As you’ll recall, God (speaking through his mouthpiece Zechariah) had encouraged the Jewish remnant to rebuild his temple, which he promised to protect forever. How was God going to accomplish this? He promises (as well as predicts) that a new king would soon arrive, who would save the Jews from their enemies and bring about world peace.
“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your King is coming to you;
He is just and having salvation,
Lowly and riding on a donkey,
A colt, the foal of a donkey.
I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
And the horse from Jerusalem;
The battle bow shall be cut off.
He shall speak peace to the nations;
His dominion shall be ‘from sea to sea,
And from the River to the ends of the earth.’”
— Zechariah 9:9-10
Our first authentic messianic prophecy!
This should go without saying, but messianic prophecies should be prophecies… about the messiah, and I appreciate that Zechariah 9:9-10 is just that. There is no need to convert a non-prophecy into a prophecy, or imagine that the messiah is hidden within a passage that’s also speaking to something else. Prophecies need to be specific.
Having reasonable standards for evaluating prophecy not only helps us to validate legitimate prophecy (should such a thing exist), but it also protects good prophecy from fraudulent claims. If the Bible is truly a divinely inspired work, then its prophecies should stand out from the crowd, but if others can perform the same prophetic tricks, then the Bible’s prophecies are not unique.
Zechariah makes several predictions here, and each one should be evaluated independently, since every prediction will have its own probability of coming to pass and its own potential for trickery and false-positives.
The Messiah will arrive on a colt
The first prediction is that a future king is forthcoming, and that he will arrive on a colt.
While it could be argued that this was a metaphor for a king who comes in peace — as opposed to one who arrives on a war-horse — each of the four gospels report that this prophecy was fulfilled literally (Matthew 21:1-7, Mark 11:1-10, Luke 19:28-38, and John 12:12-15).
As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me.”
— Matthew 21:1-2
The next day the great crowd that had come for the festival heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Blessed is the king of Israel!” Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, as it is written: “Do not be afraid, Daughter Zion; see, your king is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt.”
— John 12:12-15
The donkey and colt debate
Interestingly, Matthew is the only gospel where Jesus requests both a colt and a donkey, and his apostles return with two animals. In Mark and Luke, Jesus asks only for a colt, and that’s all they are said to return with (Mark 11:7, Luke 19:30). John gives a little different account, where Jesus locates the colt on his own, and then sits upon it, almost as an impromptu response to the fortuitous spotting of a colt; but still no mention of a donkey.
Some skeptics argue that Matthew misunderstood Zechariah’s prediction, and believed the messiah was to arrive on both a donkey and a colt, and so he wrote the fulfillment to match his incorrect interpretation. However, assuming Matthew’s account is true, I wouldn’t fault the other gospel writers for not mentioning the donkey, since it was technically irrelevant. (Though I would fault John for claiming it was Jesus who found the donkey, since the other gospels claim otherwise.)
A self-fulfilling prophecy?
The bigger problem here is that the prophecy was so well-known it could’ve easily become self-fulfilling. If it’s true that the crowds cheered, “Blessed is the king of Israel!” then we can assume everyone knew the messiah was supposed to appear on a donkey, including Jesus.
Because this prophecy was well-known and well within human control (anyone can sit on a donkey), we can’t use this event to prove the claim that prophecy exists. It’s just as likely, if not more likely, that Zechariah made up the rules, and Jesus was simply following protocol.
The prophecy would’ve been much more impressive had it been placed further out of human control. For example, Zechariah could’ve predicted, “The messiah will come to you riding upon a giant snake.” If you saw Jesus riding on a gigantic snake, you’d say, “Oh, look, this must be our guy… because… well… giant snake!” This would’ve made it nearly impossible for anyone but the true messiah to fulfill.
Another problem with this prophecy is that its fulfillment is easily claimed and difficult to verify or disprove. If Jesus never took that famous colt ride, it would’ve been nothing for someone to lie and claim that he did, especially if it were decades later.
The messiah would be king
The most basic requirement of the Jewish messiah is that he would be the King of Israel (in fact, he is repeatedly referred to as the king). While anyone can ride a donkey, it’s much more difficult to convince people to make you their king (believe me, I’ve tried).
