Studies in the
BOOK OF ZECHARIAH
The prophet Zechariah (whose name means "Yahweh remembers"1) ministered to the exiles who had returned from the Babylonian Captivity in 536 B.C. He began his ministry in the eighth month of the second year of the reign of Darius I, the Great (522-486 B.C.), or, November, 520 B.C., after sixteen years had passed since Cyrus issued the decree (536 B.C.) and 50,000 exiles had returned from Babylon to Jerusalem. Zechariah and Haggai had the mission of encouraging the people in their task of rebuilding the temple and renewing their divine calling to be a kingdom of priests.
While the book focuses on Godís plan for Israel throughout "the times of the Gentiles" (and Daniel focuses on Godís plan for the nations for the same period of time), its message continually extends beyond the current needs of the post-exilic community to the future coming of the Lord, both in humility (the first coming) and in glory (the second coming). Thus we can see how the visions and burdens of the prophet have both a "near view" and a "far view" to their meanings.
The Book of Zechariah must first be interpreted within its immediate historical and theological contexts. The prophet ministered to the people of Judah who had returned from the captivity in Babylon. Their return was part of a new beginning for the nation, a return to the land that God had promised them to begin again. It was an exciting time for them; but it was also a sad time, for what they now had was nothing like what they had lost when the Babylonians destroyed the land.
Even though their exile had been a tremendous blow, not just physically but spiritually, God demonstrated to them that the exile was not permanent. Neither did it mean that he had abandoned his plans for Israel. It was a judgment designed to punish the nation for sin and purge the unbelievers from the land. But even before they were carried off, God announced that he was about to make a New Covenant with Israel (see Jer. 31; Isa. 54; Ezek. 36). This New Covenant would bring together all the promises of the old covenants (the Abrahamic Covenant, the Sinaitic Covenant, the Deuteronomic Covenant, and the Davidic Covenant) and fulfill them in an even greater way than they could have imagined. The New Covenant promised that God would re-gather Israel to the land, that they would enjoy unbounded prosperity and unlimited peace, for the land would never again be invaded by foreign armies, that they would be blessed so that they would increase in number and fill the land, that they would rebuild the temple in a way that would exceed the glory of the past, that the LORD would remove their sins, put a new heart in them, and pour out his Spirit out on all flesh so that every one would know the LORD throughout the earth. All of these promises would be fulfilled in and through the coming of the Messiah, as the Scriptures had promised.
When the first wave of captives returned to the land (see Ps. 126), they were filled with joy. They must have thought that this was the beginning of the fulfillment of the New Covenant. But when they built the temple, it did not fit the description in Isaiah 54. And as they settled in the land, that promised peace did not come, only one invading army after another. And as they constantly fell into sin and were called to repentance by the prophets, they realized that what they had was not it, not yet anyway. And so even at the birth of Jesus we find old Simeon waiting for the consolation of Israel. The promises of God were partially fulfilled from time to time, but never fully, not without the Messiah, and not before his coming in glory--what we know to be the second coming.
And so we can see in this book that the glorious promises that were made received a partial fulfillment, or perhaps better, an immediate application, in the life of the people Zechariah ministered to. But those applications were only general previews of the complete fulfillment that was yet to come. And the immediate applications should have prompted in the people repentance for sin and faith in the LORD so that they would be assured a part in the world to come, when all the promises would be gloriously fulfilled.
ThePrerequisite for Godís Blessing
I. The Call for Repentance (1:1-3)
The Preface (v. 1)
The book begins with a clear record of the time of Zechariahís prophecy. It came first in the eighth month of the second year of Darius I, the Great. Darius I reigned from 522 B.C to 486 B.C.; the first vision of the prophet then came in November of the year 520 B.C. The fact that the date of the prophecy is given under the reign of a Gentile king and not an Israelite king as with other prophets is a stark reminder that this is during the "times of the Gentiles" (Luke 21:24), that long time from the beginning of the exile in 605 B.C. to the (second) coming of the Lord, in which Israel would be subject to the nations of the world.
