July 6, 2014
We hate war. War takes away the good things of life: family, abundance, peace, and security. We only have to read the front page of the newspaper to hear about more “wars and rumors of wars.” In this Sunday’s first reading from Zechariah we see the Messiah coming to banish war and establish peace forever.
This reading is just two verses from Zechariah 9. It comes in between a prophecy of judgment on the enemies of God’s people and a promise of salvation for them. At this point in their history, God’s people, the Jews, have suffered under various foreign powers for several generations. They long for the restoration of their independence under the leadership of a legitimate heir to the throne, a king descended from David. Zechariah’s portrait of the Messiah entering the city and his invitation to rejoice point to the fulfillment of these hopes.
The coronation of a new king is a moment of rejoicing. One need only look back on the Prince William and Kate Middleton wedding for an example of what this kind of rejoicing might look like. A new king means a new era, new hope, vindication for the oppressed. This Messiah king—the anointed son of David—is called tzadiq (righteous) and noshua (having salvation). He is righteous or just in that he is the legitimate heir, and he is righteous before God: the perfect combination. His quality of noshua indicates that he comes to bring salvation, just like Joshua, whose name means “the Lord is salvation.” The new, messianic king brings God’s vindication to his people who are oppressed. The new king will re-establish the right reign of justice. Here we see how appropriate it is for this passage to come in between the announcement of judgment and the prophecy of salvation: justice and salvation go hand in hand. A good king with God’s authority will judge oppressors and save those who are oppressed.
Donkeys and Disarmament
Disarmament is the main theme of this reading’s description of the Messiah’s new reign. First, he arrives on a donkey. In one verse there are three Hebrew words for donkey, so the translations always sound confusing, but this repetition indicates how important the donkey is. (He is on a hamor, donkey in general, more specifically on an ‘ayir, young donkey, who is the “son” of an’aton, female donkey.) Why is the donkey important? Oddly enough, the donkey symbolizes peace in contrast to the horse in the next verse, which symbolizes war. In ancient Israel, the horse is like a tank or armored personnel carrier, while the donkey is more like a golf cart, something that you would only use for peaceful purposes. Now, this point is extra significant because Solomon, whose name means peace, had ridden into Jerusalem on a mule when he became king (1 Kings 1:33). It’s true that a mule is only part donkey, but the point is that it is an animal of peace, not a warhorse.
After the donkey-entrance, Zechariah then points out the other disarming features of the Messiah’s reign. He will banish chariots, warhorses and bows—think bombers, tanks, and machine guns—when he comes to rule. Then he will “proclaim peace,” that is, firmly establish the reign of peace in the land. People usually like rulers that bring peace. That’s one reason the Roman emperor Augustus was so successful, since he established the pax Romana. The Messiah’s reign is characterized by a satisfyingly just peace, where the oppressors are judged and the oppressed are saved, and no one needs to be worried about their safety.
Now of course, this passage reaches at least its partial fulfillment in the life of Jesus, who comes into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday mounted on a donkey (Matt 21:1-5). While Jesus frequently avoided identifying himself during his ministry, during the climactic moment of Holy Week, he reveals who he really is: the Messiah, the Son of David. By coming into Jerusalem on a donkey, in fulfillment of Zech 9:9, everyone knows exactly who he is claiming to be. But the kind of reign he ushers in is different than what they expected. He does not initiate a war for independence or set up a royal palace in Jerusalem, but he conquers death by death. Through his cross and resurrection he conquers and judges the enemies of all God’s people: sin and death. He frees all those oppressed by sin from their oppressor and brings salvation to all who are willing to listen to him. The Messiah’s mission is far bigger than Zechariah could have imagined. However, we still await the final judgment where the complete picture will be filled in and all injustices will be undone.
The Reign of Peace
The last stage of the Messiah’s coming to reign is his proclamation of peace. St. Paul teaches that Jesus established “peace by the blood of his cross” (1 Cor 1:20 RSV). The peace which the Old Testament prophets foresee has two major aspects: the temporal peace of this world and the eschatological peace of a right relationship with God. Jesus delivers the second aspect of peace by bringing about reconciliation between God and man. The temporal peace, which includes freedom from war and troubles, will not fully be established until the end when “God will wipe away every tear” (Rev 7:17).
Peace can seem silly or weak in the face of the brutal power of war, but in the end peace will triumph over war. We can be tempted to give up our faith in such a future and allow ourselves to be overcome by despair at the difficulties that surround us. Yet no matter how grave they are, no matter how much we suffer, we know that our Savior, the Messiah, will break the power of war and establish his peace forever. Our hope rests on it.