Zechariah 9:1-17 – The King Cometh

The first half of Zechariah concluded with the climactic announcement that the nations will recognize that “God is with” Judah (Zechariah 8:23). Zechariah 1-8, with the eight visions (Zechariah 1:7-6:15) that promise the rebuilding of the temple and the four messages that announce God’s transformation of their fasts into feasts (Zechariah 7-8), assures Judah that God will return to Israel.

The second half of Zechariah envisions the suffering yet triumphant King whose territory will encompass the whole earth and redeem not only Israel but the nations as well (Zechariah 9-14). This message is structurally divided into two oracles marked off by the phrase “An Oracle. The word of the Lord is…” (Zechariah 9:1; 12:1; also Malachi 1:1 as the only other place where the Hebrew term “oracle” occurs). Both messages carry similar themes: subjugation and then salvation of the nations by the divine warrior (9:1-8; 14:16-21), the coming and the suffering/rejection of the King (9:9-17; 11:4-17; 13:7-9), and the eventual victory of Israel over their enemies (10:3-11:3; 12:1-9; 14:1-15) The two messages serve as corresponding halves—some even placing them in a chiastic structure—that announce the divine reversal of the shepherd King who would be at first rejected but then reign, a reign over the nations as well as Israel.

Unlike the first half of Zechariah which is dated from 520-516 B.C.E., no date is attached to these final two oracles. Over the past two centuries scholars have variously dated them—some in the pre-exilic period (particularly in the 19th century) but most now in the post-exilic period (perhaps as late as the third or fourth centuries B.C.E.). Many have suggested that Zechariah 9-14 is an independent prophetic work (or even two works) that was attached to Zechariah at some point in its literary history. Whatever may be the case, it is appropriate to read Zechariah 9-14 as a further elaboration of themes in Zechariah 1-8 articulated during the Persian period (perhaps even in Zechariah’s latter ministry). Yet, the Persian period does not exhaust the meaning of these oracles. Rather, as we will see, they are eschatological oracles, that is, visions of the final victory of God’s reign over the earth.

Zechariah 9:1-10:1 announces the coming of the King who will subdue the nations and free Judah. The text sandwiches the arrival of the King (9:9-10) between two poetic descriptions of its significance—one applying to the nations (9:1-8) and the other to Judah (9:11-17).

The first section envisions a time when Judah will occupy the regions of Syria, Tyre and Philistia. There are descriptions of the borders of Israel’s inheritance that include these territories (cf. Numbers 13:21-24; Joshua 1:3-4; 1 Kings 4:21, 24). All “the tribes of Israel” will one day see the lands of their one-time enemies included in their kingdom. The Divine warrior king will defeat these nations but those who are left in the land will belong to God and become leaders in Judah. The Philistines, Zechariah says, will become like the Jebusites. In other words, just as the Jebusites—the inhabitants of Jerusalem before David arrived—were a conquered people they nevertheless became part of the clans of Judah, so the Philistines are included in Judah’s eschatological inheritance. The subjugation of the nations whereby their opposition to the kingdom of God is defeated will also become the occasion of their purification (9:7 refers to idolatrous practices) and inclusion.

The third section (I will discuss the central, and thus emphatic, section below) is a salvation oracle for Judah. Yahweh promises to free the prisoners—those of Judah and Ephraim—yet exiled. Yahweh will restore their inheritance; indeed, he will double it! This is enabled by a divine holy war against “Javan” (rendered Greece in the NIV). A reference to Greece is appropriate to the early Persian period when the Persians still sought to conquer it (especially 490-480 B.C.E.) but it is probably an allusion to the Table of Nations in Genesis 10:4. This echo identifies Israel’s inheritance as threatened by the nations and God therefore removes the threats by decisive action. But there is no description of the battle. The divine theophany is sufficient to ensure the result.

Yahweh marches in victory, destroy the enemies of Judah, and delights in his people. Yahweh who brings the storm clouds also brings the rain that refreshes the earth and grows the crops. Judah—with its borders fully realized—will enjoy the protection of their Shepherd, Yahweh. Crops and wine will bring renewal and rejoicing to Israel once again.

The center piece of this three-fold picture is the coming of the King who is not only King of Israel but King of the whole earth (Zechariah 9:9-10). Though described as the King of Zion, his reign extends to the “ends of the earth.” But the picture of this King is not that of a divine warrior even though Yahweh has been so described in this oracle. Rather, this King is gentle and rids the nations of war implements as he proclaims peace to the nations.

The appearance of the King on a donkey is not simply a sign of humility but rather the signature of his royal claim. Israel’s kings rode donkeys (2 Samuel 16:2; 1 Kings 1:33-34, 38) and this probably reflects their identification with the poor and lowly within the nation. The donkey, then, is both a sign of royalty and humility.

It is important to the context, however, that he does not ride a war-horse even though they were prominent in Zechariah’s visions. He rides a donkey; he comes in peace to make peace. He comes as a lowly, humble figure who brings the salvation of Yahweh. He comes to end war, even to the point that bows are broken and horse-drawn chariots are removed (cf. Isaiah 9:6-7; 2:2-4; Micah 4:1-5). This King proclaims “peace to the nations” rather than war among them.

His reign will fill the earth. Whatever the specific referent might be in terms of “sea to sea” or “the River to the ends of the earth,” these phrases are metaphors for a universal reign. Yes, he will reign over the new borders of Israel, but more than that he will reign over the whole earth and bring peace to the nations.

Zechariah’s description of the King is applied to Jesus in Matthew 21:5. When Jesus triumphantly enters Jerusalem on a donkey, Matthew sees the coming of the King. He comes humbly and peacefully. He seeks peace rather than a sword, even refusing to use the sword in his defense (Matthew 26:52). The people hail him but ultimately reject Jesus and the shepherd of God’s people is struck down (Zechariah 13:7; Matthew 26:31). He comes in peace but is met with violence.

The eschatological vision of Zechariah, however, does not end with a slain King but a victorious one—and this is the gospel story itself. The gospel does not end with a slain lamb but a resurrected one.

The eschatological vision of Zechariah announces peace among the nations but not before the nations assault the King. But peace will come, even to the ends of the earth. We still wait for that global peace.

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