When Zechariah began to prophesy sixteen years had already passed since Cyrus the Great had conquered Babylon and issued his decree to restore the exiles to their lands (536 B.C.). Some 50,000 exiles had returned in those days under the political leadership of Zerubbabel, and the spiritual leadership of the High Priest, whose name was Joshua. But that window closed when Cyrus died and his son Cambyses II came to the throne; he reigned from 530-522. Then, in 522 Darius I had to put down a revolt to secure his throne, and the empire. He then set about founding a new capital at Persepolis while enlarging and improving Susa and Ecbatana. He showed wisdom and restraint in his rule; as a result there was religious tolerance and peace and prosperity throughout the empire. The Jews therefore had an appreciation for these Persian rulers that they did not have for the Egyptians, Assyrians and Babylonians.
When Darius came to the throne, Haggai and Zechariah began to encourage the people to build the temple quickly because they were not sure if the earlier decree to do so was still active. The original decree of Cyrus was found and confirmed by the Persian government (see Ezra 5:1--6:18) so that the work went forward. In March, 515 B.C., the temple was finished.
As with all the prophets in Israel, the meaning of the name had significance. Zechariah means "memory of Yahweh" or "Yahweh remembers." This fits the message of the book which focuses on the LORDís remembering his people Israel and the promises he made to them. And in Hebrew, the word "remember" is more than a mental recollection. It signifies acting on what is remembered (as when people pray for God to remember them).
The ancestry of the prophet gives us another insight into the man. He was the grandson of Iddo, one of the priests who returned under Zerubbabel in 536 (Neh. 12:4; Ezra 5:1; 6:14). Zechariah was a priest and a prophet. Zechariah was therefore a young man in 520. His contemporary, Haggai, was a very old man, because he had seen the first temple standing (Hag. 2:3).
Zechariah would have been born and educated in Babylon. But he spent most of his life under the powerful and extensive Persian empire.1 The imagery and the symbols in the book will draw on these personal experiences to a good degree as we shall see.
The Call to Repentance (vv. 2, 3)
In the beginning verses of the book we have the foundational theme: the blessings of God must be preceded by genuine repentance. The prophecies of the book offer the promise of Godís blessings to his people Israel; these promises are based on the person and work of the coming Messiah, and so are made sure by God. They are based on Godís Word, and not Israelís performance. Nevertheless, individual participation in the coming blessings has always required faithfulness.
The call from the LORD through the prophet is clear: "Return to me, and I will return to you." This call is preceded by the reminder of Godís wrath: "The LORD was very angry with your forefathers." In fact the word order heightens the point: "Angry was the LORD . . . ." And the construction uses a cognate accusative to strengthen the point: "angry with an anger." He was severely angry. Moreover, the choice of words for angry emphasizes Godís displeasure: qatsaph means "to be wrathful" (see Isa. 57:16, 17). The verse presents a vivid reminder of the wrath of God that was poured out on Israel at the time of the Babylonian captivity. God in his holiness deals with sin decisively. With that generation, as with all generations, the principles are the same: those who are believers in the LORD he chastens and disciplines for their sin, but those who are not believers are under his severe wrath and destined for judgment. Many people died in the invasion and captivity, some as believers and others as unbelievers. It was Godís judgment on sin. But those who died outside of the faith have yet to face the final judgment.2
So Zechariah reminds the returning exiles of the wrath of God on their forefathers. The reminder of divine wrath is also a warning of divine wrath, designed to prompt people to come to repentance. That repentance is worded with the simple imperative, "return to me." But this is very clear. Repentance is not simply feeling sorry for sins committed; repentance is changing the direction of life in view of the sins committed. People might be heading in one direction that is not pleasing to God. The call is for them to abandon that path that leads to destruction and return to the way of God.
Here God promised to return to them as well. We might read this verse: "Return to me in order that I may return to you." That is possible grammatically. But the context of the message, and the book as a whole, is that God had already taken the initiative and turned to them--he no longer was judging them in Babylon, but had brought them back to the land in accordance with his promises (see Isa. 40:1,2; and Ezekiel 36). His love for them was designed to inspire his love in them and their love for him. He had begun a work of grace in restoring them to the land; but the fulness of the blessings, especially the spiritual blessings, would not be appropriated if they were not spiritually prepared. God always takes the initiative; that is the way grace works. But the required response is not diminished because of this. The response of faith is repentance evidenced by obedience.
