Commentary on Zechariah 9:9-12
Zechariah 9:9-12 is a post-exilic prophecy of hope, perhaps best known to Christians for its reuse in the New Testament.
It imagines the return of a triumphant but humble king to Jerusalem. These verses call contemporary readers to join God’s people from all ages in hoping and working for a more just world.
The return of the King
In 587 BCE, the Babylonians invaded Jerusalem. They destroyed the temple, deposed the Davidic ruler, and took many Jerusalemites into exile. Some seventy years later, descendants of the exiles began returning to their ancestral homeland. Hopes ran high for the restoration of Judean independence and the Davidic monarchy, as expressed in texts like Jeremiah 23:5–6 or Ezekiel 34:23–24. Those dreams never materialized. The foreign kings of Persia remained in charge for another 200 years, only to be replaced by Greek and then Roman rule.
The book of Zechariah engages these realities of post-exilic Jewish life. Chapters 1–8 reflect the decades immediately after the exiles’ return. Chapters 9–14 likely come from the next century, amidst growing frustration with Persian rule. A prayer recorded in Nehemiah, from the same time period, includes these words of lament: “Here we are, slaves to this day…. [The land’s] rich yield goes to the kings whom you have set over us because of our sins; they have power also over our bodies and over our livestock at their pleasure, and we are in great distress.” (Neh 9:36-37).
The words of comfort in Zechariah 9:9-12 thus emerge from long decades of yearning for restoration, as the experience of imperial subjugation became unbearable. They reflect the persistence of hope, even when its fulfillment seemed less and less likely. At a time of increasing expectation for an apocalyptic, otherworldly deliverance, these verses preserved the belief that a just, equitable political order could still be restored in this world.
“Humble and riding on a donkey”
According to Zechariah 9:9, the coming king is “triumphant and victorious,” entering the city as a conquering hero following the defeat of Israel and Judah’s longtime enemies (Zechariah 9:1-8). Paradoxically, this ruler is also described as “humble.” The text emphasizes that he rides a donkey, not a war-horse, by using three different words for the animal.1 We probably shouldn’t make too much of this point, since other biblical texts associate Davidic kings with mules or donkeys (Genesis 49:11; 2 Samuel 16:2; 1 Kings 1:38–39). A clearer denunciation of violence appears in Zechariah 9:10, which describes how the new ruler will destroy implements of war—including the war-horse— and “command peace to the nations,” in the process of establishing universal rule (compare Psalm 46:9; Isaiah 2:4).
For Christians, these verses from the Hebrew Bible are powerfully associated with the accounts of Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday (see Matt 21:4–5; John 12:15). Unfortunately, it’s easy to read the Gospel stories in a way that reinforces the popular stereotype of “gentle Jesus, meek and mild,” riding on a lowly donkey and receiving the praise of children. (The last detail comes from our hymnals, not the Bible!)
This sanitized reading is neither true to the Gospels nor Zechariah, for several reasons:
- The Hebrew word ‘ani, translated “humble” in Zechariah 9:9, frequently refers to impoverished, socially vulnerable persons (Deuteronomy 15:11; Isaiah 10:2; Psalm 140:12). By using this word, Zechariah identifies his messianic king with the poor and oppressed.
- According to the Synoptic Gospels, one of Jesus’s first actions in Jerusalem was the violent cleansing of the Temple (Matthew 21:12-13; Mark 11:15-17; Luke 19:45-46).
- Finally, we must remember that Jesus was knowingly riding in Jerusalem to become the victim of Roman state-sponsored violence. If humility means keeping one’s head down and avoiding trouble, then it’s hardly an appropriate term for what Jesus (or Zechariah) had in mind.
As we ponder these ancient words today, protesters are marching in our streets, crying for justice and denouncing systemic racism. Zechariah’s anti-imperial proclamation—along with Jesus’s anti-imperial appropriation of it—calls us to listen humbly to voices demanding radical change. The text stands in judgment over a Christian culture that would rather maintain an inequitable peace than challenge unjust power structures. It critiques a Church that prefers individualistic humility over solidarity with the oppressed.
“Prisoners of hope”
The commitment to liberation becomes more concrete in Zechariah 9:11-12, as God promises to free Jerusalem’s prisoners. These verses recall another post-exilic prophecy: the description of God’s herald in Isaiah 62:1, who comes “to proclaim … release to the prisoners.” (That text is likewise connected to Jesus’s ministry in Luke 4:16-21.) Other biblical texts describe God’s commitment to freedom for prisoners, including Psalms 107:10 and 146:7; Isaiah 42:6-7.
Several details indicate that the prisoners in Zechariah are unjustly incarcerated:
- They’re held captive in “the waterless pit” (Zechariah 9:11), which recalls the imprisonments of Joseph (Genesis 37:24) and Jeremiah (Jerermiah 38:6). Both men were innocent.
- The poignant phrase “prisoners of hope” in Zechariah 9:12 suggests that they rightfully expect vindication.
- In the same verse, God promises to “restore [them] double.” In biblical law, double restitution is commanded for victims of wrongdoing (Exodus 22:4, 7, 9).
Preaching or teaching about these verses is an opportunity to advocate for victims of unjust imprisonment today. In the United States, this includes immigrants in detention centers, who are frequently denied access to the bare necessities of life, or the disproportionate numbers of Black men in our prisons.2 And in light of the current pandemic, we should speak out against overcrowding and other factors that unjustly subject prisoners to increased risk of contracting COVID-19.
The author of Matthew, who understood these verses as a prophecy of Jesus’s triumphal entry, took the poetic repetition literarily and depicted Jesus depicted riding on both a donkey and a colt (Matt 21:1–6)!
See Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2nd ed.; New York: New Press, 2020).