Among those Jews in the Greek and Roman periods who expected a Messiah, most expected him to be a son of David. This Davidic Messiah would be a new and better David; he would obey God, judge among the people of Israel, and take control of the surrounding nations. Israel would finally be safe, prosperous, and righteously governed.
Psalm of Solomon 17, a Jewish text from the Roman period, expresses these hopes plainly.
Look, O Lord, and raise up for them their king, the son of David, at the time which you choose, O God, to rule over Israel your servant. And gird him with strength to shatter in pieces unrighteous rulers, to purify Jerusalem from nations that trample her down in destruction, in wisdom of righteousness, to drive out sinners from the inheritance, to smash the arrogance of the sinner like a potter’s vessel… to destroy the lawless nations by the word of his mouth, that, by his threat, nations flee from his presence… He shall judge peoples and nations in the wisdom of his righteousness. And he shall have the peoples of the nations to be subject to him under his yoke… God has made him strong in the holy spirit… He shall be strong in his works and mighty in fear of God, shepherding the flock of the Lord faithfully and righteously, and he shall not let any among them become weak in their pasture. And he shall lead all of them in equity, and their shall be no arrogance among them, that any one of them should be oppressed.
Psalms of Solomon 17:21-42
Zechariah no doubt had these expectations in mind when he sang his song of “prophecy” over Jesus’ birth.
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us… that we might might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
Shepherd of the nation
The son of David in the period of the second temple was thus understood by many as a political and eschatological figure—a judge, a king, and a warrior, sent according to God’s good timing.
During his ministry, many Jews wondered whether Jesus of Nazareth was in fact this figure. Those Jews who became the early Christians came to an affirmative conclusion: Jesus is the offspring and root of David (cf. Revelation 22:16).
Most Jews, however, considered this a bizarre interpretation of the evidence. Jesus the alleged son of David was not a political ruler, at least not during his lifetime. Rather, he was executed by Jerusalem as a messianic claimant. And despite claims that he was raised from the dead, he quickly and quietly vanished, no Davidic kingdom left behind.
Stranger still, the title “son of David” as it appears in the Jesus tradition is mostly associated with entirely non-political material. More often than not, it is during episodes of spirit-induced healing and exorcism that Jesus is acclaimed as David’s son (Mark 10:46-52, Matthew 9:27-31, 12:22-23, 15:21-28, 20:29-34, 21:9-15). Five times in Matthew the son of David is called upon to heal physical ailments, twice involving unclean spirits. Why should Jesus’ healing ministry elicit such a response from his Jewish audience? What does healing have to do with kingship and judgement?
One answer posits that there was widespread belief that David and Solomon were exorcists. The Dead Sea Psalm Scroll, for instance, recalls that David “wrote… four songs for making music over the possessed.” Josephus too remembers David’s son Solomon as a powerful exorcist who by “science” and “incantations” expelled demons (Antiquities VIII, 2.5). Depending on how well known such legends were, the crowds might have felt Jesus fulfilled a Davidic typology.
There are many problems with this explanation, however. For one, three of the five times Jesus is hailed the son of David no exorcism is involved. Second, Jesus’ exorcisms were neither by song, science, or incantation; he did not exorcise like David or Solomon. And third, the early Christians conceived of the title “son of David” not merely in typological terms, but messianic and eschatological ones. The son of David was a future figure of even greater weight than David and Solomon.
The best answer to this therefore seems to be that Jews understood the sudden explosion of fleeing demons and cured illnesses—in conjunction with Jesus’ eschatological teachings—as a sign that God was about to heal and exorcise the nation through this new messianic son of David. Just as God was healing the bodies through Jesus, so too was God about to heal the body politic when David’s son entered Jerusalem as king (cf. Matthew 21:9). As the Davidic shepherd prophesied in Ezekiel’s oracle, Jesus would “heal the sick,” “bind up the injured,” and “strengthen the weak” whom Israel’s leadership had spurned (34:2-6).
This healing and exorcism of Israel would also require judgement. To save his sheep, the Davidic shepherd would have to beat back those who not only neglected Israel’s weak, but wished to do them harm.
Jesus son of David would judge the current shepherds of the people and cast out the pagans along with their idols; and in doing so those Israelites who had been mistreated and alienated by Pharisee, scribe, priest, and pagan, would be restored to dignity in Christ’s kingdom. By healing and exorcising then, Jesus was performing the duties of the messianic Davidic king at the individual level. When he was installed as king over the whole people he would perform those duties at the national and international level.
For those who came to believe that God had raised Jesus from the dead, David’s son was now working from he heavenly throne to judge Israel, realign the nations, and establish his kingdom over the earth. He was now healing and exorcising Israel and the nations in concrete ways as history moved toward Israel’s disastrous war with Rome, the collapse of Greco-Roman imperial paganism, and the erection of a better but imperfect arrangement: God’s reign over the nations through Christendom.
What’s so controversial about that?
One last thing to note here is the ironclad connection between Jesus’ spirit-work and the breakdown of his relationship with Israel’s authorities. The stories in which Jesus heals and exorcises in the gospels rarely proceed without controversy. Jesus is time and again confronted by Pharisees and scribes who are disturbed that he openly performs such feats on the Sabbath day. But not to be caught off guard, Jesus always rhetorically bests his opponents and receives praise and awe from the crowds.
By defeating his enemies in this way, Jesus also fulfills the Davidic messianic role of judge. He prefigures in these controversies the divine condemnation that is coming upon Israel’s religious elite on account of their uncharitable and hypocritical management of the people (cf. Luke 13:15). In provoking debate by healing on the Sabbath, Jesus takes the opportunity not only to signal the healing of the nation, but also to speak a divine word of judgement against the ruling classes. Just as Jesus puts these religious authorities to shame through his cures and speech then, so too was God about to put them to shame by making Jesus king and judge from the heavenly throne. The fulfillment of this judgement would come when Jerusalem suffered the full weight of Roman retaliation in AD 70 (Luke 21:20-24).
In any given healing episode then, an expansive and eschatological story is being symbolically told. The great impending transfer of the kingdom from Israel’s tenants to Israel’s faithful outcasts was taking place in these small, sometimes intimate, settings.