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Old Testament: Zechariah

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JerusalemThe enthusiasm of the Jews returning to Judah from their exile in Babylon was soon dampened by discouragement as they faced the pile of rubble that remained of the temple and the devastated land surrounding it. According to Ezra (5:1; 6:14), both Haggai and Zechariah prophesied about 520-516 B.C.E. With a series of visions and oracles Zechariah assures Zerubbabel, the governor, and Joshua, the high priest, that together they will finish rebuilding the temple, which they did accomplish.

So What?

To our secular society, which sees only what is immediately visible, Zechariah presents visions of sweeping breadth. The cosmos reaches from God and the angels to Satan, the accuser. The view of time stretches from the early days of Israel's history to a magnificent future where the Lord will rule through a righteous king. Yahweh is not only the God of Israel, but the God of all the earth.

Where Do I Find It?

Zechariah is the thirty-eighth and next to last book of the Protestant Old Testament. It is the eleventh of the twelve "minor prophets" (or shorter prophets), following Haggai, Zechariah's contemporary, and preceding Malachi.

Who Wrote It?

The author identifies himself in the first verse as "the prophet Zechariah, son of Berechiah son of Iddo." Iddo was the head of one of the priestly families among the returning exiles (Nehemiah 12:4, 16). Zechariah may have been a boy when his family returned to Jerusalem. Chapters 9-14 are probably by a different author, sometimes called "Deutero-Zechariah" or "Second Zechariah." The mention of the Greeks in 9:13 suggests a later date and authorship than Zechariah, but the historical setting of these later chapters is difficult to determine.

When Was It Written?

The first eight chapters clearly apply to the period of return from exile, with frequent historical references to that period. Chapters 9-14 are more difficult to date, with estimates ranging from preexilic times to the Greek and Roman periods.

What's It About?

Arriving in Jerusalem among exiles returning from Babylon in the late 500s B.C.E., the prophet Zechariah criticizes disobedience but looks forward to the restoration of the temple and the prosperity of a people faithful to God.

How Do I Read It?

Imagine living for a long time in a foreign country, then returning to find your own country in ruins. You would wonder if your hardships were punishments from God, as many prophets have said, and you would ask how one can be restored to God's favor. From that perspective we read Zechariah, who pronounces judgment for disobedience, but also envisions a rebuilt temple and a restored Jerusalem. The book also causes us to look for God's activity not only in the past but also in our world today, and how this might develop in the future. What is the future hope for people who live in seemingly hopeless situations?

AUTHOR: Michael Rogness, Professor of Preaching and Professor Emeritus of Homiletic

I. Introduction (Zechariah 1:1-6)
The opening verses identify Zechariah as Berechiah's son and Iddo's grandson. The time period and situation is identified as the eighth month of Darius's second year--that is, the late 500s B.C.E.--when the immediate task facing the returning exiles was to rebuild the temple.

II. Visions and Oracles (Zechariah 1:7-8:23)
The first eight chapters are a series of visions; there are more visions here than contained in any other prophetic book. "I looked up and saw" is a recurring phrase that begins many of the visions. Interspersed among the visions are oracles.

A. The First Vision (Zechariah 1:7-17)
Zechariah sees a man on a red horse among myrtle trees, representing those who patrol the earth on God's behalf. An angel of the Lord pleads for mercy for Jerusalem and Judah, and the Lord answers with assurance that Jerusalem will be restored and "overflow with prosperity."

B. The Second Vision (Zechariah 1:18-21)
Zechariah sees four horns, and the angel informs him that those horns dispersed Judah, Jerusalem, and Israel, but will now be used to strike down those nations who scattered the people of Judah. "Horns" are a symbol of military power and may represent the nations that have oppressed Israel, such as Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, and Persia.

C. The Third Vision (Zechariah 2:1-5)
Zechariah sees a man with a measuring line in his hand, who is going to measure Jerusalem. Two angels command the prophet to inform the man that he need not measure Jerusalem for a wall, because the Lord will protect the city with a wall of fire.

D. Oracle against the Plundering Nations (2:6-13)
God announces the coming destruction of those nations that have "touched" or plundered Israel, because, says God, Israel is "the apple of my eye."

E. The Fourth Vision (Zechariah 3:1-10)
Zechariah sees three figures--Joshua, the high priest during the rebuilding of the temple, stands before the angel of the Lord, while Satan accuses the priest. Joshua is dressed in filthy clothes. The Lord rebukes Satan, and the angel reclothes Joshua with festive garb, promising him restoration.

F. The Fifth Vision (Zechariah 4:1-14)
Wakened by the angel, Zechariah sees a golden lampstand topped by a bowl, which has seven lamps, each having seven lips. Next to the lampstand are two olive trees with branches pouring out oil representing the "two anointed ones who stand by the Lord," perhaps the collaborative leadership of the governor Zerubbabel and the high priest Joshua. In the midst of the vision is an oracle that Zerubbabel will finish the temple.

