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by John Dummelow
1. Historical Background. Zechariah was the grandson of Iddo, who is mentioned in Nehemiah 12:4, Nehemiah 12:16 as the head of one of the priestly families that returned from the exile. The Jews had been carried captive to Babylon in 597 and 586 b.c.; but Cyrus the Great, soon after the capture of Babylon in 538, promulgated a decree permitting them to return to their native land and restore Jerusalem, under the governorship of Sheshbazzar (called also Sanabassar), probably a prince of their own royal line (Ezra 1:1-11; 2 Chronicles 36:22-23; Isaiah 44:28; Isaiah 45:13). It is uncertain how many of the Jews took advantage of the liberty granted them, as the numbers given in the book of Ezra may be taken from a census of Judæa made at some time subsequent to the return. Certainly the returned exiles included some of the best Jewish families, and among them Zechariah, then only a boy, probably accompanied his grandfather.
The religious and patriotic spirit of the exiles had been stirred by Ezekiel (Ezekiel 11:17-20; Ezekiel 16:60-63; Ezekiel 34:11-31; Ezekiel 36:22-38; Ezekiel 37:21-28) by such writings as Isaiah 48:20; Isaiah 49:8-17; Isaiah 52:7-12, etc.; but in the difficulties of the return, and the weary task of rebuilding their ruined homes, their enthusiasm soon died away. Their efforts were watched and hindered by enemies (Ezra 4:5-6), who tried to prejudice them at the Court of Babylon by reporting that they were plotting to obtain political freedom (Ezra 4:9-16). The years slipped past. Cyrus, the Jews’ best friend, died in 529 b.c. His son Cambyses, who succeeded him, did nothing to help them; and when Darius, his successor, ascended the throne in 521, the Jews at Jerusalem had altogether lost heart. Through the misrepresentations of their enemies they had been forbidden to rebuild the city walls. Their Temple, which had been burned in 586 by the Assyrian general, still lay a blackened ruin (although some maintain that the foundation-stone was laid as early as 537); nor did they see how it could be restored. At this critical moment God sent them a message which marvellously encouraged and uplifted them. The prophets Haggai and Zechariah were the bearers of this message.
These two prophets were contemporaries, and their prophecies were delivered almost simultaneously. They are mentioned together in Ezra 5:1; Ezra 6:14, as having been raised up by God to encourage the Jews to rebuild the Temple. Haggai appeared first, and in August 520 b.c. charged the Jews with neglecting the building of God’s House: cp. Haggai 1. This appeal had immediate results. Within a month the foundation of the Temple was laid. Soon after, Zechariah uttered his first prophecy (Zechariah 1:1-6). Towards the close of the year 520, Haggai in two oracles finished his recorded prophecies; and early in 521 Zechariah delivered the famous series, comprising eight symbolical visions, which appears in Zechariah 1:7 to Zechariah 6:8, with an appendix, Zechariah 6:9-15. Two years afterwards Zechariah 7, 8 were spoken in response to an enquiry by the men of Bethel, or perhaps a deputation from Babylon, as to the observance of a fast; and these are now regarded in most quarters as completing the prophecies of Zechariah, as Zechariah 9-14 can hardly be ascribed to him.
2. Zechariah’s Method. Haggai was a layman, Zechariah was of priestly descent. These facts, to a certain extent, explain the different methods of the two. Haggai is practical, plain, clear, in unfolding his message: Zechariah is equally practical, but his method is not so plain. He clothes his message in the language of symbol. It is true that in the opening passage (Zechariah 1:1-6) his language is simple and direct. He brings before his hearers the practical teaching of the earlier prophets, especially of Amos and Micah, and urges his own generation not to repeat the mistakes of their fathers. But from Zechariah 1:7 to Zechariah 6:8 he unfolds his message in a series of visions, the rich imagery of which would make a powerful appeal to the Oriental mind. This change from the direct method (the ’Thus saith the Lord’) of the earlier prophets is characteristic of most of the post-exilic prophecies. From the time of Ezekiel onwards to the 2nd cent. of the Christian era, the symbolic method of writing occupied a leading place in Jewish religious literature The residence in Babylon would be responsible to some extent for the rise of this kind of prophecy. There the exiles would be subjected to the influences of a highly-developed art; and their situation was such as naturally to induce a visional or symbolic style of thought. To some extent also the change may be ascribed to the fact that Ezekiel, who initiated it, and Zechariah, who followed successfully in his steps, were priests, accustomed to read divine messages through the symbols of religious ritual. In any case, the method was abundantly justified by its results. Their symbolic messages touched the imagination of their hearers in much the same way as the parables of our Lord, in a later age, appealed to the Galilean multitudes. Zechariah’s immediate aim was to raise the drooping spirits of his countrymen, and encourage them to proceed at once with the rebuilding of the Temple. In this he was entirely successful, the Temple being completed and dedicated in 516 b.c.
