Zechariah - The Prophet of Hope
Arthur Shearman, Worcester, England
In studying the life of Zechariah and the part he played in the history of Israel, we are dealing with the times that followed the Babylonian exile. Little is known about his origin and background apart from the facts that he was the son of Berechiah the son of Iddo, and that he was associated with Haggai in stirring up the returning Jews in Jerusalem to build the house of God, Ezra 5.1. It would seem that he was the junior partner of the aged Haggai, and a young preacher born during the exile. There is no record of a call to the prophetic office. Yet the prophecy opens with a definite statement that the word of the Lord came to him, Zech, 1.1. His credentials lie in the relevance of his message for the times in which he spoke.
Haggai challenged the people with the causes of their failure to build the house of the Lord. Their self-centred materialism and tragic lack of commitment to the task were unreservedly questioned. "Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your ceiled houses, while this house lieth waste ?", Hag. 1. 4. As we read his messages it is clear that the Lord had answered their selfishness and lethargy with drought and famine, v. 11. The work had stopped at the decree of Artaxerxes, Ezra 4. 21 -24, and what had begun as an enthusiastic enterprise faded into nothingness. This condition of things continued until the second year of Darius. It was then, with spirits stirred by the ministry of Haggai and Zechariah, that Joshua and Zerubbabel, with all the remnant of the people, rose up to build in the house of the Lord, Hag. 1.14.
Thus the house of God was eventually finished. It is good to consider the relevance of prophecy and the teaching of the Word to the work of the Lord. Too often they are separated with sad, even disastrous, effects.
Zechariah's Times. Zechariah's prophecy is pervaded with a spirit of reasoned optimism. The conditions to which the returning exiles of the nation came were far from inspiring. As Cyrus came to the throne of Persia, he directed that the people should return to Jerusalem, thus fulfilling the prophecies concerning him, Isa. 44. 24 to 45. 7. He gave them the means and every encouragement to re-establish themselves in the land. But there lay before the people a task that severely tested their dedication. Even when progress was made and constructive work was achieved, there were those who cast their minds back to the former glories of the temple and its services. Zechariah faced the disillusionment and doubts of people who perhaps expected more than they realized. It was a "day of small things", but not to be despised, Zech. 4. 10. The people needed a message that could effectively deal with their disappointments and give them hope. This was ably given them by the prophet.
Zechariah was also conscious of the defilement of the nation as some of its former evils were being manifested among the people. He looks back to pre-exilic times and recalls in the opening verses of the book the displeasure of the Lord with their fathers. How quickly spiritual experiences are lost in the mists of forgetful ness. "Be ye not as your fathers" is a cry from the heart of the prophet. It was evident that it was not enough for them to return to the land—the people needed to return to the Lord, 1. 3. The people needed a message which would indicate the movements of the Lord to bring about the needed cleansing. Both in his visions, and in the burden of his message, Zechariah spoke clearly of the purging away of the iniquity of the nation. "In that day" this would be final as the people would mourn as a nation over its continued evils, looking upon the One whom they had pierced, 12. 9-10.
Throughout the book of Zechariah there are strong indications of the sense of hopelessness that the long years of captivity had brought to the nation. Concentrated in the message of the prophet are vital reaffirmations of the Messianic hopes of Israel and also of the final climax of glory that would be theirs. No doubt Ezekiel had sought to keep alive these hopes with his prophecies during the exile. But as the people returned to Jerusalem, they came back to a wasted city with its derelict temple buildings. It would not be easy for them to recapture its former beauties in their minds, nor for them to reach out and grasp the promises which would inspire them to anticipate the glories of restoration. Significantly in the first vision, the angel among the myrtle trees asks the question, "0 Lord of hosts, how long wilt thou not have mercy on Jerusalem and on the cities of Judah, against which thou hast had indignation these threescore and ten years?", 1.12. There is great beauty in the response to his cry, as the Lord answers the angel with "good words, even comfortable words", v. 13. The times of Zechariah called for a restatement of the hopes expressed in the earlier prophets, and they are not wanting in the message he gave to the people. Days of despondency and gloom call for words of hope and comfort. Let us reflect here that we are perhaps too often given over to pessimism concerning our day and generation, when we should try to catch something of the optimism that our hopes in Christ could bring.
Thus the times of Zechariah were marked by the perils of disillusionment, defilement and despondency. To be back in the land was a blessing indeed. The possibilities were great but the prophet needed to stir the people to a realization of these possibilities, and also to establish in their hearts the reality of the great future that was their heritage as the chosen people of God.
Zechariah's Message. Let us
look at three ways in which the prophet answered the needs of his day through his visions and prophecies.
