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The Book Zechariah

Written by Prof Johan Malan.

Introduction

“Zechariah” means “The Lord remembers.” Zechariah’s father was the priest, Berechiah. His family was among the almost 50 000 Jewish exiles who returned to Jerusalem from Babylonia in 536 B.C. Zechariah was a contemporary of Haggai the prophet, Zerubbabel the governor, and Joshua the high priest (Ezra 5:1-2; Zech. 3:1; 4:6; 6:11). He was a young man at the beginning of his prophetic ministry (cf. 2:4).

Zechariah sought through his message to:

  • Encourage a spiritual revival in Israel (1:2-3) and warn those who, like most of their fathers, would not repent (1:4).
  • Inspire the people to persevere with the work of the Lord and complete the rebuilding of the temple (1:16; 4:9).
  • Comfort the returning Jews who, at the time, were going through severe trials and afflictions (1:12-14).
  • Impress upon their hearts the fact that they can only understand the ways of the Lord and truly serve Him through the Holy Spirit (4:6; 7:12; 12:10).
  • Reveal to them the coming of their Messiah as a lowly person who would seek their salvation but would be rejected and pierced by them, only to be accepted by the entire nation on a later occasion (9:9; 12:10; 13:1,9).
  • Describe the triumphant coming of the Messiah to Jerusalem, who will be revealed in power and glory with all His saints to be King over all the earth (14:4-5,9).
  • Confirm to them the severe judgements that will befall the enemies of Jerusalem, who are also the enemies of God and His kingdom (14:2-3,12-13).
  • Highlight key aspects of the spiritually restored Israel, who will be honoured by all nations during the millennium when leaders of these nations will visit Jerusalem to seek the Lord of hosts, and to keep the Feast of Tabernacles (8:20-23; 14:16).

In an often quoted statement, George L. Robinson has called the book of Zechariah “the most messianic, the most truly apocalyptic and eschatological of all the writings of the Old Testament” (International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia). The messianic emphasis of Zechariah accounts for its frequent citation by New Testament authors.

Historical background

The fall of the kingdoms of Judah and Israel, as well as their restoration from captivity, forms the historical background of this book. The Assyrians brought an end to the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 B.C., while Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the southern kingdom of Judea in 586 B.C. Many of Jerusalem’s inhabitants were deported to Babylon for a period of seventy years (Jer. 25:11; 29:10). During this exile the prophet Daniel received the revelation that Gentile kingdoms would be dominant over Israel until the kingdom of the Messiah has been established in Jerusalem (Dan. 2 & 7). This long period is referred to as “the times of the Gentiles” (Luke 21:24).

It is of the utmost importance to realise that the prophecies of Zechariah were addressed to the united Israeli nation composed of all 12 its tribes – they were no longer a divided nation. Unfortunately, there are people who theorise that the so-called ten lost tribes of Israel migrated to Europe and became the founding fathers of the Western nations. These people allege that only Jews belonging to the tribes of Judah and Benjamin returned from the Babylonian exile to Jerusalem. However, the groups that returned to their land were representative of all 12 the tribes. The following are the most important facts which substantiate this statement:

There was never a rigid division between the two and the ten tribes of Israel. During the 250 years of their existence, the northern ten-tribe kingdom of Israel was ruled by 19 apostate kings. There was not a single God-fearing one among them. The leaders were so incompetent and evil that many of their subjects migrated to the southern kingdom of Judah (2 Chron. 11:14,17).

Whenever a God-fearing king ruled in Jerusalem, the migration from the north recurred with great vigour. The dedication and positive reforms of King Asa had the same effect: “Then he gathered all Judah and Benjamin, and those who sojourned with them from Ephraim, Manasseh, and Simeon, for they came over to him in great numbers from Israel when they saw that the LORD his God was with him” (2 Chron. 15:9).

Another reason for the strengthening of Judah and the weakening of Israel was warfare. King Asa’s father, Abijah, clashed with Israel and slew 500 000 men (2 Chron. 13:17-18). Within 20 years the army of Judah had increased from 180 000 (1 Kings 12:21) to 580 000 (2 Chron. 14:8). After 40 years they had 1 160 000 men (2 Chron. 17:14-18). During the same time, Israel’s army had decreased to only 7 000 men (1 Kings 20:15). These figures cannot be explained without taking the large-scale migrations from Israel to Judah into account.

