The problem with this is that it gives the entirely false impression that an "earthly" concept of the Messiah was something manmade, that it arose simply out of the inexplicably "earthly" minds of the Jews of Jesus' time, and that it was their attempt to impose their selfish human desires onto God's plans.
But this is simply untrue. Consider the following passages, among many others.
Psalm 72 (passim):
He shall judge thy people with righteousness, and thy poor with judgment, the mountains shall bring peace to the people, and the little hills, by righteousness. He shall judge the poor of the people, he shall save the children of the needy, and shall break in pieces the oppressor. They shall fear thee as long as the sun and moon endure...He shall have dominion also from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth. They that dwell in the wilderness shall bow before him; and his enemies shall lick the dust. The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall bring presents: the kings of Sheba and Seba shall offer gifts. Yea, all kings shall fall down before him: all nations shall serve him.
And I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all countries whither I have driven them, and will bring them again to their folds...Behold the days come, saith the Lord, that I will raise unto David a righteous Branch, and a King shall reign and prosper, and shall execute judgment and justice in the earth. In his days Judah shall be saved, and Israel shall dwell safely, and this is his name whereby he shall be called, THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS.
But in the last days it shall come to pass, that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established in the top of the mountains, and it shall be exalted above the hills; and people shall flow into it. And many nations shall come, and say, Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord...And he shall judge among many people, and rebuke strong nations afar off, and they shall beat their swords into plowshares...
But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel...
Is this enough to make the point? There was nothing at all presumptuous about an expectation that Messiah would set up an earthly kingdom, would rule Israel as a nation, and would bring them peace and safety by means of defeating their earthly enemies.
But when my slight irritation at confused sermons prompted me to think this way, I had a small problem of my own: Why, then, was it a problem for Jesus to be rejected as the Messiah? Was God playing some sort of trick on His people--giving them all these prophecies of one kind of Messiah and then saying, "Aha! But I'm going to send you something completely different"? Were Jesus' miracles during his lifetime supposed to overcome a prima facie case that he was not the Messiah, based on the whole corpus of the Messianic prophecies, because he showed no signs of ruling from the sea to the uttermost parts of the earth or of making Israel safe from her enemies? And isn't this asking rather a lot, especially of people who were not personally present to witness Jesus' miracles?
In fact, just to make things still tougher, listen to what the angel Gabriel says to the Virgin Mary, in Luke 1:31-33:
And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest, and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David. And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.
Well, goodness! What was Mary going to think after receiving that prophecy? She would quite naturally expect an earthly Messiah.
A similar point comes up in the Song of Zechariah (which has become part of the liturgy of Morning Prayer in the BCP). There is definitely a prophetic aura about that passage. Zechariah was struck dumb because of his unbelief when he spoke to the Angel Gabriel. He shows that he's "come around" by writing that his son should be named John, and his tongue is loosed then, miraculously. So there's something rather authoritative about his words:
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he hath visited and redeemed his people, and hath raised up an horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he spake by the mouth of his holy prophets, which have been since the world began, that we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all that hate us....That he would grant unto us, that we being delivered out of the hand of our enemies might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him, all the days of our life. (Luke 1:68-75)
Sounds a lot like the Jeremiah 23 passage, doesn't it? The people of the time would have been steeped in such passages. But here we are, two thousand years later, and Israel still hasn't been saved from her enemies or from the hands of those that hate her! Nothing like. Nor did Jesus make any apparent move to do anything visibly like that during his earthly ministry.
It just shows the complete reasonableness of the disciples' question, just before Jesus' Ascension, "Wilt thou at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?" (Acts 1:6) And it's hard not to feel a bit impatient with Jesus' brusque dismissal of the disciples as not having the right to know the times or seasons kept in the power of the Father (Acts 1:7).
It's all very well for us Christians to say with 20/20 hindsight that these prophecies are eschatological. How were Jesus' disciples to know that? And if we're honest, we'll admit quite frankly that we have no very good idea what their fulfillment will look like even in eschatological terms. How can the end of the world come but separate nations remain for Jesus to rule over as in the Old Testament prophecies? How can there be no more giving in marriage (as Jesus said in Matthew 22:30) while history appears to continue with an earthly kingdom? And what in the world does the Apostle Paul mean when he prophesies that "all Israel shall be saved" (Romans 11:26)? I have no idea.
