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Zechariah 12:10-13:9

As we said last time, these final three chapters are a single prophesy of the Day of the Lord, the final, climactic personal intervention of God in human history to bring it to its consummation in the vindication of his people and the punishment of the world. Unbeknownst to Zechariah and his contemporaries it is, in fact, a prophecy of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ; actually a prophecy of his First and Second Coming collapsed as it were in a single vision of the future. That all of this would reach its consummation at the second advent of the Messiah was a part of the picture not disclosed until after the Lord’s arrival in the world. The note of judgment was prominent in the first of the three major sections of this final prophecy and the nations of the unbelieving world a special focus. But this second section is concerned exclusively with the people of God and what the Lord has in store for them. If the first section dealt with God’s protection of his people while he is executing his judgment upon the world, the second section deals with God’s purification of his people, his making them ready to live with himself. [Duguid, 173] As in the New Testament, salvation is never simply escaping divine judgment; it is also always the transformation of one’s life into the image of Christ; it is as its beginning and it is at its consummation. Again the chapter division is not helpful as the new section begins at 12:10 and very clearly continues to the end of chapter 13.

Text Comment

v.10     “A spirit of grace and pleas for mercy” should not be taken to mean simply that God will give to his people a certain inner disposition, that is, “spirit” with lower case “s.” What is said is that he will give his people his Spirit and that always means the Spirit of God in the Old Testament. Isaiah, Joel, and Ezekiel had all spoken of a day when the Lord would pour out his Spirit on his people. The Spirit is here described as a Spirit of grace and pleas for mercy because that is what he will give to God’s people. He will give them grace and work in them real penitence, sorrow for sin, and a desire for forgiveness. Repentance is always the Spirit’s work and gift in the Bible.

In the original context Zechariah’s contemporaries would certainly have taken the reference to piercing the Lord as a metaphor. Their king is dead and they are overwhelmed by the realization that they were responsible for his death! [Webb, 160] They had stabbed him by rebelling against him, by rejecting him, and by preferring to him the idols of the ancient world. Little would they have known how literally true it would become that they had “pierced” the Lord, his crucifixion on their behalf culminating as it did in the thrust of a Roman soldier’s spear through Jesus’ side. [John 19: 34-37]

Comparing their grief to the grief of a parent who has lost an only child emphasizes the intensity of the grief. The sincerity of repentance is, in part, measured by the depth of one’s sorrow for his sin.

v.11     Hadad-rimmon was a town near Megiddo where King Josiah was killed in battle. So the comparison may be to the intense national mourning that followed his death (2 Chron. 35:24). We learn in Chronicles that the anniversary of Josiah’s death continued to be an occasion for mourning in Judah (2 Chron. 35:25).

v.14     The penitential mourning will overtake the entire community, all of God’s people, family by family and individual by individual. There is no blaming of others; everyone is taking responsibility for his own sins or her own part in the sins of the people as a whole. Everyone will say, “The sin is mine.” [Webb, 163] Nothing is so surely the sign of the Spirit’s presence and working. Remember on Pentecost, when the Spirit was poured out on the people, their immediate response was to be, as Luke says in Acts 2, “cut to the heart,” and they cried out to Peter asking him what they should do, having sinned against God and having pierced the Son of God as they had. They sought forgiveness and they found it, 3,000 of them at once.

Two particular family lines are singled out for mention and their names require a bit of Biblical sophistication to appreciate: one that of David through one of his sons, Nathan; the other that of Levi through his grandson Shimei: in other words the families — royal and priestly — that supplied the leadership in Judea at this particular time. We learn in Luke 3 that Davidic ancestry and so the line of the promised Messiah could be traced through David’s son Nathan, a line that passed through Zerubbabel. Something similar must have been true of the line of Levi traveling through Shimei. [Boda, 488-489] In any case the leaders and the people will repent together and mourn together.

Some of you are still reading the NIV. These two verses, 12 and 13, are a good example of how sometimes the NIV’s effort to provide a smoother translation goes awry. In the NIV the reflexive pronoun “itself” or “themselves,” occurs twice, both of which are at the beginning of v. 12. In the Hebrew the reflexive pronoun occurs eleven times, making for an impressive emphasis on the solitary nature of this penitence. There was a lot of solitary dealing with God in Jesus’ life and there should be a lot of the same in the life of every one of his disciples.

