This 17 part expository study of Zechariah was preached at Flagstaff Christian Fellowship in 2003. Audio and manuscripts are available for each lesson (excepting lesson 16 which does not have audio.).
Clark Clifford, who was White House counsel during the Truman Administration, was at a White House banquet one night when one of the guests turned to the woman next to him. “Did I get your name correctly?” he asked. “Is your name Post?”
“Yes, it is,” the woman said.
“Is it Emily Post?”
“Yes,” she replied.
“Are you the world-renowned authority on manners?” the man asked.
“Yes,” Mrs. Post said. “Why do you ask?”
“Because,” the man said, “you have just eaten my salad.” (“Bits & Pieces,” [1/85], pp. 14-15.)
Knowing something and applying it are two different matters. It is possible to be an expert on manners and yet eat the wrong salad! It is possible to be an expert on the Bible and yet not apply that knowledge in your daily life.
Perhaps you noticed the title of this message, “Returning to God,” and thought, “This one won’t apply to me. It will be great for someone who does not know Christ, but I do know Christ. It will also hit the mark with a backsliding believer, but I’m not backsliding. So I’ll eavesdrop on the message, but there won’t be much in it for me.”
The people to whom Zechariah brought this “word of the Lord” (1:1) were probably a lot like you. They were, for the most part, believers who would have voiced their allegiance to God. They were a remnant of 50,000 Jews who had made the difficult commitment to return to Jerusalem from the Babylonian captivity in 538 B.C. In 536 B.C. they had begun reconstruction of the devastated temple. But opposition had mounted, and for 16 years the work had been set aside.
Meanwhile, the people got caught up in the busyness of life. It was probably not an intentional decision. They meant no harm to God. But God raised up the prophet Haggai to ask the question, “Is it time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses while this house lies desolate?” (Hag. 1:4). The people responded to Haggai’s message and began to work again on the temple.
Two months into the project, “in the eighth month of the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came to Zechariah the prophet” (Zech. 1:1). That date is significant! Two months into any volunteer project of this magnitude, people need a word from the Lord! They need hope and encouragement. They need the motivation that comes from knowing that this project is worthwhile. That is especially so when the people are a bunch of refugees returning to a devastated country, still surrounded by hostile neighbors.
Zechariah’s prophecy was directed to such people. He has been called the prophet of hope. His message is filled with the encouragement that God will keep His promises to His people, especially His promises regarding the Messiah. Zechariah has more Messianic prophecy than all of the other Minor Prophets combined and he is second only to Isaiah in the number of references to Christ. The New Testament cites or alludes to Zechariah at least 41 times (Bible Knowledge Commentary [Victor Books], 1:1545). His message is that even though God’s chosen people had been scattered among the nations because of their disobedience, God still loved them and His purpose for them would still be accomplished.
While Zechariah gives hope, he is not naively optimistic. As Joyce Baldwin (Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi [Tyndale O.T. Commentaries] [IVP], p. 60) says,
The book prepares God’s people for the worst calamity they can ever face, the triumph of evil over good. Even God’s representative dies at the hand of evil men. There is no room in Zechariah’s thinking for glib optimism, but when evil has done its worst the Lord remains King, and will be seen to be King by all the nations.
The book falls into two main parts. The first part (chapters 1-8) is specifically dated. The second part (chapters 9-14) is not. After the introductory theme (1:1-6), chapters 1-6 consist of eight night visions that came to Zechariah in 520 B.C. The overarching theme of these visions is that God is again working on behalf of His people and that He will bring judgment on the heathen nations that had afflicted His people. These visions encouraged the Lord’s people to continue working to rebuild the temple.
In chapters 7 and 8, dated two years later, Zechariah gives a reply to a delegation of priests from Bethel concerning certain religious fasts. The thrust of his message is to show that God is concerned about hearts that are right before Him, not just about outward religious observance. It serves as a warning to the people that as the temple was completed, the danger would be to fall into outward religion without inward reality.
Chapters 9-14 are not dated and probably were written many years (perhaps 40) later. This section consists of a number of Messianic prophecies that reveal the importance of the rebuilt temple, since Messiah will come to this temple. Even though powerful nations will arise and threaten God’s people, His prophetic plan of the ages will be carried out. Because of these prophecies, Zechariah has been called the Revelation of the Old Testament. Like Revelation, it is a difficult book to interpret. But the overall message is plain: It is an encouragement to God’s discouraged and frightened people to walk in reality with Him, because He will keep His covenant promises.
You can remember the theme of the book if you will jot down the Hebrew meanings of the three names in verse 1. Zechariah means, “whom the Lord remembers.” Berechiah means, “the Lord blesses.” Iddo means, “at the appointed time” (Charles Feinberg, God Remembers [American Board of Missions to the Jews], p. 17). God raised up Zechariah to proclaim that God remembers His chosen people and that He will bless them in His appointed time.
That message applies to us, especially if you are discouraged. When you look around at the evil in the world and the apathy or hostility toward the gospel, you may feel as if God has forgotten you. But He remembers! He will bless in His appointed time! Our job is to be obedient and faithful to Him.
In the introduction (1:1-6), Zechariah answers a basic, crucial question: How can we experience God’s blessing? Remember, this was written to people who knew God and were in the process of rebuilding His temple. Zechariah did not offer a new or different message. But since we do not always apply what we already know, he starts with a basic principle:
Returning to the Lord is the key to experiencing His blessing.
Dr. Charles Feinberg notes, “This call to return dare not be passed over lightly, for it is the basic and fundamental plea of God throughout the Bible to all sinful men” (God Remembers, p. 18). The Hebrew word “return” is the word for “turning” or “repentance.” We first come to God in repentance and faith, but it is not a one-time thing. A walk with God is marked by continual repentance or returning to Him. Zechariah’s audience had returned to the land. They were rebuilding the temple. They may have thought, “Why do we need to return to God?” He begins by answering that question.
It may seem odd that Zechariah would begin a message of hope and encouragement by talking about God’s fierce anger toward sinners! The Hebrew expression is very strong. Three grammatical devices emphasize the intensity of God’s anger. First, the verb, “to be angry,” is placed first in the sentence for emphasis. Second, the Hebrew uses what is called the cognate accusative, “he was angry with anger,” which means, “God was really ticked off!” Third, the Hebrew word itself means to be full of wrath (see 2 Kings 5:11; Esther 1:12).
Does the picture of God being very angry against sinners fit with your view of Him? We live in a time that emphasizes God’s love to the neglect of His holy wrath against sin and against sinners. We glibly say, “God hates the sin, but, loves the sinner” as if somehow the sinner will never experience God’s wrath against him, but just against his sin (as separate from him)! Merrill Unger rightly observes, “Those who abuse the truth that ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:16) and make Him a doting indulgent Father to those who sustain no genuine relationship to Him as sons, forget that ‘our God is a consuming fire’ (Heb. 12:29)” (Zechariah: Prophet of Messiah’s Glory [Zondervan], p. 21).
Certainly, God is full of love and mercy to every sinner who repents. But in His holiness, God cannot and does not wink at our sin or treat it lightly. His terrible wrath against all unrepentant sinners, as seen especially in the fearful doctrine of eternal punishment in hell, should cause us to fear sinning because we fear God!
But how is this message about God’s anger a word of encouragement or hope? Dr. Unger (p. 21) answers that question this way: “The warning of divine wrath is a prerequisite to the acceptance of divine grace.” In other words, a person must sense the serious danger that he is in before he gratefully accepts the offer of being rescued from that danger. When you see that you are about to perish because of your sins, the offer of God’s mercy takes on a new light!
Pastor Ray Comfort illustrates this (video, “Ten Cannons of God’s Law”) by picturing people on a commercial flight. The stewardess comes along and says, “Sir, would you like to put on this parachute? It will make your flight more comfortable.” The guy wants to have an enjoyable flight, so he puts it on. But the thing is very uncomfortable. It is heavy. The straps chafe his neck and shoulders. He can’t sit back in his seat. The other passengers laugh at this silly-looking guy. Finally, he tears off the parachute in disgust, thinking, “This thing is a big nuisance!”
What will change his opinion of that parachute and make him eager to put it on, in spite of any discomfort or ridicule? The captain comes over the intercom and says, “Ladies and gentlemen, I regret to inform you that we have just lost power to all of our engines. We will need to abandon the plane immediately. The stewardess is coming around with some parachutes….” Everyone would eagerly be grabbing those chutes, because they know that they will perish without them!
It is only when sinners realize that they are under the fierce, eternal wrath of God that they will cry out, “What must I do to be saved?” Concerning his own salvation experience, the great Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon put it this way; “He who has stood before his God, convicted and condemned, with the rope about his neck, is the man to weep for joy when he is pardoned, to hate the evil which has been forgiven him, and to live to the honour of the Redeemer by whose blood he has been cleansed” (C. H. Spurgeon Autobiography [Banner of Truth], 1:54). Thus when we realize God’s great wrath against us as sinners, we will be desperate to find the remedy. The way to avail ourselves of that remedy is in verse 3:
Returning to God means turning from my sin, which is repentance. It is impossible to cling to my sin and reach for God’s salvation at the same time. To grab His salvation, I must let go of my sin. It is not just a one-time thing, of course. The first time any sinner repents and trusts in God’s sacrifice for sin, Jesus Christ, God pardons him completely. But since sin keeps creeping back in, we must continually repent or return to God, not to get saved, but to walk in fellowship with the Holy One. Thus repentance or returning to God will characterize every true Christian. The Bible warns that without holiness, no one will see the Lord (Heb. 12:14). Holiness is impossible if we do not develop a lifestyle of repentance or turning from sin to God.
It is important to note that God takes the initiative in this process. He invites us to return to Him. Three times in this single verse, Zechariah refers to God as the Lord of hosts to underscore His sovereign authority. None of us would dare to saunter into the presence of a powerful world ruler without an invitation or appointment. How much less should we think that we can just go to the holy Lord of hosts, God over every created power in the universe, unless He invites us! But the good news is, He does invite us! He is not waiting for us to make the first move. God has made the first move by extending the offer of pardon to us. It is our responsibility to respond.
Scripture is clear that even though repentance is our responsibility, we cannot do it in our own strength. It is the gift of God, and we must depend on Him to grant it (Acts 5:31; 11:18). As John Calvin (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], Zechariah, p. 21) rightly observes, “for if everything which God requires were in our power, the grace of the Holy Spirit would be superfluous.” So we must cry out to God for mercy and strength to do what He justly requires of us, namely, to return to Him.
Please note that the Lord of hosts does not say, “Return to keeping My law” or “Return to your religious duties.” Rather, He says, “Return to Me!” It is a personal appeal. I am not suggesting that we can disobey God’s standards of holiness and yet claim to be following Him. But I am saying that at the heart of repentance is the fact that we are returning to a personal God who loves us and relates to us on a personal level.
One of the most beautiful pictures of this in the Bible is Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son. He had sunk so low in his sin that he could only hope that his father would take him back on an impersonal level as a hired hand. But when he came limping home, his father saw him from afar (he was looking!), felt compassion for him, ran to him, embraced him and kissed him. He welcomed the young man back on a personal basis as his son, not as a hired hand!
God calls every sinner to a personal relationship: “Return to Me, that I may return to you.” You may think that your sins disqualify you from ever drawing near on a personal level to a holy God. But if you will trust in Jesus’ blood, your sin is forgiven, the door is wide open, and the invitation is personal: “Return to Me.” Charles Simeon put it this way (Expository Outlines on the Whole Bible [Zondervan], 10:431-432): “Search the inspired volume, search the annals of the whole world, and find, if you can, one mourning and believing penitent whom he cast out; or find, if you can, any limit to his mercy and grace.”
Thus Zechariah shows us our desperate need to return to the Lord, namely, His fierce anger against those who persist in sin. He then shows that when we return to the Lord on a personal level, it opens the floodgate of God’s grace. He personally turns to us. Then Zechariah cinches his opening message with a history lesson:
The prophet brings up three warnings from their history: the warning about disobedience (1:4); the warning about delay (1:5); and, the warning about divine discipline (1:6).
By “fathers” (1:2, 4, 5, 6) Zechariah means their ancestors, but especially those who had been responsible for the Babylonian captivity. Their problem was not that God had not spoken. God spoke plainly and repeatedly through His prophets about their evil lifestyle (“ways”) and deeds. But the people refused to listen and obey.
No where is this more blatant than in Jeremiah 42 & 43. Even though the people asked Jeremiah to ask God what they should do, and they assured him that they would obey, he no sooner told them the word of the Lord than they falsely accused Jeremiah of making it up himself. It was evident that they only wanted Jeremiah to approve what they were already determined to do. More often than we care to admit, we’re just like they were! We say that we want to do God’s will until His will crosses our will!
The divine warning is not to be like our fathers in their stubborn disobedience. Most of us are far more affected by the sins of our parents and grandparents than we realize (Exod. 34:7). If we have been blessed with godly parents, then certainly we should follow their godly example. But we should never follow our parents in their sins. The problem is, most of us have already fallen into our parents’ sins before we realize what we’re doing!
When one of our kids was about two, riding in the car seat behind me, I came around a blind curve in the mountains and nearly rear-ended a car that had stopped in the middle of the road to admire the scenery. I slammed on the brakes, hit the horn, and yelled, “You jerk!” From the car seat behind me, a little voice echoed, “You jerk!” It grieved me to see my sweet little child picking up the sins of her father! I have often prayed for my children, that God would protect them from my sins.
Zechariah’s point in verse 5 is that spiritual opportunity does not last forever. Their fathers had died. The prophets also had died. Guess what? We also soon will be dead! If we do not respond obediently to the Lord today, we may not have tomorrow.
It’s so easy to be a spiritual procrastinator! We deceive ourselves, “I’ll deal with this sin later! I’ll get right with God after I work through the issues I’m facing right now.” But that is often fatal! If the Lord is tugging on your heart today, saying, “Return to Me,” don’t put it off for later. Do it now! “Behold, now is ‘the acceptable time,’ behold, now is ‘the day of salvation’” (2 Cor. 6:2).
The people who repented (1:6) probably refers to those who suffered the consequences of the captivity. After the nation was destroyed and they went into captivity, they came to their senses. They realized that God’s prophets had been right, and they had to admit that God had done to them just as He had said he would do. God was right and they were wrong. True repentance always exonerates God and accepts full responsibility for our own sin.
The main idea of verses 5 & 6 together is, “Although your fathers died and even God’s prophets died, His Word is still with you, and it is always true.” When God’s Word warns of His discipline on our sin, it is not an idle threat. God’s Word overtook their fathers. The word “overtake” has the idea of relentlessly pursuing and hunting down (Deut. 19:6; 28:15, 45). The idea is, “be sure your sin will find you out” (Num. 32:23)! God always wins, so it is futile to think that you can get away with your sin!
You cannot dodge God’s Word when it warns, “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life” (Gal. 6:7-8). The history of God’s dealings with His people should teach us to return to the Lord.
“‘All flesh is like grass, and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls off, but the Word of the Lord endures forever.’ And this is the word which was preached to you” (1 Pet. 1:24-25). That word tells us of a God who judges all sin, but who invites us to return to Him, not for judgment, but for blessing. And we must return, not just once, but over and over, as often as we sin. I know that you know that. But make sure that you’re eating the right salad!
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2003, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation
If you have been a Christian for very long, you have had times when it seemed that God had forgotten you. You were seeking to please God with your life. You were not engaging in any known sin. And yet you had major trials. Your prayers seemed to bounce off the ceiling. God must have forgotten you!
To make matters worse, you noticed many pagans who seemed to be doing quite well. They had no regard for God or His ways. They were bragging openly about their sins. And yet they seemed to be enjoying everything that life has to offer.
I remember a time when I had dropped out of seminary with some frustration and was trying to figure out what the Lord wanted me to do with my life. I was in my mid-twenties, single, and very lonely. Most of my friends were married, but I had gone through two failed romances and had no prospects on the horizon.
I was living two blocks from the beach. My neighbor two doors down was a young man with blond hair that went well below his shoulders. I heard that he was a drug dealer. He had a beautiful girl friend living with him, who would come out in the morning in her bikini and hop on her bike to ride down to the beach. As I sat there alone, reading my Bible, I echoed the words of Asaph, who saw the prosperity of the wicked, but said of himself, “Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure, … for I have been stricken all day long, and chastened every morning” (Ps. 73:3, 13-14).
Your details may vary, but it’s the same plot: you’re trying to follow the Lord and have nothing but trials. Meanwhile, someone you know thumbs his nose at God and seems to be having a grand time. You wonder, “What’s going on? Has God forgotten me? Why do the wicked prosper and the godly suffer?”
The Jews to whom Zechariah ministered were struggling with that issue. They were a group of about 50,000 refugees who had returned from the Babylonian captivity to a war-devastated land. They were surrounded by aggressive neighbors who opposed their efforts to rebuild the temple and the city of Jerusalem. By faith they had responded to Haggai’s message and had begun to rebuild the temple. Two months later, God had raised up Zechariah with the message, “‘Return to Me,’ declares the Lord of hosts, ‘that I may return to you,’ says the Lord of hosts” (1:3).
