Messianic Previews in the Book of Zechariah
The kingdom of Judah continued to dredge itself into apostasy until a day of calamity was inevitable. In a series of three invasions by the Babylonians (606 B.C., 597 B.C., and 586 B.C.) the nation was devastated. The land was ravaged, Jerusalem was destroyed, and some seventy thousand Hebrews were taken into captivity.
Jeremiah had prophetically proclaimed that the captivity period would be a full seventy years (25:12). When Cyrus, the Persian monarch, conquered Babylon (ca. 536 B.C.), he issued an edict permitting the Israelites to return to their homeland (Isaiah 44:26-45:6). It is estimated that approximately one hundred twenty-five thousand Jews came back to Canaan in three campaigns, led by Zerubbabel (536 B.C.), Ezra (457 B.C.), and Nehemiah (444 B.C.).
Under the leadership of Zerubbabel some fifty thousand Hebrews returned home. Among these were two prophets of considerable importance—Haggai and Zechariah.
The Jews began rebuilding their temple, but soon became discouraged and the work fell idle—and remained so for fourteen years. It was Haggai’s appointed task to stir up the people to complete the temple project (see Ezra 5:1; 6:14; the book of Haggai). Zechariah, a companion prophet who began his ministry about two months following Haggai, was chosen to motivate the Hebrews to repentance and a deeper level of spiritual dedication (see Zechariah 1:1-6).
Major Divisions of Zechariah
The book of Zechariah falls into two major segments. Chapters 1-8 deal principally with Judah’s spiritual restoration. Chapters 9-14 primarily express a concern about Israel and her Messiah. This article will chiefly deal with the Messianic emphases that are prominent in this Old Testament narrative.
While Isaiah is generally characterized as the “Messianic” prophet, there is a significant Messianic emphasis in Zechariah’s document as well. In a period of history that was rather dark, it was Zechariah’s chore to declare that even though Israel no longer had a king (only a foreign-appointed provincial governor), the Messianic torch had not gone out. The glorious day of the coming Ruler was on the prophetic horizon. Let us reflect upon some of the glimpses of the coming Christ in this remarkable document.
Messianic Prophetic Flashes
The Branch (3:8; 6:12-13)
The prophet Isaiah had spoken of a “branch” that would come out of the stock of Jesse, father of David (Isaiah 11:1-5), and Jeremiah echoed the happy refrain, telling of the “righteous Branch” who would reign as king, and who is himself divine, “Jehovah our righteousness” (23:5-6; cf. 33:14-17).
Through Zechariah the Lord proclaims: “[B]ehold, I will bring forth my servant the Branch” (3:8). The promise is expanded in 6:12-13 where the Branch is identified as: (a) a human person; (b) one who would “grow up” from childhood (cf. Isaiah 53:2; Micah 5:2); (c) he would build the temple of Jehovah, a figure for the church (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:19; Ephesians 2:21-22; 1 Peter 2:5); (d) the Branch would be glorified (cf. Luke 24:26), and then simultaneously serve as a king and priest, with perfect harmony prevailing between these offices—a refrain echoed in the book of Hebrews (cf. 1:1-4). (See also Zechariah 6:12-13 – The Royal Priest.)
The Humble King (9:9)
Surely it constituted a shocking picture that a king should approach an impending coronation riding on a donkey. While royal persons might travel in such a fashion during a time of emergency (cf. 2 Samuel 16:2), such was far from the norm. From the time of Saul (1 Samuel 8:11), then David and Solomon, the kings of Israel line had employed the majestic horse as a war implement, and to demonstrate their grandiose stature.
Jehovah had forbidden his people to “multiply” horses, i.e., trust in these powerful animals as defense mechanisms instead of him (Deuteronomy 17:16; cf. Joshua 11:6, 9), but David used horses for his chariots (2 Samuel 8:4). Additionally, Solomon marshaled a considerable depository of horses (cf. 1 Kings 4:26—though forty thousand appears to be a transcription error for four thousand; cf. 2 Chronicles 9:25).
How strange, therefore, that the greatest ruler who ever claimed the hearts of men, the King of kings, should make his final entry into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey — especially one that never had been ridden. In the midst of an excited crowd, “an unbroken animal remains calm under the hand of the Messiah who controls nature ([Matthew] 8:23-27; 14:22-32)” (Carson 1984, 438). The entrance into the city was intended to be symbolic.
