Book Overview - Zechariah
by Joseph Exell
We must think of the prophet Zechariah as living and preaching among surroundings the same as those with which Haggai, his companion in responsibility and tribulation and honour, was familiar. The captivity in Babylon had come to an end. The mighty empire, which for seventy years had enslaved God’s people, had fallen before Cyrus. The king had authorised and invited the Hebrew exiles to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the house of the Lord. But yet the sanctuary was unbuilt; no place of habitation had been found for the God of Jacob. An unworthy timidity, and a sad failure of trustfulness, and an overweening regard for self combined to promote this lamentable result. It was, then, fully fifteen years after the band of exiles had arrived in Jerusalem that Haggai and Zechariah were raised up to kindle within their countrymen a worthier spirit. Side by side these two servants of the King stood, strengthening each other’s hands in God; side by side, until the slumberous eyes had been opened, and the forgetful hearts led back to the path of duty, and the Temple raised out of its ruins. Then Haggai laid down the burden of the prophet, and was gathered to his fathers; and Zechariah bore witness for God alone.
I. What we know of Zechariah himself may be rapidly told. He was priest as well as prophet. His grandfather’s name and his own are mentioned in the Book of Nehemiah (Nehemiah 12:16), in the catalogue given there of the members of the priestly class. He was the head of one of the families that ministered about God’s altar, no less than a preacher of the Lord. He united the two offices just as Jeremiah and Ezekiel had done in former days. The patriotic zeal of the prophet for the honour of his country and the glory of God was linked in Zechariah with that tender affection which every true priest must have felt for the shrine in which it was his blessedness to be a servant. Sprung from ancestors who for centuries had gone in and out of the sacred courts, he would have been strangely unmindful of the best traditions of his family if he had not been very jealous for the worship of the Lord God of Israel. God had called him to a task which a pious priest could not but welcome, and to which he could only surrender himself with enthusiasm. He was quite a young man when he stood up first to deliver the Divine message. He tells us that he was the son of Berechiah and the grandson of Iddo. The Book of Ezra, in its account of the matter, makes no mention of the father, and speaks, indeed, as if the prophet were sprung immediately from Iddo (Ezra 5:1; Ezra 6:14). Probably Berechlah died at an early age, before he had time to make for himself a name with strangers like Ezra, though his memory could not but be cherished and perpetuated by his own son. It was in the care of his grandfather that Zechariah returned to Jerusalem from his alien home by the banks of the Euphrates. He could not be more than a mere child when the great deliverance took place. For, years after, when he became God’s ambassador, he was still too young to exercise the priestly functions. Nehemiah informs us that he did not rank among “the chief of the fathers” during all the days of the high priest Joshua; not, indeed, until Joiakim, Joshua’s son and successor, was put in charge of the worship of Jehovah; then only Zechariah was enrolled among those who made sacrifice and intercession for the people. He was a prophet before he was a priest. If Haggai were an old man before his ministry commenced, Zechariah’s was begun in the days of his youth; God has room and work in His kingdom alike for the veteran and for the child. And nothing is pleasanter than to see, as in this instance, the old and the young taking part together in duties that are holy and heavenly. And sometimes the young are inclined to disparage the work of their elders; they are too self-confident; they imagine that there are no thoughts so large as their own, and no arms so strong, and no hearts so fervent. It is better when the two join hands frankly, as Haggai and Zechariah did, and Peter and Mark, and Paul and Timothy; and recognise cordially and ungrudgingly that each has his own place. Probably many years lay between Zechariah’s first exercise of the prophetical office and his last. The chapters that close his book are very different both in manner and in matter from those with which it opens--so different that many have concluded that they could not have been penned by him at all. But it may make the difference easier of comprehension if we suppose these later chapters to belong to Zechariah’s age while the others are the utterance of his youth. A man speaks in his maturity in phrases and tones which he did not employ when he was younger; he has passed into another atmosphere. Such was Zechariah, who testified for God in a time of declension and darkness. It was a difficult work. But I can well believe that, when the prophet’s heart grew weary and doubtful, he would encourage himself by the strong consolations proclaimed in the very name he bore--a name which many a Hebrew father gave to his child. It spoke of the loving kindness of the Lord. Zechariah means, “he whom Jehovah remembers.”
II. Passing to look at the contents of His message, we find that the prophecy divides itself into three parts, the first inclusive of the six opening chapters, the second of the seventh and eighth, the third embracing the remainder of the Book. After a short introduction, in which the author calls upon his countrymen to repent of their indolence, and selfishness and sin, the first section of the prophecy is commenced. It is a striking and beautiful section. It describes the history of one very remarkable night, that which lay between the 23rd and 24th days of the month Sebat, a month corresponding with our February. The year was the same as that in which Haggai began and ended his brief but fruitful ministry--the second year of Darius Hystaspis. During this night, while Zechariah slept, God presented to his gaze one strange heaven-drawn picture after another. Vision succeeded vision, clear and vivid, till there were eight of them in all. And when the last had gone the prophet awoke, comforted in his own heart, and having learned much regarding the destiny of the nation that was dear to him; it had been the most blessed night he had ever known. The second part of Zechariah’s prophecy--that which occupies the seventh and eighth chapters--was not uttered until two summers and winters had passed away. During this interval the Jews had set themselves zealously and devotedly to the restoring of God’s neglected house; and they had not lacked tokens of His favour and grace. But a question had sometimes been discussed among them which they were anxious to have settled. And to whom could they go with more propriety or with greater likelihood of success, some of them thought, than to the prophet in whom the Spirit of the Lord was, and who had already been inspired to address to them such good and comfortable words? So, in December of the year 518 B.C., a deputation came to Zechariah from Bethel, one of the cities to which the captives had returned, to propound to him their difficulty. It concerned the national fast days, which they had kept four times a year during their exile in Babylon--days on which they had wept when they remembered Zion, captured and shamed and downtrodden. Should they still observe them now that the restoration had taken place? Perhaps God did not mean them to mourn any longer, and would be displeased if they did not manifest gladness because of the great things He had done for them. But, on the other hand, it might still be His desire that they should humble themselves and sit in dust and ashes, for their Church and nation were feeble and of small account. Zechariah answered his questioners in words which carry us back to some of the noblest sentences of Isaiah (Isaiah 58:1-14), and forward to some of the searching and spiritual utterances of Christ (Matthew 6:16-18). He told them that God preferred obedience to fasting, faith and holiness to sackcloth and a sad countenance. He reminded them that it was their failure to fulfil the weightier precepts of His law which had lain at the root of all their miseries. He bade them pay most heed to judgment and righteousness and truth. And, to nerve them for duties so high and broad and deep, he drew aside the veil from the future. God, he said, would make them glad according to the days wherein they had seen evil He would bless Jerusalem as He had done in former times. Old men and women would move quietly along its streets, or would sit out in the sunshine, talking of the many strange events which had happened since they were young, and none would alarm or disturb them; while troops of happy children, playing together fearlessly the games they loved so well, would make the thoroughfares resound with their irrepressible mirth and gaiety. And where would be the necessity for days of mourning then? Their fasts would be changed into feasts; their “winter of discontent” made glorious summer. That was the reply; and would not Sherezer and Regemmelech and the rest go back to Bethel with hearts lightened and glad? We come to the closing section of the Book. It may have been uttered, as I have hinted, many years later, when the active work of Zechariah’s life was almost over, and when at length it was ringing to evensong. No detailed analysis of these six chapters can be given here. Let it be said, however, that they have a distinctly Messianic character. They speak of a King who was to come to Zion in future days, a meek and lowly King, but One invested with singular majesty too, for He would set free the captives of Israel, and would overthrow the enemies of His people. Then the image changes, and it is a Shepherd to whom the citizens of Jerusalem are pointed forward. But they who ought to be the sheep of His pasture deliberately reject Him, and heap contumely upon Him, and go after a foolish shepherd who cannot profit them. It is a sad picture; and the prophet’s voice grows tremulous and indignant as he paints it. But, before he ends his message his accents are happier again. He sees Jerusalem lifted proudly on high as the capital of the land. He sees Jehovah Himself dwelling in her as her Ruler and Prince. He sees everywhere a noble purity in the ascendant. There is to be no distinction of secular and sacred, of clean and unclean; for all things, the commonest objects of life, are consecrated to the Lord. When the priest puts the collar on his horse, and goes to his day’s work or his day’s recreation, he will be as truly at one with God as when he enters the Holy of Holies with the censer in his hand and the fair mitre on his head and the jewels of the breastplate glittering in the sun. Is it not a splendid ideal? Would that it were nearer its realisation even now, after all these centuries of the Gospel!
III. I have said that the concluding chapters of the Book have been made the subject of keen discussion. Many opinions have been expressed regarding their authorship; many doubts have been thrown on the belief that Zechariah spoke and penned them. It has been urged that they are altogether different in tone and contents from the chapters which precede them. There we were called to look on one significant vision after another; here there are no visions, only direct predictions, warnings of judgment, promises of succour and salvation. There the unbuilt Temple was always present to our thoughts; here the Temple has vanished altogether from view. There everything was of the profoundest interest and importance to the Jews of the prophet’s day; here it is difficult to believe that these Jews could be moved and stirred by much to which they are bidden listen--it seems to deal with events remote from their time, with hostile nations and powers that had been formidable to their fathers, but had ceased to vex and trouble them. £ The Book of Job and the Epistle to the Hebrews are not less divinely precious to our souls because we cannot be sure what human hand it was that penned them. But in this case there is no sufficient cause why we should alter our old beliefs. We may still regard the prophecy of Zechariah as a unity. Criticism itself, after discovering many stumbling blocks and throwing out many conjectures, is coming back to that conviction. £ If the preacher were far advanced in life before he published the truths contained in this division of the Book, there would be no need for him to refer to the rebuilding of the Temple; the work had long been accomplished; the headstone had been laid years ago, with shoutings of “Grace, grace unto it.” And as for the references to nations, which were not then annoying the chosen people, or able to annoy them, these too can be explained in an intelligible and satisfactory way. £ Then it must not be forgotten that there are strong arguments which tend to show that this section could scarcely have an earlier date. It is filled with allusions to the later writings of the Old Testament. It appears to have come from a man who was familiar not only with the more ancient of those who had preceded him as God’s heralds and ministers, but with one like Ezekiel, who had been a contemporary of the Exile. Altogether, while “it is not easy to say which” way the weight of evidence preponderates, we may lawfully continue to think of Zechariah as the author from beginning to end of the prophecy which has been called by his name.
IV. Only a few words can be added about the lessons of the Book for ourselves; indeed, these lessons are so many and so weighty that it is hard to select among them,
1. Let the first part, that in which those wonderful visions are recorded, speak to us of the blessedness of being in alliance and friendship with God, the wretchedness of being opposed to Him. It was intended to comfort the feeble Jews, and to tell them that greater was He who was for them than all who were against them. Their adversaries were both crafty and powerful; but they must never dream that the way of the ungodly could prosper, or envy the success of the wicked. That success was destined to be short-lived.
2. The second part of the prophecy, that in which Zechariah answered the question about days of fasting, should remind us of the nature of true religion. Seasons of solemn humiliation and of solemn festival are good if they give outward expression to the penitence and the joy of the heart; they are bad whenever they degenerate into observances of routine and custom, and whenever they are severed from a living and practical piety. Above all things God desires us to be in earnest; beyond all things He abhors hypocrisy--the show and semblance of religion sundered from its reality.
3. Finally, let us fix thought and affection on the Messiah presented to our view in the closing division of the Book. Let us mourn because our sins have pierced God’s good Shepherd--mourn and be in bitterness, as one mourneth for his only son, and as one is in bitterness for his firstborn. Let us ever be thankful for the “fountain filled with blood, drawn from Immanuel’s veins,” which has been opened to wash away our uncleanness. And let us see that the King, who rides forth in lowly majesty, is King of our hearts and lives. Behold, He stands at the door and knocks; let us hear His voice and open to Him; then He will come in, and sup with us, and we with Him. (Original Secession Magazine.)
The prophet and his mission--Zechariah was a common name among the Jews. Of the personal history of this Zechariah we know nothing. There is no evidence to connect him with the man mentioned in Matthew 23:35. His family seems to have returned from Babylon with the first expedition in the reign of Cyrus. He was very young at the time of his return. He had seen the arresting of the erection of the Temple by the successful machinations of the Samaritans in the Persian Court, and the depressed tone of the national character during the time that followed this arrest. He had witnessed the growth of that selfish greed for their own individual interests, and their neglect of the interests of religion, that was so mournful a characteristic of this period. He had also seen the creeping feebleness with which the work of rebuilding the Temple was undertaken and prosecuted, when the edict of permission was again issued by Darius Hystaspis. Now, as the Temple was to them the grand symbol of revealed religion, indifference to it was an undoubted symptom of backsliding and spiritual declension. It was therefore necessary that they should be stirred up to the discharge of their duty as to the Temple, and awakened to a proper estimate of that great plan of mercy to the world, of which the Temple and the theocracy were but symbols, in order that their zeal might have at once a right motive and a right direction. Hence Haggai was first raised up to rouse them to activity in building the Temple, and two months later Zechariah followed, to take up the same theme, and unfold it yet more richly to the minds of the people, by connecting the poor and passing present, with the magnificent and enduring future. The scope of the prophecy, then, is to produce a genuine revival of religion among the people, and thus encourage them in the right way to engage in the rebuilding of the Temple. (T. V. Moore, D. D.)
Summary of the contents of the Book--
1. The Word of God which introduces the prophetic labours of Zechariah (Zechariah 1:1-6).
2. A series of seven visions which Zechariah saw in the night, on the twenty-fourth day of the eleventh month, in the second year of Darius (Zechariah 1:7, to Zechariah 6:8).
3. A symbolical transaction which brought the visions to a close (Zechariah 6:9-15).
4. The communication to the people of the answer of the Lord to a question addressed by certain Judaens to the priests and prophets, as to the necessity of keeping certain fast days (chaps. 7, 8).
5. A prophecy of threatening import concerning the land of Hadrach, the seat of the ungodly world power (chaps. 9-11).
6. A burden concerning Israel (chaps. 12-14). All the parts of the Book hang closely together; and the differences which exist between the first two prophecies and the last two, and which have led some writers to ascribe them to two different prophets, are not worthy of notice. It is clear that though the prophecies of this Book have their foundation in the building of the second Temple, it is impossible that they refer solely to that event, or to those times. They point onward to the close of the present dispensation. They fit only into events, and into times, not even yet reached. Only as we bear this in mind throughout the entire Book shall we be able clearly to understand it, and be preserved from a labyrinth of perplexity. And we must guard against the mistake into which so many have fallen, of applying the revelations of the future glories of the Kingdom of God to the Church of Christ. The prophecies of this Book relate to the Jewish nation and their Messiah; and to the Kingdom of God to be set up among them at His second coming in glory, and which is to rule the world. (Frederick White, M. A.)
the First Week after Epiphany