Once again I have been asked to teach the book of Zechariah in an SBS this month. I suspect because no one else was eager to take it on. I can understand why. This is an intimidating book with some very confusing passages in it. I have often thought it may be the most difficult book in the Old Testament. (In my opinion it is either this one, or Daniel, or Song of Songs.) Luther’s statement about its last chapter is telling: “Here, in this chapter, I give up. For I am not sure what the prophet is talking about.” (1) That’s Luther. Just so you know you are in good company if you are scratching your head reading Zechariah.
The first half of the book (Zech. 1-8) is easier. Some of the symbolism may leave us puzzled (coloured horses? a stone with seven eyes?), but at least the structure is clear: eight visions. And once we understand where we are in Israel’s history, we can make reasonable sense of it all: it is the year 520 BC, a first wave of Israelites have returned from exile only about 18 years before, and the rebuilding of the temple is an unfinished project. In these circumstances, the priest-prophet Zechariah shares words and visions of encouragement to let this community and its leaders know that God is for them, and that they can finish the job (of rebuilding the temple). Zechariah 7 and 8 are set a few years later. It may leave us perplexed why a simple yes-or-no question (should we fast on this occasion?) draws such a long answer. But this section, too, is by and large, if not necessarily in every detail, intelligible. So far, so good.
But the second half? There are of course those who offer clear and certain answers. We find them especially in books and other writings dealing with the end times. Their exposition of Zechariah is always based on few verses. They are usually the same verses, such as Jerusalem becoming a heavy stone for all nations (Zech. 12:3) and all nations gathering for battle against Jerusalem (Zech. 14:2). Plus some gospel quotes: the king on a donkey (Zech. 9:9), the rejected shepherd and the 30 pieces of silver (Zech. 11:4-17; Zech. 13:7), and the pierced one (Zech. 12:10). There are two problems with this:
1. It leaves out most of what is in the book; the rest gets rarely reflected on.
2. It assumes a neat division between predictions fulfilled in Christ’s life and death and those that are still future and will be fulfilled in the run-up to his return.
However, in the book these statements and predictions are all swirled together. As in: scrambled eggs. It is not at all clear how one would separate them and sort them out. We have only one, dramatic portrayal, not a going back and forth between two (or more) pictures that we can tell apart. If we had not known the gospel story, we would never, ever have guessed that that is what would happen in fulfilment of these prophecies.
Others have attempted to unscramble the eggs by finding references – and thereby fulfilments – in historical events such as:
- Alexander the Great’s whirlwind tour of victory climaxing in the conquest of Egypt (4th century BC) in the first half of Chapter 9
- The surprisingly successful uprising of the Maccabees (2nd century BC), leading to a period of independence for Israel, in the second half of Chapter 9 and beyond
- The ministry and death of Jesus, obviously
- Events around the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 at the end of Chapter 13 and in Chapter 14 (for instance, the flight of Christians from Jerusalem just before the siege in Zech. 14:4f).
Problem is, it does not seem to fit all that well. When did the Philistines convert (Zech. 9:7)? And with the exception of a few references that the gospels apply to Jesus, doesn’t Zechariah sound like something much bigger than what actually happened in Israel’s history? It leaves the thoughtful reader wishing for a better explanation. This therefore seems a good subject for this letter; let’s learn something about the book of Zechariah! Even though this means that this first letter will be quite demanding; I will keep the next one a bit simpler… Obviously, since this is a letter and not a 900-page commentary, I cannot cover the text in any sort of detail. But by tracing several significant themes I will aim to convey a Big Picture – that will hopefully enable us to make some sense of it all. [Before you read on, it may be worth reading through Zechariah 9-14, first.]
Themes That Build the Music
First, however, a general observation. The second half of Zechariah strikes me in a number of ways as similar to the second half of Isaiah, Is. 40-66. There even is a close parallel to the Servant Songs, those enigmatic passages in Isaiah about a suffering and rejected individual, and to the concept of a second exodus, even though Zechariah does not say nearly as much about this as Isaiah does. In both cases, we get a broad overview of what God is yet going to do. This is done by interweaving a number of themes in a way that has reminded many of the composition of a symphony. A different way of illustrating this is that both half books present us with a breath-taking panorama of God’s purpose of salvation. All of it is brought together in one portrayal with no attention given to chronological sequence. So what are some of the themes that make this music?
