It is often argued that biblical prophecies may have two or more frames of reference. For example, Middleton allows that the language of cosmic dissolution in Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse (sun and moon darkened, stars falling from heaven) may refer to events leading up to the war against Rome and the destruction of Jerusalem. He even concedes the possibility that “all the signs of the Olivet discourse were fulfilled in AD 70”. But he argues, nevertheless, for a multivalent hermeneutic:
Without denying any of this, I would also note that it is possible for the language of celestial signs and (seeming) cosmic destruction to have a double referent, pointing to both sets of events simultaneously, much as some Old Testament prophecies clearly refer to events in the prophet’s own day and also have a later and more climactic fulfilment in New Testament times (for example, Isaiah’s prediction in 7:14 of a royal birth in Ahaz’s court, or possibly the prophet’s own son, later applied to the birth of Jesus in Matt. 1:23).1
So he is quite comfortable with the idea that Jesus was talking about both impending historical events and “his final coming in universal judgment and salvation”.
But who is to decide? There is nothing in Isaiah 7 to suggest that Isaiah himself believed that the birth of the boy Immanuel would have relevance for a second situation quite remote from his own historical context. It is Matthew who has decided that the birth of Jesus may be seen as some sort of “fulfilment” of the words spoken by Isaiah—the birth of Jesus is a sign that YHWH is again present with his people, at a time of great crisis, to judge and to save (Matt. 1:22-23).
But there is no comparable warrant in scripture for deciding that Jesus’ apocalyptic language has a second eschatological horizon in view. If Jesus chooses to use the language of Old Testament prophecy to speak of the impending destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, who is to decide that he is speaking “simultaneously” of a universal judgment and salvation? No one later in the New Testament, writing about a final judgment, says that this is to fulfil the words of Jesus, that “the sun will be darkened…”, etc. The secondary application of the Immanuel prophecy has canonical authority. The secondary application of Jesus’ coming of the Son of Man prophecy does not.
There is another important difference between the two prophecies. Matthew recalls Isaiah’s prophecy in order to say something about the circumstances surrounding an actual event, something that has already happened. He uses the prophecy to explain why Jesus is given a significant name. He is not saying that something will happen in a remote future because Isaiah prophesied the birth of son in Ahaz’s court. Those who argue that Jesus’ words have a dual frame of reference are not using an old prophecy to explain a new state of affairs. They are concocting a whole new state of affairs out of a prophecy that already has its own historical frame of reference. This is just speculation.
So in terms of both canonical authority and prophetic reference the analogy breaks down. Matthew’s reapplication of Isaiah’s prophecy regarding the birth of the boy Immanuel does not justify the invention of a secondary frame of reference for Jesus’ apocalyptic language—certainly not in the interest of defending a dogmatic pre-commitment. I think Dale Allison quotes Ben Meyer to good effect here: “Neither Testament shows us prophets entertaining a compound, temporally disjoined perspective, both imminent and non-imminent.”2