The Old Testament in the Gospel Tradition: Zechariah 9-14

Zechariah 9-14

There can be no doubt that Zechariah 9-14 exerted a considerable influence on the Gospel Tradition—the Passion narratives in particular. This influence cannot be limited to a single passage; rather, there are more than half a dozen references from within these chapters which we can see reflected in the Gospel narrative.

Chapters 9-14 are sometimes referred to as “Deutero-Zechariah”, in a manner similar to the designation of Isa 40-66 [or 40-55] as “Deutero-Isaiah”. The prevailing critical view is that chaps. 9-14 are later, and come from a different hand (or hands), than chaps. 1-8. The reference to Greece/Greeks (/w`y`) in 9:13 has led some commentators to date chaps. 9-14 to the Hellenistic period (late 4th or 3rd century B.C.), or even later in the Maccabean period. However, critical scholars today tend to view these chapters as the product of the 5th century B.C., probably some time before the work of Nehemiah (445 and after). This would make Zech 9-14 more or less contemporary with the so-called Trito-Isaian poems (chaps. 56-66), according to the common critical view; both works seem to share a similar eschatological vision.

Indeed, Zech 9-14 has a strong eschatological orientation, envisioning the coming of a New Age for God’s people (Israel/Judah). This restoration of the Kingdom is related to the Judgment of YHWH against the surrounding nations, after which they will submit to the rule of YHWH and His Kingdom (centered at Jerusalem). This prophetic eschatology is very much in keeping with that of the other Prophets from the exilic and post-exilic periods (i.e., Joel, Deutero-Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Zech 1-8; cf. also the ‘Isaian Apocalypse’, chaps. 24-27). Its message reflects the same basic line of prophetic eschatological tradition, sometimes characterized as “early apocalyptic” or “proto-apocalyptic”.

The primary literary structure of Zech 9-14 is marked by the formula in 9:1 and 12:1:

hw`hy+ rb^d= aCm^
“A lifting up, (the) word of YHWH”

The specific term aC*m^ (lit. “lifting [up]”), used frequently in the Prophets to introduce a prophetic oracle or vision, is to be understood in the sense of something “taken up” by the prophet, an inspired message (from YHWH) that has been placed (like a weight) upon him. When a message of judgment is involved, it can truly seem like a “burden” to the messenger.

The same phrase occurs at Malachi 1:1, a book which, like Zech 9-11 and 12-14, contains three chapters. Indeed, those three sections are roughly equal in length; that, along with the identical opening words, have led some scholars recently to posit an original work, comprised of Zech 9-Mal 3, which was later re-edited within the context of the ‘Book of the Twelve’. It is a reasonably compelling argument, for certainly the opening expression in Zech 9:1, 12:1, and Mal 1:1 represents a common redacting device. It is distinctive of these chapters, and unique to them, occurring nowhere else in the Old Testament.

It is equally certain, however, that chapters 9-14 are related, thematically and by the use of keywords, etc, to the earlier (c. 520) oracles and visions of chaps. 1-8. Depending on how early in the 5th century chap. 9-14 were composed, Zechariah the prophet could still have been alive, or, at the very least, his colleagues and successors could have been continuing his work. In any case, these later chapters are clearly inspired, in various ways, by visionary messages of chaps. 1-8.

One of the key themes that runs throughout chapters 9-14 is the contrast between the rule of YHWH, as Shepherd of His people, and the failed (and/or corrupt) leadership of the ‘false shepherds’. It is an important theme, both in terms of the Messianic interpretation of these chapters, and in the way that the New Testament, in particular, applied this to the person and work of Jesus.

The best approach to analyzing this material, in terms of its influence on the Gospel Tradition (and Passion Narrative), is to look at the key references, examining (1) their background, and (2) their application within the Gospel.

Zechariah 9:9

“Spin (with) great (joy), daughter of ‚iyyôn!
Make a (great) noise, daughter of Yerushalaim!
See, your king comes to you,
righteous and bearing salvation (is) he,
bent low and riding upon a donkey,
even upon an ass, son of a she-donkey.”

