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The Old Testament and the Messianic Hope | Thomas Storck

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At various times during the Church year the liturgy turns our attention to those mysterious passages of the Old Testament, the Messianic prophecies, that tell of a coming Anointed One, and even mention the place of His birth and the manner of His death. During Advent the prophecies which foretell His birth and His connection with the figure of King David are highlighted and during Lent those which speak of His crucifixion and death. But what actually do these sometimes enigmatic passages say and mean? What was the hope of ancient Israel in the coming Messiah and how did it develop as God narrowed the focus of these prophecies over the ages?

The Messianic expectation of ancient Israel consisted of several strands, some of which were highlighted or stressed more at one time or by one prophet than others, but all together they introduce this multifaceted Messianic hope, which God presented in a more and more definite way over the course of the salvation history of the Old Covenant. It is important to realize that God did not inspire the prophets of the Old Testament with one single concept of a coming Messianic figure who would be born at Bethlehem, preach a new covenant, suffer and die from crucifixion, rise again, thus gloriously defeating Satan, establish a spiritual kingdom on earth, the Catholic Church, and a kingdom of the just in Heaven. Though all these things are foretold in the Old Testament, the manner in which God chose to reveal His plan for the rescue of the human race was not as simple as announcing beforehand exactly what would be done, how, when, and by whom.

Instead, from the initial call of Abraham to leave his kinsmen and follow God into an unknown land (Genesis 12) through the last post-exilic prophetic statements, such as Malachi's prophecy of the Forerunner, St. John the Baptist (Malachi 3), God brought to Israel's attention certain expectations of future actions involving Divine Intervention to establish universal and perfect justice and peace. When put together and rightly understood, the sum of these prophecies gives a remarkable picture of our Lord and His work, but they were initially given in a fragmentary fashion. [1]

Thus in the call of Abraham mentioned above, a covenant was established between Yahweh and Abraham in which God stated that all peoples of the earth "shall find blessing in" Abraham. At this point this is an unfocused promise, both as to what shall happen and how. It does not even specify that there will be one particular person who will be responsible for this universal blessing. It is more of the awaiting of the Messianic era than the person of the Messiah. Later, as I shall point out below, this expectation of some future Divine event becomes associated with certain of Abraham's descendants, namely the family of King David of Israel, for it is said that there will be an ideal Davidic ruler or rulers who will embody and be able to establish among men the things which human beings long for and seem tragically unable to attain, namely, perfect peace and perfect justice.

This longing for the ideal Davidic king further becomes associated with the prophecies of the coming Anointed One, likewise an ideal ruler who will destroy all of God's enemies totally and effortlessly. In this way the ideal Davidic monarch is now more clearly portrayed as one particular person than as a series of kings. Also, as these various Messianic themes are proclaimed by the prophets and intertwined in the popular consciousness, certain of the prophetic utterances begin to speak of the Messiah's Divinity (Isaiah 9:5-6), the virginity of His Mother (Isaiah 7:14), His place of birth (Micah 5), the manner of His death (Psalm 22), as well as other matters.

These prophecies complete the Old Testament portrait of the coming Messiah, but it is important to remember that the Messianic prophecies were not given like the pieces of a puzzle that, when filled in, give an entire picture of Jesus Christ and His life, death and resurrection. A better image, perhaps, is that of several small rivulets, each bearing a particular tradition about Israel's hope for God's decisive intervention in human history to deliver us from our sorry state, and that even after coming together in the larger stream they are so mingled that it is difficult to see them distinctly or to understand exactly how they combine to form one whole. This is the reason that our Lord so frequently had to explain the Old Testament prophecies about Himself; when originally delivered they usually revealed the truths about the coming Messianic deliverance in a veiled manner. For example, it might be stated that the Messiah would destroy Israel's foes. Naturally one would think of a military leader, yet what the text really referred to was the defeat of the Devil, the spiritual enemy of all of Abraham's true descendants.

