God Comes as a Warrior, Yet Still with Mercy
Topic: Advent Passage: Zechariah 9:1–9:8
Sermon from Zechariah 9:1-8 by Bret Rogers, Pastor
Delivered on December 13, 2015
Series: Zechariah: Return & Restoration (Part 12)
Andy and I went to visit some of our workers in Turkey, and meet their new teammates, and join some of the work they’ve already started with a number of folks in their city. Our friends send their greetings to you. And we also got to meet Kevin—whom you’ve been reading about in the updates—and he sends his greetings to you and his thanks for your many prayers. I hope to share more about our trip at a later time, perhaps when Andy returns, because there’s so much to rejoice over and so much that we can learn from what God is doing in Turkey.
But for now let’s turn to Zechariah 9 and read verses 1-8, and what we’re going to see is this: God comes as a warrior against the prideful nations, yet still with mercy. And that’s incredibly fitting for this season of Advent. Jesus was born into the world to make it right again. Part of that comes through God’s purpose in judgment, and part of that comes through God’s purpose in mercy. So let’s look at verses 1-8…
1The oracle of the word of the LORD is against the land of Hadrach and Damascus is its resting place. For the LORD has an eye on mankind and on all the tribes of Israel, 2and on Hamath also, which borders on it, Tyre and Sidon, though they are very wise. 3Tyre has built herself a rampart and heaped up silver like dust, and fine gold like the mud of the streets. 4But behold, the Lord will strip her of her possessions and strike down her power on the sea, and she shall be devoured by fire. 5Ashkelon shall see it, and be afraid; Gaza too, and shall writhe in anguish; Ekron also, because its hopes are confounded. The king shall perish from Gaza; Ashkelon shall be uninhabited; 6a mixed people shall dwell in Ashdod, and I will cut off the pride of Philistia. 7I will take away its blood from its mouth, and its abominations from between its teeth; it too shall be a remnant for our God; it shall be like a clan in Judah, and Ekron shall be like the Jebusites. 8Then I will encamp at my house as a guard, so that none shall march to and fro; no oppressor shall again march over them, for now I see with my own eyes.
Everything we just read is a word about God’s dealings with nations other than Israel. He starts in the region north of Israel—the land of Hadrach, which encompasses the two cities of Damascus and Hamath. These place names are located in what we know today as Syria. The message then moves southward along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea to a couple of booming port-cities, Tyre and Sidon. And then finally it moves even further south to four cities in Philistia, namely, Gaza, Ekron, Ashkelon, and Ashdod.
So, various nations who are not Israel. But—and here’s something that’s key to understanding our passage—they’re all written for Israel. The words are about God’s dealings with the nations, but they’re written for God’s covenant people. God’s people are to listen to the ways he will deal with the nations and benefit from those words.
That’s important. Through Jesus Christ, we too are God’s covenant people. We too must listen to the ways God will deal with the nations and benefit from these words. We may be centuries removed from Zechariah, but God’s dealings with the nations are just as relevant to our day. But before we go there, let’s walk through our passage in three basic steps, in order to grasp what’s going on.
1. God Acts to Bring About the World’s Worship of Himself
Step number one is to notice that God acts to bring about the world’s worship of himself. I get this from the second half of verse 1, but I do so by translating the Hebrew a bit differently than the ESV. Remember that our English Bibles do their best to represent the original Hebrew and Greek texts that we Christians hold to be the inspired word of God.
In this case, the ESV translates it, “For the Lord has an eye on mankind and on all the tribes of Israel.” It’s basically saying that the reason judgment is coming against the nations is that God is watching the world. He sees the sinfulness of mankind and he will hold them accountable. And that’s certainly true.
But the Hebrew is better translated much like the New American Standard Version has it: “For the eye of mankind, especially all the tribes of Israel [belongs] to the Lord.” In that translation, the meaning has more to do with what the world owes God—the world owes God all of its attention. God is to be foremost in our thoughts.