Then, on the 24th day of the eleventh month, five months to the day from when the people had begun to rebuild (Hag. 1:14-15), the Lord revealed to Zechariah eight night visions to encourage His forlorn people. All eight visions (1:7-6:15) develop the same theme, which is stated in 1:14-17, that God remembers His chosen people and that He will punish the wicked and bless His people in His appointed time. As I said last week, you can remember the theme of Zechariah by remembering the Hebrew meaning of the three names in 1:1 (and 1:7): Zechariah means, “whom the Lord remembers.” Berechiah means, “the Lord blesses.” Iddo means, “at the appointed time.” Today we will look at the first night vision (1:7-17). Applied to us, the message is:
When it seems as if the wicked are at ease and the godly are forgotten, Christ encourages us with His powerful presence, His prayer for us, and His promises for our welfare.
The vision is described (1:7-8), explained (1:9-11), and applied (1:12-17). Before we look at its application for us, let me explain some of its features.
The vision is described as “the word of the Lord” to Zechariah (1:7), which points both to the origin and authority of the message. It comes from God Himself. Zechariah saw a man riding a red horse, standing in a ravine among some myrtle trees, with other horses (and riders implied) standing behind him. The rider on the red horse is clearly the prominent one. Verse 11 identifies him as “the angel of the Lord.” In the Old Testament, the angel of the Lord is Jesus Christ in preincarnate form (Gen. 16:7-13; implied in 18:1-33; 22:11-12; Exod. 3:2-6; Judges 6:14, 22; 13:9-18, 22). The other riders were lesser angels. There is another lesser angel who serves throughout the visions as the interpreting angel to Zechariah (1:13, 14, 19; 2:3; 4:1, 4-5; 5:10; 6:4; see E. W. Hengstenberg, Christology of the Old Testament [Kregel], pp. 267-269).
Commentators agree that the myrtle trees in the ravine symbolize God’s lowly people, the Jews. They are not stately cedars on a mountaintop, but humble myrtles in a ravine, under Gentile domination. The myrtle is an evergreen that can grow to about 30 feet. It exudes a fragrant aroma from its berries and leaves (when crushed), and from its flowers. Its branches were used in the Feast of Booths (Neh. 8:15). The horses symbolize God’s activity in governing the earth. The red horses point to war and bloodshed (Isa. 63:1-6; Rev. 6:4). The white horses symbolize victory (Rev. 6:2). The sorrel (light brown) or dappled (Hebrew meaning is uncertain) horses may refer to a mixture of judgment and mercy.
Zechariah asks the interpreting angel what the vision means (1:9). The angel explains that the riders on the horses are those whom the Lord has sent to patrol the earth. As John Calvin points out (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], Zechariah, p. 35), God doesn’t need angels to inform Him as to the state of things on earth, but He employs this language in order to stoop to our weakness. When the Bible says that God Himself is our refuge, it does not add anything to say that His angels encamp around us (Ps. 34:7), or that He has an entire army of angels at His disposal. But it helps our weak faith to see that He is mighty over our enemy and his forces.
This vision of Christ and His angels in the midst of God’s oppressed people is given to encourage God’s people with the reality of His powerful presence with them, even in their trials. The angel of the Lord’s intercessory question (1:12) should encourage God’s people that He cares for them. And, the Lord’s gracious and comforting words about Israel’s future (1:12-17) are also given for encouragement. I will explain more details as we go through the text.
When the patrol angels report that “all the earth is peaceful and quiet” (1:11), we need to understand it in terms of God’s promise through Haggai (2:6-7, 22) to shake and overthrow the powerful nations that dominated the world scene. When the Persian ruler Darius came to the throne, he faced numerous rebellions. A godly Jew may have thought, “This is it! Our oppressor will soon be overthrown!”
But according to an inscription and bas relief that has been found, Darius boasts that in 19 battles he had defeated nine rebel leaders and subdued all his enemies (cited by Kenneth Barker, Expositor’s Bible Commentary [Zondervan], 7:611-612). So Israel’s oppressor was boastfully at ease. The same Hebrew verb (“quiet”) is used both of Moab (Jer. 48:11) and Sodom (Ezek. 16:49) in negative ways to refer to the careless ease of the wicked. So the Jews were left wondering, “Did God forget about us? Doesn’t He know that the pagan empires are peaceful and quiet, while His chosen people are despised and downtrodden?”
That is a common picture throughout the Bible. For 400 years, God’s chosen people were slaves in Egypt while God waited for the iniquity of the Amorites to be filled up (Gen. 15:13, 16)! During the times of Christ, Israel had been under foreign domination for over four centuries. Then God judged the Jews for rejecting their Messiah and scattered them around the world for 19 centuries, culminating with the Holocaust. Only then, in 1948, did they again become a nation and begin to return to the holy land (Zech. 2:12 is the only reference to the “holy land” in the Bible).
When you get to the Book of Revelation, the picture is still that of God’s people being persecuted and oppressed, while the ungodly thrive right up to the eleventh hour (Rev. 6:9-11, with the same cry of “How long, O Lord”; 18:1-24). Right up to the end, it seems as if God has forgotten His chosen people and as if the wicked are literally getting away with murder. But in the bottom of the ninth, so to speak, God will hit a grand slam home run and win the game.
This consistent picture in Scripture and in our text should teach us three lessons. First, we should not be surprised when our personal experience is identical with God’s persecuted remnant in Scripture. As Hebrews 11 recounts the exploits of the great people of faith, don’t overlook the fact that all were not victorious in this life. Some “experienced mockings and scourgings, yes, also chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated” (Heb. 11:35-37). None of these received in this life what was promised. But they lived by faith in God’s promises, and so should we.
Second, don’t let the apparent ease and prosperity of the wicked deceive you. Like Asaph in Psalm 73:17-20, go into the sanctuary of God and consider their final end, how God will cast them down to destruction in a moment. Rather than being enticed by their temporal prosperity, we should urgently warn them of their impending eternal danger!
Third, when you don’t understand your circumstances, follow Zechariah’s example and ask God for clarification. The Lord was gracious to explain the meaning of things to the prophet so that he could comfort God’s people with the same comfort he experienced. With Asaph, if you’re losing the right perspective, take some sanctuary time and meet with God. His eternal perspective helps us get our bearings. Our text reveals three truths we need to remember when it seems as if the wicked are prospering and the godly are forgotten:
The beautiful picture here is that of Christ in the midst of His people in their humiliation as their defender, surrounded by militant angels ready to do His bidding. Christ’s taking His place with His people in the myrtle grove in the ravine reminds me of the three faithful Hebrew men whom Nebuchadnezzar threw into the fiery furnace because they would not bow before his image (Daniel 3). When he looked into the furnace, he did not see three bound men, but four, “loosed and walking about in the midst of the fire without harm, and the appearance of the fourth [was] like a son of the gods” (Dan. 3:25). I believe that the Lord Jesus Christ personally went into the flames with His three faithful witnesses.
The picture of the angels on the war horses in Zechariah’s vision reminds me of the story in 2 Kings 6:8-23, where the king of Aram was upset because Elisha was telling the king of Israel his every move before he made it. So he foolishly sent his army to surround the city where Elisha lived. When Elisha’s servant went out to get the morning paper (that detail is not in the text), he ran back inside in alarm. Elisha calmed him by saying, “Do not fear, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” Then he prayed for God to open his servant’s eyes, and the servant saw that the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.
God doesn’t always open our eyes to see the unseen world, but Scripture assures us that His angels keep watch over His chosen people (Ps. 34:7; 91:11; Dan. 6:22). And not just His angels, but Jesus Christ Himself promised to be with us to the end of the age as we take His good news throughout the world (Matt. 28:20). When it seems as if the wicked are prospering and you are suffering, trust in God’s promise of His powerful presence with you in every circumstance and you will be encouraged.
Before Zechariah can even think of what to pray in light of the godless nations being at ease, the angel of the Lord (Christ) intercedes with the question that was undoubtedly in the prophet’s mind: “O Lord of hosts, how long will You have no compassion for Jerusalem and the cities of Judah, with which you have been indignant these seventy years?” Isn’t it beautiful that the Lord does not rebuke Zechariah for thinking, “How long?” but He even asks the question on his behalf! The nation certainly deserved God’s punishment for their many years of gross sin. But here is the Lord, taking His place with them in the ravine, pleading with the Father to have compassion on them!
What a beautiful picture of the abundant grace of our Lord! Even after we believed in Him for eternal life, we all have sinned so many times that we deserve any temporal punishment that He sends our way. Even the most godly Christians feel as if their prayer life is woefully inadequate. Who can say, “I pray as often and as faithfully as I should”?
But in spite of our many sins and shortcomings, the New Testament assures us, “Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies; who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us” (Rom. 8:33-34). As Paul goes on to ask, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” His resounding answer is, “No one!” Hallelujah!
Robert Murray McCheyne, the godly 19th century Scottish pastor, wrote, “If I could hear Christ praying for me in the next room, I would not fear a million enemies. Yet the distance makes no difference. He is praying for me!” Someone else has observed that it is a great blessing to have a godly father or mother who prays for you. But how much greater a blessing to have the Son of God, who knows your every need, praying for you! When it seems as if the wicked prosper and God has forgotten you, remember that Jesus is at the right hand of the Father, interceding for you!
Thus Christ encourages us with His powerful presence and with His prayers for us.
God rightfully could have said, “This people does not deserve My compassion. Let them suffer longer!” But instead, the Lord answered the angel’s plea with “gracious words, comforting words” (1:13), which are spelled out in 1:14-17, where He says three things.
Just as the Hebrew grammar in verse 2 emphasized the intensity of God’s anger with the Jews because of their sins, so here the grammar emphasizes God’s fierce jealousy for Jerusalem and Zion. The word “jealous” is put first in the sentence for emphasis. Also, the Hebrew uses the cognate accusative, “jealous I am with jealousy.” The Hebrew verb stem (Piel = intensive) means to burn or glow red in the face. As if that were not enough, the Lord adds the word “exceedingly”! So the overall idea is that God has some very strong feelings about His relationship with His chosen people!
Calvin (p. 44) says that the picture is of God as a husband fighting for his own wife. He then applies it by saying that we should not think that God is indifferent when He delays and defers His aid, just because He doesn’t act as quickly as we may want Him to. He says, “We may therefore be fully persuaded, that even when God withholds his aid, he is not otherwise affected towards us than the best of fathers towards his own children.” The only reason for His delay is that “it is not always expedient for us to be delivered soon from our troubles” (pp. 44-45). Thus the Lord encourages us by His fiercely jealous love for us as His chosen people.
God used the pagan nations to bring judgment on His sinning people, but the nations went too far. When God says that He was “only a little angry,” He may be referring to the time of His anger towards His people, not to its intensity (1:2; so Unger, p. 31). Or, as Calvin interprets it, God’s “little anger” refers to His anger toward His elect, whereas His fierce anger (1:2, plus Ezek. 14:14) refers to His anger toward the unbelieving among Israel.
It is a mystery of the interplay between God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility how God can direct pagan nations to punish His sinning people, and then hold those nations accountable for going too far in their cruelty. Since the second vision (1:18-21) elaborates on God’s judgment on the nations, I will say no more here, except that Scripture assures us that no wicked person or nation will escape God’s certain judgment. That truth should encourage us when we feel as if the ungodly are prospering in spite of their persecuting God’s people.
God promises that His house (which they were working on) would be built and a measuring line would be stretched over Jerusalem, not for judgment (2 Kings 21:13), but for rebuilding. The cities of Israel would again overflow with prosperity. And the Lord reaffirms His comfort for Zion and His choice of Jerusalem.
While these promises were partially fulfilled in Zechariah’s era, the ultimate fulfillment still awaits the return of Christ and the establishing of His millennial kingdom. It’s interesting that Charles Simeon, writing in the early 1800’s, affirmed that the Jews would return to the land, even though this event was over a century away (Expository Outlines on the Whole Bible [Zondervan], 10:440-441). This part of God’s reply is amplified in the third vision (2:1-13).
Even though the Jews still have not experienced the fulfillment of all of these promises some 2,500 years later, they are still true. God gave them to this discouraged people to encourage them with His compassion, comfort, and choice of them as His people. His encouraging words apply to us as well. We may die without seeing the fulfillment of His promises, but they still are true. As we trust Him, we will experience His compassion and love in the midst of our trials. He has not forgotten His chosen people!
A Jewish fable tells of a rabbi who went on a journey with the prophet Elijah. At nightfall, they came to the cottage of a poor man and his wife, whose only earthly treasure was a cow. The man and his wife welcomed the strangers, fed them their best food, and put them to bed in their own bed, while the hosts lay down before the kitchen fire. But in the morning the poor man’s cow was dead.
The next evening the rabbi and Elijah came to the house of a wealthy merchant. He treated them coldly, fed them bread and water, and put them to bed in a cow shed. In the morning, Elijah thanked him for what he had done and sent for a mason to repair one of the rich man’s walls, which was falling down, as a return for his kindness.
The rabbi could not keep his silence. He asked the prophet to explain the treatment of the two hosts. The prophet replied, “In regards to the poor man, it had been decreed that his wife would die that night, but in reward for his kindness, God took the cow instead of his wife. In regards to the rich miser, I repaired his wall because a chest of gold was concealed near the place, and if the miser had repaired it himself, he would have discovered the treasure.” The moral of the tale was: Do not say to the Lord, “What are You doing?” But say in your heart, “Must not the Lord of all do rightly?” We don’t always see the big picture as God does!
When it seems as if the wicked are at ease and you are forgotten, be encouraged by Christ’s powerful presence, His prayer for you, and His promises for your welfare.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2003, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation
When you look at the church of Jesus Christ, whether in history or in our own day, the very fact of its existence is a strong evidence of both God’s existence and the truth of Jesus’ words. He promised, “I will build My church; and the gates of Hades shall not overpower it” (Matt. 16:18).
Throughout its history, the church has been battered by storms of persecution without and scandalous weaknesses within. There have been times and places where evil tyrants tried to eliminate Christians and God’s Word from the face of the earth, but the tyrants died and the church and the Word live on. There have always been false teachers within the church, spreading destructive heresies that lead many astray. There have also been Christian leaders who have fallen into horrible sins, bringing shame to the name of Christ. The modern church in America is rife with false teaching and moral scandals. And yet God has a remnant that is faithful to Him in spite of all of the problems.
Not only the church, but also the existence of the Jewish people and their presence in the Promised Land, is a witness to God’s existence and the truth of His Word. About 4,000 years ago, God promised Abraham that He would make him into a great nation, and bless those who bless him and curse those who curse him (Gen. 12:1-3). Down through history, Israel as a people has been surrounded by fierce enemies whose aim was to wipe them off the face of the earth (Ps. 129:1-2).
The Holocaust under Hitler and the present Islamic terrorism both stem from intense hatred of the Jews. Millions of Muslims hate the United States and cheered when al-Qaeda hit our nation because the U.S. is friendly towards Israel. The entire Arab world is united in its desire to see the Jews expelled from the Promised Land and even eradicated as a people. Although they have not turned back to God, the Jews still exist and are in the Promised Land as a testimony to the truth of God and His promises! Scripture predicts a glorious future for the Jews (Rom. 11:25-27).
When you come to a text such as ours today, commentators tend to go in one of two directions. Either they spiritualize the promises to Israel here by applying them exclusively to the church; or, they apply them exclusively to Israel without mentioning any application to the church. I was pleased to find that Charles Spurgeon (“The Man with the Measuring Line,” sermon # 604, Ages Software) first acknowledges its application to the future of Israel before applying it to the church. I believe that these promises will yet be fulfilled for Israel as God’s chosen people. Verses 11 & 12 will be fulfilled literally when Jesus Christ returns to reign on David’s throne in Jerusalem.
At the same time, if we only applied it to Israel and not to God’s church today, we would miss some great promises that God gives to encourage us as His people. Please keep both of these applications in mind as we examine the second and third night visions to Zechariah. Together, they show that…
God will defend and bless His chosen people in His time.
The second vision (1:18-21) amplifies 1:15, where God expresses His anger toward the nations that had gone too far in punishing Israel for her sins. The third vision (2:1-13) amplifies 1:16-17, where God reassures His people of His compassion and future blessing for them, especially in sending them His Messiah.
Both visions assume God’s absolute sovereignty and right to cast off certain nations in order to establish His chosen people according to His purpose. If God were dependent on human will to accomplish His will, He could not assert what He is going to do in the terms that He uses here. He is very definite in His plans to defend and bless His people for His own glory.
But at the same time, these visions exhort God’s people to obedience as their responsibility. God does not accomplish His sovereign plan apart from the willing obedience of His people, but rather, through it. The Bible always affirms both God’s absolute sovereignty and human responsibility. So must we!
In this second vision, Zechariah sees four horns. The type of animal is not specified; it could have been a wild ox, a bull, a ram, a goat, or some combination of these. But it doesn’t matter, because the focus is on the horn, not on the animal. In biblical imagery, the horn symbolizes strength and power, especially of nations or of Gentile kings (Ps. 75:10; Jer. 48:15; Dan. 7:24; 8:3ff.). Zechariah asks the angel what these horns are and the angel answers, “These are the horns that have scattered Judah, Israel and Jerusalem.”
Commentators differ on the identification of these four horns. Some say that the number four represents the four compass points, thus indicating that Israel is surrounded by hostile enemies, without any specific enemies in view. Others say that the four horns are either Assyria, Egypt, Babylon, and Medo-Persia (past and current oppressors of Israel) or Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome (Daniel 2, 7, in which case the last two powers were still future in Zechariah’s day). These last four are the four major powers that dominate the Jews during the times of the Gentiles.
