Studies in the
BOOK OF ZECHARIAH
5. The Fourth Night Vision
THE CLEANSING AND RE-COMMISSIONING
OF THE PRIESTLY NATION
The fourth night vision concerns the cleansing and re-commissioning of the priestly nation under the symbolism of the cleansing of Joshua the High Priest, the actual High Priest for the post-exilic community.
On the surface the vision seems to concern this man; but as we look more closely at the passage we learn that he is just the representative of the whole nation, and that the vision concerns the restoration of Israel as a priestly people. As the passage unfolds, we will see that it may be applied in three legitimate ways. First, it would have been a message of great encouragement for the returning Jewish community. They were brought back to the land to rebuild the Temple and the city in order that they could once again be the people of God. This vision told them that God was cleaning them up and re-installing them as his priestly people. But second, the passage indicates that much of this theme points to the future when the Messiah comes, and this aspect fits well with the ultimate meaning of the other night visions. In other words, the current re-gathering and re-commissioning is a sign of a greater, future event at a time when Israel will be restored to her destiny as the kingdom of priests. And third, even though these two prophetic messages (one a current message and the other a predictive prophecy) are the main thrust of the passage, the chapter also provides a wonderful picture of God’s cleansing and commissioning of all of us who come to faith in Christ and take our place in his service as a royal priesthood.
God had created human beings to be his image, to rule and have dominion over the earth and to worship and serve him in the garden sanctuary--a people who were kings and priests. But sin ruined all of that rather quickly. And so God set about in the new creation, that is, redemption, to form a people who would be his image on earth, a holy nation and a kingdom of priests (Exod. 19:5, 6). But the people of Israel ultimately failed, and were expelled from their land. They came back, of course, and began anew in their commission. But that new beginning was not a full return to the faith. And so in time, and especially with their rejection of their Messiah, God turned to the Gentiles for a time, and those who have believed have become part of the New Covenant community that is now a royal priesthood (1 Pet. 2:9). At the end of the age when the Messiah comes the chosen race will again look on him whom they have pierced (Zech. 12:10) and find salvation through Jesus the Messiah and restoration to their priestly ministry in the Messianic Age to come.
So with that framework in mind, we may look at this night vision. The passage falls into three parts: the vision of defiled Israel, the vision of pardoned Israel, and the prediction of redeemed and restored Israel through the work of the Messiah.
I. The Vision of Defiled Israel (3:1-3)
A. Under the Figure of Joshua, the Nation is Accused (vv. 1, 2)
The vision introduces us to Joshua, the High Priest--or the returning Jewish community. While the image of that man appears in the vision, he is to be seen as the representative of the nation as a whole. The evidence for this is that (1) the night visions all refer to the nation, (2) the High Priest of Israel did represent the nation as he entered the Holy of Holies on their behalf, (3) the rebuke of Satan will declare that God has chosen Israel, (4) this passage will explain that Joshua and the other priests are “men of a sign”--men who represent some future events, and (5) in the interpretation the iniquity of the land will be removed--not simply Joshua’s iniquity. So while the scene describes a man, Joshua, the vision is about the defiled nation of Israel.
In the vision Joshua was standing before the “Angel of Yahweh,” whom we have explained in the previous passages is the Lord, that is, the one person of the trinity who reveals the Godhead to people, namely, the second person of the trinity, God the Son, or as he would come to be known at the incarnation, Jesus the Messiah. The scene reminds us of heavenly settings where angels stand before the Lord God in review. And that idea applies here because that is what the Sanctuary was supposed to represent. The High Priest was standing before the LORD in the Sanctuary, trying to minister before the LORD as a priest, and standing there before the LORD was standing among the angels in the presence of the living God.
But at his right hand Satan was standing “to Satanize” him! The Hebrew word satan means “to be an adversary”; here the word play repeats the verb that is related to the name to underscore the opposition. He was at Joshua’s right hand, not as a position of support to Joshua, but as a place of advantage, or of power, power over Joshua. Here, then, we see the Old Testament vision of a theme that would be fully expressed in the New Testament, that Satan is the accuser of the brethren (Rev. 12:10). Like a prosecuting attorney Satan simply points out the faults and flaws of the people; he does not need to bring false charges against them, for there is enough sin to condemn them. Here in Zechariah Satan’s activity is that of opposing and resisting the ministry of the High Priest. He was there to do this because the sin of the priest (i.e., the nation) gave Satan the occasion to expose the sinner and attack.
