From where does hope come? And why does it take so long to get here?
In our microwave age of instant information and Siri solutions, we don’t wait well. Yet, Christianity is a religion of patient endurance, long-suffering, and waiting—pure and simple waiting. Throughout the Old Testament, the people of God are told to wait. After the Exodus, Israel is forced to wait forty years because of their sinful unbelief, and at the other end of the Old Testament, Israel is left waiting for their messiah to bring a new exodus. Just the same in the New Testament, Hebrews 6:12 instructs, be “imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.”
We should probably take it as axiomatic, then, that God wants his people to wait. Anyone who has ever prayed knows that the waiting is where God does his working. Saints are not matured in a day; they are formed in periods of years, decades, and generations. Hence, in this season of Christmas when we reenact Israel’s waiting of the Christ’s birth, we do well to think about the way that God promised his Son, so that in our waiting, hope would flourish.
From Genesis 3:15 to Jesus (to Revelation 12 too), the promise of a child-savior runs through the Bible. During Advent, we remember most explicitly the details related to the Angelic host, the Magi, and the Bethlehem Star, but God’s inspired apostles also send us back into the Old Testament to remember all that led up to Christ’s birth. Thus, in keeping with the pattern of waiting and watching in Scripture, it is worth observing just how and how often and how long God prepared the way for Jesus to come through a myriad of promises and prototypes leading up to the birth of Immanuel, God with us. (Fittingly, what follows is not short. But how could it be? The arrival of Christ’s birth took millennia.)
What follows is a thread of verses that trace how God prepared the way for Jesus. It begins with God’s promise of son in Genesis 3:15 and continues to see how this theme is expanded and developed through the history of Israel. It’s not a short journey, but neither was the voyage the Magi took to worship Jesus (approx. 500 miles in around two months time). In this age of fast-paced consumerism, may God give us grace to look long and longingly at the Messiah whose arrival took millennia to achieve, and may God produce fresh hope in us for the second advent of God’s Son.
A Serpent-Crushing Seed (Genesis 3:15 )
The first gospel promise (what’s often called the “protoevangelium”) is found in Genesis 3:15. In God’s judgment upon the serpent, our Lord promises that a seed of the woman, will come to crush the head serpent.
“I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
and you shall bruise his heel.”
Some have found in this verse a latent clue for Jesus’ virgin birth, for technically speaking women do not have “seed.” We’ll save that debate for another day. For now, it’s enough to see that the defeat of Satan and his seed will come from the offspring of Eve. At the very beginning, salvation depends on a promised son.
A Son Who Will Give Rest (Genesis 5:28–29)
While some have seen in Eve’s words (Genesis 4:1) hopefulness for God to bring salvation through her first child, there is no doubt Lamech, the son of Methusaleh, saw in his son the promise of relief. In the genealogy of Genesis 5, Moses pauses to expand the meaning of Noah’s name. Verses 28–29 read,
When Lamech had lived 182 years, he fathered a son 29 and called his name Noah, saying, “Out of the ground that the Lord has cursed, this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the painful toil of our hands.”
Noah’s name sounds like the word for “comfort” or “rest” and thus Moses includes his name in his birth account to set up the work of salvation Noah would perform, as God has favor on him, and uses him to “save” the human race during the flood (ch. 6–8). As the rest of the Bible indicates, this flood story with Noah as its crowning human figure models a type of salvation that repeats throughout the rest of the Bible. All in all, we find in Noah’s birth name and subsequent life a type of savior.
A Son of Abraham (Genesis 12–-22)
Following another genealogy in Genesis 11:10–32, we are introduced to Abram, son of Terah, an offspring of Shem, Noah’s blessed son. Immediately in Genesis 12, when Moses turns to tell the story of God’s election and covenant-making with Abram, we learn of God’s promise of a “seed.” Programatic for Genesis 12–22, God says,
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (12:1–3)
Implicit in this promise of “nation”-hood is the promise of a child. Verse 7 makes this promise explicit: “Then the Lord appeared to Abram and said, ‘To your offspring I will give this land.’ So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him.” (12:7) From this seedbed, chapters 12–22 unfold a story of God making good on his promise to give Abraham a son. And who is this son? He is the one through whom the world would be blessed, but he is also a type of another son.
Fast forward to the New Testament where we learn further how to read Genesis. Paul explaining the gospel in Galatians says that the gospel was preached beforehand to Abraham (3:8). In this context, Paul comments on the “seed” promise made to Abraham. Galatians 3:16 reads,
Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ.
Like so many Old Testament types, Paul’s statement doesn’t overturn the historical significance of Isaac fulfilling God’s promise. Rather, Isaac serves as a God-ordained type for the greater seed to come—the son Paul describes in Galatians 3. From this thick reading of Genesis, we see how the blessings of God are brought through the birth of a child.
