Tales of the Nevi'im - Zechariah
Tales of the Nevi'im
The Tales of the Nevi’im are the Stories of the Prophets. In Hebrew navi (nah-vee') means prophet and the plural, prophets, is nevi'im (neh-vee-eem'). Israel had many prophets, some of whom we know from the Old Testament, others are lost to us in history. Many of Israel's prophets spoke to the people but didn't write anything down, likely because their message was meant for a specific people and time. Others proclaimed a message meant to instruct us as well. God spoke his word through these men for all people for all times, and we read them today as the books of the prophets in our Bibles. This series will explore their stories and message.
The Story of Zechariah
After the conquest of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 BC, many Israelites were exiled to Babylon (modern-day Iraq). The Israelites remaining in Jerusalem and the surrounding villages were poor, defeated, and struggling to barely make a living. The Babylonians were, in turn, conquered by the Persian empire in 539 BC. The Persians under King Cyrus and his successors would dominate much of the world for the next two centuries.
The Persian Empire in the time of Zechariah, ca. 520 BC
The Persian monarchs were more lenient in their treatment of conquered peoples than the Babylonians or the Assyrians had been. In 538 BC, Cyrus issued an edict allowing the Israelites to return from Babylon to Jerusalem. He also encouraged them to rebuild their temple and worship their god. Under the leadership of Zerubbabel (pronounced Zair-ub-bab’-el) and the high priest Joshua, many returned and began to rebuild their lives. They also began to rebuild the temple.
At this time, the Persians were planning a military campaign to invade Egypt. In preparation for this the taxes required from all the people ruled by Persia were increased. With the difficulty of rebuilding their homes and livelihood under the burden of increased taxes, the people became disheartened and stopped working on the temple.
Judea and surrounding nations in the time of Zechariah, ca. 520 BC
Meanwhile, Israel’s ancient enemies, the inhabitants of the kingdom of Edom, expanded their territory to the northwest – pressing the now weak province of Judah under the governorship of Zerubbabel. The new country of Edom came to be known as Idumea (pronounced id-uh-me’-ah). Five hundred years later, just before the birth of Jesus, an Idumean named Herod the Great would come to rule Judea.
It was in this time of economic hardship, low morale, and fear of their more powerful neighbors that Zechariah (pronounced Zek-uh-rye’-uh) brought a message of hope to Israel.
Like most of his compatriots, little is known about Zechariah the man. From the later book of Nehemiah, we know that he was a member of a prominent priestly family and his grandfather Iddo returned to Jerusalem with Zerubbabel in 538 BC. It’s possible, though not certain, that Jesus refers to this Zechariah in Matthew 23:35, “And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar.” If so, it seems Zechariah met a martyr’s death.
The book of Zechariah contains a message of encouragement for Israel. Like Haggai, he urged the people to rebuild the temple, despite the hardship. The temple was a visible sign to the people of the presence of God and Zechariah knew it would strengthen their faith and give them hope. The book opens with a reminder of Israel’s past and a reassuring message for the future, “The Lord was very angry with your fathers [meaning previous generations]. Therefore say to them, ‘Thus declares the Lord of hosts: Return to me, says the Lord of hosts, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts’” (1:2-3). And, “Thus says the Lord of hosts: My cities shall again overflow with prosperity, and the Lord will again comfort Zion [Jerusalem] and again choose Jerusalem” (1:17).
The book begins with a series of visions. They are reminiscent of the ones in the New Testament book of Revelation because of their striking images and symbolic content. These visions communicate lessons about Israel’s future, and perhaps even more vividly, about her coming Messiah, Jesus. One of the most striking scenes occurs in chapter 3:1-5. It is a heavenly vision of Joshua the high priest standing before God,
“Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right side to accuse him. The Lord said to Satan, ‘The Lord rebuke you, Satan! The Lord, who has chosen Jerusalem, rebuke you! Is not this man a burning stick snatched from the fire?’
Now Joshua was dressed in filthy clothes as he stood before the angel. The angel said to those who were standing before him, ‘Take off his filthy clothes.’
Then he said to Joshua, ‘See, I have taken away your sin, and I will put rich garments on you.’
Then I said, ‘Put a clean turban on his head.’ So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him, while the angel of the Lord stood by.”
As in the book of Revelation, clothes represent character. We can easily see ourselves in Joshua’s place, covered in our sins [filthy clothes], with Satan, the accuser, demanding our destruction. But instead of condemnation, God says he will remove our sins and dress us in white garments [righteousness].
