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The Messianic Hope:
Is the Hebrew Bible Really Messianic?
by Michael Rydelnik
(Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2010)
by Fred G. Zaspel
I’m fairly certain that if the average evangelical Christian layman were to hear a respected teacher say that Genesis 3:15 (the promised defeat of the Serpent) is not a messianic prophecy, the response would be one of complete bewilderment: (while scratching their head) “You mean it’s not about Jesus?” Then, after the teacher proceeded to say the same about Deuteronomy 18:15-19 (the prophet greater than Moses), Psalm 110 (great David’s greater son), Isaiah 7:14 (the virgin-born Immanuel), and Isaiah 9:6 (the son given to rule) the Christian layman would likely be suspicious that something’s awry. The fact is that for those who have read “the rest of the story” it is nearly impossible to read such passages and not think that they are intended to point us to Jesus. Such a reading is instinctive to the Christian. And, in fact, this was the view of Jewish teachers (before Christ, at least) also.
Without hesitation I would bet my money with the Christian layman, but the fact is many Biblical scholars - devoted evangelical scholars among them - will argue that this instinct is mistaken. Understanding just how messianic prophecy “works” has long been a subject of scholarly inquiry and debate. And there is a marked hesitation even among some evangelicals to acknowledge that many of these type of Old Testament passages are directly messianic. There may be a “double fulfillment” or a sensus plenior or even a typological fulfilment, or an outright denial of any messianic connection. But acknowledgment of direct messianic prophecy is often difficult to come by.
Enter Michael Rydelnik. Raised in a Orthodox Jewish home these prophecies played a significant role in his own conversion, and it (rightly) concerns him that such hesitations effectively neutralize the force of the Bible’s primary contention about Jesus (that he is the object of Israel’s ancient messianic hope) and thereby rob the Christian of a leading avenue of witness and a leading reason for confidence in the divine authorship and trustworthiness of Scripture. So he sets out in this book to establish the messianic hope as the centerpiece of the Old Testament.
In chapter one Rydelnik states his case in brief, providing definitions, stressing the importance of messianic prophecy, and charting the way forward in his study. Then in chapter two he surveys the various approaches scholars have advocated. Here he provides a summary of the major literature of the past two or three centuries and then a general classification of their respective positions. This chapter is very helpful toward bringing the reader “up to speed” in the discussion.
Chapter three treats text-critical issues, highlighting the fact that the Masoretic Text reflects, at times, the theological perspectives of post-Christian (i.e., AD) Jewish rabbinic Judaism; thus, the messianic intent of the original is sometimes found in the critical apparatus. Rydelnik provides several stimulating examples to illustrate his point, which, in the end, serve to strengthen his case regarding the deliberate messianic thrust of the Old Testament Scriptures.
Chapter four investigates three passages from the Pentateuch (Gen. 49:8-12; Num. 24:14-19; Deut. 18:15-19), demonstrating that not only are these passages themselves intentionally messianic in outlook but also that they were treated as such by later Old Testament writers. This chapter is an exegetical gold mine for preachers seeking to expound these passages.
In Chapter five Rydelnik provides some “canonical perspectives” on messianic prophecy, exposing the messianic considerations in the shaping of the Hebrew canon. Again his case is strengthened by his demonstration of a conscious recognition - on the part of the faithful in the centuries before Jesus - of a messianic hope intentionally fostered by the Biblical writers.
Chapter six provides considerations of fundamental significance in this discussion. It is often alleged that the apostles were arbitrary in their treatment of Old Testament prophecy. Rydelnik shows that the apostolic hermeneutic was learned first from Jesus and that it was, in fact, a way of reading the Old Testament that our Lord himself specifically endorsed. The usual passages (e.g., Luke 24) are examined but with more than usual attention to detail in establishing his case.
Chapter seven examines four ways the New Testament uses the Old: “direct fulfillment” (Matt. 2:5-6 / Micah 5:2), “typical fulfillment” (Matt. 2:15 / Hos. 11:1), “applicational fulfillment” (Matt. 2:16-18 / Jer. 31:15), and “summary fulfillment” (Matt. 2:19-23). This again is an exegetical gold mine in regard to these (and attending) passages, and Rydelnik goes further to stress that as followers of Jesus we ought to learn to treat the Old Testament in the same way.
In chapter eight Rydelnik seeks to trace out the influence of Rabbi Shlomo Yitzkhaki (1040-1105) on later Jewish and Christian (both Catholic and Protestant) interpreters, thus providing one accounting for the trend away from messianic exegesis.
Chapter nine provides a thorough analysis of Genesis 3:15 in its own context and purpose and in light of the Pentateuch and later Old Testament Scriptures. Chapter ten does the same with Isaiah 7:14, and chapter eleven does the same with Psalm 110. Certainly no preacher would want to overlook the help offered here in handling these prophecies. And chapter twelve concludes with a moving call back to messianic exegesis.
The discussion of the New Testament handling of the Old will doubtless continue, and Rydelnik will not convince everyone at each point of exegesis. Of course. But his work is a helpful corrective to those who are slow to acknowledge direct messianic prophecy in the Old Testament, and it is very helpful toward a right understanding of Israel’s ancient hope. Whether a given prophecy here or there should be understood as directly messianic or if more subtle nuances may be involved we may debate, but Rydelnik is certainly right to challenge us to see the Old Testament writers as intentional in their presentation of the Messiah. He certainly succeeds in providing a framework, at least, for understanding specific prophecies, and throughout the book, as I have indicated, he provides a wealth of exegetical aid for the preacher. Not just the New Testament but the entire Bible is a book about Jesus, and Rydelnik deserves our thanks for making that more clear for us.