Review of God’s Messiah in the Old Testament

God's Messiah in the Old Testament book cover

As a student of both the Old Testament and Christology, I was pleased to receive a copy of God’s Messiah in the Old Testament from Baker Books. Goswell and Abernathy are experienced hands in the Old Testament, so their expertise promised to be illuminating. However, from the beginning, it became apparent that for all its potential, God’s Messiah suffers from a serious methodological flaw.

Summary

God’s Messiah is written for pastors, theological students, and potentially scholars. Goswell and Abernethy set out to trace the theme of God’s messiah across the Old Testament. They move book to book, roughly following the Hebrew canon; they only include books they think refer to the messiah, and they accept the Greek position of Ruth (after Judges). The author’s treatment of narrative texts, showing how these texts may be and often are messianic, will be valuable for many readers. However, The reader will be shocked by the negative tone of the body of the book; time and time again, the authors dismiss the messianic implications of a traditional text. They are not arguing that these and other texts do not refer to Jesus; instead, they are focusing on a very narrow band of Christological expectation. They define messianic expectation as the anticipation of a human king from the line of David. They argue that many texts traditionally thought to anticipate a messiah anticipate the divine king. This is where their argument promises to deliver the most. If they are right to distinguish the divine king from the human messiah, then many New Testament texts are not identifying Jesus as the human messiah but as the divine king. Thus, two themes that were thought to be separate in the Old Testament are united in a single person: Jesus is both Yahweh on the throne and the human Davidic king. However, this is where the book has a severe methodological flaw.

Evaluation

I am currently working on publishing an academic review of God’s Messiah, where I will explore this critique further. For now, I will suggest that it is hard to maintain the distinction between the human Davidic king and the divine king in the Old Testament, especially when we read the Old Testament in light of its fulfilment. That is, the authors accept a canonical reading of the Old Testament but fail to follow through in a consistently whole-Bible reading of the Old Testament. If we accept the Bible as a completed whole, then the fulfilment of the divine and human expectation in the single person, Christ Jesus, should lead us to re-examine what we thought was two distinct eschatological expectations. When we do this, we discover that the Old Testament frequently unites these two expectations. Often this is done in the broader tapestry of Christological expectation, so the authors’ desire to bracket out one aspect of Christological expectation—namely, messianism—leads them to miss the big picture. For example, Goswell and Abernathy insist on keeping the three eschatological agents in Isaiah separate. Yet, there is no internal evidence for this distinction, and all three are all fulfilled in the single person Jesus Christ. This agent is repeatedly identified with Yahweh in Isaiah. In Isaiah 53:1, the suffering servant is identified as “the arm of YHWH,” that is, God’s very power in action. It is thus Yahweh himself who suffers at the hands of his people in Isaiah 53. Earlier in the book, in Isaiah 7-9, Yahweh is differentiated from himself: Yahweh waits for Yahweh in 8:16-18 and receives children or disciples from him (cf. Heb 2:13). When we get to Isaiah 9, Yahweh is speaking, but he identifies his future king as “Mighty God, Everlasting Father.” These epithets are not typical theophoric titles as the authors argue; these are titles Yahweh himself bears (e.g. Isa 10:21).

Looking beyond Isaiah, attention to the theme of a future Priest-King points to this same truth: Yahweh himself would come in the line of David to rule his people. I have argued that the purpose of the book of Samuel is to point to God’s purpose of bringing his kingdom to bear on earth through a Davidic priest-king. This expectation is picked up in Psalm 110, where this Davidic priest-king is attributed with an exalted status; he will be David’s “lord.” Turning Zechariah 6:9-15, the priest Joshua is prophetically crowned as king. This points forward to an eschatological priest-king who will build Yahweh’s temple and sit on Yahweh’s throne: there will be “a priest on his throne” (6:13). This human king and priest, a Davidic “branch,” will be exalted to God’s own throne.

Conclusion

These two examples of Christological expectation in Isaiah and through the priest-king theme should demonstrate that it is methodologically problematic to consider one messianic theme in exclusion from the rest, especially in exclusion from their fulfilment in the one man, Jesus the Christ. The exegesis in God’s Messiah is provocative, and I believe it supports their ultimate point: The New Testament has a high Christology because the NT authors’ continually use texts that are speaking about the divine king Yahweh to describe Jesus and his ministry. However, it is flawed to see this as a separate line of expectation in the Old Testament. Instead, the New Testament has a high Christology because the Old Testament has a high Christology; the human, Davidic king is already identified with Yahweh in the Old Testament.

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