The Messianic Hope

Julian Kinkaid



From a Christian perspective it is commonly assumed that Jesus was the fulfilment of a deep-rooted Messianic expectation amongst the Jewish people, founded upon God's continued revelation through His prophets (Heb.1:1f.). Consequently, we often find it difficult why Jesus the Messiah was rejected by his people when he was so obviously executed all that the Scriptures said that he would. However, from a scholastic point of view it is widely debated to what extent a Messianic hope existed, if at all, and subsequently what this comprised of. This is borne out by the fact that "virtually all of the books on the Old Testament theology say very little at all about such a messianic hope and even when they do, do so in a very guarded and circumscribed way".[1] According to the linguists, the Hebrew participle mashîah; from which we get the word messiah ('to anoint'), and therefore simply means 'anointed one'. Since the rite of anointing in Israel was 'merely at symbolic act', designating an individual as having been separated by God to act under the guidance of His Spirit, the term 'anointed' generally applied to those holding the office of priest, prophet and, in particular, king (cf. Exod. 28:41; 1 Kings 19:16). Interestingly Kae remarks that during the biblical period of Israelite history the individual involved in inaugurating each new phase held all three messianic offices.[2] Thus, owing to the weight of historical experience, he argues for an Israelite expectation that saw the inauguration of a new era by a messianic figure in whom all three offices were combined. Nevertheless, for the purposes of this essay I will be dealing mainly with the subject of kingship and the so-called anti monarchic statements that are assumed to be the basis of the messianic hope.


The first, albeit obscure, reference to a messianic figure and his mission is perhaps inevitably given after the event that rendered it necessary: the fall of man (Gen. 3:14f.). Here in the denunciation of the serpent, and therefore of Satan (the actual seducer and manipulator of the serpent), we are presented with the hope that in spite of the opposition he will continue to inflict upon mankind, one day man will destroy him. The victim becomes the victor. Hence, at its very inception, the biblical narrative sets forth what Kae terms as "the great principles of redemptive history", the foundational "teaching concerning the Messiah and His Kingdom"[3]: a) Man is capable of salvation; b) all evil results from sin, and c) through the Representative of humanity sin will finally be conquered.

Perhaps the most complete messianic revelation in Genesis is the 'Shiloh Prophecy' (Gen. 49:1, 10), although it is considered by the likes of Schmidt and Beker as being simply "vaticinia ex eventu",[4] that is, written from a period contemporary with or even later than David, with the purpose of looking forward to his reign. The messianic interpretation is dependent upon two factors; the phrase 'the latter days' and the meaning of the name 'Shiloh'. Concerning the phrase, which we meet here for the first time, in all subsequent passages where it is used (cf. Num.24:14; Jer.48:47; Dan.10:14, etc.) refers to a sequence of events associated with the establishment of God's kingdom on earth, headed by the Messianic King. The best interpretation of the name Shiloh in this context is 'peacemaker' or 'pacifier', which is more in accord with messianic expectations than any other name (cf. Isa.9:5 & Micah 5:4). However, the earliest extant interpretation of 'Shiloh' is reported to be found in Ezekiel (21:25-27).

Kings shall not cease from the house of Jacob, nor scribes teaching the law from his children's children, until the time that the King Messiah shall come, whose is the kingdom, and to whom all the kingdoms of the earth shall be obedient.[5]

Furthermore, the Midrash sees Shiloh as a reference to the 'King Messiah' and the Babylonian Talmud lists it as a Messianic title. Therefore the prophecy states that until the coming of the Messiah, the tribe of Judah would exercise national sovereignty in their own land, at which time its dominion would be lost.

According to the earliest Jewish tradition the 'ruler' spoken if in the book of Numbers (24:17ff.): "a star shall come forth from Jacob and a sceptre shall rise from Israel", was principally understood to be the Messiah with only a secondary reference to David. Evidence of this expectancy is demonstrated by the Messianic claims of the pseudo-Messiah, Simon bar-Kochbar ('Son of the Star') and by the unquestionable willingness of the Jews to accept him. However, owing to the lack of NT support, and the almost impossible task of submitting any internal evidence to qualify its application to Jesus Christ, the prophecy is generally viewed amongst Christians as having been completely fulfilled in David, and therefore having no secondary reference to a messianic figure.