But in this case Satan will not be allowed to have his say. The Angel of the LORD stopped him before he could start. He said, “The LORD rebuke you, O Satan.” The rebuke is repeated for emphasis; and the name of the one rebuking is fully expressed to make the point clear: “The LORD (Yahweh) rebuke you.” The word used does not simply mean that Satan was reprimanded or countered in his accusation--he was silenced (just as Jesus rebuked the wind and the waves). With the declaration of the rebuke from the LORD, Satan could say no more. Case closed!
Now the basis for the rebuke was the LORD’s sovereign grace in choosing Jerusalem (meaning the Jewish people). That was the only reason that Satan’s accusations were rejected. The people were sinners and deserved to die in judgment. But God chose them. In fact, the LORD adds, “Is not this a brand plucked from the fire?” The fire represents immediately the Babylonian captivity. And God had rescued the people from perishing in that ordeal--not because they deserved it, but because God had made promises to them that he had to fulfill for his name’s sake (Ezek. 36:22-36). And the promises that he made to Israel were made by grace and grace alone, for the promises of the New Covenant were made when the nation was sent into exile because of their idolatrous rebellion.
This was but one instance of persecution that Israel has had to endure. The fire represents all the sufferings that the chosen people, the Jews, have had to endure and will yet endure at the hands of their enemies, until they will be delivered finally from it at the coming of the Messiah in glory. Satan’s charges were therefore worthless, because God was faithful to his promises; he would let the bush burn, but as he showed Moses in the wilderness, he would not allow it to be consumed (Exod. 3:1-8). It did not matter here that Israel did not deserve to be rescued from the exile and restored to the land and re-commissioned to a priestly role, for it was the grace of God that was at work in them. And if God’s grace had not chosen them, the Jewish people would have been exterminated long ago.
Likewise today, we do not stand before God as his servants because we deserve to be there. If Satan’s accusations were allowed to stand, we would all be condemned by our sins (Ps. 130:4). But God has declared that he chose each one of us by his grace, and that we are brands plucked from the fire.1 By grace we have been pardoned so that our sins do not condemn us.
B. Under the Figure of Joshua, the Nation Appears Defiled (v. 3).
Verse 3 gives us a very graphic picture of the sin of Joshua, meaning, the sin of the nation. The parenthetical clause tells us, “Now Joshua was attired in filthy garments, but was standing before the Angel of the LORD.” The participles “standing” and “attired” stress the continued state of spiritual filthiness. The language used by the prophet is more vivid--they were excrement-bespattered garments! Now this was the priest in the holy place! He should have been clothed with pure white linens before the LORD, signifying holiness and glory. But he was clothed with filthiness. And since clothing represents the character (clothed with righteousness; clothed with joy), it means that the person was filthy, in spite of any white linens he might have worn. The sum of it is clear--he was totally sinful, and should have been disqualified from spiritual service and even from the presence of the LORD. Malachi used similar language to describe the corrupt priests of his day: God would smear offal across their faces so that they would be carted out of the Sanctuary with the unclean parts of the animals (2:3). Such language made the point powerfully: sinful priests were disqualified from service. And, in our vision, a sinful nation could not be a kingdom of priests. God had told Moses they had to be a holy nation to be a kingdom of priests (Exod. 19:6).
The filthy garments on Joshua certainly represent the sins of Israel in the Old Testament, the sins of idolatry and rebellion against the LORD that brought on the captivity in Babylon. But since this is ultimately a prophecy of the events at the end of the age, all the sins of Israel would be included in this scene, including the sin of self-righteousness and rejection of Jesus the Messiah at his first coming.
Joshua’s (Israel’s) silence before Satan’s accusation is proof of his guilt.
