We are in the midst of a series of prophesies, each of which is meant to encourage the Jews of Zechariah’s day, diminished in number and stature as they were, facing great challenges that seemed, at least to many of them, so daunting that they felt defeated before they even began.
We read in chapter 8 of great days that were in store for the people of God. They were being encouraged to work in the expectation that their efforts, however paltry they may appear, would matter in the long run. In the first half of chapter 9 we read of the future defeat of Israel’s enemies. Now we read of Israel’s coming king and the triumph of his reign.
v.9 We come now to the best known verse in Zechariah, familiar because of its use in the narrative of the triumphal entry of the Lord Jesus on Palm Sunday and made still more famous by being taken up into the libretto of Handel’s Messiah.
As often in the Bible, Jerusalem is personified as a young woman. Since the names of towns are feminine in the Hebrew language, and because the Lord is expressing his paternal affection, he addressed Jerusalem as his daughter. Here she is called upon to welcome Israel’s king as his procession approaches the capital. You still see something of this custom in the Middle East today: women in the streets celebrating some victory either in battle or diplomacy. We saw many images of such female celebration, if you remember, after 9-11! In 1 Samuel 18:6, in describing what happened after David had killed Goliath and Israel had routed the Philistines, we read:
“As they were coming home, when David returned from striking down the Philistine, the women came out of all the cities of Israel, singing and dancing, to meet King Saul, with tambourines, with songs of joy, and with musical instruments.”
The king is described as righteous, humble, and having salvation. That he is a righteous king means that he will act righteously and ensure that justice is done. No longer will the guilty go unpunished and the innocent suffer. He will be a man who is faithful to abide by the law of God. He also will bring God’s people deliverance from their enemies. But he will be unlike the typical warrior king. He will come not as a warrior — astride a mighty steed or riding in a chariot — but as a man of peace. Kings and the wealthy rode donkeys in the ancient near east — the donkey was not in and of itself a humble form of transportation — but a warrior did not go into battle on a donkey. The means of the Messiah’s conquest would not be the weapons of this world. This king would conquer his and our enemies not astride a charger but riding a humble donkey.
But it is also important to notice that while the king here is distinguished from the Lord he is also identified with him. As we read through the section we can hardly tell whether it is the king or Yahweh himself who will save his people. Indeed, in v. 14 we will read that the “Lord will appear” (i.e. Yahweh), but we have already read in v. 9 of the King who is coming to us. No one could really grasp the simultaneous correspondence and distinction — God and Man in what seems to be a single individual — until the incarnation. This was revelation that awaited the appearance of the God-Man fully to understand and appreciate.
In any case, this king can be none other than the Branch, twice mentioned in the night visions (3:8; 6:12); the king-priest whose coming was foretold in a symbolic way in the crowning of the high priest Joshua in chapter 6.
v.10 If v. 9 described who the coming king would be, v. 10ff. describe what he will do. That is, this king will eliminate Israel’s need for the instruments of war: the chariot, the war horse, and the battle bow. In other words, Israel will no longer need to depend for her protection on the implements of war. What is more, this king will be not only Israel’s king, but the king of all the earth. The result of his rule will be universal, not merely local, peace.
Ephraim, of course, by this time no longer existed as a tribe or as a distinct geographical area in which the descendants of Ephraim once livedas part of the nation of Israel. If you remember, as its principal tribe, Ephraim was the name often given to the northern kingdom of Israel after the nation was divided following the death of Solomon. That northern kingdom had been destroyed by the Assyrians in the late 8th century B.C and scattered to the four winds. But the prophets often spoke of Israel and Judah, of Ephraim and Judah or as here of Ephraim and Jerusalem, being joined again in a restored Israel in the future. To speak of Judah and Ephraim was their way of speaking of the restored people of God in the distant future. We have already seen in Zechariah that prophesies of this kind anticipate Pentecost and the gathering of the nations as the Israel of God.