Then the Lord shows Zechariah four craftsmen. The prophet asks, “What are these coming to do?” The Lord tells him that these four craftsmen have come to terrify and throw down the four horns that have scattered Judah.
What can we learn from this vision? First, we learn that God’s people should expect severe hardships and opposition simply because they are His people in this evil world. Whether it is the nation Israel or the church, the Bible is clear that God’s enemy will stir up opposition right up to the final victory of Christ. The Christian life is pictured as warfare, and as we know from the current war in Iraq, warfare is not a Sunday School picnic! We are commanded to put on the full armor of God so that we may be able to stand firm in the evil day (Eph. 6:10-20). Not only do we have to be ready to fight the enemy without, but also we must be ready to fight against the enemy within, “the fleshly lusts, which wage war against the soul” (1 Pet. 2:11).
Warfare requires a certain mindset. You don’t go into battle with a casual manner, thinking about other things. You gear up your mind for action (1 Pet. 1:13) and stay vigilant and focused so that you don’t get ambushed. Far too many Christians wander into the world as if they’re going to a Sunday School picnic rather than as if they are going into mortal combat. When trials or opposition hit, they are caught off guard and don’t handle it well. Expect enemy opposition if you are a part of God’s people!
Second, know that God will be the strong defender of His people and that He will punish the wicked in His time. For each horn, God raised up a craftsman to throw it down. In some cases, His people suffered for years before He brought the deliverer. It wasn’t always on their desired timetable! But the point is, He will defend His chosen people and punish the wicked in His time! While many of God’s faithful saints have died martyrs’ deaths, the cause of Jesus Christ will prevail. There is no doubt as to the final outcome. Therefore, we should commit ourselves to it fully.
But perhaps you still wonder, “Why does God permit this kind of strong opposition against His people?” There can be multiple reasons. One reason (this was true of Israel in Zechariah’s time) is, God uses opposition to chasten His people for their worldliness and unfaithfulness. The Babylonian captivity was directly linked to Israel’s many years of disobedience to God.
Another reason God allows opposition is to teach us that we cannot prevail in our own strength, so that we are forced to rely on God alone. We all are prone not to trust God fully until we are forced to do so. Powerful opposition drives us to the Lord for protection and defense. Coupled with this, God permits opposition to develop godly character qualities in His people. As the hymn, “How Firm a Foundation,” puts it, “The flames shall not hurt thee, I only design, thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.” So whatever the form of the opposition, remember that it will not ultimately prevail. God will judge all who oppose His people, and He will deliver and vindicate His people. But He does it in His time, not in our time!
The vision is presented in 2:1-5 and applied in 2:6-13.
In his third vision, Zechariah sees a man with a measuring line who is going out to measure Jerusalem. Many commentators think that this man is the angel of the Lord, but others view him as a man who is mistaken in his attempt to measure the city, in light of 2:4. Since the text does not identify him, we cannot be dogmatic. Another angel meets Zechariah’s interpreting angel and tells him to run and say to the young man (some understand this to be the man with the measuring line, but more likely, it is Zechariah), “Jerusalem will be inhabited without walls because of the multitude of men and cattle within it.”
Then a word from the Lord assures His people, “For I will be a wall of fire around her, and I will be the glory in her midst.” The wall of fire recalls the pillar of fire that God used to illumine and protect Israel from her enemies in the wilderness (Exod. 14:19-24). Also, shepherds would sometimes build a fire around their flock to protect them from wolves at night. The picture is that God will surround and defend His people from their enemies.
God also promises to be the glory in the midst of His people. The Shekinah glory had departed from the temple because of the people’s sin (Ezek. 10:18; 11:22, 23), but now it would return through the presence of the Lord Himself. This is a reference to the second coming of Christ and the New Jerusalem, which will have “no need of the sun or moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God has illumined it, and its lamp is the Lamb” (Rev. 21:23).
But even though its ultimate fulfillment awaits the future, there is certainly an application for the church today. While elders are exhorted to guard the flock from predators (Acts 20:28-31), and we should do all that we can to obey that charge, the Lord Himself must be the defender of His church or it would have failed centuries ago! Concerning His glory in our midst, we will never experience now anything close to the glory of God’s presence that we will know when Jesus returns. But even so, we still should strive so to exalt Jesus Christ in His church that those who come among us will declare that God is certainly in our midst (1 Cor. 14:25).
Both promises are related to our obedience. If we want God to be a wall of fire around us and to be the glory in our midst, we must walk in holiness before Him each day, allowing His purifying fire to cleanse our hearts of all sin. We must be captivated with the beauty of His glory as we grow to know Him more and more.
The vision is applied with three commands. The first (2:6-9), “Flee,” is given to the exiles who are still living in Babylon. The second (2:10-12), “Sing for joy,” is directed to the “daughter of Zion,” which refers to believing Jews who are looking for Messiah. The third (2:13), “Be silent before the Lord” is directed to all people (“flesh”) of the earth.
Babylon was to the east of Jerusalem, but it is called the land of the north because the invaders followed the Euphrates River to the north and then swooped down on Jerusalem from that direction. God repeats the command twice to His people to emphasize the importance of it: Flee Babylon! Escape while you can!
This command took faith to obey. Babylon (or the Medo-Persian empire, which had conquered Babylon) was then prospering. It was the hub of the civilized world. Jobs, culture, comfort—Babylon had it all! But Jerusalem was a heap of rubble. There were no walls of defense. Hostile neighbors threatened every attempt to rebuild it. Yet God says to His people, “I’m going to bless Jerusalem and judge Babylon. So flee Babylon while you can!”
Then we come to verse 8, which one commentator (Joyce Baldwin, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries [IVP], p.109) calls “one of the most difficult verses in the book.” There are two interpretive problems: What does “after glory” mean? And, who is the “me” who is sent? Without going into all of the possibilities, I think that the “me” refers to Messiah, who is one in essence with the Lord of hosts, and yet distinguished as to person. Thus the Father sends the Son to restrain the nations that plunder His people (this is Calvin’s view, among others). The phrase “after glory” “describes the ministry of Messiah in which He vindicates and demonstrates the glory of God, particularly as He will punish Israel’s enemies and deliver and establish His own people in kingdom blessing” (Merrill Unger, Zechariah: Prophet of Messiah’s Glory [Zondervan], p. 49, italics his). Thus the first part of verse 8 explains why God’s people should flee Babylon: Because God will send His Messiah to vindicate His glory by conquering the worldly nations that have oppressed His people.
Then the Lord adds the reason why Messiah will do this: “For he who touches you, touches the apple of His eye.” This shows how much God loves and cares for His people! “The apple of His eye” refers to the pupil, which is probably the most sensitive part of your body. You guard your eye more than anything, because it is so important and so vulnerable. God says that His people are like that to Him. As John Calvin puts it, “the love of God towards the faithful is so tender that when they are hurt he burns with so much displeasure, as though one attempted to pierce his eyes” (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], on Zechariah, p. 71). Thus God’s love for His people is given as a strong motivation to flee Babylon.
The command to flee Babylon is of more than academic value to us. In the Scriptures, Babylon represents the world system as opposed to God. Even as God’s people, it’s easy to dwell there. It has many enticements: money, pleasure, status, the good life—and you can experience it all right now! The church, world missions, the kingdom of God—that’s all nice, but not nearly as enticing as what the world dangles in front of us. But the Bible clearly warns us, “Do not love the world, nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15). It’s a matter of God’s love! You will either love this evil world and all that it offers, or you will renounce the world because by faith in Christ, you are now the apple of God’s eye.
It takes faith to obey God on this matter. Right now, the world looks mighty appealing. The church looks pretty drab in comparison. But in the final chapters of Revelation, God reveals the outcome of Babylon compared to that of the church. Babylon and all her wealth are destroyed in one hour. The church rejoices over Babylon’s destruction and enjoys the marriage supper of the Lamb (see Revelation 18 & 19).
May I ask: Are you dwelling in Babylon or Jerusalem right now? Are you living for this world and what it offers, or are you seeking first God’s kingdom and righteousness? Are you storing up treasures on earth, or are you committed to building God’s temple in the Spirit? A sure-fire way to answer those questions is to examine where you spend your time and money. If you are committed to building God’s temple, you will spend significant amounts of time and money to further God’s work both here and around the world. To repeat the Lord’s appeal, “Escape, you who are living with the daughter of Babylon” (2:7).
The flow of thought here is repeated in Revelation 18:20, where after God’s judgment falls on Babylon, the saints are commanded to rejoice. In Zechariah, the focus of their joy is the coming of Messiah and the salvation of the nations, when God will possess Judah as His portion in the holy land (the only reference to “the holy land” in the Bible). In Zechariah 9:9, God’s people are told to rejoice over Messiah’s coming, but the reference is to His first coming, when He will be “humble and mounted on a donkey.” But here the focus is on Messiah’s second coming, when He will dwell literally in the midst of His people and the nations will find salvation in Him.
While there is no good reason to deny the literal future fulfillment of this promise in Christ’s millennial kingdom, we also should apply it to the church today. God’s purpose is to be glorified among the nations. He has called us to find our joy in Him and then to take that joy to the ends of the earth. We have His promise that His kingdom will prevail, in spite of the difficulties and setbacks that we may encounter as we seek to proclaim Christ to the nations. So heed the command to sing for joy and be glad over the promise of His coming. But don’t keep that joy to yourself. Take it to the nations through your prayers, your giving, and (in some cases) your going with the good news of Christ the Savior who has come and is coming again.
The command to flee Babylon is given to God’s people dwelling in the world. The command to sing for joy is given to those who are daughters of Zion, who eagerly await the Lord’s coming to dwell among them. The command to be silent before the Lord is given to all flesh. It is saying, “In light of everything that has been said to this point, in light of the certainty of God’s future judgment of the nations and the establishing of Messiah’s kingdom, hush up, people! Be in awe, because God is aroused and about to act!”
The picture is that of a sleeping giant who is now aroused and ready to take care of his enemies. But it is only an apparent image, because “He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep” (Ps. 121:4). Even though God’s judgment is delayed and it seems to us as if He is sleeping, the day is certainly coming when He will be aroused to judge all flesh. Verse 13 is similar to Psalm 2:12, “Do homage to the Son, that He not become angry, and you perish in the way, for His wrath may soon be kindled. How blessed are all who take refuge in Him!” So it is a command to believers not to despair at God’s seeming delay of judgment and a command to unbelievers to make haste to submit to God before it is too late.
How you apply this message personally depends on where you are at. If you profess to know God, but are living with the daughter of Babylon, God’s word to you is, “Get out of there quickly!” “If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15)!
If you are dwelling in Jerusalem, but discouraged over the trials you are experiencing, God’s word to you is, “Sing for joy and be glad, for behold, I am coming and I will dwell in your midst” (Zech. 2:10). Rest in the promise that you are the apple of His eye and that He will judge those who harm you.
If you are not one of God’s people, His word to you is, “Submit your life to Jesus Christ now, before He comes in judgment and it is too late!” No matter how great your sins, He invites you to trust in Christ as your sin-bearer, to join yourself to the Lord and become one of His people.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2003, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation
The evangelical church today has minimized the problem of guilt by portraying God as very tolerant of sinners, and by viewing ourselves as not such bad folks after all. We see God primarily as our good Buddy in the sky, who may sigh about our sin, but who would never get angry or deal severely with His children. And, thanks to the insights of “Christian” psychology, we now know that the high calling of Christians is to love ourselves and build our self-esteem. As a result, we think that God chose us because of the great potential He saw in us.
But it is essential that we form our view of God and ourselves from Scripture, not from the prevailing views of our times. When we examine Scripture, we find that God is far more holy than we ever imagined, and we are far more sinful than we ever fathomed. As F. B. Meyer puts it (The Prophet of Hope [Christian Literature Crusade], p. 44), “The more we know of God, the more we loathe ourselves and repent.” If loathing ourselves strikes us as a bit out of sync with building our self-esteem, perhaps we do not know God as F. B. Meyer knew God!
Suppose that you had been working on your car and you are covered with grease. Your wife is inside, working on a new white dress. She calls out to you that she needs help getting the zipper up on the back of her new white dress. How can you possibly help your wife in that situation?
That hypothetical situation is a picture of a real, more serious matter: How can defiled sinners like us serve a holy God? The Jews to whom Zechariah ministered felt the sting of that question. They had just returned from the Babylonian captivity, which had taken place because of the nation’s gross, persistent, unrepentant sin. Now a remnant was back in the land, attempting to rebuild the temple and reestablish the proper worship of God. But the past was there to haunt them.
As anyone who truly knows God will testify, when you try to serve God, your conscience kicks into high gear. “Who do you think you are to teach the Bible to others?” So they think, “Some day when I get my life together, I may serve God. But not now!” So a practical question facing all of God’s people is, “How can a sinner such as I serve a holy God?”
Zechariah’s fourth night vision answers that question. It showed the returned remnant that God would cleanse the nation and restore them as a priestly people before Him. He would remove their defilement so that they could again serve Him. As with most of Zechariah’s visions, it is designed to give hope and encouragement to the Lord’s chosen people.
Before we apply this text to ourselves on an individual level, which will be the thrust of this message, we need to understand that the proper interpretation of Zechariah 3 is national and prophetic in scope. Joshua, as the high priest, is representative of the nation Israel. As Merrill Unger explains (Zechariah: Prophet of Messiah’s Glory [Zondervan], p. 56), each of these eight night visions involves “the nation as a whole, seen in panoramic prophetic sweep extending from its failure and judgment to its final restoration in Kingdom blessing.” The picture here is of God restoring His people corporately to their place as “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod. 19:6). The ultimate final fulfillment of this still awaits Messiah’s second coming.
But the vision had an immediate application to the people who were rebuilding the temple, to show them that they were not laboring in vain. It also applies to us who are seeking to build God’s living temple, the church (Eph. 2:20-22). How can we as sinners serve a holy God? We learn that…
God cleanses sinners through Christ on the basis of His grace and then uses them to serve Him as they walk in His ways.
Some professing Christians try to serve God as a way to work off their guilt. I once asked a pastor who had entered the ministry in his forties how it was that he felt called to the ministry at that point in life. He replied with a very stern look on his face, “I had to live with myself!” Apparently the ministry was a form of penance!
But any idea that we have to work off or pay for our guilt through good works or penance or purgatory undermines God’s grace, which is undeserved favor. As Paul explains (Rom. 4:4-5), “Now to the one who works, his wage is not reckoned as a favor [grace], but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness.” As Paul so boldly states, it is not that God justifies those who work hard to earn it. Rather, He justifies the ungodly!
Zechariah sees Joshua, the high priest (whose name means, “Yahweh saves”) standing before the angel of the Lord, who is identified in 3:2 as “the Lord.” As we have seen, the angel of the Lord in the Old Testament is Jesus Christ in preincarnate form. The Hebrew expression “standing before” is used of priests standing before the Lord to minister (Deut. 10:8; Judges 20:28; 2 Chron. 29:11; Ezek. 44:15). So the picture is that Joshua is attempting to minister before the Lord in his priestly capacity. But he is clothed with filthy garments, representing his own sins and the sins of the nation. This gives Satan, whose name means accuser or adversary, grounds to attack him.
The Hebrew word for “filthy” literally means, “excrement-covered”! Picture a farmer who had been cleaning the barnyard and his overalls are covered with manure. He reeks of the stuff. Without bathing or changing clothes, he walks into a church meeting. That’s how Joshua appeared before God in this vision.
You may wonder, “Why didn’t he put on his finest, clean robes before he went to minister before the Lord?” Perhaps he did. But what looked clean to men on earth did not look so clean when it came into the brilliant light of God’s holy presence. When we compare ourselves with ourselves, our good deeds may seem adequate to commend us to God. But in God’s sight, even our most righteous deeds are as filthy rags (Isa. 64:6, where the Hebrew word pictures soiled menstrual rags!). If we come before God on the basis of any human merit, we are doomed from the start. We have nothing to offer God except filthy, excrement-covered deeds!
In the vision, Satan is standing at Joshua’s right hand to accuse him, and he’s got a good case, because Joshua did not dress properly for court! In Revelation 12:10, Satan is called the accuser of our brethren, “who accuses them before our God day and night.” He doesn’t need to do a lot of homework to prepare his case. He just points to our many sins and says, “This man does not deserve to be Your child. He does not deserve to get into Your heaven. And he most certainly does not deserve to serve Your cause. I rest my case.” Two practical observations:
When we walk in the light of God’s Word, His Spirit will often graciously convict us of wrong thoughts, attitudes, words, or behavior: “The way you snapped at your wife and kids this morning did not reflect the patience and kindness of Christ.” We would be in error to label such inner promptings as the accusations of Satan. It is the Lord putting His finger on a sin that I need to confess and turn from. I need to ask forgiveness both from the Lord and from my family for my sinful behavior. I need to apply the shed blood of Christ to my heart in that instance. But if I have truly done that, but still feel guilt and accusation, it is not from the Lord. It is from the enemy. How do we deal with this?
