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Lesson 11: Those Whom God Helps (Zechariah 9:1-17)

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One of the most familiar verses in the Bible is, “God helps those who help themselves.” The problem is, that “verse” is not in the Bible! There is a true sense to that bit of folk wisdom, in that the Bible exhorts us to be disciplined and hardworking in all that we do. To goof off all semester and then ask God to get you through a test is not a wise plan! Diligent study and prayer are God’s means for academic success.

But there is another sense in which the aphorism, “God helps those who help themselves,” goes completely against Scripture. Because of the fall, our human tendency is to trust primarily in ourselves and only secondarily, if at all, in the Lord. Thus we are quick to take the credit for any successes that come our way. We may give a passing tip of the hat to God for His part, but the primary glory goes to us for all our hard work or genius. But to the extent that we fail to give all the credit to God, we rob Him of glory.

When it comes to the matter of deliverance from God’s judgment (salvation), the Bible allows no tolerance for our boasting in anything that we do. “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). “But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, … that, just as it is written, ‘Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord’” (1 Cor. 1:30-31).

Zechariah 9 illustrates a principle that runs all through Scripture and is essential for you to understand and apply:

God brings down the proud, but He helps those who are helpless, who depend on His deliverance.

This does not mean that in every situation we sit passively and watch God work. As I said, we should be diligent and hardworking, trusting God to work through our labors. But in the matter of salvation, the Bible clearly shows that we can do nothing to contribute to the process, except to trust in the Lord Jesus Christ and His shed blood. Even that faith comes from God, not from us.

Zechariah 9-14 constitutes the third major portion of the book. Chapters 1-6 took place in the second year of Darius and contain Zechariah’s eight night visions. Chapters 7-8 took place two years later and give the prophet’s answer to a delegation from Bethel concerning some Jewish fasts.

But chapters 9-14 occur perhaps 40-50 years later. The temple has long been completed. Zechariah is now an old man. Israel is still weak and vulnerable, under foreign domination. Nehemiah had not yet returned to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. Powerful and aggressive neighbors still surrounded the weak remnant. The people worried, “What if these neighbors attack us? What if they tear down the temple we worked so hard to rebuild? What if they invade us and carry us off as captives again?” They feared what the future might hold for their families and their nation.

To these people Zechariah delivers the message of chapters 9-14, which prophesy of Israel’s future. It consists of two “burdens.” The first burden (chap. 9-11) focuses on Israel’s coming king, the Messiah, emphasizing His first coming and rejection. The second burden (chap. 12-14) focuses on Israel’s coming comfort, when the nation will go through severe trials and purging, but finally be delivered by the second coming of Her Messiah and King, the Lord Jesus Christ. Dr. Feinberg calls these last six chapters of Zechariah “an incomparable treasury of prophetic truth” (God Remembers [American Board of Mission to the Jews], p. 151).

Because many of these prophecies are miraculous, liberals doubt that Zechariah wrote them. But if we believe that God can reveal the future, there is no reason to doubt that He gave the prophet these messages. God gave these prophecies to encourage and comfort His chosen people with the message that He had not forgotten them. He would deal with their enemies through the coming Messiah-King and would fulfill His promises to bless His people in His appointed time.

Chapter 9 emphasizes that God will bring down the proud, but He helps those who are helpless who depend on His deliverance. The same message is illustrated three times, in the three sections of the chapter.

1. Alexander the Great’s invasion shows that God brings down the proud, but helps those who are helpless, who depend on His deliverance (9:1-8).

These verses describe God’s judgment on Israel’s neighbors while Israel itself is spared. Amazingly, Zechariah outlines Alexander the Great’s invasion of Palestine, which took place about 150 years after Zechariah wrote! Apart from the Lord, there is no way that Zechariah could have predicted these things.

Hadrach (9:1) and Hamath (9:2) were cities near Damascus, north of Israel. Tyre and Sidon (9:2-4) were the principal coastal cities of Phoenicia, to the northwest. Ashkelon, Gaza, Ekron, and Ashdod (9:5-7) were the main Philistine cities on the coast, south and west of Jerusalem. Zechariah predicts that God will judge all of these powerful neighbors, but God will protect Israel from the army that passes by and returns (9:8).

In 334 B.C. Alexander, who was about 21, set out with an army of 35,000 men, moving west through modern-day Turkey, which was then under Persian rule. He defeated Darius at the battle of Issus and then marched south, sending one of his commanders to Damascus, while he moved unhindered toward the Phoenician cities. Tyre was a proud and mighty city that had already withstood a five-year siege by the Assyrians and a thirteen-year siege by Nebuchadnezzar. They weren’t too worried about Alexander.