These lines, so famous from their use in the Triumphal Entry scene (cf. below), need to be understood in the context of Zechariah 9. The chapter is comprised of three different oracular sections:

    • Vv. 1-8: A judgment-oracle against the nations at the borders of Israel’s traditional territory; YHWH moves from Aram-Damascus in the north all the way to Jerusalem (His “house”), where He ‘sets up camp’.
    • Vv. 9-10: Announcement of a new king entering Jerusalem to begin his rule.
    • Vv. 11-17: YHWH establishes a new era of peace and security for His people, with a Kingdom centered in Judah and Jerusalem.

The principal actor is YHWH—it is He who subdues the nations, removing their capacity to make war, and restoring to Israel/Judah the extent of their Promised Land. It is not entirely clear what role the king, mentioned in vv. 9-10, plays in this scenario. The wording in verse 10 certainly emphasizes his connection with the New Age of peace; and yet it is God who acts:

“And I will cut off (the chariot-)ride from Ephraim
and (the war-)horse from Yerushalaim,
and it will be cut off, the bow of battle”

It is only after YHWH has pacified the land that the king fulfills his role—not through military action, but through speech:

“and he shall speak wholeness to the nations,
and his rule (shall be) from sea unto sea,
and from (the) River to (the) ends of (the) earth.”

The word <olv* I have translated in its fundamental sense as “wholeness” (or “fullness, completion”). The conventional translation “peace” indicates just one aspect of meaning; the significance of the noun is rooted in the ancient covenant idea—of a binding agreement that is completed between two parties, providing protection and security (and peace), etc. The speech-aspect emphasized here suggests a two-fold significance: (1) the king establishes a period of law and order, and (2) he specifically promulgates, by word and example, the Law (Torah) of YHWH.

This is important for a correct understanding of the description of the king in verse 9. Let us briefly consider each detail:

    • “righteous” (qyD!x^)—the adjective qyD!x^ fundamentally means “right, straight, just”, often in an ethical or religious sense (i.e., righteous); it can also connote someone who is faithful and loyal, and also someone who has been proven right (i.e. vindicated).
    • “bearing salvation” (uv*on)—this Niphal (passive-reflexive) participle (of the verb uv^y`) literally means “being saved”, but the precise idea here is difficult to bring across in English; the king is protected and given victory (i.e. is saved) through the power and faithfulness of YHWH, and yet he also carries and conveys this salvation to the people as a whole.
    • “bent low” (yn]u*)—this adjective often means “oppressed, afflicted,” but here the more basic meaning of “bent low” is preferable; it is used in a figurative sense, i.e., for the lowliness of the king; he does not present an impressive figure, and can scarcely be regarded as a mighty warrior; what victory, etc, he achieves comes through YHWH’s might.
    • “riding upon a donkey” (romj& lu^ bk@r))—while less majestic than the horse, a donkey can still be a fitting animal for royalty to ride (cf. Gen 49:10-11; 2 Sam 16:2); the main significance here is that the militaristic aspects (of the horse, etc) often associated with kingship have been removed.

The Gospel Tradition makes clear that early Christians saw Zech 9:9f as a prophecy/prefiguring of Jesus’ Entry into Jerusalem. This is well-established in the Synoptic tradition (Mark 11:1-10 par), even if the Scripture is cited directly only in Matthew (21:5). Jesus’ own detailed instructions to his disciples, as recorded in the Synoptic narrative (Mk 11:2-3ff par), if accepted as authentic, may indicate that he himself had this passage in mind. In any case, the fact that Zech 9:9 is also cited in the Johannine version of the Entry (12:12-19, v. 15) demonstrates how readily early Christians made the connection.

From the standpoint of the Gospel narrative, the Entry scene establishes Jesus as the royal Messiah from the line of David. The use of Zech 9:9-10, coupled with the exclamation by the crowds—citing Psalm 118:26, adapted according to a distinct Messianic interpretation (cf. the discussion in the previous article)—makes this abundantly clear.

