There was a blizzard over Thanksgiving weekend this year. The snow fell throughout the day and by nightfall two feet of white covered the ground. Looking out, I saw amid the darkness clean, clear, pure white. The muck was obscured, the dirt invisible. All that I beheld was bright, driven snow; the light shining in the darkness.
So it is with the prophet Zechariah. Darkness lay over the land of Israel in the sixth century BC.
Concurrent with the prophet Haggai’s work, Zechariah’s ministry began in 520 BC, twenty years after the initial return from exile in Babylon. Earlier prophets had promised a grand restoration of God’s covenant people (e.g., Zeph. 3:20), but the reality after Babylon was far different. The temple wasn’t grand, but small; the land wasn’t flowing with wine, oil, milk, or honey; the people were divided, distracted, and discouraged. A duo, the high priest Joshua and the ruler Zerubabbel, seemed to be the only ones who stood in the ancient ways, vainly trying to restore peace, prosperity, and holiness. Both men, however, themselves needed restoration as much as the people or the land. Israel might be back in the land, technically, but the so-called ‘return’ from exile was woefully inadequate, subject to the whims of the Persian King of Kings. Judah and Jerusalem were poor, divided, and politically marginalized.
God’s response to His people’s dismay was contrary to their expectations (and ours). We would plot a solution that involves immediate change of circumstance, find a way to get cash, or make ever-increasing political demands. God works paradoxically, not according to our ways. Instead, he sends a word. He declares a twofold word through Zechariah; one of national renewal combined with a word of the promised Messiah.
The opening verses of the book provide the need for personal renewal and recommitment to His ways. This beginning is followed by a cycle of visions in the night and a series of oracles, summed up in the culminating promise of the glory of God present in a renewed Jerusalem where even the pots and pans are holy. God promises to renew his covenant with Israel (Zech. 8:8). Zechariah portrays more than merely a pure King—the priesthood is revived and renewed as Joshua the high priest is accused by Satan and defended by God. This renewal is accomplished by the promised Branch, the Shoot from the stem of Jesse. Found in Jeremiah’s prophecy (23:5; 33:15), this image of the righteous offshoot signals the future Davidic king. This future Messiah is spoken of in four classic prophecies in Zechariah. What should intrigue us readers is the subversive, paradoxical element in these promises.
First, the apostle John quotes Zechariah 9:9 at the midpoint of his Gospel (John 12:15), as Jesus rides into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Here is the coming King, riding on a lowly donkey:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your king is coming to you;
righteous and having salvation is he,
humble and mounted on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey
Second, Zechariah 11:12-13 describes the low esteem of the prophet.
“Then I said to them, ‘If it seems good to you, give me my wages; but if not, keep them.’ And they weighed out as my wages thirty pieces of silver. Then the Lord said to me, ‘Throw it to the potter’—the lordly price at which I was priced by them. So I took the thirty pieces of silver and threw them into the house of the Lord, to the potter.”
These thirty pieces were the price of a slave—paying the shepherd a desultory rate.
In Matthew 27:9-10, we see the infamous thirty pieces of silver reappear, and the money of Judas buying the potter’s field. We see how much Jesus was worth to the Jews when they estimated the Shepherd’s value at a slave’s going rate. Such is the sheep’s mockery of their Shepherd.
We ought to search our own hearts and ask if we have lightly esteemed Jesus Christ. Perhaps we consider His job complete the moment we are justified or join a church? Perhaps we only come to Him as Jeeves to our Bertie Wooster, our girl Friday, our slave to do our bidding? If that is our view of Christ, what will his response be? “So I said, “I will not be your shepherd. What is to die, let it die. And let those who are left devour the flesh of one another” (Zech 11:9).
The culminating mention of the Messiah cited in the New Testament is the stricken Shepherd and the sheep scattered. As with Isaiah’s Suffering Servant, so Zechariah’s coming King. The Messiah will face severe conflict with false teachers and fake shepherds (Zech 10:3) . He, the lovely shepherd, must lay down his life for the sheep (John 10). But as he does so, his friends, the eleven disciples, will be in terror and flee for their lives.
Like Israel, we may feel the wintry wind that chokes out breath and the chill of our sin, but the message of Zechariah is perennially attractive. In the dark dirt of our black hearts, God has placed a green Shoot. This Shoot is God’s unshakable commitment to his covenant promises, who flattens the mountains (Zech 4:7) and rebukes Satan (Zech 3:2). Though He is mighty, this Shoot is also the Shepherd who is stricken, as Zechariah describes in chapter 13:6-7,
“if one asks him, ‘What are these wounds on your back?’ he will say, ‘The wounds I received in the house of my friends.’
