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 reading chapter 12. Zechariah makes a sudden about-face from the gloomy language and depressing outlook of chapter 11 where God declared the end of his covenant relationship with his people who he no longer pitied (11:6). Yahweh abandoned the flock doomed to slaughter, leaving them to their cannibalistic desires, saying “what is to die, let it die” (11:9). Zechariah resigned as shepherd leader.
In chapter 12, Yahweh is back in the role of divine warrior, fighting on behalf of his beloved people, assuring their victory, as if chapter 11 never happened. As a student of the prophets, it is moments like these that leave me raising my hand in the back of the class. I want an explanation for what just happened that will answer all the contradictions.
Remember, Zechariah is not the first prophet to give us whiplash. The prophetic method has often involved swaying from one extreme to another, giving off the feeling that they are unstable leaders with an inconsistent message. Rabbi Heschel in his book The Prophets acknowledges the prophets’ moodiness but defends it is as an understandable hazard of their profession. He explains, “what appears to us as wild emotionalism must seem like restraint to him who has to convey the emotion of the Almighty in the feeble language of man.”
Still, you will be relieved to know that chapter 11 and its theme of doom and gloom is an outlier in the bigger scope of Zechariah. Consider it a brief interruption of pessimistic sign-acts sandwiched between otherwise optimistic oracles. Even when the oracles call the people out for their sins or predict coming trials, they remain hope adjacent. The last section, chapters 12-14, returns to Yahweh’s promises to the remnant. The restored community will be victorious over her attackers, even if the community must first go through a season of repentance and purification.
The opening of chapter 12 signals the start of a new prophetic utterance, a hard break with chapter 11. Zechariah 12 opens, “An Oracle. The word of the Lord concerning Israel” (12:1). During Zechariah’s day, the people were keen to hear from the prophets. Before the exile, God spoiled Judah and Israel with his messengers, but the people were deaf to their pleas. During the exile, prophecy ceased. Only once the remnant returned to the land was the prophetic office renewed.
Zechariah refers to the community universally as “Israel.” We know from the rest of the oracle that he has a revelation for Judah and Jerusalem. It is interesting, and slightly out of step with the rest of his book, that he means Israel as an inclusive term for all twelve tribes. Malachi, the last of the post-exilic prophets, will continue using the term Israel to refer to all the people of God.
Yahweh is described in the opener as the one who “stretched out the heavens and founded the earth and formed the human spirit within” (12:1). Depictions of God’s great acts of creation, both in the heavens and on earth, are common in the prophets (Isa. 42:5; 51:13). After the withdrawal of God’s protection in chapter 11, Zechariah needs to reassert Yahweh’s sovereignty. Unlike the localized national gods of their neighbors, Yahweh is capable of intervening in the world of his own creation. He is authorized to touch the highest heavens and the human heart.
Yahweh warns, “I am about to make Jerusalem a cup of reeling for all the surrounding peoples” (12:2). Interestingly, the invading armies go unnamed. Zechariah keeps their identity generic. The oracle details the miraculous ways God will deliver Jerusalem and overtake her enemies. Metaphorical descriptions of Yahweh’s saving acts pop up again and again in the passage. He will make Jerusalem a “cup of reeling,” (12:2) like a strong drink that leaves the enemy staggering and weakened. Jerusalem will be a “heavy stone,” injuring and scarring anyone who tries to move it (12:3). Harm brought from drinking the cup and moving the stone are both self-inflicted injuries.
When the enemies descend on Jerusalem, God will “strike every horse with panic and its rider with madness” (12:4). Normally, horses give an army a strategic military advantage, but Yahweh neutralizes the calvary by blinding them. Judah has every advantage because God presides over the battle for Judah as the all-seeing “watchful eye” (12:4).
Chapter 12’s oracle uses “on that day” repeatedly. “On that day” is part of the eschatological formula. The repeated use of “on that day” separates chapters 12-14 from the rest of the book. Zechariah from beginning to end becomes progressively more future-oriented as if the prophet keeps nudging the date of fulfilled promises out further. In the vision portion of the first six chapters, Zechariah focuses on the present purpose of the restored community. When progress seems slow for the remnant, Zechariah looks to the future. Chapters 7-10 are oriented to the near future, but by chapters 12-14, Zechariah is looking way out to the eschaton.