3. Zechariah’s Teaching. In Zechariah 1-8, which are all that can with confidence be ascribed to Zechariah, the Messianic ideas are local and national for the most part. Sin is to be eradicated (Zechariah 5:1-11), the priesthood purified (Zechariah 3:1-5), Jerusalem made glorious (Zechariah 2:1-12), and a prince of the house of David (probably Zerubbabel) set up as ruler (Zechariah 3:6-10). These thoughts are repeated and re-enforced in the appendix to the series of visions (Zechariah 6:9-15). The idea that God dwells far away, and sends messages by angels, etc., appears in Zechariah 1:9-11; Zechariah 4:1, etc. This is generally regarded as a feature of later Judaism, influenced by contact with Persia; though, in view of recent discoveries, it is now admitted that points of resemblance between the religion of Assyria and the religion of Israel existed from the beginning. In Zechariah 3:1-2 is the first mention of Satan in Hebrew literature. The idea is more fully developed in the (later) book of Job. The personification of wickedness (Zechariah 5:5-11) as a woman is a peculiar feature of Zechariah, and indicates that tendency to regard evil as an independent power warring against the power of good, which characterises the religion of Persia.
Zechariah is a prophet not only to his own time, but to every age. He teaches that repentance—’heart sorrow and a clear life ensuing’—is the first duty of a nation. He finds in the past guidance for men in the present, and seeks to impress upon them that ’the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.’ Like all the prophets he is a patriot, anxious for the welfare and prosperity of his nation, but sure that only ’righteousness exalteth a nation,’ and that God will dwell only with those who are willing to do His will. He sees that outward advantages are of no avail without the purified heart, and that there can be no real happiness until sin is removed from the national life. He realises too that the forms of religion are useless without the spirit, and proclaims that ’to obey is better than to sacrifice,’ and that fasting is no substitute for truth and justice. Also he showed that Israel’s priesthood, imperfect though it was, represented an ideal of holiness, and had its place in preparing the way for the ideal Priest—the Messiah.
4. Origin and Teaching of Zechariah 9-14. When we pass from Zechariah 8 to Zechariah 9 we come into a different atmosphere. In Zechariah 1-8 the situation is quite clear—dates are given, practical difficulties are discussed, well-known leaders axe mentioned by name, and the people are engaged in a specific work, to which Zechariah encourages them. In Zechariah 9-14 all these guiding lines have disappeared. There is no mention of temple-building, or of Joshua or Zerubbabel, or even of Babylon: instead, we find cities and countries not mentioned hitherto—Hamath, Damascus, Egypt, Greece. In Zechariah 1:11 we read, ’all the earth sitteth still and is at rest’; but in Zechariah 9-14 there is war, destruction, trouble, mourning. In Zechariah 1-8 there is a series of well-arranged oracles, with dates, and for the most part the same superscription, ’I lifted up mine eyes’: in Zechariah 9-14 the very period is a subject of conjecture, the various oracles are difficult to disentangle, and both thought and style are much changed. These are some of the reasons why most modern scholars agree that Zechariah 9-14 were not written by Zechariah. Who the real author was, and what were the date and purpose of his writing, it is not so easy to determine. According to one view, Zechariah 9-14 are composed of two distinct prophecies—(a) 9-11, Zechariah 13:7-9; (b) 12-14 (with the exception of Zechariah 13:7-9). (a) is considered a very early prophecy, written in the time of Amos or Hosea about the year 740 b.c., on the following amongst other grounds: (1) Ephraim is mentioned (for Israel) with Judah (Zechariah 9:10-13; Zechariah 10:6-7), which is hardly likely to have been the case after the northern kingdom came to an end in 722; (2) Assyria occurs along with Egypt as a world-power (Zechariah 10:10-11), whereas, long before the time of Zechariah, the empire of Assyria had passed away; and (3) the three shepherds (Zechariah 11) seem to represent Zechariah, Shallum, and a third person now unknown—kings of Israel who died a violent death.
These reasons, however, are not conclusive. Ephraim may be explained as referring to the exiles of the northern kingdom; and Assyria seems to have continued in use as a territorial name to designate the rulers of that country, whether Persian, Greek, or Seleucid. With regard to the three shepherds of Zechariah 11, the application to Zechariah, Shallum, and an unnamed king is mere conjecture.
