The Clarity of Hope
Let me begin with a confession: Zechariah is a frustrating book to me. It’s frustrating because I’m the sort of person who loves harmony, unity, and order. What’s more, I love intricate webs of meaning. I love books like The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia. I love television shows like LOST. I love the sense of being able to stand in the middle of a seemingly random collection of images and to discover with excitement that it’s not random at all. As Lewis once said, “Everything appears planless, though all is planned.” That sense of intricacy and elegance, of a web of connections between disparate items, that balance of unity and diversity—that has a profound effect on me. When a book or show or painting promises depth and intricacy of meaning and then delivers, I get moved. I don’t even have to see everything. Part of the joy is when you get glimpses of connection that promise more to come. The hooks that we seize upon help to keep us going. And when the hooks don’t come, we get frustrated. When the promise of resolution and intricacy fails, we get disappointed. Or at least I do.
That’s why Zechariah is frustrating to me. I find it difficult to identify the overall unity of the book. We have visions of horses patrolling the earth, four horns scattering Judah, Satan accusing a high priest, stones with seven eyes, a flying scroll, a woman in a basket, all in the midst of discussions of key dates and condemnations of wicked shepherds and crowns and fasting in particular months and promises of glorious prosperity. I read the book and, to be honest, I feel lost in a maze. I know that it’s not random. But try as I might the unity, the elegance, the harmony eludes me. And so it’s frustrating.
I thought it helpful to begin with that admission, and then to describe how I deal with it. Because I suspect that I’m not the only one who finds himself confused in a book like Zechariah, or Daniel, or Revelation, or any of the Prophets, or large portions of the Bible. All of us, to one degree or another, know that feeling of lostness when reading the Scriptures. We’re reading and reading and we just don’t know what to do with this passage or this chapter or this book. Every now and then we see something in theme that at least seems to make sense to us, like when Zechariah 9 describes the king riding on donkey. We know that’s about Jesus (because the New Testament tells us so), but we want more than that. We want to know how it fits in its own place in the book and how the book itself helps us to see more of God and Christ and ourselves and our world.
So here’s how I deal with that feeling of lostness and confusion and frustration. First, I assume that the problem is me, and not the Bible. When the ending of LOST disappointed me, I felt somewhat justified in criticizing the makers of the show. I felt like they had promised more than they had delivered. Perhaps I failed to notice certain things in the show, but I also think there was a real failure to tie up the loose threads. When it comes to the Bible, that’s not the case. My conviction is that there is a deep integrity and unity and harmony in the Bible, and the fact that I can’t see it in a particular verse means there is a defect in me, not the Bible. And it’s important to stress that point, since many people read the Bible and get confused or identify apparent discrepancies and conclude that the problem is in the Bible. Lay people do it. Biblical scholars do it. And to be honest, I think that’s lazy.
So if the problem is in me, what do I suppose the problem is? It could be many things. It could be sin. My ability to read and understand the meaning might be clouded by unbelief and disobedience. But set aside that problem for a moment. In the case of Zechariah, I think the problem is that I just don’t know the rest of my Bible well enough. I’m not familiar enough with the rest of Scriptures and therefore aspects of Zechariah elude me. Scripture is clear to those who know it. For example, Zechariah talks a lot about feasts and fasts (fasting in the fourth and fifth month; the Feast of Booths). If I better understood Israel’s calendar, Zechariah might make more sense. The high priest Joshua is prominent in the book. If I understood the book of Leviticus better, those sections might make a lot more sense. Zechariah is dealing with the events following the exile of Judah. If I understood the visions in the book of Daniel which deal with this time period, these visions in Zechariah might make more sense. If I understood the Torah better (Genesis to Deuteronomy), I think the former prophets might make more sense. And if they made more sense, Zechariah might make more sense. For example, Zechariah 1:12 refers to God’s judgment on Jerusalem for these 70 years. Now I know that that’s a reference to Jeremiah 29 and Daniel 9. If I understood those passages, this whole book might come alive in new ways. Even a fuller knowledge of Zechariah itself might help. For example, both chapter 1 and chapter 6 describe horses patrolling the earth. That seems significant. Is there a connection? What kind of connection? Would repeated readings yield knowledge of the hidden pathways in the book?
So if the problem isn’t the Bible, but my ignorance of the Bible, then the solution is for me to humble myself and to saturate myself in the Scriptures. To read and re-read and re-read the Bible so that it’s in me, so that its patterns and rhythms shape my mind and makes them alert to echoes and structures and meaning in the confusing places. So that means I need to devote time and attention to reading and thinking and meditating on Genesis and Leviticus and Isaiah and 1-2 Kings and Jeremiah and Daniel. And if that sounds like it might take a while, you’re right. Maybe in 30 years I’ll be able to “get” Zechariah. And it’ll be worth it.
