Walls are not necessarily a bad thing. They provide defense, privacy, definition – they give distinction so that the city stands out from the rest of the world. We all have cultural walls that circumscribe our paradigms. Often, these culturally conditioned, deeply entrenched norms must be torn down if the kingdom of God is truly going to be established in our hearts, minds and lives.
More than any other means, it is the process of exile that God uses to tear down those norms and rebuild our lives to reflect an entirely new image – that of Christ.
In Jeremiah 48, the prophet uses the ancient art of wine-making to illustrate God’s purging process. The pouring in new skins describes the uncomfortable process of exile. In the transitional state, for a moment, there is no wineskin. The wine is suspended between two skins while it is being poured. Once the filtered wine has entered the new wineskin there is a crisis of reorientation – getting acquainted with the new situation.
This crisis of reorientation is at the heart of Zechariah’s visions in chapters 1-6. The prophet was being taught by God concerning a redefinition of Israel’s identity. Two generations after her city and temple walls had been mercilessly torn down, and her inhabitants suffered the indignity of displacement. It was a crisis of reorientation – a preparation for a new paradigm.
The visions of Zechariah are post-exilic. They deal with the rebuilding process that must begin when the crisis of loss is behind and the crisis of reorientation is on the horizon. The crisis brings with it new challenges, insecurities, threats, and temptations to be sure; but also new possibilities. The most dangerous challenge of all is the temptation to assume that what was lost must be rebuilt, while God desires that the new orientation be embraced.
God had taken Zechariah on a journey of images that described the redemptive process of a purposeful God; one who is always actively present among his people, moving them forward and fulfilling his purpose in the world.
The prophetic (image-driven, poetic) style of the Bible is entirely foreign to the cold, liturgical and systematic mindset of the modern, western world. Unfortunately, we often desperately attempt to interpret these things by either literalizing or by imposing modern categories of thought upon them that the writer could never have imagined. Thus we misinterpret the meaning altogether.
The problem is a problem of distance: we are separated from the world of the text by time, culture, geography and language. Yet, we must attempt to place ourselves into the world of the text in order to begin the process of interpretation and re-application (recontextualization) to the world of the reader. Israelite law, temple and culture are the primary essentials of the worldview of biblical authors.
It is suggested here that the over-arching message of these visions of Zechariah 1-6 may be summed up in two words: redefinition and enlargement.
This redefinition was intended to impact Israel’s presence, form, identity, and role in God’s redemptive plan. Rather than the exile annihilating forever the identity of the nation, God intended only that it crush the arrogance and private exclusivity of the former city, and give birth to a new and inclusive universality that would become a presence throughout the civilized world.
What God revealed to Zechariah speaks of a people coming out of the ashes of displacement, redefined and enlarged, who would bring the knowledge of Yahweh to the nations, preparing them, yet unbeknown to them then, for the coming of Jesus.
Background and Literary Structure
The message of Zechariah’s prologue is “Return to me” says the Lord, “that I may return to you”.
Israel was “born” 1500 years before the time of Zechariah.
Covenant with Abraham, then Isaac and Jacob
Exile and exodus from Egypt – Moses – Twelve tribes representing the twelve sons of Jacob.
40 years of testing in wilderness
Joshua led them into Canaan, where God established a tribal league (federation) – a system of government by elders representing each of the twelve tribes. YHWH was their only king. There was no central political machinery, royal privilege or organized military.
This was to be a testimony to the nations of how a human community can thrive under the government of their creator. This was to be a center of perpetual priestly worship in the temple and a social expression of God’s heavenly kingdom on earth through holy living, civic justice, order and harmony under his covenant.
Israel were disobedient and went through many cycles of disobedience and deliverance.
Because of fear of the growing military might of the Philistines, and the fact that the sons of the prophet Samuel (the last judge in Israel) were blatantly disobedient to YHWH, and because they assumed that the succession of leadership would be through bloodline instead of divine choice, Israel demanded a king.
God gave them what they wanted, although it was clearly never what he intended (His intention was that, in the fulness of time, the one true King, the Messiah, Jesus, would rule over His people).
This was a movement away from the prophetic consciousness to a royal consciousness and it resulted in numerous undesirable outcomes. Direct kingship of God was replaced by a system with an Israelite king.
Israel had grown weary of a God who was not predictable and therefore were prepared to embrace a system which could reduce him to (or replace him with) a collection of theological absolutes, turning proverbial wisdom into a predictable system of cause-and-effect.
