Messiah (mâšîah, "the anointed one"): Jewish religious concept, a future savior who will, in some sense, come to restore Israel. Both the nature of the Messiah and the restoration were matters of debate.
Roots of the concept: Micah and Isaiah
The three prophets discussed in this part of this article and the next, Micah, Isaiah and Ezekiel, are not messianic prophets in the strict sense of the word.
- The first one predicts "a ruler" from the house of David who will restore Israel and inaugurate an age of peace. He does not use the word "Messiah" or the verb "to anoint".
- His contemporary Isaiah describes the birth of a special child -perhaps a prince from the house of David- who will restore Israel and Judah after a troubled period; during his reign, nature itself will be at peace.
- Finally, Ezekiel speaks about a Davidic prince who will restore Israel and the true cult of God. This text may be the one in which messianism was "invented", but it should be noted that the word "Messiah" is not used.
Roots of the concept: Micah
After the death of king Solomon (c.931 BCE), the Jewish state was split up into a very powerful northern kingdom Israel (capital: Samaria) and a southern kingdom Judah (capital: Jerusalem). The independence of Israel came to an end when it was subjected by the Assyrians in 724 BCE; in Judah, the Davidic dynasty continued to rule until Jerusalem was taken by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar in 587.
Witness to the fall of the northern kingdom was the prophet Micah, who regarded the destruction of Samaria as God's punishment of the corrupt gentry. He predicted the fall of Jerusalem too, but he also announced the coming of a new David who would restore Israel's fortunes. (As a matter of fact, the king is not called "from the house of David" in the following quote; the Davidic descent is implied in the new king's birth place Bethlehem.)
But you, Bethlehem in Ephratha, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times. Therefore Israel will be abandoned until the time when she who is in labor gives birth and the rest of his brothers return to join the Israelites. He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they will live securely, for then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth. And he will be their peace. ... When the Assyrian invades our land and marches through our fortresses, we will raise against him seven shepherds, even eight leaders of men. They will rule the land of Assyria with the sword, the land of [the Assyrian capital] Nimrud with drawn sword. He will deliver us from the Assyrian when he invades our land and marches into our borders.note[Micah 5.1-6.]
The prophecy was directed against the Assyrians, but in later times the first part of the text was quoted as proof that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. As it happened, the second prophecy was never fulfilled: the Assyrians renewed their attacks, but never were seven commanders sent out against them. It was unnecessary. In 612 BCE, the Assyrians were subjected by the Babylonians and their capitals were destroyed (more).
Roots of the concept: Isaiah
Micah was not the only one to develop ideas about a Davidic prince who would restore Israel. They can also be found among the prophecies of Isaiah, his contemporary. The following words were addressed to Ahaz, the king of Judah (743-727) as an adhortation to trust in only one God.
Hear now, you house of David! [...] The Lord will give you a sign: a young woman will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel ["God with us"]. He will eat curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right.note[Isaiah 7.13-15.]
It is not known who Isaiah meant with this prophecy. The most likely explanation is that it refers to a son of Ahaz or another prince from the Davidic house. However this may be, in later centuries, the text was understood as messianic and was to play an important role in Christian theology. The text continues with a description of hard times and the return of the ten tribes of Israel under a descendant of David's father Jesse.
A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him - the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of power, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord, and he will delight in the fear of the Lord. He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked. Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash round his waist. ... The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together, and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the hole of the cobra and the young child put his hand into the viper's nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.note[Isaiah 11.1-9.]
After this beautiful poetical image about the future harmony in nature, Isaiah predicts several military victories of this descendant of David, culminating in the return of all exiled Jews and the restoration of Israel. This is remarkably similar to the prophecies of Micah.
Two final remarks should be made. (1) These texts were not messianic; but later generations interpreted them as such. (2) The motif of the "branch" was common in the ancient Near East. It can also be found in Jeremiah 23.5-6.
"The days are coming," declares the Lord, "when I will raise up to David a righteous Branch, a king who will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land."
It is not clear when these lines were written - they may have been added in the days of Zerubbabel -, but it is clear that the "branch" was understood to be a descendant of David.