I thought the gospel was good news. The son of man receiving kingship, backed by angels rather than military forces: isn’t that time for dancing in the streets, celebrating the end of oppression?
Why did Jesus describe the people of earth as mourning? Are they unhappy he’s in charge?
Matthew 24:30-31 (my translation, compare NIV)
30 Then will shine the sign of the son of man in heaven. Then all the tribes of the land will mourn and will see the son of man coming upon the clouds of heaven with power and much grandeur. 31 He will commission his angels with a great trumpet, and they will gather his chosen from the four winds, from one side of the heavens to the other side.
Truth is, we can’t enter a great future without dealing with the pain of the past. Reconciling means facing each other. It starts with facing him: the son of man, the heaven-appointed leader who draws us together in himself.
Jesus composed this word picture by combining two images from Israel’s story. From heaven’s side, authority is taken from the beasts and given to the son of man (Daniel 7). From earth’s side, the people weep as they realize how they’ve treated God (Zechariah 12). Combine the two pictures, and you have the perfect description of Jesus’ ministry: reconciling heaven and earth.
The mourning tribes in Zechariah
Jesus’ picture of the tribes of the land mourning is from Zechariah 12:12, where the Greek translation (LXX) has three identical words:
The land (γῆ) will mourn (κόπτω), tribes by tribes (φυλή).
Why were the tribes mourning there, and can this help us understand Jesus’ reference? As usual, the answer is in the context.
Zechariah was writing after the exile. The Davidic kingship had been cut off, but God himself was reigning, protecting his people. In going against God, the nations were shooting themselves in the foot. The reason for the exile was not God’s inability to protect his people, but the people turning away from their protector (Zechariah 12:1-9).
Despite how they’ve treated him, God doesn’t leave them oppressed. To the Davidic rulers who misrepresented him and the city that suffered under them, God gives a spirit of grace, crying out to reconcile with God. They realize how they have wounded God:
Zechariah 12 10 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, 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.
Do you see Jesus’ story in those words? The whole story — their rise as God’s chosen people, and their demise as a nation refusing God’s leadership — that story is coming to a head as God sends them his anointed: the son of David arriving at the capital to save his people from their devastating disobedience (Matthew 21:9; 1:21).
But the city’s leadership hasn’t changed. Bloodthirsty leaders like King Manasseh were the reason they went into exile (2 Kings 21:10-16), and Jesus finds Jerusalem still occupied by leaders who reject his authority (21:23), killing the son so they can have the vineyard (21:38) just like their murderous ancestors (23:32).
Can Zechariah’s hope happen? Can the people who have been estranged from God’s leadership look on the one they have pierced and mourn? The fourth Gospel sees the crucifixion in Zechariah’s words (John 19:37).
The death of the king
The next verse in Zechariah clarify why the people were mourning: the death of the king:
Zechariah 12 11 On that day the weeping in Jerusalem will be as great as the weeping of Hadad Rimmon in the plain of Megiddo. 12 The land will mourn, each clan by itself, with their wives by themselves: the clan of the house of David and their wives, the clan of the house of Nathan and their wives, 13 the clan of the house of Levi and their wives, the clan of Shimei and their wives, 14 and all the rest of the clans and their wives.
The king killed on the plains of Megiddo was Josiah. He died trying to stop Pharaoh Necho marching Egypt’s army through Israel to join a bigger battle to the north.
Josiah was the last true king of Judah. The only kings after him were puppets of Egypt and Babylon, and then the Davidic dynasty failing completely with the exile (586 BC). Josiah’s death in 609 BC therefore became the focal point for lamenting the loss of the Davidic kingship (2 Chronicles 35:20-25).
So the mourning in Zechariah is the death of the king, the death of the kingship. The house of David is mourning. The prophet who proclaimed the house of David as the house of God is mourning (2 Samuel 7:1-17). The Levites who supported the house of God that was represented by the house of David is mourning. Even David’s enemy is mourning (2 Samuel 16:5-14).
All the tribes of the land are grieving how they hurt God. The death of God’s anointed has moved them to grieve how they have pierced God, rejecting his kingship over them.
