Many people who have studied eschatology know that many ancient Jews expected the coming of the Messiah to be preceded by a period of eschatological tribulation. And many also may be familiar with the fact that the messianic tribulation is frequently referred to by the Rabbis as “the birth pangs of the Messiah”—an expression which appears in both the Talmud and the Gospels (b. Sanh. 98b; Mark 13:3-8). But what many people are not familiar with is that the Rabbis had another expression—a very ancient expression—for referring to the time of tribulation. The Rabbis also spoke of “the footsteps (or footprints) of the Messiah”. We find an ancient reference to this in the Mishnah, which reads:
With the footprints of the Messiah presumption shall increase and dearth reach its height… the wisdom of the Scribes shall become insipid and they that shun sin shall be deemed contemptible, and truth shall nowhere be found. Children shall shame the elders, and the elders shall rise up before the children, for “the son dishonors the father, the daughter rises up against her mother, the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law: a man’s enemies are the men of his own house.” The face of this generation is as the face of a dog… (Mishnah Sotah 9:15, citing Micah 7:6).
The signs which herald the coming of the Messiah at the end of the time of exile. (Danby, The Mishnah, 306 n. 9)
Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s foes will be those of his own household. (Matt 10:34-36; cf. Lk 12:51-53)
So far, so good. This should be old hat for some of you out there. But what I learned this morning, which I had never known, was this: Not only do the Rabbis refer to the Messianic Tribulation as “the footsteps of the Messiah,” but they derive this expression from the sufferings of David described in Psalm 89! Consider the following texts, one from the Midrash Rabbah and the other from the Babylonian Talmud, which speak of the tribulation as accompanying the coming of the Davidic Messiah:
Rabbi Jannai said: If you see one generation after another cursing and blaspheming, look out for the coming of the Messiah, as it says, “Wherewith thine enemies have taunted O Lord, wherewith thine enemies have taunted the footsteps of thine anointed” (Midrash on Song of Songs 2:13, citing Ps 89:52 [trans. M. Simon, p. 127]
Our Rabbis taught: “In the seven year cycle at the end of which the son of David will come… the arrows of hunger will be sent forth; in the third, a great famine, in the course of which men, women, and children, pious men and saints will die, and the Torah will be forgotten by its students; in the fourth, partial plenty; in the fifth, great plenty, when men will eat, drink, and rejoice, and the Torah will return to its disciples; in the sixth, sounds; in the seventh, wars; and at the conclusion of the septennate the son of David will come… Wherewith thine enemies have reproached, O Lord; wherewith they have reproached the footsteps of thine anointed [Ps 89:52]. It has been taught, Rabbi Judah said: In the generation when the son of David comes, the house of assembly will be for harlots, Galilee in ruins, Gablan lie desolate… the wisdom of scribes in disfavour, God-fearing men despised, people be dog-faced, and truth entirely lacking. (b. Sanhedrin 97a; trans. I. Epstein)
Thou has renounced the covenant with thy servant;I won’t say anything about the prominence of the “servant” imagery; Michael’s already covered that in his awesome post below.
Thou hast defiled his crown in the dust…
Lord, where is thy steadfast love of old,
Which by thy faithfulness thou didst swear to David?
Remember, O Lord, how thy servant is scorned;
How I bear in my bosom the insults of the peoples,
with which thy enemies taunt O LORD, with which they mock
the the footsteps of thy messiah. (Ps 89:39, 49-51)