The Passage in Context
The use of Zech 9:9 in the Gospels

In their summary of chapter 9 of Zechariah, JFB titles verses 1-8 as ‘Alexander [the Great]’s Conquests in Syria’ and verses 11-17 as ‘The Maccabean Deliverance a Type Thereof’, stating in the introduction to these two verses under consideration here that

‘From the coming of the Grecian conqueror, Zechariah makes a sudden transition, by the prophetical law of suggestion, to the coming King Messiah, a very different character’

But the problem here is that the Scripture is not being viewed in the context in which it stands and, because these two verses do not fit in well with the interpretation of the previous eight which have already been expounded as fulfilled in the person of Alexander the Great (which I don’t believe they have been because verse 8 would have gone unfulfilled), they have to be understood, as JFB, to be unrelated and independent of the situation of the other verses.

However, as we can see from other Scriptures, prophetic words that are applied to Jesus Christ are often used from passages that had no particular relevance to Him initially but which addressed a situation in which the original recipients found themselves.

Therefore, Jer 31:15’s statement that

‘...A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are not...’

relates, in context, to the slaughtering of the inhabitants of Jerusalem and the exile of the children of Israel from the promised land (Jer 31:16), Ramah being used because it appears to have been the place where the captive Israelites were gathered together before being exported away into Babylon (Jer 40:1).

But there is a similar situation that takes place in the life of Christ when the babies of Bethlehem are slaughtered by Herod the Great because of his fear that there has been born to a Jewish woman an heir to his throne (Mtw 2:1-16).

Therefore the Gospel writer is so bold as to say (Mtw 2:17-18)

‘Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they were no more”’

because the original Scripture spoke of the slaughter of the inhabitants of the land (in Matthew related to the babies) and the exile of God’s people (in Matthew related to Jesus, Joseph and Mary) away from the promised land for a time until their return some years (or months?) later.

Therefore there is little to be gained by entitling Zech 9:9-10 as a ‘sudden transition’, made to the hearers ‘by the prophetical law of suggestion’ (whatever that might be - I have no idea). It is better to look at the prophetic word and ask ourselves what the original recipients understood by the passage so that we may understand its application to the Messiah as applied in both Matthew 21:5 and John 12:15

The Passage in Context

I noted in my introduction to Zech 9:5-8 that the passage which runs 9:1-8 is indicative of an advancing military campaign which begins to the north-east of Jerusalem, sweeping down through Syria (9:1-2), then west towards Tyre (9:3-4) before advancing south to attack Philistia (9:5-7) and coming into Israelite territory to set up the throne in Jerusalem, probably in the Temple (9:8).

This passage which sits at the conclusion of this advance (though 9:11ff is still within the context of the thrust of the passage) details the entry into the Holy City of the conquering King who, because God is described as being the One who is coming against the cities and areas outlined, must be God Himself or, at the very least, God’s chosen vehicle through whom He is getting His will done in the land and against the nations.

Though Zech 9:9 is used in the NT to speak of Jesus entering into Jerusalem shortly before His crucifixion, it is entirely in keeping with the context of this passage in its original setting where we are looking at a conquering king coming to receive the kingdom having defeated Israel’s foes and having saved those who were initially opposed to the move of God (the Ekronites or, perhaps, all of Philistia - Zech 9:7).

Zech 10:9 proclaims to the inhabitants of Jerusalem that they are to ‘rejoice greatly’ and to ‘shout aloud’ when the ‘triumphant and victorious’ king approaches the city, riding, not, as one would expect, at the head of his military forces and neither on a horse which was indicative in these times of a conquering liberator (as in Zech 6:1-8 though there they are coupled with chariots), but upon an ass which, when put in the context of the next verse, must be seen to represent a peaceful and not a military entry.

The Hebrew here which is translated as ‘victorious’ is, according to both Baldwin and Smith, an anomaly seeing as the original language conveys, according to the latter author

‘...not what the king can do for others (save them) but what Yahweh has done for him. He has saved him from some ordeal. Therefore he (the king) is victorious’

and, according to Baldwin quoting Mitchell,

‘He is victorious, not in himself or anything that he personally commands, but by the grace, and in the might, of the God of Israel...’

This puts the preceding victory of this king (Zech 9:1-8) into context. We are not witnessing the advance of a military force, the leader of which is reliant upon his own strength and power to overcome the opposition (my reading of History causing me to equate Alexander the Great’s character as being somewhat similar), but of an individual who has seen victory follow victory solely because He is trusting in the strength of God and His ability to move and work on his behalf.

The similarities to Christ here shouldn’t be missed (John 5:19, 5:30, 9:4) who promised the defeat of the enemies of both man and God at the commencement of His ministry (Luke 4:18-19) and who continued to proclaim that power was being demonstrated to overcome satan wherever he had control (Mtw 12:28-28 but in context). When Jesus comes to Jerusalem at the start of the week in which Passover fell, we have the evidence of the sort of rule that He was attempting to bring in through the miracles He performed and through His continual proclamations that the Kingdom of God was at hand and about to be established.

The Jews, who would have seen Zech 9:9-10 in the context of a conquering king subjugating their enemies before establishing His rule in Jerusalem, failed to understand the significance of the rule which Jesus had come to bring and so rejected the purpose of God through Him.

It’s not without significance either that both Matthew and John miss out the line which the RSV translates

‘...triumphant and victorious is he...’

the best explanation seeming to be that, when they came to record the Gospels, they realised that, although He had demonstrated the rule of God throughout His three year ministry, it was in His death on the cross that the ultimate victory would be achieved and where Jesus would receive the ultimate deliverance (from death) to be established as the King over all God’s people.

