Who is the Messiah – What Does Messiah Mean in the Jewish Tradition

Messiah has been foretold in the Jewish Scriptures almost from the beginning. He is to be a human leader, physically descended from King David, while also representing God. In Hebrew, Messiah means the Anointed One. He is to accomplish predetermined things like unite the tribes of Israel, gather all Jews to Israel and rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem.

Regardless of our own beliefs or experiences, the Scriptures lay out some interesting signs to look for, some that even seem contradictory.

He will be from Bethlehem, but his goings forth are from eternity. He will be born of a woman but will be called ‘God with us’. A child will be born to us, but His name will be Mighty God and Eternal Father. He will be from David’s kingly line but will be called “The Lord our Righteousness”. When He comes, He will be born in Israel, yet He will be God.

The Expectancy

Early one evening I was walking with my young son on the outskirts of Jerusalem, heading towards one of my favorite overlooks of the old city, the Temple Mount and the Mount of Olives. It’s a hidden spot in a residential neighborhood that borders an Arab village and which buses don’t reach. As we turned a corner around an old stone wall, an excited ultra-orthodox man in a black hat, coat and long beard appeared seemingly out of nowhere.

He turned to me and exclaimed “Get ready! Messiah is coming!!” A little taken back, I responded “Yes! He has already come!” As if I had just revealed a familiar and treasured secret, he raised his eyebrows, sharpened his gaze, and smiled even bigger. “Yes!” he exclaimed, “Messiah has come! He is here and waiting to reveal Himself to all of Israel!!” And with that he hurried on his way and was gone.

That encounter has stuck in my mind ever since. Everyone is waiting for the Messiah’s arrival. How will we know it is Him? What are His characteristics? Most importantly, what did the prophets say to look for?

The Prophecies

One of the greatest dichotomies we find is the supernaturally common theme: He will be a man, yet He will be God. Look at what 3 different prophets foretold:

“But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, from the days of eternity.” (Micah 5:2)

Therefore, the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel.(Isaiah 7:14)

For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; and the government will rest on His shoulders; and His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:6)

“Behold, the days are coming,” declares the Lord, “When I will raise up for David a righteous Branch; and He will reign as king and act wisely and do justice and righteousness in the land. In His days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely; and this is His name by which He will be called, ‘The Lord our righteousness’.”(Jeremiah 23:5-6)

The Understanding

In the Christian world, we think of one prophesied Messiah who was sent from God to save the world. Yet to the Jewish mind, there are two types of messiahs in the scriptures: Messiah – son of Joseph, and Messiah – son of David, also called son of Zion.

The Messiah son of Joseph is found in Isaiah 53. He is the suffering servant, rejected by his brothers, but ultimately saves them. This is the one who Christians can relate to.

The Messiah son of David or Zion is found in Zechariah 14 who enters Jerusalem as a conquering king to defend Israel from her enemies and rule as king like David did. Through the centuries, religious Jews have looked for the Son of David, even in biblical times.

The traditional Christian views will look at the Jewish hope for an earthly king with contempt that they are ignoring their need to deal with sinful nature.

Traditional Jewish views see the Christian hope for abstract salvation as ignoring earthly problems and God’s promise to have a Jewish king from the line of David, who will set things right in Israel and the world.

The Interpretation 

Biblically, neither are wrong in their view of the Messiah. If only they’d consider that it is the same person… Through the centuries, certain Rabbis have suggested this very thing by pointing to Hebrew perspectives that are lost in translation. First example is found in Jacob’s blessing over his son Judah, about his family being the kingly line:

The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until Shiloh comes and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples. (Genesis 49:10)

While this verse describes a kingly messianic figure in leadership from the tribe of Judah, the actual Hebrew letters suggest something curious. This verse includes all the letters of the Hebrew alphabet except the letter “Zayin”, which originally was the word for sword or weapon.

Just as this verse is missing a “sword”, Rabbis have noticed that when the ruling messiah comes, it could be without weapons. Here you have an interesting blend of both the suffering servant and conquering king messianic expectations.

The second fascinating fact is found in the numerical values of the actual Hebrew letters of Messiah, the son of “Joseph” and the son of “Zion”. In Hebrew, each letter has a numerical value. Both ‘Joseph’ and ‘Zion’ are spelled in Hebrew with four letters. By numerical accounts, each name adds up to the same number – 156. It is a mathematical anomaly that 2 different names would have identical sums, while they only have one letter in common: the ‘yud’.

The rabbi in Jerusalem who first showed this to me was wondering if God could in fact be saying that the suffering servant and the conquering king was indeed the same person!

The Answer

As humans, we need both. We need a Savior to be both our sacrificial lamb, to deal with our hearts, as well as strong king. He will defend and restore the kingdom to Israel (as said in Acts 1), and He was promised to both Judah and David. Wouldn’t it be great if He could live forever, so His righteous kingdom could keep expanding and never end…?

So, let’s get the facts straight. According to the prophets, we are looking for a man from Bethlehem, born of a virgin, from the tribe of Judah, from King David’s line, who will be eternal and who’s kingdom will begin without weapons.

Only God could provide such salvation, inwardly and outwardly. And I can think of only one person in human history that fits the description: Jesus of Nazareth. And this name is no coincidence: in the original Hebrew, Yeshua means Salvation.

This article originally appeared on FIRM, July 8, 2020, and reposted with permission.

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Doug Hershey shares from a perspective of historian and storyteller. His accounts of Israel, the Middle East and the awakening of Bible prophecy are as intriguing as they are rare. In his bestselling photo book, ISRAEL RISING, Doug tracks 2000 years of Israel’s history with over 100 then/now photo comparisons, all through the lens of biblical prophecy. Doug is the founder of Ezra Adventures, a boutique travel and education company, specializing in exclusive customized small group travel throughout Israel and the Middle East. For more info, go to EzraAdventures.com or keep up with Ezra Adventures on FB and IG.