v.11 The basis of their assurance that they would be delivered from their enemies is the blood of the covenant. That phrase occurs, for example, in Exodus 24 in regard to the sacrifice by which the covenant with Israel was renewed at Sinai. This is the blood of the covenant because this is the shed blood, the sacrificial blood, the sacrificial death that ratifies and guarantees the covenant that God has made with his people. Of course, this same phrase occurs in the institution of the Lord’s Supper, the night before the Lord’s crucifixion, when the Lord spoke of his own death in terms of “the blood of the covenant.” Our salvation, our peace with God, our relationship with him, our membership in his kingdom and his people is ultimately assured because the blood of the covenant has been shed on our behalf, what Peter calls “the precious blood of Christ.” Remember, whenever such a reference to blood is found in the Bible, it is a way of speaking of a sacrificial death, a substitutionary death. It is not the blood, it is not the liquid that matters, but Christ’s death in our place. Blood means death simply because, as the ancients well understood, if you slit an animal’s throat and the blood runs out, the animal dies. That’s how blood became an image for death.
The close association of sacrificial blood with the coming king prepares for the revelation of salvation through the death of the King of Kings on behalf of his people.
The “your” in “your prisoners” is feminine singular, indicating that we are still talking about Jerusalem, personified as a woman. A waterless pit was a dry well that could be used as a temporary prison. If you remember, his brothers lowered Joseph into such a waterless pit while they considered what to do with him. [Gen. 37:26] Jeremiah likewise was imprisoned for a time in such a pit. [Jer. 38:6] A man still has some hope when put into a waterless pit because he won’t drown before he is rescued. [McComiskey, 1170]
v.12 They are prisoners – their enemies now have the upper hand – but they have reason to hope. In other places the prophets (e.g. Isa. 61:7) promise that the Lord will restore two-fold the losses his people have suffered. He doesn’t just give you back what you’ve lost. He gives you back what you’ve lost and a lot more in this life and in the life to come.
v.13 The point is that the Lord, who has forsaken the use of chariots and warhorses and battle bows is not left without weapons. He is not disarmed. His people will be his weapons. The kingdom of God will overspread the world, but not by military conquest. Its conquest will be with spiritual weapons, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 10, as the people of God, trusting in the power of the Holy Spirit, bear witness by word and deed to the gospel of Christ. That is the sense of the statement that Judah is his bow and Ephraim his arrows. He will use them like a warrior’s sword. The question of interpretation here concerns the reference to Greece. The literal phrase, “sons of Javan,” could be a general reference to the nations of the eastern shore of the Mediterranean (that is, those nations already mentioned in the first half of the chapter) rather than to the Greeks, per se. In either case Greece or the nearby nations stand for the unbelieving world that Israel will conquer.
v.14 Now we see the Lord as a divine warrior, taking the battle to his people’s enemies. To that end he sounds the trumpet to call his people to war.
v.17 The overflowing cup and abundant food are typical images of the Lord’s blessing and of the consummation of the messianic kingdom. The fighting will not last forever. Victory will come and lasting peace and prosperity with it.
I face tonight a problem typical for preachers who attempt to preach through one of the books of the Old Testament prophets. We come tonight to a text that repeats themes we have already encountered several times in the earlier chapters of Zechariah. This is why virtually no one preaches through one of the greatest books of the Bible, the prophecy of Isaiah. Were he to do so the preacher would face in several different sections of the book chapter after chapter in which the same teaching is repeated. It is hard enough to do justice to such soaring theology once, but to do justice to it the third, fourth, or fifth time, most preachers think, is simply beyond them.
Remember, most of what we find in the Old Testament prophets are précis of sermons that would have been preached at different times and on different occasions. But in the final form of these books in many instances we find those sermons placed together organized as it were by theme.
Think of what we have already said about this material when considering it in the early chapters of Zechariah.
- We have already heard and more than once that both the salvation of individuals and the consummation of the kingdom of God in the world depend upon the work of a king who is still to come.