1. For the Disillusionment and Doubt among the people, Zechariah offered the assurance of the loving concern of the God of Israel. Among those who returned from Babylon there were doubtless those who remembered the former glories of the city and temple. There were certainly those who expected much, because they had heard much. Had God forgotten to be gracious? Zechariah had the answer: "Thus saith the Lord of hosts: I am jealous for Jerusalem and for Zion with a great jealousy", 1. 14. And again, "My cities through prosperity shall yet be spread abroad; and the Lord shall yet comfort Zion, and shall yet choose Jerusalem", v. 17. Those who touched His people touched the apple of His eye, 2. 8. Zechariah assured the people that just as Zerubbabel had laid the foundation of the house, so his hands would finish it, 4. 9. A careful reading of the prophecy will show how earnestly the prophet sought to dispel the doubts and fears of the nation with valid assurances of the unfailing love of God. The prophet had a deep and real confidence in his God. Someone has well said of him, "Buoyant and zealous, he had the soul of the artist and the eye of the seer. He made commonplace duty luminous with the light of his genius. He comforted men with the thought of God's clemency and regard for the people of His choice. But he did even more—more than he could measure. He proclaimed the coming of the golden age when God's provision would be fully realized". Christian testimony today needs these qualities of certainty in the unfailing concern of the Lord for the interests of His people.
2. Again for the Defilement he
found, Zechariah spoke of the values of divine cleansing. How easily Israel forgot the causes of its downfall. With the people, the sins of the fathers were insidiously returning to the land. We only have to think of Nehemiah and his problems to learn how rapidly spiritual standards decline in times of recovery. In his prophecy, Zechariah had to sound out the word of judgment before the final blessings of Jerusalem would be realized. Yet a wonderful picture of God's cleansing of His people is seen in the encounter with Joshua the high priest in chapter 3. Joshua is clothed in filthy garments as he stands before the angel. At hand is Satan the accuser. What chance had Joshua of evading the demands of divine holiness? The answer is clear. The filthy garments are taken away; clean clothing is given to him and Satan is rebuked. So it was in the sight of Jehovah with a nation taken out of captivity, "a brand plucked out of the fire". Purity is possible if they will walk in God's ways and keep His commandments, 3. 7.
But more than this. A day was to come when, beyond its deepest sin and declension, Israel would find complete cleansing. Among the hopes expressed by the prophet was that which would be fulfilled for the nation, the final accomplishment of the great day of atonement. Then in a time of national mourning for sin, a fountain would be open for sin and uncleanness, 13.1. The iniquity of the land would be removed in one day, 3. 9. Notice here, that this does not suggest a separate accomplishment of atonement for Israel in that day. Surely their forgiveness will be in virtue of that "one sacrifice" offered "for sins for ever" by the Saviour at Calvary, The Cross is central in all time for all God's activities in putting away human sin.
3. Finally as an Answer to Despondency Zedekiah held out the hopes of a victorious consummation. The prophecy is rich in its Messianic foreshadowings. This is evidence of the continued work of the Spirit of God in the revelation of the Old Testament. Clearly outlined are some of the sufferings of Christ and the glory that should follow. Expanse of time is often overlooked in utterances concerning the coming Messiah. David Baron aptly says, "It is quite in keeping with the character of Old Testament prophecy that there is no perspective observed, nor clear indications given, of the pauses and intervals between different stages and acts by which Messiah's work would be accomplished . . . Old Testament seers often behold Messiah's Person and mission without clearly discerning from their distant point of view the interval between the sufferings and the glory that should follow".
Looking into the future, Zechariah makes it clear that all of Israel's ultimate blessings are realized in the coming of their Messiah. He calls Zion to rejoice and be glad because its King comes, "just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass", 9. 9, He speaks of Jehovah calling to His sword to awake against His Shepherd, the Man who is His fellow, 13. 7. He also calls attention to the Branch, "the man whose name is the Branch", 6. 12. In this Person the throne will find its rightful occupant, the Priest-King, and the counsel of peace will be between them both, 6. 13. There is only one Person who can fill out the pictures of fowly King, smitten Shepherd and fruitful Branch or Shoot. It is the glorious Person of the Lord Jesus Christ as God's only Son, man's sufficient Saviour and Israel's coming Messiah. Zechariah also sees Jerusalem established as the central metropolis of the earth. During Messiah's millennial reign, restored Israel will dwell in peace, and all nations will join themselves to the Lord and go up to dwell in the city, 2. 11 -12.
As we end our study, we can reflect on the values of true God-given hope. Zechariah's were not vague daydreams, but hopes based on his knowledge of God and the illumination of the Spirit of God. Our hopes today are nearer realization than those of Israel, for we look for our Lord from heaven. Praise God that all hope, both theirs and ours, will find fulfilment in the glorious person of His eternal Son.