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prisoners of hope

We all long for a better world. When we see suffering and pain on the news, we long for a better world. When we experience suffering and pain, we really long for a better world. From the moment Adam and Eve were cast out of the garden and began to experience thorns and thistles, humans have been longing for a better world—a return to what God created in the beginning. From that same time God has been promising a restoration of his world. He promised Adam and Eve the world would not remain under the curse they brought into it but he would rescue them.

From the beginning, however, humans have misunderstood that promise. What we long for is for someone to fix everything right now. We want rescue from our broken relationships immediately. We don’t want to wait for physical healing. We don’t want to wait for financial help. We don’t want to wait for God to free us from sin. We want God to snap his divine fingers and just make everything right, right now.

At Mount Sinai God made a covenant with Abraham’s descendants. The Israelites were gathered at the mountain with the mixed multitude who joined them in the exodus from Egypt (Exodus 12:38). Together they became the people of God, recipients of God’s covenant. They, too, wanted immediate results yet they didn’t trust God and the end result was waiting another 40 years to enter the land.

Throughout all the promises God made to his people, beginning with the promise to Adam and Eve and then to Abraham and Sarah and continuing with his promises to Israel and then to David, there is the central thread of a particular Offspring through whom would come the fulfillment of all God promised. Even with this consistent thread and clear—well, clear in hindsight—clear declarations of what this Rescuer would do, God’s people missed it. We see this in Zechariah’s prophecy.

Through Zechariah God pronounced judgment on the land of Hadrach and Damascus, against Hamath and Tyre and Sidon. God said this about Tyre:

Tyre has built herself a rampart and heaped up silver like dust, and fine gold like the mud of the streets. But behold, the LORD will strip her of her possessions and strike down her power on the sea, and she shall be devoured by fire.

Zechariah 9:3–4 ESV

Tyre had amassed so much wealth God describes it as piles of dirt and mud. The point is their wealth was everywhere and abundant. Tyre was also powerful. It needed to be to protect its piles of silver and gold. Years earlier under Shalmaneser V Assyria attacked Tyre and laid siege to it for five years, yet Tyre survived the siege. Later Babylon would lay a thirteen-year siege against Tyre and Tyre would survive that siege! A siege is a war of attrition. The attacking army would prevent resupply; how many resources must be piled up to survive thirteen years!?

God simply declared Tyre would lose its wealth. When Alexander the Great laid siege to Tyre the siege lasted just five months and Tyre’s wealth and power were, in fact, stripped from her.

God continued his declaration of judgment against Israel’s enemies. The Philistines had long been a danger to Israel and Judah. God had this to say about them:

Ashkelon shall see it, and be afraid; Gaza too, and shall writhe in anguish; Ekron also, because its hopes are confounded. The king shall perish from Gaza; Ashkelon shall be uninhabited; a mixed people shall dwell in Ashdod, and I will cut off the pride of Philistia.

Zechariah 9:5–6 ESV

As powerful as the Philistines thought they were, God declares their hope in their own power would be confounded. Their cities will be conquered. In the midst of this declaration, however, is a promise—an unexpected promise given the centuries-long hostility between the Israelites and the Philistines.

I will take away its blood from its mouth, and its abominations from between its teeth; it too shall be a remnant for our God; it shall be like a clan in Judah, and Ekron shall be like the Jebusites. Then I will encamp at my house as a guard, so that none shall march to and fro; no oppressor shall again march over them, for now I see with my own eyes.

Zechariah 9:7–8 ESV

What a remarkable declaration! God will take away blood from Philistia’s mouth. Blood was forbidden to be consumed under the law of Moses. This is a reference to the Philistines’ idolatry. They would consume blood as part of their devotion to their idols. God will take away this practice, however, removing its abominations—its idolatry!—from between its teeth. Then he declares that the Philistines will be a remnant for God. They will become another clan among the many clans of Judah! Not only that, God promises to protect them! The aggressors against Israel will be counted among Israel and God will extend his covenant promises to them by including them among Israel. What a remarkable and unexpected declaration! Then we come to a very familiar text.

