Saturday, May 11, 2024

Mining the Minors: Zechariah (17)

Sometimes, apart from supernatural intervention, prophetic fulfillment is inexplicable; things happen that couldn’t possibly have happened without the hand of God. Other prophecies attain fulfillment by simple acts of human will.

Take, for example, a virgin conceiving and bearing a son. The Holy Spirit came upon Mary and the power of the Most High overshadowed her. God did what was otherwise impossible. That was a supernatural fulfillment of Isaiah.

On the other hand, the words “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, though uttered in the Lord’s hour of deepest distress, simply required the suffering Christ to recall and recite lines his own Spirit had first expressed through David a thousand years prior. Psalm 22 was fulfilled, but in an unspectacular way. Many present at the crucifixion may have missed it.

The Triumphal Entry

Matthew, Mark, Luke and John each have their triumphal entry accounts, none of which is obviously supernatural. (There may indeed have been a miracle in the Lord’s knowledge of the location and circumstances of the colt, but that was a bonus; Zechariah’s prophecy did not require it.) In this case, the Lord Jesus had read Zechariah, and he made sure he fulfilled it. He followed his own script, riding a donkey’s colt into Jerusalem a week before his crucifixion.

Ruling “from the River to the ends of the earth”, on the other hand, sounds like it might find its fulfillment in slightly more spectacular fashion.

III. Two Oracles (continued)

1/ Against the Nations (continued)

Zechariah 9:9-10 – The Coming King

“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall speak peace to the nations; his rule shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.”

Humble and Mounted on a Donkey

We do not need to speculate about this passage’s connection to the triumphal entry. Both Matthew and John quote Zechariah explicitly. To all those in the crowd who had read and understood the penultimate OT prophet, the Lord’s actions could only have been interpreted as a claim to be the rightful ruler of Israel, descended from David as predicted by the prophets of old. Most of the crowd responded accordingly. The cry “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” — a quote from Psalm 118, in which the stone that the builders rejected becomes the head of the corner — further implies that some in the crowd fully understood what they were on about. Others probably took up the chant with less comprehension but plenty of enthusiasm. Only the Pharisees held back and demanded the Lord rebuke his disciples. They understood exactly what was being claimed, and didn’t like it at all.

In the Lord’s entry into Jerusalem, his humility was certainly evident. There were no splendid robes, no crown and no armies of heaven to accompany him. His “heralds” were fishermen and children. His steed was a donkey’s donkey. Yet we now understand that, at least in its first century application, the “salvation” to which Zechariah unknowingly referred was life from the dead for the entire human race by way of the cross, the central event in human history. Indeed, if nobody else had cried out, the rocks would surely have had their say.

Righteous and Having Salvation

How Zechariah’s original audience understood these words is more of a mystery. They surely envisioned the offer of the kingdom and associated salvation in a much more limited, political sense, primarily involving the effect of relief from Roman rule on their daily lives. That part is self-evident. But given the ending of verse 10, they probably also imagined the triumphal entry of their Messiah and King would introduce his millennial reign, as perhaps a similar future entry into Jerusalem may yet. They could not see prophetic “valley” between the two mountainous events, one that would include the death and resurrection of their Messiah.

If verse 9 was fulfilled (at least partially) in the Lord’s first advent, verse 10 is unambiguously millennial. The chariot will be cut off from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem, as will the battle bow. There will be no more sieges and no more conflicts with the King present. The Prince of Peace will speak peace to the nations, and the nations will hear and obey.

The words “from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth” are lifted directly from Psalm 72, where, in one of two psalms for which he is explicitly credited, Solomon prays for the glorious future king of whom his father wrote repeatedly. It speaks of a universal dominion that even Solomon in his day could not contemplate. He prayed for it; Zechariah promises it.

Zechariah 9:11-13 – Freeing the Prisoners

“As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit. Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double. For I have bent Judah as my bow; I have made Ephraim its arrow. I will stir up your sons, O Zion, against your sons, O Greece, and wield you like a warrior’s sword.”

A Shift in Time

Verses 11-13 involve yet another time shift. We traveled two millennia or more forward in time between verses 9 and 10. As we move on to verse 11, it’s not impossible we jump backward to the intertestamental period. At very least, we jump somewhere else. There has to be a change of scenery between verses 10 and 11, because verse 10 paints a picture of universal peace and verses 11-13 of a very specific war or wars: Israel vs. either a literal or a mystical Greece.

Further, the words “As for you also”, which begin verse 11, are addressed to people living at a different time than either the triumphal entry generation or that of the millennial reign. The “you” probably refers back to verse 9, where “your king is coming to you”, which is to say the generation who cheered the Lord’s triumphal entry.