A Royal Son from Israel (Genesis–Deuteronomy)
In the midst of God’s work with Abraham, Yahweh promised him that kings would come from his lineage (17:6, 16). Throughout the rest of Genesis this promise loomed in the background. In Genesis 35:11, God said to Jacob, “A nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings shall come from your own body.” Likewise, at the end of his life Jacob-now-named-Israel, blessed Judah by saying that his tribe would inher
In these promises, royalty is added to the hope of a savior-child. And this is only confirmed in Exodus–Deuteronomy. First, in Exodus 4:22, Israel is identified as God’s first born son. This designation enlarges the identity of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to all of their children. Now the entire nation is God’s son (cf. Hosea 11:1). Accordingly, their election and covenant with God becomes the means by which salvation would come to the world. Like Abraham, whose blessing was intended for all nations (Genesis 12:3), Israel’s calling as God’s son was always meant to bring blessing to others.
Just the same, enmeshed in the context of Israel’s calling as God’s son is the growing prospect of a royal son. For, in Numbers, when Balaam is hired to curse Israel, he could only bless, and in the midst of his prophetic blessings, he promised a royal “seed” who will come and reign over the nations.
Water shall flow from his buckets,
and his seed shall be in many waters;
his king shall be higher than Agag,
and his kingdom shall be exalted. (Numbers 24:7)
I see him, but not now;
I behold him, but not near:
a star shall come out of Jacob,
and a scepter shall rise out of Israel;
it shall crush the forehead of Moab
and break down all the sons of Sheth. (Numbers 24:17)
These two verses continue to look for a child who would be king, a king who would save Israel by crushing the enemy (cf. Genesis 3:15). Add to this the requirements for kingship in Deuteronomy 17:15 (“one from among your brothers you shall set as king over you”), and you can see how the whole of the Pentateuch prepares the way for a child who would bring a kingdom.
A Son of David
With the mold of kingship formed in the Pentateuch, the history of Israel moves into the promised land. Because of the expectancy set up by the Law, there is a sense in which every generation carries with it the promise of the long-expected savior-child. Judges is written to indicate that no such royal son has yet been born (see Judges 21:25), but during the period of the Judges we find a story indicating that his arrival may soon come. In Ruth, we have a love story that finishes with another genealogy. And not surprisingly, the son Ruth indicates is the son who would become the final template for God’s promised messiah.
After a long power struggle with Israel’s first king—chosen by the people according to their fleshly desires—God’s anointed receives his throne. Who is this king of glory? It is David, the one whose life foreshadows Jesus Christ. Upon his coronation, his procurement of Jerusalem, and his desire to build God a house (a temple palace), the tables are turned and David receives God’s promise. Second Samuel 7:12–14 records,
When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. 14 I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son.
These covenantal words narrow sonship from Israel (as a nation) to one of David’s sons. While God had not abandoned Israel as a people, this royal covenant with David described in Psalms 2, 45, 72, 89 indicate that Israel’s blessing now depends on the rule of David. In corporate solidarity, the people of God would rise or fall with the faithfulness of this king and his sons.
As the history of Israel goes, there were good kings and bad kings to come from David. Ultimately, however, these fallible kings could not live up to the covenant God made with them. Accordingly, Judah fell to the Babylonians, and the son of David was displaced from the throne. Psalm 89 expresses the sorrow of this event. More than any Psalm it outlines the promises of God’s covenant with David and the result of these sons disobedience. Because David’s sons failed to keep covenant, God kept his promise—to discipline Israel for their sin. God exiled the nation of Judah, but such judgment only intensified Israel’s hope for a Son of David to come.
Post-Exilic Messianic Hope
While the Psalms were written from the time of Moses (Psalm 90) to David to the exile (Psalm 137), the finished Psalter came together after the exile. At some point, Ezra or someone like him arranged the Psalter to tell the story of God’s kingdom in history and in eschatology. And what is striking is that after Psalm 89 recounts God’s abandonment of David, the rest of the rest of Psalter (Books IV and V) looks for a new David to come and make atonement for his people (Psalms 110, 118) and set up God’s everlasting temple (Psalm 132).
This Davidic hope is paralleled in the Psalms, where David is regularly mentioned. Due to the timing of their writings, Isaiah (ch. 55), Jeremiah (ch. 34), Ezekiel (ch. 37), and Hosea (ch. 3) cannot be referring to the historical son of Jesse, when they mention David. Rather, they are casting their vision to the future, when God will bring a greater Son of David to establish his throne in justice. In this post-exilic context, salvation is promised through the coming of a new David, and especially in Isaiah, it comes through the birth of a child from his line.
