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A humble, victorious king (July 2, 2023)

How do we hold the contradictions present in Zechariah 9:9-17?

Outlook Standard Lesson for July 2, 2023
Scripture passage and lesson focus: Zechariah 9:9-17

Other duties as assigned

When I first began paid ministry work, there was a joke about the catch-all job description phrase “other duties as assigned. Yes, in ministry you will get to do the big and exciting things. You will write sermons and select hymns; you will pray with people and for people; and you will often provide hope in a complex world that doesn’t always have hope readily available. There will also be days where you sign for packages, refill the toilet paper; and buy more plastic cups for the church picnic.

I think of these “other duties” when I read about the servant king described in Zechariah 9:9-17. The Hebrew term melekh (v. 9) indicates that this king is a descendant of David —meaning that he is destined to start a new, prosperous era for all of Israel where the nation has a right relationship with God and each other. In other words, he is the ultimate leader of God’s people. Yet, he is seen riding not in a grand chariot or horse, but on a lowly donkey. This is the type of leader who would be on the ground floor gladly helping with the “other duties as assigned.”

Who is the humble king?

The king may demonstrate humility (v. 9), but he is still a victorious leader: protecting Israel, speaking to the nations, and demanding peace (v. 10); freeing prisoners (v. 11); saving his people (v. 16); and preparing them to defend themselves against enemies (v. 13). Through God, this king is both humble and victorious.

This message would have been a welcome one for Zechariah’s audience. Scholars write that the book has two sections, written at different times to different groups. The first part of Zechariah 1-8 takes place after the collapse of the Babylonian Empire and the rebuilding of the Temple under Zerubbabel in 520 BCE. Zechariah 9-14 was added later around 490-480 BCE in response to Greece and other powerful oppressors. The audiences of both sections are in exile, oppressed, and looking for a future hope only God could bring.

As Christians in 2023, this text can also hold good news for us. Looking at the Bible as a whole, we can interpret that text points to our Messiah, Jesus Christ. The prophecy has an obvious biblical fulfillment in Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday (John 12:14-16, Matt 21:4-7) and a symbolic future fulfillment when Jesus returns to banish evil completely (Revelation 19:11-16). In this text, we can see both the work that God has begun and the work that God will continue to do.

Does God condone violence?

This passage can be a difficult one to read because it appears to contain contradictions. Our divine ruler is humble and unpresuming, but the text also describes God as a violent warrior (v. 14-15). Furthermore, how can we reconcile today’s passage with the larger theme of nonviolence that we find in the Bible? After all, Jesus proclaims, “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9) and instructs us to turn the other cheek (Luke 6:27-35).

Perhaps we can hold all these contradictions by focusing on the instruction of Zechariah to trust God. We believe in a God in a God who protects and redeems people, a people who are ruled by peace from sea to sea (v. 10). We believe in a God who loves us and saves us (v. 16).

We live in a violent world, as did the authors and original audience of Zechariah. Perhaps the text uses what we know as humans to point to something larger: a future is coming where we will have peace and be in perfect union with each other and with God. And this is a future only God can bring. Perhaps, as Matthew Schlimm writes in his book This Strange and Sacred Scripture, “God fights so God’s people don’t need to engage in violence.”

Servant leadership

Though facing hardship throughout history, God’s people have hope in what Zechariah calls “that day” (v. 16). That day when God’s people are delivered, and God’s kingdom comes to earth. While that day has yet to come, we get to experience glimpses of it now because of the life, sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

How do you experience “that day” today? Perhaps one way to find it is to follow in the steps of our divine ruler and ride on our own figurative donkeys. How can we be servant leaders? How can you bring peace? Maybe you help stack chairs after fellowship. Maybe you flip hot dogs at the church picnic, giving someone else a chance to mingle. Maybe you share how you trust in God — a God who isn’t always clear where peace begins and God’s divine victory ends, but a God who offered us king, humbly riding on a donkey (v. 9).

Questions for discussion

  • In what ways to do you see servant leadership in the world? In your church? Do you think servant leadership is valuable in all organizational systems?
  • Why do you think Zechariah writes about God as a divine warrior? What emotions do these images of violence seen in v. 13-15 bring up? How do you reconcile the violence seen in the text?

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