A King That Makes People Happy Is Coming
One very important point is obvious from these few words, “Lo, your king comes to you.” It’s obvious that when he comes, he will make the daughter of Jerusalem happy. Or to put it another way he is the kind of king who makes his people shout for joy.
He is not a Nero who fiddles while Rome burns. He is not a Marcos who lives in lavish luxury while his land languishes in poverty. He is not an Ayatollah that shames his citizens. He is the kind of king that will make the daughter of Jerusalem, the offspring of Zion, leap for joy. Children will sing hosanna. Old men will dream dreams. Slave girls will prophesy. The blind see. The lame walk. The deaf hear. The lepers are cleansed. The poor have good news preached to them. Zechariah commands the daughter of Zion to “shout for joy,” because the king is coming. So he must be the kind of king that makes people happy.
Now how does he do that? Why is it such good news that this king is coming? Why isn’t it frightening and fearful?
He Is Righteous
The next lines give the answer. The RSV says, “Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he.” Focus on these two words for a moment. The NASB says, “He is just and endowed with salvation.” The NIV says, “Righteous and having salvation.”
The first word is indeed “righteous” or “just.” The reason the RSV often translates this word with “triumphant” is because it is so often used in the sense of “successfully standing up for what is right.” That implies victory for the oppressed and the innocent. In other words God’s righteousness does imply victory because he is God. But I think we do best to keep the meaning “righteous” or “just” so that we don’t miss the intention that God’s victories are accomplished in his righteousness.
So the first thing Zechariah says about this coming king is that he is righteous. He will stand victoriously on the side of right—on the side of the innocent and the faithful—the ones who have waited in faith and patience like old Simeon and Anna—the ones who have stood true to God’s word. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” In other words, the righteous king coming from heaven will bless those whom the world has cursed because they stood for the righteousness of God. And so Jesus, just like Zechariah, says, “Rejoice in that day and be glad, for great is your reward in heaven” (Matthew 5:12).
That’s the first reason the coming of this king is good news. That’s the first way he makes people happy. He is righteous—he is not wicked. He stands up for those whom the world thought were crazy in their commitment to love and lowliness and justice. The tables will be turned, the righteous and the lowly will be vindicated. And they will rejoice!
He Is Gentle and Humble
The second way he makes the daughter of Jerusalem happy is found in this other word. The RSV translates it “victorious.” The NASB, “endowed with salvation.” And the NIV, “having salvation.” The Hebrew word is literally “saved.” This form of the word is used two other times in the Old Testament. Psalm 33:16, “A king is not saved by his great army.” And Deuteronomy 33:29, “Who is like you, O Israel, a people saved by the Lord?” But to call the coming Messiah “saved” is so strange that most translators just can’t accept it. How would it inspire joy and worship for the king if he were described as “saved”? It doesn’t sound strong and mighty.
What would your answer be? Mine is: that’s the whole point of verse 9. The king is not coming mainly as a strong warrior but as a gentle peacemaker. He is strong. But he is not strong in the sense of being bossy or hard or loud or fierce or cruel. That’s the point of the next two lines.
Humble, and riding on an ass, on a colt the foal of an ass.
He is humble not arrogant or pushy. The word is often used for afflicted as well as meek. And if he is afflicted and meek, it may not be so strange that he would need to be rescued or saved from some affliction or danger or attack.
He Comes as a Peacemaker
And riding on a donkey—what does that mean? Well coming right after the word “humble” it surely reinforces the idea of being lowly and meek. He isn’t mainly interested in a big show that exploits the people for his own ego.
But the ass was not as despised then as it is now. In the Old Testament kings and kings’ sons did ride now and then on asses. But they did not ride on asses when they were going into war. Then they rode on warhorses. The ass was an animal for peacetime—for work time—not for war. What the donkey stands for, then, is that this king is coming not only as a humble man, but as a peacemaker.
In Luke 19:41, right after the entry into Jerusalem on the donkey, it says, “And when he drew near and saw the city he wept over it, saying, ‘Would that even today you knew the things that make for peace!'” That shows, I think, that his choice of a donkey to enter the city was like coming in under a white flag—not of surrender, but of desire to make peace.
And if that weren’t enough, just a few verses earlier in Luke 19:38 Luke tells us that the people were shouting, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” I think Luke wants to make plain in the way he tells the story that Jesus was coming on the donkey mainly as a peacemaker. And not just peace on earth between man and man, but also peace in heaven between God and man. “Peace in heaven!” they cried. Let God in heaven be at peace with his people!
So what Jesus meant when he chose that donkey to ride on was this: I am meek and lowly in heart; I am approachable; you can find rest for your souls here; I am not against you, I am for you; I did not come to condemn but to save; I come on behalf of God, my Father in heaven, to reconcile you to him—to make peace between you and your Maker.
Now how did Jesus make peace between sinful people and a holy God? Colossians 1:20 says that he made peace “by the blood of his cross.” Jesus died to make peace between God and sinners. Looking back from this side of Good Friday and Easter we can see all that in the words, “Lo, your king comes to you; righteous . . . humble and riding on an ass.” He is righteous, which means he can be our righteous substitute and fulfill all that we have failed to do. He is humble or afflicted, which means he is willing to be rejected and despised and beat up and killed for others. And he is riding on an ass, which means that he wants to make peace not war, and that this is why he gives himself up to death.
Does the King Need to Be “Saved”?
But now what about the word “saved” in the line that says, “Lo, your king comes to you; righteous and saved”? I said that translators reject it because the context seems to demand something more powerful, more regal. So they say, “Having salvation,” or “victorious.” But is it true that the context demands something powerful and regal? I suggest that the context points to the possibility that this humble king bearing tidings of peace on a simple donkey may indeed be treated in such a way that he needs to be saved—not from his own sin, but from ours. He will need to be saved from our scoffing and our smiting and our murder. How do you get saved after you’ve been murdered?
Peter gives the answer in a sermon preached seven weeks after the death and resurrection of Jesus. He says to a crowd in Jerusalem, “You killed Jesus by the hand of lawless men. But God raised him up, having loosed the pangs of death because it was not possible for him to be held by it.” In other words, God saved Jesus from the grave. He loosed the pangs of death. So Jesus was saved. (See Psalm 16:10=Acts 2:27; Isaiah 53:12.)
No, it does not sound powerful and regal in Zechariah 9:9 when the coming king is described as righteous and saved. But it is not supposed to. It’s supposed to sound humble and peaceable. What the humility of Jesus means is that he was willing to be so afflicted and so abused and so defeated that he needed saving.
And because God saved him from death and raised him up alive forever, he can now save anybody. He comes to you this morning as a peacemaker. He has laid down his life so that he might make you a genuine offer of reconciliation. He doesn’t want there to be a barrier between you and him. He doesn’t want hostility or indifference to stand in the way. He has come farther toward you in his humility than you could ever go toward him. And there is still time in your life to hear Jesus say, “O that they knew the terms of peace.”