In Isaiah, the theme of a child-savior is witnessed (7:14; 9:6–7; 11:1; 53:1–3). In fact, combined with the image of a vine, the child is a first a stump (6:13), then a branch (11:1), then sapling (53:1–3), which in time becomes a forest of oaks (61:3), after it dies as a seed producing a righteous posterity (Isaiah 53:6–12). Truly, the images overlap in Isaiah, but when brought into the storyline of God’s plan to save the world through a child, we gain focus. For brevity consider just a few verses in Isaiah:
And though a tenth remain in it,
it will be burned again,
like a terebinth or an oak,
whose stump remains
when it is felled.”
The holy seed is its stump. (6:13)
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign.
Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. (7:14)
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7 Of the increase of his government and of peace
there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this. (9:6–7)
There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. (11:1)
For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground. (53:2a)
That they may be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified. (61:3)
All in all, the whole book of Isaiah stands on the promises that come before it and direct the reader towards the coming of a child that is greater than the physical offspring of Isaiah, or, for that matter, Cyrus king of Persia who Isaiah names centuries before his birth (see Isaiah 45:1). In the context of Isaiah and later in history, Cyrus is the “servant” who provides physical salvation for the Jews (see Daniel 1:28ff). Historically, this happened in the return from exile (2 Chronicles 36:22–23); in Isaiah’s prophecy however, Cyrus’ physical deliverance could not overturn the sinfulness of Israel. Hence, a greater servant was needed, one who by his Spirit (11:2–-4; 42:1) would bring forgiveness (53:4–6), new life (32:15), and God’s new creation (ch. 65–66).
So, Isaiah as a book brings the messianic hope of a savior-child to its Old Testament climax. And not surprisingly, the people of Israel during the exile continued to express their hope through the naming of their own children.
The Long Runway of Matthew’s Genealogy
When Matthew begins his Gospel, he identifies Jesus as the son of Abraham and the son of David (1:1). In truth, he is the substance from whom all the shadows drew their shape. And so Matthew traces Jesus’ history from Abraham to David through the exile to Jesus Christ. For those familiar with the Old Testament, the first 30 names are familiar, for up to Zerrubabel the names are found in Scripture. But beginning with Abiud (the third name in the third part of the geneaology), the names lose their historical reference.
That being said, we do find in the names a common element—hope. As Andy Dufresne stated sublimely, “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.” Indeed, while the generations of Israelites died waiting for the birth of their savior-king, their hope did not. And we can see that in the names of their children.
- Abiud (“my father is majesty”)
- Eliakim (“God raises up”)
- Azor (“he that assists”)
- Zadok (“righteous”)
- Achim (“the Lord will establish”)
- Eliud (“God his praise”)
- Eleazar (“God has helped”)
- Matthan (“gift”)
- Jacob and Joseph (the names of famous patriarchs that preceded in Genesis and Exodus Israel’s Exodus)
One might dismiss this interpretation of hope-inspired birth names, but it only takes a comparison of other names in Israel to see that when people were in great pain they named their children things like Jabez (“pain,” 1 Chronicles 4:9–10), Lo-Ruhamah (“no mercy,” in Hosea 1:6), L0-ammi (“not my people,” in Hosea 1:9). Indeed, few periods in Israel’s history were more bleak than the years between Malachi and Matthew, yet this genealogy only includes names brimming over with hopeful confidence in God. Thus, it seems that hope runs deep in Israel, not because of their circumstances, but because like Simeon, Anna, Mary and Joseph, the generations after exile continued to believe God’s promise of a child who would bring salvation for them and the world.
Indeed, this is the backstory to the birth of Jesus. From the very beginning child birth not only “saved” the human race by replacing people who soon go the way of their fathers, in Israel and then Judah and then in David’s household, it also promised that this child might be the one promised to crush the serpent, inherit the promises, rule Israel, sit on David’s throne, and bring salvation to the world. Indeed, this is the promise now fulfilled in Jesus Christ.
Taking Time to Hope
In truth, such a biblical vision takes a long time to grasp. But it is not nearly as long as it took for the Lord to bring his child to earth. Perhaps the length of time it takes to see all that God has done in redemptive history is intended to help us feel what our forefathers felt as they waited for the Lord. Indeed, Christianity is a waiting religion, and meditating on how God fulfills his promises teaches us much about our God and our impatient approach to him.
This Christmas as we remember the arrival of the Lord, let us take time to consider that from Genesis to Jesus, God has been working to bring his Son to earth. The reason for this, among others, is to create in his people a hope for his return. Indeed, as that resilient prisoner from Shawshank Redemption once said, “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things,” and it is the thing that purifies the hearts of God’s people and prepares them to see the promised child, now grown and exalted as the king of glory.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds