We read 2 Kings 17 as a family this morning. This tragic chapter recounts the destruction of the ten northern tribes of Israel in 722 BC. What struck me as we read was *why* they were destroyed. It wasn’t because Assyria was way too strong for them. It wasn’t because all the surrounding nations worshiped idols. It wasn’t really because of their enemies at all.
Israel was destroyed because “the children of Israel secretly did against the LORD their God things that were not right” (v. 9). It wasn’t those on the outside that doomed Israel. THEY DID IT TO THEMSELVES! For hundreds of years, God had warned them what was coming, and they refused to believe it could happen to them until the moment they were taken away in chains and the nation was forever destroyed.
Many of you probably think our country is going to hell. And I’m sure we all have someone to blame. It’s the Russians! It’s Big Tech! It’s the gays and the democrats and the teacher’s unions.
And all the while we ignore a 33% divorce rate among American Christians. We turn a blind eye to the fact that an American child is more likely to have a pet in their home than a mom and a dad. We’re silent about 68% of church-going men regularly watching porn—an industry that fuels sex trafficking and increases the likelihood of adultery by 300%. We donate thousands of dollars so televangelists can buy more jets while we judge the homeless man on the street corner asking for a Big Mac. We complain that there isn’t prayer or Bible study in schools, and then fail to pray and study the Bible at home.
Your enemies aren’t strong enough to take you down. The only person who can destroy you is you. I pray we learn the hard lesson of 2 Kings 17.
“They rejected God’s decrees and the covenant He had made with them, and they despised all His warnings. They worshiped worthless idols, so they became worthless themselves” (2 Kings 17:15).
The Feast of Tabernacles is a time to celebrate God’s choice to dwell among His people and our complete dependence on Him. We are commanded to rejoice and feast with others: family and friends, the fortunate and the less-fortunate, believers and non-believers.
With that in mind, there is a small detail in the story of Jonah that many of us have probably missed. After Jonah preaches to the Ninevites, after the Ninevites repent, and after God forgives their sin and turns away their deserved destruction, Jonah leaves the city, sits on a hillside, and builds himself a small tabernacle to shelter himself from the sun.
But although he is dwelling in a tabernacle, he is embodying the opposite attitude of the Feast of Tabernacles. Rather than welcoming non-Jews into God’s family, he is angry that they have been forgiven. Rather than rejoicing, he is “displeased exceedingly,” “angry,” and “distressed” (literally, evil). Rather than depending on God, he is yet again trying to escape from God. Essentially, Jonah has a little pity-party on that hillside, a voluntary Anti-Tabernacles, during a time when he should have been rejoicing.
This week is a time for rejoicing. It is a time for celebrating God’s faithfulness and God’s blessings. It is a time for compassionately welcoming those who don’t yet know the truth. It is a time for trusting in God rather than the world around us.
Don’t be Jonah. Don’t choose to be angry and bitter. Don’t look for reasons to be upset. Don’t decide to hate those with different (even wrong) views. Choose to rejoice, to welcome, to celebrate, to feast.
“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4)
God commanded His people to keep the Feast of Tabernacles “because the Lord your God will bless you in all your increase and in all the work of your hands, so that you surely will rejoice.” It’s a weeklong festival celebrating the ever-abiding presence of God with us, and the health, prosperity, and joy that comes from the Lord.
So why do we read Ecclesiastes on this celebration? Ecclesiastes is a sermon from a man (“the Preacher”) who got everything he ever wanted. He grew as wise and intelligent as anyone could’ve hoped to become. He acquired more wealth than anyone who had ever lived before. He found great success in all his ventures, and his fame spread far and wide.
He had everything he could’ve wanted, everything any of us could want. He got all the things that the Feast of Tabernacles says we can have. But he got it the wrong way. Rather than sticking with God and being blessed by Him, the Preacher turned from God and tried to get it all apart from Him.
And he succeeded. He got it all. Fame, wealth, women, success. But without God, it all meant nothing. There was no purpose, no pleasure, no joy. It was, as the Preacher put it, “vanity of vanities.” He finishes his sermon by saying, “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is man’s all.”
As we enter this week of celebration, let’s not focus on the stuff. Let’s not focus on our own pleasure and desires. Instead let’s focus on the God who gives us richly all things to enjoy, the God who provides our every need and heals our mortal bodies, the God who is more than enough.
“Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, and His mercy endures forever.”
[This was originally posted on September 28, 2020]
Yom Kippur started at sunset last night, and the Book of Jonah is traditionally read on this Day of Atonement.
I was immediately struck by how often God refers to Nineveh as “the great city.” In the 8th century BC, it truly was a great city. Its population was greater than any city in seven US states; it was three times the size of Washington, D.C.; and it was the capital city of the Assyrian Empire, the strongest and wealthiest nation to have ever existed at that time.
But it was great in another way: This shining city was overflowing with wickedness. Murder, slavery, and every sexual perversion you could imagine. A few decades later, they would destroy the northern kingdom of Israel, and a few decades after that, they would threaten to wipe the southern kingdom of Judah off the face of the map. And yet, in spite of all this depravity, God desired their salvation.
This got me thinking about the greatness of America. I truly believe that this is the greatest country that has ever existed. We’re militarily the strongest nation the world has ever seen, and time and again we’ve used our strength to liberate others from tyranny. We’re the most innovative nation, from walking on the moon to putting a super-computer in every pocket. We’re the wealthiest country in existence, while also the most generous, both in terms of our nation giving to other nations and our citizens giving to those in need.
These are great things, but we have also allowed ourselves to become greater and greater in wickedness as well. We murder half a million of our own children every year, and pay for countless children to be murdered around the world. We collect money for the purpose of helping the needy, but then allow our corrupt leaders to keep most of it for themselves. We use our power and strength to exploit others. In terms of sexual perversion, we’re giving Nineveh a run for their money. We lie about one another constantly, we extend only judgment but demand only compassion, and we use other’s sins as justification for our own. We’re selfish, hypocritical, judgmental. Depending how you slice it, we’re better than Nineveh could’ve ever dreamed of and more wicked than Nineveh would’ve ever dared become.
And yet, in spite all of this depravity, God desires our salvation. And truly, the only greatness that really matters comes from Him. Our faithfulness to God has allowed us to become great in so many wonderful things. Our rejection of God has allowed us to become great in so many terrible things.
If America is to be as great as it can be, it must be as godly as it can be. And if America is to be a godly nation, its people must return to godliness. That means you and me taking responsibility for our lives, our families, our churches, and our communities. That extends beyond Facebook and Twitter, beyond November 3 and January 20. It’s an everyday sort of thing, and it requires patience and sacrifice. But for God’s people, it’s our commission.
“I will bless you, I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing… and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12)
“Here is wisdom. Let him who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man: His number is 666.” (Revelation 13:18)
Revelation says that 666 is the number of a man. So who is that man? Is it Trump or Biden? Pope Frances or King Charles? Bill Gates or Elon Musk?
I have a different theory. The number 666 is not talking about a forthcoming man. Instead, 666 is a reference to King Solomon.
How can that be? To understand this theory, we need to look back at the history of the kings who reigned over Israel.
Pharaoh, King of Egypt
At the beginning of the book of Exodus, the Israelites have found themselves residing in Egypt after relocating there under the governorship of Joseph. Soon after, there arose a new king over Egypt who did not know Joseph. He was concerned that the Israelites might soon become a threat, so he decided he would “deal wisely [חָכַם – chakam] with them” (Exodus 1:10):
“Therefore they set taskmasters [שָׂרֵי מִסִּים – saray mesiym, lit. “rulers of slaves”] over them to afflict them with their burdens [סְבָלָה – subala]. And they built for Pharaoh supply cities [עָרֵי מִסְכְּנוֹת – aray miskunot], Pithom and Raamses.” (Exodus 1:11)
God, of course, did not take kindly to the enslavement of His people, so He brought plagues upon Egypt, resulting in the deliverance of the Israelites and the destruction of the Egyptians.
As the Israelites wandered through the desert towards the Promised Land, God commanded the Israelites that they were to be a nation unlike any of the other nations. They were to be a special treasure above all others, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus 19:5-6).
Of course, God knew what lay ahead. One day, God foretold, they would come to Him and say, “Give us a king to judge us like all the other nations” (Deuteronomy 17:14, 1 Samuel 8:5). To ensure that the Israelites would have a good king, God gave three commandments specifically to these future kings. Upon their ascension to the throne, they were to write down these three commandments and read them every single day. And what were those three commandments?
He shall not multiply horses for himself, nor cause the people to return to Egypt to multiply horses;
Neither shall he multiply wives for himself, lest his heart turn away;
Nor shall he greatly multiply silver and gold for himself. (Deuteronomy 17:16-20)
Even though the very first thing God said to mankind was that they were to “multiply” (Genesis 1:28), God demanded that the kings abstain from multiplying in these three areas: Egyptian horses, wives, and silver and gold.