For none so lone on earth as he

Whose way of thought is high and free,

Beyond the mist, beyond the cloud,

Beyond the clamor of the crowd,

Moving where Jesus trod,

In the lone walk with God.

[Archbishop Leighton, The Bishop’s Walk]

To be alone with God in penitence and prayer is a secret that all the masters of the Christian life learned sooner rather than later. In a day like ours in which everyone is constantly bombarded by sounds and images from every direction, in which it is harder and harder to be really alone, it is particularly necessary that we pay attention to that reflexive pronoun, repeated again and again and again in vv. 12-13.

13:1     The people’s sins, the sins by which they pierced the Lord, have defiled them. They need cleansing. The image here is of a spring pouring out clear, pure water that will wash away the defilement of their sin. The spring (or fountain) in the Old Testament is a metaphor for an inexhaustible supply of such water. We have springs near our summer place in the Colorado Rockies that supply beautifully clear water, so cold that it hurts your teeth. These springs have been running for centuries if not millennia, as has the spring at En Gedi in the desert near the Dead Sea. It is a lovely image and a perfect response to the mourning of the people. The sins that have made them mourn God will now wash away. This text, as you probably realize, was the inspiration for William Cowper’s beautiful hymn, “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood.” This promise of cleansing harks back to the statement in the 4th night vision: “I will remove the iniquity of this land in a single day.” You’ll see again how in the prophetic vision Christ’s first and second comings are combined in a single vision of the future. The fountain was opened at the cross; final forgiveness and cleansing happens at the end of history when men are made perfect.

v.2       Now are listed the sins for which the people will mourn, which God will forgive, and from which the people will be delivered. We already said that idols come in many forms, anything that takes God’s place in our hearts, and the promise is that those idols will be thoroughly and permanently removed; so much so that they will be entirely forgotten. False teaching will likewise be removed. Zechariah assumes we understand he’s not talking about his own prophecy, the prophecy of faithful men, but the false prophets who bedeviled Israel for so long and still bedevil the church today. Idolatry and false prophecy went together and are often mentioned together, as they were in 10:2.

v.3       So thoroughly unwelcome will be any false prophet that his own parents will execute him, a dramatic image indeed. More than once we are taught in the Bible that even the most precious bonds of human life — marriage and family — cannot be allowed to stand in the way of loyalty to God and, when they do, eventually nothing is preserved: neither the family nor one’s relationship to God. The word for “pierce” in v. 3 is the same as the word for “pierce” in 12:10. The point is made in that way that one must choose either to stand with those who pierce the false prophet or with those who pierce the Lord. There is no third position, no middle ground, some easier, less extreme way. You have this same stark alternative in the New Testament, both in the Gospels and the letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3. Truth matters and falsehood sends people to hell. So those who once pierced the Lord have learned their lesson and now stand ready to repudiate false teaching and those who bring it in the church of God.

v.6       The strict and unflinching loyalty of the people to God and his Word will make the false prophets afraid to identify themselves for who they are. They won’t put on Elijah’s clothing, the uniform of a prophet because they won’t want to be identified as a prophet. If asked, they’ll lie and claim to be farmers. But without the cloak of a prophet the man’s wounds will be exposed, the wounds he received no doubt in the pagan rituals. The false prophet will be discovered after all.