- We have read of the kingdom of peace and happiness that this king, also called the Branch, will establish for his people.
- We have read that the people of Israel will become a great people, a world encompassing people and that the nations of the world will stream into her borders and become citizens of her commonwealth. Calvary and Pentecost lie clearly in Zechariah’s vision of the future. No wonder the book of Zechariah is cited more often than any other book of the Old Testament in the passion narratives of the four Gospels.
- We have also already noticed the same characteristic foreshortening or telescoping of the prophetic forecast of the future. Here in Zechariah 9, as before in chapter 8 and before that in chapter 6 and before that in chapter 2, we read of the consummation of the world-wide kingdom of God as if it came to pass immediately upon the appearance of the Messiah. We find the same thing in a famous text such as Isaiah 42, the first of the so-called servant songs of Isaiah. Well so here in Zechariah 9.
The coming of the king will lead to the destruction of his and our enemies and the triumph of his kingdom in the world. “His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth,” so we read in Isaiah 42, the prophet’s way of saying that the knowledge of the Lord will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea, or that every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.
Nothing is said here of the first coming of Jesus Christ being separated from his second by thousands of years. Certainly the Lord’s death and resurrection and ascension to heaven being followed by Pentecost and the gospel mission to the world are not described in so many words. We hear of Judah and Ephraim as the Lord’s weapons but we are not told that the war would be fought and the battle won by the progress of the gospel through the nations of the world from mouth to mouth and heart to heart. Nothing is said here about the fact that 2000 years after the Lord Christ entered Jerusalem astride that little donkey the Christian church would still be, at least in many places of the world, prisoners of hope in a waterless pit, waiting for the Lord to restore to her twofold the losses she had suffered in her service of his kingdom. The mountain range of final triumph turns out to have been many, many miles beyond the mountain range of Christ’s first triumph over sin and death on the cross and in his resurrection. In Zechariah’s vision the ranges seem to be at equal distance from us, but as events were to prove, the chronology of victory required many more years between events than anyone supposed at the time. And there is a reason for that, as we know: the elect must be gathered from the four winds, the nations must be brought to Christ, the great, enormous company that would be the people of God must be called into existence, only then can the end come.
This phenomenon of prophetic foreshortening has a classic illustration, first offered by the French Reformed scholar, Oscar Cullmann, in his influential book, Christ and Time, first published a few years after the end of the Second World War. Cullman likened Christ’s victory over sin and death on Good Friday and Easter Sunday to the Allies’ victory at Normandy. Once the allied armies were safely ashore and the buildup of divisions and equipment could proceed unhampered by the enemy, it could be said, and looking back on it it could be said with even greater confidence, that the war had been won. Many German generals fully understood at the time that the Normandy invasion, once it was a success, had made the allied victory inevitable. But, as it was to turn out, there was a year of hard fighting still to go before Germany capitulated on the battle field. Indeed, virtually all American deaths in the European Theater of Operations occurred in Europe after D-Day, after, as it could truthfully be said, the war had been won. Well, so it was with Christ on Easter. The war has been won, the victory achieved. The eventual triumph is now only a matter of time. But to the church’s surprise there have been centuries of hard fighting and still this war is not entirely over. The cross and the empty tomb did not immediately extend the Savior’s rule to the ends of the earth. That has come with time and, indeed, has not yet come; certainly not as it some day shall.
His soldiers used to complain about General Macarthur that he would proclaim to the press that some Pacific island had been taken and that only “mopping-up” remained to be done, when that “mopping-up” amounted to bitter fighting against an implacable foe that cost as many if not more casualties than the fatal blow struck at the outset of the campaign. Well, Christians know all about mopping-up. We’ve been mopping-up for these past 2000 years and it has been bloody work. The Devil gives ground only by inches and makes us pay dearly for every foot of ground gained. But, the fact remains that the fatal blow has already been struck by our King and Captain and the victory shall be ours because it is already his. That is the main point of Zechariah’s forecast of the future victory of the kingdom of God and the triumph of its king, repeated as frequently as it is in this prophecy!