But there’s a big problem in the world, and it’s been a big problem since Adam fell into sin (Gen 3:1-6; Rom 5:12-14). The big problem is that the nations are very distracted. God is worthy of the world’s worship, but the world pays him no attention. Their eye isn’t on the Lord; it’s on the riches of this world. God’s kingdom isn’t foremost in their thoughts, but their own kingdoms are foremost in their thoughts. Their trust isn’t in the Lord alone to save them; it’s in the works of their own hands to save them.
And we get a few pictures of this in the following verses. Verse 2 says, “Tyre and Sidon, though they are very wise.” There’s a bit of irony playing out here. It’s not saying that they really are wise, in the sense that they fear the Lord; it’s saying that they think they’re wise in all they can do for themselves. I mean, it seems like these two cities have it all together. “Tyre has built herself a rampart.” That means they boast a pretty good fortress around them.
Then verse 3 goes on to describe its incredible wealth—“they heap up silver like dust, and fine gold like the mud of the streets.” Silver was as common to this city as the dust on your furniture. It was incredibly wealthy. Isaiah tells us that Tyre housed the merchants of the nations (Isa 23:3). All the other nations looked to them for wealth and prosperity; and if you were their allies, then you could enjoy some great security too.
But all of this they enjoyed without God—without honoring him as God or giving him thanks. They don’t pay God any attention, because they think they don’t need him at all. This is why Jesus says that it’s harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. The richer you are with the world, the harder it is for you to see your need of God. And people who live as if they don’t need God are, at the most basic level, pretending to be God. They think they can do everything themselves, including save themselves. But the thrust of this prophecy is that God will not tolerate this forever. He will act to bring about the world’s worship of him; he will act to turn the world’s eyes to himself.
2. God Will Cut Down the Proud & Self-Reliant Nations
One way he will act to bring about the world’s worship is through judgment. That leads us to take a second step: God will cut down the proud and self-reliant nations. More specifically, his word will actually create a day of judgment for the proud and self-reliant. And this future judgment against the nations has been spoken already before. You see, Isaiah and Ezekiel and Jeremiah and Amos and Zephaniah—all these guys prophesied years before Zechariah that God would judge the nations. Many of the same place names we find here in Zechariah, also appear in the judgments promised by these former prophets. And those previous prophecies were supposed to encourage Israel even as they went into exile. They reassured Israel—“Hey, don’t think these proud and arrogant nations are getting the last word on you. I will judge them.”
Well, now Israel has returned from exile, but the total fulfillment of God’s judgment hasn’t come yet. Meaning, exile isn’t quite over yet for them. Some of these nations may have already experienced God’s judgment when he sent the Babylonians to defeat them. But their total defeat had yet to come. And God is now reminding them as if to say, “Hey, my word about those nations is still good. I’m planning to judge them once and for all.” God’s kingdom wouldn’t come in full until all his words of judgment against the nations were fulfilled.
So, in some sense, he’s pointing them to the future in terms of their past. He’s pulling out the old prophecies, dusting them off for the people of his generation, and then renewing their hope in God’s future plan to judge the nations, to make the world right.
What will that consist of? Well, we catch a few glimpses of it in our passage. First off, the word of judgment will settle on their cities until all his judgments are executed. That’s the image we get in verse 1: “Damascus is its resting place.” You have this capital city in Syria, and God’s judgment is like a heavy mass, and it will rest in the capital until all the people are consumed.
Also, we see Tyre and Sidon—these cities that thought they were “all that”. Verse 4 says, “Behold, the Lord will strip her of her possessions, and strike down her power on the sea, and she shall be devoured by fire.” They’re no challenge to the Lord, in other words. Just as he raised them up, he can also take them out. And we see him doing that with Tyre. One by one he strips away all that was so precious to them—their possessions, their power, and their palace.
Then in verse 5 we get some of the ripple effects of taking out Tyre and Sidon. “Ashkelon shall see [God’s judgment], and be afraid; Gaza too, and shall writhe in anguish; Ekron also, because its hopes are confounded.” In other words, the people were so dependent on the kingdom of man, that when God stripped it from them, they had nothing. All meaning in life was lost with the downfall of the economy and the security that went with it. That’s what happens when your hope is bound up with things in this world that can perish—when they perish, so do your hopes.
