And he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene. – Matthew 2:23 (NIV)
When we read this New Testament quote, we are sure that this was a prophecy about Jesus. And yet, we know that Nazareth was not recognized as having a messianic association by most Jews in the first century because of Nathaniel’s question recorded in John 1:46; “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” And indeed, there is no precise match in the Old Testament to which we can directly compare Matthew’s statement.
What are we to do with that? Shall we conclude that Matthew misquoted the Old Testament, or worse, that he just made it up? No, I don’t think so.
What it means is that we have been introduced to a principle of understanding and applying Bible prophecy. Matthew was teaching us to look for the meaning of a passage and not get hung up on the exact wording.
Now, I admit that can get messy. But it is, I believe, the only rational way to understand how Matthew could inerrantly quote that phrase as prophecy. Here’s how we can begin to analyze and understand a tricky passage like that. The resolution is found in searching out the Hebrew root word of Nazarene, netser (Strong’s H5342), meaning “branch.” And to make it even more complex, there is more than one word for “branch” in Hebrew. You also have several synonyms for netser. There is tsemach (Strong’s H6780), meaning a sprout, a shoot, or a branch, and choter (Strong’s H2415), meaning branch, twig, or rod. Also, yowneq (Strong’s H3126), meaning a sucker or sapling (of a tree felled and sprouting), and sheresh (Strong’s H8328), meaning the root of a tree or vine (a branch in the ground). Altogether, there are plenty of messianic associations connected with these images of a branch or young shoot. As you read these verses, notice how the image of a branch is tied to messianic hopes.
In that day the Branch (tsemach) of the Lord will be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land will be the pride and glory of the survivors in Israel. – Isaiah 4:2
“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch (tsemach), a King who will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land.“ – Jeremiah 23:5 (NIV)
“Listen, High Priest Joshua, you and your associates seated before you, who are men symbolic of things to come: I am going to bring my servant, the Branch (tsemach). See, the stone I have set in front of Joshua! There are seven eyes on that one stone, and I will engrave an inscription on it,” says the Lord Almighty, “and I will remove the sin of this land in a single day.” – Zechariah 3:8-9
Tell him this is what the Lord Almighty says: “Here is the man whose name is the Branch (tsemach), and he will branch out from his place and build the temple of the Lord. It is he who will build the temple of the Lord, and he will be clothed with majesty and will sit and rule on his throne. And he will be a priest on his throne. And there will be harmony between the two.” – Zechariah 6:12-13
Then all your people will be righteous and they will possess the land forever. They are the shoot (netser) I have planted, the work of my hands, for the display of my splendor. – Isaiah 60:21
The image of the branch is also seen in the image of a young or tender shoot (yowneq), and Isaiah continues to connect the idea of a branch with messianic expectations. We see both the promise of the conquering king in Isaiah 11, and the suffering servant in Isaiah 53. Both passages also connect the picture with roots (sheresh), as from a stump in the ground that may appear dead but is very much alive.
A shoot (choter) will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots (sheresh) a Branch (netser) will bear fruit. The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—and he will delight in the fear of the Lord. He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked. Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist. – Isaiah 11:1-5
He grew up before him like a tender shoot (yowneq), and like a root (sheresh) out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. – Isaiah 53:2
The vision of the Branch, in a messianic sense with its association with Judah (the tribe of David) and a future judgment, is even seen cryptically in the blessing of Jacob (Israel) on his son, Judah (Genesis 49). In this blessing, we see a combination of messianic prophecies.
The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he to whom it belongs shall come and the obedience of the nations shall be his. He will tether his donkey to a vine, his colt to the choicest branch (soreq); he will wash his garments in wine, his robes in the blood of grapes. – Genesis 49:10-11
First, there is the promise that the line of Judah would be kings—and that the land of Judah would be the place of the kings’ rule. Furthermore, before that rule fails, the one who will someday rule the nations will come. This seems to be a reference to the birth of Christ prior to the end of a dynasty in Judah. The question is, was that the Hasmonean dynasty or the Herodian dynasty? The Jewishness of Herod the Great was highly debated, even in his lifetime; but the writings of Josephus confirm that Herod was descended by blood from the Hasmoneans (see Note 1 for references).
Next, the recognition of the Messiah is connected visually with a donkey and colt (Zechariah 9:9) and the “choicest branch” soreq (Strong’s H8321), which means the strong branch of a choice grape vine. It is another synonym for netser (see Note 2). And lastly, the vision relates to divine judgment at the end of the age with the reference to washing his garments in wine; “his robes in the blood of grapes.”
Now considering all these prophetic images together, it is much easier to see how Matthew can affirm that the prophets declared; “He shall be called a Nazarene”—even though there is no precise quote for this in the Old Testament.
In that sense, the name Nazarene would mean a man of the branch, as well as a man from the town of Nazareth (the place of the branch). Some may see this as a stretch; but it is essential to see these kinds of connections, if one truly wants to not only understand prophetic fulfillments in the past but also in the present. And specifically, to recognize that God uses synonyms interchangeably. Therefore, it doesn’t even have to be the same word, if it means the same thing.