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The Man Who Remembered God

Every year, the Armenian Church reserves a day in its liturgical calendar to remember one of the more obscure figures of the Old Testament: the Prophet Zechariah. This year his saint day falls on July 16.

Zechariah’s collection of prophecies and oracles stands among the last books of the canonical Old Testament. In its opening verse, Zechariah situates himself in time during the reign of the Persian King Darius the Great—some 500 years before the birth of Christ. It was a time when the Hebrews had returned to their ancestral homeland after the long, enforced absence of the Babylonian Captivity.

Zechariah, who seems to have descended from a priestly clan, was deeply concerned with the re-establishment of a holy, Godly way of life for his people, as they reclaimed their patrimony in Jerusalem and its surrounding regions. His name means “God remembered”; but it was clearly Zechariah himself who remembered the God of his fathers in his writings—and who was trying, with a certain desperation, to awaken that memory in his forgetful countrymen.

As prophetic books go, Zechariah’s is notoriously difficult to understand. It seems to lurch back and forth unpredictably between Zechariah’s living memory, his experiences and observations, and his ecstatic visions of a future when the Messiah would arrive to right the world’s wrongs and establish his everlasting rule.

To arrive at that day, however, the world would have to undergo a painful tribulation. It was Zechariah’s view that mankind’s own degeneracy would be the spur that invited the saving intervention of God’s Messiah, and his prophetic oracles provided the vocabulary for the “apocalyptic” literature of later ages. Vivid images that we associate with the New Testament Revelation of John—the Four Horsemen, the Harlot of Babylon—find their origins in Zechariah’s powerful visions.

Gospel Parallels

But these are not the only New Testament echoes of Zechariah. The Gospel writers themselves seem to have been influenced by the prophet as they set down and made sense of the life of Jesus. Consider these extraordinary parallels with some of the most famous Gospel passages:

From Zechariah 9:9: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on an ass, on a colt the foal of an ass.”

Now compare that to the story of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, at Matthew 21.5-7.

From Zechariah 12:10: “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 first-born.”

Compare that to John 19:34-37, where the Roman centurion stabs Christ’s side following our Lord’s death on the cross.

From Zechariah 11:12-13: “Then I said to them, ‘If it seems right to you, give me my wages; but if not, keep them.’ And they weighed out as my wages thirty shekels of silver. Then the Lord said to me, ‘Cast it into the treasury’—the lordly price at which I was paid off by them. So I took the thirty shekels of silver and cast them into the treasury in the house of the Lord.”

Compare that to Matthew 27:3-10, the account of Judas’ guilt over his betrayal of Jesus.

All of these examples show the Gospel writers drawing on the language of Zechariah to remind their readers that Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies—even in ways he couldn’t have controlled.

Elsewhere in the gospels, however, we see a conscious use of Zechariah by Jesus himself. On the night of his arrest, camped out with the disciples on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sadly predicted how his own friends would abandon him in his time of need. “You will all fall away because of me this night,” Christ says at Matthew 26:31; “for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’”

This is a direct allusion—from the very lips of Jesus—to Zechariah 13:7: “Awake, O sword, against my shepherd, against the man who stands next to me, says the Lord of hosts. Strike the shepherd, that the sheep may be scattered…”

Zechariah’s Hope

In these and other Scriptural moments, we can see how an obscure, misunderstood prophet affected the life of Jesus and his contemporaries—and thus shaped the world that would arise on the Christian faith.

The deepest of Zechariah’s concerns was the purity of worship life, especially as it was exemplified in the rituals of the Hebrew Temple. His ancestors had witnessed in horror the destruction of the original Temple of King Solomon; and his immediate forbears had erected a second, less elaborate Temple when they returned to Jerusalem after their exile.

In this, Zechariah’s experience was not so different from that of the Armenian people, who at various times in their history would see their houses of worship seized and demolished; but who never gave up the hope of restoring them, and revivifying them with the music and rituals of holy badarak. Perhaps this is why the Armenians took the unusual step of sanctifying one day each year in Zechariah’s memory.

In his own day, however, Zechariah could only dream of such a restoration to holiness. In his writings, he laments the degraded worship life of his people. He rails against the commodification of the Hebrew Temple, where material transactions had come to displace matters of the spirit. In the last line of his prophetic book, he pictured a future time when worship would be purified, and “there shall no longer be a trader in the house of the Lord of hosts on that day” (Zechariah 14:21).

Though he did not live to see it, Zechariah’s long-awaited Messiah did come, to cleanse the Temple of the money-changers and their wares. “Take these things away,” said Jesus (at John 2:13-16), in what is arguably another nod to the Old Testament prophet. “You shall not make my Father’s house a house of trade.”

By Christopher H. Zakian

Above: Detail of Michelangelo’s portrait of Zechariah in the Sistine Chapel, Rome.

 

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