Becoming the King of Israel is also something that’s difficult to lie about at a later date. While it may have been possible for early Christians to lie about Jesus riding a donkey (or being born of a virgin), they couldn’t go around claiming, “Jesus once ruled as the King of Israel!” because people could prove they were full of crap.
So as a prophecy, becoming the King of Israel scores points for being difficult to accomplish, and difficult to lie about. However, it’s still within human control. Even if Jesus did become the literal King of Israel, it could be argued that this was because Zechariah’s prophecy inspired the Jews to seek out such a person.
Only… Jesus never became the King of Israel.
Rather than admit defeat, Christians took to saying Jesus was still alive… but (for various legal reasons) he could not serve as the literal King of Israel… not right now, anyway. Instead, Jesus was said to be reigning as a spiritual king, on his spiritual throne, in his spiritual kingdom; and would one day return to reign as Israel’s real king.
Obviously, this new non-literal adaptation cannot qualify as fulfillment of the original prophecy, since these things are easily claimed, and impossible to prove or disprove.
When Christians compromised this prophecy by saying it was permissible for it to be fulfilled spiritually, they took a prophecy that would’ve been somewhat difficult to fulfill, and turned it into something that was easy for anyone to fulfill. Hell, we could even claim that Adolf Hitler once rode a colt (can’t prove he didn’t), and that he now reigns as a spiritual king at the right hand of God (can’t prove he doesn’t), and that he will one day return to earth to reign as Israel’s king (can’t prove he won’t).
One other difficulty with this reinterpretation is that it takes away from the original understanding the Jews would’ve had (more on this in a moment).
While it’s easy to ride a donkey, and possible to become a literal king, it’s nearly impossible to become a world leader and bring about world peace. But bringing about world peace was what the messiah was predicted to do.
“We have gone throughout the earth and found the whole world at rest and in peace.”
— Zachariah 1:11
I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the warhorses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth.
— Zachariah 9:10
I love this last prophecy, because it meets just about every criteria for a good messianic prophecy: it’s clear that it’s a prophecy, it’s clear it’s about the messiah, it’s highly unlikely that a Jewish king would ever gain global dominion and bring about world peace (though it’s still technically within human control), and it would be difficult to lie about such a great achievement (if taken literally).
One thing that would disqualify this from being a good prophecy is if there were no deadline, and this is absolutely critical in order to qualify as a respectable prophecy. Like milk, all good prophecies need an expiration date, so we know when they’ve gone bad.
The implicit deadline is that world peace would come within the lifetime of the messiah, or very soon afterward. While there is no deadline given for when the messiah would arrive, we can logically assume it would’ve been before the destruction of the temple, which he was coming to protect.
Only… Jesus did not bring about world peace.
Once again, rather than admit defeat, Christianity extends the deadline indefinitely by claiming that Jesus would return from the dead to bring world peace, and no man knows the day nor the hour when this will occur.
By converting this to an open-ended prophecy, Christianity prevents it from ever failing, but this also compromises the value of the prophecy. Had Jesus literally brought about world peace, it would’ve been very impressive. But by saying the prophecy allows for messiahs to return from the dead to do it later, we once again make it easy for anyone to fulfill. Hitler too may one day return from the dead to bring about world peace (can’t prove he won’t). It’s easy to claim, and impossible to prove or disprove.
The reason deadlines are so critical is because, without them, predictions can be worded so they are never wrong. That’s right. If you want to be a good prophet, make sure you never set a deadline. Some of your predictions will, by chance, come to pass, while all the others can be considered pending in perpetuity.
For example, you could predict that “In the future, significant meteors will impact the Americas, Asia, Russia, and disturb our oceans. There will also be great wars on every continent, except Antarctica. And when you see the great Humpback whales wash ashore in Sydney, you will know that the arrival of the alien mother-ship is near.”
People in the distant future might say, “This person has never been wrong! Several of these things have already come to pass, and based on this perfect performance record, we can conclude that all of the other predictions will also come to pass!” But that simply isn’t true. The predictions that did come to pass were statistically possible, and the others may never happen. With open-ended prophecies, you can always be right, but still be wrong (though no one will ever know).
