What John Believed: Messiah, Son of David (Refiner’s Fire Pt 9)

NOTE: “Refiner’s Fire” is a mini-series within my overall series on the gospel of Matthew. It deals with the story of John the Baptist as a vehicle for navigating our own struggles with doubt, disappointment, and crisis of faith. I’m working on it daily and will release the whole thing as a book once it’s done.

What you see on the blog is a work-in-progress. It may make the most sense if you start from the beginning, so if you wish to read it that way, I’d recommend visiting the gospel of Matthew index page and looking for the Refiner’s Fire section. Please note the central passage of Scripture at issue is Matthew 11:1-19.


The term “Messiah” (“Mashiach” in Hebrew) means “Anointed One.” It comes from the Hebrew word mashach, which means to smear or anoint with oil. It implies a special consecration by God and appointment to a significant task.

Specifically, anointing with oil was the ancient practice used to signify that someone was being consecrated to God as a king or priest, though some prophets were also anointed. The prophet Samuel anointed David as king long before he actually took the throne; Moses anointed his brother Aaron and his family, the Levites, to serve as Yahweh’s priests; Elijah anointed Elisha to follow in his footsteps as prophet to Israel in one of its darkest hours. Objects that were consecrated as holy to the Lord could also anointed. In the Old Testament, the tabernacle, the ark of the covenant, the altar, the vessels used in the temple for service to God, the offerings given to God, and the daily shewbread were all anointed.

Originally, the Messiah wasn’t necessarily expected to cause the era of deliverance and redemption—rather, many felt that his coming would be a sign that God had done as he promised and the Messianic Age had truly arrived.

Either way, Israel’s hopes soon began to revolve around this human figure and the new age he would signify. As generations of Israelite teachers studied the Scriptures, their hopes for the future crystalized in the person of the Messiah. And slowly, he began to be seen not just as a sign of the new age but as a holy warrior king who would overthrow Israel’s oppressors, resume the rule of David’s family in Jerusalem, and cause the new age to come in. He would be its active agent, the one who brought this earthly salvation about. Of course, he would not personally release the people of Israel from the curse or forgive their sins. Only God could do that. But once God had done that, the Messiah would arise to bring “salvation”—deliverance from Israel’s enemies and the rule of the kingdom of God.

Again, by the time of John the Baptist the Messiah was not seen as a “spiritual deliverer” or “personal Savior” in the way we understand those terms, but as a king who would overthrow the oppressive Roman regime, renew or exemplify devotion to the law, and begin a reign of peace. By doing this, he would be a sign of God’s renewed covenant and active presence among the people of Israel. The return of Yahweh and the rule of David would go together.

The Old Testament does not predict the coming of “a Messiah” in the straightforward and spiritualized way I assumed it must when I was a child. It certainly doesn’t predict the coming of a Messiah who clearly possesses the supernatural attributes we associate with Jesus: those who studied the prophets didn’t come away expecting a virgin birth, miracles, resurrection, or the second person of the Trinity. In other words, they didn’t expect Yahweh incarnate. What they did expect was a king whose kingdom would be a human expression of God’s kingdom. Specifically, they expected a son of David.

The Son of David

Earlier, we saw that Israel’s Golden Age, when God’s original promises to Israel saw their fulfillment, was during the reigns of David and his son Solomon. For the nation, this was an era of almost unbelievable victory, peace, prosperity, and international prominence. It was also the era when God came to dwell in the temple in Jerusalem, centering the worship of God in the Holy City and making his presence permanent there. Spiritually and materially, there had never been a time like it.

For this reason alone, it’s not surprising that David came to symbolize all of Israel’s hopes for the future. The Golden Age was their touchstone, the one point in the past when everything was right with their world.

But there is another reason that Messianic hopes came to hang on David’s line, and it was much more scripturally rooted than any romanticized visions of the past. That reason was the Davidic covenant itself—the promises God had made directly to David, the progenitor of the royal line.

