In their present circumstances it seemed that many other peoples and nations were doing much better than the Jews. Was that, in fact, the case? The verses we are about to read address that question directly. As you know from your reading of the Old Testament, these oracles of judgment against the nations are a common feature of OT prophecy. You have chapter after chapter of such oracles in Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, and a number of other such oracles in the minor prophets. Indeed, the book of Obadiah, for example, is nothing but an oracle of judgment against Edom, across the Dead Sea from the Promised Land.
v.1 “Burden” is a technical term for an oracle or revelation, it comes to a prophet like a weight and he has somehow to deliver himself of that weight, but it particularly applies to revelations of ominous import. [Duguid, 146] You have the term again and for the same reason in 12:1.
Hadrach was an area in northern Syria where Damascus was located. Hamath was a city that lay to the north of Hadrach. Tyre lay to the west of Damascus on the coast and Sidon was north of Tyre.
There is a translation problem in verse 1 that any of you who are reading the NIV would immediately have noticed; a problem for which any number of solutions have been offered. The major alternatives are “the eyes of the Lord are on mankind and on the tribes of Israel,” as the ESV has it or “the eyes of mankind and all the tribes of Israel are on the Lord,” as you have it in the NIV. If the ESV is correct, that statement forms an inclusio with the last line of the paragraph in v. 8, “for now I see with my own eyes,” the Lord’s watching over the world being the subject in both cases. If the NIV is correct the inclusio is of another kind: we begin with the people watching for the Lord; we end with the Lord watching over the people. [cf. McComiskey, 1159-1160]
v.3 Tyre’s great wealth is described in terms of precious metal being as plentiful as dust and mud.
v.4 Tyre and Sidon seem successful, if not impregnable, because of their great wealth amassed through trade; but what they have gained can be taken from them and that is what the Lord intends to do.
At the height of their power Tyre and Sidon were “the merchant princes of the eastern Mediterranean, renowned for their seafaring prowess,” going anywhere and everywhere in the Mediterranean world and also down the Red Sea to the spice coasts. [Webb, 129]
v.5 The next cities to be named are four of the five cities of the Philistines (Gath is omitted because apparently by this time it was no longer significant as a Philistine power; McComiskey, 1161). They lay on the coastal plain in what is today known as the Gaza strip. It is at least highly ironic that still today Israel is menaced by people who live in the area once inhabited by the Philistines!
In the most recent issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, a Wheaton College archaeologist by the name of Daniel Master, has a major article on the results of years of excavations at Ashkelon. [D. M. Master and L.E. Stager, “Buy Low, Sell High: The Marketplace as Ashkelon,” 36-47] What they found was that, before the Babylonians destroyed the city, it was a bustling market town of some fifteen to twenty thousand people. That was a large city in those days. The terminus of the South Arabian spice routes, Ashkelon was the region’s largest Mediterranean port. The name of the town, by the way, comes from the same root as the noun shekel, the unit of currency we are familiar with from the Bible.
Ashkelon was what, today, we would call a “happening” place. Import and export was its business. Grain from Judah and the north was bought, sold, and shipped. Perch from the Nile and sea bass were imported for sale and bought by merchants and private consumers with silver weighed in balances that used a variety of weights, depending upon the nationality of buyer and seller, some indication of how international a city Ashkelon was. Wine jars and tableware, made in the region of Tyre and Sidon, but to Egyptian specifications, were shipped to Ashkelon for sea transport to Egypt, much as today textiles are manufactured in India, Southeast Asia, and China to European and North American specifications and shipped to customers in the west. Luxury goods, wine and oil, raw materials such as iron, tin, and lead, animals such as horses and donkeys, gemstones such as turquoise and coral; it was all bought and sold in the market at Ashkelon and much of it either imported or exported through the city’s port. Ashkelon fell to the Babylonians in 604 B.C, a century before Zechariah wrote our chapter 9.
