Although there are ambiguities in the Hebrew text, this passage clearly speaks of a time of national mourning in Israel over one slain, resulting in the spiritual cleansing of the nation (Zech. 12:10–13:1). One of the oldest Jewish interpretations of this passage, found in the Talmud, refers Zechariah 12:10 to the death of Messiah ben Joseph, the suffering Messiah of Jewish tradition. Why then should it surprise you that the New Testament interprets Zechariah 12:10 with reference to Yeshua?
Zechariah 12:10 is discussed in the Talmud in b. Sukkah 55a. The verse—read with a singular, not plural, subject—is first interpreted to mean that it is the evil inclination (i.e., the sinful tendency in man) that was slain, and the people wept when they saw how easily it could have been overcome. The second interpretation states that the people wept over Messiah son of Joseph who was slain fighting in the last great war (i.e., the last great future war) for his people, after which Messiah son of David asked God to raise him from the dead, and his request was granted. From this we learn two significant points: (1) The Hebrew was understood to be speaking of an individual person or thing, not of a plural subject (in other words, the one who was pierced through and slain, not those who were pierced through and slain); and (2) there was an ancient Jewish tradition interpreting the text in terms of a Messianic figure who died and then was raised from the dead.
Recently, both the Stone edition and the NJPSV translated Zechariah 12:10 with a plural subject: “They shall look toward Me because of those whom they have stabbed; they will mourn for him” (Stone);301 and, “They shall lament to Me about those who are slain, wailing over them” (NJPSV).302 But these interpretations are not reflected in some of the most ancient Jewish sources (cf. the Septuagint and the Talmud, b. Sukkah 52a; the Targumic rendering is similar to those just cited), nor are they a grammatically natural reading of the text, which is actually straightforward. It simply says, “They shall look to me whom (Hebrew, ʾet ʾasher) they pierced, and they shall mourn over him.”303 Not surprisingly, the Stone edition has to change verbal objects in midstream (“because of those whom they have stabbed; they will mourn for him,” which is clearly contradictory), while the NJPSV must disregard the fact that the Hebrew in the second half of the sentence says ʿalayw, “over him” as opposed to “over them.”304 These translations, therefore, can safely be dismissed, leading us instead to two larger questions: (1) Are “they” looking to God or to the one pierced, or is God the one pierced, to whom they are looking? (2) What does the larger context say? Does it justify the Messianic interpretation?
In answer to the first question, it is clear that the mourners are turning to God, since he is the only one referred to in the first person throughout the chapter, beginning in verse 2, where the Lord declares, “I am going to make Jerusalem a cup that sends all the surrounding peoples reeling.” Similar expressions are found in the following verses: verse 3, “I will make”; verse 4, “I will strike; I will keep; I will blind”; verse 6, “I will make”; verse 9, “I will set out to destroy”; and then in verse 10, “And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication. They will look on me, the one they have pierced.” It is perfectly clear, therefore, that the “me” in this verse is the Lord himself—as rendered in the Jewish translations cited above—suggesting the real possibility that the Hebrew text states that it is the Lord himself who was pierced. Read from a Messianic Jewish viewpoint, this makes perfect sense since, as we have demonstrated elsewhere (vol. 2, 3.1–3.3; above, 4.4 and 4.28), the Messiah is the very image of God, representing his fullness in bodily form on the earth. Thus, piercing the Messiah was equivalent to piercing the Lord, just as rejecting the prophets was equivalent to rejecting the Lord (see, e.g., 2 Chron. 36:15–16; for a related New Testament concept, see Matt. 10:14, 40).
How then do we explain the second half of Zechariah 12:10, which reads, “and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son”? Either the text shifts from first person (lit., “look to me”) to third person (lit., “mourn for him”), something that is not uncommon in biblical texts,305 or we should follow the reading preserved in some Masoretic manuscripts, reflecting the tiniest variation in the Hebrew but resulting in a very different translation in English, namely, “they shall look to him whom they pierced.”306 If that reading is correct, then some of the traditional Jewish problems with the translation disappear, since the verse would not explicitly state the one pierced was the Lord himself, and there would seem to be no objection to the rendering of “they will look to him whom they pierced.”
This leads, then, to the question of the larger context, and again we ask, Is the Messianic interpretation valid? The Talmudic interpretation, cited earlier, correctly follows the context of Zechariah 12, which speaks of an end-time battle over Jerusalem, culminating with a great victory for Judah and Jerusalem. Why then is there such great mourning (cf. 12:11–12a, “On that day the weeping in Jerusalem will be great, like the weeping of Hadad Rimmon in the plain of Megiddo. The land will mourn, each clan by itself, with their wives by themselves.”)? According to the note in the Stone edition (which translated verse 10 as, “They shall look toward Me because of those whom they have stabbed”), the interpretation of Radak should be followed, namely, “The salvation will be so complete that people will be astonished if even one man is killed by the enemy.” But there is a big problem here: Not only is the plural translation very questionable (namely, “those… stabbed”), but the interpretation suggested is contextually implausible, since the ones mourning are the ones who did the piercing! In other words, they are not mourning over what someone else did (“the enemy,” according to Stone). They are one and the same!307
Just look again at what the whole verse says: “And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication. They will look on me, the one they have pierced,308 and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and [they will] grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son.” The Hebrew verbs are all third-person plural, and the subject of those verbs is clearly the same, namely “the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem.” So, the Scripture is saying that the Jewish people will be in mourning for one whom they pierced and killed, not for one of their own whom their enemies killed.309 Again, I submit to you that this is the most natural and obvious meaning of the text in the Hebrew, and there is no good reason to reject it. Not only so, but it is the Messianic interpretation that makes contextual sense.
