The background for this scripture is the Babylonian exile, which began in 587 B.C. when Babylonia destroyed Jerusalem and forced the Jewish people into exile in Babylon. In 538 B.C., after Babylon fell to Cyrus of Persia, Cyrus issued an edict that made it possible for the exiles to return to Jerusalem and to rebuild the temple. A large group of exiles returned to Jerusalem under the leadership of Zerubbabel and Jeshua in 520 B.C. (Ezra 2:2; 3:2, 8; 4:3; 5:2), and were able to dedicate their rebuilt temple in 516 B.C.
The exile had lasted seventy years (Jeremiah 25:11-12; 29:10; Daniel 9:2; Zechariah 1:12; 7:5). These were painful years for the Israelites, because their city had been destroyed and they were captives in a foreign land.
Three superscriptions (1:1; 1:7; 7:1) tell us that God’s word came to Zechariah the prophet—the implication being that Zechariah was the author of this book. However, chapters 1-8 appear to have been written at one time by Zechariah, and chapters 9-14 appear to have been written at a later date by someone else. The later chapters deal with the problem of unfulfilled expectations and give the people cause for hope.
The opening verses of chapter 9 tell of Yahweh coming as a divine warrior to render judgment on Israel’s enemies (9:1-7) and to protect Jerusalem from harm (9:8).
ZECHARIAH 9:9. REJOICE GREATLY, DAUGHTER ZION!
9Rejoice greatly, daughter of Zion!
Shout, daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your King comes to you!
He is righteous (Hebrew: saddiq), and having salvation;
lowly, and riding on a donkey,
even on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
“Daughter of Zion” is a term of endearment. Zion, of course, is the mountain upon which Jerusalem is built, so Zion and Jerusalem are virtually synonymous in this context.
This verse is reminiscent of 2:10, which says, “Sing and rejoice, daughter of Zion; for, behold, I come, and I will dwell in the midst of you,’ says Yahweh.” It is also reminiscent of Zephaniah 3:14, which says, “Sing, daughter of Zion! Shout, Israel! Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, daughter of Jerusalem!” Zephaniah goes on to assure the people of Yahweh’s forgiveness and his presence among them.
The cause for rejoicing is that their king will come to them “righteous and having salvation.” These people have had seventy years of servitude and humble pie during their exile, followed by a return to Jerusalem that has been difficult and disappointing.
“Your King.” The king in question here is the messianic king. Both Matthew 21:5 and John 12:15 quote Zechariah 9:9 in connection with Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. In Matthew’s version, it sounds as if the messiah comes mounted on two animals, a donkey and “a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
Their king will be righteous and victorious. They can depend on him to do the right thing (righteousness) and to save these people (victorious).
“riding on a donkey.” Their king will come riding a donkey. Donkeys are smaller than horses and are used both as beasts of burden and riding mounts. It was quite common for people to ride donkeys, but a warrior would usually ride a horse. To have the messiah-king come riding a donkey is a sign of peaceful intentions.
ZECHARIAH 9:10.HE WILL SPEAK PEACE TO THE NATIONS
10 I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim,
and the horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle bow will be cut off;
and he will speak peace to the nations (Hebrew: goy):
and his dominion will be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth.
Ephraim represents the Northern Kingdom (Israel), and Jerusalem represents the Southern Kingdom (Judah). The Northern Kingdom was taken into captivity by Assyria long ago, and never emerged as a viable nation. To mention both Ephraim and Jerusalem in this verse is to hold out the hope of a reunited kingdom.
Chariots, horses, and battle bows are instruments of war. The coming messiah-king will do away with these instruments of war, and “will speak peace to the nations” (goy). This word goy is often used to mean Gentiles, so this verse holds out the hope of peace not just for the Jews, but also for the Gentiles.
The messiah-king will reign “from sea to sea.” We could say with some certainty that these people would think of the Mediterranean Sea as one of these seas, but the identity of the other is a mystery. However, in this context, “sea to sea” is simply a way of saying that the messiah-king will reign over all the world.
