April 17, 2011

Rejoice greatly!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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