Vol. 4, No. 9
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In modern times the book of Zechariah is not the most read, nor studied book of the Old Testament prophets, but the Jews of old certainly poured over its contents. Most preachers today would confess that we have preached very little from this grand book, and yet it contains profound prophecy concerning the coming of the Messiah and the church. Both Zechariah and Haggai were contemporaries who prophesied some seventy years before the completion of the new temple, (around 520 B.C.), during the return from captivity in Babylon. Both they and Malachi make up the group known as the post-exilic prophets. Zechariah was a priest as well as a prophet and he is mentioned by Ezra in Ezra 5:1 and 6:14. The book of Zechariah may be divided into two sections, the first dealing with eight specific visions describing the return from Babylon and the re-establishment of the temple worship. The second deals with then future events, such as the coming of Messiah and the establishment of an everlasting kingdom. Zechariah Chapter 12 contains such a prophecy that may have been misinterpreted by first-century Jews, and gives readers today some insight perhaps as to why the religious leaders of Jesus' day were expecting a military leader. If this passage which describes the restoration and return of glory to Jerusalem were understood literally, the Jews would have believed themselves to be all but invincible, even against the Roman legions. Sadly, this interpretation has a fatal flaw.
In the preceding chapter, the Lord cut in two the symbolic staves, BEAUTY and BANDS. "And I took my staff, even Beauty, and cut it asunder, that I might break my covenant which I had made with all the people...Then I cut asunder mine other staff, even Bands, that I might break the brotherhood between Judah and Israel" (11:10, 14). This meant first that the covenant making fleshly Israel God's chosen people would be done away. This was accomplished, of course, when the church was established around 30 A.D., some 550 years in the future from Zechariah's prophecy. Then the Lord breaks the staff, Bands. Here is where the interpretation gets tricky. If this represents the dissolution of brotherhood between the literal Northern and Southern kingdoms, then such had already occurred hundreds of years before. When the church was established, there was most definitely no spirit of brotherhood between the Jews and the Northern kingdom. In fact, years before the Babylonian captivity took place, the Assyrians had already conquered, and all but destroyed the ten tribes. What remained in the time of Christ was the group known as the hybrid Samaritans, part Israelite, but also part Assyrian. As any Bible student knows, there was great animosity between the Jews and Samaritans, but no brotherhood. What then could the breaking of Bands mean? The most logical explanation is that figuratively, God would make a separation between the fleshly Jews, and the spiritual Israel, the church. Only for a brief time did there exist any brotherhood between Christians and Jews, for it quickly dissolved due to the incompatibility of the two religions.
Galatians 4:22-31 perhaps provides an apostolic key to the understanding of this. Paul here uses allegory to describe this same separation. Ishmael, the son of the bondwoman Hagar represented Gentiles, while Isaac represented the Jews. However, Paul describes Christians as being the children of promise, but the Jews, in bondage to the law, he names as "children of the bondwoman." In contrast, the Christians were free. Note verse 26, "But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all."
If we establish that the second division of Zechariah is then Messianic prophecy, we must conclude that the Return of Glory to Jerusalem described in Chapter 12 is to be taken figuratively and not literally. Also key to understanding this passage is the phrase, "in that day" which is repeated six times in Chapter 12 alone, and is in the context of the breaking of the staves. In other words, when God breaks his covenant with the Jews so that they are no longer his chosen people, and when the church becomes independent from them, no brotherhood between them, then IN THAT DAY, the events described in Chapter 12 will come about.
The Cup of trembling or reeling is that which contains intoxicating strong drink. The Living Bible paraphrase calls it a cup of "poison." Jerusalem would be a cause of making those around her sick and dizzy. In Isaiah 51, the prophet speaks of the same situation in reverse:
Awake, awake, stand up, O Jerusalem, which hast drunk at the hand of the LORD the cup of his fury; thou hast drunken the dregs of the cup of trembling, and wrung them out... Therefore hear now this, thou afflicted, and drunken, but not with wine: Thus saith thy Lord the LORD, and thy God that leadeth the cause of his people, Behold, I have taken out of thine hand the cup of trembling, even the dregs of the cup of my fury; thou shalt no more drink it again: (51:17, 21-22).
Here Jerusalem drank from a cup of fury that God has placed before them. In Zechariah, Jerusalem is the cup that causes those around her to reel.
It is imperative that we recognize the identity of Jerusalem here. Since these events take place "in that day," we must conclude the passage is dealing with the times of the Messiah. So it is not literal Jerusalem which is meant here but spiritual Jerusalem, the church. Under the Law of Moses, Jerusalem was the capital city of the people of God. In the New Testament, the people of God figuratively are the city of Jerusalem. "And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband" (Revelation 21:2).
It also seems that Judah is involved in the siege against the city. The King James translators may have missed this. Young's Literal Translation renders the verse, "Lo, I am making Jerusalem a cup of reeling to all the peoples round about, and also against Judah it is, in the siege against Jerusalem." If the Jews were said to be on the side of the Christians in the persecution the meaning of this passage seems to makes little sense. In fact, numerous passages in the Gospel accounts, especially John, refer to "the Jews" as the antagonists of Jesus during his ministry. This seems odd to us since Jesus himself was a Jew, but nevertheless he refers to them this way to Pilate for example. "Jesus answered, My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews:" (John 18:36).
