Zechariah, Prophet of the Restoration

13. Sinners in Zion

We come now to the most difficult passage in the whole of Zechariah’s prophecy—difficult, because the opening sentences seem on the surface as though they could apply only to the First Advent whilst almost immediately there appear expressions which can only refer to the Second Advent. The sword is raised against the Lord’s Shepherd and in consequence the sheep are scattered. Two parts among them die but the third part is preserved in the fires and becomes the people of the Lord. The Day of the Lord dawns and the nations surround Jerusalem. One part of the citizens is led into exile but the other part is preserved. At this point the Lord rises up to defend Israel and scatter the besiegers. The difficulty lies in reconciling the smiting of the Lord’s Shepherd with the rising up of God to overthrow all evil and deliver those who trust in Him.

"Awake, O sword, against my shepherd, and against the man that is my fellow, saith the LORD of hosts: smite the shepherd, and the sheep shall be scattered: and I will turn mine hand upon the little ones" (ch.13:7). This "shepherd" who is also the Lord’s "fellow" can be none other than Christ; the word rendered "fellow" is literally "my companion", the "man of my fellowship", and indicates one bound to the Father by the closest possible ties of association, much more so than the ordinary bonds of friendship. Abraham and Moses were said to be the "friends" of God; Daniel was the "greatly beloved", but this word indicates a closer and more constant oneness and when associated with God cannot be applied to other than the Son. Zechariah must have known this and seen in the expression a reference to Israel’s Messiah. Jesus endorsed this (Matt.26:31). The R.S.V. adopts a rendering which is peculiarly fitting; "the man who stands next to me". However the passage is interpreted, this, the central figure, is undoubtedly Christ the Messiah.

The smiting of this Shepherd is then the rejection of him by the flock; not only that initial rejection which led to his crucifixion in the days of his humanity, but the long‑continued rejection which has subsisted throughout the Age and is still true, at least in part, at the Age’s end. In this the rejection of chapter 13 differs from the rejection of the same Shepherd in chapter 11, where the reference is only to the First Advent. But to perceive how this can be it is necessary to examine the structure of the passage more closely.

The point that emerges most noticeably is that chap.13:7 to 14:2 is written in a style dissimilar from that which goes before or comes after. It really forms a self‑contained little section in its own right. Up to chap.13:6 and also from chap.14:3 onward the style is prose narrative, telling in the one case of the progress of Israel’s repentance and cleansing, and in the other of active Divine intervention and the establishment of the Kingdom. But this little section is not narrative and it is not prose; it is poetry written in the characteristic style of Hebrew poetry, and gives every evidence of being a kind of triumph song in highly rhetorical terms inserted at this point to give maximum effect to what it has to say. The passage consists of nine couplets, the typical form of Old Testament poetry, arranged in sets of three each. Couplets 1 to 3 tell of the smitten Shepherd and the consequent scattered flock, of whom two parts die and a remnant is left. Couplets 4 to 6 describe God’s care for the "remnant" which is saved out of that scattering, and couplets 7 to 9 sing of the further purifying of that remnant by the elimination of a further part proved unworthy so that a fully tried and tested nucleus remains to experience deliverance. Thus understood, the passage stands in the following fashion.

  1. Awake, O sword, against my shepherd;
    And against the man that is my fellow.
  2. Smite the shepherd, and the sheep shall be scattered;
    And I will turn mine hand upon the little ones.
  3. And it shall come to pass, that in all the land, two parts therein shall be cut off and die;
    But the third shall be left therein.
                  * * * *
  4. And I will bring the third part through the fires;
    And I will refine them as silver is refined, and will try them as gold is tried.
  5. They shall call on my name;
    And I will hear them.
  6. 6. I will say, it is my people;
    And they shall say. the LORD is my God.
                  * * * *
  7. Behold, the day of the LORD cometh;
    And thy spoil shall be divided in the midst of thee.
  8. For I will gather all nations against Jerusalem to battle;
    And the city shall be taken, and the houses rifled, and the women ravished.
  9. And half of the city shall go forth into captivity;
    But the residue of the people shall not be cut off from the city.

