Great Texts of the Bible
And 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 whom they have pierced: and they shall mourn for him, as one mourneth for his only son, and shall be in bitterness for him, as one that is in bitterness for his firstborn.—Zechariah 12:10.
This is one of the prophecies given to Israel during its later period, when the vigorous spiritual life of the nation had already departed. But Moses expressed the same thought in his prophetic prayer: “Would God that all the Lords people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!” (Numbers 11:29). These prophecies are evidence of the Old Testament prophetic conviction that the dispensation of the Holy Spirit in those days was exceedingly limited; that the real dispensation of the Holy Spirit was still tarrying; and that only in the days of the Messiah was it to come in all its fulness and glory.
1. In this remarkable prophecy, dealing with national repentance, the state of things usually depicted in the Old Testament Scriptures is inverted; for while we are generally shown a people undergoing misery and suffering, and then raised, as the result, to heights of prosperity, we see here a people delivered from their straits and hardships and brought forth into a large place, and thereby awakened to a sense of fault, and laid low in the dust of contrition.
The Jewish Remnant returned from the Babylonian Captivity, and, occupied with efforts to re-establish themselves in their land and to rebuild their ruined Temple, were enduring many difficulties and severities, especially from the opposition of neighbouring tribes, whose hostility was for ever harassing and thwarting them; and into the breast of the anxious prophet, whose mission it was to cheer and animate, there steals, amid his broodings, a vision of all these pestering tribes, uniting at length in a tremendous assault upon the poor struggling Remnant—to be utterly routed and destroyed. He sees Jerusalem made a cup of trembling to its foes; the Lord smiting every horse with astonishment and his rider with madness; the governors of Judah—like a hearth of fire among the wood, and like a flaming torch in a sheaf—devouring the assailants on the right hand and on the left; the feeblest of Israel as irresistible as David, and the house of David as God. It was one of those visions, in dark times, of triumph and glory beyond that are never fulfilled; and, in dreaming thus of marvellous blessing for his country, Zechariah was only following in the wake of the prophets who had preceded him. His distinction is that he dreams of this splendid victory to come as bringing with it a great national mourning and lamentation for sin. He sees the whole land, not surrendered to rejoicing, not jubilant with feast and song, but clothed from end to end in sackcloth of repentance—a solemn silence in the streets; every family withdrawn to weep apart. That was his idea of what should be—a people stirred by extraordinary mercies to a deep impression of their unworthiness.
2. Sorrow or disaster, whether by inducing a humbler temper and self-estimate, or by giving an impression of wrath and punishment, or by desolating the external scene and driving the heart in upon itself, is often the means of rousing men to a recognition and conviction of their sins. It was so continually with the ancient Hebrews; reverse and suffering awoke them time after time to the error of their ways, and set them repenting—with tears, perhaps, that were sincere enough, and not without some temporary purifying effect. Is it not, however, a finer thing, and the sign of a finer nature, when good fortune provokes earnest thoughts with regard to duty and our imperfect discharge of it; when discontent with ourselves and our moral attainment, regret for past deficiencies and failings, with anxiety to be worthier than we are, are excited by signal benedictions, by some great deliverance or success; when, the more life smiles for us and brings us of pleasantness and beautiful possession, the more we yearn to be deserving? Such was the nobler disposition which Zechariah dreamt of being manifested in his countrymen. He imagined them no longer swept to repentance merely before the cutting blast of affliction, but softly constrained to it by the magnitude of their mercies; when most exalted and enriched in condition, then, most deeply penetrated with the sense of their shortcomings, and most burdened with aspiration to amend and excel. He saw the whole nation in the hour of their grand triumph moved to confess and renounce their sins at the feet of God; not, as we have often been called to do, in a season of sharp distress or imminent peril, when harvests have failed or pestilence has stalked through the land, but when trouble has given place to the brightness of unexampled prosperity. To be moved thus was something higher than Israel had yet attained to; and this, after all, is true gratitude to heaven beneath a shower of blessings; to have the sweet shower touching us with unrest and pain that we were not worthier, and kindling new solicitude for self-improvement. To give true thanks for what we receive is to throb with passion, to be comelier and more perfect men.