That the church suffered intense persecution at the hands of the Jews is almost unnecessary to state. Saul of Tarsus was a ringleader in this even acquiring papers and permission to go into Damascus of Syria to drag Christians back to Jerusalem to stand trial and possibly face death. The persecution was so intense that many had to leave Jerusalem. "And at that time there was a great persecution against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judaea and Samaria, except the apostles...Therefore they that were scattered abroad went every where preaching the word" (Acts 8:1, 4).
The picture here is of a large stone in the midst of a farmer's field that defies dislodging due to its immense size and weight. Those who struggle to remove it will only wind up hurting themselves. The prophet Daniel prophesied of a stone cut without hands out of a mountain that would topple the kingdoms of the earth. He then explained the meaning in Daniel 2:44-45:
And in the days of these kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed: and the kingdom shall not be left to other people, but it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever. Forasmuch as thou sawest that the stone was cut out of the mountain without hands...
This passage is almost universally accepted by conservative scholars to be referring to the establishment of the church. In Matthew 21:42, after telling the parable of the wicked husbandmen, Jesus identifies himself as the "Stone which the builders rejected." Since the church is founded upon him, the rock, (Matthew 16:18), it too becomes solid as a rock. "And whosoever shall fall on this stone shall be broken: but on whomsoever it shall fall, it will grind him to powder" (Matthew 21:44). This seems to have Zechariah 12 in mind. All those who array themselves against the Lord and his church will find themselves sorely outmatched. Gamaliel had warned the Jewish Sanhedrin in Acts 5:39 to let the apostles alone for "...if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it; lest haply ye be found even to fight against God" (Acts 5:39). Saul of Tarsus, if he was aware of his old teacher's words here, did not take them to heart for shortly afterward he was to meet the Lord Jesus on the road to Damascus on his way to deliver death to the fleeing Christians. After identifying himself as the Lord Jesus whom Saul was persecuting, the Lord tells him, "It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks" (Acts 26:14). The saying conjures up an image of an ox kicking back at the goad which is intended to advance him forward. It is both useless and unprofitable for the ox to do so. The same must be said for all those who oppose the will of God.
In verse 5, the Jewish leaders would be forced to consider the possibility that the reason they can't overcome this "sect" is because, just as Gamaliel predicted, God is with them. They then become the catalyst for destruction of the enemies of the city. Like a "hearth of fire among the wood, and like a torch of fire in a sheaf," they would spread the destructive force of God's wrath (the fire) throughout the church's enemies.
Yet, despite the turmoil all around her, Jerusalem remains intact, strong as ever. The first-century Jews undoubtedly saw this prophecy in Zechariah 12:6 as meaning they would be victorious over Rome in the siege of 70 A.D. However, literal Jerusalem was far from being left untouched. The Romans sacked the city and destroyed the temple not leaving one stone on top of another, just as Jesus predicted in Matthew 24:2. Herein is one of the greatest reasons for taking a figurative interpretation of Zechariah 12. If God had been referring to fleshly Jerusalem, and the Jews as his chosen people, why were the Romans not thwarted in their destruction of the city? God was not promising a military victory for the Jews but was instead assuring the survival of his church, even though the whole world was in an uproar round about it.
The "tents of Judah" are probably a reference to the poor among the Jewish people who came to hear the Lord. This contrasts with the affluence of the city dwellers. Remember, it was the "common people" who gladly heard the words of the Lord (Mark 12:37).
The Lord would literally "cover over," or place a shield over the city. No matter what happens to the church externally, it will not result in the loss of the church. God will always preserve his people. Paul asked in Romans 8:35-37:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us.
The reference to "the house of David" being "as God" can only mean the Son of David himself -- Jesus the Christ. The very first verse in the New Testament reads, "The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham." Hailey correctly observed in his commentary, "This places the angel of Jehovah on the same level as Jehovah himself ... only one member of David's family was God. That one was Jesus Christ."
Verse 9 is a warning to all who array themselves against God's people. All those who oppose the will of God and persecute his church either have been, or will come to be destroyed. The entirety of Revelation is describing the survival of the church in this hostile world which would be otherwise an impossibility were it not for divine intervention on the part of Jehovah God!
The study of this passage yields a better understanding perhaps of why the Jews rejected God's Son. They were expecting a powerful military leader who would overthrow the Romans and any others who stood in the Jews' way of becoming the next world power. Even the disciples misunderstood this. "When they therefore were come together, they asked of him, saying, Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel? And he said unto them, It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power" (Acts 1:6-7). Jesus' answer was one of divine patience. Even after all they had seen and heard, the disciples were ignorant of the larger picture of the church and eternal salvation. They were still concerned with the Jewish monarchy being established with them at top of the benevolent dictatorship. But Jesus taught, "My kingdom is not of this world" (John 18:36).
The most intriguing aspect of his kingdom is that even though it is a spiritual, heavenly kingdom, each of us can be a part of it. The Jews rejected Jesus, but we do not have to do so. "He came unto his own, and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name" (John 1:11-12).
Peter exhorted in 1 Peter 2:9, "But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light." It is far more marvelous to us that God became man in order to save the souls of all, rather than to simply set up one race of people to rule over all the others, thus making him a respecter of persons. (See Ephesians 6:9.)