Confession time: Lately, I’ve fallen into a pattern of getting to church late. Each Sunday involves a similar sequence: I leave too many tasks to do in not enough time. With only minutes to go before we need to get out the door, I realize one of my kids still needs to be dressed, the diaper bag for my 2-year-old isn’t packed, and I still need to put makeup on. Getting five people out the door takes intentional planning: bathing my kids and laying out their clothes the night before, getting up early to ensure the kids are fed on time, and cutting out unnecessary activities.
These are not difficult habits to cultivate, and I was consistent about getting us to church on time when I only had two little ones, but with the birth of my third one, I haven’t been as disciplined about laying the necessary groundwork to get us out the door in a timely manner. In order for us to arrive at church on time, I am going to have to make a change in my habits.
A Message Asking for a Change
In Zechariah 9, we see the Jews in a situation where they, too, are going to have to make a few changes to get a desired result in their lives, but are reluctant to do so. Previously held captive by the Babylonians and exiled from their land, the Jews are now free to go back to their homeland. While some Jews have returned to Israel, some linger behind in Babylon. Zechariah’s message encourages both groups to return to Jerusalem and begin the work of rebuilding Jerusalem and the temple:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall speak peace to the nations; his rule shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth. As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit. Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double. (vv. 9-12, ESV, emphasis mine)
As we can see from the passage, the Jews are promised incredible protection and blessings if they return. Why, then, haven’t they done so? Quite simply, rebuilding will require hard work. Israel is still under Persian rule and foreigners have moved into the land in the absence of the Jews. In addition, the Jews face threats from surrounding enemies. The very journey back to Jerusalem will be difficult. Even as the Jews long for their land and a share in the blessings God promises to pour on Israel, they are established in the homes and businesses they had built in Babylon during their exile.
And, undeniably, according to Robert Tuck in the Biblical Illustrator, they may have had a false sense of security where they were, saying, “Some day, we will rebuild, but not now.” In other words, they aren’t refusing the call to help rebuild, but putting off the steps needed to help out their neighbors, pushing the day of return off into a distant day that they could look to longingly, but not make a reality.
Why We Can Have Hope in Our Circumstance
Though Zechariah 9 records words spoken to a group of people long ago, I can see myself in the Jews’ reactions. As the Bible says, all Scripture is useful for our instruction (2 Timothy 3:16), and his words are still so applicable for us today.
While we may not be able to relate to being held captive in a foreign country, we can all relate to feeling captive by our circumstances either because of life choices we have made or because of the choices that others have made for us. We may know how we might improve or even get out of our situation; however, like the Jews here, we have grown comfortable in our situation — however imprisoning — and so we put our hope in another day, saying, “Some day I will make a change. Some day I will get a handle on this. Some day I will overcome this.”
And yet, Zechariah challenges this kind of complacency with the words: “Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope” (v. 12). The wording of this phrase is so odd and one I had to really meditate on and pray about in order to uncover the meaning. How exactly is one a prisoner of hope? Doesn’t hope always mean something positive? Why is “hope” paired in this way with the word “prisoner,” which has negative connotations?
A possible interpretation is that the prisoners have hope in front of them. Certainly, many translations read this way. If we look at the preceding verse, it says, “I will free your prisoners from the waterless pit.” The pit of verse 11 is contrasted with the stronghold mentioned in verse 12. However, it’s a little baffling because in the very next verse, we see that these very prisoners that have been freed are still identified as prisoners, but differently, as “prisoners of hope.” How can a person be freed and still be identified as a prisoner?
To answer this question, it helps to understand that during this time period prisoners were often left in large pits dug in the ground. They were either left to die, without food and water, or they were simply left for a period of time as a particular punishment. Just as the Jews in the passage have been freed from the “waterless pit” of Babylon and have the promise of a restored Jerusalem, they still have the interesting paradox of being “free and having hope,” but still captive to their oppressive circumstances and wrong dependencies.
And how similar is this to the experience we have as Christians. We have been freed from the “pit” of sin by the blood of Christ when we receive Christ into our lives as our Lord and Savior, and yet, we have these areas in our lives where we need God’s sanctifying work.
As we walk with Christ, He reveals habits and patterns of sin that we need to let go of, and He invites us to partner with Him to get rid of that which isn’t holy in our lives and become more Christ-like. We might start out the race with enthusiasm, but then want to quit when we encounter obstacles. However, we have to continue running the race He has set out for us to usher in God’s blessings, which includes leaving behind the sin that so easily entangles (Hebrews 12:1).
In addition, we live in a world that is hostile to Christian ideas. To live the Christian walk means to live counter-culturally — which, quite often, will leave us feeling debilitated, exhausted, and defeated. We might have the best of intentions about living a God-honoring life but then get overwhelmed by the sheer difficulty of it and let ourselves slip.
Even though we know where we are is not God’s best for us and we haven’t yet attained the promises God has for us, we settle for what’s easier instead of pushing through the difficulty to get to the better God would have for us.
Christ As Our Ultimate Hope
Where, then, can we find hope we need to make the necessary changes God reveals to us? We should note that in this passage, though the Jews are asked to help rebuild Jerusalem and the temple, their hope isn’t in a restored Israel. Their hope is in the coming of Christ. While Zechariah urges the Jews of his time to “Return,” his invitation calls them to the stronghold of Christ.
Similarly, we have the same invitation. Wherever we find ourselves, we are not left alone to battle our circumstances or conquer the sin in our life alone. We are offered a place of safety in the midst of our struggles. Even if we have slowly gotten distracted and veered off the path God has for us or perhaps left the path with our own willful disobedience, we have the call of Jesus and a stronghold to which we can flee.
Proverbs 18:10 tells us the name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous run to it are safe. Similarly, David writes in the Psalms that God lifted his feet from the miry clay and put his feet on a rock (Psalm 40:2). Just as the Jews are graciously offered a chance to return and rebuild the city that was destroyed because of their rebellion against God, we have the same offer.
However, it won’t be without work or a fight, but the efforts we make to partner with God in His plan for our life, however challenging, will not be in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58). He who began a good work in us will complete it (Philippians 1:6).
Can you think of choices that have led you off track? Do you feel far away from God and His purposes for life? It’s not too late to get on track! Let’s pray: Dear God, we aren’t where we want to be. We have fallen short of your perfect plan for our life and we have found ourselves in challenging circumstances because of our own choices. But you are a God who won’t leave us alone and will restore and redeem those who turn back to you and call on your name. Lord, forgive us for the ways we have fallen short. Give us a clear vision of the steps we can take to get on track and help give us the resolve to rededicate our efforts for you. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Want to learn more about stepping out in radical faith to usher in the promises and blessings of God? Check out this article on how our faith-filled steps move us forward, or this one on God’s blessings.
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*Updated September 23, 2018