Every king of Israel and Judah was known as “anointed one”, which in Hebrew is “messiah”, because the prophet or high priest anointed him, usually with olive oil, at the time of his enthronement. The anointing symbolised being set apart and made holy so that the king would represent his people before Yahweh, their God. The line of kings came to an end with the exile of Judah to Babylon. Over time the name “anointed one” gradually took on a new meaning, that of a future agent of God who would save Israel. However, the Old Testament writers had different ideas as to what sort of saviour this messiah would be.
Joseph Fitzmyer quotes the dictionary definition of “Messiah” as “the expected king and deliverer of the Jews.” He goes on to describe how the English word “Messiah” is derived from the Greek μεσσίας which is a form of the Aramaic ﬡמשיח (mӗšîḥā’), and is related to the Hebrew משיחﬣ (ham-māšîăḥ), “the Messiah”. Although, Donald Juel notes that “the absolute “the Messiah” never appears in the Old Testament. The noun is always followed by a modifier (“his messiah,” “my messiah,” “the Lord’s messiah,” etc.).” The idea of a Messiah משיח who would save Israel and herald in a “messianic age” develops over time. There are clues as to who this Messiah would be and the scope of his mission scattered through the Old Testament.
The kings of Israel and Judah
After Israel escaped slavery in Egypt and started to become a nation in Canaan, it did not have a king. Instead the people were governed by a series of men and women called Judges, raised up by God, who delivered them from the surrounding nations. Fitzmyer calls Israel a “theocratic people”; God was their king rather than a man. Eventually the people demanded a king, as recorded in 1 Samuel 8, to rule over them in the same way as the other nations around them. Saul became the first king of Israel and he was anointed by the prophet Samuel. Fitzmyer explains that “the custom of anointing a king was apparently inherited, from a Hittite or Canaanite practice and was used for kings in Israel for many centuries.”
When Saul turned away from God, the Lord rejected him and in his place raised up a new king, David, who was anointed by Samuel. After Saul’s death, the men of Judah anointed David as their king, and eventually he was anointed as king over all Israel by the elders of Israel. Thus started a dynasty of kings from the line of David who were to rule Israel, and later, after the northern tribes rebelled under Jeroboam, Judah until the final king, Zedekiah, was carried off to exile in Babylon.
However, it was not only kings who were anointed. Maurice Casey explains that priests and prophets could be anointed as well. He provides examples: “at 1 Kings 19:16 Elijah is instructed by God to anoint Elisha as a prophet instead of himself; at Leviticus 4:3 the high priest is called “the anointed priest”; and at Isaiah 45:1 the Persian king Cyrus is referred to as “his anointed”, that is God’s anointed.” Fitzmyer adds that eventually, after the deportation to Babylon, “משיח was applied to the High Priest of the time.”
Fitzmyer lists seventeen Old Testament passages where משיח is applied to the reigning king of Israel without “even hinting at a “Messiah” or a “messianic expectation.”” He gives a further fourteen examples from postexilic passages and the Psalms where משיח is used in the same manner. Fitzmyer is making the point that in each of these examples משיח should be translated as “Anointed One” rather than “Messiah” as they refer to historical figures acting as God’s agents who served His people.
There are other passages in the Old Testament that have been described as messianic prophecies. Fitzmyer splits these into two categories; those from before the monarchy which do not strictly describe a “Messiah” and those which talk of a continuation of the Davidic dynasty and begin to reveal the future hope of a Messiah. He argues that it is later Jewish and Christian tradition that has interpreted the former passages as referring to a coming Messiah. Examples include reference to Judah rising above the other tribes from Genesis 49:10 and Numbers 24:17 and God’s promise to Moses to raise up a prophet like him from Deuteronomy 18:15-18.
The line of David
Fitzmyer’s second category of Old Testament passages build on the idea of a dynasty beginning with David. In 2 Samuel 7, the prophet Nathan delivers a message to David from the Lord that He “will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and [the Lord] will establish his kingdom … and [the Lord] will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.” Fitzmyer continues to list other passages which refer to the continuation of the Davidic monarchy, including Isaiah 7:1-9; 8:23-9:6; 11:1-10, and Psalms 21, 45, 72, 101, 110 and144:1-11.
Fitzmyer makes reference to the Servant Songs in Isaiah, especially from Isaiah 52:13-53:12. Here he argues that it is unclear from the text whether the servant represents the people of Israel, or an individual, or both. He also notes that משיח is not in the passage, and so should not be used to refer to a messianic figure. Christopher Wright disagrees, adding that “the figure of a suffering servant was understood messianically” by the first century BC; the servant who would not only suffer, but be rejected and brutally killed.
The idea of a restored monarchy from the line of David, and a reunified kingdom, emerges in Hosea 3:4-5, which was written about the time of the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel to Assyria. Hosea says “the children of Israel shall return and seek the Lord their God, and David their king.” The suggestion of a future David is continued by Jeremiah writing to those in exile in Babylon in Jeremiah 30:8-9 and by Ezekiel, writing at the same time, in Ezekiel 34:23-24. Both passages refer to a David of the future as being the king or prince.