All of the nations mentioned in this section of chapter 9 were by this time spent forces, or at least greatly diminished from their past glory. They were certainly not independent powers. They were subject to the Persians as Judah was. They had earlier, as Judah, suffered at the hands of first the Assyrians and then the Babylonians. Ashkelon, for example, was in ruins a century before Zechariah wrote this. Nebuchadnezzar boasted of Ashkelon that he had turned the city into a “tell,” that is, a mound. We might say today that he turned this busy market town into a future archaeological site! [BAR, 47]
On the other hand, the peoples and towns still had some life in them. [Boda, 412-413] So there is a question of interpretation here. Is Zechariah saying that these nations will be judged, or is he saying that they had been judged and that any other nation that poses a danger to the people of God will suffer a fate like these cities suffered? One way or the other he is certainly telling his Jewish contemporaries that the people of God will have no cause either to fear such peoples or to envy them. [So Webb, 129] The fact remains, however, in favor of the former interpretation, that these nations, from Hamath to Ekron, or what remained of them, still faced a further destruction yet to come. Scholars have noted that the order of cities listed in vv. 1-7 follows the route of Alexander’s conquests nearly two centuries after Zechariah, a conquest also forecast by Ezekiel (26:5-6). If you remember your ancient history, Alexander besieged Tyre for seven months, finally conquering the city, thought impregnable because it was located on an island just off the coast, by building a causeway from the shore to the city. He captured Gaza before proceeding to Egypt.
v.6 This is what happens when nations are destroyed: the area is repopulated with a mixture of people.
v.7 Once again, as frequently already in Zechariah, we have a prophecy of the nations coming under the spell of the Gospel and becoming part of the people of God. These nations will be judged by God, but out of them will come a remnant of believers. The Lord will cleanse them of their idolatry and make them part of his own people. They will be like the Jebusites, the original inhabitants of Jerusalem, who were eventually incorporated into Israelite society.
Now, as I said, there are a lot of passages like this one scattered throughout the OT prophets, oracles of judgment upon the nations. We tend to skim over them in our reading of the Bible, partly because we find them repetitive and partly because they don’t seem to have any obvious relevance to our lives today. Of course, you are expecting me to say that this is not so; that these oracles of judgment are very important for us to read and understand. And all we need to do to appreciate that fact is to recognize that the nations and peoples listed for judgment in these passages are invariably the enemies and the competitors of the people of God. Imagine, for a moment, that we didn’t read here of Hamath and Hadrach, of Tyre and Sidon, of the four Philistine cities, but instead read The Peoples’ Republic of China, Russia, the European Union, Canada, and the United States of America. We would perk up and pay careful attention to what was being said about the future of these nations precisely because they matter in our world. What those nations do determines in many ways the fortunes of God’s people and the future of the kingdom of God in our day. We would think about our world quite differently if we were conscious of the fact that divine judgment loomed over those very nations like a sword of Damocles and no one was exactly sure when it would fall.
I hope there is no one here who resents the United States being included in that list. I remember that in the first editorial that Joel Belz published in World after 9-11 he indicated that, whatever else it was, we should accept that the attack and its terrible consequences were a warning of divine judgment on our country. He didn’t say that it was because of homosexuality as Jerry Falwell did. He didn’t presume to read God’s mind. But who can read the Bible and not agree that such an attack is both judgment and a harbinger of a greater judgment to come. World lost some significant support as a result of that editorial; American conservatives simply wouldn’t countenance the suggestion that we deserved to be attacked by Al Qaeda. They complained that the editorial suggested moral equivalence between the terrorists and our country, which, of course, Joel had not suggested at all. Besides, no Christian with a Bible in his or her hand, can be so sure that America is better than Al-Qaeda, once the principle is accepted that to whom much is given, much is required. Babylon was no paragon of virtue, but the Lord used it to punish his people who, in many ways, weren’t nearly as bad as the Babylonians, a fact that, you remember, troubled Habbakuk.
In any case, it is the hostile and harmful relationship of the various nations to God’s people that is invariably the interest of the prophets in oracles of judgment addressed to the nations around Israel. There does not seem to be any suggestion that these prophecies were ever delivered to or were ever intended to be delivered to the various foreign peoples themselves. Jonah preached to the Assyrians in Nineveh, to be sure, but Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel never traveled to these lands to deliver their warnings of coming destruction. Ezekiel, for example, was among the Jewish exiles in Babylon and would not have had occasion to travel to preach to Ammon, Tyre, and Egypt, peoples against whom he proclaimed a coming judgment of God. In that fact hangs a tale.