3. It is God Himself who begins the work of grace in the heart of man. “I will pour out—the spirit of grace and supplication.” It is not in fallen man to renew his own heart. Can the adamant turn itself to wax, or the granite soften itself to clay? Only He who stretches out the heavens and lays the foundation of the earth can form and reform the spirit of man within him. The power to make the rock of our nature flow with rivers of repentance is not in the rock itself. As long as the heart is untouched by the spirit of grace, it either remains in a state of utter insensibility in reference to God and sin on the one hand, or, on the other hand, it is troubled with feelings of reproach and fear, but without being persuaded and changed. In ordinary circumstances the sinner is disposed to think as seldom as possible of God and the relation in which he stands to Him. There may be times, however, when he is shaken out of his habitual self-complacency. Possibly disease has seized upon him, and death seems in hard pursuit, and hell appears not far behind. Or the conscience is awakened, he cannot tell how, from its habitual lethargy; it speaks to him as one having authority, and summons him as it were to the bar of Gods judgment, to give an account of his actions. Now, the great body of mankind flit between these two extremes, being generally in a state of insensibility, but at times troubled with regrets as to the past and fears as to the future. But as the heart when in the one state, that of unconcern, is in a sinful condition, so in the other state, of mere compunction and fear, it is far from being in a healthy condition. We need the power from on high on the one hand to arouse us from our habitual carelessness, and on the other hand to conduct to genuine faith and true peace. We may seek for repentance, and like Esau seek it carefully with tears; but we can “find no place for repentance” till He who knows our hearts and has access to them unlocks them and opens up fountains within us. Mere natural reproaches of conscience and alarms of coming judgments may stun the heart for a time, but they cannot break or melt it.
4. When the heart grows sensitive to the touch of Gods Spirit, the result is seen in prayer and supplications. Prayer is just the breathing of the Spirit in us; power in prayer comes from the power of the Spirit in us, waited on and trusted in. Failure in prayer comes from feebleness of the Spirits work in us. Our prayer is the index of the measure of the Spirits work in us. To pray aright, the life of the Spirit must be right in us. For praying the effectual, much-availing prayer of the righteous man everything depends on being full of the Spirit. God in heaven gives His Spirit in our hearts to be there the Divine power praying in us, and drawing us upward to our God. God is a Spirit, and nothing but a like life and Spirit within us can hold communion with Him. It was for this that man was created, that God might dwell and work in him, and be the Life of his life. It was this Divine indwelling that sin lost. It was this that Christ came to exhibit in His life, to win back for us in His death, and then to impart to us by coming again from heaven in the Spirit to live in His disciples. It is this, the indwelling of God through the Spirit, that alone can explain and enable us to appropriate the wonderful promises given to prayer. God gives the Spirit as a spirit of supplication, too, to maintain His Divine life within us as a life out of which prayer ever rises upward.
McCheyne used to say that a great part of his time was occupied in getting his heart in tune for prayer. It does take time sometimes, and the heart never would get in tune if it were not for the Holy Spirit of God. It is He who prepares the heart for prayer; He who creates within us the desire to pray. This does not mean that we ought never to pray save as we are certain of the impulse of the Holy Spirit. We “ought always to pray,” and even though the heart be out of tune, though it be dull and cold and heavy, even though we do not feel like praying, we ought to bow humbly and reverently before God, and tell Him how cold and prayerless our hearts are, and as we thus wait in silence before Him our hearts will be warmed and stirred and strangely impressed with the mind of God, and coming thus into tune with the heart of God it shall be made indeed a heart of prayer.1 [Note: W. E. Biederwolf.]
