Zechariah, Prophet of the Restoration

5. The Flying Roll

Of all the strange visions of Zechariah perhaps that of the flying roll in chapter 5 is the most bizarre. The prophet looked toward the sky and perceived a giant roll, of the kind used in his day for the writing of books, a roll of either parchment or dressed goatskin—probably the latter—but of a size no ordinary roll had ever attained. Thirty feet long and fifteen feet across, it swooped down almost like a modern dive‑bomber; as it swooped it entered into the houses of the wicked, destroying them with the force of its impact and by reason of the writings it contained—this much is implied though not stated—compelling the occupants to stand and be judged for their misdeeds and separated into the penitent and the impenitent...the scene changed and now the prophet beheld a large earthenware measure, a store jar, inside which crouched a woman prevented from emerging by reason of a heavy cover of lead. Even as he looked, two flying figures, women with the wings of storks, swooped down from the sky, laid hold of the jar, and flew away carrying it, so the watching prophet was told, into the land of Shinar, where it was to be permanently established. Strange pictures, flickering across his consciousness and without any attempt by the revealing angel at explanation. What did it all mean?

The key to the chapter is the flying roll itself. The angel said of it, in chapter 5:3 "This is the curse that goeth forth over the face of the whole earth". The word rendered "curse" means, not only an execration or an imprecation, which is the usage of "curse" in English, but also an oath, and in this sense is associated with the Divine promises and covenants. Thus Deut.29:12 "That thou shouldest enter into covenant with the LORD thy God, and into his oath, which the LORD thy God maketh with thee this day". The "oath" between Abraham and Eliezer in connection with the latter’s commission to find a bride for Isaac (Gen.24:41) is another instance. Quite often the word appears in connection with Moses as the intermediary. The fact that this "flying roll" is shown as meting out judgment upon the thieves and perjurers in verse 3, and destroying their houses in verse 4, is sufficient to indicate that the "curse" in this instance refers to the Divine oath, or promise, or covenant, and so the roll becomes the symbol of Divine righteousness or Divine Law by which all things are to be judged. This conclusion is confirmed by the dimensions given—twenty cubits long by ten cubits wide. This was the size of the second compartment of the Mosaic Tabernacle, the Holy, where stood the golden lampstand and the altar of incense. It was also the size of the "Porch" of Solomon’s Temple—and in all probability of the rebuilt Temple of Zechariah’s day—the place from which the High Priest emerged to bless the people. Thus the flying roll is associated with Divine Law, Divine judgment and Divine blessing. The fact that it is effective, destroying evil, judging sin and creating a separation between the righteous and the wicked stamps it at once as having its application in the Millennial Age, the only Age when such things are completely true. So the setting of the chapter becomes evident; this is the Divine Law of the Millennial Age, going out to do the work of that Age to the elimination of evil and the establishment of everlasting righteousness.

Now the A.V. says of this flying roll "every one that stealeth shall be cut off as on this side according to it; and every one that sweareth shall be cut off as on that side according to it...it shall enter into the house of the thief, and...of him that sweareth falsely...and shall consume it with the timber thereof and the stones thereof" (ch.5:3‑4). The determinant (determining) words here are "cut off" and "consume"; it is clear that the A.V. does not have the last word, for various translators offer one or other of two quite contradictory meanings in the case of "cut off". Thus Leeser has "destroyed", the LXX "punished", and Margolis "swept away", but Rotherham gives "let off", Young "declared innocent", R.V. "purged out" and Ferrar Fenton "reformed". The reason for these variations is that niqqah, which means primarily to be pure, innocent, cleansed, free from blame, pardoned, etc., also has the meaning of being "cleaned out" as we would say, vacant, empty, hence can easily be rendered "to clear" in Exod.34:7 where God "will by no means clear the guilty"; in Num.5:19 "be thou free from this bitter water"; Exod.21:19 "shall he that smote him be quit"; Job 9:28 "I know that thou wilt not hold me innocent"; Jud.15:3 "Now shall I be more blameless than the Philistines" and Psa.19:13 "then shall I be...innocent from the great transgression". The cutting off of the sinner, by the flying roll, therefore, means, not his destruction, but the cutting off from his sin, his being made clean, pronounced innocent. Since this can only be achieved by his repentance and conversion, we have here a further insight into the basic principle of the coming Age. As the Wise man said (Prov.16:6) "By mercy and truth iniquity is purged; and by (in) the fear (reverence) of the LORD men depart from evil".