“Awake, O sword, against my shepherd,
against the man who stands next to me,”
declares the Lord of hosts.
“Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered;
I will turn my hand against the little ones.”
The New Testament identifies this shepherd, wounded and betrayed by his close companion, abandoned by his friends. Jesus Christ, the “fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of sin and uncleanness. (Zech 13:1)” Like Isaiah, Zechariah understood that the kingdom of God would come only through the atoning death of the Messiah. Only in this way could the people of God be cleansed from their sins.
And the glorious blessings are obtained through this Shepherd’s sacrifice. The one who was stricken gives health and new life. God provided the cornerstone (Zech. 10:4) to build a New Jerusalem, a city whose Maker and Architect is God Himself. That’s how Zechariah ends his prophecy. God declares that “on that day there shall be inscribed on the bells of the horses, ‘Holy to the Lord.’ And the pots in the house of the Lord shall be as the bowls before the altar.” (Zech. 14:20-21) All common implements of everyday living will be pure and clean—no need for a dishwasher in the new temple of God.
Yet we know our own dirt and grime still cling to us. We remain impure, those who do the very thing we hate and yet long to be given full and entire purity. That is why God himself provides the righteousness he promises. As Jesus Christ walked on earth, he exuded the rare air of perfect love, pure zeal, and wise holiness. That is why he is the one who will ultimately build the temple of the Lord (Zech. 6:12–13), and why He waged war against the false rule of Satan, of the Gentile nations, and of unrepentant Israel herself.
Yet the strategy did not fit the battle plans of the world. A humble King, born without pomp or ceremony, ruling the whole world? A Shepherd who loses his own life—and the sheep scattered as a result? The cruciform Christ is as shocking as the infant in a manger. The failing of the church today is a failure of wonder, a failure of awe at this great, paradoxical, surprising reversal.
Indeed, this is the note struck in the fulfillment of Zechariah 12:10, where God proclaims
“I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn.”
At the last, we will see the conclusion of this promise in the second Advent.
Look, he is coming with the clouds,
and every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him;
and all the peoples of the world will
mourn because of him.
So shall it be! Amen
As Gregory Beale has astutely noted, this quotation of Zechariah 12:10ff in Revelation 1:7 is not describing the comeuppance of unregenerate people (finally realizing their grave mistake). Rather,
“those who mourn are not those who literally crucified Jesus but those who are guilty of rejecting him…the nations in 1:7b do not mourn over themselves but Jesus, which fits better into an understanding of repentance than judgment. Therefore, repentant Gentiles are viewed as fulfilling the Zechariah prophecy at the second coming of Christ.”
Here is the glory of God shining at midnight. Here is the Messiah promised by Zechariah, whose recreation of Israel comes through humility and suffering the Via Dolorosa, through the passivity of being pierced. Here is the one who gives us the white robes of pure goodness—stripped naked (sans demure loincloth). To give us the draught of everlasting life, Jesus must drink the bitter cup of death.
This Christmas, as we celebrate the glory of God contracted to the span of a feeding trough, mere meters of flesh and blood, we must rejoice in the remarkable redemptive accomplishment of salvation in the better high priest Joshua, who endures the accusations of the evil one, the ultimate Zerubabbel, the King who leads a remnant of myriads upon myriads, “a great multitude that no one could number” (Rev 7:9).
So a simple heuristic is needed: are you mourning that the Son of God was pierced for your transgressions? Is our darkness the object of our sorrow, not the worldly grief that bemoans bad consequences?
In the words of singer-songwriter Andrew Peterson:
The greatest love is to see one you love
As he’s battered and beaten and killed.
And to love like a son every murderous one,
in spite of the sound of the hammers that rung,
in sight of the innocent blood that runs,
Oh, there’s a love that’s greater still, that’s greater still.
Oh, give thanks to God above
It was you and I with the hammer in hand,
You and I drew the blood.
May we not fear confessing our fallen hatred of God and of each other, but rest in the speck of promissory fulfillment we already see in Immanuel and long for the great day when “living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem, half of them to the eastern sea and half of them to the western sea. It shall continue in summer as in winter. And the Lord will be king over all the earth” (Zech 14:8-9). This glorious rule and reign of Jesus shall continue in the sunlight of July as in the dark of December. May we entrust our souls into his safe hands for our keeping all of our days, no matter the grime, no matter the darkness of exile, of disappointed returns, always placing our lives at the service of our lovely and good Shepherd.
John Stovall currently serves as Pastor of the Rock Presbyterian Church in Stockbridge, Georgia and is a doctoral candidate in history at the State University of New York, Albany.
 G.K. Beale. The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text. New International Greek Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999, 197.