And yet, from the Passion narrative that follows, the Gospels express the realization that Jesus’ Messianic identity would be very different from had been expected by the crowds. In this regard, the abandonment of traditional militaristic imagery, such as normally would have been associated with ancient kingship, is significant. For Jesus would not function as a great warrior, achieving victory over his enemies and establishing a kingdom in Jerusalem through military means. Instead, his attributes are those very characteristics given to the coming king in Zech 9:9-10: (i) “righteous”, (ii) “bearing (God’s) salvation”, (iii) “lowly”. Given the suffering and death he would endure in Jerusalem, it would perhaps be better to understand the adjective yn]u* in the more negative sense of “oppressed, afflicted”. However, in Matthew’s citation, this is translated as prau+/$ (“meek, gentle”), following the LXX; it is the only one of the three attributes (above) that Matthew retains in his citation.

Zechariah 9:11

“And also you, by (the) blood of your binding (agreement),
I have sent (out) your bound (captive)s from (the) pit in which there is no water.”

These words open final oracle-section of chapter 9 (vv. 11-17), and immediately follow the announcement of the coming king (vv. 9-10). The expression “blood of your binding (agreement) [tyr!B=]” refers to the ancient covenant, between YHWH and Israel, that was established (and ratified) at Sinai (Exodus 24, vv. 6-8). The reference here follows in the tradition of the exilic and post-exilic Prophets, by which the restoration of Israel in the New Age is defined in terms of a new covenant between YHWH and His people (Jer 31:31-34, et al). Ultimately, however, this ‘new’ covenant represents the true fulfillment of the original covenant at Sinai, one that is re-established (never again to be broken) in the New Age.

Given the influence of Zech 9-14 on the Gospel Tradition, and the close connection with 9:9-10, it seems possible that the reference to the covenant in v. 11 informs the wording of the Last Supper tradition: “this is my blood of the covenant” (Mk 14:24 par). However, it must be said, that the original tradition in Exod 24:8 is unquestionably the primary point of reference (“See, [the] blood of the binding [agreement] which YHWH has cut with you”). The subject will be discussed further in the next article in this series.

Zechariah 9:16, etc

At the close of the oracle in 9:11-17, the sheep/shepherd theme is introduced (v. 16), one which will be of tremendous importance throughout the whole of Zech 9-14, and which dominates the remainder of chapters 10-11.

“And YHWH their Mighty (One) [i.e. God] will save them in that day, as (the) flock of His people,
for (like) stones of a sacred (crown), they are sparkling upon His land.” (9:16)

The wording of the second line seems to echo the announcement of the coming king (vv. 9-10, cf. above) and suggests that, at least in part, the royal figure in those verses may be understood in a collective sense—that is, as representing the kingship of the people as a whole.

In any case, it is clear that YHWH is the shepherd, and this is most important for understanding the shepherd-theme as it is developed in chapters 10-11 (and again in 13:7-9). The true shepherd (YHWH) is contrasted with a variety of false shepherds (human leaders of various types). Unfortunately, the complexity of this theme in chaps. 10-11 (esp. the ‘Shepherd narrative’ in 11:4-16) requires a more extensive treatment than the space here allows. But I will touch on the matter a bit further when discussing 13:7-9 (below), and in a separate note on 11:12-13 (cf. below).

The true/false Shepherd imagery is most prominent in the ‘Good Shepherd’ discourse of Jesus in John 10:1-18, 25-30. Though this is not part of the Passion narrative as such, the idea of Jesus’ death and resurrection is central to the discourse (see vv. 11, 15, 17-18).

Zechariah 11:12-13

These verses are famously applied to the Passion narrative (the betrayal by Judas) in the Gospel of Matthew (27:3-10). They are part of the true/false shepherd theme of chaps. 10-11. However, since they are contained in one of the difficult sections of the entire book (some would say of the entire Old Testament)—the ‘Shepherd narrative’ of 11:4-16—and are only marginally related to the Gospel Tradition, I have decided to discuss them in a separate note.

Zechariah 12:10

This (12:10) is another difficult reference which is deserving of a separate note (upcoming). That it was applied by early Christians to the crucifixion of Jesus is confirmed by independent quotations in John 19:37 and Rev 1:7.

Zechariah 13:7

“Rouse (yourself), sword, upon my (shep)herd and upon (the) strong (one) my companion
—utterance of YHWH of (the heavenly) armies.
Strike the (one) herding [i.e. shepherd] and the flock will be broken apart,
and I will turn my hand upon the little (one)s.”