But it is different with the houses of the wicked. The same Divine standard which cleanses the sinner from his sin makes short work of the erection he has built. It enters into the houses and consumes them with the timber and stones thereof. That is a significant expression. In the Levitical Laws for dealing with leprosy in a house it was provided that the priest should "break down the house, the stones of it, and the timber thereof, and all the mortar of the house; and he shall carry them forth out of the city into an unclean place" (Lev.14:45). Leprosy is a well known symbol of sin in Biblical allegory; there can be little doubt that the reference in Zechariah to the houses being consumed "with the timber and stones thereof" is intended to picture the obliteration of sin by that which is pictured by the flying roll.

These first four verses of Zech.5, therefore, may well be taken to describe in allegorical language the operation of Divine Law in the Millennial Age, both in its aspect of judgment upon sin and that of conversion of the sinner. The two specific crimes mentioned, that of swearing falsely by God’s name, and that of stealing, relate to the third and eighth commandments of the Mosaic covenant. The roll was written on both sides‑ "stealeth…this side" and "sweareth...that side" (v.3); on the assumption that in a symbolic sense the roll contained all ten commandments, five on each side, those mentioned would be the middle ones of their respective sides; thus the "stealing" and "swearing" might well be representative of the entire Law. By the impact of this Law the houses—works of men—are utterly destroyed, but by means of repentance and conversion the men themselves may be saved and pronounced clean and free from guilt. This is the work of the flying roll and the result is that repentant sinners are separated from their sin and made acceptable in the sight of God.

What happens to the dominion of evil? Does it remain, possibly to rise again and pollute the cleansed earth, or is it removed for ever? The answer to that question is shown in the second stage of the vision, the woman in the "ephah".

The prophet beheld a strange sight. He saw what is described as an "ephah" with a woman sitting inside it. Strictly speaking, the ephah was a Hebrew measure of capacity used for liquids and loose materials such as grain, and was equal approximately to nine gallons. But no woman, no matter how diminutive, could possibly have squeezed into an ephah measure. It is clear from Old Testament usage, however, that the word "ephah" was used as a term for measures of indeterminate value. Thus Deut.25:14‑15 speaks of "divers measures" and "just measure"; Prov.20:10 "divers weights, and divers measures…are alike abomination to the LORD"; Micah 6:10 "the scant measure that is abominable" are some of the instances where "ephah" is translated "measure". It is correct therefore to say that Zechariah saw a "measure", an earthenware jar, large enough to contain a woman. Such a measure would be the homer, equal to ten ephahs, and this implies a jar say two feet across and five feet high. This is adequate to the vision in which a woman is seen crouching inside.

Now the angel defined the woman—"this" he said "is wickedness" (v.8)and he cast her down inside the measure and imprisoned her therein by sealing the open top of the jar with what is described as a "talent of lead" (v.7). The talent was a measure of weight roughly equal to an English hundredweight. A piece of lead of that weight made to fit the top of a two foot jar would be some six inches thick—a very effective seal and not much chance of the woman ever getting out. It is to be noted here that the word rendered "talent" is kikkar which properly means a circle or sphere, hence anything circular such as a circular tract of country, a loaf of bread (made as a circular flat cake in those days) or a coin or piece of money. It is only therefore necessary to suppose that this kikkar or "talent" of lead was merely what the A.V. margin calls it, a "weighty piece" of circular form made to fit the top of the earthenware jar in which the woman was imprisoned.

This woman represents the evil and wickedness which had, as it were, been "driven underground" by the work of the flying roll. The earth and its inhabitants are cleansed from the taint, and all sin and evil, symbolised by the woman, has been concentrated in this earthenware jar and by reason of the enclosing cover unable ever again to escape to pollute the earth. Sin has been sealed up for ever. Now the prophet lifts up his eyes again and sees a new apparition in the sky (ch.5 vv.9‑11), two flying figures, women having long wings like those of the stork, "and the wind was in their wings". Swooping down upon the sealed up measure with its imprisoned occupant, they laid hold of it and soared up again into the sky, flying with strong strokes eastward until they were lost to the sight in the distance. "Whither do these (they) bear the ephah (measure)?" asked Zechariah of the revealing angel. "To build it a house in the land of Shinar" was the reply "and when that is ready they will set the measure there in its own place".(version unknown)This is an evident picture of evil, finally and for ever overthrown, taken away out of the land and banished to "its own place" whence it can never return to trouble mankind. The stork‑winged women are the Divine agents employed to execute this mission. The stork, although an unclean bird in the Levitical law owing to its habit of devouring serpents, frogs, lizards and the like, was given its Hebrew name chasidah, "the merciful one" from chasid meaning to be merciful or pious, on account of the reputed love and solicitude existing between parent bird and its young, which was famous among the Israelites. It thus became a symbol of love and devotion and of a benevolent protecting power watching over family life, for which reason storks were allowed to nest and breed in and about the homes of men without interference. In point of fact, our English word "stork" is from the Greek storgos, meaning natural or family affection; this word appears in the New Testament to render storgos several times, such as Rom.1:31 and 2 Tim.3:3 "without natural affection" and Rom.12:10 "be kindly affectioned one to another". Thus these stork‑like creatures I might well picture the powers of mercy and piety which in the next Age will have the effect of removing sin and evil far away. "The wind was in their wings" (v.9) says the prophet; in all the prophetic Scriptures there is a strong association of thought between the blowing of terrestrial wind and the Holy Spirit in active operation in the earth—the same word ruach is used for both "wind" and "spirit" and the translators could with equal propriety have rendered "the Spirit was in their wings". Thus it is by the power of the Holy Spirit that the burden of the world’s evil is lifted up and away from the places of men and taken to a far land from which it can never return.