Joshua didn’t pipe up by saying, “Now wait a minute, Satan! I’m not such a bad guy. I’ve never committed adultery. I’ve never murdered anyone. I am regular in synagogue attendance. I pay my tithes! I even serve God as a priest.” No, Joshua didn’t say a word, because he could see (and smell) his filthy garments. He was guilty as charged. The only way to answer the devil when he brings up your sins that you know are under Jesus’ blood is to say, “The Lord rebuke you, Satan! Take it up with the Lord. If His shed blood is not sufficient to pay for my sins, I am doomed.” Like Joshua, we all stand guilty as charged, with no merit of our own. Note how the Lord defended Joshua:
“The Lord said to Satan, ‘The Lord rebuke you, Satan! Indeed, the Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is this not a brand plucked from the fire?’” (3:2). The Lord did not rebuke Satan by pointing out Joshua’s finer qualities. He didn’t read the list of Joshua’s good deeds over the years.
Instead, the Lord rebukes the devil on the basis of something that the devil cannot contend against, because it lies in the very nature of God as the Sovereign of the universe. God points Satan to His sovereign choice of Israel. Jerusalem (which stands for Israel) is mentioned rather than Joshua personally because he represents the nation in this vision. But clearly, God’s sovereign choice of the nation included His choice of specific individuals in Israel, such as Joshua. Many Scriptures, both in the Old and New Testaments, show that God sovereignly chooses individuals for salvation, not just an impersonal group. That’s how God works in His plan for the ages, by His sovereign choice.
Many Christians wrongly believe that God works on the basis of human choice, not divine choice. As they see it, God chooses us on the basis foreknowing that we would choose Him. This makes election not God’s choice, but rather, man’s choice! And it would then no longer be on the basis of grace (unmerited favor), but rather on the basis of something good that God foresaw that we would do, namely, choose Him. And then we would have a reason for sharing the glory with God in our salvation, because there was something inherently good in us that caused us to choose God. But Paul forcefully refutes this in Romans, where he shows that “there is none who seeks for God” (3:11), and that salvation “does not depend on the man who wills [human choice] or the man who runs [human effort], but on God who has mercy” (Rom. 9:16).
Note also that the cleansing from sin mentioned in Zechariah 3 is not potential, waiting on Israel’s response, but actual, according to God’s purpose. The Lord doesn’t turn to Joshua and say, “I’d really like to cleanse you, I’m out here knocking on the door of your heart, but it’s your decision, Joshua. I’m waiting for you!” No, the Lord powerfully rebukes Satan and then commands those standing near Joshua to remove his filthy garments and put clean garments on him. Then He explains what He is doing to Joshua. As Charles Feinberg states, “It is clearly God’s work without any help from man” (The Minor Prophets [Moody Press], p. 285).
Dr Feinberg also says, “Let those who rail at the choice of God note this passage, and let them rejoice that this is their certainty and assurance for eternity also” (ibid.). If you deny God’s sovereign gracious election as the basis for your salvation, you not only deny the clear teaching of His Word, but also rob yourself of a major ground of assurance! To make your cleansing from sin rest on your feeble choice of God is to ground your salvation on a faulty surface. God grounds your cleansing from sin on the sure foundation of His sovereign choice, and not even Satan can bring a charge against God’s elect (Rom. 8:33)!
Thus we’ve seen that Joshua had no merit of his own. Rather, God cleansed him according to God’s sovereign election. Third,
The Lord commands those standing before him, “Remove the filthy garments from him” (3:4). Then He puts the clean festal robes on him. At this point, Zechariah gets so excited that he gets involved by asking them to put a clean turban on his head. This refers to the linen turban the priests wore that had a gold plate on the front with the inscription, “Holy to the Lord” (Exod. 28:36).
This is a picture of the truth that when God cleanses a sinner, He not only takes away his sin, but also He imputes to him the very righteousness of Jesus Christ (Rom. 3:22, 26; 2 Cor. 5:21). We stand before God not in our own good deeds, but in the righteous deeds of Jesus Christ, imputed to our account. It is not a lifelong process of God infusing enough righteousness into us that eventually we qualify for heaven, as the Roman Catholic Church teaches. Rather, it is a judicial decision on God’s part that takes place in an instant, as the clothing of Joshua here pictures. God justifies the guilty sinner by grace alone through Christ alone, received by faith alone. Our good deeds have nothing at all to do with it.
The angel of the Lord, who is Christ, is there to defend Joshua from Satan’s attack. Joshua passively lets Christ be his total help and hope for acquittal. But also, in 3:8-9 the Lord explains to Joshua that he and his friends who were sitting there with him are “men who are a symbol.” The word means that they are a “sign of a future event” (Unger, p. 65). The Lord gives them the prophecy that He will bring in “My servant the Branch.” He also sets before Joshua “the stone,” which has seven eyes and an inscription that God will engrave on it. These terms point to Christ.
*“My Servant the Branch”—Both “servant” and “branch” are names for Messiah (“servant,” Isa. 42:1; 53:11; “branch,” Isa. 4:2; 11:1; 53:2; Jer. 23:5; 33:15). Both terms point to Messiah in His lowliness and humiliation in His first coming, as the shoot of David. C. F. Keil (Commentary on the Old Testament [Eerdmans], with Franz Delitzsch, on Minor Prophets, 2:260) explains, “[Branch] … denotes the Messiah in His origin from the family of David that has fallen into humiliation, as a sprout which will grow up from its original state of humiliation to exaltation and glory, and answers therefore to the train of thought in this passage, in which the deeply humiliated priesthood is exalted by the grace of the Lord into a type of the Messiah.”
*“The Stone”—most scholars agree that this also refers to Messiah, in line with a number of biblical references (Ps. 118:22; Isa. 28:16; Matt. 21:42; Acts 4:11; 1 Pet. 2:6). The seven eyes on the stone probably refer to the omniscience of Messiah, although some interpret them to refer to God’s eyes looking on the stone from the outside, which would point to God’s loving protection of it. The imagery of the stone means that Christ is the foundation of His true temple, and also the one who will crush His opponents when He comes in judgment.
The engraving on the stone is difficult to interpret, since we don’t know what it said. It may point to the stone as a costly, precious stone. Some commentators interpret the engraving to refer to the cuts on Messiah made by the thorns on His brow, the nail prints in His hands and feet, and the wound in His side, authenticating Him as the Servant obedient unto death (Unger, p. 67).
Through this Servant Branch and Stone, the Lord declares that He “will remove the iniquity of the land in one day” (3:9). This refers both to the day of the cross, when Christ atoned for the sins of His people, and the future day of salvation for Israel that Paul refers to in Romans 11:25-27. The point is that God removes our sin entirely through the work of Christ on the cross, and not through any good works that we add to His finished work.
Thus God cleanses guilty sinners by His sovereign grace apart from their own merit through Christ alone. There remains one point that I can only touch on:
In verse 7, the Lord states, “if you will walk in My ways and if you will perform My service, then you will also govern My house and also have charge of My courts, and I will grant you free access among these who are standing here.” It is also alluded to in the Lord’s description of Joshua as “a brand plucked from the fire” (3:2). The only reason to rescue a stick from the fire is that you see a further use for it. It means that God saves His people for His purpose, that they would serve as believer priests before Him. Our text mentions both the requirement for and the results of service.
Although God cleanses us apart from any merit in us, His grace is never an excuse for loose living (Rom. 6:1-2). A person who knows that God has graciously rescued him from the fire will not want to jump back into the flames. The one who has been clothed with the righteousness of Christ will not want to jump into the mud. As those cleansed by God, we should always seek to be clean vessels, ready for the Master’s use (2 Tim. 2:21). Whenever we sin, we must apply Jesus’ blood to our hearts in order to be clean for God to use us in service.
The priests who walked in God’s ways would govern His house, have charge of His courts, and have free access to Him. The governance of God’s house and courts referred to the duties of the Old Testament priests in guarding the temple from defilement. The word “free access” means “comings and goings” and refers to the ready access to God that the priests would have, even as the angels standing there had (Unger, p. 63). The picture in verse 10 of everyone inviting his neighbor to sit under his vine and fig tree was an expression picturing God’s people at peace and amply supplied (1 Kings 4:25; Micah 4:4).
The application for us is that God pours out His abundant blessings on those who walk in His ways and who minister as priests before Him in worship and prayer. Although it will not be ultimately fulfilled until the Millennium, we can experience a foretaste of it now. When we are right with God through faith in Jesus Christ, walking in holiness before Him, we will be at peace in His house, in our own homes, and with our neighbors. Peace with God is the key for peace with one another.
When John Wesley was six years old, he awoke one night to the horror of being in a burning house. Everyone else had gotten to safety, but somehow he had been forgotten. At the very last moment, just before the roof collapsed, a neighbor climbed through the window and pulled the terrified child to safety. He always saw himself as a brand plucked from the burning. After his conversion, which came after years of trying to earn salvation by his good works, he realized even more how much God had rescued him from the eternal flames of hell.
If God has not rescued you from your sins, you must let go of your good works and allow God to cleanse you by His sovereign grace through Christ alone. If He has rescued you, it is so that you can now serve Him as you walk in His ways.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2003, All Rights Reserved.
When I began to serve as a pastor 26 years ago, just six weeks shy of my thirtieth birthday, I was extremely unsure of whether or not I could do it. I didn’t know whether I could prepare new sermons each week without running dry after a short while. I didn’t know if I could handle the other aspects of the ministry: providing leadership and vision for the church, giving biblical counsel to those in need, working graciously with difficult people, discipling current and future leaders, conducting weddings and funerals, and handling day to day administrative tasks.
That church was small and had never supported a full time pastor before, and so there was the added concern of whether or not the finances would be there week to week to meet our needs. And so with some anxiety and an overwhelming sense of personal inadequacy, I said, “Lord, I’ll try this for three years and then we’ll see where we’re at!”
By God’s grace alone, here I am 26 years later, still with some anxiety and an overwhelming sense of personal inadequacy, hanging on! I am not exaggerating or being modest when I say that if God pulled the plug on me tomorrow, I wouldn’t last a month in this ministry. I have often felt like Peter, walking on the water, thinking to myself, “What am I doing out here? Why did I ever get out of that boat?” and at the same time praying, “Lord, if You don’t hold me up, I’m going under!”
Charles Simeon (Expository Outlines on the Whole Bible [Zondervan], 10:460) said it well, “We see how dependent a little infant is on its mother; and such must we be in the arms of God. We must undertake nothing in our own strength: in no circumstances whatever may we lean to our own understanding: whatever is devised, or whatever is done, the creature must be nothing; but God must be all in all.”
We hear a lot today about stress and burnout, especially in ministry. It’s a complex problem that includes many factors that I cannot delve into in this message. Sometimes burnout stems from faulty time management or from being over-committed. Sometimes it results from trying to do it all yourself and not delegating properly. Our text does not deal with these aspects of the problem, nor will I. But it does give us two principles that offer significant help in preventing spiritual burnout:
To prevent spiritual burnout, see the importance of God’s work and depend on the continual supply of His Spirit.
The work that God gives us is to be His lampstand, both corporately and individually. The only way that we can fulfill that task is by depending on the continual supply of the oil of God’s Spirit. In that way, we will burn for God without burning out.
Zechariah’s fourth vision (chapter 3) encouraged Joshua the high priest with the message: “God will cleanse His chosen people through Messiah and use them to serve Him.” His fifth vision (chapter 4) encouraged Zerubbabel, the civic leader, with the message: “The temple that you have begun will be completed and My people will become a light unto the nations under Messiah. This will not be accomplished by human effort, but by My Spirit.” In the fourth vision we saw the cleansing that is necessary before anyone can serve God. In the fifth vision we see the testimony that results from a cleansed and Spirit-filled life. While our text will ultimately be fulfilled with Israel in the Millennium, it also applied to God’s people in Zechariah’s day and it applies to us as we seek to be God’s light to the nations.
Zechariah saw a lampstand of gold with seven lamps and a bowl at the top, which served as a reservoir for the oil. Two olive trees, each with a branch, stood beside the lampstand. A golden pipe extended from each branch to the bowl so that the golden olive oil poured from the tree. Out of the reservoir or bowl (according to most commentators) came 49 spouts or pipes, seven to each of seven lamps on the lampstand. This lampstand was similar to the one that stood in the holy place of the tabernacle, with three exceptions: (1) the bowl on top of it; (2) the seven pipes to each lamp; and, (3) the two olive trees. These additions point to the abundant, continual supply of oil to the lamps. In the temple, the priests had to keep the lamps full of oil, but in this vision, the supply of oil flowed constantly without help from any man.
The lampstand signifies the important task that God gives to His people to be a light to the nations, to reveal God and His truth to those who walk in darkness. The oil that flows in continual abundant supply so that the lamps can go on burning symbolizes the Holy Spirit. The two olive trees represent the priestly and kingly offices in Israel, with the two branches being Joshua and Zerubbabel. Together these two anointed ones were a type of the Lord Jesus Christ in His offices of Priest and King. Jesus is God’s Anointed One (that’s what “Messiah” or “Christ” means), who provides the Holy Spirit in abundant supply to His people.
The Lord encourages Zerubbabel (4:7-9) by assuring him that in spite of the mountain of problems in rebuilding the temple, he would finish the task. This would confirm to all of God’s people that He had sent His Messiah-Servant (“me” in 4:9b), in the person of the angel of the Lord, to His people. The old timers, who were disparaging this temple in comparison to the former one, should not despise the day of small things (4:10). Under God’s perfect providence (the seven eyes of the Lord, which range over the earth to watch over His people), the project will be completed. With that as an overview, let’s look at the two main principles.
We tend to burn out when we lose motivation, and we lose motivation when we lose perspective on the importance of the work to which God has called His people. That work involves being God’s lampstand to the world (see Rev. 1:12-20). It involves building God’s temple where His light shines forth. The world ought to see Christ, the light of the world, both in Christians individually and in the church corporately.
That is no insignificant task, because it involves displaying the light of God’s glory to a world that loves darkness rather than light! The apostle Paul said that “the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving, that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor. 4:4). The only way that such blind people can see is if, as Paul goes on to say, God, who said, “Light shall shine out of darkness” shines into their hearts “to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” God does that by putting His treasure in earthen vessels, “that the surpassing greatness of the power may be of God and not from ourselves” (2 Cor. 4:6-7). Our task, as God’s people, is to be His lampstand, shining forth with His glory to this sin-darkened world.
But there are some negative things that can cause us to lose sight of the importance of God’s work.
“What are you, O great mountain?” (4:7). This refers to the mountain of difficulties that Zerubbabel faced in rebuilding the temple. There had been opposition from enemies without. There was spiritual lethargy and discouragement among the Jews within. But God promises Zerubbabel that this mountain of problems would become a plain and that he would complete the temple by bringing forth the top stone with shouts of “Grace, grace to it.” All that we accomplish for the Lord is by His grace!
But God didn’t remove the mountain in one magic moment! Zerubbabel had to keep working for about four more years before the temple was finished. And then there was the further problem of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, which didn’t get completed until Nehemiah’s time, almost 100 years later.
The point is, you will always encounter a mountain of problems when you seek to build God’s temple. Commenting on this point, Dr. James Boice said, “As I counsel with people in our day, many of them young people, I am convinced that one of their biggest problems is that they expect shortcuts” (The Minor Prophets [Baker], 2:510). He goes on to say that people want some simple principle to understand all the Bible apart from diligent study. They want some experience that will transport them effortlessly to a higher spiritual plateau, without daily discipline. They want a nearly perfect church, without the hassle of working through difficulties. But that is not the way God gets His work done.
Zerubabbel must have been thinking, “This project will never get done!” The work had begun over 20 years before. It would still take another four years. But God assures Zerubbabel (4:9) that his hands, which had laid the foundation of the temple, would finish it. Eventually, it was completed.
As I read the Bible I am amazed at how long God takes to accomplish His work through His people. God appeared to Abraham and promised to make him the father of many nations and to bless all nations of the earth through him. I wonder if Abraham thought, “Wow, I’d better start building a baby crib and Sarah needs to start sewing some baby clothes.” If they did that, those baby items sat around collecting dust for 25 years before Isaac was born! Isaac spent his life digging some wells out in the desert and raising Esau and Jacob. Jacob spent about 20 years working for Laban before he finally got back to the land of Canaan. But then the small clan moved to Egypt where they were enslaved for 400 years. Then came 40 more years in the wilderness. Later there was the Babylonian captivity and then 400 years without a word from God. He didn’t send His Messiah until 2,000 years after His promise to Abraham! Obviously, God isn’t in the hurry that we are in!
If you’re going to commit yourself to building God’s temple, the church, be prepared for the long haul! Just about the time you think you’re getting somewhere, the key disciple you’ve been working with decides to move! There are many other setbacks. You never reach a point in the local church where you can stand back and say, “It’s all done!”
As we saw in our study of Ezra 3, many of the old timers wept when they saw this puny temple because they compared it to the glory of Solomon’s temple. God refers to this group in verse 10: “For who has despised the day of small things?” From the perspective of world history and the then-mighty Persian Empire, of what significance was this little band of Jews who were attempting to reconstruct a place of worship out of the ruins of Jerusalem? Their project certainly would not have made any headlines!
It’s easy to get discouraged by thinking, “What difference does it make that I teach Sunday School or come out for a work day at church or take a meal to a family going through hardship or share Christ with my neighbor?” If we think that way, we’re more likely to burn out than if we see the importance of God’s work.
In contrast to these seeming negatives that can obscure the importance of God’s work, there are some sure positives that will impress on us the importance of His work.
God is saying to Zerubbabel (and us) that small is great if God’s eye is upon it. The seven eyes of God (4:10) signify God’s full attention and care. The point is that God, who sees everything on the face of the earth, takes note of Zerubbabel’s building project and that God delights in it.