Verse 3 has a Hebrew pun. In Hebrew Tyre is tsor. Fortress is matsor. The closest we could come in English is to say, “Tyre built herself a tower.” Zechariah is tongue-in-cheek saying, “Tyre thinks she is tough.” It was a mighty city, situated on an island about 700 yards off the coast from the original city. It had a double 150-foot high wall around it. The city’s powerful navy had gained it impressive wealth (9:3). Tyre was so corrupt and opposed to God that Ezekiel (28:11-19) used the proud king of Tyre to describe, in symbolic language, the pre-fall career of Satan. So when Zechariah predicted Tyre’s downfall, he was probably laughed to scorn.

But God used Alexander to bring the city down. It took him seven months, during which time his army took the rubble from the original city and built a causeway to the island city. He thus fulfilled literally the prophecy of Ezekiel 26:12, 14, where God says that He will throw Tyre’s stones and timbers into the water and that the city will never be rebuilt. Thus while the Lord dispossessed Tyre (9:4), He used Alexander to do it.

After taking Tyre, Alexander moved south through the Philistine cities. At Gaza, he encountered some stiff resistance; it took him five months to capture the city. This made him angry with the king of Gaza, so Alexander put thongs through the king’s feet and dragged him through the city until he was dead. Then he killed all the men of the city and sold the women and children into slavery. He repopulated the city with people from the neighboring areas, thus fulfilling verses 5 & 6. The “blood from their mouth” refers either to their pagan sacrifices or to their prey in battle (9:7).

Then Alexander moved south, where Egypt surrendered without a fight. On his way back north, Alexander had a score to settle with Jerusalem. While he had been attacking Tyre, Alexander had appealed to Jerusalem for supplies. But the high priest had refused, maintaining his allegiance to King Darius. Alexander was enraged and, as he demonstrated at Gaza, he could be pretty mean when he got mad!

According to the Jewish historian Josephus (The Antiquities of the Jews [Baker reprint], 11:8:3-5), when the high priest heard that Alexander was moving north toward Jerusalem, he entreated the Jews to offer sacrifices and pray. God told the priest in a dream to open the city gates, dress his fellow priests in white robes and put on his own priestly garments, and to march out to meet Alexander. The mighty general, who bowed to no one, saw this entourage, fell on his knees before the high priest, went into the city, and offered sacrifices to the Lord. The priest showed Alexander the scroll of Daniel, which predicts that he would be a world conqueror.

Alexander’s men were astonished at his actions and asked him why he bowed before the high priest. He replied that he didn’t bow before the priest, but before the God who made him high priest, because while he was still in Macedonia, he had a dream. He had seen this high priest in his robes, and he told him that he would conquer the Persians. We do not know whether Josephus’ story is truth or legend, but we do know that Alexander spared Jerusalem, just as Zechariah 9:8 prophesies. While proud, mighty Tyre’s impressive fortifications failed, Israel’s invisible stronghold, the Lord God, delivered them from the fierce conqueror.

By the way, as with many biblical prophecies, verse 8 spans the centuries. The first part was fulfilled when Alexander spared Jerusalem. The last part, that no oppressor will pass over Jerusalem any more, remains to be fulfilled when Israel’s Messiah returns in power and glory (Merrill Unger, Zechariah: Prophet of Messiah’s Glory [Zondervan], p. 159). The prophecy of Alexander’s destruction of Tyre and his sparing of Jerusalem illustrates the truth that God brings down the proud, but He helps those who are helpless, who depend on His deliverance.

2. Messiah’s two comings show that God brings down the proud, but helps those who are helpless, who depend on His deliverance (9:9-10).

This is one of the great Old Testament Messianic prophecies. I plan to examine it in more detail next week. But for now, let’s do a brief overview and see how it illustrates the theme, that God brings down the proud, but delivers those who trust in Him.

As you know, on what we call Palm Sunday, just before His crucifixion, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey in precise fulfillment of this prophecy (Matt. 21:1-11; John 12:12-15). The Jews in Jesus’ day were expecting a powerful political Messiah who would deliver Israel from Rome. They did not expect a suffering Messiah who would die for the sins of His people. Even though Jesus repeatedly had told the disciples that He would be killed and rise again, they did not comprehend what He was saying until after His resurrection (Luke 18:34; 9:45; John 12:16).