Moreover, it was not always easy to see beforehand how certain of the Messianic prophecies could be harmonized, e.g., the child-Messiah of Isaiah 9:5 and the mighty destroyer of Israel's enemies in Psalm 2. Until after the fact it would have been difficult to say exactly in what way many of them would be fulfilled. [2] The Hebrews of the Old Testament definitely had the hope of Messianic deliverance; the prophets spoke amazingly of some of the details in the life of Jesus Christ (such as the town of His birth), but they did this by stating and developing various Messianic themes, often in a shrouded and mysterious manner, rather than as telegraph operators passing on a series of updated bulletins from Heaven, each one giving more exact information on the impending arrival of Jesus Christ.

Another matter to be kept in mind when reading these prophetic passages, is that in many of the Messianic texts there are two references, an immediate earthly one and a future Messianic one. That is, a certain passage might apply to an historical king of Israel, yet be phrased in such a way that it was impossible for the king completely and literally to fulfill the words. Even if he strove with a pure heart, considerable strength and prudent skill, no earthly ruler could achieve the utter destruction of the enemies of God (especially the spiritual enemy of God, Satan), in the manner continually demanded by many of the Messianic psalms, for example. [3] These texts demand some superhuman action, and thus, ultimately, some superhuman actor.

Keeping these things in mind, I will discuss several of the major Messianic themes of the Old Testament: the connection of the Messianic deliverance with Abraham and the chosen people; with David and his House; the mysterious figure of the Anointed One; and finally, the exalted portrayal of the Suffering Servant.

Messianic Themes

One persistent, and indeed paramount, Old Testament theme is the connection of the Messiah with Abraham and David. The reason for this connection involves the covenants that God made with each of these men, covenants by which God promised some future benefit. The covenant with Abraham, for example, first mentioned in Genesis 12:2-3, promised a blessing for His descendants and for all people.
I will make of you a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
so that you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you
and curse those who curse you.
All the communities of the earth
shall find blessing in you.

This was the covenant, later ratified by the rite of circumcision (Genesis 17:9-27), which made Abraham the father of the chosen people, the Jews. This covenant pledged two important things: that God would bless all the people of the earth, and that this blessing would somehow be accomplished through Abraham. By establishing Abraham's descendants as a chosen people God provided for the fulfillment of both promises, for the chosen people were a kind of seedbed for the Messiah, Jesus Christ, who was a son of Abraham, and in Him all people of the world can indeed find blessing.

There is nothing, however, in this initial covenant statement that necessarily implied a personal Messiah, and, as I said above, at first the Messianic hope did not involve a distinct recognition of a single personal Messiah, but simply a belief that God would bless His chosen people and everyone in the world through them at some future time. [4] Gradually, though, God made clearer to His people that this future blessing would be accomplished through a single person, and not be merely an action or a period of time. He did this in part by focusing attention on the House of David, the family and descendants of King David of Israel.

The Davidic King

The connection of our Lord with David is prominently mentioned in the Gospels, for example, in the cry of the crowd at the entrance into Jerusalem, "Hosanna to the Son of David!" (Matthew 21:9). This connection is important because God also made a covenant with David (2 Samuel 7:4-29), and by means of this covenant made Israel's Messianic hope clearer and more specific. God's covenant with David provided for the continuance of his dynasty and his throne forever. Indeed, this covenant promise was considered by the kings who ruled after David to be a guarantee that the earthly kingdom of Judah and its capital, Jerusalem, would never be destroyed.
I will not violate my covenant;
the promise of my lips I will not alter.
Once, by my holiness, have I sworn;
I will not be false to David.
His posterity shall continue forever,
and his throne shall be like the sun before me;
Like the moon, which remains forever -
a faithful witness in the sky
(Psalm 89:35-38).
And also,
The Lord swore to David
a firm promise from which he will not withdraw:
"Your own offspring
I will set upon your throne;
If your sons keep my covenant
and the decrees which I shall teach them,
Their sons, too, forever
shall sit upon your throne.
For the Lord has chosen Zion;
he prefers her for his dwelling
(Psalm 132:11-13).

