Most Christians have a great desire to understand the Messianic expectation of the Old Testament. A good way of understanding the Messianic hope of the Old Testament is to understand its basic components. When most people think of prophecy in the Bible, probably what comes to mind is the idea of predicting the future. Most prophecies in the Old Testament are not predictions of the future, but they are the prophets’ attempt to communicate God’s words to their contemporaries.
The so-called Messianic expectation of the Old Testament refers to the coming of the expected or the promised deliverer of Israel. When Christians think about the Messiah, they think about Jesus Christ. To them, Jesus is clearly seen as the promised Messiah and as the fulfillment of the Messianic hope of the Old Testament.
However, the notion of the Messiah who would be a descendant of David and who would come to deliver Israel from their captivity and reestablish the kingdom of David, is a post-exilic phenomenon.
After the reign of David and a few generations after the division of the kingdom, people began looking for a good king, one like David who would reunite Israel and bring the tribes together again. The hope for a new David began to develop after many kings failed to rule righteously. This hope caused the people to begin looking for a new king who would bring back the glories of the Davidic kingdom.
Since most kings in Judah failed to meet the people’s expectation of a righteous king as described in Psalm 72, the people of Judah believed that a new David, “the ideal king,” was needed. Micah’s prophecy of a new David reflects the people’s expectation of their Messiah, their Anointed one:
But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days (Micah 5:2).
By saying that the new ruler would be born in Bethlehem, the prophet was bypassing Jerusalem, the seat of the government and the place where the palace of the king was located. God would go back to the village of Bethlehem, bypassing the city of Jerusalem, to select one who would rule in Israel.
In addition, the king’s origin would be “from of old, from ancient days.” Contrary to English translations which translate “from ôlām” as “from everlasting” (KJV), “from eternity” (HCSB), “from the eternal days” (BBE), the prophet is not referring to the eternity of the new ruler. A better translation is “whose origin goes back to the distant past, to days of long ago.” The days of the distant past, of long ago is a reference to the days of David. What the prophet is saying is that the new ruler will be another David. This is the reason God was going back to Bethlehem, as he did in the days of David, to select a new ruler who would rule over Judah as David did.
When the temple was destroyed and Judah went into exile, the people’s concept of the Messiah changed. The people now began to look for a new king who would restore the nation to its former glory. At the end of the exile, the people thought that the Messiah would come with the rebuilding of the temple in the sixth century. The prophet Haggai proclaimed:
On that day, says the LORD of hosts, I will take you, O Zerubbabel my servant, son of Shealtiel, says the LORD, and make you like a signet ring; for I have chosen you, says the LORD of hosts. (Haggai 2:23).
Zerubbabel was called the Branch (Zechariah 3:8; 6:12) and God’s signet ring (Haggai 2:23). The title “The Branch” is a reference to the Messianic King in Jeremiah 23:5. The title “God’s signet ring” was attributed to King Jehoiachin (Coniah), the son of Jehoiakim in Jeremiah 22:24.
Zerubbabel was not the Messiah and his disappearance produced a great disappointment in the hopes of the post-exilic community. Since no human king met the people’s expectation for the expected deliverer, in time the people began looking for a deliverer who would come in the distant future.
The ideal king would be the one who would come to Israel from the line of David. The new David would lead the people of Israel to power and rule over them in righteousness. Speaking of the new David, Ezekiel said: “My servant David shall be king over them; and they shall all have one shepherd. They shall follow my ordinances and be careful to observe my statutes” (Ezekiel 37:24-25).
Instead of looking at their present for the deliverer, the people began looking ahead, into the future. The people realized that the promise would not have immediate fulfillment. Thus, the promise gradually suffered an adjustment and was transferred to an eschatological fulfillment. This hope for a future deliverer became known as the messianic expectation that found fulfillment in the person of Christ.
A good way to illustrate the people’s expectation of a Messiah is by comparing this expectation to a puzzle. The Messianic expectation of the Old Testament is like a puzzle. With the passing of time, more and more pieces of the puzzle were put together. In pre-exilic Israel, with the few pieces of the puzzle that the people had, they could not see clearly what the picture was. With the passing of time and with a few more pieces, the picture began to take shape. The people’s understanding of what that picture was, began to take shape.
Finally, in the fullness of time (Galatians 4:4), when all the pieces were put together, the people could see the final picture. The puzzle was not complete until the last piece was put in the puzzle. For Christians, the final piece of the puzzle was Jesus Christ.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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