“Look, I will make Jerusalem a cup that causes staggering for the peoples who surround the city. The siege against Jerusalem will also involve Judah. On that day I will make Jerusalem a heavy stone for all the peoples; all who try to lift it will injure themselves severely when all the nations of the earth gather against her.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
I want you to imagine something for me for a minute. Imagine that you are part of a people who have known persecution. No, that doesn’t mean you haven’t been able to get a good parking spot at the mall in ages. It means that you have been regularly and intentionally made the victim of injustice and prejudice for a long period of time. Victimhood is part of your psyche in a way people who don’t think through a lens of persecution can’t understand. It was taught to you by your parents—even if unintentionally—and you have taught it to your own children because your people are victims so often that you simply assume you’ll be a victim at some point even if it hasn’t happened yet. Got it in your mind? Depending on the color of your skin or the country in which you were born that may not take much work to imagine. Now, here’s my question: What is it that you want? Zechariah here gives us one answer.
Israel knew persecution. They were still fairly fresh off 70 years in captivity to a much more powerful empire whose people didn’t think much of them. They looked at the Israelites as an uneducated, backwards people who were so uncultured they only believed in one God. In the days ahead would come a concerted attempt to exterminate their whole population from the empire (see the book of Esther). They may have been given leave to go home and rebuild their lives, but this did not by any stretch mean they were free.
What’s more, their whole national identity was rooted in persecution. They were born as a nation out of persecution. As long as they had been exiled in Babylon, their ancestors had spent nearly six times as long living in Egypt mostly as slaves to Pharaoh. Early on when they finally had a homeland of their own they were passed around like a hot potato from one nation to another who conquered and brutalized them. Now, they had spent nearly half a millennium ruled by their own kings, but that didn’t shake the mindset of victimhood that had shaped their thinking so profoundly.
What we see in these words from Zechariah touches on a theme we see many times in the prophets when they were offering hope and encouragement to the people. And what is the theme? There is a future coming when you won’t be a victim any longer. Nations won’t push you around. You’ll be the ones calling the shots. Anyone who even tries to mess with you is going to fail and destroy themselves in the attempt.
Now, if you haven’t experienced any kind of sustained persecution; if that’s not something that has shaped and informed your history, these words may very well be hard to understand for you. That’s not your fault and you should even be grateful for that. No one should look for the chance to experience persecution. And trying to look for ways to claim the status of “victim” when you really haven’t ever know any persecution (as is the irritating practice of many a white college student who has been fed on a steady diet of critical race theory) is just offensive to people who truly have known it. But, just because you can’t identify with the experience, doesn’t mean you can discount it.
These words may not mean a whole lot to you personally, but to their original audience they meant the world. There are people today—maybe neighbors of yours—to whom they still mean the world. These words offer such potent hope they look for ways to insert themselves into the position of receiving them personally or on behalf of their people.
Now, theologically speaking, I don’t think these words apply to us. They were meant for Israel. Yes, Paul expanded God’s vision of His people to include the church in Romans 11, but these words were spoken to a specific people in a specific time facing specific circumstances and we’re not them. But, we don’t need these words to function like that. We have an even greater and more potent hope in the promises and visions of John’s Revelation.
But if you’re not a person who has known persecution, if you’re not part of a people who have known persecution, the best thing you can do is not to immediately correct what you may believe to be theological errors or misinterpretations of Scripture. The best thing to do when in dialogue with someone who does put themselves in such a place is to listen to them. Listen to their stories. Listen to their experiences. Strive to empathize with them. Don’t make them a subject, make them a friend. Show them the love of Christ. That’s what Jesus would do.