Who Is the “Messiah”?

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The word “Messiah” is literally the “Anointed One.” Christians recognize Jesus Christ as the Messiah promised by God in the Old Testament. But how are we to understand what the Messiah is as a biblical, theological concept?

A Biblical Description of the Messiah

The Messiah is described in the Bible beginning with the word “Messiah” or “Anointed One,” and then in a variety of other ways. All of the following provide a portrait of the future messianic figure.

A Consecrated Person

The Hebrew root of the word “Messiah” is the verb mashach, meaning “to rub or smear.” For example, it is used of rubbing oil on a shield (Isa 21:5) or smearing paint on a wall (Jer 22:14). The verb is also used of smearing oil or anointing objects used in worship such as an altar (Gn 31:13), the tent of meeting (Ex 30:26), and the tabernacle and all that is in it (Ex 40:9-11). These texts indicate that the purpose of this anointing was to consecrate or set apart these items for use in worshiping God. The adjectival noun form of the word is used 39 times in the OT and exclusively with living beings. The noun and verb are both used of people, such as the anointed priest (Lv 4:3), anointing a king (2Sm 2:4; 5:3), or anointing a prophet (1Kg 19:16). It indicates that all these were consecrated to serve God. Even a pagan king (Cyrus) is called “anointed” because, in His providence, God consecrated (set apart) Cyrus to serve in bringing the people of Israel and Judah back from captivity (Isa 45:1).

With regard to the technical use of the term “Messiah” or “Anointed One” to refer to an eschatological Deliverer, it is commonly understood to be somewhat rare in the OT. Most will acknowledge that Dan 9:25-26 (“until Messiah the Prince;” “The Messiah will be cut off”) and Ps 2:2 (“the Lord and His Anointed One”) use the term “Mashiach” to refer to this end-of-days Redeemer. W. C. Kaiser, Jr. indicates six additional OT uses of the technical sense of Messiah (1Sm 2:10,35; Ps 20:6; 28:8; 84:9; Hab 3:13).3 Some additional technical usages are 2Sm 22:51; 23:1; and Ps 89:51. Thus, in the narrow sense, the word “Messiah” is referring to an individual, uniquely consecrated to the service of God. However, since other passages of the OT reveal more about this figure, the definition of the term must go beyond this narrow definition.

A King from the Line of David

 In addition to being consecrated to God’s service, the Messiah is viewed as a royal figure. This first becomes apparent in Gn 49:10, where the scepter and the ruler’s staff are promised to the royal descendant of Judah, “He whose right it is.”4 This is developed further in the Davidic covenant, where David is promised a seed or offspring, a royal heir of his house, who would have an eternal house, kingdom, and throne (2Sm 7:12-16). Isaiah also promised a divine child who would rule over a vast dominion and “reign on the throne of David and over his kingdom” (Isa 9:6-7 [5-6]). According to Isaiah, this King will be established “in the tent of David” (Isa 16:5). Amos anticipated the fall of the Davidic house and foresaw this King coming when God restores “the fallen booth of David” (Am 9:11-12). These passages, and in particular the Davidic covenant, reveal that the future Redeemer will be a royal figure, a King from the line of David.

The Servant of the Lord

Although the Scriptures present the future Redeemer as a King, the prophet Isaiah also depicts Him as the Servant of the Lord. This is His title in the Servant Songs of Isaiah (Isa 42:1-13; 49:1-7; 50:4-11; 52:13–53:12). As God’s unique Servant, “He will bring justice to the nations” (42:1) and restore Israel to the Lord (49:5-6). The Servant will also serve God by obeying Him despite a violent attack and shaming (50:6-7). The Servant’s ultimate work would be to provide a substitutionary sacrifice to pay for the sins of Israel (53:4-6).

Isaiah also links his description of the Servant with the fulfillment of the Davidic covenant. God will make “an everlasting covenant” with the Servant, in accordance with “the promises assured to David” (Isa 55:3). This association with the Davidic covenant fits with the promise that the Servant will be a covenant (mediator) for Israel (42:6; 49:8). Additionally, J. A. Motyer has identified various links between the royal figure of a Redeemer in Isaiah’s book of Immanuel (Isa 7-12) and the Servant of the Lord in the Servant Songs. For example, both the Servant and the King are endowed with the Spirit (42:1; 11:2), both bring about justice for the nations (42:3; 11:4) and both establish righteousness (9:7; 11:5; 53:11). It is insufficient to see the Redeemer as a mere Servant; He will be a Royal Servant of the Lord.5

An Eschatological Deliverer

When Jacob gave his oracle of the tribes of Israel, he declared what would take place “in the days to come” (Gn 49:1), using a phrase that literally translates “in the end of days” (be’acharit hayamim). Then, he promised a scepter that will arise from Judah, who would be the rightful King (“whose right it is”) and whom the peoples (not just Israel) would obey (49:10). The point is that this early prediction of the Messiah identifies Him as an eschatological figure.