Finally in this section is the prophecy of Moses, found in Deuteronomy (18:15-19), such that God would raise up a 'prophet like him' from among them. Again a messianic interpretation appears to be authorised by tradition, not only in the NT, but also throughout the older Jewish world (cf. 1 Macc.14:41). From a NT perspective there is ample evidence that such an interpretation was commonplace. Peter and Stephen are almost too casual in quoting the prophecy (cf. Acts 3:22; 7:37), evidently because that was the expectation of the people (cf. John 6:14). Even the Samaritans (who only received the Pentateuch), also awaited the coming of the Messiah on the basis of this passage (John 4:25; cf. Deut.18:19). Similarly, the implicit references to this passage in the Gospels (cf. John 1:46; Luke 24:44), if nothing else, seem to indicate its wide messianic usage among the people. Therefore, what does seem remarkable is the absence of a messianic interpretation of a Messianic of Moses' prophecy in rabbinic literature. Furthermore, it appears that the rabbis never thought through the Messiah's relationship to the Law, and even though some believed certain laws would be abrogated during the Messianic era, he would not abolish the Law, but uphold it. However, "as the New Moses the Messiah would bring new revelation", [6]thus making the abolition of the Old a possibility. Regarding the prophecy itself, it is clear from the Hebrew word employed that the reference was principally "an individual and not a collective body of prophets".[7] This is further strengthened by the fact that 'non-messianic interpreters' have been compelled to regard the subject as some other individual. However, if the prophecy is seen as exclusively messianic we stumble upon an inconsistency when we reach the 20th verse, where God is seen to identify the characteristics of a false prophet, thereby contrasting them with the true prophets. The solution is therefore to see the Messiah as a personification of the prophetical order. In that way the prophecy looked towards the succession of prophets, but remained unfulfilled by any because each in turn failed to represent God in every aspect as Moses had (cf. Deut.34:10). As Ellison remarks "the long line of prophets... speak not merely of the Messiah, but by their very incompleteness bear witness to the necessity for his coming".[8]

Kingship and the Psalms

For some the demand for a king (1 Sam.8:5ff.) is seen as a rejection of Yahweh by His people. However, it was not so much the concept of kingship that God objected to, since He consented to their demands, but the type of kingship they sought. Following the death of Joshua God had appointed Judges through whom He governed His people. Many of these were, in effect, rulers in their own right. In Samaritan tradition the judges (shophetim) are called kings (melakhim), thereby giving a truer estimation of their power and position. Therefore Saul was not so much the first Israelite King, but the first ruler in Israel to have a kingship like that of the heathen kings. This is reflected in the words of Samuel himself: "Yahweh your God was your King" (1 Sam. 12:12), which are condemnatory of a kingship 'like the nations'. By refusing God's gift of charismatic leaders the Israelites were limiting God's kingship, for his representative would hold the office of King 'by accident of birth'. This is seen by many (cf. Mowinkel) as an abuse of the Messianic Hope, for like the 'divine-kings' of the heathen nations, the Israelite king was viewed as the one who should 'perfectly represent Yahweh'. The stark reality was, however, of one who fell far short of the vision, no matter how great his office, and therefore promoted the expectancy of a future king, who would succeed where the others had failed.[9]

In his article on the 'Messianic Hope', Clements has written, "one passage that deserves the title of the seed bed of Messianic-hope is 2 Samuel 7:1-17".[10] The passage recounts a prophecy given by the prophet Nathan to David, concerning the building of the Temple and the promise of the "permanent future continuance of the Davidic house in the kingship before Yahweh".[11] In its entirety the prophecy contains too many features that can relate to the natural descendants of David to allow an exclusively messianic interpretation. In fact, the majority of the content is understood by David to refer to the reign of Solomon (cf. 1 Chron.28:4-7), like the building of the Temple, which can only be understood in this sense (1 Chron. 22:9; cf. 2 Chron.6:7). On the basis of these promises, "by virtue of which God entered into a special covenant relationship with David",[12] thereby rendering them immune to any moral lapse on the part of David or his descendants (2 Sam.23:1-5), the Psalms and then the Prophets contain an expansion of these ideas.