Solomon, King of Israel
Fast forward four hundred and eighty years. Solomon the son of David has been crowned King of Israel, commissioned by his father to build God a temple. God has granted Solomon a wise [חָכָם – chakam] heart, to be used to “administer justice” (1 Kings 3:28). Thus Solomon begins the work of building God a house.
And how does it build this house?
“So the LORD gave Solomon wisdom, as He had promised him… Then King Solomon raised up a labor force [מַס – mas, singular of mesiym] out of all Israel; and the labor force [מַס – mas] was thirty thousand men.” (1 Kings 5:12, 13)
Solomon built the temple using the labor of 30,000 slaves—something the pagan king of Tyre called very “wise” [חָכָם – chakam] (1 Kings 5:7). Just as the Egyptians, in an attempt to be wise, enslaved the Israelites to build their temples, so too did King Solomon, in all his supposed wisdom, enslave the surrounding nations to build his temple (1 Kings 5:13, 9:15).
Following in Egypt’s footsteps, Solomon also ordered that storage cities [עָרֵי הַֽמִּסְכְּנוֹת – aray hamiskunot] be built (1 Kings 9:19); he appointed Israelite rulers [שָׂרֵי – saray] over the slaves (1 Kings 9:23); he even appointed Jeroboam (who would soon lead a rebellion against Solomon’s son) to oversee the burden [סֵבֶל – sabel, root of “subala”] of the labor force (1 Kings 11:28).
Rather than lead the people to be a holy nation, set apart from the rest of the nations, Solomon seemed set on emulating the other nations. He apparently took Exodus 1:11—a description of the persecution and enslavement of his people—and used it as a template to establish his own kingdom.
It should then come as no surprise what we read in the following chapters. Solomon begins making alliances with all of the pagan nations that surrounded Israel, intermarrying with idolatrous wives—wives who would soon turn his heart from the LORD. He winds up with an astonishing seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines, mostly from Egypt, Moab, Ammon, Edom, and Sidon; and sure enough, he was soon worshipping Ashtoreth and building temples for Chemosh and Molech (1 Kings 11).
He also began purchasing thousands of Egyptian horses to build up his army, trusting in chariots and horses for protection rather than in the name of the LORD (Psalm 20:7). To build his wealth and strengthen his alliances with the pagan nations, he exported some of these Egyptian horses to the kings of Syria and surrounding nations—the same nations that would soon attempt to conquer Israel (1 Kings 10:28, 29).
Between profiteering from the sale of Egyptian war horses to enemy nations and exploiting slave labor to build his kingdom, Solomon became one of the wealthiest men who ever lived, generating over a billion dollars in silver and gold every year. Far from multiplying justice and righteousness, Solomon was multiplying the precise things he was commanded to abstain from: foreign women, Egyptian war horses, and silver and gold.
And just how much did he make every year?
“The weight of gold that came to Solomon yearly was six hundred and sixty-six talents of gold.” (1 Kings 10:14)
That’s right. After building his kingdom—and God’s!—on the backs of slaves, after forsaking the three commandments that God had given him, after abandoning the call to use his wisdom to spread justice and righteousness to the surrounding nations, Solomon instead turned from God’s Word and exploited the gifts he had been given to make himself rich and famous.
And the number assigned to that betrayal was 666.
The Number of the Beast
I don’t think that Solomon was the Antichrist, or that he’s coming back to usher in the last days. Rather, my current reading is that the warnings we were given concerning the number of the beast were meant to prepare us against the spirit that turned Solomon away from the LORD.
Israel was called to be a holy nation, a kingdom of priests, a special treasure set apart from the rest of the world (Exodus 19:5, 6). But instead, Israel decided to fall in line with the sins of every other nation, leading to sexual immorality, greed, human rights abuses, and idolatry.
We too, the Church, are called to be a holy nation, a royal priesthood, His own special people, who will proclaim the praises of Him who called us out of the darkness of this wicked world and into the marvelous light of His kingdom (1 Peter 2:9). Will we walk in that light, or will we follow in the footsteps of Solomon—and Pharaoh before him? Will we give into lust and celebrate sexual perversion in order to fit in with this corrupt generation? Will we betray God’s Word if it will make us a few extra bucks? Will we exploit and dehumanize those made in God’s image to score cheap political points? Will we bow our knee to the gods of this generation? Or will we hold fast to the one true God, regardless of the cost?