People often make the wrong assumption that, in terms of 2 Kings 17:18, the whole of Israel were taken captive to Assyria in 721 BC. In actual fact, only the leaders and prominent families were exiled while the majority of poor people remained behind. The same pattern was repeated during the Babylonian captivity of the southern kingdom 134 years later (2 Kings 24:14-16; 25:11-12). According to the Biblical Encyclopaedia, Sargon II, the successor to Shalmaneser, indicated in his chronicles that he took 27 290 people from Israel as captives to Assyria (see 2 Kings 17:1-6).

The unfounded allegation by the British-Israel Movement and various related groups in many countries must also be considered, i.e. that the limited number of captives from Israel became dispersed to Europe and founded the white nations of the West. It is a well established fact that no such migration has occurred. There are no lost tribes of Israel who can account for the origin of all the white nations of Europe, since they are descendants of Japheth (Gen. 10:2-5) – they are not Semites!

2 Kings 17:6 mentions the Assyrian cities to which the captives from Israel were taken. In 612 B.C., the Assyrian Empire fell to the Babylonian Empire and was incorporated to the latter. The prophet Ezekiel was taken captive to Babylon in 597 BC by Nebuchadnezzar. In Tel Abib, at the River Chebar, he met with the descendants of the Israelites who were taken captive more than 120 years earlier. God spoke to him about the Israelites who continued with their rebelliousness (Ezek. 2:3; 3:14-17).

It is clear, therefore, that a group of the ten tribes was in Assyria (later incorporated to Babylonia); another group of them remained in Samaria, while a large group had already migrated to Judah. Since the Babylonian captivity of Judah, the two houses of Israel (the ten tribes and the two tribes) had a common destiny. They again merged into one nation with twelve tribes and were henceforth mentioned together. A year after Ezekiel visited the captives of Israel he cried out to God, saying: “Ah, Lord GOD! Will You destroy all the remnant of Israel in pouring out Your fury on Jerusalem? Then He said to me, The iniquity of the house of Israel and Judah is exceedingly great, and the land is full of bloodshed, and the city full of perversity” (Ezek. 9:8-9).

There is no biblical evidence, or any credible extra-biblical evidence, which makes any mention of Israel’s alleged migration to Europe. Even 160 years after Israel’s captivity to Assyria it is written: “For the children of Israel walked in all the sins of Jeroboam which he did; they did not depart from them, until the LORD removed Israel out of His sight, as He had said by all His servants the prophets. So Israel was carried away from their own land to Assyria, as it is to this day” (2 Kings17:22-23).

The fact that Israel and Judah were both oppressed and held captive in the Assyrian/Babylonian region is also confirmed by Jeremiah: “Thus says the LORD of hosts: The children of Israel were oppressed, along with the children of Judah; all who took them captive have held them fast; they have refused to let them go. Their Redeemer is strong; the LORD of hosts is His name” (Jer. 50:33-34).

From this Scripture it is clear that the Assyrians and Babylonians contained the captives and refused to let them go. There could, therefore, not have been a major migration to Europe during this time. It was only after the conquering of Babylonia in 539 BC by Cyrus, the king of Persia, that the command was given to the captives to return to Jerusalem (Ezra 1:2-3). It was the express will of God that the entire nation of Israel (all twelve tribes) be restored to the land of Israel and the city of Jerusalem as their capital (cf. Ezek. 37:21-22). It is again and again confirmed that the restoration was an all-Israel affair (see Ezra 2:70; 3:1-2; 6:21; 7:7-13; 10:1-5). There are no lost tribes of Israel!

The small groups of Jews who did not wish to return to their land, eventually became dispersed to many countries in Asia and Europe, but most of them retained their identity as Jews and built synagogues to practise their traditional religion. The majority of them did not want to mix and intermarry with the Gentiles. Paul visited several of these groups on his missionary journeys. Their numbers increased considerably after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD.