Looking once more at the larger context, we see that chapter 12 describes a final conflict between Jerusalem and the nations, one in which God delivers his people from their enemies. Yet the chapter ends with deep, national mourning, like the mourning over the death of a firstborn or only son, which leads to the first verse of chapter 13, “On that day a fountain will be opened to the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity.” On that day—the day of Jerusalem’s deliverance and the day of her people’s deep mourning—national atonement comes to Israel. Why? Because on that day, in their hour of greatest crisis, with all the world seemingly against them, the Jewish people will turn to God and cry out for salvation, realizing at that time that the one whom they thought was the cause of so many of their problems through the centuries (this despised Jesus Christ) was actually their Messiah, Yeshua, their only true hope, their deliverer. What a day that will be! How bitterly our people will mourn and grieve, and how wonderfully God will respond, cleansing his beleaguered people from all sin and guilt.
Before Yeshua’s death, he wept over Jerusalem, wishing that the leaders of our people had recognized him and seeing the terrible consequences that would befall our nation because we rejected the Messiah (Luke 19:41–44). Listen carefully to his words: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’ ” (Matt. 23:37–39). In other words, you will not see me again until you welcome me as the Messianic King.310
And what is written in Zechariah 14:1–5? The Lord himself will come down and fight for his people, and “on that day his feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem, and the Mount of Olives will be split in two” (14:4a). Yes, the Lord himself will come to earth, to Jerusalem, and deliver his people. When? On the day they look to him whom they pierced, on the day that national atonement comes to the people, on the day the Messiah—the Son of God—returns to earth!311
301 The footnote to the translation reads, “The salvation will be so complete that people will be astonished if even one man is killed by the enemy (Radak).”
302 A note to the word “lament” states that the meaning of the Hebrew is uncertain, which is odd, since the Hebrew wehibitu simply means “they shall look.” Apparently the translators saw something else in the text that made them think the Hebrew here was ambiguous.
303 Keil notes that “ ʾet-ʾasher is chosen here, as in Jeremiah 38:9, in the place of the simple ʾasher, to mark ʾasher more clearly as an accusative, since the simple ʾasher might also be rendered ‘who pierced (me),’ ” with ref. to the standard Hebrew grammar of Ges. §123, 2, Not. 1, Zechariah, in C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, 922. See further Clines, Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, 1:441, 1g.
304 This is why the translators of the Stone edition switched objects in the middle of the sentence, as observed.
305 It is actually so common that the preface to the NIV states that “the Hebrew writers often shifted back and forth between first, second and third personal pronouns without change of antecedent, this translation often makes them uniform, in accordance with English style and without the use of footnotes” (cited in the EBC endnote to Zech. 7:13, providing a case in point). Note also that in Zechariah 12 the Lord speaks in the first person a number of times, as cited above, but alternating with third-person language as well—in other words, going from “I” to “the Lord”; cf. verses 7–9.
306 The difference in the Hebrew is from ʾelay (“to me”) to ʾelayw (“to him”). This reading is also supported in John 19:37. As to why this is quoted in John’s Gospel as a past event (“These things happened [i.e., the Messiah’s crucifixion] so that the scripture would be fulfilled: ‘Not one of his bones will be broken,’ ” and, as another scripture says, “They will look on the one they have pierced.”), cf. George R. Beasley-Murray, John, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, 1987), 355.
307 Cf. Kaiser, The Messiah in the Old Testament, 224–25.
308 Or “to him whom they pierced.”
309 Of course, I understand that my people did not actually crucify Yeshua, but it was our leadership who rejected him (something traditional Jews feel was a good decision!), handing him over to the Romans to be crucified. Thus, Peter was completely right in saying, “This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross” (Acts 2:23); and again, “You disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you. You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this” (Acts 3:14–15). But he is quick to add, “Now, brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your leaders. But this is how God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, saying that his [Messiah] would suffer. Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord” (Acts 3:17–19). For discussion and refutation of the anti-Semitic charge that “the Jews” are Christ-killers, see vol. 1, 2.7.
310 For more on this, see Michael L. Brown, Our Hands Are Stained with Blood (Shippensburg, Pa.: Destiny Image, 1992), 165–73.
311 For references to relevant discussion of the prophetic significance of the biblical feasts and holy days, see ibid., 39–41, 233–234, 81–84.
312 See further Baron, Zechariah; cf. also F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Development of Old Testament Themes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), 110–13.
Brown, M. L. (2003). Answering Jewish objections to Jesus, Volume 3: Messianic prophecy objections (148). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.