Here is wisdom. Choose this day whom you will serve.
Isn’t 666 a reference to [Nero/the pope/Nickelback/etc.]?
Sure, I see no reason why that can’t also be true. God, in His infinite wisdom, is able to give prophesies that could have multiple accurate meanings. It’s certainly possible that Revelation 13 could be warning Christians of the dangers of following in the footsteps of Solomon while also warning that various world leaders have already followed in Solomon’s footsteps and are an immediate threat.
It’s also possible that 666 has nothing to do with Solomon. It just seemed like too big a coincidence not to be intentional.
You often hear people refer to the land of Israel as “Palestine.” Why is that? Where did that name come from, and is it a term you should use?
About four thousand years ago, the Hebrews settled in the land known as Israel. Their leader, Abraham, even legally purchased some of the land himself. However, due to famine, his descendants fled to Egypt, where they ended up being enslaved for over 400 years. Then, in 1446 BC, these Hebrews (who called themselves “Israelites”) escaped from slavery and returned to their rightful land.
These dates are important, because there were other people who were interested in that same land: the Philistines. If that name rings a bell, it’s because Goliath—the giant killed by David around 1012 BC—was a Philistine. Evidence for Philistine presence in the area first shows up around 1150 BC—just about 300 years after the Israelites had settled the land.
So, who were these Philistines, and where did they come from?
According to the Hebrew Bible as well as the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible—and confirmed by modern genetic testing—the Philistines were a sea-faring European people. That’s right—the Philistines were colonizing Europeans. And after their repeated attempts to invade northern Africa were repelled by the Egyptians, they set their sights on another land—Israel.
In the middle of 12th century BC, the Philistines arrived at the borders of Israel, built a handful of cities, and then spent several hundred years trying to conquer the Israelites. As you probably know based on the David and Goliath story, these plans never succeeded, and they eventually stopped their continued invasions and were satisfied to remain just outside the land of Israel. There they remained until 604 BC, when they were conquered and scattered by the Babylonians. With the destruction of their five towns and the scattering of their citizens, the Philistines genetically ceased to be a people.
Fast forward 700 years. The Jews (a subset of Israelites) have never left their land but have been subjugated by just about every superpower that has existed in the interim—the Assyrians, Babylonians, Medes, Persians, Greeks, and Romans. The Jews have launched a number of rebellions hoping to win their freedom. Some are moderately successful (the Maccabean Revolt), but most are failures. One such failed revolt—the Bar Kokhba Revolt of 132 AD—particularly pisses off Roman Emperor Hadrian, and as punishment for the Jews’ insolence, he renames their homeland “Palestine”—after their ancient invaders, the Philistines.
In other words, the (at that time) current colonizing European invader renamed the land after another colonizing European invader that never succeeded in capturing the land, never dwelt in the land, and no longer even existed. They renamed it to pour salt in the wound of the most historically oppressed population in the entire world. A population that was almost systematically wiped off the planet less than 100 years ago. A population that is still the most hated group of people on the planet.
I don’t know about you, but I’m not comfortable with the make-believe title created by Romans to punish the Jews. I’m satisfied referring to it by its historical name: Israel.
Tomorrow night is the start of Tisha B’av—the observance of when the first and second temple were destroyed (586 BC by Babylon and 70 AD by Rome). Traditionally on Tisha B’av, the book of Lamentations is read, which consists of a five-chapter dirge over the destruction of Jerusalem. If you haven’t read it recently, I encourage you to check it out this weekend.
The first chapter of Lamentations consists of 22 triplets that follow a qinah meter. As the Hebrew alphabet has 22 verses, each triplet begins with the subsequent letter of the alphabet, making the first chapter an acrostic poem. The second chapter follows these patterns as well.
If you look closely, there are a few cracks beneath the surface of these poetic flourishes. The acrostic is not quite right. The letter pe (17th letter) comes before the ayin (16th letter). Additionally, the qinah meter, while almost universal, is missing from a few verses. The poetry looks great to the untrained eye, but it’s slowly falling apart underneath.
The third chapter continues the (almost) pattern of acrostic and qinah meter, even leveling it up a bit. Not only does each triplet begin with the next Hebrew letter—each line of each triplet begins with the next Hebrew letter as well. It’s no surprise that, as the poetry seems to improve, the subject changes from merely lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem to calls for repentance and a renewed hope that God will deliver them from their troubles. But while they seem to be getting things in order, the flaws in the poetry remain.
