The New Testament is seen as the Christian part of the Bible, while the Old Testament is shared by Judaism and Christianity. This could suggest that the prophecy of the Messiah in the Old Testament is only partially relevant to Christians: After all, Jesus’ life, teachings, and death are Christianity’s origin. However, a comparison of the Old Testament scriptures and New Testament events show that Jesus was achieving and living out Judaism’s original goals and values.
Prophecy Concerning Mary and Joseph
“The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son…” (Isaiah 7:14). This is arguably the most specific reference to the Virgin Mary, and clearest of the prophecy of the Messiah in the Old Testament.
Many Old Testament prophecies point to Jesus’ (earthly) father, Joseph, too. Joseph was related to King David, whose kingdom was prophesied to continue forever (2 Samuel: 16) and to eventually subdue the entire world (Psalm 110:6).
(In order to better understand what ancient Hebrews thought of the Messiah, one should know their language. How to do this? Read this article to learn more.)
David was originally from Bethlehem, Joseph’s hometown, where he journeyed with the pregnant Mary to fulfill census requirements. This is how Jesus ended up being born in the city of David.
One might notice that Jesus was not literally related to Joseph, but it appears that the Lord intervened to keep His promise. This intervention reinforces the relationship between God and King David’s lineage, a connection affirmed in many Old Testament passages.
God the Father, the Messiah the Son
Psalm 2:7, possibly directed at King David, says, “You are my Son; today I have become your father.” This could be directed at David personally or all members of his kingdom Israel. It is comparable to the words of God after Jesus’ baptism in Matthew 3:17: “This is my Son, whom I love; with Him, I am well pleased.”
Moreover, in 2 Samuel 7:12-16, God describes how one of David’s descendants will have an everlasting kingdom and adds, “I will be his father, and he will be my son” (v. 14).
Psalm 7:14 prophesies that the virgin will name her son Immanuel, which means “God with us” in Hebrew. In fact, when Jesus was to be conceived, the angel Gabriel told Mary to name him Joshua (Hebrew translation from Greek Jesus), which means “God saves.”
Some might argue that there are problems here: Not only do the Messianic names change between the Old and New Testaments, but the idea that God has a Son who is Lord undercuts the idea that God is a single entity.
However, the name change could be seen as God giving a fuller picture of Jesus’ identity—an identity as God amongst men, saving them. The suggestion that God Himself will be among men implies that He and “His son” are actually one and the same—a phenomenon also heavily supported throughout the New Testament.
In fact, if anything else were the case, Christianity would be challenging the fundamental assertion of the Hebrew faith, that God is one. Calling Jesus the Son of God helps humans understand the relationship rather than perfectly describing it.
The Rejected Servant King
Isaiah gives several prophecies concerning Jesus’ suffering, the Passion. Isaiah 49:7 addresses “the Redeemer and Holy One of Israel” as “him who was despised and abhorred by the nation.” The fact that it says nation, not nations, in the same sentence as Israel, suggests that this is not a reference to someone disrespected by pagans/gentiles, but rather someone rejected by their own.
Isaiah 52:14 reinforces this with God saying, “…his [my servant’s] appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man and his form marred beyond human likeness…” It is reasonable to suppose this is forecasting Christ’s severe humiliation, beating, scourging, and finally crucifixion.
Isaiah 49:7 also refers to Jesus as “the servant of rulers,” which is ironic considering that he is in other places described as the ultimate conqueror; rulers usually make slaves/servants of those conquered.
Since Jesus addresses this seeming contradiction in his life, this is among the most potent of the prophecy of the Messiah in the Old Testament: Jesus came as a king who would serve and sacrifice for others—the exact opposite of the common concept of a ruler. Indeed, Isaiah 52:15 anticipates the introduction of a new concept: “For what they were not told, they will see, and what they have not heard they will understand.”
Isaiah 53 reinforces this point by introducing the term Man of Sorrows for Jesus (v. 3); repetition emphasizes the magnitude of the Messiah’s suffering: “…he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed” (v. 4-5). Moreover, we get the reason why the Messiah must suffer—the human need to be saved from sin.
A Kingdom of the Whole World
In Isaiah 49:6, God says: “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.”
In context, one could argue that this is very possibly addressed to Isaiah himself—or possibly the nation of Israel of which he is part—rather than the Messiah. However, even if one doubts this is a Messianic prophecy, it demonstrates that God had a plan for Israel’s message to reach the whole world—without the limits that most earthly kingdoms have.
It was not God’s original intent for Israel to have kings; instead, judges were their authority figures in matters of the state. However, the people wanted a king, and God relented (1 Samuel: 8); their insistence on a king seemed to reflect a loss of faith in God and a desire to compete with other nations.
God directed the prophet Samuel to Saul, from the tribe of Benjamin, whom he anointed and crowned king (1 Samuel: 9, 10). However, when Saul failed to obey God (1 Samuel: 15), God pointed Samuel to David, the youngest son of Jesse of Bethlehem, from the tribe of Judah (1 Samuel: 16).