So as He approached Jerusalem on that final Sunday, Jesus acted out a public demonstration to show the rulers, the people, and His disciples that He was their Messiah. But He was not the powerful King that they were expecting, but rather the humble, suffering Messiah predicted by Zechariah, Isaiah, and others. In the context of Zechariah 9, the prophet is showing that the Messiah would come in humility and lowliness, not in a display of human might. In contrast to proud Tyre and to the proud and mighty Alexander, Israel’s Savior would come in humility, riding on a lowly donkey’s colt.

After Solomon’s time, kings and warriors rode horses, not donkeys. The donkey was a burden-bearer, used in times of peace. Powerful kings did not ride to battle on donkeys, especially not on the foal of a donkey! People of lowly rank rode donkeys. The word “humble” indicates one who is oppressed or afflicted by evil men. It looks at Jesus as our sin-bearer, despised by the rulers of His day, but bringing God’s salvation for those who would receive it.

Why does Zechariah give us this picture of Messiah in this context? I think that God is showing His people through the humility of Messiah the attitude that we must have to experience God’s salvation. God does not save the mighty, who just need a little boost from Him. He delivers the weak and helpless who trust in Him, epitomized by Messiah in His first coming, riding on the foal of a donkey.

The entire church age fits between verses 9 & 10. When He comes again, Jesus will cut off all opposition against Israel and He will rule in peace over the entire earth. Then God will highly exalt Jesus and give Him the name above every name, because He humbled Himself by taking the form of a servant and becoming obedient to death on a cross (Phil. 2:5-11). Thus the two comings of Jesus the Messiah, contrasted with proud Tyre and the mighty Alexander, illustrate the principle: God brings down the proud, but He helps those who are helpless, who depend on His deliverance.

3. God’s future deliverances of His people show that God brings down the proud, but helps those who are helpless, who depend on His deliverance (9:11-17).

Biblical prophecy often has multiple fulfillments leading up to the final fulfillment. Such prophetic events (or people) are centuries apart, although the prophecy doesn’t specify that fact. For example, Malachi 4:5 predicts that God would send “Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord.” In Matthew 11:14, Jesus explained that John the Baptist was that Elijah to come. But the great and terrible day of the Lord is yet to come, almost 2,000 years after John’s ministry. Thus when Revelation 11 predicts that two powerful witnesses will prophesy just prior to the Lord’s coming, many believe that one of these will be Elijah himself, the ultimate fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy.

That prophetic mode of multiple fulfillments, culminating in the final fulfillment, is used in Zechariah 9:11-17. On one level, Zechariah describes the victory that God granted during the Maccabean revolt against the wicked Antiochus Epiphanes in 166-160 B.C. This was the only time that the Jews fought against the Greeks (9:13). This wicked ruler suspended daily sacrifices, abolished the Sabbath, destroyed copies of the Scriptures, forbade circumcision, and erected pagan altars. To crown it all, in December, 167 B.C., he set up a pagan altar in the temple and offered swine’s flesh on it (an initial fulfillment of Daniel’s “abomination of desolation,” Dan. 11:31, 12:11; see James Boice, The Minor Prophets [Baker], 2:532-533). Antiochus is a type of the Antichrist who will come to world domination, setting himself up as God in the temple of God, the ultimate abomination of desolation (2 Thess. 2:4; see Matt. 24:15).

Thus while Zechariah 9:11-17 pictures on one level the victory that God would grant the Jews during the Maccabean revolt, on another level it looks ahead to the final victory when Messiah will return in power and glory to crush Antichrist and his followers. Since both Antiochus and the Antichrist are the epitome of worldly pride and power, their defeat and Israel’s deliverance illustrate the principle: God brings down the proud, but He helps those who are helpless, who depend on His deliverance.

These verses should encourage us because they show that God prepares deliverances for His people years before we even know that we need them. When Zechariah prophesied, it would be almost 200 years before Greece would pose a threat, and 300 years before the Maccabean revolt. And yet the Lord knew all of this in advance and prepared the victory for His people long before they knew that they even needed it. As Revelation shows, God has already prepared victory for His people in the Great Tribulation, when Israel will be hemmed in by the forces of evil. Just in time, Christ will return and “cut off the chariot from Ephraim, and the horse from Jerusalem,” and will reign over all the earth (9:10).