These prophesies are not intended for the peoples whose fates they concern. They were always intended for the people of God. They were a message for Israel, not for the Syrians, the Tyrians, or the Philistines. This is made very clear in Ezekiel especially. Ezekiel, remember, lived and prophesied not so long before Zechariah.
You are aware of the way in which the author’s organization of material in biblical writings often draws attention to his theme. For example, in the exact middle of the letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3, we have this:
“And all the churches will know that I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works.”
That statement is found in the middle of the letter to the church in Thyatira, but it, alone of all the statements in those seven letters, is addressed to “all the churches,” not to any particular one of them. It is the middle of the middle letter of the seven. It is a literary way of identifying the author’s theme. That theme, as you remember, is the absolute necessity of fidelity to the Lord, even in the teeth of persecution, in view of the eternal consequences that hang upon that fidelity.
Well in Ezekiel a similar device is employed. Chapter 25 of Ezekiel begins the second of three large sections of the book. In the second section are found these prophesies of judgment of the nations of Israel’s world, in this case, Ammon, Moab, Edom, Philistia, Tyre, and Egypt. What is the point of all of these eight chapters? Well we are told explicitly what the point is. In the exact middle of this eight chapter section of Ezekiel, in 28:24-26, we find this:
“No longer will the people of Israel have malicious neighbors who are painful briers and sharp thorns. Then they will know that I am the Sovereign Lord.”
Those verses are the central pivot of the section. They lie almost exactly in the middle of those eight chapters. In the English Bible there are 97 verses in the section before it and 97 verses in the section following it. All of the other material is about those nations and the judgments that they will suffer. Only in the exact middle do you find that they’re not going to bother Israel anymore. So, you see, the prophecy of the judgment of Israel’s neighbors — those who had troubled her either militarily or economically — is made a matter of Israel’s encouragement. The promise of the judgment of these nations is, thus, a reason for hope for the people of God.
Well, very clearly, that is the point everywhere we encounter such prophesies of the judgment of the nations, and that is the point here in Zechariah 9:1-8. As we read in the last verse, the result of the Lord’s judgment is that none of Judah’s enemies will “march to and fro” and “no oppressor shall again march over them…”
The relevance of these passages of judgment, therefore, should be obvious to us and immensely important. It is both very easy and very necessary to translate these ancient oracles into a message for us today. Whether we think of the Devil himself as the Prince of this world or of the nations and cultures themselves that he holds in his sway, we have adversaries. And if we thought about this more than we do, we would realize these adversaries are out great problem in the Christian life. And even nations we typically do not think of as adversaries — Tyre, after all, was never a military adversary of Israel — can do us terrible harm in other ways. Tyre and Ashkelon, for example, were a source of Israel’s envy. Material wealth can be a powerful weapon against the faith and godliness of God’s people. We hardly know how much our loyalty to the Lord Jesus has in fact been undermined by the materialistic and sensualistic drumbeat of our American culture. We are half the Christians we might have been had we lived in another place and another time, at least a better place and a better time for the Christian faith.
Pope Francis has taken it on the chin from some American conservatives of late for casting doubt on the innate goodness of the market and for his criticism of capitalism’s excesses. But as Michael Gerson pointed out in a column in the Tacoma newspaper this past week — Gerson, by the way is a graduate of a PCA Christian high school in St. Louis — no Christian should imagine that human economic activity is any less influenced by the sinful desires of human hearts than is human political activity. We live in a deeply, pervasively, unrepentantly materialistic age. Let’s stop beating around the bush: Marxism or socialism may have killed its thousands, but the love of money and pleasure has killed its ten thousands. As an economic system, one may defend the market as a better way to lift people out of poverty and as a system that maximizes human creativity and potential, but no Christian should have any difficulty seeing how paper thin is the distance between the approval of capitalism and the love of money. It was the Lord Jesus after all, who warned that it was harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. We Christians should be the first ones to realize that material prosperity, whatever may be its blessings (and the Bible doesn’t hesitate to acknowledge those), poses a grave danger to the soul.
