The Messianic Hope
At the heart of the Old Testament is the expectation that God will send a unique king, associated with the Davidic dynasty, who will bring God’s blessing to the nations of the world. Significantly, he will sacrifice his life to atone for the sins of others.
Beginning in the book of Genesis, God intimates that his plan to redeem the world from the consequences of Adam and Eve’s disobedience will centre on one of Eve’s descendants, who will overthrow God’s enemy, the serpent, identified elsewhere in the Bible as the devil or Satan. This hope is subsequently linked to Abraham, with the expectation that one of his descendants will be a king, through whom all the nations of the earth will be blessed. The path towards the fulfillment of these promises eventually leads to the Davidic dynasty. Through David and his son Solomon, God establishes Jerusalem as his holy city where he dwells among his people. When subsequent Davidic kings fail to trust God fully, various prophets predict that God will raise up a righteous Davidic king whose reign will be characterised by justice, peace and prosperity. As God’s vicegerent, the promised Davidic king will redeem others through sacrificing his life to atone for their sins. Although the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC brings to an end the rule of Davidic kings in Jerusalem, God intimates through his prophets that he will send a new Davidic king. Jewish expectations regarding this divinely pledged king are prevalent in the first century AD. By this stage the designation “Messiah,” meaning “anointed one,” is used alongside other titles to denote this promised king.
In his “carefully investigated” account to Theophilus, Luke describes how the newly born Jesus was brought by his parents to the temple in Jerusalem. They encountered a “righteous and devout” man called Simeon, to whom the Holy Spirit had revealed that “he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ” (Luke 2:26). Luke then introduces an eighty-four years old prophetess, Anna, who, on seeing Jesus, “began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38).
Luke incorporates these details to highlight a theme that recurs throughout his gospel: Jesus fulfills expectations that God would send a king to be the savior of the world. This hope centers on a unique king, who is referred to as the Lord’s Christ or Messiah. The Greek term christos and the Hebrew term māšîaḥ, from which the English words Christ and Messiah are derived, both mean “anointed one” (see Jesus as Messiah). In the Old Testament anointing is most often linked to the divine appointment of an individual to rule as king (e.g. 1Sam 10:1; 16:13). The same is true in the New Testament and in Jewish texts from the same period.1
While it is evident from the Gospels that some of Jesus’ contemporaries believed God would send an Anointed/Christ/Messiah, opinions differed as to what this would entail. Most expected the coming king to re-establish Israel as an independent nation, ousting the Romans from Palestine. Jesus, however, did not meet their expectations, especially when he was executed by the Romans on a cross.
The death of the Anointed/Christ/Messiah is presented in the NT as having significant redemptive consequences, as well as fulfilling OT expectations. Luke records how Jesus stressed this when he spoke with a couple on the road to Emmaus. When they revealed that they had hoped Jesus would be the ‘one to redeem Israel’ (Luke 24:21), Jesus responded:
“O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself (Luke 24:25-27).
After this, Luke describes how Jesus came to the eleven apostles in Jerusalem. Luke writes:
Then he (Jesus) said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, 46 and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:44-47).
In these post-resurrection encounters, Jesus pointed towards what was written in the Old Testament regarding the Christ or Messiah.
Expectations associated with the line of David
At the heart of the messianic hope reflected in the New Testament is the expectation of a king linked to the Davidic dynasty. The Anointed/Christ/Messiah would be a “son of David.” The grounds for this expectation are firmly rooted in the Old Testament, where the Davidic dynasty occupies a central place in the story of God’s dealings with the nation of Israel. David is the first individual to have established through his offspring a royal dynasty in Israel. Chosen by God, David is anointed by the prophet Samuel (1Sam 16:1-13). He subsequently unites the tribes of Israel, capturing Jerusalem and making it his capital city (2Sam 5:1-12). He relocates the ark of the covenant, the footstool of God’s heavenly throne, to Jerusalem, establishing it as the city of God (2Sam 6:1-15). When David expresses a desire to build a house/temple for God in Jerusalem, God covenants to establish David’s house/dynasty for ever (2Sam 7:1-29).2 Subsequently, David’s son, Solomon, builds a temple for God in Jerusalem, confirming the special bond that exists between God, Jerusalem/Zion and the Davidic dynasty (1Kgs 6:1-8:66). When the kingdom is divided after Solomon’s reign, the Davidic dynasty continues to reign over Judah for several centuries. In marked contrast, a variety of dynasties rise and fall in the northern kingdom of Israel.
