Welcome to Bible Fiber where we are encountering the textures and shades of the prophetic tapestry in a year-long study of the twelve minor prophets. I am Shelley Neese, president of The Jerusalem Connection, a Christian organization devoted to sharing the story of the people of Israel, both ancient and modern.
This week we are studying Zechariah 9. Three units make up the book of Zechariah: the vision sequence in chapters 1-6, the prophet’s answer to Bethel in chapters 7-8, and eschatological oracles in chapters 9-14.
I will get it out in the open. The oracles in the last six chapters of Zechariah are quite different than the first eight chapters. The writing style pivots and the focus changes. In Zechariah 1-8, he was concerned with the key issues of the day which were mainly the rebuilding of the Temple and the return of the exiles. Zechariah 9-14 are forward looking, anxious for the coming period of blessing in the messianic age. For that reason, those chapters are riddled with Messianic prophecies that became very relevant for the New Testament.
The first eight chapters name Zechariah’s historical contemporaries: Joshua, Zerubbabel, the exiles with the offerings, and the Bethel delegation. In Zechariah 9-14, the leadership is unnamed. They are merely corrupt shepherds.
The sudden shift in Zechariah 9 has led many scholars to theorize that the book of Zechariah has multiple authors and two different dates of composition. Zechariah, the historic postexilic prophet, likely wrote the first eight chapters and someone else added the last oracles later, perhaps one of his followers. Scholars refer to the author of Zechariah 9-14 as Second Zechariah. Some experts theorize that Jeremiah authored those chapters, especially since the gospel writer Matthew attributed the verses found in Zechariah 11:12-13 to the prophet Jeremiah.
Three times in Zechariah 1-8, the prophet uses the date and messenger formula in his superscriptions (1:1, 7; 7:1). Date and messenger formulas go like this: “In the eighth month of the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Zechariah” (1:1). In chapters 9 and 12, the writer omits the date and the messenger. Instead, the oracles are introduced with the simple title “an oracle: the word of the Lord” (9:1, 12:1).
The other noticeable difference is that Zechariah is not a part of the narrative in chapters 9-14. Zechariah is not mentioned by name at any point in the last six chapters. Whereas, in the first eight chapters, he was an active participant in the visions, sign-act, and community appeal.
In my opinion, the possibility of two authors does not discredit Zechariah, especially since the book does not require single authorship. What matters is not the number of authors but the truth of the teaching.
However, I am also not convinced yet by the argumentation for two or more authors for the prophetic book. I believe ancient writers were more capable of changing their styles and themes than scholars give them credit. Dig up an article that I wrote ten years ago and you will see a difference in my style, language, and thought patterns. The most important feature in Zechariah is that the book is theologically united.
Just as scholars list the differences between the first and second parts of Zechariah, they could also make a long list of similarities. The changes that occur in the last unit of the book seem like a natural progression for a prophet who has been fortunate enough to receive divine downloads over many years. In his final oracles, he is thinking on a much higher level. As the situation changed, his message changed. The failures of humanity have disappointed him while the faithfulness of God has given him new hope. I saw in my own grandfather’s life that the older he became, and the closer he got to the end of his time on earth, the more his Bible reading tilted toward the End Times. The same could be the case with the prophet.
Zechariah 9:1-8 is an oracle of judgement against Israel’s neighboring enemies and a promise of deliverance for Judah. By now in our study, you are accustomed to the prophet’s judgement speeches against gentile nations. Amos gave us the Oracles Against the Nations (1:2-2:16) Zephaniah predicted the ruin of Philistia (2:4-7). Habakkuk prayed for God’s vengeance on Judah’s enemies (3:1-19).
The nations listed in Zechariah 9 have been the target of prophetic oracles in the past. However, Zechariah’s selection of nations is intentional, not random, as is the sequence of their collapse. Yahweh, as a divine warrior, marches from Damascus in the north, down through Philistia on the coastal plain, and south to Jerusalem. Over the centuries, Jerusalem’s enemies always attacked from the north, so Yahweh’s military procession approaches from the north the same as a human general. The nations he pushes into submission—the Arameans, Phoenicians, and Philistines—are enduring enemies of Israel and Judah.