The Coming King
Zechariah starts off in Chapter 9 with something that may look familiar if you have studied other prophets in the Old Testament. It is a movement of judgement coming from the north. In Israel’s past, this would have been Assyria or Babylon. This time, it is different. First, because it seems to be God himself who is on the move. Second, because the Philistines are not only judged. In what must be considered a bold move for this time, the prophet includes their remnant in the people of God (Zech. 9:7). And third, because this time it is a reason to rejoice, not to be dismayed. Notice that there is really no cut or division in Zech. 9:9 (or in Zech. 9:11). Indeed, verse 9 is the climax of the movement in the preceding eight verses. This is the return of God as King to Zion, both judging and saving the nations (and Israel) at the same time, to establish a worldwide kingdom of peace. It is what Jesus began to do while on earth, what his church continues to build on, and what he will complete on his return.
The return of the King goes hand in hand with the release and return of God’s captive and exiled people (Zech. 9:11f; 10:6-11). It is a second exodus. Again, the past (exodus from Egypt) is a pattern for how God will act in the future. Space prevents us from pursuing this in any detail, but it should be obvious that Jesus presented himself as the agent of this second exodus; think for instance of the parallels between the Lord’s Supper and the Passover meal. And it was he who proclaimed freedom to the captives, quoting Isaiah 61.
Empowerment and Abundance
The return of the King greatly empowers his people for battle (Zech. 9:13-15; 10:3-12; 12:5-8). The wondrous imagery in these verses convey a sense of the great strength and vitality that God confers on his people. Briefly the text also touches on the new abundance that will likewise be theirs (Zech. 9:17f).
The Shepherd and His Flock
It is in the context of empowerment that the image of flock and shepherd first appears (Zech. 9:16). Obviously, the flock is Israel and the shepherds present its leadership – a leadership that has failed and comes under God’s judgement. What Israel needs is that God himself becomes the shepherd of his people.
However, there is a problem with this, and it is the parable or enacted prophecy in Chapter 11 that brings this out. To be fair, this is about the hardest passage in the book. No one has managed to make sense of a number of its details. We don’t know who the three shepherds were or what they stand for (Zech. 11:8). We don’t know to what extent it looks to Israel’s past (divided monarchy? exile?), Zechariah’s present experience, or something that – to him at least – was in the future.
But this much is clear. The flock is once again Israel. And when God attempts to shepherd them, he meets with rejection. In response, he gives up the flock to a cruel and worthless shepherd. This is something that had happened in Israel’s past and would happen again, quite literally, in the rejection of Jesus, the harsh Roman yoke, and the even worse leadership Israel experienced in its revolt against Rome first in AD 66 and a second time in AD 132.
We learn more about the shepherd toward the end of Chapter 13. This time, the shepherd is struck (“pierced” in Zech. 12:10) and the sheep are scattered. Jesus quoted this passage immediately before his arrest (Mt. 26:31), clearly implying that he was this shepherd. It is not easy to interpret verse 8 and 9, where two thirds are cut off and one third is refined, tested, and accepted. It is unlikely that this refers to a future Holocaust, even though this is a popular speculation in end time books. More likely it is about Israel’s response to its shepherd in the first century. It is a familiar theme in the prophets that only a remnant – but in this case a sizeable remnant – remains.
These shepherd passages are a parallel to the Servant Songs in Isaiah. At first sight, they appear to break the flow, unexpectedly and almost disruptively popping up, both in Isaiah and in Zechariah. But in both books they are absolutely central to the prophets’ vision of coming salvation. It is the Suffering Servant alias the Rejected Shepherd who will save Israel (and the world) from sin. They are God’s agent to accomplish this.
Seemingly in the midst of all this upheaval and eschatological turmoil, deep repentance happens, leading to a purging of the land and the new holiness. This, too, marks the time of the end (that is, the time after Christ’s resurrection): it is not only a time of conflict, but also of a real turning to God (which we are part of).