Kings, judges, and priests repeatedly let Israel down: They needed something entirely new in order to take over the whole world in the way that God intended. Psalm 110, possibly written by David, says, “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind: ‘You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek’” (v. 4)
Melchizedek is a rather mysterious person who appears in Genesis 14, blessing Abram (before God renamed him, Abraham). Melchizedek was “king of Salem [before it became Jerusalem]” while simultaneously being a “priest of God Most High” (v. 18). Melchizedek was a priest-king combination, and his connection with God surpassed that of both the priests from the tribe of Levi and the kings from the tribe of Judah.
An Eternal Kingdom
Part of the reason Jesus was rejected by the Hebrew people was possibly the apparently mixed messages of the prophecy of the Messiah in the Old Testament. The Messiah was repeatedly described as ultimately powerful in very earthly terms. For example, “…A star will come out of Jacob, a scepter will rise out of Israel. He will crush the foreheads of Moab, the skulls of all the sons of Sheth. Edom will be conquered; Seir, his enemy, will be conquered, but Israel will grow strong” (Numbers 24:17).
This could all be metaphor, but some ancient receivers of this prophecy may have become so excited by such a sweeping earthly triumph that they failed to consider that the Messiah would have to be a different sort of entity from a powerful earthly king.
However, in some verses, Isaiah is clearer about exactly what sort of kingdom will triumph forever: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (v. 6). Verse 7 continues, “Of the increase of his government and peace, there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever…” The prophesied eternal kingdom is one built on justice, wisdom, service, and peace — rather than exploitation, brutality, slavery, and war.
Prophecies of the First and Second Advents of Christ
It can be hard to tell whether the prophecy of the Messiah in the Old Testament is about the first or the second coming (aka advent) of Jesus. Indeed, this sort of thing has been the object of theological, historical, and translational debate. Placing prophecies in time—when a prophecy happened, when it was recorded, when the prophesied events should occur—can be difficult even for scholars.
Some passages seem to refer to the First Advent, the birth and life of Jesus the man. Malachi 3:1 is a good example: “‘See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,’ says the Lord Almighty.” The messenger would seem to be John the Baptist, and the Lord would be Jesus Christ.
In contrast, other passages only make sense if they are referring to the Second Advent, the return of Christ the Savior to judge and restore the world. Psalm 110:1 is a good example: “The Lord says to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.’’ Generally, this Psalm is attributed to David, which makes it seem that David had a connection with a Lord who was in connection with the Lord God. This would seem to be Jesus Christ. Alternatively, if one assumes that David did not write this, “my Lord” could be King David himself. However, it still better coincides with the Second Advent since it describes an ultimate triumph of God that King David’s earthly kingdom could not possibly achieve by its own power.
The Prophecy of the Messiah in the Old Testament Is the Old Testament
In a sense, everything in the Old Testament leads up to the Messiah. Much of the prophecy of the Messiah in the Old Testament is thematic, symbolic, or implied.
For example, in Matthew 9:15, Jesus implies that his disciples are like wedding guests and he is like the bridegroom. The wedding metaphor is reminiscent of Song of Songs, the Old Testament book in which King Solomon, the son of King David, expresses his love for his bride.
Jesus came from ostensibly humble beginnings, and so he was an unlikely hero—as are many of the strongest people of the Old Testament. Moses was spared as an infant because Pharaoh’s daughter pitied him, but as an adult, he led the Jews out of bondage in Egypt (Exodus). David was a humble shepherd, the youngest son of Jesse—but he defeated the Philistine Goliath with only a slingshot (1 Samuel: 16-17).
The trope of an innocent who suffers greatly but ultimately triumphs occurs repeatedly in the Old Testament. Job and Daniel are famous examples: Job is a righteous and prosperous person whom the devil strips of everything but life itself, but ultimately God restores all that was lost and blesses Job.
Daniel and his compatriots face terrifying threats—potentially very painful deaths by fire and lion attack—but the Lord allows them to come out unscathed, at which point the Babylonian king is forced to respect them and the Lord.
Similarly, Joseph is so much resented by his brothers that they betray him—they sell him into slavery in Egypt, but he ultimately gains such respect from the Pharaoh that he is nearly a co-ruler (Genesis: 37-50).
The Messiah who would ultimately restore Jerusalem was long-awaited: Some people doubted it would happen, but others lived their whole lives believing they would see it (Luke 2).
Faithful waiting is a prevalent theme in the Old Testament: God promised Abraham and his wife Sarah descendants who would go on forever, but they were long past childbearing years when they finally had Isaac. Similarly, the Minor Prophets called the Jewish people to believe that restoration of the temple was possible, even though the Jews had been in captivity for over a century and there were daunting obstacles to re-building in their homeland.
Resulting Theological Questions
So many theological questions arise as one reads the prophecy of the Messiah in the Old Testament. Isaiah has some passages that only make sense if they are thought of as being about the Messiah; even then, at times it is hard to tell when Isaiah is suggesting these events will occur. Also, how literally should the prophecy of the Messiah in the Old Testament be taken: Where and when exactly will these events occur? Should the words of the prophecy be taken literally or figuratively? Lastly, God’s judgement applies to all people, but who really is saved and who will be condemned? Yes, it is all who trust in God, but what does putting one’s faith in the Savior mean exactly, and who is truly doing that?