But whether we are talking about our modern western culture or terrorist organizations or actual nation states that persecute Christians, it remains the case in our time as it has always been the case in the past that the fortunes of the people of God wax and wane in accordance with the vigor and the malevolence of her enemies. Think not only of Christians being thrown in jail or murdered, by the state or by ethnic or ideological forces that hapless states are unable to control, but, in our case as American Christians think of the force of the temptations that arise from the culture in which the church lives. It was certainly so in Israel. As I have pointed out before, and it is point worth remembering, the form of Israel’s unbelief and disobedience was always derivative. She did not invent novel ways of betraying God and his covenant; she simply adopted the world-view, the thinking, and the practices of the peoples around her. Israel was always accommodating her faith to the cultures around her, often out of envy or the desire to conform, sometimes as a result of intimidation and fear.
This has happened times without number and is happening again today. Liberal Christianity isn’t a new invention. It is simply another form of the conventional pieties of our secular culture. And the crass forms of evangelical prosperity preaching and teaching are not something the world has never seen or heard before. It is simply the American sales convention moved into the church. These are our Tyres and Sidons and Ashkelons. The problem wasn’t that Tyre was invading Judah with an army. The problem was that the Jews wanted to be like Tyre! They wanted Tyre’s wealth and prosperity and comfort.
In Pakistan or Syria or Egypt, in parts of India or China, in North Korea or various countries in sub-Saharan Africa, the nation state, so far as Christians are concerned, is more the equivalent of the Philistines who, at least for long years, were Israel’s enemies in the ordinary sense: military powers that threatened her very life. But whether an invading army or an ascendant anti-Christian culture, the point is fundamentally the same. We Christians have adversaries that threaten our very lives: our physical lives and our spiritual lives. People can go over to the other side out of envy — millions of Christians have and will — but they can go over for fear as well, to find safety from the threat of persecution or death. Many professing Christians have done that as well. We tend to hear of the believers who remain faithful in persecution and who suffer under it, sometimes with their very lives. We hear less often of those who capitulate to save their property or their necks.
As a result, it is a simple fact, it is a fact of history that we ourselves can observe, that the church will never come fully to enjoy the holiness, happiness, and prosperity promised to her in the gospel so long as her enemies are not subdued and remain free to bedevil her life either by temptation or by outright hostility and violence. The simple fact is that as long as there are active enemies of the church in this world, the Bible and history combine to teach us that there will be a measure of weakness, of worldliness, of cowardice, and of compromise in the church.
These prophesies of judgment and doom for the nations that were the ancient and natural enemies of Israel – are part of Zechariah’s message of encouragement and hope for Israel in the future. One thing that will be necessary for Israel’s restoration is the subjugation of her physical and spiritual enemies. That is what is being promised here. These nations that have done Israel harm in so many ways through so many years are to be stripped of any and all means to do her any further harm.
It is interesting and very important to observe that we find the same message and the same encouragement in the New Testament, again addressed not to the enemies themselves so much as to the church. In the NT such prophesies of final judgment and the doom of the wicked are preached almost exclusively to the church. You find it a prominent theme in the Lord’s preaching but the majority of his most explicit teaching about the eternal punishment of the wicked is given explicitly to his disciples. Some, to be sure, is given when the crowds were listening, but, the crowds of Jews who gathered to hear Jesus speak were, of course, the church of that day and saw themselves as the people of God. The warning element in his preaching, particularly prominent in the Lord’s preaching of the final judgment – “Take care to be sure that you are not found among those sent to hell at the last day!” – is almost exclusively found in preaching either to the Lord’s disciples or to those who would have thought themselves the people of God.
You find little of the preaching of judgment and hell in the evangelistic preaching of Paul in the Book of Acts. He speaks to Jews of the appearance of their Messiah and the way to find forgiveness with God and to Gentiles of the revelation of the true and living God and of the hope of resurrection. Paul did not, so far as we can tell, preach what would nowadays be called “hellfire and damnation” certainly not to congregations of strangers in Gentile cities. His approach seemed to be that recommended by an old Puritan phrase: “catch them with honey.” He certainly spoke of sin and grace, of the need for repentance, but he did not characteristically evangelize communities by preaching the coming punishment, doom, and judgment of the wicked. It is certainly true that divine judgment is the presupposition of the preaching of Christ and salvation. There must be something from which we are saved if there is to be salvation or a Savior. No doubt Paul made that clear when it was necessary to do so or in answer to questions. No doubt as he gathered converts and taught them more thoroughly, he carefully expounded the doctrine of divine judgment. But what Charles Hodge said of the doctrine of the sovereignty of God could be said just as well of the doctrine of eternal punishment and hell.
