Prisoners of Hope – Palm Sunday

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. …  As for you also, because of the Blood of your Covenant, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit. [Zechariah 9:9-11]

It is a very solemn ceremony.  Death is in the air.  Animal carcasses split down the middle mark the pathway.  One who will bind Himself in Covenant goes between the pieces with the declaration that if He breaks Covenant, he will become just like these carcasses – he is pledging himself to die.  While Abraham simply watches from a trance, Jehovah alone walks this path and makes this vow …  but … but he cannot die – He is Almighty God!

The scene is dramatic.  The prophet Zechariah, as a shepherd, raises his staff named Grace or Kindness over his head, and as he brings it down, he snaps it into two, declaring: “the breaking of the Covenant which I had made with all the peoples” [Zechariah 11:10-11].  It is Jehovah’s message – Jehovah, Who has remained incredibly faithful to Covenant through centuries of Israel’s rebellions, even in the midst of their constant contempt of this relationship, now suddenly announces that He will break this bond.  Because of His Covenant with Abraham this will mean His death.  Yes, it is one thing when a pledge to death is remote in an unlikely future – an impossibility, in fact – , but this is as shocking as a slap in the face – it is as if God were daring death to come and just try to take Him.  But … but he cannot die – He is Almighty God!

The voice rings out with the triumphant shout, “It is finished!” and then speaks, “Father, into Your hands I commend My Spirit.”  This is Almighty God.  And He has died.  Jehovah has broken the Old Covenant and the judgment is immediate and complete.

Being the second to last book of the Old Testament, in many ways Zechariah forms an astounding transition between the Bible’s two great Covenants.  As the prophecy of the Old Covenant’s end continues, when the staff is broken, 30 pieces of silver is paid as the shepherd’s value, this sarcastically “princely sum” is thrown “into the house of Jehovah for the potter” [verses 12-13].  Looking down this coming week, the thirty pieces of silver (which according to Exodus [21:32] is the price of a slave) for which Judas has betrayed Jesus, he throws down in the temple, and the priests, unwilling to put the Blood money back into the treasury, use it to buy a potter’s field.

In today’s Old Testament Lesson, Zechariah marks the metamorphosis to the New Covenant as he announces the coming of the King, through whose “Blood of your Covenant, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit.”   The Old Covenant ceases at the Cross, but the night before, Jesus declares, “Drink from [this cup], all of you; this is My Blood of the New Covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the remission of sins” [Luke 22:20; Matthew 26:27-28] – here indeed is the Blood that will give life, that will set free from the waterless pit.

Having just talked about the “prisoners freed from the waterless pit,” the next verse, which follows today’s reading, then calls out, possibly to those same prisoners, a curious instruction: “Return to the stronghold, O prisoners of hope!” [v 12]  This Is indeed a switch of thought: one usually thinks of a “prisoner” as chained or shackled to ”despair,” but here to “hope”?  What a picture is created in the mind, it suggests that, under this King, one cannot escape from hope no matter how much he tried.  He is hope’s prisoner, and he is being marched off to the citadel of hope.  It certainly is an odd way of putting it, but it also is a powerful message, not of defeat and disillusionment as one might expect from the word “prisoner,” but rather of confidence, joy, safety and victory.

Zechariah has other compelling reassurances, such as the promise, “Behold, I will save My People…  I will bring them back… they shall be My People and I will be their God, in truth and righteousness” [8:7-8].  Also he includes one promise that should bring satisfaction to the Christians who are Gentiles (or non-Jews), because Jehovah of Covenant will not abandon His People, not even His Old Testament People, and they too will finally come to realize what Jesus is about – as Zechariah writes:

I will pour on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem the Spirit of grace and supplication; then they will look on Me Whom they pierced. Yes, they will mourn for Him as one mourns for his only son, and grieve for Him as one grieves for a firstborn  [12:10]

As amazing and profound are these various themes are, yet there are more astonishing prophecies and hope in this Old Testament book of transition.  It really is a book to keep in mind as we face this coming week because at first glance these coming days would appear to be the most dismal of the year.  Easily we could think of them within the concept of “prisoners of despair and defeat,” and so we need Zechariah to turn us around and remind us again that we are “prisoners of hope.”