We always receive three gifts from God when we pray humbly and earnestly. The first, St. Nilus says, is the gift of prayer itself. “God wishes to bless thee for a longer time while thou art persevering in thy prayer; for what more blessed than to be detained in colloquy with God?” We pretend for a while not to hear the petitions of those we love, because we so love to hear them asking. So Joseph feigned with his brethren. “You say,” observes St. John Climacus, “ I have received nothing from God, when all the while you have received one of His greatest gifts, perseverance in prayer.” “He delays to hear His saints,” says St. Gregory, “that He may increase their merits. By this perseverance we prepare ourselves to receive the Grace with much greater fruit than if it were given us at once.” St. Isidore says, “God delays to hear your prayer either because you are not in good dispositions to receive what you ask, or that you may be able to receive more excellent gifts which He is desirous of conferring upon you.” So, says Gerson, “it happens to us as it does sometimes to a beggar, to whom men give a more liberal alms because they have kept him waiting at their door so long.”2 [Note: The Spirit of Father Faber (1914), 39.]
5. Supplication melts into contrition as we direct our eyes to the cross, which our sins erected. “They shall look unto me whom they have pierced: and they shall mourn for him, as one mourneth for his only son.” Calvin and other commentators interpret the “piercing” of the text metaphorically for the continual provocation of their God. In the Septuagint the reading is, “They shall gaze upon me because they insulted.” But St. John, who, if he did not translate for himself from the Hebrew, used another version than the Septuagint, has, “They shall look on him whom they pierced.” The Fourth Evangelist, at any rate, has no hesitation in applying the prophecy to the piercing of the Saviour on Calvarys cross.
Many years ago there was a striking picture to be seen in one of the galleries of Paris. It was the picture of the dead Christ. On the left side was a child holding in its two tiny hands the pale, worn, strained Hand of the Saviour. The child had been gazing on the dark, blood-stained wound in the centre of the Palm, and the eyes were brimful of tears, the brows were knit, the face was grieved with anguish, and the lips quivered!1 [Note: F. Harper, Echoes from the Old Evangel, 44.]
You all remember the action of Michael Angelos Christ,—the right hand raised as if in violence of reprobation; and the left closed across His breast, as refusing all mercy. The action is one which appeals to persons of very ordinary sensations, and is very naturally adopted by the Renaissance painter, both for its popular effect, and its capabilities for the exhibition of his surgical science. But the old painter-theologian [Orcagna], though indeed he showed the right hand of Christ lifted, and the left hand laid across His breast, had another meaning in the actions. The fingers of the left hand are folded, in both the figures; but in Michael Angelos as if putting aside an appeal; in Orcagnas, the fingers are bent to draw back the drapery from the right side. The right hand is raised by Michael Angelo as in anger; by Orcagna, only to show the wounded palm. And as, to the believing disciples, He showed them His hands and His side, so that they were glad,—so, to the unbelievers, at their judgment, He shows the wounds in hand and side. They shall look on Him whom they pierced.2 [Note: Ruskin, Val d Arno, x. § 256 (Works, xxiii. 149).]
(1) The cross reveals our sin.—The vileness of an object is revealed by contrast with some other of perfect purity. The shadows of the mountains are best realized when we can contrast them with their lights; dark caves are appreciated properly only in the day, as they defy the sunbeams of heaven. So is it with these vile souls of ours; they never seem so vile as when they are brought alongside the pure heart of Christ, and are seen in their natural relations to Him.
(2) The cross condemns our sin.—It is apparently easy to shuffle off responsibility by affirming that we were not partakers in the blood of the prophets, that we were not parties to the crucifixion of Christ; we may even subscribe, as the Jews did, to build monuments for the martyrs, and condemn their murderers, yet our spirits may be all the while such as to make us responsible for the past. We cannot cut ourselves adrift from our antecedents or our ancestry, as sailors slip a cable in the night. Christ indeed affirmed a principle in His day about descending and accumulating responsibility which we must recognize. He told His contemporaries that their treatment of Himself demonstrated that they were the persecuting children of those persecuting sires who had shed the blood of the prophets, and that all that blood would be required of them since they were about to murder Him. Their repudiation of the murder of the prophets, their subscriptions to build their tombs, their effort to sever themselves from the responsibilities of the past, would not avail them so long as they cherished vindictive feelings towards the incarnate God.
