When I first searched the Hebrew Scriptures, I began to notice prophecies that seemed to indicate that Jesus-Yeshua is the Messiah. I heard arguments that these were ripped out of context and that these prophecies clearly did not refer to Jesus-Yeshua. I resolved to learn Biblical Hebrew so that I could find out for myself what the Scriptures mean. After learning Hebrew and reading the Bible in the original language, pouring over numerous commentaries, and spending many years studying, I discovered that there were keys for interpreting Messianic prophecies. Now I want to share these keys with you.
Messianic Prophecies are not Clearly Identified as Such
There is not a single verse in the entire Hebrew Bible that is specifically identified as a Messianic prophecy. Nowhere do the Scriptures say, "The next paragraph contains a prediction of the Messiah!" Thus, whether or not one accepts a certain passage as Messianic depends largely on how one understands the person and work of the Messiah.
For example, if someone believes that the Messiah will be a king who will bring peace to the earth, he will probably interpret Isaiah 11 as a Messianic prophecy. But he will not interpret Isaiah 53 in a Messianic way because it does not fit his preconceived notion of what the Messiah will do. And so, when I point to Isaiah 53, he will confidently say to me, "But that is not a Messianic prophecy!" How can I answer this argument? Just by asking two simple questions: "Who says Isaiah 53 is not Messianic while Isaiah 11 is Messianic? Who says your interpretation is right?" In other words, I want to help him see that his understanding of Messianic prophecy is based on traditional bias as opposed to objective scriptural truth. Maybe it is he who has brought preconceived notions to the text. If he is open to dialogue, I can take things a step further and ask, "Are you sure your picture of the Messiah is correct? Maybe you are missing some of the pieces to the puzzle! How do you know that Messiah hasn't already come?" And from there I can show him the way!
The Messianic Hope in Israel Developed Gradually
Messianic prophecies were not clearly identified as such because they were not initially understood as referring to the Messiah. Also, the Hebrew word mashiach (Messiah), which literally means "anointed one," almost never refers to the Messiah in the Hebrew Bible. Instead, it refers to the anointed king (like Saul or David), the anointed high priest (like Aaron), or even an "anointed" (chosen) foreign ruler (like Cyrus).
Let's apply this to the Messianic hope in Israel. David was a great king, a mashiach of the Lord; so was his son Solomon, who had a wonderful reign of peace. Many of the Psalms were written for them or about them: Psalm 72, which is a prayer for Solomon; Psalm 2, which celebrates the coronation of the king; or Psalm 45, which commemorates the royal wedding ceremony. And when all was well, God's people recognized no need for the Messiah.
But when Israel's kings began to fail, when there were no more Davids or Solomons, and when the Jewish people were exiled from their Land, they began to realize their need for a special mashiach, supernaturally anointed by God. And what do you think happened when they went back and reread the Psalms? They began to see the Messianic significance of the verses! They recognized, for example, that Psalm 2, which prophesied the worldwide dominion of the Lord's anointed, was not fulfilled by David, Solomon, or any other king. It could only be fulfilled by the Messiah. And so, little by little, they began to understand the Messianic hope.
Many Biblical Prophecies are Fulfilled Gradually
This key principle applies to all types of prophecy, whether Messianic or not. This is also implied by the word "fulfill": the prophet's words had to be "filled up to the full" to be "fulfilled."
Ezekiel, living in the Babylonian exile, prophesied that his people should return from their captivity. The fulfillment began in 538 B.C.E., when the first group of exiles returned to Judah; it has continued in the last century with the return of the Jewish people to the Land; and it will reach fulfillment when Jesus comes back and gathers His scattered people from every corner of the globe. Over 2500 years and still being fulfilled!
Now let's look at a Messianic prophecy. Zechariah prophesies that when Israel's King comes, He will be "righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey….His rule will extend from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth" (9:9-10). If you show this to a rabbi, he will probably say, "It's clear that Jesus hasn't fulfilled it!"
How would I respond? Simply by explaining to him that the prophecy is presently being fulfilled (i.e., it is in the ongoing process of fully coming to pass): Jesus came as the prophet foretold, "righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey"; every day the number of individuals over whom He reigns as King continues to increase (countless millions from every country!) and in the future, when He returns, He will completely establish His rule.
The Prophets Saw the Messiah Coming on the Immediate Horizon
Have you ever stood on top of a mountain and looked across to another mountain peak? The mountains appear to be next to each other, even though there is a huge valley in between. It is the same with biblical prophecy. The prophets saw the future through a telescope. Things far away in time appeared close. They did not realize that centuries would come and go between their initial prediction and its actual fulfillment. In fact, to the prophets, the expression "at the end of days" could have meant "right around the corner"!
Why is this principle important to understand with regard to Messianic prophecy? Because believers in Yeshua are often accused of taking a verse "out of context." We are told, "That prophecy applied to Isaiah's day 2700 years ago. It certainly does not refer to Jesus!" But did it really apply to Isaiah's day, or was it an example of prophecy being telescopic? Did Isaiah see the coming of the Messiah (i.e., a great deliverer) in the context of his very own day?
Let's look at Isaiah 9:1-7 (8:23-9:6 in some Bibles) where it is predicted that the yoke of the enemy (i.e., Assyria) would be broken by the son of David who was already born. And this son of David would have an everlasting kingdom of peace. When was Assyria crushed? 2600 years ago. Who was born shortly before that time? Hezekiah. Did he fulfill the prophecy? Obviously not! But the prophet saw the coming of the future Davidic ruler as if it were about to happen in his very own day.
