Literature throughout the ages is replete with stories of mysterious and enigmatic kings, cryptic characters whose rule is often full of uncertain sorrows, yet strangely hopeful. Aragorn, the ranger-turned-ruler in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy is one example. There were those who believed in Aragorn's right to the throne from the very beginning and others who refused to submit to his rule until the very end, when he proved himself in battle. For much of the series, his true identity is cloaked in mystery. Is he a gallant king, or an honorable man, or both?
Throughout history, human imagination has been captivated by such figures, and for good reason. Sometimes imagination hints at the greater reality.
The Bible presents us with a mysterious king as well. Some of the most seemingly enigmatic, yet detailed, descriptions of this king occur in the prophetic book of Zechariah, written over 2,500 years ago. Over the centuries, various attempts have been made to explain this kingly figure. Some have concluded that he is the long-awaited Messiah. Others say we can't know anything about him for sure. Still others say he is the carpenter from Nazareth about whom the whole world wonders.
Why did this ancient Jewish prophet obsess over this kingly character? Is it possible to understand this seemingly inscrutable figure? What could his kingship mean to us today? Let's take a look.
A Bit of Background
Though Zechariah was born during the exile of Israel to Babylon, his writing occurred once the Jewish people were back in the Land. Jewish tradition maintains that the prophet Zechariah was a man of the Great Synagogue, the group that is believed to have carefully preserved the Hebrew Scriptures and traditions during the period after the exile.
Along with remembering the past, Zechariah, whose name means "The Lord Remembers," speaks much in terms of God's promises for Israel's future. According to Zechariah, this future for Israel includes eventual total restoration of the Jewish people to her former glory. Zechariah is trying to preserve hope. And for Israel, this hope is inextricably linked to a king who was yet to come. Zechariah chooses to focus much of his writing describing this coming king.
Most of us today have learned to distrust our leaders. With the United States in the throes of an election year, cynicism, skepticism, and disillusionment are the reigning forces. And yet, deep down, most of us could admit we wish there were someone who had our best interests at heart, a leader who truly desired to improve our lot and could actually make things better. It's the "better" that we all long for.
What Zechariah tells us is that there is such a person. He is the king who is to come, the fulfillment of our hopes for a leader who will not disappoint us. Since that person has been promised to us, it's well worth considering the details of that promise so that we can recognize this king when and if he comes.
Zechariah 9:9-10 – A King of Peace
Israel certainly had her share of disappointing kings. The books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles attest to this history. But in Zechariah 9:9-10, the prophet points to a coming king who is unique.
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout in triumph, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your king is coming to you;
He is just and endowed with salvation,
Humble, and mounted on a donkey,
Even on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
And He will speak peace to the nations;
And His dominion will be from sea to sea,
And from the River to the ends of the earth.
This isn't just any king. The prophet tells the people of Israel to be joyful, to get excited, because the promised one, the one sent from God, the long awaited king, is coming. And so this passage has been interpreted as messianic; that is, it is often supposed that the king in this passage is none other than the Messiah, the savior of Israel.
Traditional Judaism teaches that "the messiah is a G-d fearing, pious Jew, who is both a Torah scholar and a great leader. He is to be a direct descendant of King David, anointed as the new Jewish King. (In fact, the Hebrew word for messiah 'Moshiach' means 'anointed one.')"1
Many Jewish people do not give much thought to the coming of a Messiah anymore, and those who do often picture him as a mighty conqueror, even a superhero-type figure. But here in Zechariah 9, the picture is very different. The king is not coming to fight a war; he comes in gentleness and meekness. He is the king over all the earth, and he has all authority, but he comes in this humble fashion, riding on a baby donkey, as opposed to a chariot or even a great horse.
This passage of Scripture provides a picture of a Messiah-king, a deliverer of salvation, gently offering his kingship to Israel and to the world. He is a man of peace for all peoples. He will proclaim peace to all the nations, not just to Israel.
In our world today, peaceful people may win prizes, but they don't necessarily command authority. We've come to expect a certain amount of confidence, even arrogance, from our leaders. We expect them to do what they have to do to maintain order. Especially in Israel and the Middle East, it is difficult to fathom that someone could come to such power on peaceful terms. A king who does not fight? Yet in this passage, that is exactly what is promised.
Zechariah 14:2-4 – A King of War
Later, however, Zechariah gives another description of the coming king, a picture quite different from that of chapter 9. Let's take a brief look at the context for his statement:
For I will gather all the nations against Jerusalem to battle, and the city will be captured. Then the Lord will go forth and fight against those nations, as when He fights on a day of battle. In that day His feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, which is in front of Jerusalem on the east; and the Mount of Olives will be split in its middle from east to west by a very large valley, so that half of the mountain will move toward the north and the other half toward the south. (Zechariah 14:2-4)
This picture is very much like an epic battle scene from a movie full of bloodshed and tragedy and triumph. Then, in verses 8 and 9 we read:
And in that day living waters will flow out of Jerusalem, half of them toward the eastern sea and the other half toward the western sea; it will be in summer as well as in winter. And the Lord will be king over all the earth; in that day the Lord will be the only one, and His name the only one. (Zechariah 14:8-9)
Chapters 9 and 14 are the central passages in Zechariah telling of this king who will reign over all the earth. In chapter 9, the king is humble, but in chapter 14, he is a force to be reckoned with. In the latter picture, the king is a conqueror; he comes in wrath, meting out judgment to the enemies of Israel. This is perhaps a more traditional picture of Messiah, a mighty hero who fights on our behalf.