Verse 5 has even more to say—the king shall perish from Gaza. Ashkelon shall also be uninhabited—he will make the city a ghost-town, in other words. And then finally, “a mixed people shall dwell in Ashdod.” That’s another way of saying he will strip Philistia of its nationality. Its own people will be driven out and replaced by others. God will kill their king, remove their people, and strip their nationality—in summary, verse 6 ends with “I will cut off the pride of Philistia.”
Everything they could boast-in, God will shatter. God will cut down the proud and self-reliant nations, and this is one way he will turn the world’s attention to himself. The eye of mankind belongs to the Lord, and he will see to it in the end that they all pay attention. He will come in judgment until every knee bows and every tongue swears allegiance to him (cf. Isa 45:23). He will make it so that even the proudest of nations has no other choice but to bow the knee.
3. God Will Also Show Mercy to a Remnant among the Nations
But that’s not all God will do in turning the eye of mankind to himself. And this leads us to take one last step in the passage—notice that God will also show mercy to a remnant among the nations. To this point, God has been depicted as a conquering warrior. None of the prideful nations can withstand his judgment. But there’s an amazing shift in verses 7-8, and it shows us that even in the midst of God’s judgment, he still shows mercy to some, a remnant.
Cleansing them from idolatry
What will that include? Well, to begin, he will show mercy by cleansing a remnant from their idolatry. Look at the middle of verse 7: “I will take away its blood from its mouth, and its abominations from between its teeth.”
Two pictures are coming together to speak of one thing, namely, idolatry. “Blood from its mouth.” In the Old Testament, God forbid Israel from eating meat with its life still in it, meaning, with its blood still in it (Gen 9:4; Lev 17:10-14; Ezek 33:25). And then this word, “abominations” is used elsewhere to speak of the forbidden food associated with pagan sacrifice (Deut 29:17; Hos 9:10). So this description of a man with blood dripping from his mouth, and forbidden food stuck between his teeth, is really a repulsive way to depict the people’s idolatry.
But all of that is set up to magnify God’s mercy. God will take away their idolatry forever. And what’s even more amazing is that he’s doing this for Gentiles. Decades before, Ezekiel promised that God would do this for Israel, when he would sprinkle them with clean water and cleanse them from all their idols by giving the entire nation a new heart (Ezek 36:25-26). But now we’re seeing Gentiles like Philistia included in the same promises. To use the words of George Klein, a rather disgusting scene turns into a word of encouragement. For some God will remove their idols and make them true worshipers of God.
Making them part of his people
He will also show this remnant mercy by making them his people. The end of verse 7: “It too shall be a remnant for our God; it shall be like a clan in Judah, and Ekron shall be like the Jebusites.” Remember the Jebusites? The Jebusites were a people who should have been destroyed altogether (Exod 23:23), but some of them eventually found themselves dwelling with God’s covenant people (Josh 15:63; 2 Sam 24:18-24). The idea here is that God’s powerful word of judgment would so transform the people of Philistia, that he wouldn’t be ashamed of calling them his own. They would even be like a clan in Judah—they would become leaders within his covenant people.
The mercy and grace in this passage is so extravagant—God takes a bloodthirsty, idolatry-craving, covenant-breaking people and transforms them into a remnant for himself. I’ll say more about this later, but that’s precisely what he did for us in Christ. He cleansed us from our idolatry and made us part of his family.
Bringing them into his protecting presence
Then finally he shows this remnant mercy by bringing them into his protecting presence. Verse 8, “Then I will encamp at my house as a guard, so that none shall march to and fro; no oppressor shall again march over them, for now I see with my own eyes.”
“No oppressor shall again march over them”—and the “them” includes the remnant from the nations. God will protect them—these once pagan enemies—from oppressors. When God encamps over you in his kingdom, none can stand against you. This is much like what we saw in 2:5, where Jerusalem will be inhabited as villages without walls because of the multitude of people…in it. He will make room for this remnant from the nations to dwell in his presence, and when they do, he will be for them “a wall of fire all around.” God dwells in the midst of his people to protect them.
