Jesus the Messiah in the Old Testament
Johnston progresses from passages in Genesis and Numbers; to 2 Samuel 7; to the Psalms (Ps 2, 45, 72, 89, 110, and 132); to Amos, Hosea and Micah; to Isaiah; to Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel; and finally, to Zechariah. The focus is on kingship texts, so Deut 18:15, for example, is excluded from discussion.
In virtually every text, Johnston examines first a contextual reading and then a canonical reading. An example of the former would be seeing Genesis 49:8-12 initially fulfilled in Judah’s role in the conquest of Canaan (Jud 1:2-4), and the Davidic rule (2 Sam 8:1-14). But Johnston is quick to point out that while the OT may present fulfilment of earlier texts in its own context, “initial phases of historical fulfilment did not exhaust all that would be wrapped up in the fulfilment” (p44). The canonical reading recognises that a) the OT continues to attach promises to the Davidic king that b) were never truly realised because c) the Davidic kingdom failed and Israel was exiled. When we put these together we see that God’s promises were never fully realized until the coming of Jesus.
Possibly reflecting my own interests at the moment, my favourite chapter was Johnston’s treatment of Psalms 2, 45, 72, 89, 110 and 132. Johnston argues that these were not written with Jesus in mind, but that their fulfillments are not exhausted in any Davidic king until Jesus. In the case of Psalm 2, for example, it “probably was originally composed to celebrate the enthronement of David or Solomon” and then “functioned as an oracle of legitimisation during a royal enthronement ceremony of the historical Davidic king” (p75-76). References to anointed (Psalm 2:2) and God’s son (Psalm 2:7) are not exclusively speaking of Jesus. However, the “enthronement of each historical Davidic king foreshadowed the future eschatological coronation of the ultimate Davidic king” (p76). That is, the concepts in this Psalm are matched and exceeded by Jesus in a typological fashion, filling them with deeper meaning in the process.
Some will have little to complain about with Johnston’s approach, as it tries to walk a middle road by not only recognizing fulfilment in an immediate context, but also allowing for a legitimate and greater fulfillment in Jesus. However, the fact that Johnston applies this approach to virtually every “messianic” text in the OT may be disconcerting. In particular I think of the treatment of Isaiah 9:1-7. Johnston notes that some scholars see this as exclusively about the Messiah Jesus, while others as exclusively historical, “expressing Isaiah’s original hope that Hezekiah would deliver Israel from Assyria” (p134). Johnston, however, wants to “avoid this false dichotomy” (p134) and sees immediate fulfilment in Isaiah’s hope for Hezekiah, and greater fulfilment in Jesus. While I’m no Isaiah expert, I see a problem with his proposal. Is this passage a divinely inspired prophecy on the part of Isaiah, or is it “Isaiah’s idealised hope of the resurgence of Davidic kingship under Hezekiah” (p147), a hope that Johnston admits “Hezekiah did not bring about” (p138)? Unless I misunderstand Johnston’s argument, it seems that he requires Isaiah to have gotten it wrong under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, since this is presented as more than wishful thinking, but prophecy. It would be one thing if this were found in narrative genre, like Samuel or Kings, but the genre of Isaiah’s prophecy and the doctrine of inspiration seem to disallow this option.
One small point and I’m not sure where else to mention it: there is an unusually high number of prominent typos (ones that I’m surprised slipped past proofreads) in Johnston’s chapters. Here are a few examples, with typos underlined:
- “The book of Genesis is a book of beginnings: the beginning of creation (1-2), the beginning of sin (3), the beginning of king (5-11), and yes, the beginning of God’s redemptive program.” (p37).
- “the restoration of the rule of God in .” (p38). This is how the sentence ends!
- “the temple razed ,and the Davidic dynasty dismantled…” (p64)
- “Psalms 89 and 132 focus on the God’s eternal promise to David…” (p75)
- “perhaps the renown and oft-mentioned daughter of Pharaoh…” (p83)
- “a royal idiom cast in the secondperson rather than first person…” (p93)
- “the prophecy may have initially applied to Hezekiah But due to the openness…” (p150)
- In a seeming, surprising challenge to God’s promise…” (p169)
Also surprising was no treatment of Isaiah 7. Considering that this text is applied to Jesus in the NT, I would have expected some discussion of it. This text would no doubt fit quite naturally with their contextual and canonical approach also, so I’m not sure why it is skipped entirely.
Johnston’s work throughout is very careful and thorough. He is fair and balanced as strives for objectivity in an area that could easily turn into eisegesis. Even in cases where an interpretation could be more Messianic, Johnston isn’t quick to jump to conclusions either way. This is to be commended, as much work on Jesus in the OT stacks the deck in its own favour at times. As Christians, who believe Jesus is indeed the Messiah, we have nothing to fear from our own Biblical texts! This approach allows for both legitimate immediate fulfilment and legitimate NT fulfilment to Jesus. Though Rydelnik (my review) makes a compelling case for more direct prophecy, I find myself more broadly in agreement with Johnston so far, despite my anxiety that the approach could result in no real OT prediction of Messiah Jesus if taken too far.
Despite my criticisms, so far I have thoroughly enjoyed Jesus the Messiah. I’m reading it beginning to end, following the unfolding of Messianic hope, but one could easily use this as a reference on a text-by-text basis – something I will certainly do in the future with great benefit.
Many thanks to Alban books for providing a review copy of Jesus the Messiah. Their generosity has not affected my opinion of this book.