The final couple of lines, which most English translations make sound as if two animals are in mind, refers actually to the one animal (John follows the one animal when he writes concerning Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem whereas Matthew seems to note that two animals were brought to Him and that He rode upon just the one animal - it would take quite a bit of imagination to see the Lord as riding both animals unless He had been trained as a circus performer!!).

This animal is indicative of peace even though it is difficult to prove it from Scripture outside this passage. Baldwin seems to throw doubt on Lipinski’s arguments from the second millennium BC that the ass was the usual ‘royal mount’ but then goes on to quote a line from a stela dated similarly to the early part of the second millennium which shows that the ass was regarded as a symbol of servility towards the one who sat on a horse.

But the real pointer towards the ass being equated with peace is in Zech 9:10 where the war horse and chariot are being naturally contrasted with the entrance of the king into Jerusalem and where it is said of him that

‘...he shall command peace to the nations...’

The first part of this verse is naturally dependent for its fulfilment upon the Lord causing 9:8 to become a reality. The Israelites will find no need for either the chariot, war horse or bow (or their modern equivalent) when their land is secure from foreign invading armies.

The pre-exilic Israel had trusted in both the strength of the war horse (Is 30:16) and in the dominance of the chariot (Hosea 10:13), two instruments of war that had not been used when they took possession of the promised land by faith through Joshua.

But the prophecy means more than a localised peace for the people of God - the king shall rule over the earth as it says that

‘...he shall command peace to the nations...’

that is, he shall bring in universal peace (Micah 4:3-4). Israel’s boundaries were limited to the area outlined in Ex 23:31, but this verse in Zechariah refers to a king with universal dominion as in Ps 72:8 which is not a psalm that could have been written about a natural monarch from our knowledge of history but of the Messiah Himself).

But, as the passage makes plain, there will never be a sustainable peace with justice upon this earth until God’s anointed King shall be visibly established over all the nations having defeated every enemy that stands opposed to the war that is resident within men’s hearts.

What the passage (Zech 9:1-10) seems to show overall is that the conquering king who will advance through Damascus, Tyre and Philistia, will come to Jerusalem in peace and establish, from Jerusalem, a kingdom which will bring peace to the nations of the world. That Israel never experienced this is quite obvious from subsequent history, but that Jesus Christ conquered the enemies that stand against mankind both in demonstration before and subsequently through the cross was sufficient for Him to use the imagery of Zechariah to declare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem that He was the fulfilment of the One who had been promised to them in the Scriptures.

The use of Zech 9:9 in the Gospels

Below is set out a comparison of the use of Zech 9:9 and Is 62:11 in Mtw 21:5 and John 12:15

Zech 9:9a - Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion
Is 62:11 - Say to the daughter of Zion
Mtw 21:5 - Tell the daughter of Zion
John 12:15 - Fear not, daughter of Zion

Zech 9:9b - Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem
Is 62:11 - n/a
Mtw 21:5 - n/a
John 12:15 - n/a

Zech 9:9c - Lo, your king comes to you
Is 62:11 - Behold, your salvation comes
Mtw 21:5 - Behold, your king is coming to you
John 12:15 - Your king is coming

Zech 9:9d - Triumphant and victorious is he
Is 62:11 - n/a
Mtw 21:5 - n/a
John 12:15 - n/a

Zech 9:9e - Humble and riding on an ass
Is 62:11 - n/a
Mtw 21:5 - Humble, and mounted on an ass
John 12:15 - n/a

Zech 9:9f - On a colt, the foal of an ass
Is 62:11 - n/a
Mtw 21:5 - Even on a colt, the foal of an ass
John 12:15 - Sitting on an ass’s colt

Matthew speaks of ‘what was spoken by the prophet’ (21:4) while John simply states (12:14) ‘as it is written’ giving no indication of the prophet from whom the Scripture is being drawn.

Baldwin states that

‘Matthew...borrows his first words from Isaiah 62:11...’

which, if true, would indicate that the two passages have been amalgamated/harmonised and then quoted as one, but Zech 9:9a is close enough to Matthew’s quote to be identical to it and, as is often the case in the NT, Scripture is cited often with explanations and interpretations included as part of the quote so that the reader may understand how the original word relates to the application currently under discussion.

But, interestingly enough, if Matthew is using the Isaiah passage, he would be equating Zechariah’s ‘Lo, your king comes to you’ with ‘Behold your salvation comes’ and the equation would yield the assertion that God’s salvation was seen to be equated with the King (Jesus) - a not untrue assertion judging by the other Scriptures in the NT. It is only the King who can bring salvation and, when salvation comes, it will be brought about by the King. Further, that Jesus is the salvation of God revealed to mankind in the cross.

Both lines 9b and 9d are omitted in the Gospel quotes of the Triumphal entry - as I noted above, although Jesus had continually triumphed over mankind’s foes before His entry into the city, both Matthew and John are aware that the ultimate victory still lay future to the event, and so they omit the phrase to hinder the possibility that their readers might not consider the cross as the ultimate victory (Col 2:11-15).

As previously discussed, lines 9e and 9f indicate just the one animal even though we are inclined to think of two. It is quite correct to see in the use of the ass the symbol of peace but, because of the preceding passage (Zech 9:1-8), Jesus’ entry cannot be seen as solely peaceful but as the victorious entry of God’s King after having defeated their enemies (sin, satan and self).

Indeed, to those who refused to accept the victory thus demonstrated in the previous three years, He could not be coming in peace for they had decided to make war against Him. Even so, what appeared to be the ultimate defeat of their Enemy (none other than God Himself!) was also the defeat of everything that had stood opposed to mankind and which had prevented them from achieving any lasting peace both in the world and with God.

War continues to reside in the hearts of all who refuse to accept the King who comes to them with terms of peace, but the origin of war is dealt with in the lives of all those who accept the victory which has been secured for them so that peace is possible.