An essay donated by Rabbi Allen S. Maller
The Coming of the Messianic Age.
As human society became scientifically and technologically more advanced during the 19th and 20th centuries, it also changed more rapidly, fundamentally, and violently in the last century of the second millennium than ever before in history.
Doctors saved the lives of millions. Dictators sacrificed the lives of millions. Populations exploded and birthrates declined. Technology produced both worldwide prosperity and pollution at the same time. Knowing all this, should we look upon the third millennium with optimistic hope or with fatalistic trepidation?
Are the world and our society heading towards a wonder-filled new age, or toward a doomsday; or are both occurring concurrently because breakdown is always a prelude to breakthrough?
I am among those who believe in the Biblical vision of a Messianic Age, and I use the insights of the Prophets of Israel to provide guidance in understanding the social, economic, scientific and cultural upheavals sweeping society.
Usually, especially among the Armageddon crowd, it is the dramatic dangers of the pre-Messianic tribulation that are emphasized. I will focus on the positive signs developing throughout the world that accord with the Messianic vision of the Biblical Prophets.
In most religious traditions, redemption is defined in terms of individual enlightenment or personal salvation. However, the Prophets of Israel conceived redemption as a transformation of human society that would occur through the catalyst of the transformation of the Jewish community.
This transformation, which will take place in this world at some future time, is called the Messianic Age. The transition to the Messianic Age is called the birth pangs of the Messiah. The birth of a redeemed Messianic world may be the result of an easy or difficult labor.
If everyone would simply live according to the moral teachings of his or her religious tradition, we would ourselves bring about the Messianic Age. But, if we will not do it voluntarily, it will come through social and political upheavals, worldwide conflicts and generation gaps.
The Messiah refers to an agent of God who helps bring about this transformation. The Jewish tradition teaches that this agent of God (and there may be two or three such agents) will be a human being, a descendant of King David, with great leadership qualities, similar to Moses or Mohammed.
The arrival of the Messianic Age is what’s really important, not the personality of the agents who bring it about, since they are simply the instruments of God, who ultimately is the real Redeemer.
The Messianic Age is usually seen as the solution to all of humanity’s basic problems. This may be true in the long run but the vast changes the transition to the Messianic Age entails will provide challenges to society for many generations to come.
For example, the Prophet Isaiah, 2700 years ago, predicted that someday there would be a radically new world in which Jerusalem would be fulfilled with joy for “no more shall there be in it an infant that lives only a few days.” (65:20) Before the mid 19th century, the annual death rate for humans fluctuated from year to year but always remained high, between 30 and over 50 deaths per 1,000 individuals.
Those elevated, unstable rates were primarily caused by infectious and parasitic diseases. The toll from disease among the young was especially high. Almost 1/3 of the children born in any year died before their first birthday; in some subgroups, half died. Because childbirth was hazardous, mortality among pregnant women was also high.
A century ago, the infant mortality rate in Jerusalem (as in most of the world) was 25-30%. Now it is less than 1%. For thousands of years almost every family in the world suffered the loss of at least one or two infants; now it happens to less than one out of a hundred.
If this radical improvement had occurred over a few years, it would have greatly impressed people. But since it occurred gradually over several generations, people take it for granted.
Also, it seems to be part of human nature that most people focus on complaining about the less than 1% that still die (an individual family tragedy heightened by the fact that it is unexpected because it is so rare) rather than be grateful that the infant mortality rate has been reduced by over 98%.
Also, people are quick to point out that as a result of the great reduction in the infant mortality rate, the world’s population has expanded tremendously, which is, and will continue causing major social and economic problems in non-Western societies.
The answer to this problem is birth control, which has already radically affected birth rates in Europe, North America, and Japan. For example, in Japan the number of children born in a woman’s lifetime declined within 70 years from 4.72 in 1930, to 2.13 in 1970, to 1.34 in 2001, a 70% decline. 1
In Islamist Iran it has declined from 6.5 children per woman a generation ago to 1.7 today, which is an even greater decline in a much shorter time. Sixty-four of the world’s nations now have birth rates lower than 2.1 children per woman.
In another generation or two, populations will be declining throughout the world, but since that will occur in the future and since we are suffering the negative consequences of over population now, very few people see the whole transformation as a Messianic one in spite of the fact that it is a fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy.
Finally, the great increase in the number of people who live long enough to become “elders” provides us with a new set of challenges I.e.a 5-10 year increase in life expectancy is bad news for pension plans and good news for health care workers.
Initially, declines in infant, child and maternal death rates make the population younger by expanding the base of the age pyramid. Yet, that improvement in survival, along with social and economic development, leads to a drop in birth rates and the beginning of a population with an increasing percentage of elderly people.