In the prophecy that land is said to be "the land of Shinar" (ch.5:11). Shinar as a territorial name had long since passed out of use in Zechariah’s day. Shinar was the ancient Sumir (Sumer in English), one of whose cities was Ur of the Chaldees in Abraham’s time, and another, Babylon. In Biblical history Sumer, or Shinar, figured in the story of the Tower of Babel and the founding of Babylon. Just as Jerusalem and Judea represented the land of God and his righteousness from the ideal standpoint, so Babylon and Shinar represented all that was anti‑God and idolatrous, depraved and evil. The fiercest diatribes of the Hebrew prophets were directed against the evil city of Babylon and great was the acclamation when that city fell at length, never again to rise. If a place on this earth had to be chosen to represent the home and repository of evil then that place would surely be Babylon. Fitting, then, the measure with its imprisoned woman was taken, in defiance of the laws of space and time, to the ancient, no longer existing, land of Shinar, to be permanently established there and never return.

The most fitting commentary on that final scene in the vision is a New Testament one. "And death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire...And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire" (Rev.20:14‑15 Diaglott & A.V.). The lake of fire is, of course, metaphorical, the destruction, passing out of existence, which was suggested by the consuming fires of Jerusalem’s garbage dump, the Valley of Hinnom (Heb. Gay‑Hinnom, Gk. Ge‑Henna) outside the city. Just so will evil and all incorrigible, irrecoverable evildoers pass away and be no more when the combined mercy and judgment of the flying roll has completed its work. The way into the New Jerusalem, the city of light and life and love, is open to all who will enter, and the opportunity to be cleansed of all defiling influences in order that entry may be gained will be freely vouchsafed. "The Spirit and the bride say, Come…and whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely" (Rev.22:17). That is the mercy aspect of the flying roll. But it remains true that "there shall in no wise enter into it anything that defileth...but only they which are written in the Lamb’s book of life" (Rev.21:27 A.V. & RV), and the "unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers" and so on "shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire…which is the second death" (Rev.21:8). That is the judgment aspect.

So evil and all wickedness is buried at last in the city of the dead, established in the land of Shinar, "in its own place". It is a remarkable fact that Isaiah’s magnificent prediction of the doom of Babylon has remained true through the ages when other ancient cities have been rebuilt and restored to human habitation. "Babylon, the glory of kingdoms, the beauty of the Chaldees’ excellency, shall be as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah. It shall never be inhabited, neither shall it be dwelt in from generation to generation: neither shall the Arabian pitch tent there… but wild beasts of the desert shall lie there; and their houses shall be full of doleful (howling) creatures; and owls shall dwell there, and satyrs shall dance there." (Isa.13:19‑21). To this day the site of that ancient city is a waste of broken brickwork and drifting sand, shunned by men and infested with wild animals. The place where once stood the proud Tower whose top was to reach unto heaven is now a reed‑grown swamp, every vestige of that one time magnificent edifice gone save a few rows of mouldering bricks. There, in that desolation, Zechariah saw the earthenware jar, with its captive symbol of evil, carried to share the oblivion which has fallen upon that place. Here is the realisation of the promise made to the Kingly Priest in the vision of chapter 3 "I will remove the iniquity of that land in one day". (v.9) And it is removed to a place from which it can never return. When Zechariah was told that ephah was to be established or set in its own place he must have thought of the famous Temple of Marduk in Babylon, standing in all its glory alongside the great Tower which Genesis calls the Tower of Babel. There, in that centre of world idolatry, devoted to the service of all the false gods of mythology, he must have pictured final resting place of the ephah. There it would be set "upon its own base" in the very centre of the land of Shinar and in its principal shrine. But today all that is left of that proud Temple lies buried beneath sixty feet of alluvial soil and sand, deposited by the annual floods of the River Euphrates through the centuries. That is where Zechariah’s vivid allegory leaves all that is evil and alien to God—buried far underground whence it can never emerge to trouble man again.

To be continued.