But I have to preach today. What about right now? In the meantime, I want to try and make progress. To that end, I want to give some background that I think might be relevant to the book, and then try to describe how that background might help us make sense of a few features of Zechariah.
First, Zechariah is writing at the same time as Haggai, and he’s focused on the same thing: the rebuilding of the temple. The people have returned to the land and they’ve been slacking. They’ve not restored God’s house. And so Haggai and Zechariah tell them to get a move on. We’ve already seen that theme in the Scripture reading. Here are others:
Therefore, thus says the LORD, I have returned to Jerusalem with mercy; my house shall be built in it, declares the LORD of hosts, and the measuring line shall be stretched out over Jerusalem. (Zechariah 1:16 ESV)
Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion, for behold, I come and I will dwell in your midst, declares the LORD...And I will dwell in your midst, and you shall know that the LORD of hosts has sent me to you. (Zechariah 2:10-11 ESV)
Thus says the LORD of hosts: “Let your hands be strong, you who in these days have been hearing these words from the mouth of the prophets who were present on the day that the foundation of the house of the LORD of hosts was laid, that the temple might be built. (Zechariah 8:9 ESV)
Second, we see some of the same figures as we saw in Haggai: Zerubbabel the Governor of Judah (4:6-10), Joshua the High Priest (Ch. 3; 6), and now a different prophet (Zechariah, not Haggai). Let me explain a little more about these offices. In one sense, the Bible is a story of divisions and separations. In Genesis 12, Abraham is called out from the nations, and we have a separation that pervades the Old Testament (Jew vs. Gentile). Then Isaac is separated out from Ishmael. Then Jacob from Esau. Then Jacob is further divided into 12 tribes. In Exodus, one of those tribes is separated out as the priestly tribe (Levi). In 1 Samuel, we see the fulfillment of a promise, and the tribe of Judah is separated out as the royal tribe. And that separation, between the priests and the kings, is really important to God, so much so that in 2 Chronicles 26, King Uzziah enters the temple to burn incense and God strikes him with leprosy because, “It is not for you, Uzziah, to burn incense to the LORD, but for the priests, the sons of Aaron, who are consecrated to burn incense” (26:18). So there’s a divinely-ordered separation between priests and kings.
What, then about the prophets? Prophets are the enforcers of God’s covenant. They often enter the picture when the priests and the kings have grown corrupt. They are outsiders who bring the word of God to the religious and political establishment. Thus, Samuel condemns the wicked sons of Eli the priest. The prophet Nathan confronts David when he sins. The prophet Elijah is a thorn in the side of King Ahab who has hired priests of Baal. And the same could be side for all of the prophets. When the priestly and kingly shepherds grow wicked, look out for the prophets. We see this prominently in Zechariah.
And the word of the LORD came to Zechariah, saying, “Thus says the LORD of hosts, Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.” But they refused to pay attention and turned a stubborn shoulder and stopped their ears that they might not hear. They made their hearts diamond-hard lest they should hear the law and the words that the LORD of hosts had sent by his Spirit through the former prophets. Therefore great anger came from the LORD of hosts. (Zechariah 7:8-12 ESV)
Therefore the people wander like sheep; they are afflicted for lack of a shepherd. “My anger is hot against the shepherds, and I will punish the leaders;” (Zechariah 10:2-3)
Third, we need to remember the big gap that exists between expectation and reality. God has made amazing promises to Israel, but things are not looking good. Pastor Jonathan highlighted this gap with respect to the rebuilding of the temple. God commands them to rebuild, and when they do, it’s pathetic. The old men, who had seen Solomon’s temple, weep when they see the new one. Solomon’s temple was like a palace; the new one was a shack by comparison. Or think about the promises of God in relation to the Promised Land. He promised Abraham the land of Canaan. He brought the people into the land and established the kingdom, centered in Jerusalem, under a son of David, with God’s presence dwelling in the temple. But now, in Zechariah’s day, the Jews are scattered all over the world. And the ones that are in the land aren’t ruled by a Davidic king. Zerubabbel is a governor; Darius the Persian is the king. Jerusalem is in shambles. So instead of the people of God gathered in the land of God with the presence of God in the city of God under the king of God, we’ve got scattering, a governor, a pathetic house, and a city in shambles. Zechariah too mentions this massive gap between expectation and reality:
Then the angel of the LORD said, ‘O LORD of hosts, how long will you have no mercy on Jerusalem and the cities of Judah, against which you have been angry these seventy years?’ (Zechariah 1:12 ESV)
“As I called, and they would not hear, so they called, and I would not hear,” says the LORD of hosts, “and I scattered them with a whirlwind among all the nations that they had not known. Thus the land they left was desolate, so that no one went to and fro, and the pleasant land was made desolate.” (Zechariah 7:13-14 ESV)
What’s the point of this background? The point is that in Zechariah’s day, it looks like things are winding down. The people are sinful and scattered. Jerusalem is broken down. The new temple is pathetic. The shepherds of Israel are corrupt and wicked. All of God’s plans appear to be petering out, fragmenting into a thousand tiny pieces, and blowing away in the wind.
