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Bible Commentaries
Zechariah 5

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


Two more of the eight visions are in this chapter, that of the flying roll, and that of the lead-covered ephah. Radically different views about the meaning of these visions have been advocated; and it must be confessed that they are somewhat difficult of interpretation. Some think that the Law and the Gospel are meant, the Law by the flying roll, and the Gospel by the symbolical removal of “sin” to Babylon, the contrast being, that whereas under the Law, the violators were adjudged guilty and summary judgment executed, on the other hand, under the Gospel, the very principle of sin is taken far away. Although ingenious enough, this interpretation is not convincing. It is mentioned here because it seems to be the best of interpretations based upon the supposition that these are “a pair of visions.” Perhaps it is better to take them one at a time.

Regarding the “flying roll,” this certainly must be seen as a symbol of the Law of Moses, or as a figure of God’s law for all mankind. The meaning of the stress laid on “cutting off” offenders is much more difficult to ascertain. Without even attempting any dogmatic determination of what these two visions mean, we shall explore the best comments by which men have attempted to enlighten us regarding them.

Verses 1-2

“Then again I lifted up mine eyes, and saw, and behold, a flying roll. And he said unto me, What seest thou? And I answered, I see a flying roll; the length thereof is twenty cubits, and the breadth thereof ten cubits.”

Taking the cubit as a measurement approximately of eighteen inches, the dimensions of the roll were 30 feet X 15 feet. Scholars find these to be equivalent to the dimensions of Solomon’s porch, or to the Holy of Holies in the ancient tabernacle; but, when it comes to making any kind of a worthwhile deduction based upon such facts, the commentators who cite them, “have not been able to furnish an interpretation that is sufficiently obvious to commend itself to anyone except the inventor!”(F1)

The flying roll appears to be identified with the Law of Moses, because, “Being written on both sides (Zechariah 5:3), they connect with the two tables of the Law (Exodus 32:15).”(F2) This impression seems to be confirmed by the fact that the two specific violations mentioned, swearing and stealing, are the third and eighth commandments respectively; and, “These represent the two tables of the Law, dealing with duty to one’s neighbor and duty to God.”(F3) This is logical, for the third and seventh commandments are the middle ones in the two tables respectively. Certainly, more sins than the two mentioned must be included.

“Let no one think this threat was only against thieves and swearers for God gave sentence against all iniquity. All the law and the prophets hang on this word, Thou shalt love God… and thy neighbor as thyself.”(F4)

The fact of the roll being open and visible, as indicated by its dimensions being stated, coupled with the fact of its being written on both sides, shows that no one could plead ignorance of the law of God. It was open for all to see.

The fact of the roll being seen as flying would indicate that whatever blessing or curse may be mentioned in connection with it would be swiftly and summarily executed. Feinberg thought that, “The fact that it was flying indicated that its disclosures were soon to be visited on the wicked.”(F5)

Verse 3

“Then said he unto me, This is the curse that goeth forth over the face of the whole land: for every one that stealeth shall be cut off on the one side, according to it; and every one that sweareth shall be cut off on the other side according to it.”

We take the passage as an interpretation of the vision as a divine curse of evildoers, as clearly indicated in our version. Scholars have sought by various methods to make the passage have an opposite meaning. “The translation curse has committed the passage to a sense which the original text does not necessarily support; it could be blessing!”(F6) Much as we might wish it so, the light available to this writer requires its consideration as a curse.

“Everyone that sweareth” A number of scholars would make this a reference to making a vain oath in God’s name, or swearing falsely against a neighbor, but we must identify it with the common vice of profane swearing, commonly called “cursing.” According to Watts, there is an exact quotation here from the Third Commandment of the Decalogue, “Whoever takes his name in vain. The vision obviously refers to Exodus 20:7, and even quotes exactly this law.”(F7)

“Shall be cut off” All sinners would be measured that they might be cut off from the congregation of the Lord.”(F8)

The word rendered “curse” in this passage “is used several times in connection with `covenant’ (Genesis 24:41; Genesis 26:28; Deuteronomy 29:12; Ezekiel 16:59, etc.).”(F9) From this, it would appear to be a valid deduction that the covenant relationship between God and the remnant who had returned from Babylon was primarily the thing in view. Some have therefore understood the vision to mean that, whereas the whole nation was punished for the sins of Israel which resulted in their captivity, God would now punish, not the whole nation but only individual sinners. This is an unacceptable view; because, when a whole nation falls generally into gross sin, the judgment of God inevitable falls upon such a nation; and this flying scroll indicated no change in that principle.