Living in Light of God’s Future Judgment & Mercy to the Nations
So this will be his mercy to a remnant among the nations. Yes, he will come to the nations with judgment. He will uphold justice and defeat his enemies, but he will also extend mercy to some, a remnant that he has marked out for himself. God comes as a warrior against the prideful nations, yet still with mercy. So, what can we take home with us in light of prophecy like this?
Renew your hope that God will bring peace on earth
First off, being that it’s the season of Advent, where we celebrate the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ, a passage like this helps renew our hopes that God will bring peace on earth. The proud and self-reliant nations who oppose God and oppress God’s people will not last forever. God will cut them down.
And Isaiah says that in the end, the government of this world will rest on the shoulders of only one man, Jesus Christ. “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end…” (Isa 9:6-7).
The judgment of this world’s kingdoms is already taking place. Jesus came and died for sinners and then he rose again on the third day victorious over sin, death, and the devil. And as a result, God has exalted him to his right hand in heaven where he must reign until all his enemies are put under his feet. They are being put under his feet right now—one by one they are going down, and eventually he will finish the work at his return from heaven, when his kingdom comes to earth. But until then, we take a word like this from Zechariah and we set our trust in God to make the world right again.
If you’re here today and you’re not a follower of Jesus—you’re like the nations we described earlier; you live for yourself; you pretend like you don’t need God; you think you have it all together; you look to your own works to save you, consider yourself very blessed to be within the hearing of this word today. God is revealing the future judgment for you right now; and he is warning you through this passage to turn away from your pride and self-reliance and to admit that you need him to save you from your sins. He has provided a way of escape through his Son Jesus Christ. That’s what Christmas is all about—God sending his Son. Don’t find yourself to be among the nations Jesus crushes under his feet; put your faith in Jesus and find yourself under God’s protecting presence like the remnant of this passage.
Take heart that God is powerful to take away your idolatry
Second, this prophecy should bring a lot of hope and encouragement for recovering idolaters, like us. Zechariah’s prophecy teaches us to take heart that God is powerful to take away your idolatry. Those of you who belong to Christ, you have the Holy Spirit, you feel the lure of this world’s idols, don’t you? There are still occasions when you’re tempted to chase after a security that offers a false hope and is devoid of a relationship with God. Your heart is tugged at times to go find an intimacy that’s fleeting and foolish and perhaps destructive to your marriage and displeases God.
Instead of looking to Christ above, your eyes wander, looking for satisfaction in something other than God’s kingdom and its righteousness. You’re grieved—sometimes even to despair—by how often you find yourself falling and bowing to that idol of comfort, that idol of family, that idol of financial freedom, that idol of “I wish I had what she had” or “I wish I could do what he does.” There is great hope for us in a prophecy like this: God is able to take away the abominations from your teeth, too.
I love 1 Corinthians 6:9-11. And in many ways I’d say that we find in it a fulfillment of what Zechariah speaks of here. God promises a day when he will remove the idolatry from a remnant among the nations. And what does Paul say in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11? “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”
How is it that God ultimately removes idolatry from his chosen people? He ultimately removes it by pouring out his judgment on Christ in your place, by washing you with the shed blood of Jesus, and then by giving you a righteousness that’s not your own but his. And as we read from Ezekiel a bit earlier, he also gives us a new heart by the Spirit, so that we love what God loves. This is what he does for every Jew and every Gentile who trusts in Jesus. And that’s what he’s done for all of you who trust in Jesus. He has so broken the power of idolatry in your life, and he has so cleansed you from your abominations, that he’s not ashamed to include you in his family and call you brothers. And the work he began to take away your idols, he will also complete.