II. The Vision of Restored Israel (3:4-7)
The following part of the vision presents the way of the deliverance of Israel from sin and her restoration to service. But the section also illustrates the theological teaching of the salvation of all lost sinners.
A. The Nation is Pardoned (v. 4).
Using the symbolism of the High Priest clothed with filthy garments for Israel, the LORD gave the command to the angels who were standing by to remove the filthy garments from him. This was the LORD’s answer to the accusations of Satan. And this act commanded by the LORD was symbolic of the removal and justification of the nation of Israel represented by the priest, both then in the days of the prophet, and also at the end of the age when the Israelites who will be alive at that time will come to faith in the Lord Christ; but it is also symbolic of any individual sinner who trusts Christ.
The act involved two steps, removing the filthy garments and putting on the festive garments. The LORD explained clearly what this dis-robing meant: “I have caused your iniquity to pass from you.” And the LORD said he would clothe him in rich apparel. The new clothes are quite a contrast to the filthy clothes. In the Law the priest’s wardrobe included the holy garments, the richly decorated robes made of gold, blue, purple, scarlet and fine linen (see Exod. 28:4, 5; and Lev. 8:7-9). These robes were to signify glory and beauty.
In the ordinary service of the priests, these glorious garments would have been put on after the priest made full atonement in the sanctuary (Lev. 16:1-22), which typified the redemptive work of Christ. The priest would put off the spotless white linen garments after emerging from the presence of the LORD and put on the garments of glory (Lev. 16:24) to enable him to minister to the people. The filthy garments should have been the white linen garments used for the ministry of making atonement--but they were filthy--he was filthy. This prophecy declares that God would remove that sin and filth, and prepare the people (under the figure of Joshua) to serve in holy garments. Israel was called to be a high-priestly nation to the world, and that vocation will be realized on the basis of God’s faithfulness, not her faithfulness. The plan of God’s call on Israel, and on us, is not changeable (Rom. 11:29).2 What Israel was called to do, she will yet do, in the future (i.e., the generation of Jews who are alive and come to faith will do). And what each of us were called to do, we shall do in the ages to come.
B. Israel Is Re-Instated (v. 5)
The prophet became so enthusiastic and zealous over this that he called out for the angels to put a “clean turban” on Joshua’s head, which they did. The language is from Leviticus--clean instead of unclean and disqualified from service. Why was it important for the priest to have this clean turban? The turban signified the completion of the full restitution to service, for on the front of the turban was a gold plate that read “Holiness to Yahweh” (Exod. 28:36). This sign indicated that the priest, and the people he represented, were morally and spiritually right with God, and that it was their desire to do everything in holiness.
All of this robing was done in the presence of the Holy One of Israel, the Angel of the LORD, the second person of the trinity, who was standing by. His “standing by” indicated his approval and supervision of all these acts.
C. The Covenant if Renewed (vv. 6, 7)
The symbolic acts having been completed and their general meaning clarified, the LORD now solemnly testified to Joshua that he was renewing the covenant with him. This would be the Covenant of Levi, the priestly covenant of ministry (see Mal. 2:1-9). The conditions of Joshua’s participation in the covenant are first re-iterated: “If you walk in my ways” and “if you keep my charge.” All covenants have obligations. The covenant may be freely made by God’s grace, and the promises may be sure--but participation in the covenant requires faith, and obedience the evidence of genuine faith. Here Joshua was to live a truly spiritual life and maintain a proper spiritual ministry before the LORD.
If he would do that, then God declared that he would rule the House of the LORD. He would exercise oversight, management, or governance in the Temple. He would exercise spiritual and cultic authority. But another benefit from God for obedience was that he would have access to God. His access would be immediate and unimpeded; he would enter into the presence of the LORD in full communion among those who were standing by--the angels! This was the promise for Joshua, meaning the restored people of God under his leadership. And it will be the promise for Israel at the end of the age when they once again are at the center of the service of God. And in the meantime, we who have believed in Jesus and have been grafted into the covenant have been given the spiritual privilege of access into his presence, now by faith (a positional truth), but in glory in reality as we reign with Christ.
