March 24, 2013

Palm Sunday

Zechariah (along with Haggai and Malachi) is one of the three post-exilic prophets of the nation of Israel. He ministered to the nation beginning around 520 BC, during the reign of Darius I and about 10 years after Cyrus the Great had permitted some of the Jews to return to Palestine, under the leadership of Zerubbabel and the high priest Joshua, and begin to rebuild the Temple.

Zechariah came from a Levite family, and may have been a priest himself. Certainly, his concern for his nation is pastoral. The present problems within the nation are the focus of his ministry: the continuing work on rebuilding the Temple, the integrity of the leadership, and the moral state of the nation as a whole.

However, Zechariah is also concerned with the future. God is working out his sovereign plan with Israel—its deliverance and restoration—in the present as the nation rebuilds. But his work continues into the future, prominently carried out by his chosen servant, the Messiah.

The conquering King

The prophets often portrayed Israel's enemies as conquerors from the north. However, in Zechariah chapter 9, it is God who is the conquering king that sweeps down from the north: not to execute judgment on Israel as Assyria and Babylon had done, but to exercise vengeance against his (and Israel's) enemies. All eyes are on the Lord (Zechariah 9:1) as the cities of Syria are the first to be swept away (vv. 1-2), followed by Sidon and Tyre in Phoenicia (2-4), and then four of the five major cities of Philistia: Ashkelah, Gaza, Ezron, and Ashdod (5).

The Philistines, one of Israel's oldest enemies, are singled out for special judgment: they will become a "mixed people" (6). When Nebuchadnezzar conquered Philistia, it was assimilated into the Babylonian empire and ceased to be a distinct nation. Not all news is bad, however: God promises to take their false gods and abominable practices away from them, so that they would become, as it were, another tribe of the children of Israel. Note that when Philip the evangelist met the Ethiopian eunuch, he was on his way to Gaza; when the Holy Spirit carried him away, he was left in Azotus, which was the Roman name for Ashdod (Acts 8:26, 40). The Church proclaimed the Gospel very early to Philistia. No one is too far gone for God's redemption.

But, finally, the conquering Lord arrives at Jerusalem (8), his own city, which is under his protection; the whole land is his house.

Shout for joy!

Be joyful, instructs the prophet. Your King has arrived! Zech. 9:9-10 consist of a poem describing the attributes of this King.

  • He is righteous. He governs well, administers true justice,and encourages right.
  • He is endowed with salvation. That is, he is victorious. The King has been through a trial, and stands vindicated by God's deliverance, having triumphed through faith.
  • He is humble. While he may be a King, he is also a servant.
  • He is mounted on a donkey. The prophets had a longstanding antipathy towards war horses. According to the Law of Moses, the king was not to amass horses (Deut. 17:16). Having a large cavalry was the way of the Gentile nations. It constituted grounds for divine judgment (cf. Isa. 2:7, 31:1; Mic. 5:10; Hag. 2:22). However, a donkey was an appropriate mount for a king or prince, especially one who came in peace instead of conquest. “The foal of a donkey” is a way of saying that the donkey was not a mule. A king rode on a purebred animal.

The Prince of Peace

This is surely one of the most significant Messianic passages of the entire Bible. When Jesus arrived in Jerusalem in the days before his crucifixion, both Matthew (21:5) and John (12:15) announce that this oracle of Zechariah's was fulfilled. Zechariah 9:9 was well known by the people. Jesus himself made the arrangements for his entry into Jerusalem; in fact, it was probably deliberately staged. Matthew specifically records Jesus as instructing his disciples to bring both a donkey and her colt (Matt. 21:2), so that his entry into the city would resemble the prophecy all the more. When he arrived in Jerusalem riding on a donkey with her foal in tow, the multitudes could not fail to understand his meaning—and they didn’t. They spread their cloaks and palm fronds on the road before him. Jesus was claiming to be a king coming in peace, and the multitudes of Jerusalem gave him the first-century equivalent of the red-carpet treatment.

Jesus Christ had a just claim to be king of the Jews, being a descendant of King David. Yet, he was also the suffering servant who was shortly to give his life for his people. Jesus was perfectly righteous, being the only truly innocent man in history. In only a few short days, the multitudes that cried "Hosanna" ("Save us") at his entry into Jerusalem would be calling for him to be brought out of the city again and nailed to a Roman cross. But he faced the trial of his crucifixion, and emerged triumphant over death itself in the Resurrection. He came to provide salvation to his people.

Zechariah 9:10 makes a declaration of universal peace. What need is there of the tools of war, when the Prince of Peace cares for the welfare of his nations and has taken up residence in his capital?

Verse 10 closes with a quotation from Psalm 72:8: "his rule shall be from sea to sea, / and from the River to the ends of the earth." This psalm is speaking of God's rule over the territory of Israel, but Zechariah makes an application with a far greater scope: God’s global rule. Jesus Christ made atonement for his people and sat at the right hand of his Father, the seat of power (Hebrews 1:3). He rules today over his kingdom, the Church, and his subjects come from every tribe, tongue, and nation.

It is in Jesus alone, the Prince of Peace, that we may have peace and security and redemption. Just as God delivered Israel from captivity in Babylon, Jesus, exalted and ascended to the throne of the Father, took captive sin and death, set their prisoners free, and gave them the gift of the Holy Spirit (Eph. 4:8). Behold, your King is coming to you.