Son of Man in the New Testament: Part 1 of 4

Son of Man in the Old Testament

Introduction to the Study

Before we dive too deeply into the details of our Son of Man in the New Testament study, it is important to outline a few key points so you know both where we have been and where we are heading. First, what does the term Son of Man (SM) mean? SM, in and of itself, is not a remarkable term; it does not put forth any significant perspective or challenge the reader to consider something outstanding is being described. SM, as a Hebrew expression (ben ‘adam), simply means “human being.” The term has certainly puzzled many believers (and secular scholars) for millennia. Why does the term create such misunderstanding? Because SM simply means “human being,” it is easy for Old Testament readers to understand it in the context of passages such as Ezekiel 2:1, 3, 6, and 8, wherein the author is referring to mere man, which we’ll discuss more in a moment; but it is markedly more difficult to understand the use of the SM term in passages such as Daniel 7, wherein the author is clearly referring to the Messiah, which we will also discuss in more detail shortly.

When Jesus began to use the term to describe himself, the usage compounded the perplexing nature for his disciples as well as modern day readers. Therefore, the confusion lies in attempting to synchronize usages of the term across testaments into a systematic understanding of how SM is used and what it truly means. Jesus could have just as easily, and more clearly, described himself as the Messiah; however, as we will see in due course, this term would have aroused significant negative attention leading to his premature death on the cross. By using the term SM – a term Jesus’s followers would have been familiar with, although still confused by – he was able to craft his message, teach his disciples, and still fulfill his redemptive purpose on earth in God’s sovereign timing. With this in mind, let us begin our study by diving into the usage and understanding of the SM sayings in the Old Testament.

Old Testament Usage and Understanding

The usage of the SM term is not difficult to find in the Old Testament. What can be difficult, however, is understanding how the term is being used. I suggest there are at least three major categories into which the SM references fall in the Old Testament: 1) Messianic Prophecy; 2) Common Man; 3) Israel’s Relationship with Yahweh. The Common Man usage of the term is by far the most frequent: beyond the Psalms, SM is used to refer to Common Man in Job, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel – in Ezekiel the term is used 93 times, by Schreiner’s count – always referring to the prophet’s mere humanity in contrast to God’s greatness. A clear example is in Psalm 8:4, wherein the psalmist clearly referenced mere mankind in his praise of Yahweh and his plea that he would be mindful of man, as is evidenced by his repetition of both man and SM in succeeding clauses, a common Hebrew writing style to emphasize a point by repetition, which means we can take man and SM to refer to the same entity: human beings. Furthermore, Ezekiel used the term four times in the ten verses that comprise Ezekiel 2, wherein Ezekiel described his calling to Yahweh’s service as prophet. As Yahweh is the speaker in Ezekiel 2 (i.e., the subject), the SM term is most easily understood here to refer to a mere human, namely Ezekiel (i.e., the object). 

Furthermore, the Relationship with Yahweh category is also found in the Old Testament, with a significant and clear example in Psalm 80, wherein Asaph implored Yahweh to “give ear” to Israel’s cry for salvation, for they were despised and mocked by their enemies, far from the glory they believe was due them in God’s saving plan as he brought them out of Egypt. Interestingly, when the term fits into this Relationship category, it can be seen as referring to both a people (i.e., Israel) and a person (i.e., the coming Messiah). Similar to the construction in Psalm 8:4, Psalm 80:17 requested in succeeding clauses that the Lord’s hand be on the man of his right hand, and the SM whom he has made strong for himself. The entirety of Psalm 80 can be understood as referring to Israel, while the SM saying specifically points to a Messianic character as existing at the right hand of God, if not divine, is at least a Messianic attribute. The relationship that existed between Israel/the SM and Yahweh is explicit throughout the Psalm, as Israel/the SM was shepherded by him (80:1), fed by him (80:5), brought out of Egypt by him (80:8), given life by him (80:18), and restored by him (80:3, 7, 19). The Relationship with Yahweh category can also be observed in Daniel 7, but we will focus our attention in this passage on our final category instead.

Daniel 7 is by far the most important Old Testament Messianic Prophecy passage to understand when we get to the New Testament, as it was the crux of the New Testament writers’ argument that Jesus was the Messianic SM. As already intimated, the SM references in Daniel 7 are difficult to understand and it is outside the scope of this study to provide a thorough exegesis of Daniel 7, as this study assumes the audience possesses at least a working knowledge of the passage. However, it is critical to understand a few key points before examining the SM sayings in the New Testament. First, the “saints” from Daniel 7:18, 21, 22, 25, and 27 possessed a dual meaning: 1) “saints” refers to Israel as a people; 2) “saints” refers to the Messiah, the SM. This is possible in that the Messiah would eventually be the perfect Israelite who perfectly fulfilled the law as no one else could. Therefore, the references to the saints of the Most High can be construed as both the Messiah and Israel (by representation through the SM). Second, Daniel 7 demonstrated in a very clear manner that the SM would suffer despite being given dominion (Dan. 7:25). This is especially important as ancient Jews struggled to understand the Daniel 7 SM as the Messiah mainly because they refused to believe that the Messiah would suffer, despite many passages from Scripture that say otherwise (most famously, Isaiah 53). They could only envision Messiah as conqueror, victor, utter destroyer of Israel’s enemies. Jesus leveraged this confusion in the gospel accounts to explain that he is indeed the suffering Messiah of Daniel 7 and Isaiah 53. With these two pillars in place, we can begin our exploration of the SM sayings in the New Testament, a journey we will begin in Part 2. To be notified of its posting, be sure to sign up for the Take & Seal newsletter.

Alex Moore