Zechariah, Prophet of the Restoration

8. Foreview of History

The six final chapters of Zechariah’s prophecy are so markedly different in style and contents from the earlier ones that it is evident they constitute a separate book, or at least a separate part. The difference in style is accounted for by concluding that Zechariah composed these chapters in his old age, some fifty years later than the earlier visions, in the days of Nehemiah when it was becoming evident that a long span of history must run its course before the long‑looked for day should dawn. Hence these chapters, nine to fourteen, comprise a vivid—and so far as they have already become history, a remarkably accurate—foreview of the outworking of God’s purposes with Israel and with all men, from a time following the close of Zechariah’s ministry to the establishment of the Kingdom of God upon earth. In these six chapters there is a contrast drawn between the political power of the great kings of this world and the overriding power of the Lord Christ: the one is pictured in all the pomp and panoply of human greed and brute force, the other in the selflessness, the devotion and moral power of the Good Shepherd. The conflict between the two continues and accelerates to the final clash and, as in so many of the prophetic Scriptures, in the stress of the conflict many lose faith and apostasise, but a remnant are steadfast and win through at the end. The doctrine of the "Remnant" is very prominent in this second part of Zechariah’s prophecy.

The first eight verses of chapter 9 picture the events surrounding the transfer of dominion from Persia to Greece, the silver of Daniel’s image to the copper (A.V. brass). The remarkable correspondence between the details in these verses and the incidents attendant on Alexander the Great’s invasion of Asia in 332 B.C. has been realised by practically every commentator of note and the application is reasonably conclusive. Hadrach (the Hatarika of Assyrian inscriptions), Damascus and Hamath (modern Hama) were leading districts and cities of Syria: Alexander’s first move was to subdue Syria and capture Damascus, which he did without difficulty. Hence verse 1 "The word of the LORD is against the land of Hadrach and will rest upon Damascus" (RSV) and "Hamath also, which borders thereon". (v.2) His next move was against Tyre and Sidon, twin commercial cities of Phoenicia; Tyre held out for seven months but fell in 332. Verses 2 And 3 speak of this and add the information that Tyre had built herself a "strong hold" but the Lord would smite her power "in the sea" (v.4) and she would be consumed by fire. This is a remarkable statement, for at the time of Alexander the Tyrians had abandoned their seaside city and built a new one on a small island just off the coast which they had fortified and surrounded with a wall a hundred and fifty feet high. They considered themselves impregnable. Alexander built a causeway across the intervening water and so captured the city. Having thus secured his position he drove southward towards Egypt through the land of the Philistines, capturing Gaza and executing its king, destroying Ashkelon completely, and making Ashdod and Ekron tributary. All of this is stated plainly in verses 5‑6 "Ashkelon Shall see it, and be afraid; Gaza too, and shall writhe in anguish; Ekron also, because its hopes are confounded. The king shall perish from Gaza; Ashkelon shall be uninhabited; a mongrel people shall dwell in Ashdod; and I will make an end of the pride of Philistia" (RSV). Up to this point the Scriptural narrative corresponds in every detail with the progress of Alexander and his Greeks in that momentous year 332. Now in verse 7 the Lord says that there shall no longer be a Philistine nation; it will be absorbed into Judah. The expression "he that remaineth" refers to the remnant of the Philistines who survived Alexander’s invasion; that remnant shall "be for our God"; the word rendered "governor" means a family chief or tribal leader; "Ekron shall be as Jebus" (not "as a Jebusite"). All these expressions indicate the complete coalescence of the Philistines into the Jewish nation, just as the Jebusites were coalesced in the time of David. This is what happened. The Philistines as a national entity drop out of history after the time of Alexander; what was left of them became indistinguishable from Jews and their land became part of Judea.

This was not the end. Verse 8 declares the Divine intention "I will encamp about mine house because of the army, because of him…that returneth: and no oppressor shall pass through them any more". The army here referred to is the Greek army. Alexander had sent a message to Jerusalem demanding the submission of the Jews. Jaddua, the High Priest, principal citizen of the nation, had refused on the ground that he had sworn allegiance to Persia. Immediately after the fall of Gaza therefore, Alexander marched to Jerusalem to take vengeance. The outcome is recorded by the historian Flavius Josephus. Unable to offer armed resistance, the High Priest, instructed by Heaven, arrayed himself in the splendid robes of his office as Head of the Levitical priesthood and went out to meet the conqueror, followed by the priests and citizens in white. To the astonishment of his own officers, Alexander, instead of giving orders to attack, went forward alone, made obeisance to the sacred Name emblazoned on the High Priest’s mitre, and then saluted Jaddua with every appearance of respect and friendliness. His principal general, Parmenio, ventured to ask the reason for this unexpected behaviour, whereupon Alexander explained that when originally contemplating the invasion of Asia he had seen in a dream a person attired in this same regalia who had assured him that he should embark upon his project and that it would be crowned with success by the defeat of Persia. Never having seen or heard of such a man before, he was convinced that this was the one who had appeared to him in his dream of years past. So saying, he walked with the High Priest into the city and was conducted to the Temple, where Jaddua showed him the prophecies of Daniel which declared that a Greek would overthrow Persia. Thus was Judea saved from the fate that had overtaken Syria, Phoenicia and Philistia, even as verse 8 states in a few telling words.