God’s commitment to David plays an important part in securing the future of the Davidic dynasty. Yet, even this cannot prevent God’s punishment coming upon Davidic kings who abandon God and disregard the Sinai covenant. Eventually, God sends the Babylonians to punish the inhabitants of Jerusalem, resulting in the demise of the Davidic dynasty, the decimation of the Jerusalem temple and the destruction of the city’s walls.
While these tragic events gave cause for the people of Judah to believe that God had abandoned his commitment to David, prophets intimated, both before and after the fall of Jerusalem that God would fulfill his commitment to David through a future king, who would rule with justice and righteousness.
The fullest expression of this Davidic hope in the pre-exilic period comes in the book of Isaiah. Addressing the corruption of the Davidic monarchy during the reigns of Ahaz and Hezekiah in the final decades of the eighth century BC, Isaiah announces:
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this (Isaiah 9:6-7).
The promise of this future righteous king stands in stark contrast to the corrupt Davidic kings who reigned in Isaiah’s day. In a separate oracle, Isaiah announces:
There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.
And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him,
the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and might,
the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide disputes by what his ears hear,
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist,
and faithfulness the belt of his loins. (Isaiah 11:1-5)
Isaiah’s reference to “a shoot from the stump of Jesse” signals a new start to a Davidic dynasty that has been chopped down (cf. Amos 9:11-13). Beyond punishment, Isaiah anticipates a radically different and better Davidic king. These prophetic oracles provide grounds for believing that in the future God would raise up a unique Davidic king.3
The failure of the late eighth century BC Davidic kings to trust God fully is contrasted in the book of Isaiah with the obedience of an individual who is designated “the servant of the Lord.” This individual is introduced in a series of songs that climax in chapter 53 with the servant, who is blameless, offering his life to atone for the sins of others.4 While the servant is never referred to directly as a king, various factors point in this direction.5 God states that he will make the servant “a light for the nations” so that his “salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isa 49:6; cf. 42:6-7). Importantly, the servant’s obedience to Yahweh is crucial for successfully establishing the new Jerusalem that is prized by God. Whereas the Davidic kings of the eighth century BC are held accountable for God’s rejection of Jerusalem and its subsequent destruction by the Babylonians, the suffering servant of the Lord plays a vital role in God’s redemptive purposes for Jerusalem and the nations.6
In the post-exilic period, when no Davidic king was ruling in Jerusalem, hope for the restoration of the Davidic dynasty is reflected subtly in different ways in the books of Psalms and Chronicles.
The book of Psalms, which is a post-exilic compilation of pre-existing shorter collections of poetic songs used in public worship, gives prominence to the Davidic dynasty. This is noteworthy given the absence of a Davidic ruler in post-exilic Judah. At the start of the Psalter, Psalm 2 emphasizes the special relationship that exists between God and his Anointed. As God’s son, the king will possess the nations as his heritage. Psalm 2 concludes by exhorting kings and rulers of other nations to submit to God’s son, the king. Complementary expectations are found in Psalm 72, which is a prayer penned by David regarding a future monarch. Echoing Psalm 2, it speaks of “all kings” and “all nations” being subject to a future king. The psalm anticipates a time when the king will exercise universal dominion, bringing peace and prosperity to the needy and oppressed.
God’s covenant commitment to David is highlighted in Psalm 89, which begins by emphasizing how God promised to establish David’s offspring and throne forever. This theme is developed as the psalm progresses, but then comes a significant twist. Verses 38-45 focus on God’s rejection of the Davidic king, reflecting the reality of what happened when the Babylonians attacked and conquered Jerusalem. In the light of this rejection, the psalm concludes by asking: “How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever? How long will your wrath burn like fire” (Psalms 89:46)? In a final plea, recalling God’s promise to David, the psalm concludes:
Lord, where is your steadfast love of old,
which by your faithfulness you swore to David?
