The Book of Zechariah: Background
Zechariah can be a difficult book at times, partly due to some obscure language, but also because there are two distinct textual traditions. Chapters 1-8 are the work of the prophet Zechariah himself, written before the inauguration of the Second Temple, possibly around the year 520BC. These initial chapters contain a sequence of visions that are explained to Zechariah by an angel in a series of questions and answers.
Chapters 9-14 are of a very different style and are divided roughly into two oracles marked at the beginnings of chapters 9 and 12. These portions were perhaps written about a hundred years later, possibly by more than one author, but not by the Zechariah himself. For this reason, the author is sometimes called Second Zechariah.
An Outpouring of the Holy Spirit
It’s important to understand the distinct authorship of these two halves in order to really grasp the message at the heart of the text. There is an optimism in First Zechariah (chapters 1-8), perhaps inspired by the construction of the Second Temple. That tone shifts in Second Zechariah with a condemnation of the leadership of Jerusalem—the worthless shepherds of chapter 11—and the promise of a messiah, who comes “humble and riding on a donkey.” (Zech. 9:9)
As the second oracle begins, God promises that he will intervene in a battle to deliver Israel. And then we have the enigmatic line:
“And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of compassion and supplication, so that, when they look on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn.” (Zech. 12:10)
This line is extremely difficult to translate correctly. It may read, as above, “look on him whom they have pierced”, or it may read “look on me whom they have pierced.”
Far too many modern exegetes seem desperate to wave away the prophetic nature of this passage, which is a peculiar approach for a prophetic text, particularly when it’s quite clearly designated as “An Oracle” in the original. St. John had no such trouble, and refers to this passage almost immediately after the death of Christ (John 19:37). (It’s worth noting that John uses the phrasing “him whom they have pierced.”)
But there is something more to this text beyond the vivid image of a beloved Son pierced and killed by his foes. At the beginning of chapter 12, God is identified as the one “who formed the spirit of man within him.” (Zech. 12:1) Ten lines later, God promises to “pour out … a spirit of compassion and supplication.” (12:10)
Who does he promise to pour this spirit upon? “The house of David” and “the inhabitants of Jerusalem.” The spirit will be poured not just upon the Davidic lineage, but upon all whom God is addressing. This new outpouring of the Holy Spirit, which will follow the piercing of the one who is mourned like an “only child” and the “first born,” will provide a spirit of “compassion and supplication.” The “compassion” helps those touched by the spirit to repent of their sins, while the “supplication” refers to the people turning to God in humility.
A Baptism of Blood and Water
After a passage indicating how widespread shall be the mourning for the pierced one (Zech. 11-14), there is a final passage that reaffirms the promise of God:
“On that day there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness.” (Zech. 13:1)
This is the fountain opened from the side of Christ, which poured forth blood and water. (John 19:34) John tells us that Jesus “is he who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the witness, because the Spirit is the truth. There are three witnesses, the Spirit, the water, and the blood; and these three agree.” (1 John 5:6-8)
Thus, the water and the blood that poured from the pierced one is the “fountain” that purifies us from “sin and uncleanness.”
As we enter the final week of Lent, we cannot help but be struck by the words of Second Zechariah, who speaks of a king who will come to us, “triumphant and victorious,” “humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt the foal of a donkey.” (Zech. 9:9) What is this but in image of Christ entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday? Zechariah’s condemnation of the leadership in Jerusalem makes the passage doubly evocative.
The image of the pierced one is so evocative that it’s easy to be struck by the prophecy and miss the deeper meaning. A righteous shepherd is killed, and his death is a moment of turning for all the people. Death wasn’t hidden away in the ancient world, as it so often is today. Brutal execution was a public event. Compassion was in short supply. Yet the death of this man—so enigmatically described by the prophet—changes the hearts of the people. It becomes to them like the death of a beloved son.
This does not happen by any action of the people. God makes it quite clear that it is the outpouring of the Holy Spirit that softens their hearts of stone, turning them away from worthless shepherds and towards God in a new attitude of penitence.
Zechariah thus suggests a small foretaste of our own Lenten journey. Our gaze is drawn to the Messiah. We meditate upon his suffering, reenacting his passion in our devotions and our liturgy. With hearts newly opened by the grace of God, we experience an outpouring of mercy and compassion, and become worthy to stand in the cleansing fountain of the water, the blood, and the Spirit.