Sunday, April 5, 2009

Matthew's Use of Zechariah's Prophecy - Part 1

The book of Zechariah divides into the two major sections of chapters 1-8 and 9-14. Matthew quotes the book of Zechariah three times in his gospel and all three come from the later section. Interestingly, all three quotations are also found in Matthew’s Passion narrative. So Matthew sees the fulfillment of Zechariah 9-14 in Jesus’ death and resurrection. We will look at these quotations over the next week as we celebrate Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and Easter.

Our focus this Palm Sunday is going to be on Matthew’s use of Zechariah 9:9 in the context of Jesus’ triumphal entry. Matthew explicitly links what Jesus does in this passage to the prophet:

This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, saying,
“Say to the daughter of Zion,‘Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey,and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’” (Mat. 21:4-5)
Now in Zechariah this verse begins by telling the daughter of Jerusalem to “rejoice.” Matthew changes this to “say” and combines this quotation with Isaiah 61:11. The effect of this is to make the quotation an evangelistic appeal to unbelieving Israel. Remember that the purpose of Matthew’s gospel was an apologetic for the message of Jesus Christ to the Jewish people and so he wanted to both show them that Jesus was the fulfillment of the Old Testament Scriptures and also to call them to faith in Jesus Christ and repentance of sins. So his use of the Old Testament often mixes these two goals.

First we should look at Zechariah 9:9 in its original context. This passage is the announcement of the coming of the Messiah, who is prefigured earlier in Zechariah by the High Priest Joshua and Zerubabbel the Governor, but has now arrived. In Zechariah the king enters Jerusalem as one who is already vindicated and comes to a city that celebrates a victory that is already won. By riding into the city on a donkey, on the foal of a donkey, the king also shows that his entrance is peaceful. If he were coming to war then he would ride in on a war horse (Zech. 10:3). Further, the king will from Jerusalem speak peace to all the nations and establish a universal reign (Zech. 9:10).

As we turn to Matthew’s use of this verse we notice something very interesting. Here is Zechariah 9:9:

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. (Zech. 9:9)
Notice that one line in omitted in Matthew’s citation. Matthew deliberately chooses not to include, “righteous and having salvation is he.” The reason for this is that as we saw, Zechariah 9:9 in its original context discusses a victory that has already been accomplished. In the context of the triumphal entry in Matthew’s Gospel this victory has not yet taken place. Jesus has performed great miracles but his greatest victory, his resurrection, is still in the future in the gospel. So “righteous and having salvation is he” does not fit in Matthew 21 but belongs to Matthew 28. So the effect of the omission is to stress the lowliness of the King as he enters the city and also to build the reader’s anticipation to see how he will be victorious and then to hear him speak peace to the nations in establishing his universal reign.

So along with the lowliness of the King we see the royalty of Jesus emphasized. Garments are placed on the animal and Jesus rides. In contrast to all the pilgrims who walk into the city the King sits. The people take palm branches and their garments and lay them before him on the road. Again this emphasizes the royal character of his entrance. Finally we see that they call him “the Son of David,” as he is by birth; and also “the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” This serves the Christology in the book of Matthew. He is the conquering King who comes into the city and his arrival is what Matthew sees as a gospel call to all people. And he does come to conquer but not in the war the people expect him to wage. Instead he comes in the name of the Lord to conquer sin and death in his crucifixion and resurrection. In the next post we’ll look at the next use that Matthew makes of Zechariah in his passion narrative.

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