The improved poetry is short-lived. In chapter 4, rather than acrostic triplets, there is a noticeable downgrade to couplets. The mismatched acrostic and missing qinah meters remain present. Just like Jerusalem, the poetry is falling apart fast.
We finally arrive at chapter 5. As you would expect, this chapter has 22 verses. But there isn’t even an attempt to form an acrostic. There are no couplets or triplets. There’s no qinah meter. All attempts at poetic flare are abandoned, just as Jerusalem had been abandoned. As Jeremiah laments, “The young men [have ceased] from their song” (Lamentations 5:14).
As we look back on the destruction of the City of God this weekend, let’s reflect on the state of our own “city upon a hill.” Are we living out God’s commission towards peace and justice? Or have we moved our souls far from peace and forgotten God’s goodness (Lamentations 3:17)?
In the opening verses of Ruth, we are introduced to a tragic family. When a famine strikes the land, a Judahite named Elimelech takes his wife and two sons and moves to the pagan nation of Moab, where his sons are quickly married off to Moabite women. Over the next few years, Elimelech and his two sons die, leaving the three women all alone.
We’re only five verses into the chapter and we’ve got a dead parent and two dead sons living in the wrong place. The question is, have we read this story before?
Lot and the Moabites
By Genesis 13, God had exceedingly abundantly blessed Abram. In fact, Abram and his people had prospered so much that the land could hardly support Abram’s—and his nephew Lot’s— herds. As a result, Lot made the choice to leave his uncle and strike off on his own. His destination? The beautiful city of Sodom.
That’s right. Rather than give up a few of his earthly possessions and stick with one of the only godly men on the planet, Lot decided to relocate his family to a city so wicked that God would soon be forced to wipe it off the map in a few short years.
Those few short years pass and soon enough, Lot and his family are evacuated as fire rains down from heaven upon Sodom. During the evacuation, Lot’s wife, along with his two sons-in-law, foolishly choose to disobey God’s instructions and end up getting themselves killed. Widowed Lot takes his two widowed daughters and escapes to the mountains, essentially giving up on human civilization and the continuation of their family.
Lot’s daughters begin to worry about the legacy of their father. Without husbands, they would be unable to produce children and thus Lot’s family would end with them—a shameful thing in the ancient world. So the girls come up with a plan:
“Come, let us make our father drink wine, and we will lie with him, that we may preserve the lineage of our father.” (Genesis 19:32)
Their plan is to get their dad black-out drunk, rape him, and birth incestual children—all to protect Lot’s family legacy. The firstborn of these two children was named Moab, and he became the father of the Moabite people.
Notice the elements of this Moabite origin story:
A disobedient family in the wrong place at the wrong time
A dead parent and two dead sons
A concern about the continued lineage of the patriarch
Sexual sin as a means to fix the problem
All of this might sound familiar. But before returning to Ruth, can you think of any other stories that follow this pattern?
Judah and Tamar
After reading about the early life and betrayal of Joseph, the narrative pauses to tell us a story about Judah. After selling his brother into slavery, we are told that “Judah departed from his brothers” and from the land God had given his family to dwell with the Canaanites (Genesis 38:1). Judah marries a local woman and has three sons—Er, Onan, and Shelah.
Er marries a woman named Tamar, but before they have any children Er’s wicked lifestyle catches up with him and he dies childless. As was the custom of the day, another male from the deceased’s family—usually a brother—would marry the widow and produce children to preserve the lineage of the deceased. Judah follows this custom and has his second son Onan marry Tamar. However, Onan follows in his brother’s wickedness and soon dies, again without any children. Finally, we are told that Judah’s wife died as well.
According to the law, Judah should have then arranged a marriage between his son Shelah and Tamar. However, fearing that Shelah will stray into wickedness and die as well, Judah refuses.
So just as Lot’s daughters before her, Tamar takes matters into her own hands. She takes off her mourning clothes and puts on—well, she puts on a lot less. She dresses herself like a prostitute and stands on the corner outside Judah’s place, hoping to lure him into bed.
And as you would expect of a sinful and lonely man, the plan works perfectly. Soon enough, Tamar is pregnant with twin babies—all to protect Judah’s family legacy. The firstborn of these two children was named Perez, and he became the primary line of the Judahite people.