Another example of an apocalyptic vision is in chapter 1:8-16,
“During the night I had a vision—and there before me was a man riding a red horse! He was standing among the myrtle trees in a ravine. Behind him were red, brown and white horses. I asked, “What are these, my lord?”
The angel who was talking with me answered, “I will show you what they are.”
Then the man standing among the myrtle trees explained, “They are the ones the LORD has sent to go throughout the earth.”
And they reported to the angel of the LORD, who was standing among the myrtle trees, “We have gone throughout the earth and found the whole world at rest and in peace.”
Then the angel of the LORD said, “LORD Almighty, how long will you withhold mercy from Jerusalem and from the towns of Judah, which you have been angry with these seventy years?” So the LORD spoke kind and comforting words to the angel who talked with me.
Then the angel who was speaking to me said, “Proclaim this word: This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘I am very jealous for Jerusalem and Zion, but I am very angry with the nations that feel secure. I was only a little angry, but they added to the calamity.’
“Therefore, this is what the LORD says: ‘I will return to Jerusalem with mercy, and there my house will be rebuilt. And the measuring line will be stretched out over Jerusalem,’ declares the LORD Almighty.”
Again using vivid images, Zechariah communicates God’s message of comfort - that He is watching over events and will show mercy and protection to His people.
Lessons and Themes
Despite Israel's unfaithfulness , God will fulfill his promise to send a Savior. In 9:9-11, Zechariah relays this promise from God;
"Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey... He shall speak peace to the nations; his rule shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth. As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit."
This passage is predicting the triumphal entry of Christ into Jerusalem. Matthew quotes this verse in 21:4-5 to show that Jesus fulfilled Zechariah’s prophecy.
The Savior, Jesus, will be rejected by Israel. In 13:7-8, Zechariah predicts the fate of God's shepherd;
"'Awake, O sword, against my shepherd, against the man who stands next to me,' declares the Lord of hosts. 'Strike the shepherd and the sheep will be scattered; I will turn my hand against the little ones. In the whole land, declares the Lord, two thirds will be cut off and perish, and one third will be left alive. And I will put this third into the fire, and refine them as one refines silver, and test them as gold is tested.' They will call upon my name and I will answer them. I will say 'They are my people'; and they will say, 'The Lord is my God.'"
In this passage we see the story of Jesus unfold. Jesus said he was "the Good Shepherd". He was rejected and crucified (the shepherd was struck). Those who believe in him will have their faith refined and shall be called the people of God; those who do not believe shall perish (see John 3:16-18).
Instead of a sign of rejection, the cross will be a sign of hope. Israel’s rejection of the Messiah could not overcome God’s plan of salvation. The cross, a symbol of humiliation and shame, would become a sign of God’s offer of mercy! In 12:10 and 13:1, Zechariah predicts,
“And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one who mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn...On that day there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness.”
In the time of Zechariah, being hung on a cross was a sign of shame, a curse. Today, Christians wear the cross as a sign of God’s triumph over sin and death!
Questions for Further Reflection/Discussion:
Read Zechariah 9:9 and compare it to Matthew 21:1-9. Do you think that by doing this Jesus was declaring to the people that he was the Messiah? Knowing what you do about the situation of the Israelites in the time of Zechariah, poor and oppressed, does it become clear how powerfully this scene resonated with those who were poor and oppressed by Rome? Making the leap to our own time, can you imagine how powerfully this message speaks to those in our society who are oppressed by poverty or addictions? Or who feel unworthy and unloved, sinners dressed in "filthy rags"?
Read the promise of God in 13:9. Look back at the first chapter of Hosea. Do you recall what he named his children and the message God was sending to idolatrous Israel? Zechariah says the shepherd, Jesus, will reverse God's judgment. Read Ephesians 1:3-6. How does this message of adoption fit with Zechariah's promise?
Through many of the prophets we've studied, God expressed his desire for justice and mercy. Zechariah repeats this call in 7:8-10. Can you think of examples from Jesus' teaching that reinforce this message? (Hint: Matthew 5-7, for example.) Does this help you see God's unchanging nature from Old Testament to New Testament times?
Terry Feix is the Executive Pastor at Crossings Community Church in Oklahoma City and a regular writer at So We Speak. Follow him @TerryFeix on Twitter.
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