Zechariah goes on to describe the devastating effects for God’s people. With the shepherd struck down, the sheep of God’s anointed were scattered among the nations (Zechariah 13:7). That is disastrous, but the prophet declares that, when they call on their heavenly sovereign, he will respond and rescue them (13:9). Their painful story ends with good news: The Lord will be king over the whole earth (14:9).
Jesus’ use of Zechariah
No wonder Jesus quotes Zechariah. Everything Jesus did and said had the same focus: the kingdom of God.
But before he receives authority as heaven’s king on earth, God’s anointed must face the failure of the kingdom as Josiah did. Once again, the shepherd stuck down, and the sheep scattered. The night before his death, Jesus applied Zechariah 13:7 to himself:
Matthew 26 31 Then Jesus told them, “This very night you will all fall away on account of me, for it is written: ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’”
For Pharaoh Necho, Josiah’s death was nothing more than collateral damage, but for the people of God the consequences were terminal: striking the shepherd scattered the sheep in diaspora. In the same way, Caesar neither knew nor cared when his Proconsul in Jerusalem gave the order to execute the king of the Jews, though it was the most shocking event of world history.
But unlike Josiah, the kingship didn’t die with Jesus. It returned. From the grave. The resurrection of God’s Son was the greatest moment of human history: the overturning of oppression through death, the restoration of God’s reign over the earth in his anointed through resurrection.
This was Jesus’ expectation as he faced the cross. He expected to be rejected by the leaders of God’s people, just like their ancestors. He expected to be handed over to the rulers of the nations for execution. He expected his sheep to be scattered and dismayed. And he expected the Ancient of Days to raise him out of this injustice, to give him the kingship, so he could bring the sheep back under divine kingship. This was how Jesus expected the kingdom of God to be re-established, how the Lord will be king over the whole earth.
So, did the people mourn when they realized what they had done to God, how they had pierced him? Some did. Not all have yet.
Within two months of his death and resurrection, the ascended king empowered his servants to proclaim the good news of the kingdom. Peter assured all Israel of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Anointed. When they heard this, they were cut to the heart … (Acts 2:38-39).
Not everyone mourned as they saw how they had pierced God, but 3000 did. His kingship wasn’t fully here yet, but it had begun.
Blending Daniel 7 with Zechariah 12–14
In Matthew 24:30-31, Jesus blends Zechariah’s language with Daniel’s. Both prophets had proclaimed God’s anointed ruler (Christ-ology), but from different angles:
- Daniel 7 is a christology from above. In heaven, the Ancient of Days takes the kingship from the beasts and gives it to the son of man, backed by the angels.
- Zechariah 12–14 is a christology from below. On earth, the tribes mourn as they see who they have pierced, the shepherd is struck down so the sheep scatter, yet the Lord reigns over the earth.
Bring those two perspectives together, and you see the son of man using the authority heaven gave him, the stricken shepherd rising to gather his scattered sheep under heaven’s reign.
Bring those two images together, and the son of man is gathering his sheep from where they had scattered all over the world to be the people of his governance (his flock).
How can he achieve that? The son of man commissions the angels at his disposal for this task. And in the ancient world, the troops weren’t called with a satellite phone but a commanding trumpet. The angels are helping the son of man bring the earth under his kingship.
The shepherd of God’s people lives! His resurrection is the ultimate sign of his authority (Matthew 16:4). That generation had refused his attempts to gather them under his leadership (27:37), but now the son of man, backed by clouds of heaven’s angels, gathers his scattered sheep together under his care.
And no place is outside his kingship. His authority extends to every place under heaven, from one end of the sky to the other.
Read Matthew 24:30-31 again. Can you see as the perfect portrayal of Christ’s ministry?
Can you see how Jesus has blended the language of heaven’s perspective (Daniel 7) and earth’s (Zechariah 10–12), creating the perfect description of the reconciliation of heaven and earth, the son of man as the shepherd gathering his people under heaven’s reign?
It’s hard to imagine a better description of Christ’s ministry. Aussie writer Clive James was always trying to form “the perfect sentence.” Jesus achieved it here.