Verse 7b is cited by Jesus as a Passion prediction (Mk 14:17). Vv. 7-9 echo the problematic ‘Shepherd narrative’ of 11:4-16, and need to be discussed in that context. The action that YHWH commands against the shepherd is part of a wider judgment against the people. This judgment will result in widespread destruction, with only a third of the people surviving; but this surviving remnant will be purified and made holy.

The remnant-motif follows in a well-established line of prophetic tradition, but is here given a new meaning in the eschatological context of Zech 9-14. The judgment-context is realized through a great war between Israel and the nations (12:1-9; 14:1-14), in which the nations are defeated entirely through the power and greatness of YHWH.

These chapters exercised a tremendous influence on the visions in the book of Revelation, but it is important to remember that the death and resurrection of Jesus also was understood, fundamentally, in an eschatological sense by early Christians. Jesus’ Passion marked the beginning of period of darkness and distress for the world; there are allusions to this throughout the Passion narrative (e.g., Mk 14:38; 15:33 pars; Lk 22:53), and note the clear relationship between Jesus’ Passion (Mk 14:62 par, etc) and the events in the Eschatological Discourse (chap. 13 par).

Thus, we may see how the striking of Jesus (the Good Shepherd) fits into the pattern of God’s end-time Judgment. It marks the beginning of a time of great distress for the people of Israel, but also of persecution for the disciples of Jesus (believers). The flock of God’s people will indeed be “broken apart” (scattered), at least for a time. But this dispersion will also serve a greater purpose, in terms of the wider mission of believers, proclaiming the Gospel into the surrounding nations (cf. Acts 8:1ff).

Zechariah 13:1; 14:8

Following the eschatological war with the nations, there will truly, and at last, be realized a New Age of peace and blessing for God’s people. One of the motifs for expressing this is a fountain of “living water” that springs up, bringing cleansing and life to the people. The primary association is with the cleansing power of water:

“In that day there will be a fountain (dug), being opened up for (the) house of David and for (the one)s dwelling (in) Yerushalaim, for (cleansing of) sin and filth.” (13:1)

The fountain will turn into a great river that flows, not only in Jerusalem, but outward into the surrounding nations (‘from sea to sea’):

“And it shall be (that), in that day, living waters will go forth from Yerushalaim, half to the preceding [i.e. eastern] sea, and half to the following [i.e. western] sea” (14:8)

This imagery seems to have been influential on early Christians, in a number of ways. Apart from explicit references or allusions in the book of Revelation (e.g., 22:1-2), there is the obvious connection with baptism, and with the traditional association between water and the Spirit.

One likely passage that alludes to Zech 13:1 and 14:8 is the discourse of Jesus in John 7-8 (esp. 7:37-39). The Sukkot/Tabernacles setting pervades these chapters, and the same festival plays a small but significant role in Zech 9-14 as well (14:16-19, and cf. also the request for rain in 10:1).

Zechariah 14:20-21

Finally, mention should be made of Zech 14:20-21, as these verses would seem to provide the background for Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple (see esp. Mark 12:15-18)—the episode that immediately follows his Triumphal Entry in the Synoptic narrative, and which helps to set the stage for his impending Passion. The associated Temple-saying in Jn 2:19 is understood explicitly in terms of Jesus’ death (and resurrection, vv. 21-22), and it seems to have played a role in the interrogation of Jesus before the Jerusalem Council (Mk 14:58 par).

The original context of Zech 14:20-21, coming at the close of oracles of chaps. 9-14, suggests that the role and place of the Temple will be transformed in the New Age, imbued with a greater sense of holiness and purpose in the worship of YHWH. Early Christians drew upon similar eschatological ideas as their own religious identity, in relation to the Torah and the Temple ritual, developed. The Temple (and its sacrifices) came to take on an entirely new meaning, the ritual aspects replaced by a spiritual dimension. There is strong evidence that these spiritualizing tendencies have their roots in authentic Gospel tradition and the teachings of Jesus himself. For more on this subject, see my earlier article in the series “Jesus and the Law”.

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