The doctrine of the sovereignty of God “is to all other doctrines what the granite formation is to the other strata of the earth. It underlies and sustains them, but it crops out only here and there. So this doctrine should underlie all our preaching, and should be definitely asserted only now and then.” [Princeton Sermons, 6]
Well so with the doctrine of the wrath of God, his judgment of the wicked. In the Bible that doctrine is preached definitely and asserted for primarily two purposes:
- to awaken the spiritually complacent in the church to the necessity of a living, active faith in God and Christ. That has been a major purpose of the preaching of Zechariah in the chapters we have so far read and that was the purpose of the Lord’s preaching of this same theme of judgment; and
- to encourage the saints with the prospect of their enemies eventually being vanquished, which is the purpose of such teaching of divine judgment as we have it here in Zechariah 9 or, for that matter, in 2 Thessalonians 1 or in the Book of Revelation. Hard as it may be for us to reconcile ourselves to the thought of punishment so severe and so endless, it is simply the cruel fact that Satan and his minions, including the human beings who do his will, must be laid in the dust if God’s people are to enjoy the lasting freedom and happiness that is their inheritance in the gospel. These punishments may not be pleasant to contemplate, but they are an essential prerequisite of the fulfillment of salvation for the people of God.
As has often been pointed out, you cannot as a Christian pray maranatha, “O Lord come!” without, in effect, praying for the destruction of the enemies of the Lord and his people, for that destruction is part and parcel of the Lord’s return. He is coming to judge the living and the dead and to put all his enemies and ours under his feet. They are the Lord’s enemies before they are ours and they must face his justice, not ours.
Why do we need this teaching? Because the faithful people of God will always be a remnant. Notice that important term — so often found in the prophets — in v. 7. There will be some survivors of these wrecked cities and nations that will find their way into the people of God. But what Zechariah says is that they too shall be a remnant for our God… That is, the Jews were themselves a remnant of the once great people of Israel. These believers were all that was left of the mighty kingdom of David and Solomon. In chapter 8, in vv. 6, 11, and 12, the Jews of Zechariah’s day and the believers of subsequent generations are described as a remnant. And here as well, both Zechariah’s contemporaries and those who in future years will be gathered to them from the nations.
I think we American Christians have a hard time accepting that, as Christians, we are a remnant, something in the way of leftovers, so far as the world is concerned. Christians in other lands find it much easier to accept this because it is perfectly obvious to them that are a small minority, without power or influence, put upon by others, and, humanly speaking, at the mercy of those who wield the power. But it is becoming more obvious to us, is it not, that we are a remnant. There may still be millions upon millions of us in the American church, but we definitely no longer call the shots! And we are beset on all sides by enemies, by forces very much more numerous than our own, hostile to our life as the people of God, to our convictions, our ethics, and our practices. It is a temptation to feel powerless.
A self-confident church, an influential church, a prosperous church doesn’t worry about its enemies and finds little of interest in such a passage as we have read this evening. A remnant church struggling to survive as a faithful community of loyal believers and servants, feeling the pressure of the world around them, wants to know whether they will survive and their children with them. For them it is life itself to know that Tyre and Ashkelon will soon enough be of interest only to archaeologists and that even some of their leftovers will rejoice to have found their way into our number.
It is simply another very important way — such an oracle as this — to remind us that, no matter the present difficulties, no matter the seeming triumph of our enemies, no matter the ascendant unbelieving and anti-Christian culture of our nation, we will carry the future with us. The nations come and go, always have; always will; but the church will last forever. That is what you need to remember, every day, and what your children need to learn!
What these verses permit me to tell you is this: long after the United States of America has finished its downward slide to oblivion, long after the European Union has found that the way of aggressive unbelief is the way of death, long after the nation states that today think it essential to their life to marginalize or actually to eliminate the Christians in their borders, there will be a Christian church all over the world, still absorbing the remnants of those wrecked cultures and nations, still moving toward the glorious victory and fabulous future that God has in store for those who trust in him.