Zechariah 11:12-13 is said to be a messianic prophecy. The writer speaks of a person who is paid 30 pieces of silver, but then the Lord said to that person, “Cast it unto the potter…” The 30 pieces of silver is also in the New Testament, but there it says that the person was told to cast it to “the potter.” I don’t see Jesus casting it, but Judas. How can this be messianic if it’s not consistent? Does this still qualify? If so, how?
Also, Psalm 41:4 talks about the person who is writing and has sinned against the LORD. How can Psalm 41:9 be a messianic prophesy if the verses beforehand say something not messianic? How are messianic prophecies found? Is it just a small verse out of a whole chapter that is messianic or does the whole chapter refer to the same thing?
These are very good questions and confront us with the major differences between the writers of the ancient books of the Bible and modern English readers.
First, Messianic prophecies may often seem like obscure references to unusual or curious snippets of the Biblical text which can appear taken out of context. We are used to receiving and analyzing blocks of information like this text that you’re reading. However, the texts of the Bible are many thousands of years old. Many of these texts originated as spoken prophecies and were only written down later. The ways in which they were taught and discussed over the past thousands of years had very little to do with the English text you see when you read the Bible.
The original Bible texts in scrolls didn’t have texts in numbered verses. They also had no vowels—so the texts sometimes carried multiple meanings based on the original words in Hebrew. These were much more obvious to the Hebrew speakers. So when the ancient teachers of the Bible spoke about the prophecies of the Messiah over many generations they often refer to texts that seem surprising to us: passages that seem obscure or even impossible to understand.
Can you imagine picking up a conversation with your great-grand-parents? Even if they were referring to something historical like the First World War, they might well speak about something that seems very unimportant to you—the death of a neighbour’s son whose name you don’t recognize or make some reference to a tiny army regiment that nobody remembers today except maybe that’s where the men in their neighbourhood served. How would you know what was important to those who live in the past? You’d have to pay a lot of attention to details that now seem unimportant.
So, the ancient teachers of Israel, the rabbis, read the original Hebrew texts and identified what they saw as clues which were pointing to the coming of Messiah. These teachers were the outstanding scholars of their times. Their students continued the discussions, and the texts that they identified now appear in your English Bible in a way that doesn’t allow you to see their original importance.
The discussions continued on for hundreds of years before Yeshua came and the followers of Jesus addressed many of them when they wrote out the story of Yeshua in the Gospels. Many of their first readers got the references right away. They were raised hearing about these prophetic passages and heard them talked about in great detail. Yeshua himself referred to many of these—but if you don’t know the original passages or the long discussions about them they can seem unimportant or surprising.
Let’s take the prophecy in Zechariah 11: 12, 13. It seems very obscure to us, but what you see in English is just as deceptive. You see a translation that seems fixed. The rabbis, however, weren’t sure about that word “potter”—they wondered if it was a reference to a similar Hebrew word that means the Temple treasury (the words are similar in Hebrew). There’s a reference to 30 shekels (obviously a payment of some kind—you will see in Exodus 21:32 that it’s the same amount that would be used to pay the owner of a male slave who was accidentally killed—that is someone who dies because of no wrong of their own, that is, with “innocent blood.”) But then there’s some unusual comment about throwing the money “to the potter.”
The rabbis began discussing this as a Messianic prophecy long before Yeshua came and you’re aware that Judas was paid this amount to betray his master. Matthew was very aware of the prophecy when he wrote out the fulfillment that he saw and recorded in Matt. 27:5: when Judas he tried to return the money he got for his betrayal, the chief priests wouldn’t take it back—it was now “blood money.”
Judas responded by “throwing it” into the Temple and then committed suicide. Matthew then records the curious way in which this passage was fulfilled: Judas’s “blood money” was used to buy a “potter’s field”—a cheap piece of ground where the hard soil is used for clay—to bury non-Jews who died in the city. (Because of the holy nature of the city, bodies weren’t left inside the city, they were immediately buried.) Matthew knew the various discussions of the prophecy and for him it was “an answer” to the question of this obscure reference to a “potter.”
But there’s a further reference buried in here. Because Matthew doesn’t talk about Zechariah—he mentions Jeremiah. Now Jeremiah had a very unusual prophecy that also alludes to a “potter.” In Jeremiah 19, that prophet warns of the coming destruction of the city of Jerusalem because of the “blood of the innocent” (v. 4) and then goes on to share God’s warning (which Jeremiah saw fulfilled): “I will smash this nation and this city just as this potter’s jar is smashed and cannot be repaired” (Jer. 19:11). Matthew is subtly alluding to events that Yeshua warned would happen after his death and indeed took place one generation later, in 70 A.D., the destruction of the city.
So these prophecies may seem unusual and hard to understand—but you can see that they are very important—to know that God is going to bring disaster isn’t a minor bit of knowledge. That’s why Yeshua told his disciples and followers that when they saw Jerusalem surrounded they should flee the city. His prediction was so accurate, that when it took place 40 years after his death, they fled.
Here’s a very helpful insight about Psalm 41from our friend, Dr. Michael Brown. He has some very good books on this issue—a series called “Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus.” He writes: “the rabbis applied all kinds of obscure verses to the Messiah…For the most part, these Jewish sages were not looking at an entire portion of Scripture—a whole psalm or chapter…Rather, what got their attention was a word association or an association of ideas…” (Brown, Objections Vol. 3, p. 127).
Here in Psalm 41, for example, the connection between King David and his much later descendant, the Messiah, is that they will both experience betrayal by someone close to them.
Dr. Brown concludes his discussion on this psalm with a story. He had in his class some years ago a former Orthodox rabbi from Israel who seemed to see references to Yeshua everywhere in the Bible—“including verses that I would never have thought of applying to him…I can still remember him sitting there, with his Hebrew Bible in hand, raising his hand enthusiastically and saying in Hebrew, ‘In my opinion this is Yeshua.’”
Chosen People Ministries (Canada)