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Bible Commentaries

Layman's Bible Commentary

Zechariah

- Zechariah

by Various Authors

THE BOOK OF ZECHARIAH

INTRODUCTION

The Man Zechariah

While there is serious question regarding the authorship of the second half of the Book of Zechariah, the first eight chapters of the book may quite properly be ascribed to the prophet Zechariah. Like Haggai, Zechariah is spoken of in the third person in these chapters, where his visions and preaching are described. He is designated as "the prophet" twice in the opening sections of the book. Unlike Haggai, however, Zechariah introduces himself into the prophetic utterances (see 1:8, 18; 2:1; 3:1; 6:9; and elsewhere), and appears to contrast himself with earlier prophets (see 1:4). No such personal references appear in the oracles of Zechariah 9-14, which will be discussed separately below.

In spite of the introduction of the personal references in Zechariah 1-8, very little can be said about the prophet Zechariah. His name means "The Lord has remembered," but this has no particular significance in his life and work. In Zechariah 1:1; Zechariah 1:7 the prophet is described as "the son of Berechiah, son of Iddo," but in Ezra 5:1; Ezra 6:14 and in Nehemiah 12:16 no reference to Berechiah appears in connection with him. It is of course possible that the Ezra-Nehemiah references speak only of the grandfather and omit the father of Zechariah, but many believe that the reference to Berechiah was introduced erroneously from Isaiah 8:2 where another Zechariah is described as the son of Jeberechiah. Such a scribal addition to the text of the Book of Zechariah is quite possible, though no manuscript evidence for it has been found.

While it remains impossible to be certain who the father of Zechariah was, we know from Nehemiah 12:12-16 that he was a priest. From Zechariah 7:2-3, where the visit of the people of Bethel is described, it is clear that priests and prophets were closely associated in the time of the return from the Exile, and those who wanted advice and a word from God came to the Temple and its associated personnel for the answers to their religious questions.

While little specific information regarding the prophet is provided anywhere in the Bible, the discerning reader gains an impression of the man from the visions and preaching which bear his name. His sense of the presence of the messengers of God around Jerusalem, his zeal for the future greatness of the holy city, and his concern for its purity, all mark him as a prophet with a distinctive message somewhat more colorful than his contemporary, Haggai.

Zechariah’s Ministry

Zechariah’s ministry was contemporary with that of Haggai, but it extended at least to the fourth year of Darius (518 B.C.), when the emissaries of Bethel came to inquire about certain facts they had been observing. The three dates in the book mark the beginning of the three sections of the part which can clearly be ascribed to Zechariah, and appear to apply to the whole sections of the book which follow them. The date at 1:1 marks the prophet’s first utterance, a general call to repentance ( 1:1-6), and does not appear to be connected with any external event.

The second date (1:7), the twenty-fourth day of the eleventh month of the same year (519 B.C.), appears to belong to the whole series of visions, though it is not essential to the interpretation of the visions to draw this conclusion. It has been suggested that this date marked the focal point of Zechariah’s preparations in advance of the spring New Year Festival for an attempted coronation of Zerubbabel. During the postexilic period the Jews followed the calendar of the Babylonians with the New Year celebration in the spring, instead of the older agricultural calendar of Canaan with the New Year celebration in the fall, to which the Jews returned in post-biblical times. It appears likely that an effort to proclaim Zerubbabel as the Davidic ruler over Jerusalem took place in the spring of 519 B.C., though according to 6:9-14 the crown was placed on the head of Joshua the high priest and remained in the Temple instead of on the head of Zerubbabel. It is clear that any such effort to proclaim Zerubbabel as the legitimate king of Judah was abortive, and it is likely that the present form of Zechariah conceals the full extent of Jewish defection from Persian rule at this time.

It is also likely that the result of any such revolutionary maneuver was the firmer establishment of the religious leaders in power over the new community. In this respect it may be significant that Zerubbabel does not figure in the discussions of chapters 7 and 8 or in the account of the dedication of the Temple in Ezra 6. By the fourth day of the ninth month of the fourth year of Darius (518 B.C.), the date with which chapter 7 opens, thought of rebellion against Persia appears to have been forgotten, Jerusalem’s prosperity appears to have been established, and the prophet Zechariah was engaged in a discussion with visitors from Bethel regarding ritual matters. The visit from Bethel, the occasion for the final group of prophetic utterances considered to belong to Zechariah himself, appears to coincide only with the onset of the December rains and bad weather, but the fact that it took place seems to indicate that conditions in Jerusalem were by this time stable and prosperous.

Whether Zechariah lived to see the dedication of the Temple in the sixth year of Darius (the spring of 515 B.C.), as described in Ezra 6, is not known. His ministry appears to have met the need of his time for encouragement in the face of the disillusioning realities of foreign government, economic uncertainty, and local apathy. To confront these realities Zechariah saw visions of God, the Lord of hosts, returning to Zion to purify it and to dwell in the midst of his Chosen People.

Zechariah’s Visions

One distinctive feature of the Book of Zechariah is the occurrence of the series of eight visions, the heart of the material from the prophet himself. These visions do not have the intensity and force of the visions of Amos (7:1-9; 8 and 9), Isaiah (ch. 6), or Jeremiah (1:11-19; 24). On the other hand, the visions of Zechariah are not as contrived or as involved as the visions of Ezekiel (chs. 1,8-11, and 40-48). For the early prophets a glimpse of some object or setting provided the occasion and stimulus for a revelation from God; a momentary experience triggered the process of insight in the mind of the prophet so that what occurred had the intensity of "vision" and became organized around certain vividly sensed words which were recognized as having the force of the word of the Lord. In the experience of Ezekiel visions were less spontaneous and became the vehicle for sustained presentation of information, such as the detailed specifications for the Temple in chapters 40-48. Zechariah’s visions fall somewhere between the spontaneous and intense visions of the earliest prophets and the sustained and complicated visions of Ezekiel and the later apocalypists.

Like the earlier prophets, Zechariah and the heavenly messengers who participated in his visions were concerned to interpret what he saw, so that those for whom the messages from God were intended should understand. In general, the meaning of Zechariah’s visions is clear. They express the concern of God for the welfare of his people. The first three visions concern the future greatness of the Judean community, and reveal the fact that the normally unseen messengers of God surround it to protect it. The fourth and fifth visions concern the two leaders of the community, Joshua and Zerubbabel, and serve to assure each one (and the community as a whole) of the divine sanction for his position. The final group of visions concerns the presence of evil in the land and provides symbolically for the divine removal of wickedness from the land; the last vision provides assurance of God’s satisfaction with the accomplishments of the other visions.

Angels, including "the accuser," the Satan, have a significant place in the visions of Zechariah. Though very much concerned for the welfare of his people, God manifests his interest through these heavenly intermediaries. God himself is observed to answer the questions of the angel and of the prophet, but the manner of his speaking is indirect, and he is present only as Spirit. By the Spirit of God, Zerubbabel will accomplish the task assigned him.

Opposition to God arises not only in men but also on the level of the intermediate beings of the visions. The Satan is one of these beings, a sort of "loyal opponent" in the angelic realm. Like the other intermediaries, he is in direct contact with the human participants of the dramatic scenes of the visions.

Zechariah may well have been led to use the vision form to present the politically dangerous scheme that appears to be at the heart of his messages. It is not clear today, however, exactly what he sought in the political sphere. He seems to have attempted to establish Zerubbabel as the successor to David in a genuine coronation ceremony in the partially reconstructed Temple. It may be conjectured that in a public address a week before the spring New Year ceremonies, on the twenty-fourth day of the eleventh month, Zechariah presented the whole series of eight visions, or the major part of them, to the assembled people. The balance of emphasis in the visions between Joshua and Zerubbabel suggests that what Zechariah sought was to encourage both Joshua, the high priest, and Zerubbabel, the governor, in such a way that they would continue to divide responsibility for the religious and secular spheres, while they brought their renewed zeal into closer subjection to the will of God.

Zechariah’s visions thus provided a means by which purely political aspirations could be held to a minimum, while enthusiasm for the future of a community centering in the Temple could be stirred. Apparently Zechariah was successful in this moderately revolutionary program, for no immediate reprisals from the Persians were recorded. As matters turned out, perhaps not far from Zechariah’s scheme, Zerubbabel did not become a center of real revolutionary activity, but power gradually became more and more centralized in the person of the high priest. The present form of the prophecies of Zechariah suggests that this was what the prophet wanted, but this may be due to later editing of his words.

The Oracles of Zechariah 9-14

While it is not impossible that Zechariah wrote the materials contained in chapters 9-14 of the book which bears his name, most students consider that these separately titled "oracles" are the work of other hands. The principal arguments for this conclusion are: (1) that the style and language are markedly different from the visions and prophecies of the early part of the book; (2) that at least some of the "oracles" of the latter part of the book assume circumstances which had not yet arisen in the early part of the Persian period, particularly the direct contact with Greek military forces referred to in 9:13; (3) that the religious ideas and mood of the "oracles" is different from the prophecies of Zechariah. It is clear that the materials found at the end of the book do not concern themselves directly with the events in the reign of Darius in the way the earlier materials do. Chapters 1-8 offer restrained encouragement in the face of difficult circumstances; chapters 9-14 look for the direct and vigorous intervention of God on behalf of his people on some none-too-clearly-defined Day of the Lord. No particular ethical demands are made of the people in chapters 9-14, where at the last everything will be "sacred to the Lord"; in the earlier prophecies of the book, on the other hand, Zechariah has spoken in the spirit of the earlier prophets.

It is probable that chapters 9-11 were attached to the earlier part; of the Book of Zechariah in the period of Greek domination over Palestine, following the victory of Alexander the Great at Issus in 333 B.C. Chapter 9 begins with a poetic oracle of judgment against the various Palestinian countries through which the conquering Macedonian traveled on his way to Egypt, and the remainder of this section of the oracles is concerned with the future of God’s flock, part of it being composed in prose.

Chapters 12-14 are concerned with the future of Jerusalem and the Jewish state in some day yet to come when God is expected to intervene with destructive fury and to establish his people as victors over the other nations of the world. These chapters cannot be ascribed to any particular historical occasion but appear to represent the hopes of difficult postexilic times, probably during the Greek period.

The Message of the Book

As a whole the Book of Zechariah addresses itself to people who feel that God is not very close to them in the midst of their political difficulties. The first part of the book, particularly through the series of visions, declares that God is concerned for the welfare of his people, that his forces surround them as protectors, and that he will dwell with his people. Even when sin and its effects are dominant in the experience of the people, God purposes to do good for them. In the second part of the book, details regarding the nature of the divine intervention are set forth in the confidence that God will accomplish the purpose for good projected in the first part of the book.

Some of the details relating to God’s intervention are of particular interest to Christians (see Zechariah 9:9; Zechariah 11:12-13; Zechariah 12:10; Zechariah 13:7) because of the way in which they have found fulfillment in the experience of Jesus. Other details, awaiting significant fulfillment (as, for example, in Zechariah 14:8; Zechariah 14:11), have been further developed in the New Testament Apocalypse. But for the Christian interpreter some of the details (as, for example, in Zechariah 12:1-9) have not yet risen to the heights of the spirit of the One who endorsed the great commandment of love to neighbors of all races.

The contemporary significance of the Book of Zechariah is not to be found through a study of fulfillment of details. Rather, through an understanding of the external pressures against which the expectations of divine intervention were set forth, we can come to recognize similar pressures in the world today. In relation to these pressures — some political, some economic, some social, all producing the sufferings men describe as evil — we must look ultimately to God for relief. Without adopting the particular programs set forth by Zechariah as the model for action, we must be ready for whatever action is laid upon us by the ever-present Spirit of God, who promises to accomplish his good purpose.

OUTLINE

Visions and Preaching of Zechariah. (Zechariah 1:1 to Zechariah 8:23)

Introductory Appeal to Repent (Zechariah 1:1-6)

Visions Concerning God’s Intervention (Zechariah 1:7 to Zechariah 6:8)

Prophetic Preaching to Meet Particular Needs (Zechariah 6:9 to Zechariah 8:23)

Oracles Concerning the People of God. (Zechariah 9:1 to Zechariah 14:21)

Oracles and an Allegory on the Future of God’s Flock (Zechariah 9:1 to Zechariah 11:17)

Oracles on the Exaltation of Judah and Jerusalem (Zechariah 12:1 to Zechariah 14:21)