Now come the final three verses of the chapter, concerning which one commentator writes this:

“These three verses are a short poem that at first sight seems quite self-contained and unrelated to what has gone before. But in fact it is the masterstroke that brings the whole message of chapters 12 and 13 to a conclusion that ties all the threads together.” [Webb, 168]

v.7       The shepherd is not a false shepherd but a true shepherd; a shepherd who stands with the Lord. And here the Lord is calling for this shepherd to be struck down. The remainder of the poem concerns what will happen when the shepherd is struck down. In a strikingly unexpected turn, the Lord turns his hand against the little ones, the ones we would expect him to protect. And from this point to the end of the poem the focus is on the sheep, not the shepherd.

v.8       We seem to have returned to the great battle that was described in the opening verses of chapter 12. There we read that the battle would be fierce but that the Lord would “seek to destroy all the nations that come against Jerusalem.” [12:9] Two-thirds of the sheep will perish in the battle, only a third will survive. What does that mean? The Lord, to put it crudely, is culling the herd. This is always the Bible’s warning; at the end of the day only the true followers of Christ will accompany him to glory. Only those will be saved who have maintained their faithfulness to him in the teeth of the struggles, difficulties, sorrows and sufferings of life and the opposition of the world.

v.9       But those who do survive will have been refined, purified and will be restored to a right relationship with God. Here again we encounter the covenant Yahweh made with his people: “I will be your God and you shall be my people.” Out of the ordeal shall emerge a people who are pure before God and who acknowledge him as their God.

So who is the stricken shepherd? Yahweh has already identified himself as the true shepherd of Israel in chapter 11. So the shepherd is Yahweh, but here he is also distinct from Yahweh, someone close to him as we read in v. 7. Presumably, in the context, he is also the one who is pierced. In Zechariah, we may add to this picture of the stricken shepherd what has already been said about the Branch (3:8; 6:12) and the coming king (9:9-10). Taking all of this together we have one of the most elaborate prophesies of the coming Messiah in the Old Testament. The Lord’s disciples should have understood that the Messiah would have to suffer for his people’s sin, because here, as elsewhere, that was part of the prophetic profile of the coming king. What is more his suffering was not imposed upon him by his enemies but by God himself. “Awake, O sword, against my shepherd!” As in Isaiah 53:10 it would be God who crushes his servant, but he does so on behalf of his sheep.

What is more, the poem encapsulates so much other biblical teaching in its picture of a two-fold cleansing. There is a cleansing that comes from the fountain — from faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ — and a cleansing that comes through suffering, in the fire as it is put here in v. 9. We could fairly impose New Testament categories on this Old Testament text and say that both justification and sanctification are being described in chapter 13. Both forms of cleansing are the work of God, to be sure, as is very clear here, but they operate in different dimensions and in different ways. Hebrews 12:10 may be taken as a New Testament summary of 13:8-9:

“[God] disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”

It will have occurred to you, no doubt, how many of these prophecies in the last chapters of Zechariah were fulfilled in the life, the suffering, and the death of Jesus Christ and why it is that this part of Zechariah figures so largely in the Gospel accounts of the Lord’s passion, cited more often than any other passage of the Old Testament in the Gospels’ account of the last week of the Lord’s ministry. Think of it: the Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Judas’ thirty pieces of silver, the return of the money to the temple authorities who then gave it to a potter, the piercing of Jesus on the cross, the sudden flow of blood and water that came from that wound (John 19:34-35), the mourning and wailing over his death, the striking of the shepherd, and the removal of the sin of the people in a single day. And, over all of that, the Messiah’s identification with God and his distinction from God. So much remains to be filled out, to be explained; but it is all here nevertheless, from the Holy Trinity to the cross. But the same may be said of the Lord’s Second Coming. In Rev. 1:7 we read that when he comes in the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, (an obvious citation of Zechariah 12) and all tribes on the earth will wail because of him. I won’t take the time to make all the possible connections between Zechariah and the book of Revelation, but in the index of citations and allusions to OT texts in the back of the standard Greek New Testament, Zechariah is mentioned 31 times in respect to Revelation. [cf. Webb, 171-173]