G. The Sixth Vision (Zechariah 5:1-4)
Five visions of promise are followed by judgment in the sixth and seven visions, which declare that wickedness must be removed. The sixth vision is a flying scroll, which represents a curse against those who steal and those who swear falsely. Their houses will be destroyed.

H. The Seventh Vision (Zechariah 5:5-11)
Zechariah sees a basket (ephah, about seven gallons) of iniquity. The woman sitting in it, says the angel, is wickedness. Two women carry the basket to the land of Shinar--that is, the land of wickedness--which may be Babylon or Mesopotamia.

I. The Eighth Vision (Zechariah 6:1-8)
The four horsemen from the first vision appear again, this time on chariots. They are the four "winds of heaven," patrolling the earth on behalf of the Lord.

III. The Coronation and the Branch (Zechariah 6:9-15)
The Lord instructs Zechariah to make a crown for the man named "Branch" who will finish the temple, with the priest by his side, "with peaceful understanding between the two of them." The passage is confusing, implying a leader and a priest, but omits mention of Zerubbabel, presumably the leader. The oracle suggests the peaceful collaboration of governor and priest. Some connect the Branch to the shoot from Jesse in Isaiah 11:1 and take it as a messianic reference.

IV. Oracles about the Practice of Religion (Zechariah 7 and 8)
These two chapters are a series of oracles, usually beginning with "the word of the LORD came to me," in which Zechariah speaks about religious practices. Rather than mournful fasting and abstinence the Lord instructs the people to attend to how they treat each other: "Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor….Speak the truth…love no false oath" (7:9-10; 8:16-17). When people harden their hearts to the law, wrath will come. On the other hand, when the people obey the Lord, God will dwell in Jerusalem, and there will be joy in the city, with "boys and girls playing in its streets" (8:5). The concluding oracle is a grand vision of people coming to Jerusalem to seek the Lord's favor, and the Jews will be the envy of all nations (8:20-23).

V. An Oracle of Judgment, the Coming Ruler, and Restoration (Zechariah 9-11)
This oracle begins with a pronouncement of judgment on Israel's enemies--Hadrach, Aram, Hamath, Tyre, Sidon, Ashkelon, Gaza, Ekron, Ashdod, Philistia, and the Jebusites. Then the people of Judah and Jerusalem are told to rejoice, because their king will arrive, and God will lead his people to victory. The Lord will redeem them, and though they have been scattered, God will gather them up and bring them home. In chapter 11, following an oracle of judgment against Lebanon, two kinds of shepherds are portrayed. The meaning is puzzling, but the first seems to be the prophet himself. He is rejected by the people, so he breaks his two staffs of favor and unity, annulling the covenant. The second is a "worthless shepherd…who does not care for the perishing, or seek the wandering, or heal the maimed, or nourish the healthy, but devours the flesh of the fat ones" (11:15-16).

VI. An Oracle of Victory for Jerusalem (Zechariah 12-14)
The closing sections of the book begin with an oracle of final victory for Jerusalem. The Lord will pour out compassion, so that those who have caused suffering will mourn. Idolatry will be eliminated and false prophets will be shamed. Sheep who follow the false shepherd will be scattered, but the one-third remnant will remain and be refined as silver and gold. The closing chapter of the book is a sweeping vision of that day when Jerusalem will prosper and enemies will be destroyed. Everything in Jerusalem will be blessed, so that even ordinary cooking pots will be as holy as the bowls in front of the altar.

AUTHOR: Michael Rogness, Professor of Preaching and Professor Emeritus of Homiletic

With the mention of Iddo and Zechariah in Nehemiah 12:4, 16, plus Zechariah's opening verse, we know that Zechariah was active in the early years of the return from Babylon, probably about 520-518 B.C.E. The visions and oracles of chapters 1-8 clearly refer to this period when the temple was rebuilt. Chapters 9-14 are more difficult to determine. Often called "Deutero-Zechariah" or "Second Zechariah," their historical setting is a matter of speculation, with references generally considered to be from the fifth or fourth centuries, although some scholars suggest that some of the material might be preexilic.

