Zechariah 9:11 says, “As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit” (NRSV).
What was the “blood of the covenant”? Many Christian commentators argue that the blood of the covenant in Zechariah 9:11 is the blood that Jesus Christ shed on the cross. There are at least two variations of this interpretation:
1. Christ’s blood was applied retroactively to Zechariah’s post-exilic audience. When I lived in New York, I didn’t have a television, so I listened to Christian radio while I was doing my homework. One person I heard was Harold Camping, a figure who believes we are in the tribulation now and that Christians should stop going to church. He also predicted that Christ would come back in 1994, which didn’t happen. But I tried to call his program at various times, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. On a few occasions, when Brother Camping could have taken my call (since I heard a ring tone), he’d start talking about his ministry in India. I realized then that I’d might as well hang up and try another time.
Anyway, I asked Brother Camping about people who were righteous before Christ’s death. I specifically mentioned Luke 1:6, which says that Zechariah the priest and his wife, Elizabeth “were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord.” “How was this possible, if we are all sinners apart from Christ?” I asked. Camping responded that the righteousness of Zechariah and Elizabeth was imputed, not practical, meaning that God treated them as righteous even though they really were not. When God saw them, he looked at the righteousness of Christ that covered their sins. And how was this possible before Christ’s death (or even his birth, in this case)? Camping said that Christ was slain from the foundation of the world (Revelation 13:8), so his death accomplished a salvific purpose even in Old Testament times.
I had problems with Camping’s reasoning, since Luke 1:6 says Zechariah and Elizabeth were righteous because of their obedience to God’s commandments, not their acceptance of Christ as their personal Savior. But I’ve heard Camping’s argument in many Christian circles. For a lot of Christians, the Old Testament saints had faith in the Christ to come, whereas the saints of today trust Christ’s work in the past (specifically on the cross). And this position may have some biblical support, since Hebrews 4:2 says that the Gospel was preached to Old Testament Israel.
So one view is that the blood of Christ was effective in Old Testament times, including the time of Zechariah.
2. One can also argue that Zechariah 9:11 is prophetic, in the sense that it predicts Israel’s end-time restoration on account of Christ’s blood. This would work within both a replacement theology and also a dispensational model. Replacement theologians, who claim that the church is the new Israel, would argue that Christians are prisoners set free by the blood of the new covenant. That was how they became spiritual Israelites, in the replacement theology view. Dispensationalists, who hold that God still has a covenant with physical Israel, could contend that God will one day save the Jewish people, who will eventually accept Christ and his blood atonement on their behalf. In this scenario, God will save and restore the Jewish people through the blood of Christ, which is the blood of the covenant.
The New Testament may indeed understand Zechariah 9:11 as Christ’s blood, for Matthew 26:28, Mark 14:24, and Hebrews 10:29 call the blood of Christ “blood of the covenant.”
But several people have problems with applying Zechariah 9:11 to Christ. First, there are Jews who do not believe in Jesus. They do not apply the Hebrew Bible to Christ, so they have other ways of understanding Zechariah 9:11. And, second, there are many scholars who maintain that the biblical writings should be interpreted in light of their original contexts, or what they meant to those who first heard them. Consequently, they have a dim view of projecting later Christian ideas onto the Hebrew Bible, since its original audience would not have been aware of them.
Many conservatives accuse such scholars of anti-supernaturalism. For them, liberal scholars reject an application of the Hebrew Bible to Christ because they do not believe that the Bible is God’s word. If the Bible is God’s word, conservatives contend, then Zechariah 9:11 can apply to the blood of Christ, since God is able to talk about the future. But, for conservatives, liberal scholars see biblical writings solely as the works of human beings, who cannot predict the future. Consequently, liberal scholars limit the boundaries of biblical interpretation to the writings’ original historical contexts. Conservatives hold that the liberal view is the product of an anti-supernatural bias.
But is this true? Even if the Bible is God’s word, wouldn’t God speak to his audiences in terms that they can understand, in a manner that makes sense to them in their own context? Looking at the text in light of ideas that were familiar to its original audience can coexist with a high view of the Bible’s inspiration.
Yet, at the same time, there are New Testament passages suggesting that the Old Testament prophets (not to mention their audiences) did not fully understand what they were writing (I Peter 1:10-12). There are plenty of statements in the New Testament that the work of Christ and the inclusion of the Gentiles fulfill Old Testament prophecy (Romans 1:2; Acts 15:16-17), yet they are also called “mysteries” of which pre-Christian people were completely unaware (Ephesians 3:2-6; Colossians 1:26-27). How could the prophets talk about things of which they were unaware? The New Testament seems to say that they did not fully comprehend their own writings (which were actually the writings of God); after all, one can best understand a prediction after it has reached fulfillment, whereas, before that, it can appear rather nebulous. Moreover, for Paul, one can properly understand the Old Testament only in light of Christ, while those who do not believe in Jesus approach the Hebrew Bible with a veil that hinders their full comprehension (II Corinthians 3).
So did God try to make sense to the people of Old Testament times? According to certain New Testament authors (if my understanding of them is correct), not necessarily.
What ramifications does this have for Zechariah 9:11? It presents the passage as saying: “Look, Israel, I will deliver you because of the blood of the covenant. You do not fully understand what that means right now, but be on the lookout for that dimension of my plan. It will come!”
Personally, I try to be open to a variety of possibilities. I have no problem with reading the Hebrew Bible in light of what I, as a Christian, believe is God’s ultimate plan. But I also have problems with the notion that God would speak to his people in an incomprehensible fashion.
I prefer a Christian reading that is also faithful to the literal sense of the Old Testament. Consequently, I like the view that the blood of Christ will lead to the deliverance of physical Israel (see Romans 11), since that embraces Christianity while maintaining the Old Testament story of Israel’s physical restoration.
But there is another option that I prefer even more: that Zechariah 9:11 refers to blood of the covenant which is not the blood of Christ, but still foreshadows it. And that is something that I will discuss in my next post. But I will be wrestling!