Take note of the parallels between this story and that of the Moabites:
A disobedient family in the wrong place at the wrong time
A dead parent and two dead sons
A concern about the continued lineage of the patriarch
Sexual sin as a means to fix the problem
Now with all this context in mind, let’s return to the story of Ruth.
Ruth and Boaz
The narrative begins with the first two elements we saw in the stories of Lot and Judah: (1) a disobedient family who moved to the wrong place; and (2) a dead parent and two dead sons. Following the pattern, we should expect a woman to tempt a man into sexual sin in order to continue the patriarch’s lineage. But instead, something happens that changes the trajectory of the whole story.
Ruth chooses to return to Judah.
But Ruth said:
“Entreat me not to leave you,
Or to turn back from following after you;
For wherever you go, I will go;
And wherever you lodge, I will lodge;
Your people shall be my people,
And your God, my God.” (Ruth 1:16)
Rather than remain in a pagan country, marry a pagan man, and serve pagan gods, Ruth goes back to the place where Yahweh was visiting His people (Ruth 1:6). She embraces a new people, a new land, and a new God.
Once in the land of Judah, Ruth ends up working the fields of Boaz, a close relative of her father-in-law Elimelech. From Passover to Pentecost, she returns daily to Boaz’s land, hoping to win his affection—along with a marriage proposal. However, after fifty days he still hasn’t made his move.
So Ruth takes matters into her own hands.
She takes a steamy bath and shaves her legs. She puts on makeup and perfume. She throws on her hottest dress. And in the middle of the night, she heads over to Boaz’s place.
Based on the pattern of Lot and Judah, this is where we’d expect Ruth to entice Boaz into some sort of sexual sin to close the deal. But instead, Ruth finds Boaz (passed out drunk, no less)—and sits quietly at the foot of his bed. After a few hours he wakes up and sees a shadowy figure by his bed. She immediately tells him, “Take me under your wing, for you are my family redeemer” (Ruth 3:9).
She calls him to action, but she wants things done by the books.
The next morning, Boaz heads into town and completes all the paperwork. Soon after he and Ruth are married.
Hundreds of years earlier, two families committed terrible sins that created problems for generations. The Moabites were born out of rape and incest; the Judahites were born from prostitution. And in the story of Ruth, everything was in place for those same sins to be repeated.
But instead, a Moabite woman decided to turn from her family’s sins and follow the true God. A Judahite man decided to turn from his family’s sins and obey God’s commandments. In the union of Ruth and Boaz, both Jew and Gentile redeemed their ancestor’s shame.
It’s no wonder God chose these two redeemers to be the patriarch and matriarch of a new family—the family of King David, which would culminate 32 generations later in Jesus the Messiah.
The night Jesus was betrayed, Judas led a band of men to the Mount of Olives to arrest Jesus. As the Son of Man was surrounded by soldiers, priests, and Pharisees, Peter charged the captors and struck the high priest’s servant in the head with his sword.
Despite what you’ve seen in movies, Jesus and His disciples weren’t surrounded by a small group of religious men. John’s gospel tells us Judas brought “a detachment of troops.” A detachment, for those not familiar with the Roman military, was one-tenth of a legion—a legion being five thousand men. In other words, Jesus was waylaid by about 500 trained Roman soldiers—as well as a group of priests and Pharisees.
So… you have 500 armed soldiers from the world’s most power army on one side… and eleven day laborers with two swords who just woke up from a nap. What was Peter thinking?
To make sense of this, you need to understand the prophecies of Zechariah. In the final chapter of his book, Zechariah foretold of a day when God’s people would be surrounded by enemy nations bent on destroying the Jews (Zechariah 14:2). On that day, the LORD Himself would go forth against the nations to fight on behalf of His people. And His attack would start when the Messiah stood on the Mount of Olives (v. 4).
As the Messiah stood upon the Mount of Olives, surrounded by enemy nations, a great earthquake (seismos)—greater than the earthquake in the days of Uzziah—would strike, splitting (schizo) the mountain in two. Uzziah’s earthquake, of course, had occurred when the priests tried to stop the king from making a sacrifice in the temple, causing the roof of the temple to split in two (2 Chronicles 26, Antiquities IX, 10.4). Then the LORD would enter Jerusalem with the saints (hagios) (v. 5).
Next, the lights would be diminished in the middle of the day and living water (hydor) would flow from Jerusalem. Then the faces of God’s enemies would melt (think Raiders of the Lost Ark), and the LORD would be declared King over all the earth (v. 9, 12).
