Definition of messiah: “the expected king or deliverer of the Jews.”
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary
Dear Hope and Daniel,
I am writing today to share with you some information that I hope will be of use to you as you begin your personal faith journeys for yourselves. Even though you are still in elementary school, I believe you can understand these ideas I want to share with you. And why would I share this with you? I believe that a full and complete understanding of the Bible is the cornerstone of being able to defend your faith against those that would seek to undermine it. So let’s talk about the messiah.
No doubt, you hear the word, “messiah,” and you think of Jesus. That is what you have always been taught. As Christians, we look at the entire Word of God through the lens of Christ’s revelation to us. However, in the Old Testament, several “messiahs” were spoken of, and we need to understand who they were and what function they served in the history of the Jewish people.
First of all, what does it mean to be “anointed” by God? It means to be chosen, or set apart, for God’s purposes. It means to be a servant that God empowers to fulfill a certain role. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the word “messiah” refers to the expected king or deliverer of the Jews.
Unfortunately, the Jews found themselves in need of “deliverance,” many times in their history. For example, let’s look at the Babylonian exile. God’s people in Jerusalem had been defeated in battle, captured, and deported to Babylon in 586 B.C.E. It was there they found themselves wondering how it was they came to be there, and how would they ever return to Jerusalem and the promised future God had given them through his covenant with king David. They couldn’t see much hope of ever getting their old lives back. At this point, a prophet known as “Second Isaiah,” spoke to the people of the Persian King Cyrus, God’s “messiah” that would create a way for them to return home (Stanley, pg. 462.). So even though, he was a foreign king, he was considered a deliverer of the Jews because he released them from their captivity. In her article, “Cyrus the Messiah,” Lisbeth S. Fried also points out something of great importance to the Jewish people. Cyrus not only released the captives, but he also sent them back home with the express direction to re-build their temple. He also provided funds, materials, and protection for those being sent to accomplish this. No wonder he was seen as somewhat of a savior for the people. He was restoring their national identity as “God’s people,” along with their homeland. So, not only were they getting to go home, they were going to reclaim the promises God had made to their ancestors.
Another leader from Jewish history is also referred to as “anointed one.” His name was Zerubbabel. He was the governor of Jerusalem when the exiles returned from Babylon. You are probably wondering why the people needed a messiah if they had finally managed to make it home. Well, things didn’t go as they had expected once they got home. It was hard. They were experiencing droughts and famines. Their city was in ruins. There were hostile people living there that really didn’t want them to return. The prophet Haggai, in chapter 2 points to Zerubbabel at God’s “anointed one;” the person that would lead the people out of this terrible situation and into the life God had promised them (Lecture.). Even though he wasn’t officially a king, he did succeed in doing what God wanted for the people, he re-built the temple that the Babylonians had destroyed in 586, and in doing so, he led his people back into a covenant relationship with God.
“Take the silver and gold and make a crown, and set it on the head of the high priest, Joshua son of Jehozadak” (Zechariah 6:11). Zechariah was also a prophet in Jerusalem as the exiles were trying to rebuild their city. This man Joshua was the high priest of the new temple. And God spoke to Zechariah and to symbolically place a crown on Joshua’s head signifying that he was considered a “king.” Why would Jerusalem need a “king,” when they already had a governor (Zerubbabel)? Well, in that time, people normally listened to what a king had to say. And mostly they followed the king’s orders. So by, showing the people that Joshua was a king in God’s eyes, the hope was that the people would listen to him and follow his teachings (Lectures.)
See, the whole reason, according to some earlier prophets like Isaiah of Jerusalem, that the Jewish folks had be captive and sent to Babylon in the first place was because they turned away from God and started worshiping others. And these folks coming back to Jerusalem had most likely grown up hearing about God, but also living in Babylon, a place with multiple gods and religions. The people coming back to Jerusalem needed someone to lead them into lives that were faithful to Yahweh. They needed someone to teach them how to worship Him and live by His rules so that they would never fall away from Him again. That was the job given to Joshua because God had picked him and empowered him to be the spiritual leader of the community. It is easy to see how he could be seen as a messiah isn’t it, as he is responsible for saving his people from their own unfaithful actions and future retribution from Yahweh as their ancestors had experienced?
So you see, the people of the Old Testament had many people that held the title, “messiah.” And each one because he was believed to be chosen by God to save or deliver his people. Why do you need to know this? Because as we read the Bible, we always need to understand the setting and context for what we are reading. By having an understanding of the times in which these words were written, we are empowered to do two things: 1. To see more clearly the history of our ancestors in the faith, and thereby, learning from their experiences; 2. By understanding our history and context, we are better equipped to not only defend our faith and beliefs, but also to share our ideas with those that have questions.
Children, you may wonder where I found this information regarding the messiahs of the Old Testament. I had several resources: 1. My textbook: The Hebrew Bible, by Christopher Stanley; 2. Lectures from my professor, Brooke Lester; and the article, “Cyrus the Messiah,” by Lisbeth Fried. As always, don’t take my word for it. Read it for yourselves.