Prophet of the Restoration

7. Deputation from Bethel

Two years after the visions the word of the Lord came again to Zechariah, this time in the form of a message to his own generation. The Temple was approaching completion, only two more years and the edifice that had been commenced eighteen years earlier at the return from Babylon was finished and dedicated, and the worship of the God of Israel resumed in his own sanctuary. It was the imminent prospect of this long‑looked for consummation which inspired the sending of the deputation from Bethel to Jerusalem and so gave occasion for the happenings that are recorded in chapters 7 and 8.

"Now the people of Bethel had sent Share’zer and Reg’em‑mel’ech and their men, to entreat the favour of the LORD..." This is the R.S.V. rendering of ch.7:2 and it is the true one. The A.V. has mistaken the word and rendered Bethel "the house of God", its meaning in Hebrew, without realising that it was the town of Bethel in Samaria that was intended. The import of verses 2 and 3 is that the Jews living in and around Bethel, for so long the centre of idolatrous worship in Israel before the Captivities and now in the Restoration the most important town in the north, had sent a deputation to Jerusalem with an important question. The leaders of the deputation were these two. Sharezer and Regem‑melech, who despite their Babylonian names were certainly Jews. The question was whether the priests and prophets at Jerusalem considered it necessary still to observe the day of mourning associated with the burning and destruction of Solomon’s Temple by Nebuchadnezzar on the tenth day of the fifth month some seventy years earlier, now that the new Temple was almost complete. One would have expected the answer to be almost self‑evident; why weep for the destruction of God’s sanctuary now that it was rebuilt? It almost seems the questioners were more concerned with ritual observance than realities; they had always observed this day as one of mourning and lamentation, "these so many years" they said, and if the ritual so demanded, were prepared to go on doing it even though the situation which called it into being no longer existed. At any rate, the Lord’s reply transmitted through the prophet showed that He was under no illusion. "When ye fasted and mourned…those seventy years, did ye… fast…to me?" He demanded. "Should ye not hear the words which the LORD hath cried by the former prophets, when Jerusalem was inhabited and in prosperity..." (ch.7:5&7). In a few short, sharp words the Lord told them that their mourning was only ceremonial, that they were not really weeping for the desolated Sanctuary and the despite (disrespect) done to God’s glory. They had not listened to the warnings of the prophets in the days of their prosperity, neither were they sincere in their lamentations over the years of adversity, for there was no real remorse or repentance in their hearts. So the first answer from the Lord was a plain and uncompromising intimation that they were not honest in their profession and therefore He was not interested whether they mourned in the fifth month or not.

This was, however, only a first answer. The Lord does not leave his children, even grievously erring children, without guidance and encouragement, and He had a great deal yet to say to these messengers from Bethel. So He expanded his words. As though it might be claimed that the words of the prophets had been forgotten and lost in the troublous times that had for several generations afflicted Israel the Lord gave them a brief resume. "Execute true judgment, and shew mercy and compassions… oppress not the widow, nor the fatherless, the stranger, nor the poor; and let none of you imagine evil against his brother" (ch.7:9‑10). This was the spirit of the Law, the principles by which, if Israel lived in them, everlasting peace and prosperity would be their portion. But they did not so live, so that at the last there had to be penned the sad, regretful words of 2 Chron.36:15‑16 "The LORD God of their fathers sent to them by his messengers, rising up betimes, and sending; because he had compassion on his people, and on his dwelling place: But they mocked the messengers of God, and despised his words, and misused his prophets, until the wrath of the LORD arose against his people, till there was no remedy". So the penalty of the broken Covenant came upon Israel and they were carried into captivity by their enemies. Therefore the words of the old Chronicler were repeated to the messengers from Bethel to Zechariah. "They refused to hearken" he said "and stopped their ears, that they should not hear. They made their hearts as an adamant stone" (diamond) "lest they should hear the law, and the words which the LORD of hosts hath sent…by the former prophets...Therefore it is come to pass...I scattered them...among all the nations whom they knew not...for they laid the pleasant land desolate" (ch.7:11‑14).