The same is true of “from the River to the ends of the earth.” That is another way of saying that the messiah king will have dominion over all the world. However, “the River” warrants comment. There were three prominent rivers in Jewish history—the Nile (Egypt), the Jordan (Israel), and the Euphrates (Babylon). Israelites involvement with the Nile ended centuries earlier when Yahweh freed them from their slavery in Egypt, so “the River” in this verse must refer either to the Jordan or the Euphrates. Given the recent history of these people as exiles in Babylon, it seems likely that “the River” refers to the Euphrates.
If “the River” refers to the Euphrates, that phrase would remind these people of their exile—their captivity—their servitude—their shame. It would be a source of joy to them, then, to hear that their messiah-king’s rule would begin in the place where they were so recently ruled by foreign kings.
ZECHARIAH 9:11-12. I HAVE SET FREE YOUR PRISONERS
11As for you also, because of the blood of your covenant,
I have set free your prisoners from the pit in which is no water.
12Turn (Hebrew: sub—return) to the stronghold, you prisoners of hope!
Even today I declare that I will restore double to you.
“As for you also, because of the blood of your covenant” (v. 11a). The covenant that Yahweh had established with Israel began with Abram, long before there was an Israel (Genesis 12:1-3; 15:18-20). Yahweh renewed this covenant with Moses (Exodus 24) and Joshua (Joshua 24) and Jehoiada (2 Kings 11) and Hezekiah (2 Chronicles 29:10 and Josiah (2 Kings 23:3) and David (2 Samuel 7:12-17). Covenants between Yahweh and Israel were routinely ratified by blood sacrifice (Genesis 15:9-11; Exodus 24:5-8; 29:38-46; see also Matthew 26:28; Hebrews 9:15-22). The covenant between Yahweh and Israel was many-faceted, but Yahweh summarized its essential provisions in his promise to Abram:
“Get out of your country, and from your relatives,
and from your father’s house,
to the land that I will show you.
I will make of you a great nation.
I will bless you and make your name great.
You will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and I will curse him who curses you.
All of the families of the earth will be blessed in you.”
“I have set free your prisoners from the pit in which there is no water” (v. 11b). This speaks to the hopelessness that these people have felt. A “pit in which there is no water” is a place where the prospects of survival seem nil. It is that kind of pit hopelessness that these people have been experiencing. They have suffered through many decades of servitude in Babylon. Even after Cyrus freed them, they have experienced one problem after another. Their rebuilding of Jerusalem has been fraught with conflict with neighboring tribes, and progress has been painfully slow. It is obvious that, even once the temple is completed, it will have little of the grandeur of Solomon’s Temple. This is a people who need encouragement, and encouragement is the purpose of this discourse.
“Turn (sub—return) to the stronghold, you prisoners of hope” (v. 12). The word, sub, is important in the writings of the prophets. Isaiah earlier promised that “a remnant will return” (sub) (Isaiah 10:21)—and that has happened. That return has, so far, proven to be far less satisfying that they had hoped, but Yahweh wants them to know that they have reason not to despair—reason to hope. In fact, he calls them “prisoners of hope”—an odd phrase that invites our thoughtful consideration. Does this mean that they are still prisoners, in some sense, even though they have been freed from their servitude in Babylon? Does it mean that they have reason to hope even though they have not seen their dreams of freedom fully realized? Or does it mean that they are somehow imprisoned by their hopes—suffering because of their unrealized and, perhaps, unrealistic expectations? The text doesn’t make that clear, but those are all possibilities.
In any event, the word, sub, implies repentance. To return will require changing their minds and the direction of their lives. It will require letting go of the things that have separated them from Yahweh. It will involve embracing Yahweh and Yahweh’s commandments wholeheartedly.
“Even today I declare that I will restore double to you” (v. 12). Jewish law requires that a thief shall repay his victim double for whatever has been stolen (Exodus 22:4-9). It also requires that parents give their firstborn son a double portion of the inheritance (Deuteronomy 21:17). These people have already received “double for all her sins” (Isaiah 40:2), so the prophet has promised, “Instead of your shame you shall have double; and instead of dishonor they shall rejoice in their portion: therefore in their land they shall possess double; everlasting joy shall be to them” (Isaiah 61:7). Now Yahweh reaffirms that promise.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Copyright 2010, Richard Niell Donovan