Now if this is recognised as a "theme song" then its theme is clearly that the rejection of God’s Shepherd has become a means whereby the apostates are separated from the faithful, the dross from the pure metal, until only the truehearted "remnant" remain in the land of God’s choosing and face the massed evil of the world in complete faith that God will deliver. Perhaps this is why the "song" is inserted at this point, between the account in chapters 12 and 13 of the preparation of the land and nation for the final battle, and the stirring picture in chapter 14 in which the kingdoms of this world pass away and the Lord becomes King over the whole earth. If this is so it becomes easier to accept the language of this song as covering, in a poetic fashion, the entire story of apostasy and faith from the First to the Second Advents, so that Jesus could logically apply ch.13:7 to himself in his earthly life, when the rejection began, and yet prophetically Zechariah could see that rejection still persisting at the time of his coming again, when, as Jesus predicted, there would still be a lack of faith in the earth. At the same time the rapid development of the "remnant" which is to face the final challenge becomes a very real and present part of the picture.

Who are the sheep that are scattered and what is meant by God turning his hand "upon the little ones". In chap.11 the sheep are the whole house of Israel and they are abandoned to dispersal and death because of their rejection of the Shepherd. That was fulfilled in full measure at the First Advent. This later picture might well extend the same theme to the whole of the Age with particular relevance to the Age’s end. Throughout the Age, the sword has been smiting the Shepherd and the sheep have been scattered, for Israel has been continually "abiding in unbelief" (Rom.11:23). And if the whole history of Israel’s rejection of Messiah is looked at from the viewpoint of the resultant situation at the end of the Age a solution to the problem of the two parts that are cut off and die presents itself. Out of Israel there have always been, and are still, those who remain in the lands of their dispersion, in every part of the world, by choice, having no faith in the promises of God and no intention of taking any part in the rebuilding of the Land of Promise. These constitute one part. Then there are those who do settle and live in the Land, sharing in the creation of that State and people, but either do so from a purely nationalistic motive or, if they start out on the basis of faith in the Divine promise, later repudiate that faith and revert to the standards and expectations of this present world. These form the second part. One part still in the Dispersion, and one part within the frontiers of Israel, but both parts have rejected the Shepherd and both parts, so far as inclusion in the Divine purpose is concerned, are "cut off and die". Like their forerunners in the days of Jesus, they see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, and all the prophets, sit down in the Kingdom of God, whilst they themselves are thrust out (Luke 13:28).

There remains the "third part" which is left therein. This third part would seem to be identical with the "little ones" of verse 7. The Shepherd is smitten and the sheep scattered but, says God, "I will turn mine hand upon the little ones". The "little ones" are, literally, those who are esteemed mean, despised, small in others’ view. This can well fit the few who retain their faith in God. The expression "turn mine hand upon" is not so easy to interpret. "Upon" is a word having a negative power, most frequently used in the sense of forbidding or being against a thing, and would be more accurately rendered "against the little ones" which is how the RSV and a number of other modern translations render it. In fact the same word is rendered "against" twice in this same 7th verse. The Septuagint uses the Greek epi to translate the Hebrew word all three times in this verse, and epi has the sense of being on, upon or over the subject. It might be then that the hand of God is "over" or "upon" the little ones in the sense of protection and this is the view usually taken of this verse. Since however the "third part" is later said to be brought into the fires of testing it might be in this sense that God turns his hand "against" them. Zephaniah, speaking of this same "third part" in the same prophetic setting, says that God will "leave in the midst of thee an afflicted and poor people, and they shall trust in the name of the LORD." (Zeph.3:12) It may be therefore that the expression is intended to indicate that from the onlooker’s point of view the Lord, having allowed His Shepherd to be smitten and the sheep scattered, has indeed turned His hand against His little ones, although from the long term angle it is clear that He is dealing with them, to use Malachi’s expression, as a refiner and purifier of silver.

This is where the second stanza of the poem comes before notice. "I will bring the third part through the fires, and will refine them as silver is refined, and will try them as gold is tried. They shall call on my name and I will hear them. I will say, it is my people; and they shall say, the Lord is my God." This refined and purified and tested people is, of course, the Remnant, the stalwart nation of faith which will experience the Deliverance. The time can only be the end of the Age and the eleventh hour of the End at that, for at no other time in history will such a national faith in God, and such a consequent Divine acceptance, be true. Despite the smiting of the Shepherd which has subsisted throughout the Age, and the falling away of so many, God has at last completed the formation of His earthly elect. Ready for their glorious destiny they stand in their places in the land they have made ready, waiting.