But from our standpoint after the fact, we can see more clearly that what God was covenanting was that David would have a descendant who would be a king and whose throne would last forever, but not necessarily in the way that the kings of Judah understood this promise. For the king who will reign forever, of course, is Jesus. In part, this is why the Gospels trace the genealogy of Christ, to show His descent from King David through His foster, but legal, father, Joseph.

Two other Messianic themes confirm that the Messianic age is to be inaugurated and consummated not by a succession of rulers but by a single personal Messiah. These are the themes of the Lord's Anointed and of His Suffering Servant.

The Lord's Anointed

Mention of the Lord's Anointed (in Hebrew, Messiah; in Greek, Christ) in the Messianic sense appears first in Hannah's prayer in I Samuel 2:10. This event took place before the establishment of the Israelite monarchy under Saul, and shows that initially the figure of the Lord's Anointed was not connected with David or the ruling house. For here the essential notes are already present, the theme of God's justice against His enemies and His exaltation of the Anointed One, a kind of ideal monarch, who in some future age will decisively establish the kingdom of God. One of the most striking of the texts dealing with the Anointed One is Psalm 2, which identifies the Anointed One as God's Son.

Why do the nations rage
and the peoples utter folly?
The kings of the earth rise up,
and the princes conspire together
against the Lord and against his anointed:
"Let us break their fetters
and cast their bonds from us!"
He who is throned in heaven laughs;
the Lord derides them.
Then in anger he speaks to them;
he terrifies them in his wrath:

"I myself have set up my king
on Zion, my holy mountain."
I will proclaim the decree of the Lord:
The Lord said to me, "You are my son;
this day I have begotten you.
Ask of me and I will give you the nations for an
and the ends of the earth for your possession.
You shall rule them with an iron rod;
you shall shatter them like an earthen dish."

And now, O kings, give heed;
take warning, you rulers of the earth.
Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice before him;
with trembling pay homage to him,
Lest he be angry and you perish from the way,
when his anger blazes suddenly.
Happy are all who take refuge in him.
Although as in most Messianic texts there is both the immediate earthly reference as well as the future and prophetic one, the texts that portray the Anointed One betray their Messianic reference by the ideal order they envision: the complete destruction of God's foes and the rule of the Anointed over the entire earth, something not within the power of mere men to accomplish, as the subjects of the historical King David and his successors knew all too well.

The phrase, "You are my son," though sometimes applied to an ordinary Israelite king, acquires special significance when one sees the ideal kind of rule and vindication of God's ways that is expected of this future monarch. The Messianic texts continually point beyond the limits of the merely human, and demand, as it were, their fulfillment by more than natural events. The mighty power of God and His Anointed Son, deriding and terrifying the earthly kings, was greater than anything David or Solomon could ever achieve.

The connection of the concept of the Anointed One with that of the Davidic covenant is obvious. The Anointed One becomes identified with the ideal Davidic monarch, effortlessly effecting what the armed might of David and his successors could at best only aim at. I say, "at best," because a number of those who sat on the earthly throne of David as kings of Judah did not even aim at a vindication of God's ways. Some, such as Manasseh or his son Amon, actually promoted the false religions of foreign idols in the public life of the nation and others were indifferent or mediocre. But even the founder of the dynasty, David himself, as we know, was not always a whole-souled upholder of God's law in his own conduct, and his son Solomon apostatized from the service of Yahweh toward the end of his life (I Kings 11:4-8), despite the many gifts God had showered on him. And even though the most righteous of the kings, Josiah, did not deviate from the law of Yahweh in his private or public conduct, and even sponsored a major reform of Judah's religious life, he met death in battle against the Egyptians (II Kings 23:29-30), making clear that even his blameless life and reign could not guarantee success against the potentates of this world.

Where then is the one who will "shatter" his enemies "like an earthen dish?" The best of the earthly kings are infected with evil or weakness. Though the ideal Davidic ruler and the coming Anointed One easily merge into one figure, [5] it is obvious that no merely human descendant of David could ever successfully perform their tasks. Both these aspects of the Messianic hope point clearly to something beyond the simply human for their fulfillment.