So, take heart! Keep crying out for him to complete his work in you. He is powerful to take away every idolatrous impulse. If you’re in Christ, he will do it. You won’t feel these impulses forever. A day will come when it’s totally gone, and God brings you into the absolute liberty of his worship. You don’t need to fear his wrath coming against the world anymore, because in Christ you’re not part of the world anymore. You’re God’s people, for his possession.
Be strengthened in God’s victory amidst worry and fear
Third, as you know, there’s a lot being said in the mainstream media and on social media about the Syrian refugee crisis. And while sadly some of the exchanges among Christians aren’t quite so pure, peaceable, gentle, or open to reason, others have promoted some healthy reflection on our role in a very complex situation.
In my own study, this passage has proven to be quite helpful for me in thinking through a few things in relation to the refugee crisis, along with some of the questions surrounding Islam. It certainly doesn’t give us an exhaustive answer to the measures we should take in national security, nor does it provide us with everything we might consider in addressing Islamic Jihadism and international terrorism. But it is helpful in addressing a few really important things.
One way it has helped me is by strengthening me in God’s victory when I become worried or afraid. If we’re not careful, the mainstream media can start to shape our outlook on the world more than the Bible. And slowly over time we lose sight of our sovereign God and are overtaken by worry and paralyzing fear that keeps us from following Jesus and taking risks in the path of love. But here, in the word of God, we get a vision of a sovereign and wise God, who will not let evil prevail.
When we think of prophecy, we shouldn’t think that God is merely predicting the future; God is creating the future by his powerful word. What he speaks will happen. His sure and certain word will bring his judgments to pass.
You can imagine some of the terror that Israel felt as the surrounding nations mocked them and threatened them. But here God speaks a word, reassuring them that the oppressive nations will not and cannot win.
That vision of the future gives me a lot of strength to keep doing what God has called me to do. That vision of the future keeps me sharing the gospel with Muslims in Turkey while overhearing questions from other Muslim men who were suspicious that we might be Russian—and you don’t want to be a Russian in Turkey right now.
This vision of the future helps our workers take risks in hopes that new doors would open for the gospel. One way we attempted to befriend other Muslim men was by going with a group of them to watch a soccer match downtown one evening. And at one point I found myself walking down an alley in the dark with about a hundred other Muslim men I didn’t know. I get nervous doing stuff like that here with Christians, and there were moments that, had I not known this God—had this vision of God’s victory not been mine—I wouldn’t have risked it for Christ’s sake. Texts like this are treasures to me in the midst of fear and worry. They comfort the soul, and give courage to obey Christ at all costs. Risks are worth it when your God wins.
Keep your longings for security in the right place
Another way this passage has helped me in the midst of the Syrian refugee crisis is that it places my longings for security in the right place. Some of the stuff I read by Christians makes me wonder where their security ultimately lies. It makes me question whether they really understand the security that already belongs to them in Christ. Like the city of Tyre, we too—especially in a country where safety can easily become an idol—are very vulnerable to relying on our own cleverness and our own strength and our own wealth and our own military power, such that we stray from trusting in God.
Don’t get me wrong. In light of the religious motivation among some Muslims to use murder and terrorism to advance the rule of Islamic law over all nations, there are real questions to ask in light of national security.[1. See the helpful discussion in Wayne Grudem, Politics According to the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 401-414, where he gives a brief history of the commitment to violence among Islamic Jihadists.] But the national security of America is not ultimately that safe. There’s enough evil here as it is. National security can’t stop Satan’s influence on the sons of disobedience who are already citizens of this country, nor will it last all that long, nor will it give you eternal life—and while it may be important to consider, it’s pretty dismal in comparison to the real security we all need.
True security, and lasting security, and life-giving security, comes only in a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Our ultimate security must be here in verse 8, “I will encamp at my house as a guard, so that none shall again march to and fro; no oppressor shall again march over them, for now I see with my own eyes.” God himself must be our refuge and place of safety—and that’s still true even if America prospers in its national security. What good is it to be safe from international terrorism and not safe from the wrath of God? We must keep this straight. And when we do—when we find our ultimate security in Christ—we will be free to lay down our lives for our enemies. Even if they take everything that is precious to us in this life, they cannot take away God, nor can they take away our life in his kingdom.
