God in their immediate setting.

Typology and Analogy

Van Groningen raises the question of the relation of typology to analogy and provides helpful definitions and distinctions regarding the two (p. 165). Following Richard Longenecker, Van Groningen says, "This use of typology by New Testament writers must be kept in mind as the correct guide for our understanding of messianic typology."3

But there is a certain tension in Van Groningen's presentation which is troubling. Van Groningen also says, "Care must be taken not to import New Testament revelation into the Old Testament text" (p. 217). And in interpreting the manna, Van Groningen says, "It is tempting to read the New Testament interpretation into the Old Testament gift of bread" (p. 237). What should we do with the New Testament interpretation of the bread? Why is using New Testament interpretation of Old Testament revelation reading the New Testament into the Old Testament? Apparently "reading into" means seeing an identification which harms the canonical integrity of the Old Testament revelation, whereas seeing an analogy (apparently) does not.

Certainly we do not want to presume that the Israelites understood the bread as extensively as we. The degree to which the average Israelite understood the bread to speak of the coming Living Bread who took on flesh, no one can say with confidence. So we must ask, "What does the text mean?" The answer to that question is undeniably supplied exclusively by the New Testament.4

Because of this methodological presupposition, Van Groningen, like Henry Krabbendam, is stingy in admitting typological relations. Van Groningen denies that Isaac, in Genesis 22, is a type of Christ, rejecting any direct connection with Jesus through the concepts of "only begotten", "lamb" or "chosen". In so doing, Van Groningen ignores the cross as the most natural place to find reference to the shedding of blood.5

It appears that Van Groningen is overreacting to a tendency to level out Scripture by forcing every text to refer explicitly to Christ.

Perhaps Van Groningen is reacting to natural evangelical tendencies not to pay enough attention to the Old Testament, failing to read it on its own merits, without rushing to the New Testament "punchline".6 

In his discussion of the Psalms (e.g., Psalm 2), Van Groningen concludes that the son-king (his term) of Psalm 2 is not divine, but a representative of deity. Unfortunately Van Groningen omits reference to Acts 4:25,26; 13:33; and Heb. 1:5; 5:5. However, it seems clear to me that these New Covenant writers and speakers did not consider the figure of Psalm 2 just a representative of deity, but God himself! Van Groningen uses the same approach in his exegesis of Ps. 110:1. Elsewhere he speaks of the messianic figure of the Psalms as "the symbol—by and through which Yahweh is present."7 

It is true that a passage should not be made to say everything. It is also true that a passage should be explained to teach everything it does say. Van Groningen does not account for the apparent distinction in persons required by the fact that, in Ps. 110:1, Yahweh says to Adonai, "Sit at my right hand". Certainly the New Testament consistently takes this verse to imply a personal distinction within the Godhead.8 

This attempt to deal with the Old Testament "on its own terms," justified or not, creates its own set of problems. What happens to the organic principle of Scripture? What becomes of the analogy of Scripture? One gets the impression that certain Old Testament professors feel neglected because evangelical and Reformed exegetes give the New Testament its natural priority. If there were nothing wrong with the "first covenant" God would not have spoken to us in these "last days" through his Son! 

Yet Van Groningen unavoidably treats Abraham as a type of sorts (however one translates typos in 1 Cor. 10:4) when he describes Abraham as the first "elect one who was first separated from all other humans, yet destined to save the many" (p. 133). Perhaps he is more comfortable calling this relationship analogical. When Jesus says he is the "Greater than," isn't Jesus treating Old Testament heroes typologically (Lk. 11:31,32)?8

Van Groningen describes Moses as a messianic character and helpfully reminds us that Moses must be "considered both retrospectively and prospectively" (pp. 197, 203). Van Groningen sees the Malak Yahweh as the preincarnate Son of God and messianic revelation. But there is much messianic revelation in the Mosaic epoch which is overlooked. Moses presents himself (consciously or not) as a royal figure and Moses and Aaron as messianic agents contra Pharaoh and his court. The Passover, sacrifices and feasts are full of analogies and types of the Messiah's priestly work.10