A problem, though, is to determine what the nature of this hope should be.  As we consider Palm Sunday, the road entering Jerusalem is lined with all sorts of people, who as they celebrate the coming of this King, are filled with “hope.”  But what are they hoping for?  Are they getting all excited because their Savior is coming to fulfill what is required by their sin?  Well, since Jesus’ own disciples do not even understand that, it is very unlikely that the crowd does either.  What then are they excited about?
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Perhaps some recall the prophecy from Zechariah that we read before.  Is so, then there certainly would be the excitement of knowing that something a prophet foretold was actually happening in their own lifetime.  Probably there would be a jumble of images bouncing around in their minds: on one hand, there would be the idea of Someone from David’s royal line is coming to finally occupy the throne that God had promised only to David’s descendents.  It would mean that there would be freedom from the Herod dynasty, who were not even Jews anyway, as well as freedom from that dynasty’s lists of atrocities.

Then perhaps, with Passover just around the corner, there is the hope that here is another Moses, the deliverer who had led Israel out from under Pharaoh’s thumb – perhaps Jesus will deliver the Jews out from under the thumb of the Romans.  The Romans never do quite understand the Jews, but what is especially irritating is that God’s People are ruled by these heathen Romans – these false god worshippers – these unbelievers who now determine the affairs of God’s nation and even charge them taxes for the privilege.

In the crowd perhaps are those who saw a Miracle Worker who could turn a few loaves into a meal for thousands, who could heal the sick, even cast out demons, and most impressive all, could even raise the dead.  Consider what would it be like having this Person in leadership – why one could hardly imagine all the endless possibilities of good that would come out of His Kingship; think of the solutions for the homeless and hungry, think of how the medical crisis would be diminished, even how people could be literally released from their own private demons!  Although we have political candidates that seemingly try to promise such things, imagine having One Who could deliver.

And who knows what other hopes that crowd has.  They are very much like us, and we are very much like them.  We get all excited by someone who seems to promise an answer to some world-sized problem – but that excitement wears out sooner or later.  The magic cure, the magic solution, the magic candidate never quite pans out.  In fact, how often does our prayer life kick into high gear when a crisis hits, and we have such a motivating hope; but then when the crisis is over, we simply go back to life as usual.

The people that line the road are indeed “prisoners of hope” – but only the vague hope that things might get better.  These are not the High Priest’s hand-picked crowd which later calls for Jesus’ death, rather they are the ones who later pass by the Cross on Good Friday, having seen what the world can do, who now become “prisoners of despair” – they realize that there is to be no hope after all.  Truly, we can understand – we too become disillusioned in what happens in the world, in the office, in the market, in politics, and even in our own selves.  It can really seem that there is no hope after all – we too can become “prisoners of despair.”

Zechariah must speak to us, just as much as he does to Israel, that there is a hope that has lasting depth and meaning, one that will not betray us.  Through him God declares, “because of the Blood of your Covenant, I will set your prisoners free.”  Remember that solemn vow even to death to Abraham, that vow that God had doggedly held on to throughout thousands of years, no matter what the rebellions of Israel were like?  And even now, even after He broke that Covenant, how He still remains committed to this People?

Here on the altar is the “Blood of the New Covenant” – it is an equally solemn pledge and just as binding, based on the same steadfast Love, but this vow God constantly, weekly, holds before us, because this greater relationship has a foundation that will never be broken in all eternity.  In this Blood all barriers between God and us are forever cleared away.  And just like with Israel, He will never abandon us, but will bring us to His own home forever.

Just like the turn of words that catches our eye in regard to the “prisoners of hope,” this Blood of the New Covenant gives us a turn of perspective in regard to the cross.  This is not despair conquering yet again, but rather it is Jesus triumphing over sin by demolishing its power forever as He casts our sin behind His back and will never remember them again.  As well, because of Easter, this Blood declares the final victory even over death.  This is a far better hope, where Jesus and the Holy Spirit are delighted to be truly here, now, in our lives, in our world and in our eternal future.

In the verse where God talks about the “prisoners of hope, He finishes with “even today I declare that I will restore double to you” [v 12] – although this was spoken to Israel, as we look on the altar at the “Blood of the Covenant” offered here to us for this world and for heaven, truly we also have been given double amount of hope in Jesus.

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