Live to save God’s remnant from among the nations
Which leads me to one last way this passage helped me. It helped me to see that my life should be spent living to save God’s remnant from among the nations. Part of the problem in some of the church’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis is that they totally miss the incredible opportunity this is for the gospel to advance.
Our passage says that God intends to save a remnant from the nations. In fact, please consider how that was first heard by Israel. Can you imagine sitting under the oppression of foreign invaders for so many years—they’ve raped your women and pillaged your cities and killed your relatives and desecrated your temple. Can you imagine hearing Zechariah saying, “And by the way, God intends to make some of them your worship leaders. By the way, God intends to remove their idols and make some of them join you next Sunday morning for worship. By the way, you’re going to spend eternity with them in my presence.” “Do what?!”
You can just feel the self-righteous tendency to say, “No way am I going to worship with that former Jihadist.” And God is saying, “If you want any part of my kingdom you will.” We cannot tell God who he can and cannot save. God is free to save whomever he pleases, even Islamic Jihadists from Syria. Don’t forget the apostle Paul, who wasn’t all that different when God rescued him on the Damascus road.
And once he saved Paul, Acts 9 says that Paul preached the gospel in Damascus shortly after he was converted, and God saved many people in that city. Acts 8:40 also says that Philip preached the gospel in Azotus, and Azotus is the Roman name for the city of Ashdod that we see in Zechariah 9. God is gathering out a remnant for himself even from Syria.
Many of you know that Turkey borders Syria—we were within a few hours from it ourselves. And Turkey has also received the most refugees at this point despite their political differences with Syria. Anyway, at one point we ran across a couple of Syrian boys working in a local shop. They were 15 years old—started when they were 12, because they can’t get any kind of formal education in Turkey. So they work all day, just trying to make it, while all their friends go to school.
But here’s the amazing thing: these two boys work in this little shop in Turkey. And the owner is a man who—despite his Muslim upbringing—questions the validity of the Quran and sees the oppression of Sharia, and he’s reading the Bible with our friends and growing to love the stories of Jesus and the gospel. If there was ever an opportunity for these Syrian boys to hear and embrace the gospel, it’s now. Some Muslims are searching for an alternative to the satanic oppression they’ve experienced for centuries in Islam, and some of those peoples are talking with our workers and some of them are knocking on the door of our country seeking refuge.
Don’t miss this, folks! Let’s not turn our back on the Great Commission over fear. Yes, screen people well and ensure as best you can that they want to be law-abiding citizens. But even if Department of Homeland Security misses somebody, rejoice at the opportunity to preach Christ to them, and hold out the hope that God will add him or her to his people, and that you will dine with them in the kingdom. If that’s not your heartbeat…then please consider whose kingdom you’re really living for.
God has a remnant that he wants saved from among the nations. Live to see them come to know Christ. This is the way Christ lived to save you. But he didn’t even wait for you to come to him for refuge. He had way more security in heaven than America could ever dream, but he humbled himself and entered our mess, was born in a feed trough, and spent 33 years living to die, so you could live. Let’s follow our Master’s example of laying down our lives to see our Syrian neighbors come to know Christ.
Let’s enter their mess, let’s show our enemies hospitality and pray for them as Jesus teaches us, so that many might submit themselves to Jesus before he comes as a warrior to judge. Syrians will be represented before his throne on the Last Day, singing of the same mercy we have come to experience in Christ. We aren’t saved because we’re better than the rest of the nations, because we’re better than the Jihadists. We’re just as deserving of judgment as the rest of the self-reliant nations. But God has shown us mercy in Christ. God chose to love us by pouring out his judgment on Christ instead. Let’s—with the same mercy—live to save God’s remnant among the nations.
That may mean going to them if they’re not allowed here. That may mean taking every advantage to share Christ with those already here. That may mean thinking of creative ways to help families get acclimated to life in the States. Whatever you do, let’s not underestimate the power of our God to transform idolaters into his true worshipers alongside us.