We might prefer something more specific and literal in the way of a prediction of the coming of the Messiah and his royal career. We sometimes wish the Old Testament prophets would have said that he would be born when a man named Herod was king of Judea, that he would die on a cross at the hands of Romans when a man named Tiberius ruled Rome, that he would rise again on the third day, that he would ascend to heaven from which he would return in due time, and that he would bestow his spirit on his church to enable her to take the message of his saving love to the four corners of the world, creating a church of Gentiles and Jews together. All of that is very clearly taught in the OT to be sure, but in a much more general way, in dramatic pictures, in apocalyptic images, and, as here, in prophesies laden with metaphor and other figures of speech. It is not such an account as we read in a newspaper or, for that matter, in some prophecy preacher’s account of how the world will end. (To be sure, those images and figures of speech would have been much more accessible to Zechariah’s contemporaries than they are to us today.) There may be any number of reasons why this is so, but that it is so is beyond dispute. No one should doubt that we are given a remarkable picture of the Messiah and his work in the prophecies of Zechariah uttered then written down some five hundred years before the birth of Jesus Christ. But no one should doubt as well that there was still much to learn of this commanding figure whose coming would be the salvation of the world.

But I want tonight to return to our text and take up one very prominent dimension of the picture of salvation and the consummation of salvation that we are given here. I am speaking of the mourning of the people, their heartfelt embrace of their own responsibility for their sin and the evil of it as an offense against God and the reason for the death of their king. In our superficial day, our man worshipping day, there is less and less of this in Christian experience, less and less of this deep and painful penitence. Grace is applied too quickly and perfunctorily to the wound, before it has been washed and disinfected; nowadays penitence and mourning for sin are too often interrupted before they get well and truly started. Or, to put it another way, the waters of the fountain are applied before the great need for cleansing is even fully realized. No wonder, then, that the Lord so often intervenes to force such penitence upon his people. So much of our suffering, misery, sorrow in the world has this purpose; to lay us low before God.

I came across a published testimony the other day that magnificently sums up the nature and the power of such penitence. Here, indeed, is an example of one who was so nerved by his penitence that he was willing to pierce his loved ones rather than to pierce again the one who loved him and gave himself for him.

Nabeel Qureshi now serves with Ravi Zacharias Ministries as an evangelist but he was born and raised in a devout Muslim home here in the United States. His last name identifies him as part of a family with a long tradition of Muslim faith, indeed stretching back to Muhammad himself. As a boy he learned to recite the Qur’an in Arabic and memorized substantial parts. He grew up a zealous witness for his faith, often discomfiting Christians that he knew with his knowledge of their faith and the questions that he posed. But in college he met a Christian classmate who not only proved a good friend but a faithful, winsome, and intelligent witness for his Christian faith. He answered Nabeel’s questions about Christianity, or, if he didn’t know the answer, would research the question to get him an answer. As Nabeel had challenged the Christians he knew to reexamine their faith, this fellow challenged Nabeel to reexamine Islam and when he did he began having doubts for the first time in his life. His investigation of the life of Muhammad left him deeply disappointed in his hero. His confidence in the Qur’an faltered as he looked at the book more carefully. In an agony of confusion, since Muslims expect to hear from Allah in dreams and visions he asked for such in prayer.

“Tell me who you are! If you are Allah, show me how to believe in you. If you are Jesus, tell me! Whoever you are, I will follow you, no matter the cost.”

Well he got his dreams and they pointed him to Jesus. But still he couldn’t make that commitment because he felt so keenly the devastation that this would be to his family, whom he loved, his parents especially who had loved him so faithfully. In an agony of indecision, on the first day of his second year of medical school, he left school, returned to his apartment, and placed both the Qur’an and the Bible on the table in front of him. He opened the Qur’an but found no comfort there. It seemed to him utterly irrelevant to his life and to his suffering. He opened the Bible and very soon came to the Matthew 5, the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, and the verse that reads: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

“Electric, the words leapt off the page and jump-started my heart. I could not put the Bible down. I began reading fervently, reaching Matthew 10:37, which taught me that I must love God more than my mother and father. ‘But Jesus,’ I said, ‘accepting you would be like dying. I will have to give up everything.’ The next verse spoke to me, saying, ‘He who does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me.’ Jesus was being very blunt. For Muslims, following the [Christian] gospel is more than a call to prayer. It is a call to die.”


“I knelt at the foot of my bed and gave up my life. A few days later, the two people I loved most in this world were shattered by my betrayal. To this day my family is broken by the decision I made, and it is excruciating every time I see the cost I had to pay.


