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“In the eighth month, in the second year of Darius, the word of the LORD came to the prophet Zechariah …” (Zechariah 1:1)
Christians and Messianic Jews often find it quite easy to see Jesus (Yeshua) revealed in the Messianic prophecies of the Hebrew Bible.
For instance, during Shabbat service at one Messianic congregation, the Pastor read the prophecy of Zechariah 12:10, which says:
“I will pour upon the house of David, and upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the spirit of grace and of supplication; and they shall look unto Me because they have thrust him through; and they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for his only son, and shall be in bitterness for him, as one that is in bitterness for his first-born.”
The Pastor asked his congregation, “Who is pierced?”
“Yeshua!” they answered.
“And who is mourning?”
A zealous new Believer spoke up, “The people of Israel!”
Steven, who is sitting in the back row, recalls how much passion he had when he was a new Believer.
But now, just two years later, he is struggling with understanding Messianic prophecies that once seemed self-evident. After all, the stakes for believing in Yeshua are high.
The fact is, anyone who believes any Messianic prophecy refers to Jesus is “a heretic” in the eyes of the Jewish community, and heretics are cut off.
Steven’s father-in-law is a professor at the Reform Jewish Yeshiva in Jerusalem and has pushed him to meet with an Orthodox Rabbi, who also happens to be an expert in Messianic prophecies.
Steven understands what’s at stake for him. He still believes in Yeshua, but he wants to be respectful to his father-in-law and hear both sides of this prophecy. He asks the Rabbi to meet him and his pastor.
At a local cafe, they sit down to read Zechariah’s prophecy, each from their own Bible, and begin their discussion:
Steven: Rabbi, please tell us who is pierced in this Scripture and for whom do you believe the people are mourning?
Rabbi: Before I tell you what I believe, it’s important to understand the context of what is going on historically within the passage and who is speaking to whom.
Steven: Yes, you’re right. Context is important. Go on please.
Rabbi: In this passage, a war is taking place, and the kingdom of Judah is being attacked by her enemies. But Zechariah says in verses 8–9 that God will strengthen Judah to fight with power, overcoming and defeating all their foes. Sometime during that last battle, someone will die causing the nation to look to God and to mourn.
Let me ask you, Steven. Who is the speaker in this larger passage?
Steven: Let me look… It says back in verse 1 of this chapter, “Thus says the Lord,” so I would say God is the speaker.
Rabbi: So then it is the Lord the people of Jerusalem turn to.
Steven: Yes, they turn to God. But who’s mourning for whom?
Rabbi: FIrst, understand that there are several views on this passage dating back to before the time of Jesus.
Steven: How do you know that?
Rabbi: I’m sure your pastor will confirm that In ancient Israel, the people did not all speak Hebrew. Most were descendants of the people who returned from exile in Babylon, and their main language was Aramaic.
To understand Scripture, they referred to Scriptural translations in Aramaic. Those translations were called Targums, which simply means “translations.” They were written along with commentary in the Scriptures, sort of like notes in our Bibles today.
Steven: Ok, what do the Targums say?
Rabbi: It is believed that Yonatan (Jonathan), a student of the revered Rabbi Hillel, wrote in his translation (Targum Jonathan) between 10 and 50 years before Jesus was born that it is the Israelites who were exiled that are mourning and that they would look to the God of Israel for consolation.
Pastor: Do you believe that, Rabbi?
Rabbi: That is just one idea. I am more inclined to believe the Targum Tosefta, written about 200 years after Jesus, which tells us that the people are mourning for Messiah ben Joseph, our suffering Messiah.
Steven: What do you mean Messiah ben Joseph?
Rabbi: “Ben” means “son” in Hebrew. Our Messiah ben Joseph is a descendant of Joseph, the one we read about in Genesis 39–50, who was sold into slavery by his brothers and sent to prison for a crime he didn’t commit. The one who interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams and rose to become second in command of all Egypt.