(3) The cross is the instrument of true repentance.—We cannot intelligently contemplate the crucifixion without feeling that our spiritual attitude is naturally such towards Christ as to involve us in the crime of His death. Sin we see clearly is Deicide, and deserves death and exile from God for ever. We come, in fact, through the cross into a state of apprehension lest the just judgment of God overtake us on account of sin.
But once the love of the cross is felt as a regenerating power, we come to feel very differently regarding our sins. That is to say, we do not so much fear the punishment they deserve, we do not sorrow over them as those that have no hope, but we come to sorrow over them as wrongs done to our nearest and dearest friend, and we turn from them and from ourselves with deepest loathing. In a word, we come to “sympathize with the law that condemns us; we take Gods side against ourselves, and hate the sin more than we fear the punishment.”
(4) This repentance is of a most thoroughgoing kind.—The grief for sin itself is overborne and compassed about by the greater grief occasioned by the sad results of sin upon the person of the pierced One. Sin is grieved over as it is against the Lord: even as David cries, “Against thee, thee only, have I sinned.” The mourning of a penitent is not because of hell; if there were no hell he would mourn just as much. His grief is not for what sin might cost himself, but for what it has cost the Substitute. He bemoans himself thus: “Oh, how could I have pierced Him? How could I have wounded the Beloved? Lover of my soul, how could I have pierced Thee?” True penitents smite upon their breasts as they behold their Saviour bleeding on the tree. This is genuine contrition.
They “shall be in bitterness for him, as one that is in bitterness for his firstborn.” The Israelite was specially sensitive concerning the death of his offspring. To lose his firstborn was as when a nation loses its prince. To lose his only son was to quench the light of the house. The old man mourns, “I am as good as dead. I am blotted out of the book of the living, for I have now no son to bear my name. The lamp has gone out in my tent, for my son, my only son, my firstborn, has gone down to the gates of the grave!” The case was hopeless for the future; none remained to continue his family among those who sit in the gate, and the old man rent his clothes and wept sore.
The prophet could not recollect any mourning which he had ever heard of that was like it, except the lamentation of the people for the death of Josiah. Then all Judah mourned, and Jeremiah wrote sad dirges, and other prophets and poets poured forth their lamentations. Everywhere throughout the land there went up an exceeding great and bitter cry, for the good king had fallen, and there were no princes of like mind to follow him. Alas, poor nation, it was thy last bright hour which saw him ride to the battle; in his death thy star has set! In the valley of Hadadrimmon the lamentation began, but it spread through all the land. The fatal fight of Megiddo was mourned by every woman in Jerusalem. Bravely had Josiah kept his word, and sought to repel the Egyptian invader; but the hour of Judahs punishment was come and Josiah died. A mourning as sincere and deep comes to us when we perceive that Jesus died for us. Blessed be His name; the joy that comes of it when we see sin put away by His death turns all the sorrow into joy.
The text is one of those prophetic passages which, viewed from whatever standpoint, are luminous with rays of prophetic anticipation. Jehovah speaks. The time cometh when the rebellious people shall mourn, beholding the pierced One. That piercing became a possible and literal event when the Incarnate Son of Jehovah yielded His body to the nails and to the spear. The evangelist St. John quotes the ancient prediction, “They shall look on him whom they pierced,” as having become a fact through the cross on Calvary. His application of the words to Christ expresses a prophecy of continued fulfilment in the New Testament age. The words of Zechariah are a Messianic prophecy, and applicable only and wholly to our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. We see the fulfilment of them commencing in the circumstances of His crucifixion, but continued in a nobler sense after Pentecost, when many of those who had clamoured for His blood, looked back with horror on their deed, and, repenting, were converted. We find the prophecy fulfilled in the mental gaze on Him whom their sins have pierced, which is repeated in the daily conversion of souls, both of Gentile and of Jew. That look is the essence of Christian worship, in the approach to God through Christ the crucified, in the continual memorial of Christs death at the altar, in the observance of holy Passiontide.1 [Note: G. H. Gwilliam, in The Expository Times, xi. 395.]
