They will look on him whom they have pierced

April 21, 2011

In Zechariah 12, the prophet has an oracle concerning a future invasion of Judah and Jerusalem. But, he says, the tables will be turned against Judah’s enemies: Jerusalem would be a “cup of staggering” (12:2) and Judah a “flaming torch among sheaves” (6): small, but it will consume the nations that surround it.

God is a warrior. He fights for Israel – saving Judah first because of their dependence on Jerusalem, and protecting Jerusalem itself. God’s power is such that Jerusalem’s weakest citizen will be, as it were, a warrior like David. And thus will God destroy the enemies of his chosen people.

And then, Zechariah says, God will pour out a grace upon them the like of which they have not seen, and Jerusalem and the house of David will “look on me, on him whom they have pierced,” and they will mourn, like one mourns over the death of a child (12:10). The sins of the nation are as if they have run God himself through with a spear. But even when they forgot him, he did not forget them, and he will grant them the grace of repentance.

Five hundred years later, the John witnessed the crucifixion of Jesus. He saw his rabbi, whom he had followed for three years, run through by the spear of a Roman soldier. And John writes that Zechariah 12:10 was fulfilled in that act: “they will look on him whom they have pierced” (John 19:37). As he died, Jesus was looked upon by his kinsmen, his mother and her sister; and his friends, Mary Magdalene, John, and others who knew him and watched from a distance. Whether Jesus’ other disciples were present isn’t specifically said. It seems unlikely. Some of the rulers were th ere too, mocking Jesus and taunting him to save himself (Luke 23:35). Literally, he was looked upon by his fellow countrymen who pierced him. Some of them, like Joseph of Arimathea, looked upon him with penitence instead of scorn.

But this time of mourning has not yet come for the Jews, although a few of them have turned to Christ, along with untold Gentiles. This situation led Paul to ponder whether the promises of God had failed (Rom. 9:1-6) No, he concluded: some had obtained them, but the rest were hardened (Rom. 11:7), and because of their stubbornness God’s grace had come instead to the Gentiles for a time. But once the Gentiles have been brought into the Church, God’s mercy will come again to his people Israel (Rom. 11:25).

The time will come when all the families of Israel will look upon Jesus their Messiah and mourn for their sins. That time is not yet. It is, I pray, not far away.


Rejoice greatly!

April 17, 2011

The three post-exilic prophets – Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi – ministered to the people of Israel after their return from exile, while the rebuilding of Jerusalem (starting with the Temple) was under way. Their message was a call to repent from unrighteousness and religious complacency, and return to covenant faithfulness to their God – who, although they had forgotten him, still loved them and had not given up on them.

The message of Zechariah in particular is much fuller. He calls not merely for repentance and restoration in the present circumstance. Rather, he offers a prophetic glimpse into the future. Though through struggle, God’s purposes would be worked out, good would triumph over evil, and God would establish his Kingdom forever.

In chapter 10, Zechariah pronounces God’s judgment on the nations surrounding Israel and Judah: in particular, Syria, Phoenicia, and Philistia. It’s called “the burden of the word of the Lord,” but though the responsibility rests on Zechariah to deliver it, the message is so positive that it must be a joy to deliver. The nations that have oppressed God’s people – these seemingly powerful and indestructible kingdoms – are to be judged themselves. Jerusalem, on the other hand, will be protected: encamped all around, as it were, with God’s ever-watchful eye.

Thus, the prophet tells the children of Zion: Rejoice greatly! God has promised to protect Jerusalem and make his home there. In fact, he is coming now, marching toward Jerusalem from the north where he has conquered his foes.

This king is righteous: he will do justice, and the right will triumph. He is victorious, having been delivered from his enemies and prevailed over them.

More significantly, he is humble. Elsewhere, Zechariah describes the Messiah as God’s servant (3:8), a common messianic figure of speech, used most notably in Isaiah 40-55. He comes into Jerusalem riding on a donkey. In the Middle East, princes rode on horses, especially if they arrived as conquering heroes. In Israel, there was a prophetic aversion to war horses (see, for example, Isa. 31:1). A humble donkey was an appropriate mount, therefore, for a king who comes in peace.

Today is Palm Sunday, the first day of Holy Week, commemorating Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. It certainly doesn’t seem very triumphant, knowing that in a few short days, Jesus would be dead, crucified by his enemies. But when he arrived in Jerusalem, he was greeted as a returning hero. The multitudes paved the road with their cloaks and with palm fronds, and shouted “Hosanna in the highest!” (Matt. 21:8-10). At Jesus’ direction, his disciples had procured the use of a donkey colt to ride into the city. Matthew affirms that this took place to fulfill Zechariah 9:9:

This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, saying, “Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, the foal of a beast of burden.'” (Matt. 21:4-5)

The Gospel writers, all of whom record this event, give the impression that procuring the donkey was a spontaneous thing. But I see no reason to doubt that Jesus had made the arrangements beforehand. He knew that the people of Jerusalem would be familiar with Zechariah, and understand the significance of his entry in this fashion. He was not merely fulfilling a prophecy by “coincidence”; he was openly declaring himself to be the anticipated messianic king.

Zechariah’s prophecy continues to say that the king would “speak peace to the nations” by defeating their chariot and war horses, thereby establishing universal rule (Zech. 9:10). It is ironic that the Prince of Peace, arriving in peace on the back of a donkey, will make global peace only by destroying the nations’ ability to make war.

We need only look to the news that continually comes from the Middle East to see that this part of Zechariah’s oracle has yet to come to pass. I do not believe that any human agency will ever reconcile those ancient enemies. They might, at best, facilitate a temporary truce. Nothing short of divine intervention will ever bring permanent peace to that or any region.

But there is another peace that the Prince of Peace brought to Jerusalem: not peace between nations, but peace between God and men. Christ’s triumphal entry was triumphal not merely because he entered the city in the fashion of a king. The atoning blood that he shed on his cross, a few days later, truly reconciles God with his people. Zechariah wrote that God would take away the abominations of Philistine pagan worship, and that a remnant of them would be like Israelites (Zech. 9:7). God’s salvation is not for Jews only, but for his chosen people in every tongue, tribe, and nation: Philistine and Jebusite, Jew and Gentile, Palestinian and Israeli. In Christ, all can be bound together as brothers.