Steven: I’m confused. I thought Messiah is supposed to be a son of David. Isn’t that what the Scriptures teach?
Pastor: Allow me to interrupt. Yes, Steven. You’re right. Messiah is son of King David, but the Rabbis have determined that before Messiah son of David comes, Messiah ben Joseph will be killed in the battle that the Rabbi mentioned earlier.
That battle is said to be the war of Gog and Magog that we read about last week in Ezekiel chapters 38–39.
Rabbi: Yes, and the people will look to God for consolation and direction. They will also mourn that Messiah ben Joseph is killed in that battle because they will feel like there is no one left to reign over them.
Steven: Rabbi, doesn’t it seem just as reasonable that this Messiah is Jesus? After all, he was killed, too.
Rabbi: Ah, but he is not Messiah. Zechariah is telling us about another man. This suffering servant will be pierced.
Steven: Wasn’t Jesus pierced?
Rabbi: Because such a righteous man died fighting for such unrighteous people, it will be as though he was pierced because of their sins. He takes all the guilt of Israel upon himself.
Steven: Exactly, Rabbi. Jesus who was sinless died for the sins of the world.
Rabbi: No. Jesus is not the Messiah.
Pastor: Rabbi, I do respect your passion for God and for the Scriptures, but isn’t it true that the sages and Rabbis of old believed when a righteous man is martyred for no fault of his own, his death will be accounted to the people of their generation as a perfect atonement?
Rabbi: You are right. Our 16th century sage, Rabbi Moshe Alshech wrote in his book, Mirrors of the Crucifixion, that very fact. And he applied it to Messiah ben Joseph here in Zechariah’s prophecy.
Steven: But, that’s what Jesus did. He was sentenced to death, even though he was sinless.
Rabbi: With all due respect, you both are misinterpreting the Hebrew Scriptures.
Pastor: Rabbi, can we agree that the Romans nailed Jesus to a tree on Passover?
Rabbi: I do believe there is evidence to confirm he did die in that manner.
Pastor: And the centurion took a spear and pierced his side. His life was full of great righteousness and great suffering.
Rabbi: Let me put it this way. It is obvious that Jesus is not Messiah because the Temple has not been rebuilt, over six million Jewish People are still scattered instead of living in Israel, and we continually experience dangerous turmoil in the world instead of peace and righteousness. The Scriptures say Messiah will correct all these things.
Steven: That’s true, Pastor. The Scriptures do say that.
Pastor: Steven, Jesus could not “rebuild” the temple at that time. The second Temple was still standing. There was no need to rebuild anything. But Rabbi, If you can believe that a second Messiah will come after Messiah ben Joseph, then why can’t you believe that Yeshua will come again at a later time to accomplish these things you just mentioned?
Rabbi: There is nothing in Scripture that says one Messiah will come twice.
Pastor: Well, it’s my understanding that the idea of two Messiahs only came about around a 100 years or so before Jesus’ time. Then that idea developed more fully and gained wider acceptance after the destruction of the Temple.
Yet, we do know when Messiah had to die, fulfilling a prophecy that the Rabbis would attribute to Messiah ben Joseph.
Steven: We do?
Pastor: Sure we do. Daniel told us when Messiah would die in chapter 9 verse 26 of his book. Here, let me read it from the Bible on the Chabad website:
“After the sixty-two weeks, the anointed one will be cut off, and he will be no more, and the people of the coming monarch will destroy the city and the Sanctuary, and his end will come about by inundation, and until the end of the war, it will be cut off into desolation.”
Steven: Seriously? Are you saying that Messiah had to die before the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 AD?
Rabbi: No, no. Our revered sage, Rashi, wrote that this anointed person who is cut off is King Agrippa from Judea.
Steven: Is that true Pastor?
Pastor: Agrippa died about 30 years after the Temple was destroyed by the Romans, so Daniel clearly cannot be talking about Agrippa. Rabbi, when did Jesus die?
Rabbi: He died around 40 years or so before the Temple was destroyed.