In the same way, (b) (Zechariah 12-14) is dated in the pre-exilic age. The attacks on idolatry and prophesying (Zechariah 13:2-3) are thought to be consistent with the religious decay of the 7th cent. b.c., while the mourning (Zechariah 12:10-14) is referred to the death of Josiah at Megiddo in 608 b.c. Neither here, however, nor in (a), is there anything which corresponds with the style of such pre-exilic writers as Amos and Hosea. The prophetic ideals embodied in Zechariah 9-14, and especially the visions of the last things (Zechariah 9:14-16; Zechariah 14:1-15, etc.), are consistent only with that well-known phase of Jewish thought which had its beginning not earlier than the time of Ezekiel. Nor is it likely that any pre-exilic writer would picture a state of things such as we find in Zechariah 13:1-6, where prophecy is utterly discredited and abandoned. Apparently also there is no king even in Jerusalem: the king is yet to come (Zechariah 9:9). Besides, the reference to Greece (Zechariah 9:13), as a world-power over which Zion must win the victory, seems incomprehensible at any pre-exilic date.
Some writers find in Zechariah 9-11 a reference to the invasion of Asia by Alexander the Great in 334 b.c., and date this portion of the book accordingly; but the most recent tendency is to assign the whole of the prophecies in Zechariah 9-14 to the 2nd cent. b.c. According to this view Zechariah 9-11, Zechariah 13:7-9 and Zechariah 12-14 are two groups, each falling into two parts. The first two are Zechariah 9:1 to Zechariah 11:3, and Zechariah 11:4-17; Zechariah 13:7-9, written in the first quarter of the 2nd cent. The Greeks (Zechariah 9:13) are the world-power against which Judaism must strive for supremacy. Assyria is the Seleucid kingdom founded in 312 b.c. by Seleucus, a general of Alexander the Great. It included at first nearly the whole of Syria and Babylonia—certainly all the places mentioned in Zechariah 9:1, Zechariah 9:2. When Antiochus the Great, one of the Seleucid kings, came to the throne in 223 b.c., Palestine was under the rule of the Ptolemies, kings of Egypt. In 198, however, Antiochus defeated the Egyptians, and Palestine passed into his hands. Hence the preëminence given to Assyria (Zechariah 10:11). Hence also the sheep are the Jews whose ’possessors’ (the Seleucid sovereigns) ’slay them’ (Zechariah 11:5). ’Their own shepherds’ (Zechariah 11:5) may be the high priests and ethnarchs (in Jerusalem) of foreign sympathies, who ’pity them not.’ In that age there was much intrigue and unrest in Palestine—murder and outrage even in high places were not uncommon; so that the cutting off of three shepherds in one month would be no unlikely event.
In like manner Zechariah 12-14 are regarded as consisting of two prophecies (12, Zechariah 13:1-6 and Zechariah 14), both belonging to the Maccabæan age. They may have been written soon after the accession of Antiochus Epiphanes, 175 b.c. The contrast of Judæa with Jerusalem (Zechariah 12:5), and the fact that help to the city comes from the country (Zechariah 12:6), are a likely reflexion of the situation in that age (see Jos. ’Ant.’ bk. 12). On the whole, it can hardly be said that modern scholarship has reached a decisive conclusion on this part of Zechariah, though the view that assigns it to a late post-exilic age seems most in accord with the facts of the case.
5. General Characteristics. These chapters (9-14) witness, on the one hand, to a wider contact with the outside heathen world (Zechariah 9:1-7; Zechariah 10:11; Zechariah 9:13, etc.), which tends to universalism (Zechariah 9:1; Zechariah 14:9), and, on the other hand, to an intensely narrow patriotism, whose ideals can only be fulfilled by the direct interposition of God (Zechariah 12:3, Zechariah 12:6-7, Zechariah 12:9) Besides, we find in them the most primitive Messianic hopes—judgment of the nations (Zechariah 9:1-7; Zechariah 14:3, Zechariah 14:12, etc.), advent of Messiah (Zechariah 9:9), deliverance (Zechariah 9:11-12; Zechariah 10:10), conflict with the heathen (Zechariah 9:8, Zechariah 9:15; Zechariah 14:3-4), final victory over, and conversion of the heathen (Zechariah 14:13-17), ceremonial purity (Zechariah 14:20-21), and God’s reign of peace (Zechariah 14:5, Zechariah 14:9). Only the true Messiah, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, could have sifted these elements, and brought them into harmony with His great work.
6. Contents of Zechariah 9-14. Zechariah 9:1 to Zechariah 11:3. God will visit the nations in judgment and His people in mercy. Judah and Ephraim will be restored, and Assyria and Egypt discomfited. Zechariah 11:4-17 and Zechariah 13:7-9. The parable of the good shepherds and the foolish shepherd. Zechariah 12:1 to Zechariah 13:6. The deliverance and the coming glory of Jerusalem. 14. The destruction of the enemies of Jerusalem, and her exaltation as the centre of worship for the world.
the Fourth Week after Epiphany