So to the third stanza which appears in the A.V. as the first two verses of chapter 14. Were this poem set to music, here most certainly would come the fanfare of trumpets. "Behold, the day of the LORD cometh, and thy spoil shall be divided in the midst of thee." The time has come, the time of Israel’s victory, and nothing can now hold back the march of events already irrevocably ordained in the Divine timetable. The powers of Heaven and earth are drawn up in martial array and they face each other, waiting.

A failure to understand aright the nature of this prophetic picture of the attack upon Jerusalem leads some to see in this expression the division, among the attackers, of spoil taken from Israel at this time. The idea of such proceeding is not consistent with the basic principle that this is the time, not of Israel’s defeat, but of Israel’s victory. Neither does the text read that way. "Thy spoil" means Israel’s spoil. Had it been otherwise the passage would read "Their spoil shall be divided..." The point here is that despite the overwhelming physical superiority of the enemy and their proud boast that they have come "to take a spoil, and to take a prey" (see Ezek.38:12‑13) it will be the devoted people in the city who will take spoil of their attackers, as Ezekiel again says in 39:10 "They shall spoil those that spoiled them". And the nature of that "spoil" is well described by Isaiah; it will be no less than the allegiance and devotion of the erstwhile godless nations to the standard of righteousness which will be unfurled by the Holy Nation in that day, "spoil" more valuable to the people of God by far than treasure of gold or silver or possessions or lands. "The nations shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising...the wealth of the nations shall come unto thee...the sons of strangers shall build up thy walls, and their kings shall minister unto thee...ye shall eat the riches of the nations, and in their glory shall ye boast yourselves...and the nations shall see thy righteousness, and all kings thy glory...thou shalt be a crown of glory in the hand of the LORD, and a royal diadem in the hand of thy God" (Isa.60‑62 RV&AV)

The forces of the Lord in that day will have no need of earthly treasures for their spoil; their God already owns "all the gold and silver, and the cattle upon a thousand hills". (Hag.2:8 & Psa.50:10) The spoil they look for and will take is something much more precious, the hearts and minds and the lives of men, and this it is that will be yielded to them at that historic period of human history.

But first there has to come the peak, the crucial phase, of the refining fire that is to winnow all that is dross from the community of Israel. Chap.14 verse 2 presents what is to all appearances a strange and unexpected anti‑climax. At that momentous hour when God moves in, as it were, to intervene and deliver, the prophet sees the city "taken", the houses rifled, the women ravished, and half of the inhabitants driven into exile. Nowhere else in all the many Old Testament foreviews of this dramatic time is such an eventuality pictured; in every other instance the attacking forces come immediately up against the irresistible powers of Heaven and are utterly broken. Here in Zechariah the very next verse presents the same theme, and shows the all‑powerful Lord advancing to the battle. What then is the significance of this strange diversion, introducing itself as it were at the last minute of the eleventh hour?

It must be remembered that we are still hearing the strains of the "triumph song" which closes with this verse 2. To a great extent the language used reflects past occasions of triumph and rejoicing in Israel’s history, and the nature of the coming event is described in terms reminiscent of past similar happenings in Israel’s history. The man of Israel, hearing or reading the words, was expected to cast his mind back to the former event and visualise the predicted reality within the general background of that event. In this case there is not much doubt that the background is that of Sennacherib’s defeat outside Jerusalem in the days of Hezekiah. In both cases the enemy surrounds Jerusalem in confidence that he will capture the city with ease; he openly defies God, God answers the challenge, and he is defeated and expelled from the land—Jerusalem is saved. In both cases that salvation is in consequence of faith and reliance upon God. Hence to understand this verse it is necessary to compare it with the things that happened in the days of Hezekiah. There is an abundance of material upon which to draw, for the record of that celebrated event, the defeat of Sennacherib, is repeated no less than four times in the Old Testament, in 2 Kings 18‑19:2 Chron.32, Isaiah 21‑22 and Isaiah 37, with another "triumph song" extolling the victory in Isaiah 33. As if all this were not enough, we in our day have the additional advantage of Sennacherib’s own account of the campaign, inscribed on a six‑sided cylinder which is at present in the British Museum, and another which is held by the University of Chicago. From all of this the aptness of this incident from history to illustrate the deliverance of Israel at the end of this Age is very marked.