But we must stress this point: the covenant is sure because God swore an oath to fulfill it; the promises then are sure. The nation known as Israel will be cleansed and restored to its special service of the LORD. But individual participation in that blessed community requires faith, a faith that is demonstrated by obedience. No one will enjoy the promised blessings of God apart from saving faith.
III. The Basis of Redemption and Restoration (3:8-10)
The vision is a dramatic and powerful one; it envisions great changes in the sinful nation, and in the world order to come. How is all this possible? Who will bring about this great transformation? The answer throughout Scripture is the same--the Lamb of God, Jesus the Messiah. But here the images of the Messiah are different.
A. Messiah the Branch (v. 8)
The LORD announced that Joshua, the High Priest, and the other priests who were with him in the role of ministry, were men of a “sign.” The word “sign” indicates a supernatural event was coming, a prodigy. Many works of the prophets and the apostles, and even of Jesus, were wonderful--but some of them were “signs” pointing to something greater to come. The priests in their official capacity, symbolized future events, the priestly ministry of Israel in the future when she will be cleaned and commissioned. But pointing to that time and its events would be meaningless without the central point of the message: the Branch.
God said, “Behold, I am about to bring forth my Servant the Branch.” Through him the people will be redeemed and restored to spiritual service. The sentence is stated in a grammatical style that presents it as imminent: “I am about to,” or “Here I am bringing . . . .” It is imminent. The image of the Branch presents the Messiah in the role of his first coming to earth, humiliation, rejection and death. He came as a servant who gave his life for sinners (see Isa. 52:13--53:13; Phil. 2:5-8). He was a tender shoot out of dry ground, a little branch out of the stump of the tree, the remnant of true Israel. And so the Gospels present Jesus as the LORD’s servant, this Branch.
The prophets foresaw how the Messiah would be a branch, a shoot or sprout (s.v. tsamakh) from the earth; but it was Isaiah who said that in his first coming the Messiah would grow up as a tender plant (53:1). The shoot or branch would grow, though, from his insignificant beginning (Isa. 11:1) to greatness (11:2-16).
Zechariah moved the image beyond its use by Isaiah (Isa. 4:2), or Jeremiah (23:5, 33:15). For in chapter six he presented the Branch in his glorious reappearance as the Son of Man, serving as the eternal High Priest but wearing a golden crown, thus uniting the two offices of King and Priest (see 6:12, 13). This is the same theme found in Psalm 110, where the oracle declares that David’s greater son will rule over the earth and be a priest.
Joshua and his fellow priests then would not be removed from ministry, or at least the Levitical priesthood would not be removed. Why? Because they were divinely appointed signs of the Royal Priest who was coming, Jesus the Messiah.
But the prophet here used another, even more dramatic image of the Messiah--the Stone. The Branch is the Stone. And the Stone has seven eyes. If the image of the Branch had its primary meaning in the humiliation, the humble beginnings of Messiah, the image of the Stone looks at his triumph. Daniel used the image of the Stone to represent the Son of Man who would come in glory to destroy the kingdoms of the earth and establish his own kingdom (Dan. 2:34, 35).
But now on this one Stone there are seven eyes. These probably represent the sevenfold Spirit of the LORD (Rev. 5:6). The seven eyes speak of insight, understanding, and awareness (Ezek. 1:18, 10:12), that is, omniscience that comes from the divine Spirit dwelling in the divine Messiah (Isa. 11:1-3). The next night vision will develop the idea that the Messiah’s reign will be by the Holy Spirit.
In addition to this the text says that the Stone will be engraved with the engraving (or “cut”). It does not clarify what the engraving is, but it links the engraving to the removal of sin in one day. We would have to conclude that the cutting of the Stone refers to the suffering of the Messiah in his sinless humanity as the true suffering Servant who through the suffering brought redemption. All the scars and cuts and bruises and bleeding wounds were like cuts in a rough gem stone; but after the cutting, or as a result of the cutting, the Stone would appear glorious, like a cut diamond. The cuttings would bring out the true glory of Christ to all who understand the significance of his death--they are the glory of Christ.