Traditionally Psalm 2 has been ascribed to David and regarded by the Jews as foretelling the Messiah, as certain of its features cannot refer to an earthly king. In v.7 the king is called the Son of Yahweh, now "although the appellation son of God is frequently given to earthly leaders of theocracy, the idea is that of representation and subordination".[13] In such circumstances it speaks of the moral relationship between father and son and is to be regarded as 'entirely synonymous' with 'servant of God'. However, from the parallelism in v.7 and the reference in v.12 to simply 'the Son', indicating the exclusive character of the sonship (cf. Psalm 45:7; 110:5), it clearly relates to the one who is literally the Son of God. Furthermore, the rebellious people are exhorted to seek his favour and not incur his wrath, terms that are alien to an earthly king, for the Israelites were always encouraged to put their trust in God alone. Lastly, the king is told that his kingdom will extend throughout the whole earth (vv.1-3, 8), a declaration that without the 'utmost extravagance' could not be made concerning an earthly ruler.

Like Psalm 2, Psalm 45 has traditionally been recognised as messianic, after all it seems inconceivable that it should be included amongst the Psalms if it was simply a bridal ode. This is endorsed by the superscription that indicates that it was used by the sons of Korah for public worship. The strongest argument for its messianic interpretation is found in v.7, where Elohim (in the vocative case) is used with reference to the king. Now although "the magistracy as representing the tribunal of God"[14] are known to be called Elohim, the name is never applied to an individual, least of all a king 'celebrating his nuptuals'. Secondly, in the Psalms attributed to the sons of Korah Elohim is used exclusively as a name for God rather than Yahweh. If the Psalm is understood in a figurative sense then v.2 refers to high moral perfection rather than personal beauty and v.3 speaks of the peaceful means by which this king will accomplish his victory, not by the sword, but by his 'glory and majesty'. The address of daughter in v.11 would be unsuitable for any earthly queen, however, lands, cities and nations are often personified as young women (cf. Isa. 4:4; 23:12). Therefore, in this context the covenant people are representative of the bride of the Messianic King.

Although Psalm 72 is traditionally attributed to Solomon, and contains an expansion of the ideas given in Nathan's prophecy (cf.2 Sam. 23:1-4), we now know from our historical perspective that Solomon was not the person depicted therein. As in the previous two Psalms, Jewish tradition attached a messianic interpretation to this Psalm. This is borne out by the rendering of the first verse by the 'Chaldee paraphrasts': "O God, give your judgements to King Messiah",[15] and by the Targum: "O God, give your judgements to king Messiah...".[16] From the rest of the Psalm the witness is just as strong, such that many features can only belong to the Messiah. It is interesting that there is also a peculiarly strong witness from parallel passages, for instance, v.17 echoes the promise made to Abraham (Gen.12:8), and the words of v.8 are used by Zechariah (9:10) to describe the extension of the Messianic kingdom.

The final Royal (and clearly messianic) Psalm is Psalm 110, which greatly confirms the interpretation of the three preceding ones. It is evident from the superscription, which ascribes the composition to David, that the subject of the Psalm can only be the Messiah, and this is proved by the inability of the Pharisees to explicate themselves (Matt.22:41-46) when Jesus used the Psalm in relation to the Messiah. Perhaps the most striking element of the Psalm is its priestly content. It seems that the falling short of the Israelite kingship "was symbolised by the withholding of priestly power from the king"[17] (cf. 2 Chron. 26:16-21 with Uzziah and 1 Sam.13:8-14 with Saul) and yet here the king is described as a priest of a different order (v.4) that of the earthly Levitical priesthood. Furthermore, his army is not comprised of warriors in blood-stained clothing, but priests 'garbed in sacred clothing' (cf. Isa. 9:4ff.).

