NOTE: I wrote this commentary a few days before my recent blog post, Can Jesus Inherit Lineage from his Adoptive Father Joseph?.
If, after you have entered the land that the Lord your God has assigned to you, and taken possession of it and settled in it, you decide, “I will set a king over me, as do all the nations about me,” you shall be free to set a king over yourself, one chosen by the Lord your God. Be sure to set as king over yourself one of your own people; you must not set a foreigner over you, one who is not your kinsman. Moreover, he shall not keep many horses or send people back to Egypt to add to his horses, since the Lord has warned you, “You must not go back that way again.” And he shall not have many wives, lest his heart go astray; nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess.
When he is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Teaching written for him on a scroll by the levitical priests. Let it remain with him and let him read in it all his life, so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God, to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching as well as these laws. Thus he will not act haughtily toward his fellows or deviate from the Instruction to the right or to the left, to the end that he and his descendants may reign long in the midst of Israel.
–Deuteronomy 17:14-20 (JPS Tanakh)
Of course, this instruction was incumbant upon all of Israel’s Kings beginning with Saul, but we know that subsequently Saul was removed from the Throne by God and David set in his place. Further, we know that God made a covenant with David that a descendent of his would always sit upon the Throne of Israel (2 Samuel 7:11-17), and the ultimate Davidic King is Messiah (John 1:49).
But if Messiah is a legitimate King of Israel, he should be subject to what we see in this week’s Torah Portion Shoftim, as quoted above.
The parsha goes further: the king is commanded to write two copies of the Torah, to keep the Torah with him, and should read from it “all the days of his life.” Thus the king was to acquire and maintain fear of Heaven, and to observe the Torah and perform its Commandments. A Jewish king recognizes that in actuality, he is merely a servant of a Higher authority. The Torah commands that he do all this “so that his heart does not lift itself over his brothers.” The intent is the same: he remains one of the people, and he is responsible for them and their spiritual well-being. Unlike monarchies in other nations, the Jewish king must remain part of the people, and care for them.
-Rabbi Yaakov Menken
Commentary on Shoftim
Perhaps Messiah was responding to this requirement when he said and did this:
So when He had washed their feet, and taken His garments and reclined at the table again, He said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call Me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master, nor is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.
–John 13:12-17 (NASB)
But Jesus called them to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”
–Matthew 20:25-28 (NASB)
And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit.
–Matthew 27:50 (NASB)
We often think of Kings as rulers and especially in the case of David, as warriors, leading armies to defeat enemies, but what about the servant King who so identified with his subjects that he would give his life so they would live?
Although we don’t typically think of Moses as a King, we see that he possessed the same qualities:
Then Moses returned to the Lord, and said, “Alas, this people has committed a great sin, and they have made a god of gold for themselves. But now, if You will, forgive their sin—and if not, please blot me out from Your book which You have written!”
–Exodus 32:31-32 (NASB)
We don’t think of Jesus as becoming a King until he returns, but even as Yeshua ben Yosef, the suffering servant, he was everything we could ever hope from a King, especially in his humility and his willingness to give his life for those he loves.
The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet from among your own people, like myself; him you shall heed. This is just what you asked of the Lord your God at Horeb, on the day of the Assembly, saying, “Let me not hear the voice of the Lord my God any longer or see this wondrous fire any more, lest I die.” Whereupon the Lord said to me, “They have done well in speaking thus. I will raise up a prophet for them from among their own people, like yourself: I will put My words in his mouth and he will speak to them all that I command him; and if anybody fails to heed the words he speaks in My name, I myself will call him to account.
–Deuteronomy 18:15-19 (JPS Tanakh)
Then a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is My Son, My Chosen One; listen to Him!”
–John 9:35 (NASB)
But while it may not be obvious that Jesus was, in some sense, King upon his first coming, he certainly was a prophet, the prophet foretold in this week’s Torah portion.
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, He was asking His disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; but still others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
–Matthew 16:13-16 (NASB)
When Moses was speaking of God raising a prophet like him, in one sense, he was speaking of all the prophets who came after him. The text immediately after the prophesy describes how to determine if one is a valid prophet or not.
Moses would not be the last of the prophets. He would have successors. Historically this was so. From the days of Samuel to the Second Temple period, each generation gave rise to men – and sometimes women – who spoke G‑d’s word with immense courage, unafraid to censure kings, criticize priests, or rebuke an entire generation for its lack of faith and moral integrity.
-Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks
Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth
Of course, this test should be applied to all who claim to be prophets and most importantly to one who claims to be Messiah, for if his prophesies are not true, then not only is he not a prophet, but he cannot be Moshiach.
There was, however, an obvious question: How does one tell a true prophet from a false one? Unlike kings or priests, prophets did not derive authority from formal office. Their authority lay in their personality, their ability to give voice to the word of G‑d, their self-evident inspiration. But precisely because a prophet has privileged access to the word others cannot hear, the visions others cannot see, the real possibility existed of false prophets – like those of Baal in the days of King Ahab. Charismatic authority is inherently destabilizing. What was there to prevent a fraudulent, or even a sincere but mistaken, figure, able to perform signs and wonders and move the people by the power of his words, from taking the nation in a wrong direction, misleading others and perhaps even himself?
-Lord Rabbi Sacks
I’m sure this is how at least some Jewish people see Jesus if they acknowledge his ability to do signs and wonders as well as the power of his words of teaching. We know from the Biblical record that this is how some Jewish people even in the days Jesus walked in Israel thought of him. Christian apologetics tend to defend Jesus based on Jewish prophesy, but can they, can we defend him based on his own prophecies?