II. The Warning from History (1:4-6)
Not to Be Disobedient (v. 4)
Four times the prophet mentions "your fathers." The example of the disobedience and apostasy of the preceding generation forms the stern warning. "Do not be like your fathers." And in case they needed the reminder, Zechariah rehearses how they were involved in all kinds of wickedness and refused to listen to the warnings of the prophets. The earlier prophets--Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Micah, and others--pleaded with them to turn from their evil ways (see Isa. 55:6, 7; Joel 2:12, 13; Amos 5:4, 6; and Jer. 3:12). But they did not listen. And so they paid a severe price: their land was devastated, the temple destroyed, many people were killed, and a significant number of the people were carried off to a distant land to live out their existence.
The same call to repentance was repeated a number of decades after Zechariah, by Malachi: "Return to me and I will return to you" (3:7). Just because they were back in the land did not mean that they were pleasing to God, or in line for all the promised blessings. That is true also of Israel in the days of Jesus, for he came preaching that unless they repented they would all perish. And it is still true today, for even though the Jews have returned to the land, unless they repent and turn in faith to the Lord Jesus Christ, that is all the promised blessing they will receive.
Not to Miss the Opportunity (v. 5)
The prophet makes his point with rhetorical questions: "Where are they?" The people of that generation, and even the prophets who pleaded with them, are gone. The prophets shared in the calamity of the nation; it was a case of the righteous dying because of the sins of the nation. The point of these questions, then, is the brevity of life. The time is short for people to repent and serve the LORD. To postpone a spiritual opportunity may mean that the opportunity is gone forever--they might die, or God might stop calling and convicting them and give them up to their own will.
Not to Misjudge the Word (v. 6).
The prophet ends this little introduction with a clear statement of the certainty of the Word of God. God reasons with them through the prophets: his words to their fathers were sure--what he said about their sin, what he warned them would happen, what he promised if they repented, all was proven to be true. Godís Word overtook them, or caught up with their sin and unrepentance. And they had to admit that just as the LORD of Armies planned to judge them, so he judged them.
The book uses the title "Yahweh of Armies" frequently--which some Bibles translate "LORD of hosts." "Yahweh of armies" is a judgment expression. It should prompt the fear of the LORD in the listener. What it indicates is that whatever the LORD says he is fully able to do, for he has all the armies of heaven and all the armies of earth at his disposal.
This then is the spiritual foundation for the messages to follow. The prophet will encourage and exhort the people to do the work of the Lord; but they must first turn to the LORD with a whole heart, putting away the evil of their ways and deed. The prophet will also give them glimpses of the glorious future that God has promised and prepared for his people; but they must first repent and turn to him by faith. If they do not, then the general blessings that they were now enjoying would be all that they could expect--in this life or the life to come.
The message is equally applicable for people today. This little book will call people to enjoy Godís bounty and serve him with gladness; but unless they turn from their ways and deeds and turn to him by faith, then they cannot expect him to turn to them with great blessings. And this little book will provide a glimpse of the glorious future in the age of the Messiah; but once again, only those who turn from their sins to trust the Lord will have a share in that glorious future. There is no easy-believism. Genuine repentance is the evidence of saving faith. The call is for complete commitment to the Lord, and that always means turning from the ways of the world. This is what the Bible means by conversion; this is the foundation of sanctification. And on this serious note, the prophet begins to deliver his messages.
1. The entire book is an exposition of the fact that the LORD remembers his people Israel and the promises he made to them.
2. It may be helpful to recall that the Persians were not Semites. The Babylonians and Assyrians were eastern Semites, related to Arab tribes. But the Persians were Indo-Europeans. The cultural divide remains among the descendants, Iran for Persia, and Iraq for Babylon and Assyria.
3. Of course there were also "innocent" people who had to suffer for the sins of the nation. People like the prophets were faithful. But as they shared in the suffering, they saw that as an opportunity to minister to others, to explain why God had punished the nation, and what they should do in response to it.