In 1900 there were 10-17 million people age 65 or older, making up 6.2% of the population. By the year 2050, people over 65 will number at least 2.5 billion - about 20% of the world’s projected population
Barring catastrophes that raise death rates substantially, or a huge inflation in birth rates, the human population will achieve an age composition within our children’s lifetime, which will be absolutely unique in human history.
These improvements in human health are unprecedented in human history. Truly in the next 100-200 years we will be coming close to Isaiah’s prophecy:
“One who dies at 100 years shall be reckoned a youth, and one who fails to reach 100 shall be reckoned accursed.” (65:20).
However, such radical change will necessitate major changes in the way we think and act when faced with decisions about life and death.
Yet who among us would want to return to the high mortality rates and early deaths of previous centuries? The challenges we now face are not those of survival, but of opportunity.
The fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy has thus gone un-noticed and uncelebrated. But even when the events are rapid and dramatic, people rarely connect them to their Messianic significance for very long.
The amazing rescue of 15,000 Ethiopian Jews in an airlift lasting less than 48 hours stirred and inspired people for a few weeks. Subsequently, the difficult problems the newcomers faced (similar to those of the 900,000 recent Soviet immigrants) occupied the Jewish media.
Now both are taken for granted. The miracle has become routine. But if you had told the Jews of Ethiopia two generations ago that they would someday all fly to Israel in a giant silver bird, they could only conceive of this as a Messianic miracle.
And if you had told Soviet Jews a generation ago that the Communist regime would collapse, the Soviet Empire disintegrate, and hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews would emigrate to Israel, they would have conceived it only as a Messianic dream.
In our own generation therefore we have seen the dramatic fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy:
“I will bring your offspring from the (Middle) East and gather you from the (European) West. To the North (Russia) I will say ‘give them up’ and to the South (Ethiopia) ‘do not hold them.’ Bring my sons from far away, my daughters from the end of the earth.” (43:5-6)
Isn’t it amazing how people adjust to living in a radically new world and forget the past.
Indeed, the Prophet Isaiah himself said:
“Behold, I create a new Heaven and a new Earth, and former things shall not be remembered.” (65:17)
Where does the Messiah fit in with all of this? He will still have lots to do when he arrives. Most Orthodox Jews would not commit themselves to any individual as a Messiah unless he successfully rebuilds the ancient Temple in Jerusalem.
This would fulfill the prophecy of Zachariah,
“He shall build the Temple of the Lord, and he shall bear the glory, he shall sit on the throne and rule, there shall be a priest before the throne, and peaceful counsel will exist between both of them.” (6:13)
Now that almost half (six out of fourteen million) of the Jewish people have returned to the Land of Israel, and resurrected a Jewish State, one might think that rebuilding a temple of the site where Solomon originally built one almost 3,000 years ago, would be relatively simple.
And it would, except for the fact that a Muslim Shrine called, The Dome of the Rock, presently occupies the site. Often erroneously called the Mosque of Omar, it is not a mosque and it was not built by Omar. It was built in 691 CE by Abd-Al-Malik and it is regarded by Muslims as the third holiest site in the world. Any attempt to replace the Dome of the Rock would provoke a Muslim Holy War of cataclysmic proportions.
There is, however, a lot of vacant land on the Temple Mount, and a Jewish house of worship could be built adjacent to the Dome of the Rock provided the Muslims would cooperate.
Most observers agree that anyone who could arrange such Jewish-Muslim cooperation would really be the Messianic Ruler of Peace (Isaiah 9:5) Christian support for such a cooperative venture would also be very important, and anyone who can bring Jews, Christians and Muslims together in mutual respect and cooperation would surely fulfill the greatest of all Messianic predictions:
“They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning knives; nation shall not take up sword against nation, they shall never again teach war.” (Isaiah 2:4)
Indeed, such Jewish/Christian/Muslim cooperation would not be possible without great spiritual leadership in all three communities. Thus, each community could consider its leadership to be the Messiah.
This would fulfill the culminating verses of Isaiah’s Messianic prophecy as enlarged upon by Micah (4:3-5),
“They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning knives. Nation shall not take up against nation, they shall never again teach war, but every man shall sit under his grapevine or fig tree with no one to disturb him, for it is the Lord of Hosts who spoke. Though all peoples walk each in the name of its God, we will walk in the name of the Lord our God for ever and ever.”
If each people truly follows the best of its own religious teachings the Messiah will surely have arrived, and God’s Kingdom will be established on planet Earth. Then we will be ready to join in the cosmic conversation of other technologically and morally advanced ETIL civilizations in the event that we can find each other.
- To maintain the population of a country stable, assuming no immigration and emigration, about 2.1 children must be born on average to each woman.
- Rabbi Maller's web site is at http://www.rabbimaller.com.
- Links to other of his donated essays can be found in our Judaism menu.
Originally posting: 2014-APR
Latest update: 2016-SEP-05
Author: B.A. Robinson