This resulted in the domestication of God. There were no limits to the amount of power concentrated in any one human leader. This ensured the corruption of Israel’s principle leaders.
The priesthood – who represented the transcendent otherness and holiness of God – no longer stood as a balancing tension adjacent to the state. They were now relegated to a subservient role entirely in support of the state’s objectives.
The state, not God, became the absolute and the ensurer of the well-being of the nation.
God warned Israel (through Samuel) that a human king would would personally and financially oppress the people. Those warnings would hold true for the remaining 500 years of their history until they were exiled to Babylon.
Israel chose what paralleled the pagan nations – nationalistic pride, consumption, self-preservation, and a “god” who existed to serve human interests – especially those of the state. This is the image of the beast which prophets would use to describe the oppressive, power-hungry pagan nations who oppressed the people of God.
Israel, as they requested, had become “like the other nations”. The seeds of death had been planted in the nation. This is why Zechariah’s visions relate to the redefinition of Israel’s national identity.
When they return to the land (out of exile) they would return, not to the monarchy, but to the simpler form of leadership by judges (Is 1:24-26)
After the death of Solomon, the nation was divided into two kingdoms; Israel (Ephraim) in the north (10 tribes) and Judah in the south (2 tribes). Both were characterized by political in-fighting, idolatry, pagan practices neglect of the law and the profaning of the temple.
God continually warned them through the prophets that they were moving toward disinheritance, but they refused to listen to true prophets and received the words of false prophets.
Assyria shattered the northern kingdom in 722 B.C.
Babylon defeated Assyria in 605 B.C.
Finally and decisively, in 586 B.C., Nebuchadnezzar leveled Jerusalem, destroyed its temple, and took God’s people into captivity.
Fifty years later, the Persian Empire defeated the Babylonians. King Cyrus decreed that the Jews were to be allowed to go back and rebuild their temple and the city of Jerusalem.
Amidst opposition from the surrounding peoples and the resulting fear, they began and then abandoned the work. Pessimism, apathy and spiritual indifference concerning the things of God gripped the entire nation.
God spoke through Haggai, and then through Zechariah, and called them back to their mission to rebuild.
There is a necessary and healthy uncertainty of God’s next move which is embedded in the prophetic consciousness. It reminds the community of faith that we serve a sovereign God of freedom who will never be domesticated or subjected to our narrow definitions. The royal consciousness seeks to do just that – reduce him to a sealed collection of questions and answers devoid of new possibilities. The present state, or system of thought, becomes absolutized under the control of its leadership. Certitudes (man-made ones) replace sovereignty; perceived security replaces godliness; sheep are viewed in an entirely utilitarian manner (how they can best serve the interests of the state/system).
Vision One: The Cedar has to Go
The first vision (after the prologue’s call to repentance) deals with cedar-myrtle tree imagery and horseman riding to monitor things on the earth.
In the former times, particularly during the monarchy, the nation of Israel, with its capital at Jerusalem, was often symbolized in the Bible as a great cedar tree. Cedars of Lebanon were large, solitary and impressive trees. Now the old paradigm, with its outward beauty had fallen and God offered a new symbol (redefinition) – the myrtle tree. While cedar represented all that was outwardly impressive, the myrtle is robust and capable of growing anywhere (as Israel was now expanding from Canaan out to the nations, carrying with them the knowledge of YHWH), and its trunks intertwine (Israel was no longer independent, but relational).
When God came looking for fruit and found none, he sent the Babylonian armies to bring down that which had not produced what he desired. A new creation was dawning – a new identity from which expansion would follow, for redefinition precedes enlargement. Judgements (other horsemen) came before the pre-incarnate Lord Jesus in the vision, to prepare the way through repentance. That which represents God to the world must bear his image and not that of an earthly counterfeit.
Although the nations were at peace, God was not pleased. When God’s throne is established among his people, the nations roar in defiance against the restraints of wickedness. We are not looking for peace, but for the kingdom of God among men.
A redefined and enlarged people of God are capable of relationships and growth in any setting they find themselves in. They are capable of growth inasmuch as redefinition preceded enlargement, and God is able to use them in places not possible before.
** Note: sometimes we misinterpret what God has promised, and when unreal expectations are shattered, we don’t question whether the expectations were faulty; we question God who did not fulfill them.