The Suffering Servant

The last factor in the Messianic hope that I wish to discuss is also one that could not have successfully marked the lives of the kings of Judah but not because they were not strong enough in war. It is that of the Suffering Servant, and the pride of most of those kings, paltry though their accomplishments were beside that of the King of Heaven, would have prevented them from humbling themselves to undertake that role. But the true Anointed One, the real ideal descendant of David, though He was the omnipotent Second Person of the Divine Trinity, did not hesitate to assume the lowly role of the suffering servant and suffer before He conquered.

This side of the Messianic hope is probably most familiar to us from Psalm 22, with its famous first verse, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" But I think its most remarkable expression may be found in the four servant songs in the prophet Isaiah, particularly the last, from chapter 52, verse 13, through chapter 53, verse 12, which I quote in part here:
Who would believe what we have heard?
To whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
He grew up like a sapling before him,
like a shoot from the parched earth;
There was in him no stately bearing
to make us look at him,
nor appearance that would attract us to him.

He was spurned and avoided by men,
a man of suffering, accustomed to infirmity,
One of those from whom men hide their faces,
spurned, and we held him in no esteem.
Yet it was our infirmities that he bore,
our sufferings that he endured,
While we thought of him as stricken,
as one smitten by God and afflicted.

But he was pierced for our offenses,
crushed for our sins;
Upon him was the chastisement that makes us whole,
by his stripes we were healed.
We had all gone astray like sheep,
each following his own way;
But the Lord laid upon him the guilt of us all.
This, one of the most sublime passages in the entire Old Testament, is an example of the most exalted portrayal of the Messiah. Greater than descent from Abraham or David, more noble than power, is the picture of one voluntarily suffering, and by his suffering somehow bearing the sins and guilt of others. Such is our Lord, and as such is He depicted as the Messianic Suffering Servant.

A Harmony

It is easy to understand why the picture of the Messiah as Suffering Servant did not seem to harmonize well with that of the conquering Anointed One, and thus why our Lord's earthly contemporaries expected that the Messiah would be a military leader. This, again, shows how most of the key Messianic passages could not have been entirely understood beforehand. Who could have known that the victories of the Anointed One would be against spiritual enemies or that it would be a victory accomplished in suffering on a cross? But in fact, when they are rightly understood, all the different strands in the Messianic hope do harmonize exactly and beautifully. Jesus Christ conquered, but conquered through His suffering, and only by His sufferings could His conquests have been made.

We must be careful, then, not to attribute to the hearers of the Messianic verses, or even to their human authors, too clear an idea of how these texts would be fulfilled, i.e., that God Himself would assume human nature, suffer, destroy the power of God's one true enemy, the devil, and establish a spiritual kingdom over all the earth. The exact relationship between Yahweh of the Old Testament and the Messiah was not clear, nor the manner of destruction of God's enemies, nor the nature of the kingdom He was to rule. But we can see that the Old Testament texts, in hindsight, point clearly to Christ, the Messiah, the ideal Son of David, the Anointed of God, the Suffering Servant, who comes both as Babe in the manger and as Divine Judge.

• This article originally appeared in the November/December 1996 issue of The Catholic Faith magazine.


[1] Cf. Hebrews 1:1.

[2] See, for example, Our Lord's words in Matthew 17:10-13, Luke 20:41-44 or Luke 24:25-27. Also Acts 8:26-35, where St. Philip does the same sort of explaining for the Ethiopian eunuch.

[3] See Psalms 2, 45, 72, and 110.

[4] Of course, Genesis 3:15, the Protoevangelium, at least implies that there would be one single person who would defeat our spiritual enemy, Satan. Though this had been made known in some manner to Adam at the time of the expulsion from Eden, it is not explicit in the earliest revelations granted to Abraham.

[5] Cf. the Messianic psalms, mentioned in note 2.

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Thomas Storck, who writes from Maryland, received an M.L.S. degree from Louisiana State University and an M.A. from St. John's College in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He is the author of The Catholic Milieu (Christendom Press, 1987), Foundations of a Catholic Political Order (1998), Christendom and the West (2000) and of numerous articles and reviews on Catholic culture and social teaching.

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