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Please elaborate on the OT practice of anointing.


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If, as you say, anointing was “the standard way of choosing a king who was not a direct descendant of David,” why was Jesus, clearly a direct descendant of David, said to be "anointed"? (See study tip on 1 Samuel 9:1-10, 9:15 - 10:1b) (2/29/08)

This question is a great illustration of what I am always telling you: Don’t take my word for what’s in the scripture, because I make mistakes! Read it for yourself! I’m grateful to this reader for the opportunity to learn more about anointing than I ever thought there was to know. Unfortunately, one thing I learned is that it would take me months to understand anointing and the concept of the Messiah well enough to give a complete, brief, correct, and understandable answer to the question. I’m going to summarize what I have learned so far; just be warned that it is not the whole story, and that even so, the summary is long.

Translation

First, as always, is the translation problem. More than one word in both Hebrew and Greek are typically translated “anoint” in English. There are three Hebrew words. Both mashach and suk are translated from Hebrew into Old Testament (OT) Greek as chriō and aleiphō. Mashach is nearly always used for any kind of holy anointing. Chriō and aleiphō are also used to translate suk, which is mostly used for cosmetic anointing. Both chriō and aleiphō are used in the New Testament (NT) and translated into English as “anoint,” both holy and cosmetic. (One more Hebrew word and two more Greek words clearly don’t concern us here.) Mashach gives rise to the noun Messiah, and chriō gives rise to the noun Christ; both nouns mean “Anointed One.”

(Just as a little aside, try not to base too large a percentage of your theology on any one verse or word – especially if you are reading the text in translation – unless your position is really well supported by context. This case of multiple-words-to-one-word is an example of the problems you can run into.)

Mashach seems to be used almost exclusively for the anointing of priests, kings, prophets, holy items for the tabernacle, and sacrifices. In these uses, it is translated into Greek as either chriō or aleiphō. The two Greek words seems completely interchangeable, as near as I can tell, for priests and holy items. Only chriō seems to be used for kings, prophets, and sacrifices. In the NT, chriō and aleiphō aren’t used in so many different contexts as in the OT, but as near as I can tell, they are interchangeable in the NT.

Time

Second, anointing of holy items started with Jacob (Genesis 31:13) and got very important and very well recorded about 450 years later, when Moses led the building the Tabernacle (Exodus). Anointing of priests and sacrifices started at the same time as the Tabernacle. Anointing of kings started with Saul (1 Samuel 15), another 400 or 500 years later, and lasted for several hundred years. A couple of prophets were anointed along the way. Then there was the period between the Old and New Testaments, also several hundred years. Finally we get to Jesus, the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One. We shouldn’t be surprised that the usage of all these words changed somewhat between Jacob and Jesus, a total elapsed time of roughly 1600 years.

Kings

Third, I was just plain wrong about which kings were anointed by prophets. The kings explicitly said to be anointed were as follows: Most of these were anointed by a prophet, although David was anointed both by a prophet and by the people, and Absalom was anointed by the people only. (Absalom actually didn’t make it to being king, because David wanted Solomon instead. But it shows that the people assumed that they could anoint a king, as does Judges 9.) Even worse, Jeroboam I of Israel was directly chosen by God, told by the prophet Ahijah that he had been chosen, and then not anointed. Everything I thought I knew turned out to be wrong!

I consulted some reference books, and they agree that all the kings of Judah – all of whom were descended from David – were all referred to as “the Lord’s Anointed.” To be perfectly honest, I can’t figure out how they came to that conclusion. The great majority of the uses of the phrase “the Lord’s Anointed” are by David, referring to King Saul. The phrase is also used several times in the Psalms, without naming any names. A cursory reading of these Psalms suggests to me that David is talking about himself, but scholars seem to agree that the Psalms are talking about whichever descendant of David was on the throne. Once, a very similar phrase is used to refer to King Cyrus of Persia (Isaiah 45).

Priests, Prophets, Holy Items, and Sacrifices

So how about the priests, prophets, holy items for the Temple, and sacrifices? Apparently anointing actually was standard for priests, more so than for kings. All the items to be used in the Temple were anointed (Exodus 40). Certain kinds of sacrifices and offerings had to be anointed. Only one prophet, Elisha, is explicitly recorded as being anointed with oil by a prophet, but Isaiah also said that the Lord had anointed him when he was called to preach (Isaiah 61). Jesus quoted the latter passage exactly when he began his own ministry (Luke 4).

Messianic Prophecy and Mysterious Interlude

As I hope you have noticed in our studies thus far this year, most Biblical prophecy is directed against the people who are hearing the prophecy. The gist of this is that God is mad, and if you don’t shape up right now, you and your society will be punished in the very near future. Almost always, God is angry because of your behavior, and the anger-invoking behavior is about equally divided between apostasy and social injustice. If you and your society do shape up, you will be blessed.

Fairly late in Old Testament times, a strain of prophecy called “Messianic prophecy” became much more prominent, that is, the prophecies about the coming of the Messiah, i.e., the Anointed One. This strain of prophecy is directed at comforting the people who are hearing the prophecy: Your society’s anger-invoking behavior has gone on for so long that it is toast. However, God will ultimately send the Messiah, who will save some of your descendants and their society.

As near as I can tell, there is considerable agreement among Christians and Jews about which OT passages constitute Messianic prophecy. The tricky part is, very few of these passages use the word “Messiah.” (There is not complete agreement among Christians about which passages are messianic, and I suspect the same is true for Jews.)

We are going to read messianic prophecy for a week and a half, beginning on March 20. Here are the major themes: Then comes the Intertestamental Period, that is, the time that passed between the end of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New Testament. The Jews spent about 400 years back in Palestine after the Babylonian Exile, about 80 of which they were independent and the rest, in bondage to one world power or another. Apparently, this was a time of very rich development of the concept of “The Messiah,” in both apocalyptic writing and rabbinical teaching. I know almost nothing about these works. I gather, however, that it was during this period that the concept of the Messiah got a lot more clearly defined as a person and identified with the various aspects of Messianic prophecy that don’t mention the Messiah.

Jesus as Messiah and Anointed One

Now, the interesting thing is that Jesus qualifies under all the uses of mashach and fulfills the messianic prophecies that have so far had a chance to be proved or disproved. (Obviously the end-times parts of the prophecies are still to come.)

He is the perfect high priest (Hebrews 5:10), who serves in a greater and more perfect tabernacle (Hebrews 9:11). He is the perfect sacrifice, which is offered in this perfect tabernacle (Hebrews 9:11-14). He is a direct descendant of David (Matthew 1), so he is anointed as king. And he is a prophet (e.g., Matthew 13:57, 21:11). He was baptized by the prophet John the Baptist. He is the Messiah or Christ (too many references to mention). Therefore he is the Anointed One.

When we read the messianic prophecies, I’ll try to remember to point out exactly how each one is or will be fulfilled in Jesus.

I’m sorry this has taken so long and turned out to be so lengthy. Great question!


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