Then the Lord turned, and spoke to those messengers in a very different tone. Gone are the words of reproof for the shortcomings of their fathers and the broken covenant, gone the stern admonition as to their own insincerity and formalism, their own failure to mourn the destruction of the Temple in the spirit of remorse and repentance for the sins which led to that destruction. Chapter 8 strikes a different key, one of hope and confidence for the future, one in which blessing and not judgment is the predominant note. The message was primarily for the people of Zechariah’s own day, outlining some of the glories which Israel was shortly to enjoy in her renewed national status, but going on into the far distant future when, in the Kingdom of God, Israel should attain her destiny. It is as though God had cast behind his back all thought of the failures and shortcomings and sins of his people, all the reproofs and the penalties and the rejections, and begun to tell them of his plans for their future in the time of their conversion and reformation.

"I am returned unto Zion" He said "and will dwell in the midst of Jerusalem: and Jerusalem shall be called a city of truth" (ch.8:3). This theme has of course recurred from time to time from the very beginning of Zechariah’s prophecy and it refers very definitely to the restoration of Israel in her own land in his day and the flowering of national sovereignty which followed. "Let your hands be strong, ye that hear in these days these words by the mouth of the prophets, which were in the day that the foundation of the house of the LORD of hosts was laid, that the temple might be built" (ch.8:9). Those prophets were Haggai and Zechariah, the two spiritual leaders of the nation at this critical point in their history. But the Lord is nothing if not up to date. "Before these days" He says "there was no hire for man, nor…beast; neither...peace to him that went out or came in...for I set...every one against his neighbour" (ch.8:10). This is a little picture of the dark days before the Restoration, when the people went into captivity and the land lay desolate, and war and tumult was the order of the day. Now those days were past; they had been ordered of the Lord but now He had turned his face toward his people again. "But now I will not be unto the residue of this people as in the former days, saith the LORD of hosts. For the seed shall be prosperous; the vine shall give her fruit, and the ground shall give her increase, and the heavens shall give their dew; and I will cause the remnant of this people to possess all these things…so will I save you, and ye shall be a blessing...So again have I thought in these days to do well unto Jerusalem and to the house of Judah: fear ye not" (ch.8:11‑15). A crowning description of the peace and prosperity that was in store for Israel appears in vv.4‑5 "There shall yet old men and old women dwell in the streets of Jerusalem, and every man with his staff in his hand for very age. And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in the streets thereof".

All this was fulfilled in the resurgence of the Jewish State during the centuries intervening between Zechariah and Christ. These words were uttered in the fourth year of Darius of Persia.518 B.C. The Temple was completed and dedicated two years later. A considerable Jewish population had returned from Babylon during the preceding twenty years and much of Judea and Samaria was being re‑colonised by Jews. During the times of Zechariah and Zerubbabel, and later on of Ezra and Nehemiah, and finally the prophet Malachi, a period of nearly a century, the people were relatively prosperous and enjoyed peace and safety. There were times of backsliding from their allegiance to God but they always returned. Another century of relative peace under Persian rule passed, and then came Alexander the Greek and the end of the Persian empire. But Alexander favoured the Jews and for more than yet another century Judea remained untroubled. Only when the development of the Syrian and Egyptian powers brought upon Judea the terrible oppression of Antiochus Epiphanes was the bright picture shadowed, and although after that there was a short lived period of less than a century during which Judea became completely independent, there began a sad series of wars and tumults which culminated in the annexation of Judea by Rome and the end of all national aspirations and all their glory. For some four hundred years they had enjoyed, in measure, the fulfilment of the promises of chapter 8 but it all came to an end because they did not continue to fulfil the conditions upon which that blessedness depended. The terms were clearly laid down. "These are the things that ye shall do; Speak ye every man the truth to his neighbour; execute the judgment of truth and peace in your gates: and let none of you imagine evil in your hearts against his neighbour; and love no false oath: for all these are things that I hate, saith the LORD" (ch.8:16‑17). They did observe these injunctions at first, in the days of Zechariah, when the Temple was new, and the promises began to be fulfilled accordingly; but they slowly abandoned those high standards as time went on, and the promises progressively failed in consequence. The traditional days of national mourning, the fast of the fourth month, remembering the day that Nebuchadnezzar captured Jerusalem; of the fifth, when the Temple was burnt; of the seventh when Gedaliah, the governor left behind by Nebuchadnezzar, was slain; and of the tenth, when the siege of the city began, all of these, said the Lord in ch.8:19 were now to be "joy and gladness, and cheerful feasts; therefore love the truth and peace". So it was, for a time, but they did not continue in the love of truth and peace, so that once again the land and the city knew siege and battle and murder, and the joy and gladness vanished, and the people of the Lord failed to receive the promises, because they would not believe. Once more the fulfilment of the Divine promise had to be postponed because of continued unfitness on the part of those who were destined to be the Divine agents in the final outworking of that promise. Babylon had not been sufficient after all; Antiochus, the Herods, the Romans, all the oppressors of future days must yet come upon the scene to chasten this people that would not learn, and the full import of the promise be deferred.