Major Prophets

Among the 'classic prophets' it is Isaiah who has the most to say about the Davidic kingship. Leaving aside Isa. 2:2-4, which we will deal with later, the first prophecy is the Immanuel prophecy given during the time of Ahaz (Isa. 7:10-16). This passage has been the subject of much debate and the consensus is that both its setting and wording indicate that it is not exclusively messianic, if at all. From a Christian perspective we would accept the words of Matthew in the NT (Matt. 1:22) and therefore his application of this prophecy to the birth of Jesus. However, is it not true to say that there is, implicit in Matthew's account, the sense of only a single fulfilment? Much of the controversy has previously been centred on the word translated 'virgin',[18] whereas the significant features are the address of Isaiah that begins "O house of David" (v.18), and its immediate context. The unwillingness of King Ahaz to accept the promise of deliverance from the mouth of Isaiah is amplified by his refusal to ask for an authenticating sign, which leads to his own demise (cf. 7:9). Then Isaiah addresses the whole gathering, represented by Ahaz himself, and simply reminds them of the hope they have of a coming deliverer, the Messiah, thereby "pointing out the inconsistency between this faith and their fear of the entire subversion of the state".[19] In effect then the sign given was the prophecy of Isaiah reiterating the promise of a Messianic King, which was subsequently confirmed by the mere fact that Rezin and Pelah failed to overthrow Jerusalem (7:7ff.). What is more, it is also apparent that the messianic interpretation as the prevailing one among the Prophet's contemporaries "evinced by the parallel passage"[20] in Micah 5:2.

If we now turn our attention to Isaiah 9:6f. we find a remarkable similarity with chapter 7. However, the thoughts are expanded here to present a new Davidic son who is born to establish justice and righteousness. Furthermore, he is endowed with 'honorific titles for God', which place him in so close a relationship to Yahweh that it is unequalled by any present or future king. If any doubt remains that Isaiah is speaking of a messianic figure it must surely be dispelled by the description of his kingdom (v.7), for its increase is said to be without end! Similarly, the third messianic prophecy in chapter 11:1-10 is a further elaboration of that in chapter 9, and so "the traditional image of the king is expanded and intensified in the expectation".[21] The coming king will be raised up from the Davidic line after it has fallen into almost obscurity and he will truly by 'the anointed one', for he will be 'richly endowed' with the Spirit of Yahweh. His rule will be characterised by righteous judgement during which time a state of innocence and peace will reign. That he will stand as a 'signal or standard' for the people is somewhat reminiscent of Isa.7:14.

The contributions of the prophet Jeremiah, although sparse, are very significant. Again the Messianic King is described as a 'righteous Branch of David' (28:5; 33:15), who will reign with justice and righteousness. In fact he will be called 'Yahweh tsidkenu', and, in contrast to Zechariah,[22] will be the one by whom Yahweh will be the righteousness of His people. We also see for the first time an explicit reference to the Messiah as saviour, for in his days Judah will be saved (23:6). The greatest developments are, however, the expansion of the priestly-king concept (cf. Psalm 110:4) and the establishment of a new covenant. The prophet speaks of a coming day when David will not cease to have a man on the throne and the Levitical priests, a man to offer sacrifices (33:17ff.). In the same manner 'days are coming' in which God will establish a new covenant with Israel, each man will die for his own sin, but every man will have the Law within, written on his heart and their sins will be blotted out forever (31:30-34).

In the prophet Ezekiel, the first passage we are to look at apparently has no messianic influence, but it does echo the words of Jeremiah (Ezek.11:17-21, cf. Jer.31:30-34), concerning the new covenant. Ezekiel speaks of a promised restoration at which time God will replace their hearts of stone with ones of flesh, and all men will be culpable for their own deeds. In chapter 21:25-27 the subject of Ezekiel's address is evidently King Zedekiah, who is to be dethroned and profaned. These events will precede a time of utter ruin, during which there will be no king upon the throne "until he comes whose right it is" - clearly a reference to the messianic king. The other passages in Ezekiel relate the same message (31:23-31; 37:22-28). They speak of the reunion of Israel and Judah under the faithful shepherd of Israel, 'My shepherd David'. During this time Yahweh will make an everlasting covenant of peace with this people and the nations will know that Yahweh their God is with them.