** Flourishing anywhere includes flourishing as we take the gospel to the poor.
Vision Two: An Army of Builders
Four symbolizes something total, universal
Horns represent power, strength, kingly authority
In this vision, Israel was defeated, cast-down and humiliated being conquered by pagans. God responded by dispatching a company which would strike fear in the hearts of the enemy – but they were not warriors… they were craftsmen (builders)! Building and warfare go together (in this passage, in Jesus’ teaching and in Paul’s teaching).
We are called to build people together, nurtured, focused, unified. Building is often messy – and God oftentimes calls us to build together with those whom we would not choose.
Jesus gives gifts to the church to build the body up and mature it so that the body will in turn build itself up.
God will accomplish what no political ideology or governmental system has ever accomplished through political strategy, money, and power. He will perfect and unify a diverse remnant of the human community in Christ through the agency of His own Spirit and wisdom, and display it before the entities that rule every manner of power center in the world.
We must intentionally build bridges to one another and seek to rectify both ethnical and economic imbalances and employ (build) ministry processes that ensure that those who have been marginalized for any reason are being nurtured holistically (with respect to the whole person) in the body of Christ.
Vision Three: I Spread You Out
Zechariah’s third vision indicated that Jerusalem would not be rebuilt to the same measurements as the previous city and walls. Though it was being measured out as such, God intervened and stopped the measuring, indicating that the boundaries were obsolete and that He himself would be the walls. Consider three things:
There is a natural tendency to look back at what Jerusalem was and wrongly assume that God intends for the future to look like the past
It is the grace of God to intervene, not only for our sake, but to insure that we are embracing his vision in order to fulfill his purposes.
Once he has foiled the human undertaking, he articulates new possibilities to enlarge our thinking, offering a creative new vision for our future.
The blessing and purpose, the scope of the new would not be able to be contained in the former wineskin. God warns those Jews who are at ease in Babylon (who had grown accustomed and comfortable) that he would soon judge Babylon (through Darius) and that for their sake, and for His own glory, they had to leave.
In the vision of the four horns, the word used was scattered, yet here the word is spread out. While the nations thought they were scattering the nation of God, in reality, God had given them only temporary jurisdiction over his people in order to fulfill his purposes. The covenant people would indeed fulfill the promise that through them “all the nations of the earth shall be blessed”. As a result of the purification and exile, Jewish presence and influence would be spread out or enlarged as they planted God-fearing communities in every nation they went.
This dispersion of the nation of Israel through exile ultimately meant that synagogues were built and Jewish communities established throughout the civilized world. This was of staggering significance for the spread of the gospel by the early church several hundred years later (see Acts 13: 14,43; 17:1,4)
God is on mission – and His agent of mission is the church. When we become comfortable or dull of hearing, he must stretch us and move us out – by exile or circumstance – in order to spread us out and fulfill His purposes. Present-day Christendom is being challenged/replaced by post-modern pluralism.
Throughout the history of the church, the pattern has been evident: We stubbornly insist that what is to come must look like what has been in the past. We must re-examine how we do church and be open to God’s desire to spread us out. The actions of judgment, crisis and reorientation are those of a loving father disciplining His children in order that they might walk in holiness and singleness of purpose.
Visions Four and Five: The Sanctuary Encounter – The Centrality of the Gospel
In the fourth vision, Zechariah was allowed to see the holiest man in Israel in his true state before the holiness of God. Joshua stood hopelessly covered in the filth of the sins of the nation that had accumulated for more than a generation (as the sacrifices required by the law were not able to be made when the temple/priesthood were not in existence).
In this scene, the accuser attempts to bind God in a judicial catch 22. Under Moses, YHWH’s habitation must be built first and then the priesthood consecrated. Currently, there was no existing facility through which Joshua could be cleansed and consecrated. The reverse was also true. With no sanctified high priest, the services of a newly built temple could not be carried out. The accuser had legal ground to bind God to His law. The Lord of heaven and earth confronted and silenced the accuser with a verbal rebuke, saying that by grace alone, he had plucked Joshua out of the fire and clothed him with righteousness.
God can offer this grace because of the continued vision, where His Servant, the branch (and the stone and the eyes) – Jesus himself – would break the dominion of death and remove the sins of his people forever… in one day at the cross.
There was then a vision of a reconfigured lamp stand, seven times brighter than normal. By God’s grace and through the power of the Holy Spirit (two olive trees which continually supplied the lamps) God’s people were to be the light of the world – going forth out from the sanctuary and bringing the light of salvation to the world.