"The city shall be taken" says the A.V. "Taken" is asaph, to gather or encompass, as in a net. Hosea 4:3 uses the word of fishes of the sea thus taken, and the meaning here is that the city is surrounded or besieged, but not captured in the sense of a forcible entry being effected. Incidentally the same word is used for "gather" in the same verse where God says He will gather all nations against Jerusalem; the enemy encompasses the city but God encompasses the enemy! It is rather remarkable that Sennacherib uses the same term in his account. "Hezekiah himself, like a bird in a cage, I shut up within Jerusalem, his royal city." And of course Sennacherib, despite his boasting, never did get inside the city! From this picture it would seem justifiable to conclude that in a poetic manner Zechariah is saying what all the other prophets do say, that the enemy will surround the Holy Land but not actually capture it; the intervention of God will come first as it did in the case of Sennacherib.

Now Zechariah expands his theme. "The houses (shall be) rifled, and the women ravished" he says. This at first sight would seem to contradict the inviolability of the city. Again the historical precedent can be a guide to the meaning. According to the account in 2 Kings there was a period immediately before the great deliverance when faith on the part of Hezekiah and his people was not as strong as it should have been and they yielded to the Assyrian demands for treasure and tribute. The cylinder of Sennacherib gives a more complete list of the booty the invader took from Hezekiah at this time. "Thirty talents of gold, eight hundred talents of silver, precious stones of all kinds, pearls, thrones adorned with ivory, tusks of ivory, sandal wood, ebony, the contents of Hezekiah’s treasure house, his daughters, the women of his palace, and his male and female slaves."

All these did the Assyrian take and send to Nineveh, the treasure for the adornment of his city and the women for the rest of their lives to be at the mercy of their captors. Not only so, but during the actual siege some there were who left the city trusting to the Assyrians rather than in God, and these too were captured and sent also to Nineveh. "I threw up mounds against him" goes on the remorseless conqueror "and I took vengeance upon any man who came forth from the city. All who came outside the great gate of the city were captured and led off." That there were a number of such among the leaders of Israel is recorded by Isaiah 22:3 which is an account of this siege. "All your rulers have fled together, without the bow they were captured. All of you who were found were captured though they had fled far away." (RSV) So that when Zechariah declares that the houses are rifled, the women ravished, half of the city go forth into exile, he is telling us that just as in the days of Sennacherib there was an element of unbelief which led to the loss, all part in the coming deliverance for some of the people, so will it be now. After all the purging fires of the Age which has resulted in a dedicated people awaiting in a dedicated land the onslaught of the enemy, there will be at the last moment a portion whose faith does not hold and who in consequence are abandoned to the powers of this world. The particular details given by Zechariah are symbols only, drawn from the story of Sennacherib. The reality is that, for the last time, unbelief is found in Israel, and because deliverance can only come by faith and God is now waiting to deliver, the unbelievers go forth into exile.

Isaiah seems to have had a keen insight into this position. The language he uses in Isa.33:14‑15 although primarily directed to the unbelievers who left the city in Hezekiah’s day, is even more cogently applicable to the similar situation at the end of the Age. "The sinners in Zion are afraid; fearfulness hath surprised the hypocrites" he says, and poses their terrified questions "who among us shall dwell with the devouring fire? Who among us shall dwell with everlasting burnings?" The prophet gives the obvious answer; "He that walketh righteously..." and so on, but from other prophetic writings it is evident that he is not heeded. When Amos comes to speak of the same great Day he says "All the sinners of my people shall die by the sword, which say, The evil shall not overtake us" (Amos 9:10) and then immediately the Lord proceeds to "raise up the tabernacle of David, which is fallen" i.e. introduce the opening stage of the Millennial Kingdom.

But "the residue of the people shall not be cut off from the city." That is the concluding triumphant line of this victory song. This word "residue" is the one so often rendered "remnant" in reference to the people of faith found ready for the Divine purpose at the end. And here Zechariah concludes his poem and prepares to draw aside the curtain to reveal the last great act in this wonderful drama. The enemy is in position around the Holy Land, all unbelievers and idolaters have been excluded from within its borders, the "remnant" is fully prepared and strong in faith. All things are now ready.

"Then shall the LORD go forth, and fight against those nations as when he fought in the day of battle." (Zech.14:3)

(To be continued)