The Historical Interpretation: Literal Greece

Apart from Daniel 2 and 7-11, the prophetic scriptures say little about Greece. Greece’s era of world dominion began and ended during the intertestamental period, drawing little attention from the prophets when compared to Babylon, Persia and Rome, the other empires Daniel identified in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. (Greece was the third, bronze kingdom.) It should not surprise us to find Greece in both books. Daniel had a fair bit to say about Alexander the Great in chapters 7 and 8, and Zechariah wrote about Alexander’s destruction of Tyre earlier in this chapter. To Daniel it was also revealed that late in its period of world dominance, a future king of Greece would destroy many and even rise up against “the Prince of princes” (opposing, perhaps, Michael, the “prince” of Israel) only to be broken, but not by human hand. Historical scholars see a fit with Antiochus Epiphanes, famous for persecuting the Jews to the point of provoking the Maccabean revolt, and for his desecration of the temple in Jerusalem that Zechariah and his fellow Jews had built.

So then, the statements “I have bent Judah as my bow; I have made Ephraim its arrow” and “I will stir up your sons, O Zion, against your sons, O Greece, and wield you like a warrior’s sword” may have been fulfilled historically in the person of Judas Maccabaeus, who was responsible for repelling the armies of Antiochus and restoring the sanctuary he defiled.

Against a historical fulfillment, we have no substantive evidence the Maccabean victories were miraculous, whereas Israel’s end-times victories are explicitly a product of God working.

The Futurist Interpretation: Mystical Greece

So then, we should consider another possible timeframe in which the sons of Zion will contend with Greece, if only sons of a spiritual sort. Many students of prophecy consider Antiochus’ desecration of the temple a prophetic foreshadowing of a future desecration by Paul’s “man of lawlessness” (described in detail in Revelation 13) during the coming great tribulation period. There is good reason to do this: two centuries after Antiochus was in his grave, the Lord Jesus spoke of “the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel” as still future. Apparently, there remained a “mystical Antiochus” still to defile a future temple in an even more repulsive way. Further, Daniel 9 ties together this ultimate, end-times “abomination of desolation” with the completion of his seventy weeks prophecy, which would “bring in everlasting righteousness”, something that certainly didn’t happen when the Jews fought Antiochus and restored their temple in the second century BC.

In support of a futurist interpretation of these verses, it also allows us to flow directly from verse 13 into verses 14-17, which appear distinctly apocalyptic. We cannot coherently apply them in their fullness to the Maccabean conflicts.

The Covenant and the Waterless Pit

Significant numbers of commentators want to connect verse 11 with the New Covenant and spiritualize it to refer to salvation from eternal damnation through Christ. In such a view, “prisoners” are soon to become Christians, the pit is slavery to sin, and its waterlessness a picture of the broken cisterns of unbelief.

While such salvation is among the most prized truths of scripture, to introduce it here seems a major intrusion into the thought flow of the passage. The conjunction at the beginning of verse 13 [, rendered “for” in numerous translations] ties these two sets of ideas together through some immediate causal relation, antecedent or consequent. Verses 13 and following concern nations at war, not individual salvation from hell. The far-too-common spiritualization of this verse cannot be anything more than an interesting and comforting application of the text; it is manifestly not its primary meaning.

No, the covenant in view is either Abrahamic or Mosaic. (The Davidic Covenant did not explicitly involve blood.) I tend to opt for the latter, because terms of that covenant includes both scattering rebellious Israel among the nations and restoring it upon repentance.

The Prisoners

So what might it mean to set “your prisoners” free from “the waterless pit”?

The Hebrew word for “pit” may be translated “well”, “cistern”, or more likely “dungeon”, since it’s without water. Both covenant and prisoners are Israelite (“your”), and I suspect the pit is metaphorical rather than literal. In scripture, a pit is not always just a prison but also a process. Often, it is a holding place while God is accomplishing his purposes and men are becoming prepared to accept them. (This might explain the odd phrase “prisoners of hope”, which definitely does not apply to Gentile sinners prior to being saved by grace. The phrase “children of wrath” is more biblical.) In such a case, where God is keeping you in place against a future day, waterlessness is not a bug but a feature: you don’t drown. Joseph was kept through two pits (the dungeon is the same word) to be exalted in Egypt in the Lord’s good time. The men of Israel hid from their Philistine oppressors in pits. Jeremiah was preserved from death in a pit.

I believe the “prisoners of hope” are the Jews and Israelites scattered throughout the world in many nations, whom the Lord is going to call back to their “stronghold”, or place of safety, as all the prophets teach, from which they will join Jews already living in the land in taking the war to their remaining enemies after their King returns to earth. The existence of “Ephraim” in this context makes more sense than any other, since Ephraim’s regathering has been extremely limited to date, and its full regathering is very much future. Here, they are regathered to become the Lord’s “arrow” against the remaining hostile nations at Christ’s return.

Of all the commentators, Constable and Kelly are most in agreement with this position. Regardless of numbers, I cannot reasonably entertain the spiritualized reading of verse 11 as a valid explanation of its primary meaning in Zechariah’s day. Something specifically Jewish is in view, even if I haven’t got all the details nailed down.

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