We have the world’s history and the history of the kingdom of God from the ministry of Christ to the second coming in these few verses in the second half of Zechariah 9 with the accent falling, where it belongs, on the certainty of triumph and the inevitability of the Lord’s conquest of all his and our enemies. The accent does not fall on the details, though we do learn along the way of these verses that Christ will not be a king such as we might have expected, that we – Judah and Ephraim – will have some fighting to do ourselves as the Lord uses us to achieve his victories, and that there will be times when we find ourselves prisoners in a waterless pit.
Now we have to put ourselves in the place of these people. It takes imagination. I don’t think there is a book in the world that requires as much imagination as does the Word of God. When you stop and think about imagination it is an extraordinary power that God has given you; the ability to see someone else’s life in some other day, in some other time, to be able to carry yourself to another place and another time. Again have to put ourselves in the place of these people; hear them as they must have heard these encouraging words. I suspect some would have found them easier to believe than others. Depending upon the individual’s personal circumstances, his or her own measure of heart-break or discouragement, or sense of adventure and hope, this message would have struck different hearts with different power. But everyone needed it because it is the truth and no one can live properly in this world, God’s world, who does not live according to the truth. No one can live wisely or rightly in the present, whatever his or her circumstances, who does not live in consistency with the future of human life as it will unfold. Obviously, if one doesn’t know how the future will unfold, one will live as seems best at the moment which is what America and most of the world is doing today. But we know very well, don’t we, that living that way tends to make fools of us all.
Every parent knows how important it is to teach children to connect actions with consequences. So much of what we teach our children is precisely to anticipate the future in the present.
- If you reach for that pan on the stove you will be burned…
- If you take that toy from your brother again you will get a spanking…
- If you refuse to take your schoolwork seriously you will severely restrict your opportunities for college and beyond…
- If you do not control your romantic and sexual desires you are going to break one another hearts, you will find yourself pregnant, and the world is going to know that you have no self-control…
- And, contrarily, if you learn to obey you will be happy…
- If you are kind to others, they will love you for it…
- If you read your Bible and pray with real intention and faith your whole person will flourish because of the Lord’s presence with you…
- If you cultivate self-discipline and self-denial in regard to time, to entertainment, and to meeting your obligations, you will be repaid with a useful, consequential, and admirable life…
- And on and on.
Always we are connecting the present to the future; always we are, in effect saying that you cannot life wisely in the present if you don’t reckon with the future.
And this is supremely the wisdom of the Christian life, the godly life. So many of the proverbs, as you know, are lessons about how the future informs the present and ought to control our choices in the present. But, on a much larger scale, the Christian life is a life that must be lived in view of the ultimate future. We haven’t been given this knowledge of the future to satisfy our curiosity. That’s why there is so little detail there. We have been told what is to come so that we can live in the present in the light of that knowledge!
To be sure, such lessons as I mentioned just now, such connections between the present and the future are vitally important. We can’t and won’t consider the distant future if we aren’t willing to consider tomorrow, next week, and next year. As the Bible says in respect to so many things, “he who is faithful in little will be faithful in much.” But so much of the Christian life consists in bringing the future back into the present and living in its light. How much difference must it make if we believe, really believe, what Zechariah has told us about the future here in chapter 9. How differently we must think of our enemies if we saw them as they actually are: doomed, doomed and heading to punishment and perdition unless they be saved, or, contrarily, as we see them embracing the Lord Jesus Christ and finding opening before them unfathomable bliss in an eternal future. soon to be either in hopeless misery in hell or in unfathomable bliss in heaven. You can’t tell by looking at a person what sort of future he has, but every unbeliever is heading to hell until the people of Ephraim and Judah wield their weapons on the Lord’s behalf. Have you ever spent just twenty minutes or so imagining what it will be like for people to open their eyes and find themselves in hell? Imagine them grinding their teeth over the opportunities they squandered to find the way of life. They hardly even thought about salvation and now it is too late and they can’t think about anything else but what it was they missed.