As a result of the cutting of the Stone, the iniquity of the land (meaning the people in the land) will be removed in one day. The Great Day of Atonement was fulfilled essentially when Christ died on the cross and purchased our salvation. But the complete removal of sin, the ritual of riddance with the scape goat, has only taken place judicially--we are still with sin and will be til we are glorified. But in a graver sense, people who do not believe in Christ, whether Jew or Gentile, are still in their sins, that is, they stand guilty before God. Nevertheless, at the end of the age when the Lord appears in glory there is coming a great time of redemption for those who turn to him and find the removal of their sins--Israel will repent and turn to Jesus the Messiah by faith. Zechariah says (12:10), they will look on him whom they have pierced and mourn.
As a result of the removal of iniquity from the people, and therefore from the land, in the future Messianic Age the people will live in peace and security and abundance, each one sitting under his vine and fig tree (symbols of the abundance of the Messianic Age). The promise of this Paradisal abundance is a theme repeated frequently in the Bible. It was first introduced in Genesis 49 with the promise that the scepter would remain with Judah until Shiloh (“the one to whom it belongs”) comes. Then the language of Jacob’s oracle turns to the abundance of wine and milk in that age. Micah picks up the theme and anticipates that every one shall sit under his vine and fig tree in peace and safety (Mic. 4:4). The prophets describe that coming age as one freed from the curse, when the land will produce so much that the vats and the barns will not be able to hold it all. And when Jesus did his first sign, the miracle of turning water into wine at the wedding at Cana in John 2, he was announcing that he, Jesus, was the Messiah who would come again to rule the world and usher in the glorious age of abundance on the earth. But before he would bring the blessing of peace and prosperity (in the true sense of those promises), he would have to die on the cross--the Stone would have to be cut, before it could appear in all its glory. And that Stone, because of the sacrificial death for sin, that Stone which the builders have rejected, has become the chief stone of the new building, the New Covenant. And it is still true what the prophet Isaiah said, the Stone might be your stumbling stone if it is not your building stone (Isa. 8; see 1 Pet. 2:1-8).
This night vision, then, portrays the glorious future of redeemed and restored Israel to its original calling. The community in Zechariah’s day were granted a share in that, but their participation in no way fulfilled the whole prophecy--it pointed to it.
But the passage is also a picture of the sinner, any sinner, who stands before the LORD in filthiness, properly accused by Satan. And the grace of God overrules Satan, and announces that the sinner has been rescued from the fire. There is therefore no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus. The recipient of the grace of God can rejoice with confidence that God has delivered him or her from death to life--they stand declared righteous in the courts of heaven. Thus sinfulness is removed, and the garments of righteousness are put on, and the charge is given for the believers to keep the Word of the LORD as they serve him, knowing that he will ultimately give them access among the angels.
1 This was Wesley’s verse, for he had been rescued from a burning fire; later at his conversion that experience symbolized the true deliverance from fire for him.
2 Paul contrasts Israel and the Gentiles throughout Romans 11, noting how because of Israel’s disobedience God turned to the Gentiles and grafted them into the covenant. He concludes the chapter by affirming what Isaiah said, that at the end of the age when the fulness of the Gentiles has come in, then God will again turn to work with Israel, and they all shall come to faith and be saved. Ezekiel 37 harmonizes with this, for the vision of the dry bones coming together is the restoration of Israel to the land, but in unbelief. And then sometime later the Spirit will breathe life into them, and they will come alive in the faith. Many commentators do not like this straightforward reading of Romans 11, insisting that “all Israel” at the end of the chapter means the church, a new Israel. But that does not do justice to the way that the terms have been used in the chapter. The simple fact is that the promises of the New Covenant in Jeremiah 31, Ezekiel 36, and Isaiah 54 were made to Israel, and we have been grafted in to them. Those promises were many, and they are yet to be fulfilled. Most will be fulfilled at the time of the coming of the Lord in glory. But Paul’s desire that Jewish people come to faith now is very important to stress today as well, for they, like Gentiles, may not have another chance to believe in Christ--they cannot count on being among those who will believe when he appears.