While the passage emphasizes the threats to Jerusalem, Zechariah intentionally includes all of Judah in the promise of deliverance. The foreign armies will besiege Judah, like Jerusalem. Yahweh will save Judah, like Jerusalem. God says almost parenthetically “it will be against Judah also in the siege against Jerusalem” (12:2). He adds, “on the house of Judah I will keep a watchful eye” (12:4).
What was going on in Judah at this time that required such careful inclusion of them in the prophecies? Zechariah adds Judah onto each statement almost like a politically correct afterthought. As a result, Zechariah 12 establishes mutual ground for both capital and region, honoring Jerusalem and Judah separately. The oracle even uplifts Judah’s leaders specifically, separate from the House of David in Jerusalem.
The clans of Judah will experience a wakeup moment. They will recognize Yahweh as the source of strength behind Jerusalem’s victory. The text says, “Then the clans of Judah shall say to themselves, ‘The inhabitants of Jerusalem have strength through the Lord of hosts, their God’” (12:5). “Clans” of Judah can also translate as “leaders” of Judah. Gone are the negligent shepherds of chapter 11 who refused to protect their flock. God strengthens the new leaders of Judah, and they depend on his power.
Judah’s new leaders recognize that they are human agents sent to carry out the divine will without taking pride in themselves. God has always hated the pride that comes to nations when they exalt their own power and military successes. Isaiah exposed the absurdity of ignoring God’s intervention when he asked, “Shall the ax vaunt itself over the one who wields it or the saw magnify itself against the one who handles it? As if a rod should raise the one who lifts it up, or as if a staff should lift the one who is not wood!” (Isa. 10:15).
God rewards the humility of Judah’s leaders by making them “like a blazing pot on a pile of wood” that will ultimately “devour to the right and to the left all the surrounding peoples” (12:6). The idea of fire touching dry kindling conveys that Judah will easily defeat her enemies.
Zechariah is explicit. When the conflict occurs, God will defend Judah first and then Jerusalem. He says, “And the Lord will save the tents of Judah first, that the glory of the house of David and the glory of the inhabitants of Jerusalem may not be exalted over that of Judah” (12:7). These kinds of verses indicate something was going on under the surface. Zechariah is going out of his way to establish equality between Judah’s leaders and the House of David.
The passage may illuminate tension between Judah and Jerusalem. Zechariah, a fair-minded prophet always sensitive to insecurities, wants his audience to know that Jerusalem is not prioritized over Judah. He is concerned for the House of David, Judah’s leaders, and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem and Judah. Perhaps the Judeans remember that during the days of Hezekiah, God only saved Jerusalem from the Assyrian onslaught. The Judean towns fell to Assyria. Zechariah promises that “on that day” in the future, all will be preserved.
Alternatively, biblical historians speculate that Zechariah 12 may allude to a time of trouble for the House of David. Zerubbabel had seven sons and one daughter. If the Davidic line was supposed to pass through him, he had descendants to carry the name. However, all we know from historical sources is that the governorship in the Persian province passed down from Zerubbabel to his daughter, Shelomith, and his son-in-law, Elnathan. After that, the records of a Davidic line in political power fade out.
Zechariah democratizes the restoration promises. The future blessings will elevate everyone. The “feeblest among them” will be promoted to the rank of David (12:8). David’s warrior status took on legendary proportions in the postexilic period while the people lacked independence, an army, and a king. They saw David’s kingdom as the golden age of their history.
The house of David will also be advanced so they are “like God.” The statement is odd since any comparison of mortals to God does not comply with Jewish religious sensitivities. The passage quickly qualifies the statement saying the house of David will be “like the angel of the Lord at their head” (12:8). The angel of the Lord before them is a call back to the pillar of cloud and pillar of fire that protected the Hebrews in the desert (Ex. 13:21). Perhaps it was more acceptable to connect the house of David with a manifestation of God’s presence and not God himself.
In verse ten, the talk of war abruptly ends. Once Jerusalem and Judah are victorious over their enemies, Yahweh performs a fresh act of redemption. They were delivered from their external threats, but God wants them to pursue inward deliverance and salvation. Zechariah is continuing a thread that started in the prophets who ministered a century before him. Jeremiah, before the exile, looked forward to a spiritual transformation in the community, a time when God would put his law in their minds and write it on their hearts (Jer. 31:33). Ezekiel, in exile, also foresaw a day when God would remove their hearts of stone and give them hearts of flesh (Ezek. 36:26).