Similarly, in the prediction of a ruler in Balaam’s fourth oracle (Nm 24:17-19), the seer declares that he is describing events that will take place “in the future” (Nm 24:14). Just as in Gn 49:1, the Hebrew literally says “in the end of days.” Balaam goes on to describe the King as both a “star” and a “ruler” who will arise “but not now . . . but not near,” indicating that this King would come in the distant future.

Nearly a thousand years later, Jeremiah prophesied that the Lord would raise up a King, “a Righteous Branch of David” (Jer 23:5-6). To introduce this ruler, the prophet declared, “The days are coming,” using this phrase commonly used to announce eschatological events (cf. Jer 16:14; 30:3; 31:31). In a further prediction of the coming of this Righteous Branch, the prophet declared He will arise “in those days and at that time” (Jer 33:15), also indicating an end-of-days coming of the King. In both Jer 23:5-6 and 33:15, the prophet predicted that in the day when this King came, “Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will dwell in safety.” Not only would the King Messiah come at the end of days, but He also will be the great Deliverer of His people, “The Redeemer [who] will come to Zion” (Isa 59:20).

A Redeemer from Sin

Although the OT emphasizes the Messiah as a royal deliverer, there is evidence that He was also to be a Redeemer from sin. The most significant passage that shows the Messiah in this way is the fourth Servant Song, Isa 52:13–53:12. One of the main concepts found there is that the Servant was to be a substitutionary sacrifice for sin. The prophet puts the description of the Servant in the mouth of Israel, at a time when the nation will have finally come to believe in Him. They confess that they have gone astray but the “the Lord has punished Him for the iniquity of us all” (Isa 53:5-6). They declare that He was killed, “cut off from the land of the living . . . struck because of [the] people’s rebellion” (53:8). As such, the Servant became a “restitution offering” (‘asham), the same word used for the restitution offering in Lv 5:14–6:7. Not only would He die, but the song hints at His resurrection, saying God “will prolong His days” (53:10). The outcome of the Servant’s death and resurrection will be that He “will justify many, and He will carry their iniquities” (53:11). This summary of the fourth Servant Song details one of the most crucial features of the Messiah—He would provide redemption from sin.

A Perfect Ruler

One final aspect of the Messiah in Scripture is that He is always depicted as a perfect ruler who will establish a kingdom of peace, justice, and righteousness. An example of this expectation is in Isa 9:7, where the promised King is described as ruling from the throne of David over a vast kingdom of peace (shalom), having established it “with justice and righteousness from now on and forever.” Just two chapters later, the same King is described as one who will “judge the poor righteously and execute justice for the oppressed of the land” (Isa 11:4). There will be such peace that “the wolf will live with the lamb” (11:6), and His influence will be so great that “the land will be as full of the knowledge of the Lord as the sea is filled with water” (11:9).

This expectation of the King is not limited to Isaiah—Jeremiah also anticipates that the Lord will “raise up a Righteous Branch of David. He will reign wisely as king and administer justice and righteousness in the land” (Jer 23:5; cf. 33:15). Similarly, the calendar of redemption as described in Dan 9:24-27 will culminate with the Messiah “bring[ing] in everlasting righteousness.” The psalmist also depicts the future Messianic King as establishing this perfect kingdom, promising that “He will judge6 Your people with righteousness and Your afflicted ones with justice” (Ps 72:2). At that time, the people will experience peace7 and righteousness (72:3), and the King will “vindicate the afflicted among the people, help the poor, and crush the oppressor” (72:4). This is no ordinary king from the line of David within the boundaries of the Davidic kingdom. He will “rule from sea to sea and from the Euphrates to the ends of the earth” (72:8).

A Theological Definition of the Messiah

Based on the above description, it is possible to give a theological definition of the term. The Messiah is the eschatological, royal, Servant of the Lord, springing from the Davidic dynasty, who is consecrated by God to provide redemption from sin, bring deliverance for Israel, rule the world, and establish a kingdom of peace, justice, and righteousness. Therefore, when speaking of OT messianic prophecy, it is this King that the Hebrew Bible foretells, through both prophetic prediction and pattern.

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