AUTHOR: Michael Rogness, Professor of Preaching and Professor Emeritus of Homiletic

Angels. Angels are mentioned twenty-one times in Zechariah, exceeded in the Bible only by Judges (22), Luke (23), and Revelation (79). The principle role of angels in the Scriptures is to be messengers, and the Old Testament word malak simply means messenger. Malak might be a human or divine being, but malak yahweh, "angel of the LORD," makes clear that a divine being is intended. If the context indicates that it is a message from one human to another, malak is translated "messenger" (Deuteronomy 2:26; Joshua 6:17, 25; 7:22; Judges 11:12, 13; 1 Samuel 6:21; 11:3-4, 7, 9; 19:11, 14-16; and others). If the context indicates the message comes from God, or if the word used is malak yahweh, "angel of the LORD," it is clear that the messenger is from God, that is, an angel (Genesis 24:7; Exodus 23:20, 23; 1 Kings 13:18; 2 Chronicles 32:21; Daniel 3:28; and others). Because angels always speak God's message, Zechariah uses variations of the phrases "Thus says the LORD of hosts" (1:3, 13, 16; 2:6, 9; 7:4; 8:2; etc.) or "the angel who talked with me" (1:9, 12, 13, 19; 2:3; 3:6; 4:1, 5; 5:5; 6:5; etc.) interchangeably.

Apocalypse. The book is in part an example of Jewish apocalyptic literature in the late history of the Old Testament era. The visions, imagery, oracles, angels, and eschatological themes point toward a new future. The first vision of the four horsemen who patrol the earth in 1:8 reappears as the last vision, four chariots drawn by horses in 6:1-8, also patrolling the earth. These two visions are prelude to the "four horsemen of the Apocalypse" in Revelation 6:2-8.

Authorship of chapters 9-14. The tone and character of the book clearly change in the last six chapters. Chapters 1-8 deal specifically with the situation of the returning exiles and the rebuilding of the temple, with angels appearing as intermediaries. Chapters 9-14 deal with the broader themes of judgment on foreign cities and nations not mentioned in previous chapters--Hamath, Damascus, Egypt, and Greece. Many scholars even posit two different authors for these last six chapters, responsible for 9-11 and 12-14, respectively, with 13:7-9 possibly belonging with 9-11. The dating of this latter section is very difficult. Some scholars date chapters 10 and 13 as preexilic, while others date these chapters as late as the Maccabean period (second century B.C.E.).

The Branch. Zechariah foresees a man who will be simultaneously a servant and a "branch" (3:8-10), crowned with a crown of silver and gold, who will build the Lord's temple (6:11-15). The passage implies two persons, a combined leadership of ruler or governor and priest, who "shall sit and rule on his throne" (6:13). The verses are also reminiscent of the branch from the stump of David in Isaiah 11:1, which is also later connected with Jesus as Messiah.

Jerusalem. The restoration of Jerusalem is a dominant theme throughout the book--as a center of worship, a magnet for all nations to worship God, and a place where people live harmoniously. How ironic that today the city is a symbol of contention. The place of Jerusalem is a critical issue today, because many people's political views about the Middle East are shaped by their biblical interpretation of passages such as those found in Zechariah and elsewhere.

Messianic passages. Matthew and John quote Zechariah several times, drawing parallels to Jesus' life. In their accounts of the Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem, both Gospels quote Zechariah 9:9, "Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey" (Matthew 21:5; John 12:15). Zechariah's oracle of the faithful shepherd being stuck down (13:7) is cited by Jesus at the Mount of Olives following the Last Supper, as he foretells his desertion by the disciples: "I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered" (Matthew 26:31, also Mark 14:27). Describing Judas's betrayal and death, Matthew paraphrases Zechariah's reference to thirty shekels of silver (11:12-13): "they took the thirty pieces of silver…and they gave them for the potter's field, as the Lord commanded me" (Matthew 27:9-10, where the passage from Zechariah is incorrectly attributed to Jeremiah). Zechariah's oracle of compassion for those who have suffered ("they look on the one whom they have pierced"--12:10), is cited by John 19:37 at Jesus' crucifixion as an indication of Scripture fulfilled.

Remnant. Zechariah estimates that fully two-thirds of the flock will perish and be lost, but the one-third remaining remnant will be refined as silver and gold, and they will confess God faithfully (8:6, 11, 12; 13:7-9). The remnant remaining after punishment and exile is a common theme in prophetic writings, for example, Isaiah 10:20-22; 28:5; 37:31-32; Jeremiah 24:8; 42:19; 44:12, 14; Micah 5:7, 8; Zephaniah 2:7, 9; Haggai 1:12, 14.

Satan. Satan appears in the fourth vision, accusing the high priest Joshua. The Lord rebukes him and restores the festive garb of Joshua. The word "Satan" has a broad meaning in the Old Testament. Here the more accurate translation of ha-satan would be "the accuser," similar to Satan's role in 1 Chronicles 21:1 ("Satan stood up against Israel") or Job 1:7-12; 2:1-6. There is no suggestion here that Satan is an angel, the devil, or a "fallen angel."