6. Contrition issues in cleansing. The prophet goes on to promise in the name of God, “In that day there shall be a fountain opened to the house of David and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, for sin and for uncleanness.” We are delivered from guilt, we are saved from sin, through the grace and Spirit of God. A radical change is wrought within us; grace “bringeth salvation”; “what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.” The blood shed, instead of crying out for vengeance, is found to cry out for pardon to be extended to the guilty; the place of our deep conviction becomes the scene of our deliverance. The valley of Achor is constituted a door of hope; inability yields to the triumphant grace of God; salvation reaches us through the cross.
The propitiation of His blood lies on our part in its humbling, convicting, melting power upon human souls, in the power which it has to make us ashamed, and discontented with our poor quality, with our low level, and to agitate us with strong sighs after nobler being and living. In proportion as He sets us weeping with pungent regret and wistful aspiration, there is a fountain opened for sin and for uncleanness.
It was from this passage that Cowper got his idea of the guilt-cleansing fountain of Christs blood; yet, instead of a fountain filled with the blood of an atoning victim, what the Jewish writer had evidently in his mind was a fountain filled with the tears of the peoples genuine and deep contrition. Such was the fountain in which he conceived of them as losing “all their guilty stains.” Like another Jewish writer, he had learnt to feel, “Thou desirest not sacrifice; thou delightest not in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.” He saw heavens pardon granted at once to repentance. “What a fountain for washing,” he thought, “in those silent and sincere tears of which I dream!”1 [Note: S. A. Tipple.]
In a work jointly written by [the Quaker saint] William Bayley [who died in 1675] and John Crook, the following remarks occur:—“We do in the sight of God really own the blood of the Son of Man, … both as bespeaking the remission of sin past, through faith in it, and as sprinkling the conscience of true believers, and cleansing them from all sin.… By all which it is manifest to be of infinite value.… But because we testify that it is not the bare, historical, and literal belief of those things that justifies or makes us really free from that wrath which comes upon every soul of man that doeth evil; but only the life and virtue of this blood, received into the heart by that living faith which Christ alone is author of: therefore we are branded with slighting the blood of the Christ though we testify that without the life and virtue of this blood there is no remission.”2 [Note: F. A. Budge, Annals of the Early Friends, 211.]
Biederwolf (W. E.), How Can God Answer Prayer? 125.
Bonar (H.), Light and Truth: Old Testament, 364.
Edgar (R. M.), The Philosophy of the Cross, 160.
Harper (F.), Echoes from the Old Evangel, 44.
Kuyper (A.), The Work of the Holy Spirit, 114.
McCheyne (R. M.), Memoir and Remains, 465.
McCosh (J. M.), Gospel Sermons, 46.
Murray (A.), The Ministry of Intercession, 116.
Oosterzee (J. J. van), The Year of Salvation, i. 466.
Paget (F. E.), Helps and Hindrances to the Christian Life, i. 135.
Smellie (A.), In the Hour of Silence, 203.
Spurgeon (C. H.), Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, x. (1864), No. 575; xxiii. (1877), No. 1362; xxxiii. (1887), No. 1983; 1. (1904), No. 2901.
Vaughan (J.), Sermons (Brighton Pulpit), New. Ser., xxv. (1885), No. 1296.
Christian World Pulpit, xxiii. 237 (S. A. Tipple); lxvii. 185 (G. Body).
Church of England Pulpit, lix. 182 (G. Body).
Church Pulpit Year Book, 1912, p. 52.