If you are committed to building the church by winning people to Christ and helping them to grow in Christ, God delights in what you are doing. You’re doing what Jesus said He will do, namely, “I will build My church.” What could be more important than to commit yourself to doing what Jesus Christ is doing?
The Lord is referred to as “the Lord of the whole earth” (4:14). He promises Zerubbabel that what He is doing will get done in spite of the mountains of opposition. God’s purpose is that the knowledge of His glory will fill the earth as the waters cover the sea (Hab. 2:14). There will be some from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation around God’s throne (Rev. 5:9). We have the great privilege of joining in God’s worldwide cause that will certainly prevail! We are His lampstand, the light of the world (Matt. 5:14).
That’s what the lampstand and temple were all about. Everything in the temple pointed people to God. We now are God’s temple and His lampstand! By our lives and our verbal witness, we should point people to Jesus Christ. His presence and very nature should be displayed in our lives, beginning in our homes and extending to the world. Although we are just earthen vessels, we contain the treasure of Jesus Christ that the world so desperately needs. Keep in view this vision of the importance of God’s work and your individual role in it and it will help you not to burn out.
Zechariah’s vision gives us a second key element for preventing burnout:
This vital truth is seen both in the symbolism of the olive trees and in the direct word of the Lord to Zerubbabel (4:6), “Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit.” Jesus Christ (pictured by the two anointed ones, 4:14) mediates His Spirit to His people so that they will burn brightly for Him. Three observations:
There are two ways to work for God. One is “by might and by power” (4:6). This refers to human energy and effort. G. Campbell Morgan paraphrases it, “Not by resources, not by resoluteness” (The Westminster Pulpit, Vol. VI, p. 53).
That is to say, you can utilize your human talent and be as determined as a bulldog and you will see some results. But when you stand before Christ, it will be as wood, hay, and stubble (1 Cor. 3:12), because it came from the flesh. When you work in the power of the flesh, you get the credit because the results were due to your ability and your hard work. God may get a tip of the hat, but He was not at the center and so He is robbed of glory.
The other way to work for God is “‘by My Spirit,’ says the Lord of hosts” (4:6). This does not imply that there is no toil and sweat when you labor in the power of the Holy Spirit. Zerubbabel and his men still had to clear away the same mountain of rubble and lay the same heavy stones. But when God’s Spirit motivates and energizes the work, there is conscious dependence on Him, and He gets the glory.
The story is told of an old woodsman who came into town for supplies. He needed several items, including a new axe. On the counter of the general store was advertised a new chain saw which was guaranteed to cut down twice as many trees in one day as any previous one. He eagerly purchased the saw.
A week later he was back in the store, demanding his money back. When asked why, he said that before he was chopping down ten trees a day with his axe, but that now with much more effort he was lucky if he could fell one or two. The store owner looked the machine over very carefully. He checked the chain and the spark plug. He could find nothing wrong with it, so he flipped the switch and pulled the cord to start it. As it roared to life, the woodsman jumped back in surprise and exclaimed, “What’s that noise?”
We’re often like that woodsman. We’re gutting it out for God and using some of the tools that are available. But we need to ask God for the power of the Holy Spirit.
To use the lampstand analogy, the power for light does not come from the wick, but from the oil saturating the wick. As long as the wick is saturated, it will burn brightly. But if it closes itself off from the supply, it will smolder, char, and go out. Even so, we must allow God’s Spirit to saturate us so that we will burn brightly for Jesus Christ.
A woman asked D.L. Moody once, “Why do you talk so often about the need for being filled with the Holy Spirit. You always are stressing the need to be filled again and again. Why isn’t once enough to be filled?” Moody replied, “I leak.”
Every Christian receives the Holy Spirit at the moment of salvation (Rom. 8:9; 1 Cor. 12:13; Gal. 3:2,3). But we must learn to walk by means of the Spirit (Gal. 5:16), continually, repeatedly depending on Him.
In this vision, the angel had to awaken Zechariah from a sleep-like condition and then direct him to the vision by asking what he saw (4:1-2). Later, Zechariah has to ask twice regarding the meaning of the two olive trees (4:11-12). The trees provided a continual flow of golden oil to the lamps so that they did not burn out. All of these features are designed to show us that we must depend on God alone and that we must do so continually.
F. B. Meyer (The Prophet of Hope [Christian Literature Crusade], p. 58) observes that the wick is dependent on the source of oil moment by moment. It has no storehouse or backup supply. It is always on the edge of bankruptcy, but always supplied.
What good is a light under a basket, as Jesus observed (Matt. 5:15)? The whole point of a lampstand is to give light so that people will not stumble in the darkness.
Dr. Charles Feinberg (God Remembers [American Board of Missions to the Jews], pp. 74-75) points out the appropriateness of oil as a symbol for the Holy Spirit. He lists seven functions of oil. First, oil lubricates, thus minimizing friction and wear. Second, oil heals. The Spirit of God heals hearts wounded by sin and the sorrows of life. Third, oil lights. The Spirit illumines God’s Word and gives us direction in life. Fourth, oil warms. The Spirit melts cold hearts that are unresponsive to God. Fifth, oil invigorates. The Spirit gives divine energy and strength. Sixth, oil adorns. In the Old Testament, it was used to adorn the body at a time of joy. Even so, the fruit of the Spirit in our lives is God’s joy. Seventh, oil polishes. The Spirit smoothes the rough edges from our lives as He produces His fruit of kindness and gentleness in us.
As we continually open ourselves up to the abundant supply of God’s Spirit, we will be used of God to impart the benefits of the Spirit of God to others.
I’m no mechanic, but I do know that you can’t run a car without oil or you’ll burn up the engine quickly. I am a pastor, and I also know that you can’t serve the Lord without the continual supply of the oil of God’s Spirit or you’ll burn out.
The solution to burnout is not to quit working for the Lord. Working for the Lord—being His lampstand—is the greatest thing you can do with your life. The solution to burnout is to see the great importance of God’s work and then to open your life to the continual, abundant supply of God’s Spirit as you do His work. Have you checked your spiritual dipstick lately?
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2003, All Rights Reserved.
President Calvin Coolidge was not known for his talkativeness. A story, perhaps apocryphal, says that one Sunday he attended a worship service without his wife. When he returned home, she asked him what the minister had talked about. “Sin,” replied silent Cal. “What did the preacher say about sin?” his wife persisted. Coolidge replied, “He was against it.”
Coolidge’s answer is a succinct summary of Zechariah 5, which tells us what God thinks about sin. In a nutshell, He is against it. Zechariah’s sixth and seventh night visions tell us,
God will be relentless in judging all sin.
A major mistake that God’s people can make is to think that if we are doing God’s work, it buys us some indulgences against our sins. Israel was rebuilding the temple, and Zechariah wanted to encourage them in that work. But God also wanted to warn them that His people must be holy, even as He is holy. Rebuilding the temple was a great work, but it didn’t earn them any credit in the sin department. Just because they were God’s chosen nation didn’t mean that God would tolerantly overlook their sin. God would deal with all sinners in Israel and He would ultimately purge the nation of all wickedness.
As God’s people in this age, we need to take heed to this central message of our text. Sometimes pastors start thinking that because they are so devoted to the Lord’s work, He will be tolerant of their sins. Or they think that as a “reward” for their many hours of hard service, they have earned a free pass to indulge in certain sins. So they fall into pornography, sexual immorality, or greed. Sometimes those who give large donations to a local church think that their gifts buy them influence or, even worse, a license to sin. But our text underscores the message of all Scripture, that we are to be holy as the Lord Himself is holy. God will judge all sin, including the sins of those who call themselves His people.
Satan often deceives us into thinking that sin will get us what we really want in life, and that holiness is boring or that it robs us of fun. But the Bible is consistently clear that unchecked sin is like leprosy, spreading gradually but inevitably to disfigure and finally kill its victims. It defiles all that come into contact with it. On the other hand, holiness brings true and lasting joy, and the family of a man who fears God will be blessed (Ps. 128).
Another deceptive tactic of the enemy is to get us to think that because God’s judgment is delayed, it will not happen at all. We look around and see people who flaunt their sin and yet seem to be prospering. We also see godly people who seem to suffer terribly. If we forget the clear teaching of the Bible, that God’s judgment against sin will be relentless and thorough, and that He is the unfailing rewarder of those who seek Him (Heb. 11:6), we become vulnerable toward temptation and sin.
In one sense, the focus of Zechariah’s night visions shifts at this point. The first five visions gave hope and encouragement to God’s people as they worked on the temple rebuilding project. God’s word through His prophet was, “I have not forgotten My chosen people in spite of how it may seem. I will remember them and bless them at My appointed time.” But visions 6-8 deal with the theme of God’s judgment on sin, both the sins of the pagan nations (6:1-8), but also the sins of Israel. In one sense, the idea of God judging all sin doesn’t sound encouraging!
But as I said, if we see sin as the Bible sees it, and holiness as the Bible portrays it, then the idea of God purging all sin from our lives and from the face of the earth sounds wonderful. As 2 Peter 3:13 puts it, “But according to His promise we are looking for a new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells.” That is a beautiful description of heaven, which will be a place where no sin can corrupt and spoil Paradise! With that as a backdrop, let’s look at Zechariah’s sixth vision:
To understand both of these visions, we must keep in mind that their ultimate fulfillment awaits the future millennium, when Christ will rule the earth with a rod of iron and Satan will be bound (Rev. 19:15; 20:1-3). Sin will not prevail then. Righteousness will reign on earth under Messiah’s reign.
But while the vision refers ultimately to that glorious future, it also applies to every generation. For us it means that God is relentless in purging our sins, to conform us to the image of Christ. As Paul instructed the Corinthians regarding the Lord’s Supper, they needed to judge their own sins so that they would not incur God’s judgment. He clarifies that he did not mean judgment in the sense of the final condemnation that awaits the ungodly, but rather, the discipline that God brings on His people when they do not deal with their own sins (1 Cor. 11:27-32; see also Heb. 12:1-13).
Zechariah looks up and sees a flying scroll that is open and flat. Its dimensions are 20 cubits by 10 cubits (30 x 15 feet). There is writing on both sides. One side proclaims that everyone who steals will be purged away. The other side proclaims that everyone who swears falsely by God’s name will be purged away. Further, the Lord declares that it will track down every violator, spending the night in their homes, consuming both the timbers and even the stones. This scroll has two lessons for us:
The scroll symbolizes God’s Word, especially His law as contained in the Ten Commandments. Just as God wrote the Ten Commandments on both sides of the stones (Exod. 32:15), so both sides of the flying scroll contain writing. The one side of the scroll mentions stealing, the middle commandment of the second table of the law, which deals with our relationships with one another.
The other side of the scroll mentions swearing falsely by God’s name, the middle commandment of the first table of the law, which deals with our relationship with God. As Jesus pointed out, the whole law can be summed up with, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart…” and, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:37, 39). The size of the scroll and the fact that it was open for all to read showed that “its warnings were openly proclaimed to all, that none might have an excuse” (T. V. Moore, Zechariah [Banner of Truth], p. 79). The fact that the scroll was flying conveys the image of a giant raptor bird hovering in the sky, from which none can escape.
The dimensions of the scroll are identical with the size of the holy place in the tabernacle (according to many commentators, although I cannot substantiate it from the text they cite, Exod. 26:15-25); and the porch of Solomon’s Temple (1 Kings 6:3), where the law was read to the people. Charles Feinberg concludes from these identical dimensions, “The vision would teach us that the holiness of the sanctuary of the Lord is the measure of sin and that judgment must begin at the house of God” (The Minor Prophets [Moody Press], p. 293). Since the scroll represents the Ten Commandments, it shows us that God’s judgment on sin is in line with His holiness as revealed in His Word.
Don’t get lost in the imagery and miss the application. The flying scroll tells each of us who name the name of the Lord that we must judge our lives by His holy Word. Our culture drifts morally with the times, but God’s Word is an absolute, unchanging moral standard. Apply it to your life!
Some years ago, Christianity Today [11/23/84, pp. 46-47] reported a poll in which Iowa residents were asked to rank 14 activities as either a “major sin,” “minor sin,” or “not a sin.” Most labeled extramarital sex and homosexuality as major sins. (I wonder if that would still be the case today!) Premarital sex ranked below lying and smoking marijuana. Going to pornographic movies, swearing, drinking hard liquor, skipping church on Sunday, and looking at Playboy magazine were all predominately ranked as “minor sins.” Most people viewed betting on a horse race, buying a lottery ticket, and shopping on Sunday as “not a sin.”
Without passing judgment on these items, I would simply point out that if we determine morality by popular opinion, we will drift downstream with our godless culture. I would urge my Christian sisters not to determine modest apparel (1 Tim. 2:9) by using some popular rock singer or movie star as your example! You should dress in a manner that does not tempt your brothers to lust. I would urge all of us not to fill our minds with the offensive language, sensuality, and violence that dominate television and the movies. Our views on such things as abortion and homosexuality should not be tainted by the moral relativity of our times. We must evaluate everything by God’s unchanging Word.
Take the two items that God focuses on in our text, swearing falsely by God’s name, and stealing. I hear many, even some believers, who use God’s name in vain. But we should highly revere the name of the Lord. While I hope that no Christian would be a thief or robber, we steal if we rob the government of the taxes that we owe or rob our employers by doing personal business on company time. So the flying scroll warns us to read God’s Word continually with a view to evaluating our lives by its holy standards. The flying scroll teaches a second lesson:
If we think that we can secretly disobey God’s Word and get away with it, we are deceiving ourselves. If we break God’s Word, it turns around and breaks us, and not only us, but our families as well. God promises to consume the house, including the timbers and stones, of those who call themselves by His name, but who do not judge their sin by His Word. Verse 4 shows us that sin is never private. It always damages our homes and our communities. The picture of verse 4 is of a town leveled by an intense fire, with the women and children shivering in the cold outside with no shelter.
Again, we must remember that this verse ultimately looks forward to the millennium, when the Lord will purge out sinners and establish His righteous reign. But there is still an obvious application for us, namely, that God is committed to the holiness of His people, beginning on the thought level (Matt. 5:27-30). Sometimes He takes drastic measures to impress on His people that He is a consuming fire (Heb. 12:29). Paul mentions that in Corinth some were sick and others were dying because they did not judge their own sins before coming to the Lord’s Table (1 Cor. 11:29-31). We can fake it and put on our “holy face” when we hang around the church crowd, but God knows our every thought and deed. If we call ourselves by His holy name, we’ve got to do business with Him, beginning on the heart level. God is committed to our holiness, and so we must commit ourselves to growing in holiness in accordance with His Word.
The seventh vision is more difficult to interpret. Scholars differ on the meaning of the details, so we cannot be dogmatic on the particulars. But the overall vision conveys the idea of God purging the wickedness of His people, while the evil of the world continues unchecked. Dr. Feinberg notes the number of times that movement is indicated in this chapter and then observes, “Moral forces in the world do not remain stationary or stagnant; there is either progress or retrogression” (Minor Prophets, p. 295).
The interpreting angel tells Zechariah to look up and see what is going forth. Zechariah either cannot see the ephah clearly or he does not understand what it signifies, and so he asks, “What is it?” The angel answers, “This is the ephah going forth.” An ephah was the largest Hebrew dry measure, containing a little more than our bushel, or about 8-10 gallons. Then he adds, “This is their appearance in all the land” (5:6). A slight extension of a single Hebrew letter (yodh changed into vav) on the word translated “appearance” changes it to “iniquity,” a reading that one Hebrew manuscript and the Greek Septuagint version adopted (and the NIV). Either way, the idea seems to be that the ephah pictures the wicked of the land, filling up the measure of their sins. It may also be symbolic for trade or commerce (Merrill Unger, Zechariah: Prophet of Messiah’s Glory [Zondervan], p. 93), especially as practiced by the godless world system. The reference to the land (or earth, 5:6) is primarily to Israel, although some argue that it extends to the entire earth.
The ephah has a lead cover that is lifted up and Zechariah sees a woman sitting inside. Like the enlarged scroll, the ephah must have been larger than real life, because a woman could not fit in a bushel-sized basket. Here we get our only direct interpretive clue, when the angel says, “This is Wickedness!” In Hebrew, the feminine gender is used to represent abstract ideas (Feinberg, p. 295). Apparently the woman is struggling to get out of the ephah, sensing the judgment that is coming, but the angel forces her down into the ephah and puts the lead cover back in place.
Then two women with wings like a stork come out of the wind, pick up the ephah, and fly off. There is debate over whether these two winged women are agents of good or of evil (the stork is an unclean bird), but it is clear that, whatever their intent, they operate to accomplish the sovereign will of God. Zechariah asks the angel where they are taking it and the angel answers, “To build a house for her in the land of Shinar; and when it is prepared, she will be set there on her own pedestal.”
What do these things mean? Again, we must be somewhat tentative. I think that it is likely that the woman is identical with the great whore of Revelation 17 & 18, with whom the nations, kings, and merchants of the world have committed immorality. Her sitting in the ephah probably portrays her “intimate contact with worldly wealth and commerce, by which she is supported and in which she delights” (Unger, p. 95). The fact that she is hidden in the basket may point to what Paul calls “the mystery of lawlessness” (2 Thess. 2:7) that is at work in this evil world system. The lead cover shows that God presently restrains lawlessness from being as bad as it could be.