Shepherds faithful and false. The role of the shepherd becomes prominent in the closing two oracles of the book. In 10:2-7 the shepherd as false ruler and leader will be punished, so that the Lord can restore the people. Chapter 11 is a passage whose historical context has been the object of much speculation. The prophet is commanded to be a shepherd, even though the flock is doomed to slaughter because they have been deceived by false shepherds. Due to the flock's unfaithfulness, the Lord has given them over to worthless shepherds who disregard the people's welfare and who in turn will be destroyed by the Lord. Chapter 13 ends with a poem in which the Lord will strike down the shepherd, scattering the sheep, but the one-third remnant will be refined and will acknowledge the Lord as God (13:7-9).

Temple ritual. The Jews in Babylon and in other dispersed places outside Judah had maintained their religious devotion without the temple. When the first exiles returned to Jerusalem they laid the foundation for the restored temple, but did not continue to build further (Ezra 4:4). Haggai and Zechariah led the movement to finish the temple and reinstate the priesthood with a high priest (Ezra 5:1-2; 6:8-15). Yet, Zechariah cautions that true obedience to the Lord is not only in temple ritual, but in how we treat other people (7:1-10). Since the final destruction of the temple by the Romans in 70 C.E., the priesthood and temple ritual were replaced altogether by rabbinic Judaism and the synagogue.

Visions. Zechariah has more visions than any other prophetic book. Each is followed by an interpretation looking toward the future. The character of visions is that they are easily sculpted to fit one's own far-fetched theories. The history of scriptural interpretation is rife with fanciful theories based on biblical visions. Care must be taken to adhere as closely as possible to the meaning of visions in their own historical contexts.

AUTHOR: Michael Rogness, Professor of Preaching and Professor Emeritus of Homiletic

Faithfulness and restoration. The recurring theme of the book is restoration. If the remnant returning from exile obeys the Lord, the prosperity of the land will be restored (1:16-17; 2:10; 3:6-7; 8:3-8; 9:14-17). Throughout the book, passages of judgment for disobedience alternate with promises of restoration for those who follow the Lord.

Forgiveness. Zechariah includes several images to describe the effect of forgiveness. In 3:3-5 sinfulness is being dressed in "filthy clothes," and forgiveness is to be clothed in "festal apparel" with a clean turban on one's head and an angel standing at one's side. God's people will be "the apple of my eye" (2:8). The concluding chapter of the book describes the restored and forgiven people of God as living where there is no "cold or frost," no darkness, and where "the LORD will become king over all the earth" (14:6-9).

God as refiner. God as a refiner of his people, as the process of refining purifies and strengthens metal, is found not only here in 13:9, but also in Isaiah 48:10, Jeremiah 6:29; 9:7; Daniel 11:35; and Malachi 3:2-3. The image confronts us with the age-old question of God's role in human suffering.

God of all, active in history, Lord of all the earth. God not only calls forth leaders for the people of Israel, but is active on their behalf, punishing their enemies. God is the Lord of all the earth (6:5; 14:9), and Zechariah foresees a time when "many nations shall join themselves to the LORD" (2:11). People from many cities and nations will "seek the LORD of hosts in Jerusalem, and...entreat the favor of the LORD" (8:22).

King over all the earth. The Lord is the covenant God of Israel, and Zechariah's immediate purpose is to encourage the rebuilding of the temple. However, typical of the later prophets, his view of God is not only the God of the Jewish people, but ultimately the God over all nations.

Ritual versus compassion. Following the visions of chapters 1-6, the prophet speaks a series of oracles. Chapter 7 begins by saying that the four traditional times of fasting (8:19) no longer apply to the present age. The passage is reminiscent of other verses from the later prophets, urging ethical actions rather than rituals (see Isaiah 1:11-14; 61:1, 8; Amos 5:10-15, 21-24; Micah 6:6-8).

Leadership. A recurring theme throughout the book is the faithful rule of God's people. Images abound describing what kind of ruler Zechariah anticipates--"Branch," combining the religious role of the priest with royal leadership (6:12-13); one who cares for the widow and the orphan (7:8-10); a king riding on a donkey instead of a warhorse (9:9); a faithful shepherd (10:3; 11:7); and a leader of the remnant faithful to the Lord (13:8-9).

Messiah. Zechariah does not use terms such as "messiah," "anointed one," "servant," etc., but several references in the book have been applied in the New Testament to Jesus--the king riding a donkey into Jerusalem (9:9), the betrayal with thirty pieces of silver (11:12), the faithful shepherd struck down (11:7; 13:7), the pierced one (12:10), etc.

Satan. A discussion of evil in the Bible involves a whole constellation of themes--the devil, Satan, fallen angels, temptation, etc. In Zechariah, Satan is "the Accuser" (3:1), not specifically the personification of evil, although his accusation of Joshua the high priest is rebuked by the Lord.

AUTHOR: Michael Rogness, Professor of Preaching and Professor Emeritus of Homiletic