This means that the Lord has prepared deliverances for situations that you may encounter this week, later this year, and for the rest of your life. Our emergencies never take the Lord by surprise! When we are overwhelmed by some trial, we can trust in the Lord and know that He cares for us.

Note the assurances that He gives to encourage us to trust Him: We are in a blood covenant relationship with Him (9:11). He promises to give us victory over powerful enemies (9:13-15). We are the flock of His people, sparkling stones in His crown (9:16).

You may wonder, “But what about God’s people who have been tortured or slaughtered? What about those who go through horrible trials? What about the situations where wicked tyrants prosper and God’s people suffer? How does God deliver them?”

The Bible doesn’t dodge these hard issues. The forerunner, John the Baptist, whom Jesus called the greatest among men (Matt. 11:11), was beheaded because of the stupid promise of a drunken, lustful king. The godly Stephen was stoned by the wicked Jewish leaders. Most of the apostles died martyrs’ deaths. Revelation 6:9-11 pictures many martyred saints in heaven, waiting the day of their vindication. God tells them to wait because there are still others to be killed for their testimonies. Their vindication comes at the very end, when Jesus returns in power and glory to crush all opposition. At that time, the multitude in heaven cries out, “Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God… Let us rejoice and be glad and give glory to Him” (Rev. 19:1, 7).

When we experience God’s deliverance, whether it is the minor deliverances of day to day trials and temptations, or the final deliverance of His victory over all the forces of evil, praise and glory to God are the result. Zechariah 9:17 should be translated with the NASB margin, “For what comeliness and beauty are His!” The singular pronoun refers to the Lord. Verse 17 is a burst of praise coming from God’s people who have just experienced His deliverance.

Conclusion

There are two commands in this chapter that we should apply. First, “Rejoice greatly! Shout in triumph!” (9:9). It is significant that in Revelation, when God throws down wicked Babylon that has killed the prophets and saints, we read, “Rejoice over her, O heaven, and you saints and apostles and prophets, because God has pronounced judgment for you against her” (Rev. 18:20). Again, “Give praise to our God, all you His bond-servants, you who fear Him …” (Rev. 19:5). And, again, “Let us rejoice and be glad and give the glory to Him …” (Rev. 19:7). When we see how God will bring down the proud, but how He will ultimately deliver the helpless who trust in Him, we should praise His glorious name!

The second command is, “Return to the stronghold, O prisoners who have the hope” (9:12). This was directed to the Jews who still believed in the God of Abraham, but who had not yet returned to Israel from the captivity. Perhaps they were afraid to move back to Jerusalem, which had no visible wall and no human army to protect it. Zechariah is teaching them that God Himself is their sufficient defense, that He would be to them, as Isaiah 26:1 declares, a wall and a rampart (John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], p. 263).

Even so, some know Christ as Savior—they have hope in Him—but they are still prisoners, enslaved to some fears or sins. God wants us all to see that deliverance by any human source or scheme is in vain (Ps. 60:11). Christ Himself is our stronghold. Return to Him! “The king is not saved by a mighty army; a warrior is not delivered by great strength; … Behold, the eye of the Lord is on those who fear Him, on those who hope for His lovingkindness, to deliver their soul from death and to keep them alive in famine. Our soul waits for the Lord; He is our help and our shield. For our heart rejoices in Him, because we trust in His holy name” (Ps. 33:16, 18-21).

There is a story of a guy who was fixing the TV antenna on his roof when he slipped and slid toward the edge. He managed to grab the rain gutter as he went over the side. So there he was, dangling by his fingertips, two stories above the concrete driveway. In desperation, he looked down and yelled, “Is there anybody down there that can help me?” Total silence.

With no time to waste, he looked up and shouted, “Is there anybody up there that can help me?” Just then, the clouds parted and a deep voice boomed out of the sky, “Have faith, I’ll catch you. Just let go!” The man quickly looked down at the hard landing two stories below. Then he looked back up and shouted, “Is there anybody else up there who can help me?”

The answer is, “No!” God alone will help you if you are helpless and depend on His deliverance.

Discussion Questions

  1. How can we determine the balance between doing all that we can and yet depending on God’s strength (see 1 Cor. 15:10)?
  2. Should we feel sorrow or joy when the wicked get what they deserve?
  3. Sometimes God delivers while we do nothing (Exod. 13-14). At other times, we must act while trusting God (1 Sam. 23:2). How can we know the difference?
  4. Why do the deaths of God’s saints at the hands of the wicked not undermine God’s promised deliverance?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2003, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christology, Prophecy/Revelation, Rewards