The Davidic covenant is found in the books of 2 Samuel 7 and 1 Chronicles 17. David had just expressed his desire to build a permanent temple for the Lord in Jerusalem that would replace the traveling tabernacle that had served as the locus of God’s presence in Israel since the time of Moses. In return, God spoke to the prophet Nathan to tell David:

The Lord declares to you: The Lord Himself will make a house for you. When your time comes and you rest with your fathers, I will raise up after you your descendant, who will come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He will build a house for My name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him, and he will be a son to Me. When he does wrong, I will discipline him with a human rod and with blows from others. But My faithful love will never leave him as I removed it from Saul; I removed him from your way. Your house and kingdom will endure before Me forever, and your throne will be established forever. (2 Samuel 7:11b–16)

The parallel language in 1 Chronicles clearly links the kingdom of God and the kingdom of David. Speaking of David’s descendant, it renders the last verse:

I will appoint him over My house and My kingdom forever, and his throne will be established forever. (1 Chronicles 17:14)

In later passages, these promises are clearly applied first to Solomon and then to the rest of David’s kingly line. In the exile to Babylon, David’s family lost the throne. Yet, the promises of God still stood, and the prophets understood that a future Davidic king would come who would be the total fulfillment of this covenant. In fact, they prophesied exactly that. And just as 1 Chronicles 17 indicates, the coming of the Son of David was seen to dovetail with the return of the Lord and the beginning of his reign—the rule of the kingdom of God.

Isaiah, of course, had plenty to say about this future king who would sit on David’s throne.

For a child will be born for us,
a son will be given to us,
and the government will be on His shoulders.
He will be named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.
The dominion will be vast,
and its prosperity will never end.
He will reign on the throne of David
and over his kingdom,
to establish and sustain it
with justice and righteousness from now on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord of Hosts will accomplish this.

(Isaiah 9:6–7)

Another prophecy from Isaiah emphasizes the Messianic Age and the Davidic king’s just and peaceful influence over the nations. It also stressed that, like David, this king would delight in the law of God, and in his days knowledge of God would spread throughout the land:

Then a shoot will grow from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch from his roots will bear fruit.

The Spirit of the Lord will rest on Him—
a Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
a Spirit of counsel and strength,
a Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord.
His delight will be in the fear of the Lord.
He will not judge
by what He sees with His eyes,
He will not execute justice
by what He hears with His ears,
but He will judge the poor righteously
and execute justice for the oppressed of the land.
He will strike the land
with discipline from His mouth,
and He will kill the wicked
with a command from His lips.
Righteousness will be a belt around His loins;
faithfulness will be a belt around His waist.
The wolf will live with the lamb,
and the leopard will lie down with the goat.
The calf, the young lion, and the fatling will be together,
and a child will lead them.
The cow and the bear will graze,
their young ones will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
An infant will play beside the cobra’s pit,
and a toddler will put his hand into a snake’s den.
None will harm or destroy another
on My entire holy mountain,
for the land will be as full
of the knowledge of the Lord
as the sea is filled with water.

On that day the root of Jesse
will stand as a banner for the peoples.
The nations will seek Him,
and His resting place will be glorious.

(Isaiah 11:1–10)

Nor was Isaiah the only one to speak about the coming Son of David whose reign would be intertwined with the kingdom of God. Ezekiel did too, emphasizing that the Son of David would arise when God forgave and cleansed his people from the sins that had placed them under a curse and renewed his covenant with them to be their God and claim them as his people.

This is what the Lord God says: I am going to take the Israelites out of the nations where they have gone. I will gather them from all around and bring them into their own land. I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel, and one king will rule over all of them … They will not defile themselves anymore with their idols, their detestable things, and all their transgressions. I will save them from all their apostasies by which they sinned, and I will cleanse them. Then they will be My people, and I will be their God. My servant David will be king over them, and there will be one shepherd for all of them. They will follow My ordinances, and keep My statutes and obey them. They will live in the land that I gave to My servant Jacob, where your fathers lived. They will live in it forever with their children and grandchildren, and My servant David will be their prince forever. I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant with them. I will establish and multiply them and will set My sanctuary among them forever. My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be My people. When My sanctuary is among them forever, the nations will know that I, Yahweh, sanctify Israel. (Ezekiel 37:21–22a, 23-28)

Several other prophets also wrote about the Son of David, including Zechariah, who drew a vivid picture of the future king’s arrival in Jerusalem: “Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout in triumph, Daughter Jerusalem! Look, your King is coming to you; He is righteous and victorious, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey … His dominion will extend from sea to sea, from the Euphrates River to the ends of the earth” (Zechariah 9:9, 10b).

But perhaps the most powerful of the Messianic Son of David prophecies were found in the psalms, in two small songs probably written by David himself.

The first of these, Psalm 2, emphasizes several important ideas. First, it actually uses the term “Messiah” in speaking of God’s “anointed.” Second, it hearkened back to the covenantal promise found in 2 Samuel 7 that “I will be a father to him, and he will be a son to Me.” Third—and importantly to the oppressed Jewish people in John the Baptist’s day, who were weary from centuries of oppression by foreign powers—it stressed the idea of military victory and rule over the nations, including the enemies of Israel and of God.

