Recently, I got asked to trace the development of the theme of Messiah throughout the Old Testament for a college essay. I’ve got to say it was a lot of fun. So, I thought that I would share the main parts of it with all of you and, edited it for a blog, and turn it into a bit of a series. I’ve written on biblical themes here and here. In the mean time, enjoy!
In the Old Testament, the term messiah means “anointed one” and refers to someone who is given a specific task or duty (e.g., Lev 4:3, 16; 1 Kgs 19:16; 1 Chr 16:22; Isa 45:1). Specifically, we see the word messiah most often used to refer to the anointed kings of Israel (e.g., 1 Sam 2:10, 35; 12:3; 2 Sam 1:14, 16). Therefore, the title of the messiah (anointed one) was given to specific people (by God) to rule over the nation of Israel.
Like with most biblical themes, you can find the developing concept of the messiah on the first few pages of Genesis. Even though explicitly the idea of the anointed one does not start appearing until Leviticus. In some of the earliest Christian and Judaic traditions, the theme of the messiah is closely tied in with the apparent messianic promises in Genesis 3:15, and Genesis 49:8-12. Even further back in the story, a careful reading of Genesis 1:26-28 (God’s mandate to humanity to rule over creation as God’s vice-regents), and 2:15 (God’s command to humanity to cultivate and keep the Garden) can lead one to draw clear parallels between Adam and Eve (humanity) being priestly rulers (a messiah you could say) in the Garden and the Levitical priesthood in Leviticus 11:1-11.
The idea of messiah (priestly ruling) can be found in the story of Cain and Abel. The two brothers are seen offering up sacrifices to God (something only priests do), then Abel finds favour in God’s sight for his sacrifice where God passes over Cain’s. Cain becomes angry and God, knowing His heart, warns him the sin crouches at the door and that he must rule over it (Gen 4:1-7). Why are Cain and Abel here to begin with? Some ancient Jewish traditions have Adam and Eve in the gate of the Garden offering up sacrifices in an attempt to re-enter the Garden. Nevertheless, here we have clear echoes back to the Garden where Adam and Eve were supposed to be priestly and rule over creation, yet like their parents, Cain allows sin (the serpent) to rule over him instead. As a result, Cain murders his brother, and is further exiled east (Gen 4:8-16).
Noah is very messianic. In a world of evil, he is the only one to find favour in God’s sight as he is called to build an ark and save any who would heed his call and enter into it (Gen 6). Towards the end of the flood narrative we find Noah leaving the ark after the waters subside and he offers up sacrifices to God. God gives Noah the mandate to go forth and multiply and Noah plants a vineyard (a garden). Unfortunately, Noah gets drunk and naked and sin enters the world yet again (Gen 9).
Furthermore, we see the idea of a messiah hinted at in the story of Abraham in the person of Melchizedek, the king of Salem (Gen 14; Ps 110; Heb 7:10). Abraham himself sets the archetypal tone for the future messianic promise from when God promises him that he will be a father of many descendants and is promised the land of Canaan (Gen 12:1-3; 15; 17). Throughout the narrative, he is even presented as having a similar status as that of other monarchs and kings (Gen 14:1-24; 21:22-34; 23:6), and Yahweh Himself promises Abraham that “kings will come from you” (Gen 17:6, 16) a clear connection to the future anointed kingly lineage (Saul, David, and Solomon).
Elsewhere in the Old Testament, we see that the king (David) is unambiguously referred to the “son of God,” another reference (though not explicitly) to divinely appointed rulers and kings (Ps 2; 89; 2 Sam 7). Here there seems to be a clear connection to Exodus 4:22-24 where God called Israel “His son” and later in Exodus 19:6 a royal priesthood (cf. Isa 61:6; 1 Pet 2:9; Rev 1:6) and in Psalms 45 and 110 the king seems to be given a sense of divinity. Also, another passage worth mentioning is Isaiah 61:1, where God Himself does the anointing on the servant who has been given the spirit. Here we have reference to a future person who will bring good tidings to the afflicted, set captives free, bind up the broken-hearted, who will proclaim the year of the LORD’s favour and the day of His judgement. Though the figure is not explicitly given the title of a future king, he is anointed and seems fit the definition we earlier explored of an expected king.
Though Israel has returned to the land, and the temple rebuilt, there is a sense of despair. Israel and the temple have not returned to their former glory, and it leaves the reader wondering what will happen next? The Old Testament ends with Malachi prophesying that a day is still to come where God will judge, and the sun of righteousness will come with healing in its wings. Yet God will send another Elijah before that day to prepare the hearts of the people (Mal 4). He will pour out His Spirit on to all flesh (Joel 2:28), establish a new covenant (Jer 31), establish a new temple (Ezek 40-48) and a new messiah whose reign will last forever (Mic 5). Next, let us consider the theme of the messiah in 1 and 2 Kings specifically.
The entire Old Testament is looking forward to a messiah that can crush the serpent (Gen 3:15), fulfil the promises given to Abraham (Gen 15; 17), and finally liberate the Israelite’s (and the entire world) from their ongoing exile from God’s presence. Chris Wright says it well when he writes “the messiah was the promised one who would embody in his own person the identity and mission of Israel, their representative, king, leader and saviour… the eschatological redemption and restoration of Israel would issue in the in-gathering of the nations”. Many Jews in the first century were looking to passages like Daniel 7-9 in anticipation of their inevitable liberation from Roman oppression. They eagerly awaited the messiah to overturn their rulers and reinstall the kingdom that their forefathers experienced under the rule of David and Solomon.
As New Testament Christians, we find that fulfilment in the person of Jesus Christ. A cursory reading of the Gospels makes it evident that the authors thought of Jesus as the messiah fulfilled (see Mk 1:1) despite Jesus often neglecting to claim the title for Himself. This was due to the political climate of the day where Jesus would have been almost certainly killed for having come out as messiah. In all three of the synoptic Gospels, the baptism of Jesus occurs with God the Father saying “this is my son” (Matt 3:13-17; Mk 1:9-11; Lk 3:21-22), an apparent reference to the son-ship of the kings in Israel. Jesus took His messianic mission a step further with not only the salvation of Israel but all nations tribes and tongues (Matt 28:16-20; Lk 24:44-49; Acts 1:8; Rev 7:9). Jesus turned the messianic expectations on their heads. He both shared in our pains, sufferings, and experiences now as the messianic king, and anticipated a future fulfilment of his work.
In Revelation, Jesus brings about new creation as the King of kings and Lord of lords (Rev 1:5; 17:14; 19:12-13, 16). Jesus is the second or better Adam, the second Abraham, the second and better David, the better Solomon, and the everlasting Hezekiah as Jesus brings all things together in the newly created order. The Kingdom will no longer be divided, and God will dwell among them with Jesus as their eternal king.