Matthew's Hermeneutic and the Prophets

May 12, 2022 at 11:29 PM

This article concludes our study through Matthew 1-2 as we consider how this Apostle made use of the Old Testament to argue that Jesus is the Messiah. The interesting quotation we consider today may initially cause a raise of the eye brows. Matthew cites:

And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled: He shall be called a Nazarene.’” (Matt. 2:23)

The odd thing about this quotation is that it is nowhere to be found in the Old Testament! Is Matthew mistaken? Is he contradicting the Old Testament? Are we missing a book of the Old Testament?

The answer to all the above questions is a resounding, “By no means!” We are approaching this study with the unshakable presupposition that Scripture is true and trustworthy. It cannot lie nor contradict itself, and it is complete. Yet, such a presupposition does not absolve us from the hard work to study what Matthew means by making this citation. That is what this article will endeavour to do in conclusion of our study of Matthew’s hermeneutic.


The “Netser” from Nazareth

With a reference to the prophets that cannot, actually, be found word-for-word in the Old Testament, it is no surprise that a variety of suggestions have been proposed. Some, for example, point to the fact that Nazareth was a rather despised town (see John 1:46) and that the Servant in the Old Testament was to be despised as well (see Isaiah 53:3), hence, Matthew depicts Jesus as the Servant. Others suggest a language connection, stating that Matthew is alluding to the “Nazarites” under the Nazarite Vow of the Old Testament, and this demonstrates that Jesus was the holy One of God. This does not mean Jesus Himself was under the Nazarite Vow, but rather that He was set apart as holy unto God as Nazarites would have been.

All of that considered, it is well likely that Matthew was using one term to allude to a number of different passages and words (hence why he uses the term “prophets” instead of “prophet”). Yet, there is a particular language connection that may drive home Matthew’s argument in light of what we have been studying in chapter 2 thus far. That is an allusion to Isaiah 11.

This connection is based on a similarity in the sound of Greek and Hebrew words, as well as the similarity of the language used in Isaiah 11 to the other passages Matthew has already cited. Isaiah 11:1 says, “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.” The Hebrew word for “branch” is netser, and as you may tell from sounding it out, it is very similar to “Nazarene.” Matthew, then, would be arguing Jesus is the Branch of Isaiah 11. He is the fruitful shoot from the stump of Jesse.


Isaiah 11 and the Other Prophets

While a phonetic connection may seem far-fetched, taking time to consider Isaiah 11 in the context of Matthew 1-2 may well help us put the finishing touches on our study. In order to do that, as has been our custom, we must understand Isaiah 11 first in its original context. Notice the similarity of the language and concepts to Isaiah 11 and the passages Matthew has already cited or to which he has alluded.

Isaiah 11 is focused upon many concepts we have seen in the prophets before. For example, it concerns a Davidic ruler (11:1; cf. Hos. 3:5) and a righteous Judge (11:3-4a; cf. Ps. 72:1-2). This Ruler will strike and rule the earth (11:4b; cf. Num. 24:8, 17-19; Ps. 2:8-9). He will rule in peace on God’s holy mountain (11:9a; cf, Mic. 4:1-5) and the earth shall be full of Yahweh’s knowledge (11:9b; cf. Mic. 5:4b). Perhaps most significant, however, is how Isaiah focuses on a second exodus. The second exodus is what we saw in Hosea 11, and the great exile from which Israel needs exodus is what we saw in Jeremiah 31. Indeed, to pull all these themes together, Isaiah 11 contains some distinct exodus terminology.

In Isaiah 11:10-11, we read that the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal for the peoples. This is the same Hebrew root as “Banner,” which is used in Exodus 17 in relation to Yahweh (Ex. 17:15) following the deliverance in the first exodus. Indeed, in the day that the root stands as a signal, the Lord will extend His hand a second time to recover the remnant that remains from His people. This is a second exodus for the remnant of God’s people, Israel, who turn to Him in repentance in the latter days. Isaiah 11:12 connects these concepts, in that the raising of the signal also means the assembling and gathering of the dispersed of Israel. This terminology ought to remind the reader of Hosea 11:10-11. Later in Isaiah 11, we have explicit exodus language:

“And the LORD will utterly destroy the tongue of the Sea of Egypt, and will wave his hand over the River with his scorching breath, and strike it into seven channels, and he will lead people across in sandals. And there will be a highway from Assyria for the remnant that remains of his people, as there was for Israel when they came up from the land of Egypt.” (Isa. 11:15-16)

This description is one of a distinctly physical event. Unless God were to subvert His promises, the physical nation of Israel awaits a physical second exodus out of the nations and back to their land, just as occurred in the first exodus.

As a final point in this regard, Isaiah 11 is followed by Isaiah 12, a small song of only 6 verses. Yet, Isaiah 12:4 stands out: “Give thanks to the LORD, call upon his name, make known his deeds among the peoples, proclaim that his name is exalted.” This is identical to Psalm 105:1, which is an entire Psalm about God’s deliverance of Israel in the first exodus event. Yet, Isaiah 12 will be sung on that day. It is a future song. Indeed, the same song sung in remembrance of the first physical exodus for Israel will be sung at the second physical exodus for Israel. Isaiah 11-12 is making reference to the same second exodus we have seen spoken of in Micah, Hosea, and Jeremiah. The totality of Old Testament prophets are heralding the hope that Yahweh is not finished with His son. There is a future for Israel — a future involving a second exodus — a future inaugurated and led by the Messiah.


Putting It All Together

So, why is Matthew alluding to Isaiah 11? Well, he seems to be forming a sandwich of Isaiah 7 and Isaiah 11. Matthew begins his first two chapters with Isaiah 7:14 (in Matt. 1:23), and concludes with alluding to Isaiah 11 (in Matt. 2:23). He appears to have Isaiah 7-12 as a whole in mind (the literary unit we have examined previously). This literary unit of Isaiah 7-12 is significant for Matthew’s argument because it ties everything together. Isaiah 11-12 in particular form the culmination of all that the Davidic Shepherd-Ruler will bring to Israel when He leads them in a second exodus. Matthew is proclaiming that this Jesus is the Messiah of Isaiah 11-12 and of all the prophets together. He is dwelling in Nazareth, and this affirms Him to be the Branch long anticipated to deliver God’s people Israel.

Yet, after reading Isaiah 11-12, the reader is struck by the fact that all the wonderful promises of what Messiah will bring have not been realized yet. Israel is still largely dispersed among the nations. The wolf is not dwelling with the lamb. The wicked still rule, and injustice still prevails. How, then, can Matthew present this Jesus as the expected Messiah to bring the restoration promised in the prophets?

Matthew is calling his audience to recognize that this Jesus is the Messiah. God is faithful, thus, what He has made known in the prophets will come to pass. The Messiah is not dead; He has risen, and He is returning again to bring physical deliverance to the nation of Israel. For those who believe, Matthew’s narrative functions as an encouragement. Our God of loyal, covenant love is not finished with His chosen people! Yet, to those who do not believe, there is a call to repentance. Deliverance is only for those who place their faith and hope in Messiah alone for salvation. Our study of hermeneutics in Matthew 1-2 comes to a close, but leaves us with perhaps the most important question: Will you turn from your sins, put your faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ, and find eternal hope in Him and His return?