Unfortunately, while there is just tons and tons of information about the prophesies referring to Messiah, but I can’t immediately find anything available about the prophesies spoken by Jesus. Do we call these his prophesies?
From that time Jesus began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised up on the third day.
“But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left. “Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.'”
Jesus said to him, “You have said it yourself; nevertheless I tell you, hereafter you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
As He was going out of the temple, one of His disciples *said to Him, “Teacher, behold what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” And Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left upon another which will not be torn down.”
“But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then recognize that her desolation is near. Then those who are in Judea must flee to the mountains, and those who are in the midst of the city must leave, and those who are in the country must not enter the city; because these are days of vengeance, so that all things which are written will be fulfilled. Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days; for there will be great distress upon the land and wrath to this people; and they will fall by the edge of the sword, and will be led captive into all the nations; and Jerusalem will be trampled under foot by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.
Now on the last day, the great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water.’” But this He spoke of the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were to receive; for the Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. Some of the people therefore, when they heard these words, were saying, “This certainly is the Prophet.”
Certainly the prophesies where Jesus foretold his own death were accurate, as were the words he spoke of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. But he hasn’t returned in power yet to restore Israel, return the exiles, and rebuild the Temple. It is these prophesies modern Jews point to and say, “he didn’t fulfill these,” thus declaring that Jesus can’t have been the Messiah.
There are other prophesies in the Bible that just “hang out there” in the air awaiting fulfillment. It is only faith that allows us to wait for them, just as observant Jews faithfully await the coming of Messiah, as Rabbi Mosheh ben Maimon, also known as Maimonides or Rambam said in the twelfth of his Thirteen Principles of Faith:
I believe with a complete faith in the coming of the Messiah, and even though he may delay, nevertheless, every day I anticipate that he will come.
There is much evidence in scripture that Jesus (Yeshua) is the awaited Messiah, that he came and will return, but there is not absolute proof. We are expected to also exercise faith. One of the criticisms of the “two comings model” of Messiah is that it’s been nearly two-thousand years since his death, resurrection, and ascent. Why does he delay? What’s he waiting for? Isn’t the world screwed up enough yet? Aren’t we long overdue for a Savior?
Jesus said he would return “soon” (Revelation 22:20), but apparently that isn’t “soon” by human standards. On the other hand, the prophet Jonah declared that in forty days, the great city Ninevah would be overthrown (Jonah 4:4) but the King, the city, and even the animals repented (Jonah 4:5-9) and as a result, God relented and did not destroy Ninevah (Jonah 4:10), which made Jonah pretty unhappy.
But since Jonah made a prophesy and it didn’t come true (because God apparently overrode the prophesy), does that make Jonah a false prophet? It doesn’t appear so. Then what happened?
Of course, Ninevah was eventually destroyed, so their repentance wasn’t what you would call “permanent.” But that’s not good enough. Jonah said that Ninevah would be destroyed in forty days, not eventually.
Rabbi Sacks has, what for Christians, is an uncomfortable answer.
Fundamental conclusions follow from this. A prophet is not an oracle: a prophecy is not a prediction. Precisely because Judaism believes in free will, the human future can never be unfailingly predicted. People are capable of change. G‑d forgives. As we say in our prayers on the High Holy Days: “Prayer, penitence and charity avert the evil decree.” There is no decree that cannot be revoked. A prophet does not foretell. He warns. A prophet does not speak to predict future catastrophe but rather to avert it. If a prediction comes true it has succeeded. If a prophecy comes true it has failed.
This only applies to what Rabbi Sacks calls a “negative prophecy,” one that foretells some dire event or punishment. If it comes true, then God kept His word. If it does not come true (in the case of Ninevah), it meant that the people repented and God relented of His punishment. They heeded God’s warning and He was merciful.
But what of Messiah’s prophesies of his return as King? First, no specific time frame was set except “soon.” In fact, we are told that he will come as a thief in the night (1 Thessalonians 5:2), and that no one, not even the angels in Heaven, know the time of Messiah’s return (Mark 13:32). However, let’s assume that (here’s the problematic part) human beings have some sort of impact on the timing of Messiah. There are many opinions in Judaism about this timing. Some say that only when Israel is completely faithless will he return, others say only when Israel is completely faithful. However, there is an enduring idea that in some way our behavior or our worthiness or lack of worthiness all affect exactly when Messiah will come.
Human free will doesn’t override God’s plan, but in Judaism, free will has an “interactive” relationship with that plan, making some adjustments on it. It’s like God’s plan is a mighty river. The river cannot be stopped, but the various objects and structures in the river might affect its flow one way or the other. It will still wind its way to the delta and meet the ocean, so the end is a foregone conclusion, but the little details potentially are adjustable.
That’s one way of looking at the return of the King. It probably won’t be palatable to Christians, but then, we tend not to want to think in those directions, anyway.
So what do we have? We have a Jesus who we know was a prophet in his first coming and who less obviously also was a King, at least in his service to Israel up to and including his sacrificial death. As prophet, the events he prophesied that have already come to pass can be verified (his death and resurrection, the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem). But the prophesies of his return cannot be verified for they have yet to arrive.
It is faith that helps us believe that the prophesies will be fulfilled, and that we will see the return of the Messiah King.
Addendum: Rabbi Joshua Brumbach wrote an excellent commentary on this week’s Torah Portion that also addresses Messiah as a Prophet like Moses, but from a Jewish perspective: Why Do We Need Yeshua? I encourage you to read it.