Watch carefully for prophecies like this, since they are extremely common. In fact, this key to prophetic interpretation is really a summary of the first three principles just given. If you go back and read them again, things will begin to fall into place for you.
Reading Messianic Prophecies in their Overall Scriptural Context
Do the New Covenant writers take Old Covenant verses out of context, or are they faithful to the meaning of the text? In Matthew 1:23, Isaiah 7:14 is applied to the birth of Jesus (the virgin [or, maiden] will bear a son and call his name Immanuel). But is this quotation faithful to Isaiah? How can Matthew apply a sign given to King Ahaz about 734 B.C.E. to the birth of Yeshua over 700 years later? How could this be a relevant sign?
Consider the context of Isaiah chapters 7-11. Judah was being attacked by Israel and Aram. These nations wanted to replace Ahaz, who represented the house of David (see Is. 7:2, 13), with their own man named Ben Tabeel. This would mean the end of David's rule in Judah. Yet when Ahaz would not ask God for a sign, God gave him His own: a child named Immanuel (meaning "God is with us") would be born and within a few years, before the child was very old, Judah's enemies would be destroyed.
Who was this Immanuel? Obviously a child to be born to the house of David in place of faithless Ahaz, a son who would be a token of the fact that God was with His people (in other words, good news for the nation and bad news for Ahaz!). But is his birth ever mentioned in the book of Isaiah? No! In fact, the birth of Isaiah's son Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz in Isaiah 8:1-4 seems to take its place as a time-setter (read Is. 7:14-16 and 8:3-4; before Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz would be very old, Judah's enemies would be destroyed—just what was said about Immanuel!).
What happened to Immanuel? Nothing is clearly said. But what is clearly said in Isaiah 9:6-7 (9:5-6 in some Bibles) and 11:1-16 is that there will come forth a rod from Jesse (David's father) who will rule the nations in righteousness.
And this was Matthew's context! He was reading Isaiah 7-11 in full! Thus he quotes Isaiah 7:14 in Matthew 1:23; Isaiah 9:1-2 (8:23-9:1 in some Bibles) in Matthew 4:15-16; and he alludes to Isaiah 11:1 in Matthew 2:23 (the Hebrew word for "Nazarene" resembles the Hebrew word for "branch").
Was anyone born in Isaiah's day that began to fulfill the Immanuel prophecy? We simply do not know. But of this we can be sure: Jesus, the ideal King from the house of David, and clearly the subject of the Messianic prophecies in chapters 9 and 11, is Immanuel—God with us—in the fullest sense of the word!
The Messiah was to be Both Priest and King
Everyone who believes in the Messiah accepts the royal prophecies of the Scriptures as referring to Messiah the King. But what about the predictions of suffering.What do these verses have to do with the Messiah?
Here is an important answer! The prophecies of suffering and death point to the priestly ministry of the Messiah, since it was the duty of the High Priest to intercede for his people and make atonement for their sins.
Did you know that in the first century of this era there was widespread belief in the coming of a priestly Messianic figure as well as a royal Messianic figure? This belief was almost correct. There was to be a priest and there was to be a king, only these two figures were one! According to Psalm 110, the Davidic ruler was to be both priest and king. In Zechariah 6, the crown is placed on the head of the High Priest named Joshua (he is also called Yeshuain Ezra and Nehemiah!), who is then referred to as "the Branch," a Messianic title!
Thus, it is clear that the Messiah would have a dual role: as High Priest He would take His people's sins on Himself and intercede for them; as King He would rule and reign. Because traditional Judaism has largely forgotten the Messiah's priestly work, it has not always recognized key passages in Isaiah as referring to Him.
The Messiah is the Ideal Representative of His People
In ancient Israel, the king and his people were one. As the kings of Israel went, so went the nation. They saw themselves represented in their head.
How does this apply to the Messiah? First, the history of Israel paralleled the life of Jesus. For example, when Moses was born, Pharaoh was trying to kill Israelite baby boys, and when Jesus was born, Herod began killing Jewish baby boys. Also, both the nation of Israel as well as Jesus spent their early years in Egypt. (That is why Matthew quotes Hos. 11:1 in Matt. 2:15! Compare also Matt. 2:20 with Ex. 4:19.)
And because the Messiah was the ideal representative of his people, He fulfills the words of their psalms. Thus Psalm 22, the psalm of the righteous sufferer whom God wonderfully delivers, is not identified at all as a Messianic prophecy. Yet, to any impartial reader, it is clear that both the depth of suffering described as well as the universal effects of the deliverance can refer only to Jesus, the ideal righteous Sufferer, the representative King, the greater David. Therefore, the New Covenant writers often see the Psalms as containing Messianic prophecies, since the Messiah is seen as their ultimate, representative subject.
How can you put all these principles together? Every time you see a Messianic prophecy quoted in the New Covenant, look it up in the Old Covenant and read the whole section from which it is taken (this could be a paragraph, a chapter, or even more). Then, try and see which of the interpretive keys explains the quote. Remember: many times several principles are at work together!
Not only will you enrich your understanding of the Word, but you will learn to appreciate how wonderfully God has woven together the prophecies of the Messiah's coming.