This prophecy may seem obscure to you, but to a persecuted first-century Jew living under Roman occupation, this would have been well-known and oft-discussed. Now consider what the disciples would have thought. They have been traveling with the Messiah, the true King of the Jews, for over three years. Jesus has been constantly talking about finishing His work, and then they head to Jerusalem during the Passover. No wonder His disciples offered to call down fire on those pagan Samaritans a few days earlier (Luke 9:54). This was the end! The time for all of their enemies to be destroyed.
Every night that week they retired to the Mount of Olives. And every night the disciples waited for Jesus to begin His holy war on God’s enemies. And finally, after days and weeks and years and centuries of waiting, five hundred Roman soldiers and a pod of imposter priests launched their attack. On the Mount of Olives, of all places. And Jesus stood to His feet.
Now was the time.
Peter charged, expecting Jesus to begin shooting lasers out of His eyes and melting all these evil men in their armor.
But Jesus’ attack never came. Instead, He reprimanded Peter and surrendered to the troops, to be taken away, tortured, and murdered on a cross.
Where was the victory of the Messiah? Where was the earthquake? The splitting of the mountain? The darkness and the flowing water and the saints? Where was the King over all the earth?
Maybe the disciples were wrong about Jesus. Maybe He wasn’t their Messiah.
But as He hung on the cross, darkness swept across the land. At noon. In the middle of the day (Matthew 27:45). Then as He took His last breath, the earth quaked (seismos), splitting the rocks apart (schizo) and tearing (schizo) the veil of the temple from top to bottom (Matthew 27:50-51).
After He died, Jesus was pierced by a soldier, and living water (hydor) flowed from His side (John 19:34). Then the graves were opened, and many bodies of the saints (hagios) were raised and entered the holy city (Matthew 27:52-53).
Peter and the disciples were expecting the Messiah to attack their enemies as He stood upon the Mount of Olives. And they were right. They just expected it to happen the wrong way. They expected Jesus to wipe out all the Romans. But the Romans weren’t their true enemy. The real enemy is death (1 Corinthians 15:26).
Just as Zechariah had prophesied, the rocks were split in two. The priests tried to stop the King, but instead the veil was torn apart. The lights were diminished. The living water flowed. The saints entered Jerusalem. Death was defeated. And Jesus became the King over all the earth.
“O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory? …Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15:55, 57)
As Jesus prepared to enter Jerusalem the week before His death, He told His disciples to bring Him a donkey and a colt to ride upon. And as He entered the Holy City, the people cried out “Hosanna!” and called Jesus “the Son of David.” What was it about those donkeys that caused the crowds to identify Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah who had come to deliver them from their Roman occupiers?
Matthew tells us that Jesus made this request “that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying, …’Behold, your King is coming to you, lowly, and sitting on a donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey.’” (Matthew 21:4, 5)
That seems pretty straightforward. Some prophet said something about a colt and a donkey, so Jesus rode those animals to satisfy this prophecy. But there’s more to the story.
The prophet in question is Zechariah, who proclaimed these words in the winter of 518 BC, two years and two months before the second temple was completed. This donkey prophecy comes shortly after God rebukes the nations of Tyre and Sidon, and soon after Zechariah adds that “He shall speak peace to the nations,” “set your prisoners free from the waterless pit,” and “restore double to you” (vv. 11-12).
To fully understand what these prophecies meant—and how they were understood by first-century Jews—we need to consider if these phrases appear anywhere else in scripture. And it turns out, they all show up in only two places in scripture.
Joseph in Egypt
All the way back in Genesis, we are introduced to Joseph, the eleventh and favored son of Jacob. Joseph has received prophetic dreams that he will reign and have dominion over his brothers. His brothers’ response?
“They hated him and could not speak peaceably to him.” (Genesis 37:4)
Some time later, Joseph’s brothers find him out in the desert and decide to throw him into a waterless pit (Genesis 37:24)—a phrase that only appears in scripture here, in Zechariah 9, and one other place. Shortly thereafter, Joseph is taken as a slave to Egypt.
After spending years in slavery and prison, Joseph is eventually freed, becomes a leader in Egypt, and is given the Egyptian title, “Savior of the World” (Genesis 41). His brothers eventually travel to Egypt in search of food and, when framed for stealing, attempt to restore double to Joseph (Genesis 43:12).