But the time is coming (culminating in the Great Tribulation) when the restraint will be lifted and wickedness will be enthroned in Babylon, which represents this present evil world system, opposed to God. Shinar is first mentioned in Genesis 10:10 with reference to Nimrod, whose kingdom was in Babel “in the land of Shinar.” It occurs again in Genesis 11:2 in reference to the events at Babel, when men vaunted themselves against God and He confused their languages. Shinar is the region where Babylon is located.
In Revelation 17 & 18, Babylon reaches the zenith of its evil power, wealth, and splendor. Men are prosperous and satisfied apart from God. Seemingly, they have succeeded in casting off the “oppressive” yoke of submission to God. Antichrist has brought peace, prosperity, and unity to the world such as it has never known. Man has seemingly triumphed over the many problems that have plagued the earth, and he has done it without God! Dr. Feinberg (p. 297) sums it up well, “God is stating that all wickedness is developing along well-defined lines and in due course it will be headed up in that place which has always stood for defiance against God.”
Zechariah doesn’t deliver the punch line until his final vision in chapter 6, which unfolds God’s judgment on this evil world and the crowning of Messiah. As Revelation 18 emphasizes, Babylon will fall in one day and in one hour (Rev. 18:8, 10, 17, 19). So the enthronement and triumph of wickedness in Shinar is only temporary and illusory. God is in control all along, and at the predetermined moment, Jesus will return in victory. Babylon the Great will fall, never to rise again.
There are two practical lessons for us to apply:
Make sure that you keep your measure of sin on empty! The ephah filled with the woman personifying wickedness pictures what other Scriptures teach, that God has a measure for sin. It is the largest measure, because His grace is abundant. But God patiently allows sin and sinners to multiply until His measure of judgment is full. Then He takes swift action in judgment, as pictured in the two women carrying the ephah with the woman off to Shinar.
We see this principle in Genesis 15:13-16, where God explains to Abraham about His covenant to make of Abraham a great nation. He says that Abraham’s descendants will be enslaved and oppressed for 400 years and then they shall return to Canaan. And then God adds, “For the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete” (Gen. 15:16). That is a staggering statement! God lets His chosen people suffer in slavery in Egypt for 400 years while He shows mercy to the wicked Amorites (the people of Canaan). Also, God knew in advance when these godless people would fill up the measure of their sins. At that precise moment, God raised up Moses, delivered Israel, and told them to go into the land and slaughter the Canaanites. Their time of judgment had come!
We do not know when God’s time of judgment for America or other countries will come. Nor do we know how far we as individuals can go in sin before God’s judgment will fall on us. But the clear warning of Scripture is, don’t press the limit! Do not presume on God’s grace! Judge your own sin so that God doesn’t have to judge it for you!
Trust God who is sovereign even over evil and who will triumph mightily in the end. Both Zechariah and Revelation show that even though it appears that evil is unrestrained and that evil men go unjudged, it is not so. Judgment delayed does not mean that judgment has been cancelled! God’s Word has given us a clear view of the end times, when wicked Babylon will seemingly be succeeding in defiance of God. Don’t be tempted to join her, because her success is only temporary. Jesus Christ will return in power and glory, Babylon will fall, and all evildoers will be judged. Christ will hit a come-from-behind grand-slam homerun in the bottom of the ninth! Even though you suffer for righteousness’ sake, persevere in walking in holiness before the Lord. When He comes, His reward will be with Him, “to render to every man according to what he has done” (Rev. 22:12).
The late evangelist, Billy Sunday, said, “I’m against sin. I’ll kick it as long as I’ve got a foot, and I’ll fight it as long as I’ve got a fist. I’ll bite it as long as I’ve got a tooth. And when I’m toothless, I’ll gum it ’til I go home to Glory, and it goes home to perdition.”
That’s God’s view of sin. He’s relentlessly against it, and so we should be against it, beginning with our own sin. The Lord’s Supper is a reminder and an opportunity for us to judge sin in our own hearts, so that God does not judge it for us. Don’t view it as a perfunctory ritual. View it as a crucial time to examine your heart before our holy God, who will be relentless in judging all sin. As Paul wrote, “Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 7:1).
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2003, All Rights Reserved.
I never cease to be amazed at the strange fascination which Bible prophecy holds for people who have no other interest in the things of God. One evening when I was in the Coast Guard, I was sitting alone on the bridge radio watch reading my New Testament, when the chief came up to get some paperwork. He looked over my shoulder and said, “What’cha reading?” He answered his own question, “Oh, ‘Peters,’ huh?” (I was reading First Peter.) Then he said, “You ought to read ‘Revelations’! ‘Revelations’ is really [expletive deleted].”
I thought to myself, “Isn’t that something? Here is a man who is as much a pagan as I have ever met. And yet he was interested in the primary book of the Bible that describes the terrible wrath of God poured out on men like himself who do not repent!”
Christians also are fascinated by biblical prophecy. Announce a conference on prophecy and you’ll pack the auditorium. Change the subject to prayer, missions, or spiritual life, and you’ll have to beg people to attend. The number-one best seller of the 1970’s was Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth [Zondervan]. The past few years have seen Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’ “Left Behind” series dominate the best-seller lists. Those who authoritatively tell you the inside scoop on how recent events fit into biblical prophecy never lack a following.
I’ll never have such a following. The more I study biblical prophecy, the less certain I am about the details! I was reared and trained under the dispensational, premillennial, pre-tribulation rapture view. But since my seminary days, I have read many books by men who are unquestionably devoted to God and His Word, but who do not see Bible prophecy from that perspective. And so while I am certain that Jesus Christ is coming back bodily and that He is going to conquer every enemy and reign in power and glory (every Bible-believing Christian must hold to these facts), I am less certain about the specifics of how it all works out.
I’m convinced that God did not put prophecy into the Bible so that we could speculate about all the details. Rather, He gave it so that we would subjugate ourselves to the lordship of the coming Savior. So my aim in this message is not to satisfy your curiosity about the end times, but rather to bring each of you into total surrender to the coming King-Priest, the Lord Jesus Christ.
We come to the last of Zechariah’s eight night visions (6:1-8), which reveals God’s judgment that will come on the nations that have afflicted Israel and on all the nations of the earth. Then (6:9-15), God directs Zechariah to make a crown out of the silver and gold donated by some exiles. He is to set it on the head of Joshua the high priest and then put in the rebuilt temple as a memorial to Israel. This prophetic drama said to those rebuilding the temple, “Messiah, the King-Priest, is coming. He will build His temple and reign over all the earth.”
But the Lord did not reveal these future judgments against the nations and the coming of Messiah so that the Jewish remnant could draw up interesting prophecy charts and hold conferences on how many years until Messiah’s reign! He gave them this information so that they would “completely obey the Lord” (6:15). Applied to us, the prophet is saying,
Since God will judge all nations and send His King-Priest to reign, we must completely obey Him.
Biblical prophecy shows that it is God’s will, not the so-called “free will” of man, that is sovereign. Prophecy is not just God’s bare knowledge of the future, where He can see how everything will turn out, and He’s sure glad that it goes His way! Rather, prophecy is God’s purposeful determining the future for His own glory. Men are responsible for the choices that they make. But even the most powerful kings on earth are subject to God’s sovereign determination of all events, and their proud attempts to determine the course of human history only serve to fulfill the sovereign purpose of God. As Joyce Baldwin (Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries [IVP], p. 132) observes, “From the first to the last (cf. 1:10) the affairs of the nations are under God’s direction, not man’s. It is this certainty that makes prophecy possible.” Zechariah’s eighth vision shows…
This eighth vision ties back into the first vision, where the angels went forth on different colored horses to patrol the earth. They reported to the Lord about the ease of the nations. In this final vision, the same imagery is used to indicate the fulfillment of the purposes outlined at the outset. This time the angels go out to bring God’s judgment on the nations (see Rev. 6:1-8).
The fact that judgment is in view is confirmed by the place of origination of the chariots, between two bronze mountains (6:1). Probably the reference is to Mount Zion and the Mount of Olives (many commentators). The Kidron Valley that runs between these two mountains is also called the Valley of Jehoshaphat (Joel 3:2; see also Zech. 14:4), which means, “The Lord judges.”
Also, bronze in the Bible is often a symbol of judgment. Moses lifted up the bronze serpent in the wilderness as a symbol of something that would bear the people’s judgment if they looked at it in faith. Jesus applied that symbol to His own death, where He bore God’s judgment (see John 3:14). The tabernacle had a bronze basin for cleansing and a bronze altar for sacrifices. So Zechariah’s vision means that these war-horses and chariots, manned by “the four spirits of heaven” (6:5, angels) were going out to execute God’s judgment on the nations.
The black horses, symbolizing death, go to the north, followed by the white horses, symbolizing victory. (The NIV has the white horses going west, based on a textual emendation that lacks support.) The north is a reference to Babylon, since they invaded from the north. In 6:8, God says those going to the north have caused His spirit to rest there, an expression that means that His wrath has been appeased by their victory. The dappled horses are sent south (toward Egypt). The sea lies to the west and the impenetrable desert to the east, so they do not need to be mentioned. No one knows for sure why the red horses are not said to be dispatched anywhere. But since the most powerful enemy was defeated in the north, the implication is that the other enemies have been subdued as well (Baldwin, pp. 132, 140). This vision teaches us three lessons:
The Assyrians that toppled the Northern Kingdom and the Babylonians that destroyed the Southern Kingdom inflicted terrible suffering on Israel. They were agents of God’s anger on His people because of Israel’s repeated disobedience. But, as God makes clear through Habakkuk (and other prophets), He would judge the nations that He used to judge Israel because those nations went too far in their violence.
As our text states (6:5), God is “the Lord of all the earth.” He is the righteous Judge who will bring every nation and every person to account. If a wicked person has wronged you, do not seek your own vengeance. That right belongs to God alone, and He will repay (Rom. 12:19; Deut. 32:35). Evil people may prosper for a few years on earth, but then comes death and judgment (Heb. 9:27). No one will get away with anything!
That fact can bring you comfort only if your sins are atoned for! If you have to answer for your own sins, then to stand before God for judgment should scare you, as I will comment on next. But if you have fled to the cross and your trust is in the shed blood of Jesus Christ, then you can have great comfort in the fact that God will righteously judge all who have done wrong.
The chariot was the state-of-the-art weapon in Zechariah’s day. The picture of these strong horses champing at the bit to move out into battle with their chariots and mighty warriors would have struck fear into the hearts of the people of that day. The modern picture would be that of our war planes bombing Baghdad or our tanks rumbling down its streets, blowing away anyone foolish enough to challenge them.
In Revelation 6:15-16, John describes the mighty kings of the earth and their commanders, along with everyone else, hiding themselves in caves and among the rocks of the mountains when God’s judgment falls. They cry out to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the presence of Him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb.” If you have not taken refuge in the Lord Jesus Christ, Bible prophecy should terrify you and motivate you to repent while there is still time!
The number four (chariots, spirits of heaven) probably represents the four compass points, which indicates the universality of God’s judgment. He is also referred to as “the Lord of all the earth” (6:5), showing that no one is exempt. Proud Babylon thought that no one could penetrate her moats and high walls. But when it was God’s time for her to fall, Darius the Mede diverted the Euphrates River, draining the moat, and his troops brought down the city in one night. In the same way, proud Babylon of the end times will fall in one day and in one hour (Rev. 18:8, 10).
I read recently of a guy who robbed a bank. He stuffed the sack of money down his trousers and was making his getaway when the explosive dye canister went off, causing not only a bright red stain, but also some painful damage, to a very sensitive part of his body!
Some criminals may escape judgment on earth, but no sinner will be able to escape the all-seeing eye of God. Although His judgment is delayed, and it may look like sinners get away with their shenanigans, it is the height of folly to think that they will dodge judgment. Jesus warned that in the day of judgment, people will have to give an account for every careless word (Matt. 12:36), and that even a lustful thought is enough to condemn a man to hell (Matt. 5:27-30)! The many warnings of Scripture should cause us to turn from our sins and flee to Jesus Christ before He returns to judge the earth! That leads to the second section of our text:
The scene here is not a vision, but rather a prophetic drama to be acted out by Zechariah with three exiles who had come from Babylon with gifts and a fourth man who was their host. (Two of the names are changed in 6:14 from 6:9, leading some to see significance in the meaning of the names, but we don’t have time to explore that topic.) It probably took place the day after the night visions. With their gifts of gold and silver, the prophet is to make (or have made) a crown and set it on the head of Joshua, the high priest (whom we met in chapter 3).
Again (as in 3:8) God refers to the coming Messiah as “Branch,” and predicts that He will build the temple of the Lord. Also, He will rule on His throne as a King-Priest. The crown would be placed in the rebuilt temple as a reminder to these men of this coming King-Priest. The prophecy ends with the prediction that those who are far off will one day come and build the Lord’s temple. Most commentators understand the “me” of verse 15 to refer to Messiah. And, there is a final exhortation to obedience. I want to point out three lessons about Jesus Christ as seen here.
In Israel, these two offices were always kept separate. When King Saul took it upon himself to offer the burnt offerings in Samuel’s absence, God vowed to remove him from office. When proud King Uzziah took up a censor to offer incense as a priest, leprosy broke out on his forehead, and he was a leper the rest of his life.
But here, Joshua (whose name in Hebrew is identical with Jesus, which means, “Yahweh saves”) the priest is crowned as king. Clearly, he was not taking over Zerubbabel’s position as civil leader. The priests came from the tribe of Levi, whereas the king had to be a descendant of David, from the tribe of Judah. But in Psalm 110, David predicted that Messiah would not only be a king, but also a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek (see also Heb. 7:1-3). So this prophetic drama does not center on Joshua, but rather on the One whom Joshua prefigures.
As king, Christ wears a crown. In His first coming, it was a crown of thorns. But in His second coming, it will be a crown of glory (Rev. 19:12), as He comes in victory to reign.
The Lord says (6:12), “Behold, a man….” Pilate inadvertently used a similar phrase to describe Jesus as he derisively brought Him out wearing the crown of thorns and purple robe (John 19:5). He probably only meant, “Here is your accused!” But it is likely that John saw it as a double entendre, perhaps referring back to Zechariah’s prophecy: “Behold, here is the Man, the Son of Man, whom the Lord God calls Branch” (see Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans], p. 793).
Branch is a Messianic term that is also used by Jeremiah (23:5; 33:15) and Isaiah (11:1; see 53:2). It emphasizes the fact that Jesus began in lowly, insignificant circumstances, but as the Lord says here, “He will branch out from where He is; and He will build the temple of the Lord” (6:12). The line of David had seemingly been toppled. No king from David’s line had sat on the throne of Israel for over 600 years. The tree stump looked lifeless.
But then an insignificant young woman gave birth in a stable in the city of David to the Branch of David. He sprouted into a mighty tree, whose branches reach to the ends of the earth. When He comes again, He will “bear the honor and sit and rule on His throne” (Zech. 6:13). As Charles Feinberg points out (God Remembers [American Board of Mission to the Jews], p. 100), the end and consummation of all prophetic Scripture is the crowning of the Lord Jesus Christ. He is coming as the King to reign!
“He will be a priest on His throne” (6:13). A priest served as the mediator between the holy God and sinful men. He had to be one with the people, so as to identify with them. But he also had to be separate from the people in holiness, so that he could approach God on their behalf. Even so, the Lord Jesus “had to be made like His brethren in all things, that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, …” (Heb. 2:17).
The priests of the Aaronic order never sat down. There were no chairs in the tabernacle or temple, because their work was never done. They had to offer sacrifices for their own sins, as well as for the sins of the people (Heb. 7:27). But Christ, our Priest, “having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time onward until His enemies be made a footstool for His feet” (Heb. 10:12, 13).
Through this King-Priest will be “the counsel of peace between them [lit.]” (6:13). There is debate about what “them” refers to, but probably it refers to the reconciling of the two offices in the Lord Jesus Christ (as the NASB takes it). There could be no tug-of-war between the political and religious spheres, because in Jesus, both offices will reside in one person. He will bring true peace to His people.
There is an important application here: You will not know true peace with God unless Jesus is both your high priest and your king. You need a priest to deal with your guilt before God. Jesus Christ offered Himself as the perfect sacrifice, and if you have put your trust in Him, that sacrifice applies to all of your sins.
But Jesus also must be your king. To accept Him as your high priest who opened the way into God’s presence, but not to obey Him as your king is unthinkable! You cannot eliminate either office of Christ. He is both priest and king. He deserves all the honor!
This is repeated twice for emphasis. It was intended to encourage the weary workers on Zerubbabel’s temple to finish their work. But it also points ahead to the church, which Jesus builds (Matt. 16:18) as God’s spiritual temple (Eph. 2:21), as well as to the future millennial temple, where the nations will stream to learn of God’s ways (Isa. 2:2-4; 56:6-7; Ezek. 40-48; Mic. 4:1-7; Hag. 2:7-9).
The main idea of the temple is that it is God’s dwelling place among men. His glory was revealed in the temple. The objects in the temple and its design reflected God’s character and the way in which we must approach Him. The temple was the closest thing on earth where people could see God. And the amazing thing is that we are now the temple of the living God (2 Cor. 6:16; 1 Pet. 2:5)! If we see the incredible importance of the church in God’s plan, we will commit ourselves to seeing it built to His glory.