Remember, O Lord, how your servants are mocked,
and how I bear in my heart the insults of all the many nations,
with which your enemies mock, O Lord,
with which they mock the footsteps of your anointed. (Psalms 89:49-51)
Beyond Psalm 89, the rest of the Psalter contains sufficient references to the Davidic dynasty to suggest that the compiler looked forward to the restoration of a Davidic king. The positive tone of Psalms 110, which speaks of God promising the Davidic king victory over his enemies, echoing the sentiments of Psalm 2, seems out of place in the Psalter, if the final compiler did not believe that God would re-establish the Davidic dynasty after the exile. Likewise, in the post-exilic age Psalm 132 give grounds for believing that God will “make a horn to sprout for David” (v. 17).7
The book of Chronicles was composed in the post-exile period. Chronicles, which in certain aspects parallels the book of Kings, is noteworthy for giving special attention to the Davidic monarchy. In Chronicles the kings of the northern kingdom of Israel are ignored. Underlying all that the Chronicler has to say is the expectation that the Davidic monarchy will be reinstated. Chronicles highlights the intimate connection between the Jerusalem temple and the Davidic monarch, the latter being responsible for the building of the former. The author of Chronicles implies that if the people repent and pray at the temple, which has been rebuilt, God will heal their land through restoring the Davidic monarch. This theme is encapsulated in the Chronicler’s version of King Manasseh’s reign. In 2 Kings 21, Manasseh’s sins are presented as being largely responsible for the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem. Even the reforms of Josiah are insufficient to counter God’s decision to punish Jerusalem (2Kgs 23:24-27). While the Chronicles’ account of Manasseh’s life does not erase his evil actions, it describes his repentance and restoration to the throne, following a time of exile in Babylon (2Chron 33:1-20).8 The author of Chronicles signals strongly that even the worst Davidic king is not beyond restoration when there is sincere repentance. In the light of this, the people of Judah should not dismiss the possibility that God will be faithful to his commitment to David regarding a “son of David” ruling in Jerusalem.
Expectations prior to the Davidic dynasty
It seems obvious to trace the origins of the messianic hope back to God’s commitment to David that he would concerning an everlasting dynasty, but there are important pre-Davidic expectations that enhance considerably our understanding of the messianic hope. Even before the Davidic dynasty was founded, the hope existed that God would send a king, descended from Abraham, to bless the nations of the world.
Yet, even this hope has roots that go back further, to the Garden of Eden and to God’s judgment concerning the serpent that deceived Adam and Eve. God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Gen. 3:14–15). God’s pronouncement that an offspring of the woman will overcome the serpent marks the beginning of what will become the messianic hope.9
God’s remarks to the serpent are open to different interpretations, but when placed within the context of Genesis as a whole it becomes evident that the one who will overcome the serpent will be a king.10 Underlying Adam and Eve’s failure to obey God was the expectation that they should exercise authority over other creatures (Gen 1:26, 28). By heeding the serpent, they betrayed God and placed a creature before the Creator.11 In the light of their action, they lost their royal status as God’s vicegerents. In light of this, it might be expected that the one who will overcome the serpent will succeed where Adam and Eve failed.12 Yet, while the promise of a ruler is implicit in the punishment of the serpent, this victory will not be achieved without suffering.
Building on this important statement, the rest of Genesis is especially interested in identifying the “serpent-slayer.” After Cain kills his more righteous brother, Abel, the woman’s offspring is linked to Seth (Gen 4:25). His descendants are traced by a linear genealogy to Noah (Gen 5:3-32), who stands apart from other men, because of his righteous character (Gen 6:9). From Noah, the woman’s offspring is traced through Shem to Abraham (Gen 11:10-26). Significantly, the story of Abraham’s life centers on God’s promise to bless all the nations of the earth though one of Abraham’s offspring (Gen 22:16-18). In making an eternal covenant with Abraham, God promises that kings will be descended from Abraham and Sarah (Gen 17:6, 16).13
Beyond Abraham, Genesis traces the ongoing family line to Isaac and then Jacob. In both instances, an older brother is passed over. Interestingly, Esau despises his birthright as firstborn and sells it to his younger twin, Jacob, for a bowl of stew (Gen 25:29-34). While Jacob’s actions are note entirely honorable, he appreciates the importance of the birthright and the divine promises associated with it. Later, when Isaac bestows the blessing of the firstborn on Jacob, believing him to be Esau, he states:
Let peoples serve you,
and nations bow down to you.
Be lord over your brothers,
and may your mother’s sons bow down to you.
Cursed be everyone who curses you,
and blessed be everyone who blesses you!” (Gen 27:29)
Echoing God’s promise to Abraham (Gen. 12:3), Isaac indicates that authority to rule over others will belong to Jacob. Although Esau subsequently threatens to kill Jacob, God’s blessing comes to Jacob, who prospers and brings prosperity to others despite being exiled to Paddan-aram. When Jacob returns to Canaan, God promises, “A nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings shall come from your own body” (Gen. 35:11).
The next stage in the family line focuses mainly on Joseph, but also includes Judah. Set apart from his brothers, Joseph is treated by his father as the one who has the birthright of the firstborn (cf. 1Chron 5:1-2). Against the background of the Abrahamic covenant, Joseph’s “royal” dreams are significant (Gen 37:5-11). When his brothers subsequently sell Joseph into slavery in Egypt, Joseph is blessed by God and mediates God’s blessing to others (Gen 39:5). Despite being imprisoned, Joseph is providentially exalted by God to rescue Egypt and other nations from famine (cf. Gen 50:20). His story mirrors in part later messianic expectations that see the Davidic king mediating God’s blessing to the nations.