Now don’t miss the obvious here. The fundamental assumption of all of this description of the future is that Zechariah’s contemporaries will see and will experience this future for themselves. Otherwise what is the point or the use of any of this if it has nothing to do with us; if we won’t be there to see it and experience it? We are being reminded here as we are on every page of the Word of God that all men are immortal. That fact may be news to many people in our day, but it is the basic assumption of everything you read in the Word of God.
Have you ever, as I have these past days and as my loved ones have these past days, felt something near despair as you think of the future stretching away before you, a future you want so very much to be different; a future dismal, wasteful, empty of so much that you have loved and that you long for. That is hell, only it is not a few years, but forever; not a chapter of one’s life, but the whole story. I say, no one who knows that about the people around him or her who do not believe in Jesus Christ can remain indifferent to them.
And, in the same way, no one who has heaven before him can look at this life at all in the same way as someone who does not. Whatever our troubles, our disappointments (however sharp and painful), our fears, if we can see the glorious future of the kingdom of God growing ever clearer, ever sharper in our view, we cannot, we simply cannot live without a spring in our step, without hope in our hearts, and without a sense of high purpose for our lives day by day.
I suppose there is that in every sports fan that would prefer his team in the World Series or Super Bowl or the Champions’ League Final to score early and often and win by an overwhelming margin. That may be a mark of our insecurity as well as a desire to see our favorite team prove itself the best. But all sports fans know that a win that was a foregone conclusion by the second inning isn’t nearly as exciting or memorable as the game that went down to wire. I have a PCA pastor friend who has been a St. Louis Cardinal fan all his life, even though he didn’t grow up anywhere near St. Louis. He grew up in Cherry Hill, NJ. I grew up in St. Louis and I am a Cardinals fan, but not nearly as rabidly as he is. He’s like Natee Tanchanpongs whom we know from his work with Presbyterian Mission International in his homeland of Thailand. Natee spent some years in St. Louis and became a diehard Cardinals’ fan. In Bangkok he subscribes to the Cardinals webcast so he can watch Cardinals games on his computer. Of course, he has to do that in the wee hours of the morning! That’s a Cardinals fan! My pastor friend happens to have in his congregation a man whose company provides financial services for one of the owners of the Cardinals. As a result he was given a ticket to game six of the 2011 World Series, already regarded as one of the greatest, if not the greatest World Series game ever played. Of course he had no idea what he was in for when he sat down in that expensive seat near the field before the game began. You baseball fans will remember that the game went back and forth. The Texas Rangers would have won the Series by winning that game. They were ahead late by two runs in the bottom of the ninth and the Cardinals had two outs. In fact, twice in that game — once in regulation and once in extra innings — the Cardinals were down to their last strike, and twice they tied the game, only to win it eventually on a walk-off home run by David Freese, who had himself grown up in St. Louis. Nobody could have written that script who wanted it to be believed. My pastor friend has a weak heart. He’s been in the hospital several times over the past few years because of heart problems. To be honest, that game might very well have killed him: taking him twice to the edge of despair, then twice to the heights of ecstasy, and then, finally, beyond ecstasy to one of the greatest victories in baseball history, and victory by his team, the team he had loved all his life.
Think of Zechariah’s chapter 9 in these terms. He tells us we are going to win and win big. He doesn’t tell us, though perhaps we can read between the lines, that our chances are going to look pretty grim at certain points along the way, there will be some close calls, but at the end the day will be ours. And the thrill will be all the greater because of the worry, and the struggle, and the heart-break, and what seem to be defeats that we endured along the way.