The Lord knew that. The last four verses of this chapter enshrine his assurance that the time will surely come when this stiff‑necked and hard hearted people will have profited aright by their experiences and been forged in the crucible of trouble into a vessel fitted for his use. "It shall yet come to pass" He says "that there shall come people...saying, Let us go speedily...to seek (the favour of) the LORD of hosts...yea, many people and strong nations shall come to seek the LORD of hosts in Jerusalem...In those days it shall come to pass, that ten men...out of all languages of the nations…shall take hold of the skirt of him that is a Jew, saying, We will go with you: for we have heard that God is with you" (ch.8:20‑23). The numeral ten is used in the Bible for an indefinite number and too much emphasis should not be read into its use here. Thus we have the ten virgins and the ten talents in the parables of Jesus; ten women shall bake in the oven as a symbol of scarcity (Lev.26:26); Israel proved the Lord "ten times" (Num.14:22) and Elkanah considered that he meant more to Hannah as a husband than ten sons could mean (1 Sam.1:8). So here we have an indication that people of all nations will come to the Jew for their blessing, "in that day", and this is precisely what Isaiah meant when he said that the mountain of the Lord’s house would be established in the top of the mountains and "all nations shall flow unto it" (Isa.2:2). These few verses, from 19 to 23, lay down the order in which men will turn to the Lord "at his appearing and his kingdom". First comes Israel in the land, next Israel from the Dispersion, finally the Gentiles, the nations at large. Perhaps the Douay version gives the most intelligible rendering here. After saying that the various days of mourning, lamenting the destruction of the Jewish polity (government) by Babylon, shall become "joy, and gladness, and great solemnities" the Lord continues "only love ye truth and peace...until people come, and dwell in many cities, and the inhabitants go one to another, saying: Let us go, and entreat the face of the Lord" (ch.8:19‑21). Here surely is depicted the growth of the Holy Nation in the territory of Israel, building the old wastes, raising up the former desolations, repairing the waste cities, the "desolations of many generations" (Isa.61:4) coming to realise as they do these things that the hand of the Lord is with them, and in the wonder of that discovery progressively casting off their former unbelief and coming to God in faith and trust. The "many peoples and strong nations" will come next and add their quota to the restoration of the ancient land and nation, until at last the whole world of men begins to take notice of this thing that is happening and to a constantly increasing degree begin to ally themselves with Israel and pay allegiance to Israel’s God. "It shall be said in that day" says Isaiah again "Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, and He will save us: this is the LORD; we have waited for him, we will be glad and rejoice in his salvation" (Isa.25:9).

But that wonderful climax will be after the scourge of "Jacob’s Trouble" has come upon the Holy nation and purified it leaving it fine gold. The story of Ezekiel 38 and 39, when the host of "Gog and the land of Magog" descend upon the Holy Land and are met by the powers of Heaven, has first to be enacted. That is not mentioned here in Zech.8. A vivid and detailed picture of that momentous happening came later to the prophet in his old age and is recorded in Zech. Chapter 14. The Lord’s message here in chapter 8 has to do entirely with the final outcome. At the end of time, when all the captains and the kings have departed, the Lord will find humble and contrite hearts waiting for the inspiring and life‑giving touch of his Holy Spirit. In the power and wonder of that great moment the new world will be born, and the old one irrevocably pass away. "And the Gentiles (nations) shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising" cried Isaiah (60:3), the man who saw more of that blessed day than any other prophet. "Saviours shall come up on mount Zion" said his successor Obadiah (v.21) "and the kingdom shall be the LORD’s". Not one of us can add anything to that.

(To be continued)