From Joseph, the unique line of descendants traced in Genesis passes to Ephraim, in another instance of primogeniture reversal (Gen 48:13-20). After this, hope for a future king is associated with the tribe of Ephraim, as evidenced by the role that Joshua, an Ephraimite, plays in leading the Israelites into the promised land. However, as the book of Judges reveals, the Ephraimites fail to provide the moral leadership that God desires.14
The Genesis account of Joseph’s life is surprisingly interrupted by a story that focuses on the continuation of Judah’s family line (Gen 38:1-30). By emphasizing the firstborn status of Er and the lack of offspring, the narrator signals that Judah’s family may be significant as regards the fulfillment of the divine promise associated with Eve’s offspring. The ensuing story of Tamar’s unconventional relationship with Judah, resulting in the birth of twins, concludes with another instance of primogeniture reversal (Gen. 38:27-30). The bizarre nature of Perez breaking out in front of Zerah, the apparent firstborn, is symbolically meaningful. Although kingship is initially associated with the tribe of Ephraim, God later rejects the line of Joseph-Ephraim in favor of David from the tribe of Judah (Psa 78:67-72). As the book of Ruth reveals, David was a direct descendant of Perez (Ruth 4:18-22).
The idea that kingship may be associated with the descendants of Judah and Joseph is reflected in the blessings pronounced by Jacob in Genesis 49. Given the importance of the Davidic dynasty for the messianic hope, it is not surprising that Jacob’s statement in 49:10 concerning a future descendant of Judah, whom the peoples will obey, has traditionally been understood as a messianic prediction.
By observing how the unique family line in the book of Genesis is linked to the Davidic dynasty, it becomes evident that the messianic hope associated with David’s dynasty goes back to the earliest stages in God’s redemptive activity.15 The various divine promises introduced in Genesis are highly significant for understanding later explanations of the messianic hope. God’s promises concerning the overthrow of the serpent (Gen. 3:15) and the blessing of alienated humanity (Gen 12:3; 18:18; 22:18) are linked to a unique family line that will eventually produce a king, who will subdue his enemies and rule over the nations beneficently on God’s behalf.
Viewed as a continuous story, the books of Genesis to Kings move from expectations of a future monarchy in Genesis to the establishment of that monarchy in the books of Samuel and Kings. While Kings describes the decline of the Davidic dynasty and the deportation of the last Davidic king, Jehoiachin, to Babylon, its concluding verses offer a glimmer of hope that this is not the end of the story. Released from prison, Jehoiachin is given “a seat above the seats of the kings who were with him in Babylon” (2Kgs 25:28). The hopes associated with David’s dynasty await fulfillment.
The consensus of modern scholarship is heavily weighed against tracing messianic ideology back into the Old Testament. Yet, belief in a future, unique king lies at the heart of the Old Testament story. There is an expectation that a future Davidic king will play an important role in the fulfillment of God’s redemptive plans for the earth. These expectations form the basis of the claims made by New Testament writers that the messianic hope finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ.
Messianic expectations linked to the Davidic dynasty do not exhaust what the Old Testament has to say about Jesus Christ. They are only one strand of a cord of connections between the Old Testament and Jesus, but a very significant core strand.
For an easily accessible overview of how the OT anticipates the coming of a future king, see
- Alexander, T. Desmond. The Servant King: The Bible’s Portrait of the Messiah. Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 2003.
More detailed treatments of the messianic hope may be found in:
- Bateman, Herbert W., Darrell L. Bock, and Gordon H. Johnston. Jesus the Messiah: Tracing the Promises, Expectations, and Coming of Israel’s King. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2010.
- Hess, Richard S., and M. Daniel Carroll R. Israel’s Messiah in the Bible and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003.
- Porter, Stanley E., ed. The Messiah in the Old and New Testaments, McMaster New Testament Studies. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B Eerdmans, 2007.
- Satterthwaite, P. E., R. S. Hess, and G. J. Wenham, eds. The Lord’s Anointed: Interpretation of Old Testament Messianic Texts. Grand Rapids/Carlisle: Baker/Paternoster, 1995.
- Kaiser, Walter C., Jr. The Messiah in the Old Testament. Studies in Old Testament Biblical Theology. Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 1997.
- Rydelnik, Michael A. The Messianic Hope: Is the Hebrew Bible Really Messianic? NAC Studies in Bible and Theology. Edited by E. Ray Clendenen. Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2010.
- Rydelnik, Michael, and Edwin Blum. The Moody Handbook of Messianic Prophecy: Studies and Expositions of the Messiah in the Hebrew Bible. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2019.
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