It is entirely natural to read the Old Testament as the New Testament writers themselves did, as a book of shadows, a collection of revelatory threads, tied together in the person of Jesus Christ. Instead of seeing Abraham's crisis on the mount as an intrusion of a recurring principle of substitution and judgment on sin, Van Groningen prefers to write about Isaac's "docile character" as a necessary quality in the Messianic seed and the ram as substitute for Isaac (p. 114). Van Groningen seems to go out of his way to ignore the Messianic implications of Abraham's priestly relationship to Melchizedek and Isaac. But if this is where Hebrews leads us in our understanding of Abraham, why shouldn't we follow obediently?11

Theodore Laetsch's view that "the goal of all the prophecies are the days of the Messiah," Van Groningen rejects as

"too broad and too narrow. It is too broad in the sense that the entire Old Testament is stated to be Messianic; working with this approach, every passage in the Old Testament should be interpreted as specifically messianic. It is too narrow in that the goal is said to be 'the days of the Messiah'; the scope of the messianic songs extends far beyond in time and intent the days Christ Jesus was on earth" (p. 452).

The second half of the statement is true enough, but the first half is problematic. What is wrong with saying that the entire Old Testament is messianic? The writers of the New Testament seem to read the Old Testament thus with impunity. The issue seems to be whether or not New Testament use of the Old Testament is, for Van Groningen, consistent with the historic Reformed principle of one intended sense for every passage.

Many writers have acknowledged the need for a serious poor, and Van Groningen's discussion of Matthew's use of Hosea illustrates the need for a more complete sense understanding of the Old Testament as interpreted by the New. Without this principle, Van Groningen gives a strained explanation of Matthew's use of Hosea when Matthew makes God's Son Jesus to be God's Son, Israel (p. 486). 

The same problem occurs in Van Groningen's discussion of the identity of the Spirit-anointed preacher of Isa. 61:1-3 (pp. 661ff.). Van Groningen distinguishes between the identity of the speaker in Isaiah's context and the identity of the speaker in a New Testament context (Lk. 4:18). Why can we not simply say that the identity of the speaker is Christ in both instances? In Isaiah's historical context the speaker is the preincarnate Son of God and in Luke the Son speaks in the flesh. Van Groningen is comfortable doing this elsewhere when discussing Cyrus as the Servant of Yahweh (p. 706).

In the same way, i.e., by consistently wanting to find a reference in the context of the Old Testament writer for most Messianic references, Van Groningen says rather offhandedly (viz., Jer. 31:33) that the cutting of the New Covenant "could be understood to commence with the return of the exile" (p. 719). This conclusion again ignores important New Testament revelation such as Heb. 8:8-10 and 10:16-18 which inaugurate the New Covenant at the crucifixion-circumcision of Jesus. 

In his handling of Ezk. 34:23,24, Van Groningen says, "So David himself is not to be physically resurrected in person. Nor is the Davidic house to be reestablished as it had existed before. The predecessors and types are to be removed; the antitype will be set up.

He whom David expected—the last, final, and ever-serving shepherd-son—is held before the bewildered exiles listening to Ezekiel." As this passage proves, Van Groningen is capable of doing biblical theology in the tradition of Vos-Ridderbos, et al. It is just that he does not do it consistently.

These criticisms should not lead one to think that there is not a great deal of very helpful material here. Van Groningen gives an excellent explanation of Jesus as "the Messiah of David's house" (p. 474).

"The messianic task, however, will encompass more than a gathering of peoples from all nations; it will permit them to inherit the kingdom of the Messiah as members of his messianic house."

Van Groningen's explanation of messianic themes in Micah is equally rich. In fact, this may be the strongest reason for reading this book (pp. 495-508). There are very few current handbooks of this sort and little help for preaching the minor prophets. In part, Van Groningen fills that void for us. Likewise, in covering the Psalms, Van Groningen reviews several major Messianic Psalms and then gives a brief survey of the Psalms from a topical perspective. This survey is suggestive and worth reading.


As I read this book, I kept getting the impression that it was not written for me, a pastor faced with weekly preaching responsibilities. It seemed Van Groningen has in mind colleagues with whom he has had pleasant debates at the Evangelical Theological Society. At times, his target seemed to be his more liberal colleagues at the meetings of the Society of Biblical Literature.

I hope that in his forthcoming books on biblical theology Professor Van Groningen moves out of the circle of influence which sees a thorough-going eschatological view of the Bible as a denial of the historicity and existential reality of the Old Testament writers and readers. 