But Jesus is the God of reversal and redemption. He redeemed sinners to life by his death, and he redeemed a symbol of execution by repurposing it for salvation. He redeemed my suffering by making me rely upon him for every moment, bending my heart toward him. It was there in my pain that I knew him intimately. He reached me through investigations, dreams, and visions, and called me to prayer in my suffering. It was there that I found Jesus. To follow him is worth giving up everything.” [N. Qureshi, “Called off the Minaret,” Christianity Today (Jan/Feb 2014) 95-96]

The Lord assured and comforted this young man by telling him that it was inevitable that he should have to mourn. Life is like that in a sinful, dying world. A suffering savior, a mourning people — suffering both for the sins that sent their Redeemer to the cross and for the painful sacrifices required of them as followers of the Good Shepherd — that is our Christian faith and life. True enough, there is joy as well; great joy. But we are not free, we are never free, to forgo the mourning.

Surely it is significant that in this depiction of the end of all things, the Lord chose to accent this dimension of the Christian life, to speak of how his saints would be purified by suffering and would be characterized by sorrow for sin. To fail to mourn your own sins, really to mourn them, is to make little of the one who was pierced for you on account of those sins and to treat as something small the fountain he opened for your cleansing. To fail to mourn the costs of discipleship is, almost invariably, not to be a true disciple at all. Those who fail to mourn the price of following Jesus almost invariably are not paying the price. They don’t mourn because loyalty to Christ has not cost them dearly, like the loss of an only child. If you don’t mourn the alienation from others that loyalty to Christ costs you, then either you are not loyal enough to Christ to suffer such alienation or the people you have lost don’t matter very much to you. Christ and his cross are never far apart in the believer’s life and it was the Lord Jesus himself who said that his disciples must be willing to pick up their cross and follow him.

There is woe in the Christian life. It cannot be helped. Taken together the Scriptures teach us to expect a great deal of woe. The woe of our own sins — their shame and their consequence, especially the dishonor they are to the one who loved us and gave himself for us –; the woe of deep disappointment with ourselves — it was Paul who spoke of himself as a wretched man because of his failure to surmount his sins –; the woe of the sins of others, the woe of the hard, painful, wearying work of spiritual battle; the woe of lost friends and loved ones; the woe of living in a benighted world that loves darkness rather than light; and the woe of having to wait for our vindication as followers of Jesus Christ. And, as Paul reminds us, and as we read here, there is the suffering that comes simply because the Lord must separate his true disciples from the false. Everywhere we look in the Bible this is the faithful Christian life. Blessed are the poor in spirit; blessed are those who mourn.

Our savior was a man of sorrows, and it is our calling to follow in his footsteps. And why was he so sorrowful? Because of sin, not his own but the sins of everyone else, because of unrepentance, because of spiritual death all around him; because of hard human hearts; because so many would prefer idols to the Son of God; because men love the creature rather than the creator and darkness rather than light; because our salvation was going to cost him so dearly. And all of that is reason for us to mourn as well, each of us by himself or herself, and all of us together.

I want to say a final word tonight in memory and to the credit of our dear Amy Hartin. Amy mourned a lot in her Christian life and most of the time she mourned for the right things. She mourned for her sins all the time. I remember so many conversations with her in which she was despairing of ever surmounting her sins and in which I sought to encourage her by reminding her of how much progress the Lord had already given her. She worried about her sins. She feared from time to time that the Lord would not consider her sufficiently faithful to him. She regretted her sins, bitterly, as one weeps for an only child. She did a lot of mourning by herself, but as well was honest with others about her struggles to be faithful to the Lord. I suspect a number of you had conversations with her in which she mourned before you in this way. I am so grateful to say that she mourned for the right things. She mourned for her sins very much in terms of the one she had pierced. She also mourned the cost of her discipleship: the relationships that had been made more difficult, the relationships she lost entirely. Her life, in many ways, was one long trial by fire. There is a sense I think in which she was worn out by the struggle. And I have no doubt that the Lord’s purpose in that, hard as it was, was that she be refined and tested so that we who knew her and loved her could be sure she meant what she said when she said, “The Lord is my God.”