The term ‘Judah’ has special significance as it refers to the royal tribe of Israel from which also the Messiah, Jesus Christ, was born. For this reason, all the tribes intimately associate with Judah. As already indicated, large groups from the northern ten tribes of Israel joined the kingdom of Judah even before the Babylonian captivity. During and after the Babylonian captivity, the term ‘Jew’ [derived from Judah] became established as a synonym for ‘Israel’. One need only read the books of Ezra and Nehemiah to note how the terms ‘Jew’ and ‘Israel’ are used alternately to describe the same people (cf. Ezra 6:8, 16-17, 21; In Nehemiah 1:6 and 4:1 the names ‘Israel’ and ‘Jew’ are alternated in the same way).

In his book, Zechariah also alternates the terms ‘Jew’ and ‘Israel’ when referring to the restored nation. He says that after all the hostilities and hardships suffered by Israel they will ultimately be fully restored and spiritually revived, and then be accepted and greatly honoured by the nations that will also serve the Messiah during the millennium: “In those days ten men from every language of the nations shall grasp the sleeve of a Jewish man, saying, Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you” (8:23). In 9:1 and 12:1 he refers to the same people as ‘Israel.’

The post-exilic scenario described by Zechariah is that of a reunited Israeli people who were faced with the tough challenge of rebuilding the devastated city of Jerusalem, the ruined temple, and also the other plundered towns and cities. When the Babylonian Empire fell to the Persian Empire in 539 B.C., Cyrus decreed that the Jews could return to Jerusalem to rebuild their city and temple (Ezra 1:2-4; 2 Chron. 36:22-23). They returned in 536 B.C. Sacrifices were soon reinstituted on a rebuilt altar of burnt offering (Ezra 3:1-6), and in the second year of their return the foundation of the temple was laid (Ezra 3:8-13; 5:16). Neighbouring people, particularly from Samaria, opposed the work, and that, coupled with the extreme poverty of the returning Jews, undermined their enthusiasm and eventually halted the reconstruction efforts for 16 years until the rule of the Persian king, Darius. In the second regnal year of Darius (520 B.C.) God raised up Haggai the prophet to encourage the Jews in rebuilding the temple (Ezra 5:1-2; Hag. 1:1). Zechariah also encouraged the people to spiritual renewal and rebuilding the temple by revealing to them God’s plan for Israel’s future. In the light of this prophetic encouragement the people completed the reconstruction of the temple in 515 B.C.

Outline of the book

This book is presented within the following framework:

1.    Preamble (1:1).

2.    The call to repentance (1:2-6).

3.    The communication of the visions (1:7–6:8).

4.    The symbolic act concluding the visions (6:9-15).

5.    The four explanatory messages (chaps. 7–8).

6.    The first revelatory oracle: the anointed King is rejected (chaps. 9–11).

7.    The second revelatory oracle: the rejected King returns to Jerusalem and is enthroned (chaps. 12-14).

Following the opening call to repentance (1:2-6), Zechariah gave a series of eight prophetic night visions that he saw in a single night (1:7–6:8). These visions are revelatory in nature and are highly figurative descriptions of eschatological encouragement. According to the Walvoord & Zuck Commentary (ibid.) the eight night visions have the following basic meanings:

Vision

Meaning

The red-horse rider among the myrtles (1:7-17)

God’s anger against the nations and blessing on the restored Israel

The four horns and the four craftsmen (1:18-21)

God’s judgement on the nations that afflict Israel

The surveyor with a measuring line (chap. 2)

God’s future blessings on restored Jerusalem and Israel

The cleansing and dedication of Joshua the high priest (chap. 3)

Israel’s future cleansing from sin and their reinstatement as a priestly nation

The golden lampstand and the two olive trees (chap. 4)

Israel as the light to the nations under Messiah, the King-Priest

The flying scroll (5:1-4)

The severity and totality of divine judgement on individual Israelites

The woman in the ephah (5:5-11)

The removal of national Israel’s sin of rebellion against God

The four chariots (6:1-8)

Divine judgement on Gentile nations

 

From these descriptions and revelations, God’s love for His people Israel is very evident. He promised to restore them to their land and to make Jerusalem a praise in the earth (Zech. 1:16; Isa. 62:6-7). The Messiah, Jesus, is the appointed Mediator through whom these blessings will be bestowed upon Israel. God will not bless Israel solely because of their descent. Those who reject the Messiah will end up in a great tribulation from which only a believing remnant will be saved (13:8-9).