Pastor: That’s right. And as he hung there, the apostle John stood watching. It brought to his mind this passage, chapter 12 verse 10 of Zechariah’s message that all our Prophets longed to understand. Here, Steven. Please read John 19:36–37:
Steven: John says,
“These things took place that the Scripture might be fulfilled: ‘Not one of his bones will be broken.’ And again another Scripture says, ‘They will look on him whom they have pierced.’”
Pastor: What do you think about that, Rabbi?
Pastor: We know from studying Hebraic literature that John did what the writers of the Targums and other Rabbis of his day had done many times. Many of the students of Rabbis from that era looked for ways to prove their teacher was Messiah.
They would look for the names of Messiah that were the same as or similar to their own rabbis. They would take half of a verse from here and half from there and put them together. Even the translators of the Targums changed words and added explanations.
John is doing the same when he wrote: “They will look on him whom they have pierced.” He’s drawing the reader’s attention to a passage in the writings of the Prophets, expecting the readers of his book to go back and look at it for themselves.
Rabbi: Getting back to Zechariah, the prophet said that the people of Israel will mourn for the one they pierced. I don’t know any Jews who are mourning over Jesus. Do you know of any, Pastor?
Pastor: Of course, you are not mourning, Rabbi. But I am Jewish and when I became a Believer, I mourned greatly. Was that your experience, Steven?
Steven: Actually, it was.
Pastor: Please tell the Rabbi about it.
Steven: Well, I came across some people who told me how Yeshua’s name means Salvation and that he died to save me. But I just couldn’t understand why Yeshua, or Jesus, had to die. I prayed to haShem and asked Him to show me the truth about who he really is.
A few days after that prayer, I turned on the TV and a movie about his life was showing. In that movie, I watched a young shopkeeper journey to the Temple in Jerusalem to buy a spotless lamb. It would be an offering for his sin.
He carried the lamb into the Temple court and laid his hands on its head, believing that his sins would transfer onto the lamb. He even confessed his sins to God and asked for forgiveness
Then this pilgrim took hold of the knife and killed the lamb.
Pastor: God told the people in Leviticus chapter 4 verses 28-29 to atone for their sins in that way. And again in Leviticus 16, the High Priest offers an animal for Israel’s national redemption on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur.
Steven: Do the Jewish People still kill lambs, Rabbi?
Rabbi: I’m sure you know that we can’t do that without a Temple, Steven.
Steven: Forgive me, Rabbi, but how do you know if God forgives your sins?
Rabbi: We pray three times a day, confessing our sins just like that man did in the Temple. But haShem understands that we cannot sacrifice an animal, so he accepts our prayers and good deeds and charity instead.
Pastor: What happened, Steven, when you saw the lamb killed?
Steven: I finally understood what it means that Jesus is “the Lamb of God.”
Pastor: What do you mean?
Steven: I understood that my own sin caused the suffering of our Messiah. I fell face down on the floor and wept and wept and wept, thanking God for taking away my sins. I had forgotten that moment.
That’s when I came to know for certain that Jesus is real. He is who the Bible says he is.
Pastor: That’s right, Steven. Jesus became our final sacrifice, our final atonement. With utmost respect, Rabbi, I ask: can your prayers atone for all of your sins once and for all?
Pastor: How long did you weep, Steven?
Steven: I don’t know, but it seemed like hours.
Pastor: Then what happened?
Steven: I felt an incredible peace wash over me. I can’t explain it any other way. I sensed a joy that I had not experienced before. Even when things don’t go smoothly, I always have that joy.
Thank you for reminding me of that, Pastor. I needed to remember.
Pastor: I ask you, Rabbi, to seriously reconsider your ideas about who Messiah is and what he came to do. As the psalmist said, “Weeping may last for the night, but joy comes in the morning.”
Though this dialogue has been a work of fiction, the ideas and perspectives presented are accurate. Here is a brief recap to help you in your study of this important Messianic prophecy:
- Targum Tosefta, written about 200 years after Jesus, tells us that the people are mourning for Messiah ben Joseph, our suffering Messiah, who dies in battle..