Although there is a clear battle theme throughout, I discuss it last, because it includes the book’s closing climax in Chapter 14. By the way, in this concluding chapter it is the least clear what we are to expect or envision happening, so we’d better tread cautiously in our interpretation. The chapter is rich in apocalyptic language and images that are graphic in their effect, but hard to define. Still, there are a few things we can say.
- Chapter 14 may be obscure in some of its details, but at least it has a clear structure. There is an interchange between descriptions of the battle (Zech. 14:1-5; 12-15) and descriptions of the new world order, the new age that will follow the conclusive defeat of evil (Zech. 14:6-11; 16-21). In this new age, Yahweh will be one, he will be the only one, and he will be worshipped in truth and in purity.
- There is a historical precedent for the attack in Chapter 12 and 14 in the Old Testament; this is a pattern from the past that is used to speak about Zechariah’s future. In the background stands the Assyrian invasion under Sennacherib in the days of Isaiah, in the 8th century. Jerusalem was miraculously saved through God’s intervention. In the climactic confrontation of the last days, he would do this again.
- We should also be aware of the reinterpretation of such themes that takes place in the New Testament. There is no longer a geographical centre. Evil is much better understood in the New Testament. The OT conflict between Israel and the nations has shifted to a conflict with the spiritual powers behind those nations. Where in the OT God would judge the nations for their aggression against Israel, in the NT this turns into the climactic overthrow and defeat of all evil. In fact, these nations are themselves also the object of God’s love, as is Israel. They are to be saved as well. The battle is against the powers and principalities, and these are to be judged and defeated. The unrepentant part of the world (and of Israel) will be caught up in this, but this is due to their unrepentance, not to their ethnic status. We find an extensive reinterpretation of this theme in Revelation 19-20 (actually, in a sense entire book of Revelation is a reinterpretation of this theme). Clearly, the battle is against Christ and his people. And by implication: there may therefore not be an all-out military attack on the present city of Jerusalem in fulfilment of Zechariah.
All in all, Zechariah presents a particularly graphic portrayal of this familiar prophetic theme of the final battle. Perhaps the best illustration I can think of is Expressionist art. Expressionism doesn’t paint to offer a close similarity to reality. It paints to bring out the emotion, what something feels like (therefore the question, “Do you get it?” at the beginning of this post). And Zechariah paints in especially shrill colours. So these are not factual or near-photographic portrayals of future scenes, describing what we will see once it happens. Rather, they enable us to feel something of the anguish and turmoil that is involved, and to be empowered at the same time. Here are two quotes to help us grasp this nature of prophecy better:
This collection of excerpts from prophecies yet to be fulfilled highlights an important characteristic of prophecy and apocalyptic: it is a stained-glass window, not a crystal ball. Under divine inspiration, the sanctified imagination of the biblical prophets communicated the themes of God’s future judgment and blessing with vivid images. Look at the imagery and admire it, but do not attempt to see through the stained glass to what is off in the distance. The function of the prophets’ language was to draw attention to basic ideas about the future, not to reveal precisely what will happen and when it will happen.(2)
Prophecy and apocalyptic, then, are not suitable for microscopes, so that we might scope out specific details of the future. But they are suitable for macroscopes, because they allow us to see the big picture of how God will bring to conclusion the present era and establish the kingdom of eternity.(3)
God will save, that much is certain. There may be highly turbulent and violent moments on the way. But they will come with a deep sense of empowerment. So in case we are facing any battles or struggle even now, Zechariah has something to say to us: BE EMPOWERED!
The principle easily scales to larger areas of application. To choose just one area in the world where this seems particularly relevant right now: Christians in Ukraine, regardless of whether your first language is Ukrainian or Russian, there may be blood in the street, but BE EMPOWERED! Not to fight a war, but precisely not to fight it, at least not without discerning the real battle and the real enemy.
Next issue: Feeding on the Word
(1) Quoted in A. Wolters, “Zechariah 14: A Dialogue with the History of Interpretation”, Mid-America Journal of Theology (2002), 13:41.
(2) D.B. Sandy, Plowshares and Pruning Hooks: Rethinking the Language of Biblical Prophecy and Apocalyptic (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2002), 184.
(3) Ibid., 189. Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission.