Zechariah, Prophet of the Restoration

1. The Prophet and the Book

A strange and thrilling time was the Era of the Restoration, when fifty thousand eager pioneers left Babylon and set out across the desert for the ruined country of Judea, there to build a Temple and a homeland. Few of them had seen Judea before; seventy years had elapsed since their fathers had been taken captive to Babylon, fifty‑one since the Temple and city of Jerusalem had been destroyed, and most of the returning pilgrims had been born and brought up in Babylon and knew of their ancestors' homeland only by repute and description. But now Babylon was fallen, given into the power of Cyrus the Persian conqueror, and Cyrus had granted leave to all of the Jewish community in his new conquest to go back to the land of their fathers and there restore their Temple, their national worship, and some semblance of their old‑time communal life, requiring only that they continue loyal to the suzerainty (authority) of Persia. So they came, bearing with them the sacred vessels of the Temple so ruthlessly despoiled by the soldiers of Nebuchadnezzar half a century ago, exhibited as trophies of conquest in the Babylonian Temple of Marduk, and now destined to stand in their rightful place and serve their rightful role in the ritual of the worship of the God of Heaven. No wonder they sang, as the Psalmist says they did sing, on that arduous journey "When the LORD turned again the captivity of Zion, we were like them that dream. Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with singing." (Psa.126:1‑2). No wonder they came into the desolated land camped among the ruined buildings of what had once been Jerusalem, seeing around them, by the eye of faith, the glorious land that was soon to be, and they themselves, the people of the Lord, exalting Israel once again to a place among the nations, mighty in the strength of the God of Israel.

It was not long before the golden vision faded and the old enemies of greed, indifference and moral laxity asserted themselves. Commercialism replaced sacrifice; the acquisition of property and the building of houses attracted more attention than the erection of the Temple of God. The community suffered accordingly. "Is it time for you, O ye" thundered Haggai the prophet "to dwell in your cieled houses, and this house (Temple) lie waste?...Ye have sown much, and bring in little; ye eat, but ye have not enough; ye drink, but ye are not filled…; ye clothe you, but there is none warm;...Why? saith the LORD of hosts. Because of mine house (my Temple) that is waste, and ye run (attend) every man unto his own house!" (Hag.1:4‑9). Sixteen years it was since the pioneers came to Jerusalem with such high hopes, and this was all there was to show for it! No wonder Zerubbabel, the governor of the colony, and Joshua the High Priest, were ashamed as they led the people in a great outburst of enthusiasm which sought to rectify the wrongs which had been allowed to develop.

It is at this point that Zechariah comes into the picture. A much younger man than his fellow‑prophet Haggai, he had nevertheless shared in the journey from Babylon and from the nature of his prophetic visions shows that he must have known much about life in that notorious city. Like Haggai, he was possessed of a burning zeal for the establishment in Judea of a true theocratic State, and a certainty that all the Divine promises relating to the coming glory of Israel must most certainly come to pass. In this the two prophets were markedly different from the Governor and the High Priest, both of whom seem to have failed to display those qualities of leadership and foresight necessary for so great a purpose.

Zerubbabel had been appointed Governor of the colony by Cyrus, responsible to him for maintaining its loyalty to Persia. The appointment was obviously a diplomatic move. Zerubbabel was the legal heir and successor to Jehoiachin the deposed King of Judah. He was probably in his early thirties and does not seem to have been particularly distinguished. Joshua the High Priest was a grandson of Seraiah, High Priest at the time of Jerusalem's destruction, who was executed by Nebuchadnezzar; he was most likely a much older man. These two figure largely in Zechariah's prophecy. Zechariah himself was of the priestly tribe. He says of himself that he was the son of Berachiah and grandson of Iddo. (Zech.1:1) From Nehemiah 12:16 it is evident that Zechariah was still alive in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah some seventy years after the Return, by which time he must have been of a considerable age. Tradition has it that—unusually for a Hebrew prophet—he survived and died peacefully in extreme old age and was buried beside his old friend and colleague Haggai. His prophetic ministry must therefore have spanned at least fifty years.

The Book of Zechariah consists of three main divisions, and the style and subject matter of the third is of a vastly different nature from that of the other two. The first division, occupying chapters 1 to 6, dated in the second year of Darius (520 B.C.) the year in which the building of the Temple was resumed, comprises a series of visions the subject of which is the restoration of Jerusalem and of Judah as a nation, leading onward in time to the consummation of Israel's history in the Millennial Kingdom and accepted Divine rule over all the earth. These visions are highly symbolic and the imagery is taken from the writings of the prophets who preceded Zechariah; to understand their meaning to any extent even today requires a reasonably detailed knowledge of the Old Testament. Thus in the first vision the prophet sees Israel in captivity to the great nations of then current history—Assyria, Babylon, Persia—and the time come for God to redeem his promise of deliverance for Jerusalem. From that the scene changes to the preparation of the Promised Land for the returning multitudes and a hint that the complete fulfilment of this must extend into a then far future day. Next comes the preparation of the royal Priest‑King who is to rule "in that day" accompanied by the Divine instrument of salvation forged from amongst men—the "servant" of Isaiah, to be a light to the nations to declare God's salvation to the ends of the earth. Following that comes the promulgation of Divine Law which will root out all evil and establish everlasting righteousness, and finally the regathering of all from the many dispersions which have afflicted God's people during the course of history, and the full establishment of the Millennial order of things. In these visions Zechariah takes his stand in the land of Judah of his own day and looks forward to the end of time, describing what he realises are the principles of the Divine purpose yet to be worked out. In all of this he gives evidence of a clear‑sighted understanding of the basic laws of God and the road which, not only Israel, but all men, must traverse to reach the objective God has set.

The second division, given two years later, whilst the rebuilding of the Temple was actively proceeding, covers chapters 7 and 8 and consists of two "oracles", or messages from Heaven to be declared to those of the people in Zechariah's day directly concerned. Although at first sight these chapters appear to be of purely local application to events in the time of Zechariah, closer examination reveals that here is enshrined a statement of the essential principles upon which God ultimately bases his acceptance of Israel at the end of the Age and the manner in which He will use Israel in the work of his Kingdom. The entire picture is presented in the form of what, in mediaeval England, was called a masquerade, a kind of play in which the actors take their places, asking and answering questions in which the message to be given is contained. In this instance representatives from the religious fraternity of Israel come to Zechariah to enquire as to the propriety of certain ceremonial observances; the prophet tells them, in effect, that since their past observances have been characterized by ritualism rather than sincerity, God is not interested in their offerings anyway. This gives opportunity for a stirring exhortation to sincere repentance and reformation of life that they might be truly fitted for the Divine purpose; that purpose is then revealed to be nothing less than the exaltation of Israel and the land of Israel as the centre of Divine administration on earth when the due time should come, but all this is dependent upon faith and sincerity. So the terminal point of the oracles is the same as that of the visions of chapters 1‑6, the glory and blessing of the Millennial Kingdom. In the visions the necessity as well as the certainty of Divine power and action to establish the "new heavens and earth" is shown; in the two oracles the necessity of repentance and willing subservience to the Divine will on the part of Israel before the new heavens and earth can become a reality is pictured. With both these factors established the groundwork is laid for the final division of the Book. This tells of events more closely associated with the actual passing of the kingdoms of this world into the Kingdom of God. This third division, chapters 9 to 14, is of a fundamentally different style and nature from the earlier parts. Where chapters 1 to 6 comprise a succession of symbolic pictures based on past Old Testament literature, and 7 to 8 are hortatory, enshrining principles of Divine Law applicable to any Age and generation, these last chapters 9 to 14 are frankly prophetic, foreseeing the shape of things to come in the logical outworking of events determined on a basis of cause and effect. It is easy, and it is true, to say that the revelation of happenings yet in the future is possible by the power of the Holy Spirit, but it has also to be remembered that the Spirit‑filled mind of a man like Zechariah, attuned in a very real sense to the mind of God, was of itself empowered to foresee the outcome, in future history, of events and forces belonging to his own time. The prophet clearly comprehended the ultimate purpose of God; he understood the manner in which, and the extent to which, the unbelief and the belief, the opposition and the concurrence, of men in his own day and in future times would influence and modify the road by which that goal would eventually be reached, and by that means the Spirit was able to guide him to an appreciation of "things which shall be hereafter" in so definite a fashion that he was able to set down in these chapters so detailed a description of things which had not yet—and in great degree have not yet—transpired.

The striking difference between the two earlier divisions of the Book and this one has led a number of scholars of the "Critical" school to claim that chapters 9 to 14 are not by the Zechariah of the Restoration era but by an unknown writer of much later times. In point of fact, this difference in style is logically to be expected. The first two divisions, written in the second and fourth years of King Darius, are the product of Zechariah's youthful years; he was a man of round about thirty. Chapters 9 to 14 are not dated, but the general background and a certain amount of internal evidence would point to a time nearly half a century later, at the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. It may reasonably be taken that the prophet had reached the maturity and insight of old age after a lifetime spent "in tune" with God and this in itself amply accounts for the difference in style and the rich colouring of his prophetic vision.

This section commences with an outline sketch of the forces that were to affect Israel after the then present Persian domination had passed away. A new ruling power was to come upon the stage, one that we now know to have been the Greek power, which overthrew Persia. In this crisis Jerusalem was to be preserved, for the good work of the Restoration was still bearing some fruit. Hope of the climax to Israel's expectation would come to the front; the promised King would be manifested and offer himself to the people. But despite Divine assurance that He would indeed ultimately reign, a darker hue is drawn over the scene. Israel apostasizes and rejects the King who is also their Shepherd, and for an Age that rejection endures whilst God as it were turns his back upon the unrepentant people. But He has not done so for ever nor even in reality; in the fullness of time and when some through the generations have shown themselves ready to serve him, God arouses to action. There is a regathering of his ancient people to their ancient land, a time of opening of eyes and of repentance, and a great cleansing, preparatory to the coming of Messiah and the Millennial Kingdom. Simultaneously there is a moving of powers of evil in the world in opposition, seeking to destroy what seems to be the incipient establishment of the new and righteous world order. The consequence is a further test of faith, a second apostasy and a second rejection of the Shepherd; but a remnant preserves faith and to this remnant the Lord comes in complete and permanent deliverance. So transpires the great event to which all human history has been tending, the revelation of the Lord from Heaven to all mankind, the overthrow of all evil dominating power and the establishment of Divine sovereignty on earth. The glorious vision closes in the spectacle of, not only Israel, but the whole of humankind, delivered from the darkness of sin and death, fully entered at last into the eternal light and life of the illimitable future.

The Book of Zechariah is a remarkable book; remarkable because of its unshakeable confidence in the ultimate execution of the Divine purpose despite the shortcomings and frailty of man. The prophet lived his life in an age that of itself provided a picture in miniature of the glories he foresaw in prophetic vision, but it was an age that, after Zechariah's death, belied its early promise and the light faded into darkness again. He himself in full confidence of faith looked toward a day when the darkness would not return, and in so doing coined, at the close of his book, a phrase which has become immortal; "At evening time it shall be light".

To be continued