The coming of these exiles from Babylon and the mention (6:15) of “those who are far off” point to the day when the nations will stream to Jerusalem to bring their gifts and pay homage to the Messiah (Isa. 2:2; 60:1-5; Rev. 21:24, 26). But also it points to the church, in which those who “were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ,” to be built together into “a holy temple in the Lord” (Eph. 2:13, 17, 21, 22).
This points us to the great missionary task of the church. God’s plan is for all peoples to worship Him. We are to be a light unto all the nations, so that some day there will be “a great multitude, … from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb,” crying out, “Salvation to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb” (Rev. 7:9, 10).
As I said, these prophecies are not given so that we can draw up prophecy charts and speculate about the number of the beast. These things are revealed so that we will submit our lives totally to Jesus Christ:
When Zechariah says that this “will take place if you completely obey the Lord your God” (6:15), he does not mean that Messiah’s coming and the Gentiles’ participation in the kingdom were contingent on Israel’s obedience. God’s sovereign purpose does not depend on fickle man. What he means is that Israel would not come to the knowledge of Messiah or His kingdom blessings unless they obeyed Him fully (see Expositor’s Bible Commentary [Zondervan], 7:641). God’s prophetic plan for the ages will come according to His sovereign timetable. But we will not be blessed as a part of that plan unless we give ourselves fully to obey the Lord. Especially this means that we must devote ourselves to holy living and the fulfillment of the Great Commission (Matt. 6:33; 28:19-20).
A Gallup poll some time ago revealed that 62 percent of Americans have no doubts about Jesus’ return. Among those who say that religion is very important in their lives, the number jumped to 79 percent. Probably 100 percent of us in this church believe that Jesus is coming to judge the earth and reign as King. But the question is, are we living as if we believe it? Are we living in obedience to Him and giving ourselves to the unfinished task of proclaiming His salvation to those who are yet “far off”?
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2003, All Rights Reserved.
(My thoughts for much of this sermon were sparked by G. Campbell Morgan’s “The Children’s Playground in the City of God,” The Westminster Pulpit [Baker], 1:256-269.)
If someone were to ask, “What does the kingdom of God look like?” we might think of heavenly choirs singing praises to the accompaniment of harps. There is no doubt that glorious worship will be an important part of God’s kingdom. But I would guess that few, if any, of us would ever think to describe His kingdom as our text does: “Old men and old women will again sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each man with his staff in his hand because of age. And the streets of the city will be filled with boys and girls playing in its streets” (Zech. 8:4-5).
This is not Zechariah’s personal idea of what the kingdom of God will look like, but the direct word of the Lord of hosts (8:4). This word was intended originally to encourage the remnant that was struggling to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem after the exile. It fit into the overall theme of Zechariah, that God remembers His chosen people, and that He will bless them in His time. But the words also apply to God’s people in every generation who seek to live under the lordship of Jesus Christ as we await His glorious return and His coming kingdom. The text gives us a valuable snapshot of God’s kingdom that we need to live out in our family and personal relationships:
When the Lord dwells in our midst, we will treat the elderly and children properly.
Sadly, those words do not describe a large segment of American society. In 1984, child abuse was the leading cause of death in children under the age of 15 (Focus on the Family, 2/84, p. 10). I suspect that it has not gotten better since then. A 1981 Congressional report noted that abuse of the elderly occurs with a frequency only slightly less than child abuse (Christianity Today, 6/12/81, p. 24). Most such abuse occurs within the confines of the home.
Our streets, especially in large cities, are not safe, especially for women, children, or the elderly. Some years ago, we were visiting Marla’s elderly grandmother, who had lived in the same house in Riverside, California, for about 40 years. Our kids wanted to play in her front yard, but I couldn’t let them do it because we couldn’t watch them. It just wasn’t safe. Marla’s grandmother commented on how different it had been 25 years before, when Marla used to play in that same front yard, and no one ever gave a thought to any possibility of danger.
By way of contrast, the picture of our text is a city where the elderly are at rest and the children at play, unafraid of attack or harm. Since these two groups represent the most vulnerable in any society, if they are securely at rest, everyone else will also enjoy peace. How a society treats its elderly and its young children may be a good measure of how close that society is to the Lord. When He dwells in our midst, He describes the result as this scene of peaceful joy for the aged and the young.
These verses imply that relationships are one of God’s most precious blessings. Sin damages and can destroy family relationships. Truth and holiness (8:3) strengthen relationships. As 8:6 shows, these ideal conditions are not humanly possible, but will come about only when we rely on God’s strength.
These conditions will only prevail when the Lord returns and dwells in the midst of His people (8:3). Since the Lord is omnipresent, this verse is referring to something distinctive, to the special sense of God’s living in the midst of His people. While the total fulfillment of our text awaits the second coming of Christ, there is still a partial fulfillment when God’s people obey Him and seek to establish His kingdom rule in their hearts.
And so before we look at the results that God promises, we need to consider the condition by asking, “Does Christ dwell in my heart by faith? Is He a comfortable resident in my home? Or, could there be things in my heart or in my home that make Jesus Christ at best an uncomfortable guest?” If you’ve never read Robert Munger’s little booklet, “My Heart, Christ’s Home,” I would encourage you to do so! It is an unforgettable treatment of the theme of Christ dwelling in our hearts.
Note three things about how the elderly are treated in this snapshot of Christ’s kingdom:
That’s it? Sitting? That doesn’t sound very spiritual! I would have pictured them witnessing or folding church bulletins or mailing care packages to the missionaries. But the Lord pictures them as just sitting.
Lest you jump to wrong conclusions, I would point out that these folks were probably not 65 and in good physical condition. The Bible knows nothing of the American concept of quitting work at an arbitrary age and then spending the rest of our years living for ourselves, with no thought of seeking first God’s kingdom. Most people at 65 today have many years of remaining strength that they can devote to serving the Lord in some capacity. So I take it that the people referred to in our text, who require a staff to walk, are getting up in years.
And so God pictures them as sitting, probably enjoying conversation with each other and enjoying the scene of the children playing all around them. No one views them as a “burden on society.” No one is complaining about how depressing it is to see all these old folks just sitting around. Rather, it is a picture of tranquility and delight that these folks are able to enjoy their final days in such a manner.
Of all things! What a place to be sitting! Don’t they know that the streets are not the best place to be sitting? But when the Lord dwells in the midst of His people, the streets are apparently a pretty good place to sit!
The text is conveying the idea that the streets will be safe from crime and violence. When Jesus returns, He will rule the nations with a rod of iron, suppressing all unrighteousness (Rev. 19:15). Young hoodlums will not be allowed to mug the elderly for drug money. Powerful nations will not invade weaker ones. Righteousness will be the rule, not the exception, on earth.
Have you ever thought about how much our economy would change if there were no sin? Law enforcement agencies could greatly cut back their ranks, if not be disbanded. Jails and prisons would be empty. The military could pack up and go home, after dismantling all of our weapons and war machines, since nations would live in peace. Locksmiths would go out of business, because nothing would ever be locked! Doctors and hospitals would experience a drastic reduction in patients, since most car accidents and most cases of assault are alcohol-related. Attorneys wouldn’t know what to do for work. Even pastors might find it hard to stay busy! We’d all have to be creative to figure out what to do with ourselves!
The streets of verse 5 are the same streets of verse 4. The children are playing in the same streets where the elderly are sitting. This means that there won’t be gated millennial retirement communities, with no children allowed. The elderly won’t be shut off from the young. Rather, the young and the old will be together, with each contributing something of value to the other.
In the late 1970’s, Shanghai, China, which was then one of the five largest cities in the world, had only one home for the aged. In China, old age is respected as the most respected stage of life. A Chinese saying goes, “If you have an old person at home, it is as if you have restored a piece of treasure” (Newsweek [9/10/79], p. 15).
I realize that the elderly often have medical needs that cannot be met in private homes. But in America, we have a different mindset toward the elderly than the Chinese, and I think that the Chinese are closer to the biblical standard. Here, young people often put their careers and pursuit of pleasure above maintaining family relationships. When a promotion comes up, the question of how it will affect family relationships ranks low on the list of factors to be considered. We tend to isolate the elderly so that they don’t get in the way of our selfish lifestyles, not include them.
But when the Lord dwells in the midst of His people, there is continuity between the generations. The young benefit from the wisdom, experience, and availability of the old. The old benefit from the spontaneity, freshness, and hope that mark the young.
In her enjoyable book, What is a Family? [Revell], Edith Schaeffer tells of a time when her husband, Fran’s, 88-year-old mother was living with them at L’Abri in Switzerland. She had fallen and broken her hip, requiring surgery and a lengthy stay in a French-speaking hospital. Since she knew no French, she also needed someone she knew and trusted to be nearby most of the time. So Edith spent much of the month sitting by her bedside, doing correspondence and hand-stitching on the dresses for the upcoming wedding of her son, Franky, and his fiancée, Genie.
On the wedding day, after the ceremony, the bridal party, including the whole family, traveled not toward the site of the reception, but to the hospital. The bride and groom, bridesmaids, parents, grandparents, children and great-grandchildren paraded down the sterile hospital halls to visit the great-grandmother and let her be a part of the wedding day.
Mrs. Schaeffer writes (p. 106), “Worth the trouble? A million times yes, not just for her and all that this would mean to her in the midst of the reality and unreality floating around her like a fog, but for each of the other generations…. Old age is important to youth, as well as youth important to old age. There is meant to be a mix in many kinds of situations.”
So when the Lord dwells in our midst, the elderly will be treated properly. They will be respected for who they are. They will be protected from harm. As much as possible, they will not be isolated from society and the family. Rather, there will be a mix between the young and the old.
Again, note three things:
How unspiritual! There must be a textual variant here! Are you sure that the text does not say that the children are praying? Or, at least they should be working or sitting quietly!
Isn’t it interesting that when God gives us a picture of life in His kingdom, right in the center of the snapshot are children playing! The Hebrew word comes from a word meaning “laughter.” God enjoys the laughter of children playing.
I fear that sometimes we are a lot like the disciples, who tried to shoo away the children from Jesus so that they could get on with the more important kingdom business at hand. But Jesus was indignant with the disciples. He said, “Permit the children to come to Me; do not hinder them; for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” … “And He took them in His arms and began blessing them, laying His hands on them” (Mark 10:14, 16).
Do you ever think about the fact that God isn’t always as “efficient” as we are? I’m always trying to be more efficient with my time and energy, but God designed life as not very efficient! Life is short enough as it is. Why did He have us “waste” about 18-20 years growing up, much of which we can’t even remember, and much of which was spent playing?
At least you would think that when God sent His Son into this world, He would have been more efficient. He knew that He would only be on earth for 33 years or so, and yet He didn’t skip childhood and bring Jesus into this world as a “productive” young adult. Jesus went through normal infancy and childhood. God didn’t have His Son skip any stage of human development.
Just think how we would have pushed the potential of the Son of God if He had been our child! At five, He could have wowed the nation by quoting the Torah from memory. As a young child, we would have enrolled Him in advanced Hebrew classes, perhaps with His own private tutor. By eight or nine, He could have drawn large crowds with His insights on the prophets. When He stumped the rabbis in the temple at age 12, it could have been the plot for a book or movie! And yet God didn’t have Him start His ministry until He was about 30!
I’m not suggesting, of course, that you allow your children to goof off for 30 years without training them to work or study. Jesus obviously studied God’s Word as a child and He learned to work alongside Joseph in his carpenter’s shop. Children need to learn the discipline of hard work and the benefit of study and learning.
But sometimes we seem to be obsessed with pushing our kids toward achievement, without letting them play and without playing with them. The great missionary David Livingstone said that his greatest regret was that during the years when he and his family lived at a mission station, he did not play more with his children. He worked so hard during the day that he was too tired at night to play with his kids. He wrote to a friend, urging him to play with his children while he could, lamenting, “Now I have none to play with” (David Livingstone: His Life & Letters, George Seaver [Harper & Brothers], p. 561). I hope that you don’t view playing with your kids as a waste of time! God enjoys children, and He enjoys children playing.
The implication is that they are all getting along happily together. Probably, given human nature, the boys were playing with the other boys, and the girls with the girls. The Bible does not go along with the modern nonsense of breaking down all gender distinctions, teaching girls to do jobs that are better suited to men, or teaching boys to act like girls. But the implication of the text is that the boys and girls are playing together happily. (I know, it’s the millennium!)
God wants us to teach our sons to grow up to be strong but loving leaders in the home and in the church, showing respect and granting honor to women. The Bible instructs older women to encourage the younger women to love their husbands and children, and to be “workers at home” (Titus 2:4-5). This would include the younger women teaching their daughters to be good homemakers. In other words, we don’t erase gender distinctions, but we do teach our children to respect the opposite sex, while being comfortable with the roles that God has assigned to their own sex.
Feminist objections notwithstanding, one of the major distinctions between Christianity and other religions, such as Islam and Hinduism, is the respect granted to women. In those other religions, girls are often unwanted and treated terribly. An article in Gospel for Asia’s SEND! Magazine (Sept./Oct., 2002, p. 5) told of the horrifying manner in which girls are treated in several Asian countries. Often they are killed, sometimes by their own mothers who think that it is more compassionate to kill a baby girl than to allow her to face life as a woman.
Girls are fed less than their brothers, and have to wait to eat until the males of the family have eaten all they want first. Girls seldom receive medical care if they are sick. “In Nepal and Bangladesh, one out of every four girls dies before age five; and … 25 percent of the girls born in India every year die by age 15.” Schooling is often denied to girls, who are needed to work at home or in factories. In Pakistan, 90 percent of the women over age 25 are illiterate. Many girls are sold into prostitution. Eighty percent of India’s prostitutes were sold like slaves between ages 14 and 16, for prices ranging from 40 cents to a thousand dollars. The article goes on and on, reporting horrible atrocities, including the commonly tolerated abuse and even murder of wives who do not meet the expectations of their husbands’ families!
But our God delights not only in boys, but also in girls playing together.
This indicates two things. First, the streets are fit for the children. There are no sexual perverts lurking in the shadows to abduct the children. There are no pornographic newsstands, bookstores, or theaters. Rather, there is an atmosphere of purity and protection for the children.
Second, the fact that children are playing in the streets means that the children are fit for the streets. The boys are not threatening the girls or using foul or degrading language. The children are not taunting or mocking the elderly. The children are well-behaved.
This implies a lot about the homes that these children come from. Clearly, the Bible and its standards have been taught to the children. The parents have modeled love, kindness, and respect for each other in front of the children in the context of lifelong, covenant marriages. Reverence for God and prayer permeate these homes. The parents obey God on a day-to-day basis, imparting this to their children. And so the children can go out and play together in the streets without the streets polluting the kids or the kids polluting the streets.
That’s God’s picture of life when Christ dwells in the midst of His people. We will treat the elderly and children properly because of our close relationship with the Lord who is at home in our homes. It’s a simple and yet beautiful picture!
The Lord taught us to pray, “Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10). While the Lord’s kingdom will not come in its entirety until He returns in power and glory, we should labor for that kingdom to come in the interim. We should demonstrate, as much as possible, kingdom living in the here and now. Those who do not know Christ should be able to look at our homes and our church and get a glimpse of what it will be like on earth when Jesus reigns as King and dwells with us.
Where do you begin? Begin by enthroning Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord of your life. You must have Christ dwelling in your heart by faith, being rooted and grounded in love (Eph. 3:17). Spend time daily with Him, reading and meditating on His Word, confessing your sins, and praying for your family relationships.
Then, practice the lordship of Christ in your family relationships. Take every thought, word, and deed captive to obedience to Christ. Stop blaming others for the mote in their eyes, and deal with the log in your own eye. Judge your own anger and selfishness. Turn off the sewer line called TV that dumps poisonous filth into your home every day. Read the Bible and pray together as a family often. And, get involved in serving the Lord, so that your family does not become self-focused. There are many opportunities to serve both children and the elderly in our church. You can help protect the most defenseless in our society, the unborn children. Model a servant-lifestyle for your children, teaching them to think of others ahead of themselves.
So God gives us this simple snapshot of a community where Jesus Christ dwells in their midst. The most vulnerable citizens, the elderly and the children, are treated with protection and respect. If God took a snapshot of your family or our church this past week, how would it compare? Let’s invite the Lord to dwell in our midst, so that our elderly can sit in our streets and our children can play in our streets without fear or harm!
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2003, All Rights Reserved.
I had to throw away a magazine article recently. I just couldn’t live with it in my house. It told how I could avoid heart disease and arteriosclerosis. The gist of it was that if I will stop eating the foods that I enjoy and start eating all sorts of things that I don’t especially care for, I may be able to avoid the hardening of the arteries that results from too much cholesterol. I realized that with an article like that in my home, I could never again enjoy a breakfast of bacon and eggs, with an English muffin smothered in real butter. The article went in the trash!
I’m kidding, of course. But I’m serious when I say that many people get spiritual sclerosis—hardening of the spiritual arteries—because they trash the warnings of God’s Word. I have both bad news and good news. The bad news is that like arteriosclerosis, spiritual sclerosis creeps up on you gradually as a result of certain bad spiritual habits that are as easy to fall into as eating too much fatty food. The good news is that, contrary to arteriosclerosis, you don’t have to give up everything you enjoy and begin doing all sorts of things you hate to avoid spiritual sclerosis.