Writing after the exile, Micah 5:2 describes the place of birth of the future king and Malachi 4:5-6 refers to the “great and awesome day of the Lord” before which the prophet Elijah would return. Fitzmyer explains that Elijah’s return was seen as “a precursor of the Messiah, because the coming of the Messiah depends on whether Israel repents and reforms; so Elijah was thought to come first to bring about repentance and reformation.” It is evident that there was the expectation that the line of David as kings of Israel, or “anointed ones”, would be restored, but this does not yet necessarily refer to a Messiah figure.
The coming Messiah
N.T. Wright states that after the exile most Jews were hoping for a turn in Israel’s fortunes; that God would restore her fortunes. He writes “the symbols of covenantal life will be restored, because the covenant will be renewed: the Temple will be rebuilt, the Land cleansed, the Torah kept perfectly by a new covenant people with renewed hearts.” Hope was placed in this “age to come”, sometimes described as “the messianic age.” N.T. Wright describes “the ‘salvation’ spoken of in the Jewish sources of this period has to do with rescue from the national enemies, restoration of the national symbols, and a state of shalom in which every man will sit under his vine or fig tree.”
N.T. Wright and Fitzmyer both identify the book of Daniel as where the idea of a Messiah figure, who will restore the fortunes of Israel, begins to take shape.  In chapter 7, Daniel sees a vision of four beasts which refers to four kingdoms (Babylon, Media, Persia and Greece) that would be replaced by the kingdom of God. In verses 9-14 there is the description of what Fitzmyer calls a “heavenly court of judgement” where God is called “the Ancient of Days” and there is identified “one like a son of man.” Fitzmyer describes the four interpretations of who this character is. One interpretation is that the “son of man” is a human individual identified as the Messiah, although C. J. H. Wright says “most scholars are agreed that the “Son of Man” was not a messianic title or figure in the inter-testamental Jewish writings.”
Later on in Daniel 9:24-27 there is a prophecy about seventy weeks, which refers to a period of 490 years, after which Judah would be restored. Verse 25 mentions “the coming of an anointed one” which Fitzmyer notes is “the first occurrence in the Old Testament itself of משיח used for an awaited Anointed One.” C. J. H. Wright adds that this “‘anointed one’ will come and will bring a climax to God’s purpose.” N.T. Wright says that this passage “was a favourite of revolutionary minded Jews in the first century, since they reinterpreted it so that it spoke of a kingdom to be set up against the present Roman oppression.”
A priest like Melchizedek
Margaret Barker has a different interpretation of the prophecy in Daniel 9, although she draws a similar conclusion. Melchizedek was king of Salem and priest of God Most High. He blessed Abram in Genesis 14:18-20 and is referenced in Psalm 110: “You are a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek.” As previously mentioned this is one of the Psalms prophesying to the Davidic dynasty. Barker argues that there were those in the second temple period who “complained that they were still in exile, and that for them there had been no glorious return in the time of Joshua and Zerubbabel, Ezra and Nehemiah.” They were “cherishing the memory of an older faith, that of the anointed kings in Jerusalem and their lost temple.”
Cross-referencing non-biblical Jewish texts found at Qumran to Daniel 9:24-27, Barker states that the 490 years is equal to ten Jubilee periods. She continues “This is linked to Isaiah 61:1, another Jubilee text: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me… to proclaim liberty to the captives.” Barker argues that a “divine high priest Melchizedek was expected to appear and proclaim the great Jubilee, to forgive sins, to rescue his own from the power of the evil spirits, to make the great atonement sacrifice and sit in judgment on the evil angels.” In other words, the expected Messiah was an anointed High Priest.
From a Christian perspective, it is possible to retrospectively look back over the Old Testament and interpret a wider selection of passages that would be fulfilled by identifying Jesus Christ as the Messiah. However, when trying to understand the mindset of pre-Christian Jewish expectation, there is a progression of thought evidenced in Old Testament writings of first a continuation of the Davidic dynasty, of anointed kings, who would rule over Israel. This then develops at a time of national crisis, during the exile to Babylon, into an expected Messiah figure who would lead Israel into period of restoration, with the Temple rebuilt, the land cleansed and a messianic age of shalom, worshiping the true God.
M. Barker, Temple Theology: An Introduction, London: SPCK, 2004.
M. Casey, From Jewish Prophet to Gentile God: The Origins and Development of New Testament Christology, Cambridge: James Clarke & Co, 1991.
J. A. Fitzmyer, The One Who is to Come, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007.
D. Juel, Messianic Exegesis: Christological Interpretation of the Old Testament in Early Christianity, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988.
C. C. Ryrie, The Ryrie Study Bible, Chicago: Moody Press, 1985.
F. C. Thompson, The Thompson Chain-Reference Bible, London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1988.
C. J. H. Wright, Knowing Jesus through the Old Testament, Oxford: Monarch Books, 2005.
N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God: Volume 1, London: SPCK, 1992.