God, in his grace, prompts a spiritual revival. He “pour out a spirit of compassion and supplication on the house of David” (12:10). The pouring out of his spirit elicits mourning and repentance among the people. Zechariah says, “they will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son” (12:10, NIV).
Zechariah never fails to add a messianic component to his chapters. This messianic text, like the others, is wrapped in mystery. Like all biblical mysteries, debate surrounds this one prophecy. Yahweh speaks directly in first person in the last section (12:9-14). His voice is more dominant in this passage than any of the prior sections in Zechariah. He says, “they will look on me, the one they have pierced” (12:10, NIV).
When the Hebrew word for pierce (daqar) comes up in the Bible, it usually means a fatal stab (Jer. 37:10). But Yahweh is speaking about himself in this verse. How can a human mortally wound Yahweh? The New Revised Standard Version, the translation I always use in Bible Fiber, avoids God being the one wounded by translating the line, “when they look on the onewhom they have pierced.” The NRSVUE provides a footnote that “the one” is me in most textual traditions in Hebrew. Perhaps Yahweh is speaking metaphorically. Their rejection of him is like a deadly blow.
But there is a pronoun shift in the next line which only muddies the water more. After the piercing, Zechariah says, “and they will mourn for him” (12:10). If God is the one they pierced, why are they mourning for someone else. Who is the him?
To trinitarian Christians, we cannot read this scripture without thinking of Jesus and the oneness of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit who all seem to appear in this one verse. Also, in our theology, an assault on Jesus is an assault on God. The pronouns are synonymous and that is one way to interpret the passage from the lens of New Testament theology.
Last week I mentioned that the only way to know if we are reading a messianic typology for Christ is if the New Testament made the connection for us. John the Apostle connected Zechariah’s pierced figure to Jesus at his crucifixion. After Jesus died on the cross, the Roman soldiers wanted to be certain that his death was complete so they stuck a spear in his side, rather than breaking his bones like the other men on crosses. John saw in this moment the fulfillment of a prophecy. He wrote, “these things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled, ‘none of his bones shall be broken.’ And again another passage of scripture says, ‘They will look on the one whom they have pierced’” (John 19:36). Once again Zechariah the New Testament gives us a typology for a moment in Jesus’s passion and explains the significance.
Still, with all messianic or eschatological passages, we also must ask the question of what did this verse mean to the original audience? Zechariah’s audience likely connected the one pierced in chapter 12 with the righteous shepherd who was killed in Zechariah 13:7-8. The pierced one also might illuminate the rejection of the good shepherd in Zechariah 11:4-14. The three persecuted figures might be one. When the people realize that by rejecting the good shepherd, they rejected God, and by wounding the good shepherd, they wounded God, they are brought to their knees. The shift in pronouns would not have bothered them because prophets routinely changed their voice and points of view.
When the people gaze on the one they pierced, they show sudden awareness for the implications of their sin. They saw something new that they had missed before. The rest of the chapter elaborates on the extent of the repentance and mourning that comes with the awareness of their own guilt in persecuting God. Mourning spreads all over Jerusalem. They mourn corporately as families and clans. The House of David, Nathan, Levi, and Shimei all mourn. David’s house represents the royal household and Levi stands for the priestly class. They mourn also as individuals. As an aside, Zechariah points out that the wives mourn on their own; they do not rely on their husbands mourning on the family’s behalf.
In Revelation, John envisions Christs’ return to earth when he will be universally recognized as the messiah. He blends Daniel’s son of man riding in on the clouds (Dan. 7:13) with Zechariah’s description of a pierced figure who awakens a spiritual revival. The prophecy states, “Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all the tribes of the earth will wail on account of him” (Rev. 1:7).
It is the experience of every new believer that when they learn of the great sacrifice of Jesus and the suffering he endured on their behalf that they fall to their knees in compassion and supplication. That is why this passage in Zechariah feels obscure on the one hand and deeply familiar on the other.
Join me next week reading chapter 13.
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