What Are These? A Study in Zechariah 4 With Lessons for the Local Assembly

Zechariah lets it be known that he is no quicker to understand spiritual lessons than the rest of us. When the angel aroused the prophet to contemplate his fifth object lesson (that of the golden “candlesticks”—a lampstand which was much superior to the one which would stand in the new temple whose building was being delayed), Zechariah asked three times what it all meant, vv. 4, 11, 12. Twice the angel exclaimed with surprise, “Knowest thou not what these be?” vv. 5, 13. Twice the prophet humbly confessed, “No, my lord”, vv. 5, 13. Zechariah’s mentor surely must have implied that the realities behind the olive trees were actually familiar to the prophet; they represented persons whom he knew well.

We believe that the two olive trees in the vision represented Zerubbabel the governor and Joshua the high priest. Zechariah’s own ministry was divinely commissioned, but he needed to be reminded that in the purpose of God there were others who should also be respected for their part in the work and for their standing before God. On a natural level, Zechariah as the prophet who brought the word of the Lord to these two men, and who gave them much needed encouragement (and perhaps even cajouling them into action when lethargy ruled Judah), might never have thought of Joshua and Zerubbabel as also having been chosen by God and equipped for His purpose. Perhaps the prophet saw his own task as superior and theirs as mundane, mechanical and without spiritual content. Maybe he thought that their posts were inherited, almost secular and mere administration, but that he himself was the sole link with heaven.

The New Testament quotation from Zechariah 4. 14, found in Revelation 11. 4, and applied to the two witnesses in Jerusalem in the period of the tribulation, leads us to believe that the vision can helpfully fit men who champion the truth in all ages. The men (the olive trees), together with their testimonies (the candlesticks), are subject to the approval of God before whom they stand—not to the approval of the murderous ruler of the human race, nor of the city where they witness. They are called, “my two witnesses”, Rev. 11. 3. Does the ministering brother who exhorts the saints as a modern-day Zechariah also see no divine calling of the “helps” and “governments” of the assembly, 1 Cor. 12. 28, or “ensamples”?, 1 Pet. 5. 3. Is the brother without any special facility with the Word despised?

The Lord’s servants, whom Zechariah perhaps had not appreciated until the vision, were “anointed ones”, selected for their task by divine grace, Zech. 4. 14. That grace also gave them favoured communion with the Lord in His majesty, power and authority, for they “stand by the Lord of the whole earth”. They were going to do the task on account of their direct standing with God, and not on a borrowed and second-hand experience of the prophet. Zechariah was not, of course, urging unspiritual men to get on with building the temple. The brother with a word from the Lord is instructing believers who may be walking closer to the Lord than he himself—those whose calling may be clearer, and endowments greater.

There is an analogy with the “angels” (better, “messengers”) of the seven churches in Revelation 2-3. Like Zerubbabel and Joshua, these too saw no vision, but where charged with relating the word from the Lord in glory to the saints in their respective churches. Carrying the pure thoughts and truth of the Head to the churches, these messengers were to be burning stars to the believers, fired by the solemn epistles that they brought (which would doubtless be reinforced by their explanations and exhortations). They carried messages of truth and warning which the believers might well dislike. They would plead for repentance, and perhaps be hated for this by the brethren. How necessary, then, it was that they should be in a place of safety as well as usefulness, “in my right hand” says the glorious Lord, Rev. 1. 20.

Unlike the case of the autonomous churches in Revelation 2-3 amongst which candlesticks the Lord freely walked, Zechariah’s vision pictures the unity of the testimony of the nation before God. But the maintenance of the shining lamps was not dependent on daily attention by the priests of the temple. For these lamps were joined by channels of supply to a reservoir of oil at a higher level, Zech. 4. 2, 12. Not only was there a bowl full of oil, but this was constantly replenished from twin oil-sources, oil-producing olive trees. The Creator, “the Lord of the whole earth” was in control of all; the supply of oil from the trees depended on their proximity to Him. This is a beautiful picture of two choice men, in harmony one with the other and with the Lord, and devoted to the same task. What a privilege to be in an assembly where there are such men who can take the word from a Zechariah, and bring it into powerful action in that assembly! Notice the free-flowing channels of communication in Zechariah’s picture. How blest are we when elders have such a relationship with the believers! How can the worship and work of God grow dim when each believer plays his part?