Minor Prophets

By the time we reach the Minor Prophets much of the ground has already been covered, and in books like Micah we find material that has been 'interpolated' from Isaiah. Micah 4:1-3 is also found in Isaiah 2:2-4 and foretells a time of peace in the last days, generally used by the prophets to identify the 'messianic era'. During this period it is Yahweh who is seen to reign in Zion, from where he touches the people and judges the nations. Then in chapter 5 we discover many similarities with Isaiah and Ezekiel. Micah begins by focusing on the Messiah's lowly human beginnings. Now that the Davidic dynasty has all but ceased, he is born in Bethlehem and not Jerusalem, as one might expect (cf. Isa. 11:1). Furthermore, he had an existence before his temporal birth in Bethlehem, as Hengstenberg writes, "he who should hereafter deliver them out of their misery by a visible manifestation, exists already during its continuance, before it, and through all eternity".[23] Until the time of his birth, Micah prophesies, Israel will be 'given up' (cf. Ezek.21:27) and then they will be reunited (cf. Ezek.34:11ff.). He will arise as a shepherd over the flock (cf. Ezek.37:24ff.), and will establish his kingdom to the ends of the earth (cf. Isa. 9:7).

In the prophets Haggai and Zechariah the messianic expectation is given new impetus in the person of Zerubabbel, a true descendent of the Davidic line. Both he and Joshua, the high priest, are referred to as 'sons of fresh oil' or 'anointed ones' (Zech. 4:11f), and in the context of rebuilding the Temple, Zerubabbel is seen as the prototype for the messianic king (6:12ff), who will rule on the throne of Yahweh. However, the true Messiah, 'the Branch', will be a priestly-king who will therefore bridge the gulf between the two offices (6:13). For Haggai the work of Zerubabbel is viewed as a "guarantee of Yahweh's mighty and saving presence",[24] since it is in the tribulations of the last time that the "messianic age of salvation will dawn" (Haggai 2:20-23). He is therefore described as "My servant Zerubabbel" (2:23) and his unique relationship with Yahweh is expressed in terms of a 'signet ring'. Thus as the elect of Yahweh, Haggai also refers to Zerubabbel in terms that are only really representative of the true Messiah.

Owing to Christian influence there are two other figures from OT theology that are commonly assumed to be messianic, namely the Son of Man in Daniel and the Servant of Yahweh in Isaiah. However, it remains to be seen whether either of these figures contributed to the messianic expectation as such.

The Son of Man

Perhaps it seems obvious at first glance that in the same way the four heathen empires are personified as beasts, so the 'saints of the Highest One' are personified as a human figure (Dan.7:1-28). However, these four beasts are also interpreted as being four kings (7:17), the head and representative of their kingdom, which would lead us to the understanding that the 'Son of Man' is the king and representative of the kingdom of saints. Considering this it is significant to note that although the judgement scene takes place on earth, the Son of Man arrives from a different sphere, 'with the clouds of Heaven' (7:13). Furthermore, if the national interpretation of this passage was so widely accepted in Jewish circles, it seems strange to find that in other apocalyptic or pseudepigraphical literature a personal and messianic interpretation (cf. Similitudes of Enoch, c.100 CE). It does appear that in the post-exilic period of Israelite history the two concepts of the Messianic King and deity (implicitly connected in Isa.11) drifted apart so that it was found increasingly difficult to unite the Messianic King with Daniel's heavenly 'Son of Man'. Consequently, we find that "rabbinic Judaism has never been able to reconcile the two concepts, human and super-human; which continue side by side in popular orthodox Judaism to this day".[25]

