Jesus, the Poor King

In seminary, I worked for a small carpet cleaning business. It was just me and the owner of the company. We split the work up, driving throughout San Diego shampooing people’s carpets. I loved the job because it was a break from my studies, but when I’d show up to a house to clean the carpets I’d always get funny looks. Being a small business, we didn’t have the equipment of a Stanley Steamer-sized company. There was no truck-mounted van with a clean business logo on the side. I didn’t even have to wear a uniform. I’d show up in jeans and a T-shirt, and then begin unloading portable equipment from the back of my forest green ‘98 Honda CRV. 

I remember showing up to homes and being asked questions like, “Are you going to clean the carpet?” And, “Does that thing work?” The answer was always yes—but I admit people had reason to ask. They were expecting a couple uniformed carpet technicians in a business van, and they got a 22-year-old guy in a Volcom shirt. 

Sometimes the person coming to fix our problem just looks differently than we expect, I guess. At no point was this truer than with Jesus, the Messiah. The prophet Zechariah wrote, 

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall speak peace to the nations; his rule shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth. As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit.

Zech. 9:9-11

Zechariah addressed his prophecy to the post-exile community. He lamented the fact that despite everything God’s people had been through, they continued to make the same sinful decisions as their ancestors. Here he gives a ray of hope: A king was coming to end war and rescue the people once and for all. Zechariah called God’s people to rejoice, and then he painted an unlikely picture of what this king would be like, “humble and mounted on a donkey.”

In his book Gentle and Lowly, Dane Ortlund notes that the only time Jesus described his own heart in the Gospels, he referred to it as gentle and lowly (Mt. 11:29). It’s the same word used in Zechariah 9 describing the humble king. In the Hebrew Bible, this word humble is often used to describe material poverty. Picture it, the prophet is calling the nation to rejoice, and to set their hopes on a king who is coming, but the king looks destitute. He doesn’t show up on a mighty steed, but a humble donkey. Zechariah’s picture would have raised eyebrows, to say the least. “Is this the guy who’s going to get the deliverance job done?” It’s no surprise that people responded to Jesus how they did when he first came.

Nathaniel said, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (Jn. 1:46)

The Jewish crowd said “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven?’” (Jn. 6:42) 

Even the folks in Jesus’ hometown said, “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t His mother’s name Mary, and aren’t His brothers James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas?” (Mt. 13:35) 

Jesus didn’t come with a visible army of soldiers and stately entourage. His mother was a humble virgin, and his disciples were humble fishermen. Yet he was the one who would bring peace to the nations (Zech. 9:10). How? Through the blood of the covenant. Note again the prophet’s words, “As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners from the waterless pit” (v.11). The phrase “blood of my covenant” echoes back to the words of Exodus 24:8 where Moses sprinkled blood on the people and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.” That scene focused on the old Mosaic covenant, established after the first Exodus. Zechariah was looking forward to a new covenant, and a new exodus. 

This time, the people weren’t being delivered from Egypt, but from death itself—the waterless pit. Throughout the Old Testament, the pit is another name for the grave, or Sheol (Ps. 28:1; 30:3; Isa. 38:18; cf. Lk. 16:24). This humble king was coming to deliver his people from the grave, and he did so by entering the tomb itself to plunder death. “And likewise [Jesus took] the cup after they had eaten, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood’” (Lk. 22:20). Here Jesus is using the language of Exodus 24 and Zechariah 9 in reference to the sacrifice of his life. The humble king—who is also the water of life—rescues us from the waterless pit through the blood of the new covenant. Because of this, we rejoice greatly! (Zech. 9:9)

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