The Messiah would be called a Nazarene
Reference: Isaiah 11:1; Isaiah 53:3; Zechariah (various portions); Psalm 22
Fulfillment: Matthew 2:23
Matthew’s Gospel cites many Old Testament prophets about the Messiah, but only in 2:23 does he use the plural “prophets” as opposed to a particular prophet: “And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene.” Moreover, whereas in other citations he uses the word “saying” (Greek, legontos), here he uses the word “that” (Greek, hoti), suggesting that it is not a direct quote. Rather, it represents a summary of what several prophets have said. What did they say then?
The words of Nathanael in John 1:46 shed light: “Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’” People from Nazareth were not held in high esteem; they were considered backward and, we might say, “trashy.” In fact, Galilee as a whole did not have a sterling reputation. When the Pharisee Nicodemus defended Jesus in front of his fellow Pharisees, they replied, “Are you from Galilee too? Search and see that no prophet arises from Galilee” (John 7:52).
Various prophets and other Old Testament writers wrote that the Messiah would be despised and considered of low esteem. For example, Isaiah 53:3 says that, “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.”
Zechariah is another likely one of the “plural prophets” who spoke about the lowliness of the Messiah. Zechariah 9:9-10, in the midst of a section of “messianic portraits” (in the words of commentator R. T. France), depicts a savior who is riding a donkey, in lowly fashion.
Zechariah 11:4-14 speaks of a shepherd who is not recognized by his own sheep, who is pierced by the Jerusalemites in 12:10, and was even struck down by God’s sword (13:7). As France summarizes, the words of this verse in Matthew “represent the prophetic expectation that the Messiah would appear from nowhere and would as a result meet with incomprehension and rejection.”1
Similarly, Psalm 22 says in verse 6 (Hebrew, verse 7), “But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people.” David said this of himself as a righteous sufferer, but when Jesus quoted this Psalm on the cross, the implication was that he was the ultimate example of such a suffering individual. Note that in Acts 2:30-31, David is called a prophet, though he is not normally included in the writing prophets of the Old Testament: “Being therefore a prophet… he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Messiah.” Similarly, Acts 4:24 speaks of God “who through the mouth of our father David, your servant, said by the Holy Spirit,” followed by a quotation from Psalm 2. So David could also be included among Matthew’s “prophets.”
Less likely is the idea that this is a wordplay on netzer, Hebrew for branch, in Isaiah 11:1. The wordplay only works in Hebrew, not in Greek (the language of Matthew). And it is not the case that multiple prophets spoke of the Messiah as a branch, nor that they stated that he “would be called” by that name. The explanation that it refers to the Messiah’s lowliness and status as a despised person fits Matthew’s usage perfectly.
1. R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew (New International Commentary on the New Testament), (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), 95.