The entire sanctuary experience of Zechariah is one grand view of the transition from sin to grace:
Man stands before God covered in filth, with not a shred of righteousness in himself. It is grace alone that silences the accuser and re-clothes man with righteousness. The people of God (not pagans) needed to be reoriented to grace.
The candlestick experience illustrates what actually transpires once we have passed through the crisis of reorientation… we become the light of the world.
The grace given in Zechariah chapter 3 was given to be released in Zechariah 4. Inasmuch as we have been freely given his grace, we freely and joyfully release his grace to others.
The two olive trees that feed the lampstand may be seen as the restoration of the balance of power and testimony between the priesthood and the kingdom. The priesthood represents the liturgical aspects of the community of faith such as Bible study, worship, and the Lord’s Supper. The kingdom represents the public or social aspects of the community, such as doing good works, ensuring justice and healing for the oppressed, and feeding the poor.
Vision Six: The Flying Scroll
The visionary scenes of the prophet continued on their outbound trajectory away from the sanctuary and back to the holy city and the land. Zechariah saw a large flying scroll, thirty feet by fifteen feet, written on both sides.
The first tablet, contained the third commandment, forbidding swearing in God’s name as a duty to God and the second tablet the eighth command, forbidding theft as a duty to man. The point of the vision seems to be that behavior matters. In the kingdom realm, the realm of the saved, unholy elements remained that needed to be purged. The judicially justified people now needed to be sanctified in their practical behavior. This is because the people of God are to be an exemplary people. If the dying world is to see Jesus, they will only see him in us. The Holy Spirit who justifies us, now sanctifies us in order to manifest his heavenly kingdom through mortal flesh.
We are distinguished, not only by our “temple liturgy” but also through our collective and personal behavior outside the church walls. God is far more interested in our character than our feelings, and we must embrace the often painful purging process. The only way this sanctification comes (as is the case in justification) is by the operation of the Spirit in our lives – we are baptized in the Holy Spirit and fire.
Vision Seven: Woman in the Basket – Fill Up the Measure
The former vision dealt with purging internal hindrances from the remnant. The seventh vision deals with external hinderances. The hidden woman, the ephah and the lead weight deal with the marketplace and being honest in dealings outside the sanctuary. The marketplace is to be governed by the same law and spirit of holiness that the covenant people experienced in the sanctuary – otherwise the effect of Israel as a light to the world would be nullified.
The Shema, which declared that the LORD is one, flew in the face of the synchronistic worship of the pagans that paid homage to different gods who reigned over different domains. Also, Israel’s spring, or source, was not commercialism, but YHWH. Try as we might, we cannot serve both God and mammon.
YHWH was identifying the spirit that influenced the cultural character of the entire nation. They were not even aware of it. The spirit of Babylon is a merchandising spirit that cannot coexist with the church who desires to operate in God’s economy. Mammon is idolatry.
There is also a danger in the synchronistic blending of “God and country”, or nationalism and kingdom values. We must decide whom we serve.
Vision Eight: Chariots from the Throne (Moving Out into the World)
Finally, Zechariah saw a vision of four chariots proceeding from two bronze mountains. They were dispatched to execute God’s vengeance in the regions in the north and south of Israel. God was moving through earthly armies, backed by angels, to bring his purposes to pass. The armies of Babylon and Persia were merely the earthly instruments of the heavenly movement of angelic power. The great mountains of bronze were YHWH’s legs and feet. The chariot’s horsemen represent the omniscience and omnipotence of God.
God is here moving out (out of the sanctuary and community and into the broader world) to execute vengeance upon his enemies. God is always at work on behalf of his church. Whatever is happening in the earth, God has one purpose in mind: the glorification of His Son in a perfected church.
We are his displayed masterpiece – all of the previous visions were to bring us to this point. The work of redeeming, teaching, purging, redefining, and enlarging were all part of the plan to establish the reign of YHWH in the midst of a purified people. From this base of operations he would establish his kingdom on the earth. All of Israel’s preparations were not for themselves, but to prepare the way for this Branch of the Lord – the servant who would branch out into all the nations of the earth.
When we, the people of God, pass through exile and the crisis of orientation, God is redefining, recalibrating, and enlarging our lives to keep us focused on and prepared for our place and mission in the world. We live for one purpose and one purpose alone – to fulfill that mission of God in our generation.