Into this bleak, frustrating, and fragmented situation, Zechariah prophesies. And what does he say? Let me highlight three obvious things, and then show you a twist on the story.
First, Zechariah prophesies the ingathering of the scattered Jews. What God had scattered because of sin, he will now gather back up.
“I will whistle for them and gather them in, for I have redeemed them, and they shall be as many as they were before. Though I scattered them among the nations, yet in far countries they shall remember me, and with their children they shall live and return. I will bring them home from the land of Egypt, and gather them from Assyria, and I will bring them to the land of Gilead and to Lebanon, till there is no room for them. He shall pass through the sea of troubles and strike down the waves of the sea, and all the depths of the Nile shall be dried up. The pride of Assyria shall be laid low, and the scepter of Egypt shall depart. I will make them strong in the LORD, and they shall walk in his name,” declares the LORD. (Zechariah 10:8-12 ESV)
Second, God will remove the sin and uncleanness of the priests.
Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the LORD, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him. And the LORD said to Satan, “The LORD rebuke you, O Satan! The LORD who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is not this a brand plucked from the fire?” Now Joshua was standing before the angel, clothed with filthy garments. And the angel said to those who were standing before him, “Remove the filthy garments from him.” And to him he said, “Behold, I have taken your iniquity away from you, and I will clothe you with pure vestments.” And I said, “Let them put a clean turban on his head.” So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him with garments. And the angel of the LORD was standing by. (Zechariah 3:1-5 ESV)
Third, God will restore Jerusalem and rebuild his temple gloriously. In response to the angel’s question (“How long will you be angry at Jerusalem?”), God says, “I am exceedingly jealous for Jerusalem and for Zion… I have returned to Jerusalem with mercy; my house shall be built in it…My cities shall again overflow with prosperity, and the LORD will again comfort Zion and again choose Jerusalem’” (Zechariah 1:14-17). Later he says, “And the LORD will inherit Judah as his portion in the holy land, and will again choose Jerusalem” (Zechariah 2:12). And then, the glorious picture of Jerusalem’s prosperity in Zechariah 8.
The Coming Peace and Prosperity of Zion And the word of the LORD of hosts came, saying, “Thus says the LORD of hosts: I am jealous for Zion with great jealousy, and I am jealous for her with great wrath. Thus says the LORD: I have returned to Zion and will dwell in the midst of Jerusalem, and Jerusalem shall be called the faithful city, and the mountain of the LORD of hosts, the holy mountain. Thus says the LORD of hosts: Old men and old women shall again sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand because of great age. And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets. Thus says the LORD of hosts: If it is marvelous in the sight of the remnant of this people in those days, should it also be marvelous in my sight, declares the LORD of hosts? Thus says the LORD of hosts: Behold, I will save my people from the east country and from the west country, and I will bring them to dwell in the midst of Jerusalem. And they shall be my people, and I will be their God, in faithfulness and in righteousness.” (Zechariah 8:1-8 ESV)
And what about that pathetic shack of a temple? God will make it great.
Then the word of the LORD came to me, saying, “The hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundation of this house; his hands shall also complete it. Then you will know that the LORD of hosts has sent me to you. For whoever has despised the day of small things shall rejoice, and shall see the plumb line in the hand of Zerubbabel. (Zechariah 4:8-10)
There you have it. The people are scattered? God is going to gather them back in. The priests are full of sin and wickedness? God will take away their iniquity and make them clean. Jerusalem is in ruins and the temple is pathetic? God will restore both and dwell again in the midst of his people.
Now I mentioned a surprise, a twist in the story, and it’s twofold: Who will rebuild the temple? And what is Jerusalem?
Zechariah 4 says that Zerubabbel, the governor of Judah, will rebuild it. But Zechariah 6 said something else:
Take from them silver and gold, and make a crown, and set it on the head of Joshua, the son of Jehozadak, the high priest. And say to him, ‘Thus says the LORD of hosts, “Behold, the man whose name is the Branch: for he shall branch out from his place, and he shall build the temple of the LORD. It is he who shall build the temple of the LORD and shall bear royal honor, and shall sit and rule on his throne. And there shall be a priest on his throne, and the counsel of peace shall be between them both.”’ (Zechariah 6:11-13 ESV)
Now this is truly something new. A crown on the high priest? A high priest on the throne? This is a mixing of what shouldn’t be mixed. God had sharply separated priest and king, and then here, it’s like a bolt of lightning flashes between them. And what is the meaning of “the Branch,” the one who builds the temple of the Lord and bears royal honor? This is where a knowledge of Scripture can help us. Listen to Jeremiah 23.
“Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” declares the LORD. Therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who care for my people: “You have scattered my flock and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. Behold, I will attend to you for your evil deeds, declares the LORD. Then I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will set shepherds over them who will care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be missing, declares the LORD. “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The LORD is our righteousness.’ (Jeremiah 23:1-6 ESV)
A Righteous Branch, from the house of David, who reigns as king. But Joshua is a priest, a Levite, now with a crown on his head. What can this mean? Back to Zechariah 3.
Hear now, O Joshua the high priest, you and your friends who sit before you, for they are men who are a sign: behold, I will bring my servant the Branch. (Zechariah 3:8 ESV)
Joshua and the other priests are a sign. The priest with the crown represents something else: God’s servant, the Branch. Pulling these together, we see that the Branch is a son of David, from the tribe of Judah. But he’s also a priest like Joshua. He’s something new in the Bible (though there are anticipations: Melchizedek, David, Solomon): a royal priest, a priest-king. In other words, here we have the rumblings of what God will do in Jesus, the royal son of David, who is also our Great High Priest. And he’s the one who will build the temple.
But what does that mean? That brings us to the second surprise: the meaning of Jerusalem. No doubt the immediate concern in Zechariah is the rebuilding of the city of Jerusalem in Israel. But here too we see rumblings, lightning flashes that indicate something more. In Zechariah 2:4, we have a vision of a man measuring Jerusalem, and what the angels say in response is strange.
And I lifted my eyes and saw, and behold, a man with a measuring line in his hand! Then I said, “Where are you going?” And he said to me, “To measure Jerusalem, to see what is its width and what is its length.” And behold, the angel who talked with me came forward, and another angel came forward to meet him and said to him, “Run, say to that young man, ‘Jerusalem shall be inhabited as villages without walls, because of the multitude of people and livestock in it. And I will be to her a wall of fire all around, declares the LORD, and I will be the glory in her midst.’” (Zechariah 2:1-5 ESV)
“Jerusalem without walls,” literally, “Jerusalem without borders, filled with multitudes, with God as the glory in her midst. The rebuilt city of Jerusalem had walls. What is Zechariah seeing? Look down in 2:11.
Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion, for behold, I come and I will dwell in your midst, declares the LORD. And many nations shall join themselves to the LORD in that day, and shall be my people. And I will dwell in your midst, and you shall know that the LORD of hosts has sent me to you. And the LORD will inherit Judah as his portion in the holy land, and will again choose Jerusalem.” (Zechariah 2:10-12 ESV)
This is something new: a Jerusalem without borders. A Jerusalem of many nations. We see the same thing in the passage about the prosperity of Jerusalem in Zechariah 8.
“Thus says the LORD of hosts: Peoples shall yet come, even the inhabitants of many cities. The inhabitants of one city shall go to another, saying, ‘Let us go at once to entreat the favor of the LORD and to seek the LORD of hosts; I myself am going.’ Many peoples and strong nations shall come to seek the LORD of hosts in Jerusalem and to entreat the favor of the LORD. Thus says the LORD of hosts: In those days ten men from the nations of every tongue shall take hold of the robe of a Jew, saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.’” (Zechariah 8:20-23 ESV)
Again, nations and peoples of every tongue flocking to Jerusalem to seek the Lord of hosts. A Jerusalem without borders. What does this mean? It means that when Jesus, the Branch, the son of David, the priest-king came, he began building a different city, a different kind of temple. He’s building a temple made out of people, made of living stones.
So what can we say? We still don’t know a lot. Zechariah is still confusing. I didn’t say anything about the stones with seven eyes or the woman in the basket or the horses patrolling the earth. But amidst the confusion and scattered beams of Zechariah’s vision, we hear rumblings. We see lightning flashing between the scattered fragments of the book. A priest with a crown. A Branch who will reign. A king on a donkey. A shepherd who is struck and pierced. A Jerusalem without borders, made up of people from all nations. And in the end a promise:
On that day living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem, half of them to the eastern sea and half of them to the western sea. It shall continue in summer as in winter. And the LORD will be king over all the earth. On that day the LORD will be one and his name one. (Zechariah 14:8-9 ESV)
There’s another thing that happens on that day. According to Zechariah 9:16-17:
On that day the LORD their God will save them, as the flock of his people; for like the jewels of a crown they shall shine on his land. For how great is his goodness, and how great his beauty! Grain shall make the young men flourish, and new wine the young women. (Zechariah 9:16-17 ESV)
God will save. He will be the true shepherd for his people, and he will make us shine like jewels in his royal crown with his goodness and his beauty. When will this be? On what day? This day. Here is the grain to make you flourish. Here is the wine to make you shine. Here is Christ, the priest-king, inviting you to eat within the walls of the Heavenly City, the Jerusalem without borders. Come, and welcome to Jesus Christ.