Should you buy this book? Yes. Will this book help you preach Christ more clearly? Yes. Messianic Revelation in the Old Testament will alert you to the prominence of the messianic revelational-strand in the Old Testament as a whole and the use made of the theme by the biblical author at hand.


1. "the Song of Songs has important implication for the messianic concept"—twice in two paragraphs (p. 407). Also the author incorrectly attributes The Self-Disclosure of Jesus to Geerhardus Vos's son, J. G. (p. 73, n. 16). 

2. p. 286. It is frustrating to wade through pages of recapitulation of Biblical history only to get to a brief paragraph in which Van Groningen suggests a series of "eschatological perspectives" or themes which he finds in the historical books. I would rather see Van Groningen spend the section on the historical books giving us an analysis of eschatological-messianic themes in the section.

3. See p. 155. Van Groningen goes on to summarize the contributions of Vos, Meredith G. Kline and John Stek.

4. In his interpretation of the episode of the fiery serpents, Van Groningen ignores Jn. 3:14-17. While we need to come to grips with the Old Covenant narrative when Jesus interprets a narrative, we need to be obedient to that interpretation, do we not?

5. p. 137, n. 24; p. 144. Henry Krabbendam says of Genesis 22: "This implies, negatively, that this chapter does not intend to foreshadow the substitutionary atonement of Christ, and therefore should not be understood or presented that way. In fact, careful analysis of the chapter and its context indicates that such interpretation transcends the limits of any available clue. This is not to say that a message on this chapter may not contain a reference to the substitutionary atonement, but only as one of the many, and on a par with all other possible applications of the universal principle enunciated by Abraham, 'The Lord will provide' (Gen. 22:14), and not as presenting the meaning of the text" (original italics)—"Hermeneutics and Preaching," in The Preacher and Preaching: Reviving the Art in the Twentieth Century. ed. Samuel T. Logan (Phillipsburg, NJ; Presbyterian and Reformed, 1986), p. 219.

6. Van Groningen interprets the "Shiloh" prophecy of Gen. 49 as the rider on the white horse of Rev. 19:11-16.

7. p. 369. Van Groningen gives a brief example of how he thinks we ought to handle the imprecatory Psalms (p. 389). If one dares ask for more detail in a 1000 page book, it would have been helpful to see how the imprecatory Psalms flesh out the messianic conception of the Old Testament.

8. The use by Heb. 1:8,9 of Ps. 45:6,7 is cited as though the interpretation given in Hebrews was just one option among many (p. 367). Interestingly, Van Groningen cites an appeal to the New Testament as the decisive factor in his interpretation of Ps. 110 on p. 390ff.

9. Regarding Matthew's use of the "Rachel weeping" passage of Mt. 2:18, Van Groningen says that it is not messianic in the narrow sense of touching on royalty; Matthew's connection is not a "mental fabrication" (p. 715). "The New Testament writers saw and proclaimed the organic unity of Yahweh's dealing with his people...." Amen! Van Groningen calls Herod's slaughter of the infant boys "typological by analogy" and sees the grief of the parents in both instances as the unifying factor (p. 716).

10. Van Groningen touches on the importance of the covenant to several writers, particularly Jeremiah. It would be interesting to know how the suzerain-vassal treaty structure of Deuteronomy informs the pentateuchal and prophetic concept of the messiah.

11. One of the most insightful remarks about Abraham's messianic role is not from Van Groningen but from a quotation by Gerhard von Rad (p. 134, n. 18): "Abraham is assigned the role of a mediator of blessing in God's saving plan for all nations". 

12. Van Groningen does seem to imply that some Psalms may rightly be understood as messianic while others may not. When Jesus quotes and applies Ps. 110:1 or Ps. 22 to himself, should we think then that he did not intend to apply the whole Psalm to himself? And if Ps. 22 applies in toto to Jesus, why can't we think of all the Psalms as "Messianic" in the broader sense? Even if they don't explicitly deal with a royal figure, all the Psalms touch on some aspect of the Messiah's kingdom, and they reveal a Kingly Shepherd-Redeemer who is Immanuel, whom we know to be Jesus.

—R. Scott Clark

Walnut Creek Presbyterian Church (RCUS)
Kansas City, Missouri