Now, let me bring all of this home. Some of us in this congregation are going through very hard times; some of the hardest if not the hardest in our lives. They are hard in different ways than the times of Zechariah’s contemporaries, though perhaps less different than we imagine. Let me speak for myself. I’ve never been as near despair or as often in my entire life as I have been over the past two months. I’ve never been this sad in all my years — never close to this sad –; I’ve never felt more helpless, never so afraid for those I love. But as I have thought about all of this, and I’ve had to think about it a great deal — as one does when his prayers are not answered and when bad news becomes worse news day after day — I have found, not perhaps to my surprise, but certainly to a degree never experienced before, that my convictions about God, about his salvation, about the substance of my faith have remained unchanged and unshaken.
And the more I have thought about this, the more I have come to believe that the reason for this is that the great things, the fundamentals of my Christian faith, and particularly my understanding of where history is going are so secure, so impossible for me not to believe, that my personal experience of woe, of the waterless pit, simply has to be understood in terms of these larger realities of time and space. If Jesus be God and died for me — and that is something I know is true — then all things in my life simply must work together for good. It is impossible that they should not! If heaven awaits, the heaven that has been described for us here and in so many other passages of the Bible, then these trials must be, cannot be anything but the wise and loving plan of my heavenly father for my life and the life of my loved ones. What else could they be? If the day is coming when the knowledge of the Lord shall cover the earth as the waters cover the sea, and there can be no doubt that that day is coming, not just because of the cross and the empty tomb, but because of the experience of conversion in the world by so many millions of people day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, and century after century, if such is true, I say, then what I am going through is simply the experience of being down to my last strike before the game-tying double to right field in the bottom of the ninth and the walk-off homerun in the bottom of the 11th.
If it is true that we are soon to land
“on Canaan’s happy shore…where partings are no more…[when] eyes with joy shall sparkle, that brimmed with tears of late, orphans no longer fatherless nor widows desolate,”
then, by all means, I can mourn and weep — it is no fun to be stuck in a waterless pit — but not as someone who has no hope; not at all like someone who doesn’t know what impossibly great things await those who trust in the Lord.
That is what Zechariah is telling us and not once or twice, but again and again, battering the truth into our hard hearts until it is a living power in our lives.
Some weeks ago in Australia was held what is called “The Festival of Dangerous Ideas,” an annual event held at the Sydney Opera house and telecast on Australia’s version of the BBC. It is a symposium of a kind with various speakers who also participate in a panel discussion. This year there was the usual cast of so-called deep thinkers: the feminist writer Germaine Greer, a gay rights advocate, another feminist and the token conservative, in this case Peter Hitchens. At one point in the panel discussion each of the panelists was asked to identify what he thought was the world’s most dangerous idea. Peter Hitchens, whom I have introduced to you before, the brother of the late so-called new-atheist journalist Christopher Hitchens, is a very thoughtful Christian convert. He said that the most dangerous idea in human history, the most dangerous idea in the world today remains the belief that Jesus Christ was the son of God and rose from the dead. This is the most dangerous idea you will ever encounter. Why is it dangerous?
Because it alters and, if embraced, must alter the whole of human behavior and all of our responsibilities; it turns the Universe from meaningless chaos into a designed place where there is justice, where there is hope, and therefore we all have a duty to discover the nature of that justice and work towards that hope. It alters us all, root and branch, and must. If you reject it, it alters you as well; it is incredibly dangerous; that’s why so many people turn against it. They fear its consequences.
But, after reading and considering Zechariah 9 we might recast Peter Hutchins response in other words and say that the most dangerous idea in the world is that Jesus Christ is the King of Kings and that all men and women are subject to his rule. Why is it dangerous? Because the future consummation of his rule utterly transforms and must utterly transform the meaning of the present existence of every human being. It nullifies or confirms every choice we make, every commitment, our every thought, word, and action. It makes fools of those who live without reckoning with the eventual conquest of Christ’s kingdom and it makes heroes of those, however weak, however seemingly insignificant, who live in the present in anticipation of the future God has promised and Christ has secured. That is a dangerous idea!