Mysteriously, this passage seems to suggest that this Messiah-king is none other than the Lord God himself, God coming to fight on behalf of his people. In any case, we are presented with a dramatically different picture of the king here than the one we see in Zechariah 9.
Two Descriptions, Two Kings?
So the question is, does this king who reigns over all the earth come gently, riding on a donkey in peace, or in great wrath, ready to do battle? Is Zechariah contradicting himself? This is a big puzzle for Jewish scholars as well. But this is not the only place in the Scriptures where we find seemingly divergent pictures of Messiah. For example, Micah 5 tells us he is born in Bethlehem, the city of David. But in Daniel 7, the prophet tells us he will arrive riding on the clouds of heaven.as predicted in Daniel 9, or will he come in regal splendor and reign forever, as Isaiah 9 tells us? Is he the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 or a royal king portrayed in Psalm 2?
In response to these two seemingly opposite pictures of Messiah, some rabbis decided that there must be two messiahs, the Messiah ben Joseph, who would come and suffer, and the Messiah ben David, who would come as a conquering king.
Another Jewish tradition explains the two contrasting portraits of Messiah like this: "If the people of Israel will be righteous, the Messiah will come in the clouds of Heaven. If they will not be righteous, he will come as a poor man riding upon an ass" (Sanhedrin 98a).
Are such explanations necessary or is it possible that one individual might "fit the bill" of both pictures, someone who would be both a king of peace and a king of power, a humble servant and a conqueror? If so, what would this extraordinary person look like?
The Once and Future King
There is still another Jewish view concerning the two pictures of the Messiah-king that accurately fulfills the portrait we see in Zechariah and elsewhere in the Hebrew Scriptures. This view actually predates the other two mentioned. It's the position presented in the New Testament.
The writers of the New Testament were Jewish people, living in the first century, who believed that the prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures described one Messiah, a great king who was to come twice, first as a servant, then as conqueror. They believed that Yeshua (Jesus) was the fulfillment of both expectations.
Yeshua was not a typical king. His was a life marked by humility. He was a man of gentleness and peace. But the peace he offered was different from what most people think about; it was a peace that comes from the depth of personal spiritual solutions that Yeshua offered to people who would follow him.
"Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives, do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, nor let it be fearful." (John 14:27)
"For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which is lost." (Luke 19:10)
Near the close of Yeshua's life on earth, he called to his disciples to get a donkey with its colt. Just before Passover, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a colt of a donkey, fulfilling the prophecy Zechariah gave more than 500 years earlier. And the people shouted and rejoiced:
"Hosha-na to the Son of David; Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord; Hosha-na in the highest!" (Matthew 21:9)
The people were shouting, "Save us!" They understood that their king had come and that he was offering powerful, life-changing salvation to those who would welcome him. In fact, the name "Yeshua" means "God saves."
Though Yeshua did not usher in an age of "peace on earth" as many hoped then and many wish for today, he did offer peace with God to everyone willing to trust in him and the atonement for sin he offered through his death and resurrection.
Yeshua was a man of peace, but he was also a man of strength. He boldly proclaimed himself to be the Messiah, the Son of God, even though he knew that he would be crucified for these claims.
That's because Yeshua also knew that he possessed the power of an indestructible life. Though he was to die, he knew that he would rise again. Consider his words to a Jewish audience:
"I lay down My life that I may take it again. No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again." (John 10:17-18)
It was a hard claim to believe, and yet many witnessed Jesus' resurrection and were willing to die proclaiming the truth of his life. Today, millions of people around the world wait for his return.
What will that return look like? According to Zechariah, it will be a day of judgment but also a day of deliverance for those who honor the king:
Then the survivors from all the nations that have attacked Jerusalem will go up year after year to worship the King, the Lord Almighty. (Zechariah 14:6)
So the king came first to offer his kingship, to give people the chance to enthrone him. One day, he'll come again to take by force what is rightfully his. Like a parent dealing with children, the father or mother hopes the children will obey on their own, so they begin dealing with them gently, but, when the children refuse to submit, the parents insist and enforce their will with resolve. This is the picture Zechariah paints of the king who has come, the one who will come again.
Conclusion: Confusion or Clarity?
The book of Zechariah does not explicitly state that Messiah will come twice, yet we do see two pictures of the king, coming once as a man of peace and again as a conquering king. Without a doubt, these passages should cause one to stop and think. Is it necessary to believe in two Messiahs? Or is it possible that he came to live among us 2,000 ago and that he'll come again to be enthroned as the victorious, reigning king?
In the third and final book of The Lord of the Rings, after a long, wearying battle, Aragorn finally takes up his throne. And Tolkien writes this scene wherein one of the hobbits encounters Gandalf, the wizard he thought had been vanquished:
"Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? What's happened to the world?" "
A great Shadow has departed," said Gandalf, and then he laughed, and the sound was like music, or like water in a parched land. It fell upon his ears like the echo of all the joys he had ever known."2
Tolkien's words are a good illustration of the yearning in the human soul for a time when all that is wrong will be made right. But it will take an extraordinary individual to accomplish this, a figure like the one portrayed in the mosaic of messianic prophecies we are given in the Hebrew Scriptures and like the one we confront in the accounts of Yeshua's life.
Those who believe Yeshua is the Messiah have seen how he fulfills these expectations. Because of what he did in his first coming, we can be assured that he will return. Yes, the king will return.
The final question remains: Are you prepared to welcome him as your king? Will you welcome him now?
1. “In Judaism, who is the Messiah?,” aish.com, November 3, 2002, http://www.aish.com/jl/li/m/48924282.html.
2. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King: Being the Third Part of the Lord of the Rings (New York: Ballantine Books, 1955), 246.