So here we have the challenge, the accusation: Did God play mind games with His people Israel by giving them confusing prophecies and then sending a Messiah who did not fulfill them, at least not at that time?
No doubt by this time many of my readers will have been fidgeting in their seats and wanting to blurt out the answer. Yes: It's true. There is another entirely separate, and rather surprisingly different, set of Messianic prophecies, of a Messiah who does not rule (at least not when he's fulfilling this set of prophecies), who instead suffers.
My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring?...They pierced my hands and my feet...They part my garments among them, and cast lots upon my vesture.
And I will pour upon the house of David, and upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the spirit of grace and of supplications, and they shall look upon me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for him, as one mourneth for his only son...
Daniel 9:25-26 (NIV)
Know and understand this: From the time the word goes out to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One, the ruler, comes, there will be seven ‘sevens,’ and sixty-two ‘sevens.’...26 After the sixty-two ‘sevens,’ the Anointed One will be put to death and will have nothing [or, "but not for himself"].
And probably the most important and striking suffering Messiah passage of all, Isaiah 52:13-53:12:
Behold, my servant shall deal prudently, he shall be exalted and extolled, and be very high. As many were astonied at thee; his visage was so marred more than any man, and his form more than the sons of men:...He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth. He was taken from prison and from judgment: and who shall declare his generation? for he was cut off out of the land of the living: for the transgression of my people was he stricken.
The contrasts between these two views of the Messiah could hardly have escaped the notice of the people of Israel. It is therefore not surprising that a tradition developed that there would actually be two Messiahs. One, the descendent of David, would be the ruling Messiah, while the other, the son of Joseph (why Joseph I have not yet entirely figured out) would be the suffering Messiah.
Dating the origins of traditions found in the Talmud is about as difficult as herding cats, and I make no claim to be a Talmudist. It seems safe, however, to say that, while the Talmudic traditions were written down well into the AD period, they represent lines of thought that could plausibly go back to the BC period and the time of Jesus.
Here is a mention of the Messiah son of Joseph, who was to be killed, in a commentary on Zechariah 12:10. From Succah 52a, in the Babylonian Talmud:
What was the mourning for? R. Dosa and the rabbis differ: One holds that it was for the Messiah the son of Joseph, who was killed; and one holds that it was for the evil angel, who was killed. It would be right according to one who holds that it was for the Messiah the son of Joseph, because he explains as supporting him the passage [Zech. xii. 10]: "And they will look up toward me (for every one) whom they have thrust through, and they will lament for him, as one lamenteth for an only son, and weep bitterly for him, as one weepeth bitterly for the firstborn"
The rabbis taught: The Messiah b. David, who (as we hope) will appear in the near future, the Holy One, blessed be He, will say to him: Ask something of me and I will give it to thee, as it is written [Ps. ii. 7-8]: "I will announce the decree . . . Ask it of me, and I will give," etc. But as the Messiah b. David will have seen that the Messiah b. Joseph who preceded him was killed, he will say before the Lord: Lord of the Universe, I will ask nothing of Thee but life. And the Lord will answer: This was prophesied already for thee by thy father David [Ps. xxi. 5]: "Life hath he asked of thee, thou gavest it to him."
An editorial footnote to this edition of the Talmud, to the phrase "Messiah the son of Joseph, who was killed" says,
There was a tradition among the ancient Hebrews that two Messiahs would appear before the redemption of Israel[,] one of the tribe of Joseph and one of the tribe of Jehudah, a descendant of David[,] and the expression "who was killed" means who will have been killed.
In further support of a tradition of a suffering Messiah, here is Sanhedrin 98b:
The Rabbis said: His name is 'the leper scholar,' as it is written, Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him a leper, smitten of God, and afflicted.
Here is a suggestive passage from the Dead Sea Scrolls, which of course date a good deal earlier than the written compilation of the Talmud:
...his Wisdom [will be great.] He will make atonement for all the children of his generation. He will be sent to all the sons of his [generation]. His word shall be as the word of Heaven and his teaching shall be according to the will of God. His eternal sun shall burn brilliantly. The fire shall be kindled in all the corners of the earth. Upon the Darkness it will shine. Then the Darkness will pass away [from] the earth and the deep Darkness from the dry land. They will speak many words against him. There will be many [lie]s. They will invent stories about him. They will say shameful things about him. He will overthrow his evil generation and there will be [great wrath]. When he arises there will be lying and violence, and the people will wander astray [in] his days and be confounded.