What does seem to be the lesson from the vision is that the returned remnant should be careful to live up to the holy terms of their covenant with God, which was at that time, and ever was, contingent upon their obedient faith in God.

The near-total destruction of Israel had just occurred as a result of the vast majority of the people having indulged themselves in wholesale violations of the sacred law. Now that God had rescued a remnant and reestablished them in Canaan, it was imperative that they should not get the idea that God no longer was concerned about their obedience of divine law. This vision was a dramatic reminder that God most certainly did care. The law of God, so long despised and flouted, was not a dead letter after all; like a flying scroll overshadowing the whole nation, his word was living, active, and judgmental with regard to every single violator of it. Dummelow understood the vision in this sense, saying, “The flying roll signifies the sin of the evildoer coming home to roost.”(F10) It was a most necessary vision. The great error of pre-exilic Israel was their unwarranted assumption that they were “God’s chosen people” no matter what they did.

We agree with Homer Hailey and others that in its primary intention the expression, face of the whole land, “indicates not the whole earth, but the land of God’s people, wherever they may be.”(F11) However, the truth here revealed reaches far beyond that. As Matthew Henry noted:

It goes forth over the face of the whole earth, not only of the land of Israel, but the whole world; for those that have sinned against the law written in their hearts only shall by that law be judged, though they have not the book of the law. All mankind are liable to the judgment of God; and, wherever sinners are, anywhere upon the face of the whole earth, God can and will find them out and seize them.(F12)

Gill discussed this at length, basing his arguments upon Paul’s writings in the first two chapters of Romans, and fully supported the conclusion reached by Henry. This appears to us to be correct.

“No individual, whether he accepts the written law or becomes a law unto himself, consistently does in every situation of life what he believes to be right… he proceeds to violate even his own understanding of right and wrong… Thus the curse of the law covers the whole earth.”(F13)

Certainly the passage can have this meaning, as indicated in the Douay and King James Version; and even the American Standard Version does not forbid this understanding of it.

Verse 4

“I will cause it to go forth, saith Jehovah of hosts, and it shall enter into the house of the thief, and into the house of him that sweareth falsely by my name; and it shall abide in the midst of his house, and shall consume it with the timber thereof and the stones thereof.”

“It will enter into the house… etc.” The thought is that there shall be no escape for violators of the Word of God. Not merely the offender, but his very dwelling place shall be consumed. In the community where this writer was reared, there are numerous examples of this very thing having occurred. Some of the most impressive houses in that community, where lived some who seemed not to know God, are today gone; and the oldest citizens of the area dispute even the locations of some of them.

“Him that sweareth falsely by my name” This suggests the Ninth Commandment, not the Third, as in Zechariah 5:3; and, for this reason, the “swearing” in both verses is understood by some as “bearing false witness against a neighbor,” or as taking an oath to support a falsehood. We believe this viewpoint is wrong; for it turns out that “falsely” is one of those supplied words by which translators are continually improving(?) the Bible.

“The word `falsely,’ which is not in the Hebrew text of the O.T. (the original Hebrew text), should certainly be supplied, and probably also `by my name’ (Zechariah 5:4). Zechariah singles out one moral and one religious sin as typical of sin generally.(F14)

By changing the prohibition to “swearing falsely” in this verse, however, the result is that both violations are “moral” lapses.

“The house of the thief… and shall consume it” Efforts to make this passage a blessing instead of a curse are seen in such comments as the following:

“The universal function of the scroll is shown in its coming “to the house of the thief” and to the perjurer. It shall remain in their houses and “complete it” (Consume, that is, complete the purging) both of the wood and the stones of the house.”(F15)

Such interpretations are not acceptable. If the function of the flying roll’s entering the house of an evildoer was “to forgive him,” cleanse him, and save him, how could the wood and stones of his dwelling have participated in such a blessing? No, the very mention of the timber and stones forbids such a view. Furthermore, it is simply not a fact that “consume” ever meant, or even possibly could mean, “to complete the purging.”

As for those fanciful, preposterous interpretations which find millennial promises in this passage, Keil stated that: “There is no allusion in our vision to the millennial kingdom, and its establishment within the limits of the earthly Canaan.”(F16)

Verse 5

“Then the angel that talked with me went forth, and said unto me, Lift up now thine eyes, and see what is this that goeth forth.”

Here is the introduction of a new vision. As we shall see, this vision is utterly unlike the previous one; and it is impossible to make any kind of satisfactory “pair” out of them. Most of the difficulty in this chapter springs from what is seen here. The only plausible interpretation which we have encountered is based upon the idea of “a pair” of visions in this chapter is that of McFadyen. He said:

“Behind this fantastic picture lies the profoundest moral insight. The prophet sees that the real enemy of a community is Sin, and that it is not sinners, nor even sins only, but Sin itself that must be banished.”(F17)

This view, of course, would make the woman in the ephah a type of personification of Sin; and we find all kinds of problems with that. Still, we can see merit in the proposition that in the vision of the flying roll God is dealing with explicit sins and sinners, and in the vision of the ephah being carried to Babylon a transfer of sin in the sense of an evil principle being far-removed from God’s people. Despite such views, we shall deal with this second vision in Zechariah 5 as independent of the other. As Leupold understood them, “It is scarcely feasible to regard these two visions as two sides of but one vision.”(F18)

Verse 6

“And I said, What is it? And he said, This is the ephah that goeth forth. He said moreover, This is their appearance in all the land.”

“This is the ephah that goeth forth” The ephah was an indefinite measure in common use, resembling a bushel, more or less, in size and capacity. Of the dozen or more commentaries and dictionaries consulted on the size of the ephah, no two of them gave the same answer! “The size is not definitely known, the size being estimated at from 21.26 quarts to 40.62 quarts (Josephus).”(F19) For properly understanding the vision, a bushel basket is as good an answer as any.

“This is their appearance in the land” Does this description refer to the ephah, or to the ephah and what was in it; or does it refer to the ephah being borne into a distant country, or to the people represented by it before the departure? We have found no way to answer this precisely.

Something in it, however, was descriptive of certain things to which Zechariah called attention.

Verse 7

“(And, behold, there was lifted up a talent of lead); and this is a woman sitting in the midst of the ephah.”

This verse brings out additional features of the vision: the heavy lead cover, being lifted, and a woman seated on the inside! “An ephah basket is much too small for a full-sized person; so the vision either has a very small woman or a woman-like figure, that is, an idol.”(F20) Interpreters either enlarge the basket, as Hailey: “It was larger than a bushel-basket… the word was used only to designate the shape… not the size”;(F21) or reduce the figure of a woman as did Watts. Our own preference here is the interpretation that makes “the woman” to be the figure of one of the popular female goddesses of the day. Ishtar or Ashteroth could have been meant. This certainly avoids what seems to us the error of making womanhood to be the essence and personification of Sin. After all, it was to be “the Seed of Woman” who would redeem all mankind. Additionally, it was precisely the worship of pagan idols with their regiments of sacred prostitutes that had been the undoing of Israel in the catastrophe that led to their captivity. We cannot resist the conviction that idolatry is the thing meant by this woman in a basket.

“A talent of lead” Note that the basket was shut with this heavy lid. Gill says that “A talent weighs approximately 118 pounds troy.”(F22) However, Deane affirmed that the word here rendered “talent” is actually “a round,” having reference to the shape of the lid and not to its weight.(F23)

Verse 8

“And he said, This is Wickedness: and he cast her down into the midst of the ephah; and he cast the weight of lead upon the mouth thereof.”

This is about the only explanation that the angel gave of the vision, and any more elaborate description of what was meant would seem to be precarious. That idolatry was the thing primarily meant is reasonable:

If Zechariah actually had idolatry in mind, it is easy to explain why he represents it as a woman. In so doing, he simply follows the practice of the older prophets, who repeatedly denounce this offence under the figure of prostitution.(F24)

The very title, “Wickedness” was also applied to the wicked queen who corrupted Judah with idolatry (2 Chronicles 24:7).

Verse 9

“Then lifted I up mine eyes, and saw, and, behold there came forth two women; now they had wings like the wings of a stork; and they lifted up the ephah between earth and heaven.”