A key term in the passage is “meek.” The Greek words, praus (an adjective) and prautes (a noun) were employed in a variety of senses in antiquity. In classical Greek they could be used of taming an animal or of a conquered barbarian. The terms suggested a calm, soothing disposition that easily yields to reconciliation. In the Greek Old Testament (LXX) prautes was applied to Moses (Numbers 12:3), and to David (Psalm 132:1 LXX); it hints of an attitude of “religious quality involving radical submission to God and modesty in dealings with other people” (Spicq 1994, 167).
Thus meekness has both a vertical and horizontal dimension. And this superb quality finds its ultimate expression in the great King who entered Jerusalem en route to the cross. As noted already, meekness reflects a submissive attitude of the soul towards God. It beautifully pictures the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus in leaving heaven and through obedience becoming a servant on our behalf (Philippians 2:5-8). It accurately describes the faithfulness of Christ during the third of a century he was on earth (John 8:29). And the term denotes the benevolent demeanor of him who invites all men to “learn of” him, for he is “meek and lowly in heart,” and offers “rest” for the weary soul (Matthew 11:29). (For a magnificent discussion of this meekness, see Findlay 1909, 159-161.)
Zechariah 11 is an ominous chapter in that it deals with a projected “slaughter” of Jehovah’s “flock,” designated as the “flock of slaughter” (vv. 4, 7). Most scholars are convinced that this is a prophetic preview of the Roman invasion of the Jewish people in A.D. 70. The reason for the prophesied devastation lies in Israel’s rejection of Jehovah’s true Shepherd, Jesus Christ.
The treachery involved in the betrayal of Christ is vividly portrayed in verses 12-13. Consider some of the details.
- The prophecy suggested there would be a haggling of terms in connection with the betrayal of Jesus. “If you think good, give me my hire; and if not, forbear.” Matthew records Judas’ words as follows: “What are you willing to give me, and I will deliver him unto you?” (Matthew 26:15).
- The prophet specified the metallic composition of the coinage by which the transaction would be made. It was neither gold nor copper, but rather “silver” (Matthew 26:15).
- The precise number of coins was prophetically declared — thirty pieces of silver. The amount is not incidental. Thirty pieces of silver, under the Mosaic law, was the price paid to remedy the damage done to a slave that had been gored by a neighbor’s ox (Exodus 21:32). Christ went to the cross as the “servant” of God (doulos — a slave; Philippians 2:7).
- Zechariah’s prophecy indicated that the money would be returned to the Jewish leaders, the custodians of “the house of God.” Matthew’s record reveals that Judas, in a swoon of regret, brought back the coinage to the chief priests and elders. But they would have none of it.
- The ancient prophet indicated that in some way the silver coins were to be “cast” (thrown) into the “house of Jehovah.” Zechariah has perfectly depicted the act of the betrayer. Judas “cast down the pieces of silver into the sanctuary” (Matthew 27:5).
- Finally, Zechariah suggested that the ultimate destination of the “goodly price” would be to “the potter.” Matthew explains this enigmatic expression. The chief priests took the money and purchased a “potter’s field,” which would serve as a burial place for strangers. At the time Matthew penned his Gospel record (some twenty to thirty years after Christ’s death), the place was still known as “the field of blood” (27:8; cf. Acts 1:18-19). (For further study, see Zechariah’s Amazing Prophecy of the Betrayal of Christ.
Mourning in Jerusalem (12:10ff)
The prophet speaks of a coming “day” when there would be great “mourning” in Jerusalem. This is not a mourning over Jerusalem’s fall (11:1ff), but a mourning on the part of many Jews because of the realization that they had crucified their Messiah. They were not to despair in hopelessness. The Lord would “pour out” (signifying abundance) a “spirit of grace and supplication” (cf. the repetitious “spirit of...” in Isaiah 11:1ff).
The term “grace” points to the generous gift of Jesus as the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world, i.e., for those who access God’s favor by means of obedience to Christ (Romans 3:24-26; 5:1-2; Ephesians 2:8-9; Titus 3:4-7; Hebrews 5:8-9).
“Supplication” suggests a petition that solicits God to supply his favor in the forgiveness of sin. The fulfillment was seen on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1ff) when the good news (gospel) was announced to the penitent Jews. In spite of the fact that they crucified their own Messiah (in conjunction with the “lawless” Gentiles—2:23), they are promised that “whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (2:21). This was not a repetition of the so-called “sinner’s prayer” (for which there is no biblical precedent), but a response to the divinely specified plan for obtaining pardon (2:38; cf. 22:16). The term “saved” (v. 21) is the equivalent of “remission of sins” (v. 38); hence, “call” (v. 21) corresponds to “repent and be immersed” (v. 38). Calling is obeying!
