Representation by Sacrifice
Through the reign of David, the role and responsibility of the king of Israel is beginning to become clearer. But still, what we have are not much more than a few disparate, disconnected shards of meaning. The king would represent. And the king would suffer. But what do those have to do with each other, and how do they lead to salvation? To be sure, Israel had an understanding already of vicarious suffering, of sacrifice—one thing suffering for another, dying so that another wouldn’t have to. But what does that kind of thing have to do with the king? It’s not at all clear. Sacrifice, representation, suffering, the kingship—all lying there like the shards of Narsil. What do they mean? And what do they become when you put them together? The answer to those questions would begin to come clear as the prophets revealed more of God’s plan and purpose.
By the end of David’s life, it was abundantly clear that he wasn’t the one who was finally going to bring salvation to the world. In his wake, the kingdom split, Assyria invaded the north, and king after king proved to be colossal failures to meet God’s standard for kingship in Israel. Through all these centuries, though—at least four of them—the prophets picked up these threads of kingship, union, representation, and suffering, and began to weave them together into a breathtaking picture of a King who would represent his people by suffering for them, and so save them from their sins. Let’s look at two places in the prophets where this picture is forged.
The book of Isaiah is composed of three smaller books that combine into one brilliant prophetic message. The first might best be called the book of the king. In it God reaffirms his determination, even in the wake of Uzziah’s awful death, to keep the now-piled-up promises of Genesis 3, Numbers 24, 2 Samuel 7, and Psalm 2 to send a Messianic King to set all things right.
But then there’s the second part of Isaiah, which we might call the book of the suffering servant. This second book describes a person, the servant of the Lord, who suffers in the place of his people as a sacrifice for their sins. But the shocker is that as you read Isaiah, you realize that this promised King and this suffering servant are one and the same person. You see? The shards are coming together. Through the book of Isaiah, you can start to see how the king’s representation of the people and the king’s suffering fit together. God’s promises to save his people would be fulfilled by a King who would not just suffer but would suffer as the representative sacrifice in the place of his people—for them, in their place. The book of Zechariah makes the same point, but with a dramatic image.
The book focuses on the two main offices in Israel—priest and king. To understand its message, though, you have to understand that since the fall in Eden, those two offices had been kept complementary but, with few exceptions, strictly separate. In fact, in large part it was forbidden for the king to perform the duties of a priest. When King Uzziah tried, God struck him with leprosy, and he died outside the city of Jerusalem in a village of lepers. So at the outset, Zechariah says—quite unsurprisingly at first—that God intends to save his people through those two offices, the priest and the king. The prophetic vision of Zechariah 3 introduces Joshua the high priest, and the vision of Zechariah 4 introduces Zerubabbel the governor (the closest thing Israel had to a king in the years following their return to Jerusalem). But then something astonishing happens: “And the word of the Lord came to me: ‘Take from the exiles . . . who have arrived from Babylon. . . . Take from them silver and gold, and make crowns, and set it on the head of Joshua . . . the high priest” (Zech. 6:9–11).1
Two details in those verses are intended to capture your attention as a reader. For one thing, notice that Zechariah is initially told to take the silver and gold and make crowns, plural—two of them. But then he’s told to take it—singular, one crown—and set it on somebody’s head. Whose head? That’s the second thing: Zechariah is told to crown not Zerubbabel the governor, but Joshua the high priest. Given the separation between king and priest, the crowning of Joshua is an absolutely stunning development, so much in fact that some scholars have insisted that Zechariah must have gotten the name wrong and it really was Zerubbabel who was crowned. But actually, that’s the whole point! The crowning of Joshua is an acted-out parable to show that one day, kingship and priesthood would be merged together—two crowns forged into one. No longer would there be a priest who would atone and perform sacrifices for sin and a king who would rule and represent and suffer. Instead, there would be a single, united priest-king who would represent the people by offering himself as a sacrifice for them.
Zechariah ends his book by driving all of this home, prophesying that the people of Israel ultimately would reject their King, pierce him, and run him through—and that, gloriously, salvation and redemption will result from his death. Just as water flowed from the stricken rock on which God stood, just as life resulted from the spilled blood of the Passover lamb, so the death of the King would bring salvation. Ultimately, that’s what being king meant; this is what the king does. He stands in the place of his people to absorb the wrath that should have fallen on them.
Salvation for God’s People
Of course all of this comes to its ultimate end and goal and fulfillment when the angel says to Joseph about his fiancée, Mary, “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). By the beginning of his ministry, Jesus was well aware that God had appointed him King of Israel, and he also knew what being king meant. To take the crown, to be the king, was also to be the suffering servant who would die to save his people. So he said in Mark 10:45 that he had come to “give his life as a ransom for many,” and in John 10:11 that he would “lay down his life for the sheep,” and ultimately in Matthew 26:28 that his blood was about to be “poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”
Through Jesus’s sacrificial death on the cross and resurrection, the curtain in the temple is torn in two as people are brought back into God’s presence . . .
Even at his baptism, Jesus was marked out as the King who would die for his people. We saw in the last chapter how the words “This is my beloved Son” marked Jesus as the eternal Son of God and as the King of Israel (Matt. 3:17). But that second phrase—“with whom I am well-pleased”—is certainly God’s honest opinion of his Son, but it is also a quotation of Isaiah 42:1, which introduces the suffering servant of the Lord. Thus with those few words from heaven, God was setting on Jesus’s head the triple crown—the crown of heaven as God’s Son, the crown of Israel as the long-awaited Messiah, and the crown of thorns as the suffering servant who would save his people by representing them and finally dying in their place.
It’s wonderful, isn’t it, how all of these themes that make up the epic story of the Bible—God’s presence, God’s covenants, the kingship, and sacrifice—all weave together in various ways until they come to rest on the crowned head of Jesus Christ! You can see how it all comes together. Through Jesus’s sacrificial death on the cross and resurrection, the curtain in the temple is torn in two as people are brought back into God’s presence, the new covenant is inaugurated by which God binds himself to his people once and for all, and Satan—the dragon, that serpent of old—is fully and finally defeated by the King of kings and Lord of lords.
Crown him with many crowns,
The Lamb upon his throne!
Hark! how the heavenly anthem drowns
All music but its own.
Awake, my soul, and sing
of him who died for thee,
and hail him as thy matchless king
through all eternity.2
- This is my own translation of the Hebrew. The ESV translates it as “make a crown, and set it on the head of Joshua,” smoothing out the strange grammar created by “crowns” (plural) and “set it” (singular). The NASB and NIV do the same thing, keeping the singular throughout. KJV and HCSB both go the other direction, making all the words plural—“make crowns, and set them.” But the underlying Hebrew uses both singular and plural words—“make crowns, and set it on the head of Joshua.” Yes, it’s bad grammar, but it’s very deliberate. Read on to find out why.
- Matthew Bridges, “Crown Him with Many Crowns,” 1851.
This article is adapted from The Epic Story of the Bible: How to Read and Understand God’s Word by Greg Gilbert.
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