Summary: Here is a prophecy that tells us about God’s plan for salvation for his people, including the suffering and glorification of Jesus Christ who is to come.
One of the difficulties people have when they first become Christians and begin studying the Bible, is what to do with the Old Testament. In fact some people never quite work that one out. It seems so foreign doesn’t it? It’s full of stories of wars; of God’s favouritism towards the people of Israel; telling them to wipe out other nations; of religious and political leaders who keep on doing the wrong thing. And this is supposed to be the word of God! And then you come to the prophets and they’re full of dire warnings of God’s judgement, predictions of things that are to come, even promises that God will work things out in the end. If we’re not careful we come away more confused than we started. So how can we read the Old Testament, particularly today, the prophecy of Zechariah, and not end up confused?
Well, the first thing we can do is to be clear about the nature of prophecy. Prophecy is not, as one Anglican Bishop once suggested, the history of events before they happen. It’s no use picking up an OT prophecy and expecting to read in it precise predictions of things that were to come. That’s what some people expect isn’t it? A bit like the writings of Nostradamus, with explicit dates included, so we’ll get it right. No, OT prophecies don’t work like that. Listen to what Peter tells us about the prophets: (1 Pet 1:10-12 NRSV) "Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that was to be yours made careful search and inquiry, 11inquiring about the person or time that the Spirit of Christ within them indicated when it testified in advance to the sufferings destined for Christ and the subsequent glory. 12It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in regard to the things that have now been announced to you through those who brought you good news by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven--things into which angels long to look!" They searched for the truth of what they were writing, but couldn’t understand it until Christ came. In other words what they were writing contains clues that weren’t enough by themselves, but which were given to help us recognise events when they occur, without necessarily being explicit about the details of those events. Not clues like we had in the murder mystery night the other day, mind you, that are designed to make you ooh and ahh when the detective reveals the murderer, but clues that allow us to recognise when God is acting to fulfill his plans.
The second thing to understand when we read the OT is that the key to understanding the OT is the Lord Jesus Christ. As much as we might gain some sort of insight from the OT about the nature of the world and the nature of God, it’ll never be quite clear until we come to Jesus Christ, because the OT prophets find their fulfillment in him.
So how do we read something like Zechariah? Well, we look in it for clues that point us forward to Jesus Christ. Sure, Zechariah points us to actual events. He speaks of 30 pieces of silver, of a humble king coming, riding on a donkey, but he also gives us a theological interpretation of these events so we can recognise God at work when he acts decisively in history. What we find here in Zechariah, is the beginning of God’s promises being worked out, but more importantly, a pointer to their fulfilment.
So, for example, God says return to me and I will return to you. Well, that had begun to happen with those who had returned from exile hadn’t it? You find it described in Ezra 10. But that was just a foretaste of the great turning of people to God that came about when Christ came and the gospel began to be preached throughout the world. So when Jesus stands up in Galilee and says "Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand," he’s saying, the great day that the prophets looked forward to is here.
Similarly the return from exile that’s talked about here, with people from other nations tagging along, had begun to happen already, but its fulfillment awaited the time when Christ would come and preach peace to those who were far of and those who were near; to the time of Paul, when the gospel would be preached widely among the gentiles.
The cry ’Look your king comes to you’, was true to some extent for the exiles. God was ruling in their midst. But it wasn’t until Christ came as King that it’d be fulfilled.
Similarly, without the OT we could never understand the resurrection of Christ. That’s why Paul says in 1 Cor 15: (1 Cor 15:3-4 NRSV) "For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, 4and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures." You see, how would you interpret Jesus death and resurrection if you didn’t have the OT? Did it mean that people who go round telling parables aimed at the hierarchy are going to get themselves killed. Did it mean that God didn’t like people who were kind to children? Does the resurrection mean he does like people who are kind to children? Unless you have the OT you wouldn’t know, would you?