Here is the psalm in its entirety:

Why do the nations rebel
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth take their stand,
and the rulers conspire together
against the Lord and His Anointed One:

“Let us tear off their chains
and free ourselves from their restraints.”

The One enthroned in heaven laughs;
the Lord ridicules them.
Then He speaks to them in His anger
and terrifies them in His wrath:
“I have consecrated My King
on Zion, My holy mountain.”

I will declare the Lord’s decree:
He said to Me, “You are My Son;
today I have become Your Father.
Ask of Me,
and I will make the nations Your inheritance
and the ends of the earth Your possession.
You will break them with a rod of iron;
You will shatter them like pottery.”

So now, kings, be wise;
receive instruction, you judges of the earth.
Serve the Lord with reverential awe
and rejoice with trembling.
Pay homage to the Son or He will be angry
and you will perish in your rebellion,
for His anger may ignite at any moment.
All those who take refuge in Him are happy.

(Psalm 2)

Other prophets and writers also stressed this element of God’s warlike victory. Zephaniah, for example, wrote “Do not fear; Zion, do not let your hands grow weak. Yahweh your God is among you, a warrior who saves” (Zephaniah 3:16b-17). Micah is more violent, connecting Yawheh’s victory to the victory of Israel over their enemies: “Rise and thresh, Daughter Zion, for I will make your horns iron and your hooves bronze, so you can crush many peoples. Then you will set apart their plunder to the Lord for destruction, their wealth to the Lord of all the earth” (Micah 4:13).

Isaiah too pictures God arising violently to take vengeance on the nations who unjustly oppress his people.

Justice is turned back,
and righteousness stands far off.
For truth has stumbled in the public square,
and honesty cannot enter.

Truth is missing,
and whoever turns from evil is plundered.

The Lord saw that there was no justice,
and He was offended.
He saw that there was no man—
He was amazed that there was no one interceding;
so His own arm brought salvation,
and His own righteousness supported Him.
He put on righteousness like a breastplate,
and a helmet of salvation on His head;
He put on garments of vengeance for clothing,
and He wrapped Himself in zeal as in a cloak.
So He will repay according to their deeds:
fury to His enemies,
retribution to His foes,
and He will repay the coastlands.
They will fear the name of Yahweh in the west
and His glory in the east;
for He will come like a rushing stream
driven by the wind of the Lord.
“The Redeemer will come to Zion,
and to those in Jacob who turn from transgression.”
This is the Lord’s declaration.

(Isaiah 59:14–20)

The second of the major messianic psalms, Psalm 110, links this expectation of victory and vanquishing of enemies even more strongly with the coming king than Psalm 2 does. It also introduces the idea of this king as a priest—not from the family of Levi (as all Israelite priests were) but belonging to another, older “lineage.”

As the builders of the temple and lovers of the law, David and Solomon had both behaved in priest-like ways at times, introducing the idea in Israel’s history that priesthood and kingship might go hand in hand. In the future, according to Psalm 110, this possibility would be fully actualized. Notice the interplay of “Lord” (Hebrew Yahweh, the God of Israel) and “Lord” (Hebrew Adonai,meaning a ruler—divine or earthly) in this psalm:

This is the declaration of the Lord
to my Lord:
“Sit at My right hand
until I make Your enemies Your footstool.”
The Lord will extend Your mighty scepter from Zion.
Rule over Your surrounding enemies.
Your people will volunteer
on Your day of battle.
In holy splendor, from the womb of the dawn,
the dew of Your youth belongs to You.
The Lord has sworn an oath and will not take it back:
“Forever, You are a priest
like Melchizedek.”

The Lord is at Your right hand;
He will crush kings on the day of His anger.
He will judge the nations, heaping up corpses;
He will crush leaders over the entire world.
He will drink from the brook by the road;
therefore, He will lift up His head.

(Psalm 110)

All of these prophecies and psalms make a strong case for a human king from David’s family who would be linked to the redemption of Israel from the power of sin and the curse, the vanquishing of Israel’s enemies, and the coming—on earth—of the kingdom of God.

Viewing them together, we can see where Jesus’s contemporaries got their expectations of the Messiah as a warrior king who would defeat Rome and set up an earthly throne in Jerusalem. And Psalm 110 begins to hint at a more supernatural element to this king’s story as well. But we have further to go in understanding the expectations of John the Baptist and others in his world—there is one more Old Testament vision we need to see, and it’s stranger and more fascinating than anything we’ve seen yet.

I’m speaking, of course, of Daniel.


This is Part 167 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.


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