- Dead Sea Scrolls, 4Q541, Column 4
And here is a fascinating quotation from a document that appears to be originally Jewish but interpolated with Christian commentary. Nonetheless it is quite ancient; fragments from the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs have been found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Notice the reference to Joseph in the Testament of Benjamin:
And thus Jacob cried out, My child Joseph, thou hast prevailed over the bowels of thy father Jacob. And he embraced him, and kissed him for two hours, saying, In thee shall be fulfilled the prophecy of heaven concerning the Lamb of God, even the Saviour of the world, that spotless shall He be delivered up for transgressors, and sinless shall He be put to death for ungodly men in the blood of the covenant, for the salvation of the Gentiles and of Israel, and shall destroy Beliar, and them that serve him.
Even if we assume that the reference to the "saviour of the world," etc., was a Christian addition, any Christian interpolator that existed seems to have been picking up on the Messiah son of Joseph tradition, for otherwise one would have expected him to relate this reference to the Messiah to Judah.
Further arguments for some degree of Jewish realization at the time of Christ that Messiah (or a Messiah) must suffer are these:
--The apostles began immediately to apply Isaiah 53 (at least, but also presumably other suffering Messiah passages) to Jesus, as we can see most explicitly in Philip's conversation with the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8). Such applications are early implied when Peter preaches, "[T]hose things, which God before had showed by the mouth of all his prophets, that Christ should suffer, he hath so fulfilled" (Acts 3:18). While some of this can of course be attributed to their newly confirmed zeal to proclaim that Jesus was the Messiah (which we Christians of course attribute to their knowledge of the resurrection), it is not a far-fetched conjecture that in their preaching they were taking it as a given that there were acknowledged "suffering Messiah" prophecies.
--It seems implausible that the Messiah son of Joseph tradition would have first arisen de novo in the Christian era. If it were already firmly established that there was only a single, reigning Messiah tradition, this would have been the tradition to stick with in order not to cede any ground to the Christians.
--Circa AD 150, Justin Martyr records a stylized dialogue with Trypho the Jew which plausibly reflects the real state of Jewish-Christian debate at the time. Justin presses Isaiah 53 hard, and Trypho's response is not (at all) to deny its messianic nature nor that Messiah must suffer. Trypho says, "[W]e know that He should suffer and be led as a sheep" (Chapter XC) Rather, the sticking point for Trypho is the fact that the suffering took the form of crucifixion, and anyone who hangs on a tree is cursed in the law (Deuteronomy 21:23). It seems that even at this time the idea of denying a suffering Messiah altogether was not the preferred Jewish response, presumably because the prophetic texts make such a total denial very difficult. (Trypho also, I must note, does not try to divide the Messiah into two persons. Evidently that was only one possible way to resolve the apparent tension between the suffering and reigning Messianic passages. The more important point, however, is that he does not deny a suffering Messiah.)
If Jesus' lowly manner of life and lack of military ambition were puzzling in connection with the "ruling Messiah" prophesies, it would have been possible for the Jews during Jesus' ministry to advert to the suffering Messiah passages instead. The view that one Messiah would suffer and another Messiah would reign would make this even easier.
