Prophecies which apply to Israel apply equally to Israel’s King, and vice-versa. Yeshua redeems Israel’s history.
Some years ago, I had dinner with an Israeli friend of the family. He wasn’t Messianic. Heck, some days he wasn’t even sure if he believed in the God of Jacob. Nevertheless, he had a vast collection of rabbinic commentaries. As a kind of party game, he started doing off-the-cuff translations of both the commentaries and the Tanakh (OT) itself for us. My mother-in-law cheekily asked him to translate Isaiah 53 for us, and he readily agreed.
He got three verses in, looked up with a frown, and said, “That sounds positively Christian, doesn’t it?” Four more verses later he suddenly stopped, shaken, and said, “I don’t understand this–I-I have to look at the commentary.”
We didn’t have to tell him whom the passage referred to. He knew. The commentaries he pulled, however, said that the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 was not the Messiah, but referred to the sufferings of the Jewish people as a whole instead. He latched onto that and ended the conversation, even though I could point him to passages from the Talmud and the Midrash that state in no uncertain terms that Isaiah 53 refers to the Messiah (e.g., Sanhedrin 98b, Ruth Rabba 5:6ff).
Actually, though, the anti-missionaries who claim that the “servant” of Isaiah 40-53 is Israel aren’t entirely wrong. There are several places in that passage where the servant must refer to Israel, like “But now hear, O Jacob my servant” (44:1, cf. 41:8, 42:19). There are also places where, apart from having a NT reading, we would consider the reference to be ambiguous, possibly referring to Israel, and possibly to a particular individual (42:1-4, sandwiched between 41:8 and 42:19). So how do we explain the apparent inconsistency in Isaiah’s use of the word “servant”?
This brings us to Matthew 2:13-15:
Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Arise and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and stay there until I tell you, for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him.”
He arose and took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt, and was there until the death of Herod; that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
The quote is from Hosea 11:1. However, when we look at Hosea, we find that the context makes it impossible to regard it as a Messianic prophecy:
When Israel was a child, then I loved him,
and called my son out of Egypt.
They called to them, so they went from them.
They sacrificed to the Baals,
and burned incense to engraved images.
Yet I taught Ephraim to walk.
I took them by his arms;
but they didn’t know that I healed them.
I drew them with cords of a man, with ties of love;
and I was to them like those who lift up the yoke on their necks;
and I bent down to him and I fed him. (Hos. 11:1-4)
Very obviously, just like Isaiah 44:1 uses the term “servant,” Hosea is using the singular term “my son” (beni) collectively for all Israel, a beloved child who had gone astray. So how can we explain Matthew’s use of this passage as Messianic?
History Becoming Biography
Here I’ll quote from Richard N. Longenecker’s Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period (2nd Edition):
In applying the passage to Jesus, Matthew seems to be thinking along the lines of corporate solidarity and rereading his Old Testament from an eschatologically realized and messianic perspective. . . [H]e is making the point that what was vital in Israel’s corporate and redemptive experience finds its ultimate and intended focus in the person of Jesus the Messiah. (p. 128)
In other words, Matthew is setting up in his audiences mind that the King and his people are as one, that Yeshua’s life is a microcosm of Israel’s–only where Israel became tainted by idolatry and went astray, Yeshua remained pure and opened up the way back through his own sacrifice. Longenecker expands on this theme (p. 125):
Like Israel, Yeshua is
- a child of promise (Mat. 1:18ff; Gen. 15-21);
- delivered from the hand of Herod (Mat. 2:1ff), as Jacob was from Herod’s ancestor Esau (Gen. 27:41ff, 32:1ff);
- who came out of Egypt (Mat. 2:15, 19ff; Exo. 12:31ff);
- passing through the waters (Mat. 3:13ff; Exo. 14);
- entering the wilderness for testing (Mat. 4:18ff; Exo. 15:22ff);
- calling out the “twelve sons of Israel” (Mat. 4:18ff; Exo. 24:4, Num. 1-2);
- giving the Law from the mount (Mat. 5-7; Exo. 20:1ff);
- performing ten miracles (Mat. 8-9; Exo. 7-12 or the ten miracles that occurred after Israel left Egypt, starting at Exo. 15:22ff);
- sending out the Twelve to “conquer” the land (Mat. 10:1ff; Joshua 1:1ff);
- feeding the multitudes to with “manna” from heaven (Mat. 14:15ff, 15:32ff; Exo. 16:14ff);
- and being transfigured before his disciples (Mat. 17:1ff; Exo. 34:29ff).
I would add a few things to Longenecker’s list, but the point here is not to be absolutely completest. It is enough to demonstrate that Matthew see’s Israel’s history and Yeshua’s life as completely interconnected, and that he uses the passage from Hosea to highlight it.
Added To, Not Replaced
There is an error that we need to avoid here. All too often Christians claim that the fact that Yeshua “fulfills” Israel’s history means that there is no more purpose for “Israel of the flesh.” The Gentiles of the Ekklesia are truly “grafted in” to Israel’s tree (Rom. 11:25ff), having become both fellow heirs and fellow citizens of Israel (Eph. 2:19, 3:6). But just as an adopted child does not replace the one born into the family, neither does “the Church” replace Israel.
The fact that the King and the people are as as one runs in both directions: As Yeshua was stripped, tortured and killed without cause by the Gentiles, so the Jewish people have been stripped, tortured and killed by the Gentiles. As Yeshua died and came back to life, so Israel as a nation has “died” only to be resurrected in these last days. And as Yeshua was glorified after his resurrection, so too shall be Israel.