The two olive trees in Zechariah 4 were very different men, and occupying distinct positions. The high priest Joshua and Zerubbabel (who might even have come out of Babylon together, Ezra 2. 1-2; Neh. 12. 1, 10) joined together to build the altar, and brought their families into the task, Ezra 3. 2. This was their priority; not as an end in itself but for sacrifices for worship. As a man of activity, Joshua stood to encourage workmen and singers—a balance of ministry. In a vision given to the prophet in Zechariah 3, an intimate portrait of Joshua tells of his spiritual battle. Escaped from Babylon, a brand from the burning, v. 2, he still faced Satan’s onslaughts. Joshua’s “filthy garments” were a source of shame to the high priest, and an opportunity to the accuser. The high priest could not function until all these were exchanged for purity, when he wore the “fair mitre”. From then on he was expected to walk worthy of his calling. We judge that he kept his garments white, and was given crowns of “Holiness unto the Lord”, 6. 9-11. He was a man with a past of shame and a future of promise. And this new man, 2 Cor. 5. 17, a branch from an old stock, would then fulfil his solemn course in the temple that he built, 6. 12-13. Here is a converted man, respected for his work among the people of God. He may not prophesy, but “he shall build … and shall bear the glory”. When joined in an assembly with a modern Zerubbabel, what a combination there is to keep the testimony burning brightly!

Zerubbabel’s part, Ezra 4. 1-3, was to deal wisely with any interlopers, and in this Joshua gave him support. It was only force which stopped the work of rebuilding the house of God, 4. 24. But the two friends recommenced when Haggai and Zechariah brought the word from God: “the prophets of God helping them”, 5. 1-2; Hag. 1. 1. Haggai had spoken to these two key men, Hag. 1. 1-2, before speaking to the people, vv. 3-11. But it was the direct work of God in the spirit of these two men that moved them to work, vv. 14-15. After nearly a month’s work, Haggai brought more encouragement, particularly to Zerubbabel and Joshua, 2. 1-9.

Haggai’s last message, 2. 20-23, was to Zerubbabel as secular captain over Judah. In the midst of judgment, the sovereign choice of the Lord of hosts would recognize the faithful service of Zerubbabel, and make him as “a signet”. Not the prophet, but the governor was to be the instrument of the purpose of God, the token of divine authority. In Zechariah 4, why is there an interlude between verses 4 and 11, if the angel’s revelation to Zerubbabel did not concern the olive trees? It was, after all, the answer which the prophet received to his question, “What are these?”. Lest Zerubbabel should become proud due to the word from the Lord about him, there comes the far-reaching pronouncement, “Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, saith the Lord of hosts”. This is how the people will be roused to work. This is how the house is completed. Here is the secret of revival in an assembly even if a human instrument is to be employed by the Lord. Nothing will be impossible: mountains are not insuperable. The Lord will achieve His purpose through a man, whether in building the house, or in building the assembly. When the Lord is in the work, who could possibly despise “the day of small things”, especially in view of the magnificence of the complete edifice? Is there not a hint of the identity of the other olive tree too? If Zerubbabel at work on the temple brings rejoicing to the people of God, 4. 10, so will Joshua’s stonework as known in every detail to the Lord; compare 3. 9 with 4. 10.

Although Haggai and Zechariah in their minisry may be faint reflections of that “Great Prophet of our God”, what shall we say about the two practical men Zerubbabel and Joshua? Who but the Word is the true signet of the Lord, Hag. 2. 23, the Messiah chosen (cf. Zech. 4. 14), the One upon whom most appropriately the Spirit of the Lord rested (cf. Zech. 4. 6 with Luke 4. 18), and the One before whom every mountain should be made low (cf. Zech. 4. 7 with Luke 3. 5)? We know the Greater Joshua, our Great High Priest, the Branch (cf. Zech. 3. 8 with Jer. 23. 5; 33. 15). If the Lord was pleased to call both Zerubbabel and Joshua “my servant”, Zech. 3. 8; Hag. 2. 23, how much more does He point out our Lord Jesus as “my servant”, Isa. 42. 1. Oh to see in the assemblies men and women who just as faithfully reflect the Lord Jesus!