God first conquers Damascus which at the time was a commercial center and Aramean capital (9:1). Hamath was another Aramean city that continued into the Persian empire. When the Bible speaks of the Phoenician superpowers, Tyre and Sidon, it is almost always with admiration for their accomplishments (Ezek. 27-28). Before Zechariah predicts their fiery destruction and collapse into the sea, he admits that their wealth is unlimited and their wisdom is well-known (9:2-4). With nations falling like dominoes, by the time the battle gets to Philistia, the people are predictably scared.
The prophet describes the Philistines eating bloody animal sacrifices to their pagan gods. Because the Israelites drained the blood of their sacrifices, they found the Philistine practice revolting. God removes the forbidden meat from their mouth, thereby ending Philistine pagan rituals. The prophet says the Philistines of Ekron will “be like the Jebusites” (9:7). He is alluding to the historical precedent when King David conquered the Jebusite city of Jerusalem and incorporated the Jebusites into his new kingdom. Zechariah’s prediction of the Philistines’ conversion is consistent with his recurring theme of gentiles submitting to Yahweh.
One at a time, Yahweh breaks each neighboring enemy and establishes his sovereignty and rule over the land. Why is Zechariah focused on Israel’s already weakened neighbors instead of the Persian empire or Egypt? The prophecy is depicting the expansion of Israel’s borders to the territory once promised to Abraham (Gen. 15:18). Never in Israel’s history did she occupy the whole of the land from the River of Egypt to the Euphrates River. Moses hoped that an expanded Israel would be the people’s reward if they were faithful to the covenant (Deut. 19:8-9). Zechariah is prophesying that in the messianic kingdom Israel’s borders will be even greater than the time of David or Solomon. Defeating those three nations would get Israel close.
Anytime the prophets describe military campaigns, biblical enthusiasts try and pinpoint a historical event that fulfilled the prophecy. That is easy enough to do in the other prophets with the Assyrian and Babylonian attacks. But Zechariah is writing after the exile. The next big empire shift is still almost two centuries away when the army of Alexander the Great will defeat the Persian empire and go on to conquer much of the known world.
There are noticeable similarities between the military campaign described in Zechariah 9 with Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Mediterranean coast in 332 BCE. For example, Alexander’s forces burned down Tyre which Zechariah predicted would be “devoured by fire” (9:4). Ashkelon and Ekron surrendered to the Macedonians without a fight which Zechariah seems to allude to when he says they “shall see it and be afraid” (9:5). Gaza was a hilltop fortress that withstood Alexander’s siege for five months before collapsing. Zechariah may be referencing the siege when he writes, Gaza will “writhe in anguish” (9:5).
After the holy land is rid of Israel’s historic enemies, Israel comes out of the cascade of destruction unscathed.: “I will encamp at my house as a guard, so that no one shall march to and fro; no oppressor shall again overrun them” (9:8). Alexander spared Jerusalem, but why? According to Josephus, Alexander the Great had a dream early in his career where a man in white encouraged him to fight the Persian empire. When Alexander saw Jerusalem’s High Priest Jaddua in his white linen vestments he recognized him as the man in the dream. As a result, he had a favorable position toward Jerusalem. In the company of the priests, he entered the holy city peacefully and made a sacrifice to Israel’s God. This version of events seems like a classic Josephus stretcher, but like most of his stretchers it probably contains echoes of truth. And indeed, Alexander did not attack Jerusalem.
The connections between Zechariah 9 and Alexander’s conquests are intriguing, but the verses they are based on are also obtuse. There is no way to make a one-to-one match between Zechariah’s oracle and Alexander the Great’s campaign. If the human agent behind all the destruction is Greece, the prophet deliberately gives all the credit to God and not to Alexander.
There is one strange anachronistic reference to Greece in verse 13: “I will arouse your sons, O Zion, against your sons, O Greece.” At the time of Zechariah, Greece was not yet a superpower and would have meant nothing to the people of Jerusalem other than a commercial interest. Either Zechariah 9 dates later than the first eight chapters, or Zechariah is doing the supernatural work of a predictive prophet and foretelling the day when Greece and Jerusalem will come to blows in the time of the Maccabees. The Greece reference is a headscratcher, but not a real bother.
Once Yahweh subdues the threat from Israel’s neighbors, a messianic king will peacefully emerge. God poetically calls on the people to rejoice at the news: “See, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (9:9). The king is riding a donkey, rather than a horse or chariot which is more associated with war. The action is symbolic of the universal peace launched with his reign. That peace was enabled only through Yahweh’s militaristic march south to Jerusalem.
