The Messiah would be pierced
In Zechariah 12 we find a prophecy of Judah’s victory over the nations —a victory possible because God has extended his protection to them. At that time also, according to verse 10, a “spirit of grace” will come on the people as they look on (apparently) God himself, “whom they have pierced,” and as they are mourning “as one weeps over a firstborn”:
“And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn.”
This chapter includes five mentions of “David,” six if we add 13:1. This is significant, since David is mentioned nowhere else in Zechariah. The inhabitants of Jerusalem “shall be like David, and the house of David shall be like God” (v. 8), “going before them,” indicative of leadership. The “house of David” will receive grace (v. 10) as they repent and “look on me, on him whom they have pierced.” The “house of David” will mourn (v. 12), while in 13:1 they will be cleansed from sin. Much of this is also said in regard to the “inhabitants of Jerusalem” as well as the “house of Judah.” All this emphasis on David and the house of David suggests messianic overtones; we are reminded of Isaiah 7, when God gave a sign to King Ahaz that is also addressed to the “house of David”—the sign of the virgin birth that finds ultimate fulfillment in the birth of Yeshua.
The unusual prophecy of Zechariah 12:10 is mentioned in the Babylonian Talmud, in Sukkah 52a, where it is interpreted in two ways: as the destruction of the evil inclination in mankind, and as the death of the Messiah ben Joseph, who in some Jewish traditions comes before the arrival of the final Messiah, the Messiah ben David. While this difference of opinion is not resolved, we read in that talmudic passage that “it is well according to him who explains that the cause is the slaying of Messiah the son of Joseph, since that well agrees with the Scriptural verse, And they shall look upon me because they have thrust him through, and they shall mourn for him as one mourneth for his only son…”1
The New Testament interprets the prophecy to be about Jesus. Jesus himself combines this verse with Daniel 7:13, speaking of his own return:
Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man [from Daniel 7:13], and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn [from Zechariah 12:10], and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven [again from Daniel 7:13] with power and great glory.
Revelation 1:7 similarly refers to both verses:
Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen.
The words for “earth” and “land” are the same in Greek (gēs). In keeping with Zechariah 12:12—“The land shall mourn, each family by itself,” Matthew and Revelation may be referring to the Land of Israel. Or, since both books speak of the extension of God’s salvation to the nations of the world, they are more likely extending the mourning beyond Jerusalem and the house of David to the entire earth: the salvation Jesus brings extends worldwide. This is especially emphasized in Revelation.
Note also that as in Zechariah’s prophecy that the weeping will be “as one weeps over a firstborn,” Jesus is called the firstborn in verses such as Romans 8:29, Colossians 1:15, Hebrews 1:6 and elsewhere.
But it is in John’s gospel that we find the most detailed passage in which this prophecy plays a part:
Since it was the day of Preparation, and so that the bodies would not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken and that they might be taken away. So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first, and of the other who had been crucified with him. But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs.
But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water. He who saw it has borne witness—his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth—that you also may believe.
For these things took place that the Scripture might be fulfilled: “Not one of his bones will be broken.” And again another Scripture says, “They will look on him whom they have pierced.” (John 19:31-37)
It was often the case that Roman soldiers would speed up the death of a crucified victim, which could often be agonizingly slow, by breaking their legs. In the case of Jesus, this was not necessary, since he was evidently already dead. This causes John to say that the Scripture was fulfilled that “not one of his bones will be broken.” This could allude to Psalm 34:20 (Hebrew, v. 21), concerning the righteous person, that God “keeps all his bones; not one of them is broken.” Even more, though, it likely alludes to Exodus 12:46, in regard to the Passover lamb, that “you shall not break any of its bones.” John’s gospel in several places depicts Jesus as the Passover lamb, and that is very probably what is happening here.
And then John describes one of the Roman soldiers as piercing Jesus’ side, resulting in “blood and water” coming out. Why the soldier did this is not clear; maybe he just had a vindictive streak; when he saw there was no need to break Jesus legs, he thrust in his spear instead. (The “water” is likely the fluid in the pericardial sac.) John says that this fulfilled the passage in Zechariah 10. This is very interesting, because in Zechariah it is the Jerusalemites and the house of David who do the piercing, while in John it is a Roman soldier. Yet the New Testament shows that the crucifixion was the result of both Jewish and Roman opposition, so the “piercing” can also come from a Roman! Furthermore, as we have seen, Revelation 1:7 extends the mourning to the entire world. Here, could it be that the Roman soldier is representative of the world? For not only did the Jewish people pierce the Lord and mourn for him in Zechariah. It is also the case that it was the sin of all peoples that led to the crucifixion, and it will be those from among all peoples who mourn and find salvation in Jesus. Both sin and salvation are universal!
1. Soncino Talmud translation.