- According to Daniel 9:26, Messiah had to die before the Temple was destroyed. Jesus died 40 years before the Romans took over Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple.
- When a righteous man is martyred for no fault of his own, his death will be accounted to the people of their generation as a perfect atonement.
- The apostle John witnessed the Roman soldier pierce the side of Jesus as he hung on the tree. In writing of this event, he interpreted Zechariah 12:10 this way: “They will look on him whom they have pierced.” (John 19:36-37)
- Leviticus 4:28–29 tells us that a person atoned for their sins by offering certain spotless animals at the Temple, confessing their sins to God, transferring their sins to the animal, and then personally killing it.
- When someone truly realizes that Jesus was pierced and died to atone for their sin, they mourn.
- That mourning, however, soon becomes eternal gladness.
“For His anger lasts only a moment, but His favor lasts a lifetime; weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.” (Psalm 30:5)
There is more to analyzing this prophecy than this dialogue allows.
These same opinions and more about who is being pierced and who is mourning and why are still debated today partly because of one two-letter Hebrew word et, which is also the subject of much debate itself.
This word et, has no direct translation into English, and its meaning changes based on context and syntax. As well, et often acts as a marker that can change the focus of a verb’s object from the first subject of the sentence to the second subject.
Because of this, two equally valid translations of Zechariah 12:10 are hotly contested. The Hebrew text is presented below and color coded to more easily follow along in two English translations:
וְהִבִּ֥יטוּ אֵלַ֖י אֵ֣ת אֲשֶׁר־דָּקָ֑רוּ וְסָפְד֣וּ עָלָ֗יו כְּמִסְפֵּד֙ עַל־הַיָּחִ֔יד (Zechariah 12:10 WTT)
and they shall look upon me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for him, as one mourneth for his only son. (KJV 1613)
and they shall look towards me, regarding those whom the nations have thrust through. And they shall mourn for him (that is slain) as one mourns for an only son. (Koren Jerusalem Bible 1967)
What shall we do with such opposing translations?
From the Jewish perspective, noted Hebrew scholar, lecturer, and former tenured professor Uri Yoseph writes:
“Since there is an ambiguity in the Hebrew text in terms of whether the subject (i.e., the “victim”) is an individual or a group—the particular pronouns used here are applied to both in the Hebrew Bible—there are two ways to interpret this passage within this messianic perspective. Both interpretations [quoted above] are consistent with the Hebrew text as well as with Jewish tradition.“ (“A Piercing Look at a False Claim,” published by the Messiah Truth Project, Inc., 2011, PDF)
The key to understanding any prophetic passage, especially when such grammatical issues exist, is to look to context and historical events. Yet, even then, we must take great care since it may appear that some historical events fit a prophetic description, but God has other plans still unveiled.
For example, at least one noted Christian scholar believes that Zechariah 12:8–10 describes the Maccabean revolt of 167–165 BC as well as the death of its leader Mattathias and his followers (Samuel R. Driver. The Minor Prophets, 1906. p. 264)
The apostle John, however, sees a clear connection between Zechariah’s prophecy and Yeshua’s death. John changes the rendering ever so slightly, the same way the writers of the Targums added explanatory notes to their texts:
“These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled, ‘None of his bones shall be broken.’ And again another passage of scripture says, ‘They will look on the one whom they have pierced.’” (John 19:36–37)
Others like John believe it describes the death of Yeshua, our High Priest, and His payment for our sin, which allows us to approach the throne of God with confidence.
Let us also remember, however, that no single prophecy proves that Yeshua or any other historic person was the Messiah. Each prophecy is a piece of the puzzle of God’s revelation.
So stay tuned as we continue to examine more pieces of this mysterious puzzle and see who they reveal.
“As was his custom, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbaths he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead. ‘This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Messiah.'” (Acts 17:2–3)