It has, of course, been suggested by some authorities that Josephus was romancing a little when he recounted this story but there is really reasonable circumstantial evidence for its truth. It is a fact that after Alexander’s visit to Jerusalem he conferred favours upon the Jews that were not conferred upon any other of his conquered nations. Something must have happened to avert the horrors of massacre and pillage which had been the invader’s intention for Judea as for the other lands he subdued, and to change him into a beneficent patron instead. In any case, the terms of verse 8 were met; God had averted the threat of the army. With that the picture in Zechariah comes to an end. In history Alexander went on his way, besieged and took Babylon, overthrew the Persian dominion, continued in India, and finally met his death, but of all that no notice is taken here. Zechariah recorded sufficient to indicate the first outstanding event to concern Judea in times yet to come—the transfer of dominion from Persia to Greece, another step in the progress of the Divine Plan, eventually to culminate in the Kingdom of God.

The prophet now skips some three centuries and lights upon the days of the First Advent. He sees another King presenting himself to Israel for acceptance, not coming as did Alexander with all the pomp and pageantry of military power to establish his rule by force, but in peace to establish a rule founded upon love and persuasion. "Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion" he cries in verse 9 "Thy King cometh unto thee: he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, upon a colt the foal of an ass". It may be as is sometimes stated, that the traditional manner in which the kings of Israel entered upon their office was to ride into Jerusalem upon a white ass, although there is no specific instance of such a custom in the Old Testament. Asses were more common than horses in the earlier years of Israel’s national existence, but by the time of David and onward horses were used for ceremonial purposes. Riding upon an ass might well be intended more as a symbol of humility—"lowly, riding upon an ass". The remarkable correspondence between this verse and the action of Jesus just before his arrest justifies its application and therefore the ensuing passage to the First Advent and the reactions of Israel at that time. Verse 10 defines the peacefulness of his reign and its ultimate conquest—the war‑chariot, the warhorse, the battle‑bow shall be cut off; "he shall speak peace to the heathen (nations): and his dominion shall be from sea even to sea, and from the river even to the ends of the earth"—universal. This was the promise brought to the men of that day when He presented himself to them. "By the blood of thy covenant" said the Lord "I have sent forth thy prisoners out of the pit wherein is no water" (verse 11). This is addressed to that generation and the first impulse perhaps is to apply these words to the Mosaic Covenant, sealed at Mount Sinai fourteen centuries previously with the blood of sacrificed animals and now due to come to an end with the institution of something better on the basis of the death of Jesus Christ. But the Mosaic Covenant effected no release of prisoners, either at the First Advent or at any other time. It was in fact the failure of that Covenant to effect any real deliverance for Israel which paved the way for God’s promise of a New Covenant that would achieve success where the old one had failed. Now although the real work of that New Covenant, the writing of God’s laws in the hearts of men and their wholesale turning to him in repentance and dedication, is the work of the coming Millennial Age, it is true that Jesus referred to his coming death as the "blood of the new covenant,…shed for many for the remission of sins" (Matt.26:28) and that by virtue of this same sacrificial death there is deliverance here and now, and has been since Pentecost, for all, whether Jew or Gentile, who believe. It may well be therefore that verse 11 is a reference to this fact, and that the "blood of the Covenant" there mentioned is a symbol of the death of Christ, the "Ransom for all". Those who did accept him at his First Advent are the prisoners who were delivered from the empty well or reservoir (this is the meaning of "pit" here) of the old system of Judaism.

"Turn you to the strong hold, ye prisoners of hope: even to day do I declare that I will render double unto thee; when I have bent Judah for me, filled the bow with Ephraim, and raised up thy sons, O Zion, against thy sons, O Greece, and made thee as the sword of a mighty man" (Zech.9:12‑13). This is the only instance in the Old Testament where the word "hope" has the definite article: the expression is properly "prisoners of the hope". St. Paul was a "prisoner of the hope". "For the hope of Israel I am bound with this chain" said he to the Jews of Rome (Acts 28:20); "Now I stand and am judged for the hope of the promise" when before Agrippa (Acts 26:6). These "prisoners of the hope" were the men of Israel at the First Advent, subject to alien powers but in their bondage directed to the stronghold of God’s promise and the hope that one day their servitude would end and their mission as God’s ambassadors to the nations be realised. Hence the promise that God would render to them "double"—not "shenayim" which means a double portion, but "mishneh" which means the second part, the complement of what has gone before. In the past they had endured sorrow and adversity, but in the future they would experience joy and prosperity. Isaiah voiced the same principle when he said "For your shame ye shall have double...in their land they shall possess the double: everlasting joy shall be unto them" (Isa.61:7). And with this stirring exhortation the prophecy leaves the First Advent behind and passes unrestrained into the mighty deeds of the Kingdom in power, the days of the Second Advent and the Millennial reign. Verse 13 marks the transition. "When I have bent Judah for me..." and so on. The time of the promised "double" is governed by that "when". A day is to come when God takes Israel—a restored and purified Israel—as his instrument. Using a military metaphor, He likens Judah to his bow, Ephraim the arrows, the sons of Greece to the armed might of this world, and the sons of Zion to the Holy Nation. But the Lord himself is the leader and his power is irresistible. Verses 14‑17 declare that the Lord shall be seen among his people, implying full acceptance in faith and loyalty; His arrows go as lightning, his whirlwinds devastate the enemy. He defends his people, and the victory is so overwhelming that their rejoicing is as that of a feast of wine and their praises to God as though they had brought so many sacrifices to his altar that the bowls were brimming over with blood and flooding the horns (A.V. "corners") of the altar—a vivid metaphor taken from the ancient Levitical ritual. So the Lord their God will save them and Israel will be as the precious stones ornamenting the diadem upon his head or an ensign, a display lifted up for all to see. "For how great is his goodness, and how great is his beauty!" cries the prophet. "corn shall make the young men cheerful, and new wine the maids" (v.17).

(To be continued)