The purpose of the appearance of these two women was that of removing “Wickedness” to Babylon (the land of Shinar). Here again we are confronted with the most radically different interpretations of who are represented by these women, and of their character, whether evil or righteous. “Kohler finds in them the messengers of Satan, and Neumann the angels of Yahweh.”(F25) Jamieson also understood the women to be “ministers of God to execute his judgments.”(F26) Without attempting to decide a question which is ably supported by many able scholars on both sides, it does seem incongruous that “God’s ministers” should be represented here as borne by the wings of a stork. “Their wings were the wings of an unclean bird. . it may be that evil spirits are symbolized.”(F27)

What is clearly in focus here is the removal of Wickedness from the land of God’s people to Babylon, the place of their previous captivity. Significantly, Israel never more fell into the worship of idols after their captivity. Watts gave as a definite meaning of the vision that, “Idolatry will have no place for the people of God in the new era.”(F28) This certainly appears to be correct; not only was it proved to be true in the case of the Old Israel; but in the times of the Messiah, which are never out of sight in any of these visions, idolatry has never found a place; nor has the departure of a large segment of Christianity from this principle negated the general truth that Christians do not worship idols.

Verses 10-11

“Then said I to the angel that talked with me, Whither do these bear the ephah? And he said unto me, To build her a house in the land of Shinar: and when it is prepared, she shall be set there in her own place.”

The destination of the ephah borne on the wings of the two women is the principal revelation of these verses. It is “the land of Shinar.” “Shinar is synonymous with `Babylon’ (Genesis 10:10). The term `Shinar’ is used for obvious reasons. Babylon was now (in Zechariah’s day) in the hands of Darius, ruler of the Medo-Persian empire”;(F29) and, to have used the word Babylon, would have been to incur unnecessarily the wrath of the very ruler upon whose good will the rebuilding of Jerusalem was dependent.

Besides that, “Babylon” in this passage means far more than erie wicked city. What is seen here is the enthronement of Wickedness in the great world power that continuously throughout history has arrayed itself against God. The first attempt to array a world-empire against God was at Shinar; and “The use of that word here is an apt symbol of the antitheist and anti-Christian world.”(F30) Babylon in all the ages to come would stand for enthroned and worshipped Wickedness as opposed to God, as evidenced in Revelation 17, etc. The Messianic glimpse ere is undeniable, for there comes into view one of the earliest representatives of “Mystery Babylon the Great,” the fall of which is depicted in Revelation and which occurs at the end of this dispensation of God’s grace.

It seems incredible that any commentator would take the position that Zechariah’s vision here was “prejudiced” and designed to “blacken an enemy”; but that is exactly the position of some. Speers attributed such motives to our prophet, stating that, “What we abominate, we say our enemies worship.”(F31)

“To build her a house” Scholars agree that “house” here means temple, upon which Wickedness will be enthroned. Thus, our vision dramatically emphasizes the vast gulf that separates God’s people from the unregenerated peoples of mankind. An apostle warned us that “the god of this world” hath blinded the minds of the unbelieving (2 Corinthians 4:4); and the concurrent testimony of all ages confirms it as a fact. Zechariah’s vision here of Wickedness being enthroned in Babylon is in perfect harmony with what Paul said, and did not originate in any unwholesome attitude on the part of the prophet. After all, the vision was not his, it was what God showed him. “In this vision, Shinar is not to be thought of as a geographical country, but as a symbol of Satan’s world government.”(F32) “Doubtless too there is a warning here conveyed to those Jews who still lingered in Babylon.”(F33) They were living in a land devoted to the worship of evil, and all who remained there were in mortal danger of being contaminated by a poison which would be fatal. In line with this same thought, God’s people of all ages are warned, “Come out of her, my people, that ye have no fellowship with her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues” (Revelation 18:4).


1. The flying roll. This means that all of God’s blessings are contingent upon honoring his sacred law. Violators will be punished.

2. The ephah borne to Babylon with the image of a woman in it means that Wickedness is enthroned in the evil city, and that God’s people should leave the place. The spiritual application is that God’s people should avoid all unspiritual environments that are destructive of faith. God’s people totally reject idolatry.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Zechariah 5". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/zechariah-5.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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