To be completely fair, an open-ended prophecy might be impressive if it predicted something exceedingly improbable that actually did come to pass. But without the actual fulfillment, open-ended prophecies are worthless.
Did God have a change of plans?
Many Christians will argue, “But wait! This entire prophecy was supposed to be fulfilled literally! But because the Jews rejected God, God had no choice but to fulfill the prophecy in some other fashion!”
But if God knows the future, then he knew the Jews were going to reject him. A God who cannot deceive would’ve had no choice but to either remain silent, or predict the actual future. Leaving out critical information is tantamount to lying, and God would’ve been deceiving the Jews by not telling them they were doomed to fail, and that their temple would be destroyed, and that they would never receive the literal king they were expecting. By not clarifying these points, God purposefully misled the Jews to believe one thing when he knew he meant another.
Zechariah did not predict a messiah who would fail to become a literal king, or fail to literally bring about world peace, or a messiah who would rise from the dead thousands of years later to accomplish these things; and there is certainly no way the Jewish remnant would’ve seen these messages in Zachariah’s prophecy. These ideas had to be read into the prophecy in hindsight, and it appears these excuses have evolved in order to prevent Jesus from appearing as a failed prophet.
As prophecies, these are specific enough to have potential, but with their Christian reinterpretations, they become easily fulfilled, left open-ended, and unable to prove anything about prophecy or Jesus.
If one assumes the Bible was written by mere men, can we explain the existence of these prophecies and their purported fulfillments in the absence of a divine fortune-teller? I think we can.
Any prophecy or prediction (especially one made in a religious context) creates an expectation. In this case, Zechariah creates an expectation that a king will soon arrive to save the day. Without this expectation, Jews would’ve never even begun looking to crown a king. (Why do people make prophetic predictions? People are just wacky that way.)
As Jews began scouring the landscape looking for a someone to crown king, Jesus and other hopefuls selflessly volunteered. Why would anyone do that? Who knows — maybe they thought they could actually become a king, or maybe they liked all the attention, or maybe the job came with an excellent dental plan; everyone wants to be special. Even today there are people who claim to be the returned Christ (people are just wacky that way). The prophecy that Christ would return has also created an expectation, and people have also, likewise, volunteered for this position. Regardless of why people do it, we know that they do.
The next prediction is that this messiah will ride a colt, and Jesus may have ridden a colt (or sat on one) precisely because he was expected to. Alternatively, Jesus’ followers may have lied and claimed he rode a colt. Why would someone lie about the events of Jesus’ life? Well, we know that others from around that era also wrote gospels that contained lies about Jesus’ life, which is why many gospels were excluded from the Bible. Again, regardless of why they did it, we know it’s something people of the time were fully capable of doing, and they did.
Next, Jesus needed to become the King of Israel, but he was executed. Whether Jesus now reigns as a spiritual king (or Hitler does), we will never know, but the prophecy cannot be declared fulfilled with no proof of fulfillment.
The prophecy of world peace holds the most potential. While not impossible, a Jewish monarch bringing about world peace would be impressive. But Jesus never does this. It’s much easier to say your messiah will return from the dead to do it later, than it is to actually do it. With no deadline, there is no failure, but there is also no success.
Of these specific prophecies, Jesus fulfilled the easiest one, and the others had to be fulfilled spiritually or left open-ended.
Rather than abandon their faith, both Jews and Christians are guilty of reinterpreting this chapter to be about either non-literal events or events in the distant future.
I believe the truth is that this prophecy was intended to be taken literally by the Jewish remnant, and that it had an implicit deadline. This is evidenced by 1) the remnant that was being addressed, and how they would’ve understood the prophecy, 2) by the enemies that were named in the same chapter (current enemies, not enemies in the distant future), and 3) by the temple God had ordered them to build and was promising to protect (the king was coming to protect a literal temple, not a future temple, or a rebuilt temple, or a spiritual temple).
“I will strengthen them in the Lord and in his name they will live securely,” declares the Lord.
— Zechariah 10:12
While I can sympathize with Jews and Christians and their desire to hold on to religious tradition, anyone seeking an honest interpretation will find their religiously-motivated reinterpretations ultimately intellectually unsatisfying, and the acceptance of prophetic failure more consistent with the facts.