Many of the Hebrews would reflect deeply upon him whom they “pierced” (a prophecy of the bloody mode involved in Christ’s death), and as a result they would “mourn.” Their mourning is reflected in the term “pricked” (Acts 2:37), a metaphor depicting sharp pain associated with anxiety and remorse. Such could be relieved only by forgiveness. Jesus himself promised that those who mourned would be comforted (Matthew 5:4). The apostle John suggests that the effect of seeing Jesus crucified was at least a partial fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophecy (John 19:37).
One might observe as well that there will be a mourning on the part of all who reject Jesus as Savior, as they reflect upon their foolish and wasted lives, having “pierced” him in principle (cf. Hebrews 6:6), if not in physical reality. There will be a mourning in judgment (cf. Revelation 1:7; Matthew 25:30; Romans 14:11-12).
The Cleansing Fountain (13:1)
The prophet declares that “in that day,” i.e., at the commencement of the Messianic era, “there shall be a fountain opened.” The tense denotes progressive duration, i.e., it is opened and remains open (cf. Lamentations 3:22). The expression “fountain” suggests a fresh, steady supply, in contrast to a cistern or well. It is a source adequate for all needs. The efficacy of Jesus’ death was so powerful that, potentially, it could have atoned for the sins of every human being in the entire history of the world — both past, present, and future! This is a reality much too wonderful for sinful humans to fathom.
The fountain symbolizes the shedding of the blood of him who has been “pierced” (12:10). The fountain was “opened” for sin and uncleanness. The former term derives from a root suggesting “to miss the mark” (cf. “not miss”—Judges 20:16), and it emphasizes that sin is a violation of divine law (cf. Romans 4:15; 1 John 3:4), whether by commission or omission, knowingly or in ignorance. The term “uncleanness” reveals the effect of sin. It leaves the sinner filthy and repulsive. The residue of sin is removed, not by earned human merit, but only by divine forgiveness accessed through humble obedience (Hebrews 5:8-9).
The Shepherd Slain (13:7)
Through his prophet “Jehovah of hosts” (found fifty-two times in this book) speaks. This descriptive for God suggests that the Lord has limitless resources to employ for the good of his people. Jehovah figuratively addresses the “sword” (a symbol for an instrument of death), as though it has been slumbering while awaiting the eventual and inevitable death of the shepherd.
The object of the sword (instrument of judgment) is “my shepherd.” Christ took the fatal blow that was due all who have earned the “wages of sin” (Romans 6:23). Note that even though the Shepherd is to be killed, he still is acknowledged as “my” Shepherd.
Further, he is identified as a man. He is the “seed of woman” who became “flesh” and dwelt among men (John 1:14; cf. 1 Timothy 3:16). And yet, he also is described as the one who is “my fellow.” The expression derives from an original term meaning “to connect, to join, to bind together.” It implies an equality of nature (John 10:30), thus a unity between the Persons of the sacred Godhead.
The term “shepherd” cannot but bring to mind the affirmation of Christ: “I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep”—quite in contrast to the “hirelings,” who were the leaders of the Jewish community (John 10:1ff). Furthermore, the Shepherd would lead and care for “one flock” (v. 16)—an idea much antagonistic to the modern, fragmented world of “Christendom.”
There is another prophetic declaration in connection with the slaying of the Shepherd: the “sheep shall be scattered” (7b). On the night before his death the Lord referenced this prophecy: “Then Jesus said unto them, ‘All of you shall be offended in me this night: for it is written, I will smite the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock shall be scattered abroad’” (Matthew 26:31).
Observe that the Savior acknowledged the authority and prophetic force of the Old Testament Scriptures, though many today, who profess to follow him, do not.
The concluding chapter of Zechariah is a source of great encouragement, when understood correctly. Punctuated with a variety of marvelous symbols, borrowed largely from Old Testament images, this section previews the glories of the gospel dispensation, from Pentecost until the Lord’s return.
Those who interpret these “word pictures” in a literal fashion, as premillennial writers do, perpetrate a great injustice upon the material. For a review of that theory in connection with this chapter, see our article, Dispensationalism and Zechariah 14.
- Carson, D. A. 1984. Matthew. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Frank E. Gaebelein, ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
- Findlay, A. F. 1909. Meekness. A Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels. Vol. 2. James Hastings, ed. Edinburgh, Scotland: T. & T. Clark.
- Spicq, Ceslas. 1994. Theological Lexicon of the New Testament. Vol. 3. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.