“He shall be called a Nazarene.”
Nowhere is there a prophecy that goes, “He shall be called a Nazarene.” In fact, there’s nothing close to that. How Matthew gets to the point of writing, “that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, ‘He shall be called a Nazarene.’” when in fact no prophet spoke such things is instructive about how God’s Word works.
In short, Matthew wasn’t a proof-texter. He didn’t muster a quote-a-thon of passages to prove whatever point he wanted to make. This fact need not suggest he was careless or inventive with God’s Word. It in fact supports how we view God’s Word today and will call a well written sermon “the preaching of the Word.”
Let’s parse what’s going on with Matthew’s words.
First off, let’s look at the “He shall be called” part and trace its roots. The book of Isaiah is loaded with the “X shall be called” formula. Jerusalem will be called the city of righteousness. Seven women shall grab one man and desire to be called by his name. The remnant will be called holy. The virgin’s son shall be called Immanuel. The prophetess’ son was called Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz. The Child shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, etc. One of the cities of Egypt will be called the city of destruction. Egypt is called “Rahab-Hem-Shebeth.” The foolish person will be called generous, and the miser bountiful.
The highway to Jerusalem will be called the highway of holiness. The Lord calls all the stars by name. The Lord calls Israel by its name, “You are mine.” Those created for the Lord’s glory are “called by My name.” The virgin daughter of Babylon will no longer be called “tender” and “delicate,” or “the Lady of Kingdoms.” The Lord is called the God of the whole earth. The temple is called a house of prayer for all nations.
The remnant shall be called the Repairer of the Breach, The Restorer of Streets to Dwell In. Israel shall be called the City of the Lord. Jerusalem’s walls shall be called Salvation and its gates Praise. Mourners shall be called Trees of Righteousness. Israel shall be called priests and servants of God. Israel shall be called Hephzibah, the Holy People, the Redeemed of the Lord, Sought Out, and its land/city called Beulah, a City not Forsaken.
But lets close the loop on “He shall be called a Nazarene.” No, nowhere in the Old Testament is there a specific prophecy saying, “He shall be called Nazarene.” But any Jew hearing the frequently read prophecy of Isaiah would – as seen in the long paragraph above – be inundated with that “X shall be called” formula. Indeed, anyone versed in Old Testament theology would understand how the entire foundation of the cosmos is that “X is called.”
To be called is to be glorified, sanctified, ordained by God for something. His calling something went hand in hand with His bringing something in existence, and His calling something introduced language into the creation, which introduced communication, which introduced a divine gift to a mankind made in His image. Such is the work of the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life.
The Fall led to God’s Spirit departing from the creation, and everything returning to “chaos and void.” Which means God must re-create His world, which means He must re-call, or re-name the new elements in His creation. Jews would recognize Isaiah as a re-creation prophecy, particularly with such verses as “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth; And the former shall not be remembered or come to mind.”
Which means, hearing Isaiah is shorthand for “Oh, this is where the Lord calls all sorts of new stuff in His effort to create a new world.”
Which means when Isaiah speaks of a “Branch” who would arise from the stump of Jesse, it’s not as if Matthew was inventing new words of Scripture, or adding to God’s Word, or lying. The Jewish mind would be thinking, “The Messiah will be called lots of things, Immanuel, Wonderful, Counselor, Repairer, Redeemer, etc. Sure, add ‘Branch’ to the mix.” No one would object to that.
Matthew is likely referencing Isaiah’s prophecy that “There shall come forth a Rod from the stem of Jesse, And a Branch shall grow out of his roots.” This fits nicely the idea that Herod tried to hew down the dynastic tree of Israel, but the Lord would cause Jesus, the Branch, to grow from this stem, or stump. Most importantly, the Hebrew word for “Branch” here is Netser, which is the etymological root of Nazareth.
Here’s the interesting thing. Only Isaiah used the word netser in a messianic context. When the “Branch” typology is used elsewhere by other prophets, a different Hebrew word is used. Yet, Matthew says, “that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets [plural], ‘He shall be called a Nazarene.’ ”
Other prophets like Jeremiah and Zechariah use the “Branch” typology, but use a different Hebrew word. Here are those passages:
Behold, the days are coming,” says the LORD, “That I will raise to David a Branch of righteousness; A King shall reign and prosper, And execute judgment and righteousness in the earth.”
Hear, O Joshua, the high priest, You and your companions who sit before you, For they are a wondrous sign; For behold, I am bringing forth My Servant the BRANCH.
Behold, the Man whose name is the BRANCH! From His place He shall branch out, And He shall build the temple of the LORD.
Only in this last passage do we get a clear statement that Jesus will be “called” or “named” Branch, which allows Matthew to fit this in with the “He shall be called” formula.
It’s a lose assemblage of passages and images that Matthew pieces together with the information that Jesus and the holy family settled in Nazareth. Did these passages prophecy that the Messiah “would be called a Nazarene”?
No. But was there a “Branch” typology among “the prophets”? Yes. Was this “Branch” to be the Messiah who would arise in Israel? Yes. Did the Lord “call” different events and characters new names as part of His work of bringing about a new creation? Yes. Was Nazareth etymologically rooted in the Hebrew word for “Branch”? Yes. Had Herod just fulfilled the typology of political forces trying to hew down the messianic family tree? Yes.
Only moderns would create a problem of Matthew’s interpretive style where none existed prior, which forces us to rethink how we moderns do interpretation, at least in that “proof texting” way that so often becomes shorthand for real Biblical meditation and investigation.
Now, this process of thinking can be so abused, particularly by those with ideological agendas, so that they read out of the Scriptures clear passages because, “You can’t just proof text based on Scripture and take things out of context; you have to look at the bigger themes going on.”
True, but the problem is the ideological agenda which guides how they massage passages, which is usually Marxist, feminist, or now LGBTQ-friendly.
Matthew certainly had an ideological agenda by which he massaged the Branch prophecies. It was Jesus Christ, His life and work. Jesus Christ makes all Old Testament passages – no matter how obscure and odd – bend toward Him. And when that is the principle of interpretation, no matter how much of a stretch an interpretation is, you can’t go wrong.