Jeremiah in Egypt
Other than Joseph, Jeremiah is in the only other person in scripture who spends time in a waterless pit:
“They took Jeremiah and cast him into the dungeon (Hebrew bor, same word translated “pit” in Genesis 37 and Zechariah 9) of Malchiah the king’s son, which was in the court of the prison, and they let Jeremiah down with ropes. And in the dungeon (bor) there was no water, but mire.” (Jeremiah 38:6)
After being thrown in the pit by his countrymen, Jeremiah is forced into exile in Egypt, where he lives out the rest of his life.
And Jeremiah also used the other two phrases as well. In Jeremiah 16, God declares that He “will repay double for their iniquity and sin” (v. 18); and in Jeremiah 23, God criticizes the false prophets who have falsely claimed that the LORD has spoken peace (v. 17). Once again, all three phrases that appeared in Zechariah 9 and the story of Joseph also appear in Jeremiah.
But maybe you’re not as impressed with the supposed pattern of Jeremiah. His book is 52 chapters long, after all. Is it really a pattern to find three sentences in chapters 16, 23, and 38 of a book? Is there anything else that ties them together?
And as it turns out, there is. Chapters 16 and 23 both contain a matching prophecy, a prophecy not found anywhere else in Jeremiah:
“‘Behold, the days are coming,’ says the LORD, ‘that they shall no longer say, “As the LORD lives who brought up the children of Israel from the land of Egypt,” but, “As the LORD lives who brought up and led the seed of the house of Israel from the north country and from all the countries where I had driven them.”’” (Jeremiah 16:14-15, 23:7-8)
Just as these prophetic utterances in the story of Joseph all revolved around exile and delivery from Egypt, so too do these prophetic utterances in the story of Jeremiah all revolve around exile and delivery in Egypt. To the average Jewish reader, the words of Zechariah 9 would call them back to the story of Joseph in Egypt, and to the astute Jewish reader they would call to mind Jeremiah’s words concerning Egypt.
But what did those words mean, and how were they fulfilled as Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey?
You and Me in Egypt
Joseph and Jeremiah weren’t the only ones who ended up exiled in Egypt. Joseph was sold into slavery by his own brothers—jealous that Joseph was their prophesied ruler—and a few years later his brothers had relocated to Egypt as well, where they ended up spending 400 years in slavery. Jeremiah was also forcefully taken to Egypt by his countrymen—led by a military rebel angry with Jeremiah’s prophecy—and soon after his Jewish captors were exiled in Egypt as well. The captors of Joseph and Jeremiah ended up suffering the same fate.
And just over 500 years after Zechariah’s prophecy, the true King of the Jews was also forced into exile in Egypt by His own people—an imposter king and his Jewish advisers who were troubled by the prophetic fulfillment of the long-awaited Messiah.
But this wasn’t the only exile Jesus faced. Before heading for Jerusalem (in a chapter filled with references to the Book of Exodus), Moses and Elijah (two prophets associated with Mount Sinai) visited Jesus and “spoke of his ἔξοδον which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (Luke 9:31). They spoke of His exodus. They spoke of His exile. They spoke of His prison sentence in a waterless pit.
And who were His brethren who sold Him out? Who were the ones responsible for His spiritual exile into Egypt?
You and me.
We are the ones who threw him in the pit. We are the ones who despised the prophesied King and Messiah. We are the ones who wouldn’t speak peace to the Prince of Peace.
And yet, just as Joseph rose out of the pit and became the savior of the world, so too did Jesus rise from the pit and become the Savior of the World. On the anniversary of the deliverance of God’s people from geographical Egypt, Jesus the Messiah delivered us from spiritual Egypt—in a magnificent way that overshadowed the deliverance through the Red Sea, just as Jeremiah predicted.
When the crowds saw Jesus riding upon that donkey, they didn’t just see a fulfillment of Zechariah 9; they saw freedom from slavery. They saw a return from exile. The saw the crossing of a bigger Red Sea. It’s no wonder they cried out “Hosanna”: “Save now, I pray, O LORD!” (Psalm 118:25).
And rather than having our sins repaid to us double what we had committed, instead we are restored double (Zechariah 9:12). Instead of being unable to speak peace and fearing revenge, He Himself has become our peace, He who came and preached peace to His own kin and to the nations (Ephesians 2:14-17).
So this week, as we prepare to celebrate the Passover of our Lamb…
“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your King is coming to you; He is just and having salvation, Lowly and riding a donkey, A colt, the foal of a donkey.” (Zechariah 9:9)