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall speak peace to the nations; his rule shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth. As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit. Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double.

Zechariah 9:9–12 ESV

God’s people are told to rejoice because their king is coming to them. This king is righteous and comes with salvation. He is humble and mounted on a donkey. What is remarkable about the donkey is the connection it has to this king’s humility. The contrast is with a war horse. When this king comes to his people he does so to cut off chariots from Ephraim and war horses from Jerusalem. God’s people were looking for power, for a king who would defeat all their enemies yet God declares he will “defeat” them by making them his people. His victory won’t come through overwhelming power but through his humility.

He says the battle bow will be cut off. He’s referring to the latest in high-tech warfare. No one rides into battle on a donkey. A kingly king would ride in a chariot pulled by a horse or perhaps even two, surrounded by archers who would protect him and defeat their enemies. A chariot on an ancient battlefield was deadly. It was like a modern-day tank. This king who comes in humility riding on a donkey does not come to do battle with his enemies, but to “speak peace to the nations”. He will be successful, for “his rule shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth”.

This will all come about “because of the blood of my covenant with you”. What makes this particular King humble is not the animal he rides on, but the reason he rides it: he is riding to his own death. When Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey in the event we know of as the “Triumphal Entry”, he was riding to his own defeat. As Paul put it in his letter to the Philippians, Jesus humbled himself by becoming obedient to his Father to the point of death—even death on a cruel cross.

When Jesus rode into the city of Jerusalem the people were blessing him for they believed he had come to give them the rescue they desired. They wanted to be free of Roman presence in Jerusalem and throughout the land. They wanted to be free of Roman taxes. They wanted to be free of Roman crosses and the so-called “Pax Romana”—the “Roman Peace” that came through a sword. In short, they wanted an end to their troubles, an immediate end. If only Jesus would gather his army and storm the Antonia fortress which housed the Roman army in Jerusalem! If only Jesus would declare Israel to be a free and independent nation again! If only Jesus would use his power to heal and to raise the dead to command and lead an army, all the promises would be fulfilled right then, in their lifetime!

The promise in Zechariah is God would fulfill his promises “because of the blood of [his] covenant”. Israel thought he meant the covenant given at Mount Sinai but God was referring to the new covenant he had promised, one that was based on his righteousness, not theirs. Jesus had come to offer his blood as the blood of this new covenant, for his blood could take away the sins of his people and not merely cover them up. It is for this reason he could call them “prisoners of hope”, and declare that he would “restore to you double”.

Think of that! God will restore to his people double. I’m reminded of God’s promise in Joel 2 that he will restore the years the locusts have eaten. This life is filled with pain and suffering. God’s promise is to restore those years. He will bless us in some way that we will look back on these years of suffering with gladness for what we will have received. As difficult as life may be, the promise is the next world will be so much better for this world having been so bad.

So often we are just like the people in Jerusalem when Jesus fulfilled this prophecy by riding into the city on a donkey. We look for the immediate fix, the removal of our pain. We want it right now. We would gladly exchange God’s fullest and most complete fulfillment of his promises for a brief, momentary resolution to a difficulty right now because the fulfillment of them remains future. We don’t want to be “prisoners of hope”. We want to be free! God calls us to be prisoners of hope, however. Yes, in some ways we are “stuck” in this world with all its brokenness, with all its suffering, with all its pain. God does not call us to suffer without hope, however. Our hope is in the Lord, for he comes to us, righteous and having salvation. He comes in a most unexpected way, humble and mounted on a donkey, riding to his own death, that he might rescue us.

I don’t know why God chooses to take his time with his rescue. I know this, however: he will do all he promises to do. He will fulfill every single word he has spoken. We know this because he gladly and willingly rode a donkey into Jerusalem, knowing the crowds would turn against him and knowing what awaited him later that week. We know he will fulfill his promises because we know what happened the following Sunday morning. For this reason we are prisoners of hope.