For Christians, this verse is highly significant. Both Matthew and John reference Zechariah’s messianic prophecy in their recording of Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem (Matt. 21:5; John 12:14-15). From the gospel accounts, it is clear Jesus intentionally invoked Zechariah’s prophecy. He told two disciples to bring him a donkey and a colt “to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet” (Matt. 21:4). He was giving his followers the interpretation of Zechariah’s vision through his own action.
The description of the messianic king on a donkey in Zechariah stresses that he is simultaneously victorious and humble. In Matthew, Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem was just that. In these verses, we know that even if the first deliverance oracle pertained to the Alexander the Great’s conquest, Alexander could not possibly be the humble righteous messianic king who ruled in peace. When Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey, the gospel says a crowd gathered, laying branches on the road for his processional and shouted, “Hosanna in the highest heaven!” (21:6). They were familiar with the messianic prophecies and they understood what was happening in the moment. Something is very tender about this scene with Jesus and his closest followers announcing his identity as Messiah, even if the events over the next week would play out counter to everything they were hoping the Messiah would deliver. A week after Jesus’s entrance into Jerusalem on a donkey, the Romans crucified him on the cross.
Both Matthew and John quote from Zechariah 9:9, but they leave out verse ten. In the second part of the picture of the messianic king, the king cuts off his people—both Judah and Ephraim—from their reliance on war weapons: chariots, war horses, and battle bows (9:10). He rids the earth of unnecessary bloodshed and establishes universal peace. Zechariah prophecies, “his dominion shall be from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth” (9:10).
Zechariah’s audience would not have heard Zechariah’s messianic prophecy the same way that Christians read it today through the lens of the New Testament. They were at a point in the restoration process that the exiles were returning and the Temple was nearly complete. But they desperately awaited the restoration of the Davidic line on an earthly throne.
According to Christian eschatology, Jesus fulfilled the first part of Zechariah’s prophecy with his entry into Jerusalem and announcement of his messiahship. He did not take the throne or defeat the Roman oppressor. Only with his return, will the second stage of the prophecy be accomplished. Jesus will establish his rule over a new heaven and earth. In the meantime, the good news of Jesus’s saving grace has gone out to the ends of the earth and has given millions a spiritual peace that they would not know otherwise. The Jewish messiah has also brought about the submission of vast numbers of gentiles to the God of Abraham. Universal peace awaits the coming of the kingdom.
In the last section of chapter 9 (vs. 11-17), Zechariah returns to his deliverance oracles. He metaphorically refers to the Babylonian captivity as “the waterless pit” from which he set the prisoners free (9:11). Genesis 37:24 uses the same terminology when Joseph’s brothers threw him into a waterless pit. Zechariah may be connecting Joseph’s story with the story of the remnant. Joseph was helpless at the hands of his brothers and his Egyptian captors. Only through the constant intervention of God and his protection did Joseph not only survive the captivity, but he became the salvation of his people.
The remnant, those who survived the Babylonian captivity, now hold the keys to salvation. Without them, the Jewish people would likely have gone extinct. But Yahweh reminds them that “because of the blood of my covenant,” he will rescue them from the pit (9:11). At Sinai, God inaugurated the covenant with Moses with a sacrifice (Ex. 24:1-8), and God has stayed true to the promises made at Sinai that day. And if they had disappeared from history, the Jewish messiah who rode in on a donkey to Jerusalem would not have saved the world from their spiritual exile from Yahweh.
Zechariah declares, “Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double” (9:12). Like Joseph, the exiles were once literal prisoners of a foreign nation. In that time, despair replaced hope, but part of being God’s people means accepting the discipline and waiting for deliverance. And now the only thing they are prisoners to is hope!
The chapter ends with Yahweh back on the offensive, taking control of hostile nations but shielding Jerusalem from the threats. The victory belongs only to Yahweh, the storm-riding and lightning-throwing warrior. He will be like a cosmic banner above them during battle. The section puts all of God’s might on display (9:14). The object of his protection is “the flock of his people” (9:16). They are like the “jewels of a crown” (9:17).
Join me next week reading Zechariah 10 for a continuation of the shepherd and sheep theme.
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