The Servant of Yahweh

There are four main passages in the prophecies of Isaiah that speak explicitly of the Servant of Yahweh, (42:1-9; 49:1-9; 50:4-11; 52:13-53:12). However, nothing can be determined from the 'mere appellation', since it can be applied to every pious worshipper of God, but especially those commissioned with regard to the salvation of men. Therefore our examination of who the person is must be separated from the 'attributes ascribed to him'. Although there are five main views on this subject, only two are worth considering: a national interpretation and a messianic interpretation, as above. Even from the first passage it becomes obvious that the 'Servant' is distinguished from the people as a nation (42:6), and that in character there is a distinct contrast with that normally ascribed to the people elsewhere (42:2f.). If we turn to chapter 49 then vv.5 & 6 surely place it beyond doubt! From a messianic perspective there are many features found in other messianic passages as well as many that are unique to this Servant-Prophet figure. The Spirit of Yahweh will rest upon him (42:1, cf. 11:2), he will bring forth justice (42:1; cf. Micah 4:3); righteousness (42:6; cf. Jer.23:6); he will be appointed as a covenant (42:6; cf. Ezek. 38:26), and the author of salvation to the ends of the earth (49:6; cf. Micah 5:4). Unfortunately, although the weight of evidence supports a messianic interpretation, it would seem that the material peculiar to Isaiah was not included in the messianic expectation; either because of its very nature or simply because of their spiritual blindness.


In this essay I have attempted to show that there is an adequate amount of scriptural evidence for a comprehensive messianic expectation. However, it is easy to understand how irreconcilable some of the passages must have seemed in the light of other messianic concepts and therefore how the Jewish expectation was converted to a hope based primarily upon exemplary figures of their history. For this reason it appears that the 'Suffering Servant of Yahweh' in Isaiah was overlooked. The figure we are presented with is not only to be a prophet like Moses, but a priestly-king from the Davidic line. He will rule the people with justice and righteousness and his kingdom will extend to the ends of the earth. Through him Yahweh will inaugurate a new and everlasting covenant that will bring salvation and redemption to His people. Furthermore, as well as being endowed with the Spirit of Yahweh he will be His son and therefore have a unique relationship with Him. It is unclear as to exactly what influence this super-human element had upon the messianic hope and it is possible that towards the end of the Exile the Israelites simply looked for another David or even to Zerubabbel himself. Nevertheless, the Jews clearly awaited a Golden Era under the peaceful and glorious rule of their Messianic King.[26]

© 1992 Julian Kinkaid


[1] R.E. Clements, 'The Messianic Hope in the Old Testament', Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 43 (Feb. 1989): 4.

[2] i) Abraham (Gen. 21:22-32 / Gen. 20:7 / Gen. 12:7-8; 13:3-4.
ii) Moses (Exod.2 4:4-6 / Num. 12:6-8/ Deut.18:15.
iii) Samuel (1 Sam. 7:9 / - / 1 Sam. 7:15.

[3] A.W. Kae, The Messianic Hope. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1975, p.13.

[4] W.H. Schmidt, The Faith of the Old Testament. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1983, pp.199-200.

[5] Palestinian Targum (cf. also Targum Cinkelos; the Pershitta/Syraic version of the OT). Kae, p.19.

[6](6) H.L. Ellison, The Certainty of the Messianic Idea for the Old Testament. Leicester: TSF, p.16.

[7] E.W. Hengstenberg, Christology of the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1973, p.38.

[8] Ellison, p.18.

[9] Kittel writes concerning Mowinkel, "the pan-orientation of the Uppsala school is to be completely rejected especially when it confers the predicate 'Messianic' on a non-eschatological ideology of monarchy". G. Kittel, & G. Friedrich, The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. 9. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977, p.506.

[10] Clements, p.12.

[11] J. Hastings, ed. Dictionary of the Bible, 2nd edn. Edinburgh: T.& T. Clark, 1963, p.648.

[12] Kae, p.26.

[13] Hengstenberg, p.45.

[14] Hengstenberg, p.53.

[15] Hengstenberg, p.58.

[16] Kae, p.28.

[17] Ellison, p.11.

[18] Hengstenberg, p.154: "The word signifies a young unmarried woman, without having in itself, any direct reference to unspotted chastity, which however, in this connection, is of course implied".

[19] Hengstenberg, p.157.

[20] Hengstenberg, p.156.

[21] Schmidt, p.203.

[22] It literally means "he under whose reign the Lord will impart righteousness to his people". Hengstenberg, p.646.

[23] Hengstenberg, p.573.

[24] Kittel, p.507.

[25] Ellison, p.15.

[26] There is an imminent expectation of the salvation which finds expression in the all-embracing dominion of the Davidic kind". Kittel, p.506.