[Digression prompted by the coolness of this connection: In John 12:32, Jesus says, "And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me." John glosses this as a reference to the literal "lifting up" in the crucifixion. The audience seems to have understood it that way too (perhaps it was an idiom), and they say in vs. 34, "We have heard out of the law that Christ [i.e. Messiah] abideth for ever, and how sayest thou, The Son of man must be lifted up?" So the people are clearly bothered by the notion of a crucified Messiah. Jesus responds by telling them (vss. 35-36) to walk in the light while they have it--apparently, to believe in him on the basis of the miracles he has performed while there is still time. John immediately afterwards says that they did not believe on him despite all his miracles and that this fulfilled Isaiah 53:1, "Who hath believed our report?" Now, here's the extra-cool thing, which I would not have known myself. It's discussed in Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel, pp. 47ff. The word Jesus uses for "lifted up" is the same as the Greek word used in the Septuagint in Isaiah 52:13, when it says that the Servant of the Lord will be "exalted." It seems entirely plausible, and it would be quite in keeping with the Jewish love of plays on words, that Jesus was making a pun on the term "lifted up" or "exalted" to refer both to his final exaltation after his death and resurrection (see Philippians 2:9) and to the crucifixion itself. This would be in keeping with Jesus' reference, also in John, to his passion itself as his "glorification" (John 13:31-32). Here we see evidence both that Jesus' audience was fairly insistent on a successful and reigning Messiah who would not die (and especially would not be crucified) and also of Jesus' alluding to Isaiah 53--a passage that definitely indicates a suffering Messiah when taken as a whole. Jesus also did something that Christian liturgy and thought has done throughout the ages--he spoke of his death as a form of exaltation and triumph. End of digression.]
Prophecy in the nature of the case is often somewhat dark and understood only in hindsight. (Think even in fiction of the prophecy of the death of the Lord of the Nazgul in LOTR.) Two apparently quite different sets of prophecies about a person who might reasonably be expected to be a single person make matters more complicated still. But that very fact gives ample space for answering the charge of Divine injustice--at least on the assumption that Jesus gave some positive evidence that he was indeed the Messiah.
The contrast between the ruling and suffering traditions has yet another extremely nice evidential consequence: Let's go back to the account of the Annunciation in Luke. This passage is from a section of Luke in a Hebrew-influenced Greek style, quite different from Luke's usual style. (Luke's usual Greek style begins with the ministry of John the Baptist, in Luke 3:1. Something of the abrupt shift even comes across in the English, with the move from the narratives concerning Jesus' family to the historian's introduction: "Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee..." etc.)
We've already noted the fact that the angel's prophecy to Mary and the Song of Zechariah are permeated with messianic prophecy and specifically with prophecies naturally understood to refer to an earthly messianic reign.
Now consider what this means concerning the origins of the passages. This material is found only in Luke, and it would be pretty tempting for a skeptic to claim that it was a later "mythical accretion" (after all, we have two miraculous conceptions in the space of a single chapter!) added to fill in a perceived gap in our knowledge of Jesus' birth and childhood. But if the passages were later fictional addenda, it would be much more natural for the prophecies in them to reflect what by that time was well-known concerning Jesus' actual life: He did not set up an earthly kingdom. He died on the cross. He was not a conqueror or a visible king. He was crucified by the Romans for claiming to be the king of the Jews. Even though the early Christians believed firmly in Jesus' resurrection, the reigning and conquering Messiah passages from the Old Testament remained unfulfilled and had to be presumed to be eschatological. A story that was a later accretion would have been much more likely to give the angel a prophecy relating Jesus' future to that of the "suffering Messiah"--something about suffering for the sins of his people. We would not expect all of this material about his unending kingdom and, in the Song of Zechariah, about his bringing safety to Israel.
The very oddity of the focus on the reigning Messiah in these passages is evidence for their authenticity. Independently, based on language alone, we might plausibly conjecture that Luke was working with a source document written in Hebrew, possibly from Jesus' relatives. The un-retouched reigning Messiah prophecies are further evidence for this conjecture and even for the truth of the narratives.
Sherlock Holmes used to say that the very fact that seems recalcitrant is often a clue to the whole mystery. Something a bit like that has happened here. The somewhat obscure and frustrating reigning Messiah prophecies seem to generate a problem for Divine justice in God's dealings with His people. That challenge can be answered, and, as a bonus, the insistence of the early chapters of Luke on applying reigning Messiah prophecies to Jesus is evidence for the accuracy of the narrative.
(My humble thanks both to Esteemed Husband and to Eric Chabot for help on this post. Eric provided numerous e-mails, books, links, and references, including the Bauckham reference among many others, with unstinting generosity. Interested readers may like to read a related post by Eric here. Eric is less inclined than I to think that a Jewish tradition of a Suffering Messiah in addition to the OT passages referring to a Suffering Messiah was in place by the time of Jesus, and I would not want to associate him with my conjectured conclusions on that point, but the difference between us is not large.)