What is the Messiah and how will we know who he really is?
“Messiah” is one of those Hebrew words, like “Amen” and “Hallelujah” that have slipped into the English lexicon. While the concept of the Messiah originated in Judaism, it was later adopted as a theological concept in both Christianity and Islam.
What does the word really mean and how do we know who the real Messiah is?
The root of the word “messiah” is derived from the Hebrew word “to anoint” and is first mentioned in the book of Exodus:
God spoke to Moses saying: “Now, take for yourself choice spices…pure myrrh, fragrant cinnamon…fragrant cane…cassia…and a hin of olive oil. Of it you shall make oil of sacred anointment. With it you shall anoint the tent of Meeting (Tabernacle) and the Ark of the Covenant…You shall anoint Aaron and his sons and sanctify them to minister to me. (Exodus 30:22-30)
Pouring some of this holy oil on objects and individuals designated them as having a God-appointed, higher function. Throughout the Bible different prophets such as Samuel, Nathan and Elijah use this oil to anoint the kings of Israel, signifying them as God’s chosen rulers.
God using an emissary to designate a ruler as a king with God-given authority was adopted in Medieval Christian Europe as the basis for the concept of “divine right of kings”.
This idea of God using an emissary to designate a ruler as a king, with God-given authority, was adopted in Medieval Christian Europe as the basis for the concept of “divine right of kings” — a practice which continues until today. In 1953, when Elizabeth II was crowned Queen of England in Westminster Abbey in London, the Archbishop of Canterbury dabbed oil on her, in imitation of the prophets of ancient Israel. Following this coronation ceremony, the choir sang “Zaddok the Priest” composed in 1727 by Handel for the coronation of King George II, which opens with the lyrics “Zaddok the Priest and Nathan the Prophet anointed Solomon king.”
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Messiah’s job description
While there are many anointed individuals throughout the Bible, in Judaism there is only one anointed one who has the title “The Messiah.” This messiah has a very special role to play in history and is viewed an essential part of traditional Jewish beliefs. He appears during the “End of Days” — the final chapter and the climax of human history to act as a catalyst to speed up the process of redemption for the Jewish people, and ultimately for all of humanity.
The great medieval Jewish scholar Maimonides, also known as the Rambam, gives a short but clear job description:
The King Messiah will arise and restore the kingship of David to its former state and original sovereignty. He will rebuild the sanctuary and gather the dispersed of Israel. All the ancient laws will be re-instituted in his days….”Maimonides Mishna Torah; Laws of Kings, Chap. 12.
The job is by no means easy. This messiah, this final king of Israel, has to bring all the Jewish people physically back to the land of Israel and transform the spiritual level of the nation by having the nation recognize the reality of God’s existence and the Divine origin of the Torah and its commandments. The Messiah must also rebuild the Temple, reinstitute the Temple service and defend Israel against anyone or any nation that tries to stop this process. Once he accomplishes all this, he will be appointed the King of Israel.
Maimonides continues: “If there arise a king from the House of David who meditates in Torah, occupies himself with the commandments…observes the precepts prescribed in the Written and Oral Law, prevails upon Israel to walk in the way of Torah…fights the battles of the Lord, it may be assumed that he is the messiah. If he does these things and succeeds, rebuilds the sanctuary on its site, and gathers the dispersed of Israel, he is beyond all doubt the Messiah. He will prepare the whole world to serve the Lord together. Maimonides Mishna Torah; Laws of Kings, Chap. 12.
While there may have been numerous individuals throughout history who had the potential to be the messiah, you only get the title if you actually complete the job.
This concept of “the coming of the Messiah” at the “End of Days” is not linked to a specific date. Judaism believes that redemption can come at any time and messianic expectation among the Jewish people has fluctuated dramatically throughout history.
In keeping with the idea that “It’s always darkest before the dawn,” we see a pattern emerge in Jewish history: messianic expectation is highest when the Jewish people are at their lowest.
Here are a few good examples:
The Great Revolt against Rome from 67 to 70 C.E which culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem and the burning of the Second Temple. The final tragic act in this story was the fall of mountain-fortress of Masada in 73CE.
The Bar Kochba Revolt, from 132 to 135 C.E. The leader of this revolt, Shimon bar Kosiba, was initially so successful that he earned the support of the great Rabbi Akiva who saw him as a potential messiah. Bar Kosiba was nicknamed “bar Kochba, son of star,” as an allusion to his messianic potential. Tragically, this revolt ended in failure with the death of hundreds of thousands of Jews, including Bar Kochba and Rabbi Akiva and the total decimation of much of the land of Israel.
The expulsion from Spain in 1492. This calamitous event led to the complete destruction of one of the largest and most important Jewish communities of the Diaspora and is one of the most traumatic events in Jewish history.
The Khmelnitsky Massacre of 1648-1649- This Cossack revolt decimated numerous Jewish communities in Eastern Europe and led to the murder of as many as 100 000 Jews.
During and immediately after these terrible events there were huge upswings in messianic expectation. This messianic fervor was also accompanied by another fascinating phenomenon: false messiahs who claimed to be the saviors of the Jewish people.