Zechariah 7 describes the malady. Two years have passed since Zechariah’s eight night visions (1:7-6:8). Work on the rebuilding of the temple is progressing nicely. In two more years it would be completed. At this time, a delegation from the town of Bethel arrives to seek the favor of the Lord and to ask a practical question of the priests and prophets in Jerusalem. Zechariah’s reply is recorded in chapters 7 and 8.
The question involved the keeping of certain Jewish fasts. In 7:3, they mention the fast of the fifth month. In 7:5 Zechariah also mentions the fast of the seventh month. In 8:19, there is mention of two additional fasts, one in the fourth month and another in the tenth month. All were related to the fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. In the tenth month, Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem; in the fourth month, he penetrated the city; in the fifth month, the temple was burned; and, in the seventh month, Gedaliah, the Jewish governor, was assassinated and the remnant fled (see 2 Kings 25). For the past 68 years, the Jews had observed these dates as fasts. But now, with the temple going up and Jerusalem being rebuilt, this delegation wondered whether they should continue to observe these fasts.
In his answer Zechariah addresses both this delegation and the whole nation (7:5). He points out that the Lord had scattered their ancestors to Babylon because of their spiritual sclerosis—the hardening of their spiritual hearts (7:12). He also indicates that the disease may be hereditary. The remnant that had returned from the captivity was showing some initial symptoms that they needed to confront to avoid the disease themselves. In chapter 7, the prophet shows them that…
Outward religion without inward reality results in spiritual sclerosis.
To avoid this disease, we need to know three things:
The Jewish remnant had been meticulous in keeping these fasts, but their hearts were not in it. It had become an outward ritual, but the inward reality of walking with God was fading. The God who examines the hearts says, “I delight in loyalty rather than sacrifice, and in the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hos. 6:6). Through Zechariah He says, “Check your spiritual health. Make sure that you’re not drifting from inward reality to outward religion.” Our text reveals three warning signs that tell us we’re drifting into outward religion:
It’s ironic, but true to human nature, that these people were concerned about something that God had not commanded, but at the same time they were neglecting what God had commanded. God had not told Israel to keep these fasts, but He had told them to obey His Word. The only fast that God had ordained was the annual Day of Atonement (Lev. 23:27). There wasn’t anything wrong with fasting on these other days to confess their sins and pray for the restoration of the nation. But God had not commanded these days as fasts. He had commanded them to “do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with [their] God” (Micah 6:8; Zech. 7:9-10). But they were dodging God’s clear commands, while keeping their manmade fasts.
We’re prone to do the same thing. Many Christians get hung up about keeping rules and rituals that the Bible does not command, while they neglect dealing with their hearts before God. They judge other Christians by outward appearance, but they tolerate serious sins, such as pride, gossip, and greed in their own hearts. They have their lists of behaviors that make you either a “spiritual” Christian or a “worldly” Christian, and they make sure that they keep everything on their good list and avoid everything on their bad list. The problem is, their lists aren’t in the Bible!
Note 7:3: “Shall I weep in the fifth month and abstain, as I have done these many years?” There is more than a hint of weariness in those last three words. They were tired of going through the motions of what formerly may have been a meaningful activity for others. But for them it had become an empty form.
We need to be careful not to confuse what is biblical and thus must never be set aside with what is manmade and may be set aside. We may grow weary of Bible reading, prayer, or the Lord’s Supper, but we are not free to stop doing these things, because God commands us to do them. If they have become stale, we need to examine our hearts to determine why this is so. We need to seek God so that these things become what He intended, the means to a close, vital fellowship with Him. But we shouldn’t stop doing them.
I may need to vary the method without discarding the activity. For example, the Bible does command me to seek God through His Word and prayer, but it does not prescribe exactly how I am to do this. Reading through the Bible in a year is a fine thing to do, and we should do it many times (I am currently doing it again this year). But at other times, perhaps we should spend a year studying Romans in depth, or reading through the New Testament four times. The main thing is to grow in your understanding of God’s Word and to stay fresh in your relationship with God through His Word and prayer.
So, two danger signals of falling into outward religion are, following manmade rules and rituals; and, going through the motions without meaning.
In 7:5-6, the Lord asks, “When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months these seventy years, was it actually for Me that you fasted? When you eat and drink, do you not eat for yourselves and do you not drink for yourselves?” God who sees the hearts saw that they weren’t doing their fasts or their feasts for the Lord. They were doing them for themselves.
Outward religion is always done for the person doing it, not to glorify or please the Lord. Jesus confronted the Pharisees, who practiced their religion before men to be noticed by them (Matt. 6:1). When they fasted, they let everyone know about it so they would be impressed with how spiritual they were. When they prayed, they stood in public and made loud prayers that everyone could hear. When they gave money, they wanted everyone to hear the many coins jingle in the metal collection box.
But Jesus wasn’t impressed! He told them to camouflage their fasting, so that no one would know what they were doing. When they prayed, they should do it in secret. When they gave, they shouldn’t let their left hand know what their right hand was doing.
We need to examine our motives in whatever we do for the Lord. Am I doing it from pride or self-righteousness? Am I seeking status or the applause of others? Am I trying to work off or cover up guilt for some sin, as if my activities can balance out or hide my sin? Am I trying to impress God with my activity, so that He will give me something that I want from Him? The only proper motive is to please and glorify God.
So take a spiritual health checkup. If you’re following manmade rules and rituals that have become meaningless motions, and if you’re doing these things for some selfish motive, you’re drifting into outward religion. It’s a danger for all of us all the time!
Outward religion without inward reality with God leads to spiritual hardening of the heart. This had happened to the ancestors of the remnant in Zechariah’s day, as he points out in 7:7-14. Here’s how this works: You get the religious system down pretty well. You’ve got a routine for living the Christian life. You’re going through all the motions. Your motives aren’t right, but you’re oblivious to that. The outward appearance is that you’ve got it together as a Christian. But it’s mechanical and outward, not real personal fellowship with God.
As you go on like this, you begin to resist God’s Word when it confronts your life. Maybe it’s a sermon that steps on your toes. You keep your Christian smile in place, but inwardly you’re resisting God. Perhaps a brother in Christ attempts to help you grow in your walk with God. But he’s getting threatening, so you dodge him with excuses, all the while keeping up the good Christian front. Your spiritual arteries are hardening gradually without your knowing it! Zechariah outlines the signs and the results of the disease.
“But they refused to pay attention” (7:11). These words describe the generation that had been sent into captivity in Babylon. Verse 11 ties back into verse 7. The former prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Joel, Amos, Micah, and others, had warned the people of their developing spiritual disease, but the people ignored the warnings. They dodged the prophets’ messages that stepped on their toes. Perhaps they adjusted matters outwardly, so that they would look good to others, but they didn’t deal with the heart issues that God sees.
It’s like when you go to the doctor for a routine checkup. You’re feeling okay, but you know that you’re overdue for the checkup, so you go. The doctor looks you over, asks you some questions, reads your chart from the last checkup, and asks, “What kind of meals do you usually eat?”
You know what he’s getting at. You’ve gained some weight since the last time you were in to see him. But you don’t tell him the whole truth. You tell him what he wants to hear, but you fail to mention the potato chips and ice cream that are part of your basic food groups. He warns you that you need to take off 25 pounds and eat more fruits and vegetables and less red meat. You nod in approval, and for about a week, you cut back on the junk food. Then you begin sneaking in a few potato chips, thinking to yourself, “The doctor doesn’t need to know!” But, of course, it’s not the doctor you’re hurting! You didn’t pay attention to the doctor’s warning because you don’t want to change!
Failure to heed God’s warnings is related to times of outward prosperity (7:7). Jerusalem and the outlying areas were inhabited and prosperous. They were eating their spiritual potato chips and thinking that they were healthy. “Why are these prophets ranting and raving about sin? Can’t they see that we’re all doing fine?” But God saw their hearts. Outwardly, they went to the temple and went through the religious rituals, but inwardly they were tolerating sin and not walking in reality with God.
They “turned a stubborn shoulder.” This expression comes from an ox that refuses to accept the yoke (Neh. 9:29; Hos. 4:16). It refers to refusal to submit to God’s authority over your life and refusal to do what He would have you to do.
People who are developing spiritual sclerosis don’t like the idea of submission to authority. I have been told that people from dysfunctional homes don’t like it when I preach about obedience to God because they don’t relate well to authority figures, as if somehow that gives them a free pass when it comes to obeying God’s Word! Often these folks find a church that makes them feel good about themselves, without dealing with their sin. That leads to the next stage of the disease:
They “stopped their ears from hearing.” There are different ways of doing this. You can blame others, thinking, “If they would just obey God, I would not have all these problems!” But you don’t deal with the log in your own eye. You can find a church that never deals with sin, at least not with personal sins of the heart. Liberal churches blast the sins of big business or the sins of our government or the sins of male chauvinists, but seldom confront personal pride, lust, greed, gossip, or selfishness. Seeker churches pretty much dodge sin completely, and focus on how God can help you succeed in your personal life. They don’t want to frighten sinners!
Like arteriosclerosis, spiritual sclerosis is a gradual process. But once it sets in, certain results occur:
“They made their hearts like flint so that they could not hear” God’s written or preached Word. Verse 12 is a strong Old Testament verse affirming the authority and inspiration of the Law of Moses and the prophets. The people’s refusal to pay attention and submit to God’s Word through His prophets led to such hardening of the heart that finally the people could not hear what these men faithfully proclaimed.
People with advanced spiritual sclerosis seldom, if ever, pick up their Bible with the intent of submitting their hearts to its message. They don’t want to hear sermons that confront their hypocrisy or sins of the heart. After a while, they are not even able to hear such things. Their spiritual arteries are blocked, so that God’s Word can’t get through to them. At this point they often protect themselves by attacking the messenger. In the Old Testament that meant killing the prophets. Since murder is illegal in our day, it usually means criticizing the pastor or finding a church with a more user-friendly message.
“Therefore great wrath came from the Lord.” This is further described (7:14) as God’s scattering them like a storm wind, or tornado, among the nations. When God’s people harden their hearts against Him, He can get pretty tough in discipline to get their attention (“scourges,” Heb. 12:6). As A. R. Fausset puts it, “Hard hearts must expect hard treatment. The harder the stone, the harder the blow of the hammer to break it” (A Commentary Critical, Experimental, and Practical on the Old and New Testaments, with Robert Jamieson & David Brown [Eerdmans], 2:2:682). By the way, if you sin and everything is going great, you’re really in trouble, because you may not be God’s true child (Heb. 12:8)!
If we refuse to hear God when He speaks, at some point He returns the favor (Prov. 1:27-28; Isa. 1:15; Jer. 11:11). Many wrongly think that God is like Aladdin’s Genie, waiting to make their wish His command, but He is not. If we continually refuse to obey Him, He won’t come running to our aid the minute we need Him to bail us out. He will let us suffer the consequences of our sins to teach us not to sin.
The land had been pleasant, with people living comfortably in it. But now it was laid waste because of their sin. Sin always takes a toll: physical health is ruined, families are shattered, bitterness, heartache, and grief abound. It’s never a pretty picture!
It was the children and grandchildren of the guys with spiritual sclerosis who were trying to pick up the pieces in Zechariah’s day. They had the hard job of clearing the rubble left by their parents and grandparents. God visits the sins of fathers on the children to the third and fourth generations (Exod. 34:7; Num. 14:18; Deut. 5:9). You may not like that, but it’s true, even today. The children of the ungodly suffer. The children of the godly are blessed. The application is not to blame our parents for our problems, but rather to deal with our own sins, so that our children and grandchildren will not suffer because of us.
Outward religion without inward reality leads to spiritual sclerosis. What’s the solution?
Much more could be said, but I want to point out two things:
This is the converse of what the people were doing as reported in verses 5 & 6. Instead of fasting and feasting for themselves, they should have been doing it for the Lord. “Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). His will should be the cause of our actions, His Word the guide, and His glory the goal or motive. The only thing that matters in the Christian life is that which is done unto the Lord. Any service that we render is not so that others will think about how wonderful we are. It is done as an offering to the Lord, out of a heart of love and gratitude toward Him.
Those who walk in heart devotion to God should “dispense true justice and practice kindness and compassion each to his brother.” They should “not oppress the widow or the orphan, the stranger or the poor.” They should not “devise evil in [their] hearts against one another” (7:9-10). True religion reveals itself in how we treat others (James 1:27), especially those who are weak and most vulnerable. Any “good ol’ boy” network, where political favors are traded for influence without regard to true justice, goes against God’s Word. Christians should not play favorites to the rich and powerful, but stand up for the political, social, and economic rights of the oppressed.
Of course a person can be involved in these godly behaviors for the wrong reasons, totally apart from God. But we can’t escape the fact that God’s Word always connects our relationship with Him and our relationship with others. John is pretty blunt: If we don’t love our brother whom we have seen, we cannot love God whom we have not seen (1 John 4:20). “By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother” (1 John 4:10).
In True Spirituality (Christianity Today special edition, pp. 87-88), Francis Schaeffer writes,
… there is no mechanical solution to true spirituality or the true Christian life…. It is not possible to say, read so many of the chapters of the Bible every day, and you will have this much sanctification. It is not possible to say, pray so long every day, and you will have a certain amount of sanctification. It is not possible to add the two together and to say, you will have this big a piece of sanctification. This is a mechanical solution, and denies the whole Christian position. For the fact is that the Christian life, true spirituality, can never have a mechanical solution. The real solution is being cast up into the moment-by-moment communion, personal communion, with God himself, and letting Christ’s truth flow through me through the agency of the Holy Spirit.
Spiritual sclerosis, like arteriosclerosis, sneaks up on you gradually as you drift from reality with God to just going through the outward motions. Do a checkup: Are you real with God today? If there are any signs of spiritual sclerosis, don’t trash this sermon! Your spiritual health is at stake!
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2003, All Rights Reserved.
Second Kings 7 tells a fascinating story of four lepers who sat at the gate of Samaria at a time when the city was under siege. Things had gotten so bad inside the city that women were eating their own children to survive. But Elisha the prophet had predicted something that seemed utterly impossible, that the next day food would be plentiful and affordable in Samaria.
Meanwhile, the four lepers evaluated their dismal situation. If they stayed at the gate of Samaria, they would starve. If they went over to the enemy camp, they may be killed, which would be no worse than starving. But there was the outside chance that the enemy would take pity on them and give them some scraps of food. So they took their chances and went over to the enemy camp.
When they got there, they were shocked to find the camp deserted. The Lord had caused the enemy to hear the sound of a great army of chariots and horses so that they fled in a panic, leaving all of their supplies behind. The four beggars ate all that they could eat. They hauled away and hid several loads of silver and gold and clothes.
But then their consciences began to gnaw at them. They said, “We’re not doing right. This is a day of good news, but we are keeping silent” (2 Kings 7:9). So they went and told the starving city where they could find abundant supplies to satisfy their needs.
That story illustrates the main message of Zechariah 8, summed up by the Lord’s words in verse 13: “I will save you that you may become a blessing.” God’s people are blessed to bless others. God pours out His grace on us so that we will slop it over on others who are starving and dying without hope.
Because God has promised to bless us abundantly, we should be a blessing to others.
The text falls into two parts, both prefaced with the phrase, “Then the word of the Lord of hosts came saying” (8:1, 18). The first word of the Lord to Zechariah (8:1-17) breaks into two parts. Verses 1-8 present God’s promise to restore His blessing on the nation after the years of captivity. Verses 9-17 apply this promise to the remnant of Zechariah’s day that was rebuilding the temple. The second word of the Lord (8:18-23) shows that God’s blessed people are to become a blessing to all nations. Verse 19 answers the question raised by the delegation from Bethel (7:2-3) by showing that their fasts would be turned to feasts as the people experienced God’s gracious blessings of salvation.
I will be applying this chapter to us as the church, but we need to keep in mind that the chapter applies literally to the nation Israel. Many commentators apply the text spiritually to the church as if that is the final fulfillment of these promises. But Paul shows in Romans 11:17-32 that while God has partially hardened Israel in judgment until the fullness of the Gentiles is complete, after that, all Israel will be saved. There is yet a glorious future for Israel, when God will pour out on the house of David “the Spirit of grace and of supplication, so that they will look on [Him] whom they pierced; and they will mourn …” (Zech. 12:10).
I appreciate the faith of men like Charles Simeon (who died in 1836) and Charles Spurgeon (preaching in 1863), who both argued that the Jews had to be restored to the land so that God’s promises in this chapter would be literally fulfilled. (See Charles Simeon, Expository Outlines of the Whole Bible [Zondervan], 10:481-484, 488-495; and Charles Spurgeon, “Once a Curse but Now a Blessing” [Ages Software, sermon # 543.) They preached that view a century before Israel became a nation, believing that God’s promises would come true. Both men urged their congregations to evangelize the Jews as a practical application of this text. After lamenting the horrible treatment that professing Christians had shown to the Jews over the centuries, Spurgeon said (ibid.),
May the Lord in his infinite mercy first put it into his people’s hearts to pray for Israel, and then to work in love, and labor in faith: may he hasten in his own time the fulfillment of his promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and then shall the whole earth be covered with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. We may work and we may toil, but till Israel be gathered God’s glory cannot be universal, nor even widely spread.
So the primary interpretation of this chapter relates to the nation Israel. But there are many applications for us as the church.
Perhaps when you hear those words, you think, “Maybe God has promised blessings, but I’m not experiencing them. Instead of promises, all I seem to have is problems!” You feel like the discouraged man who said, “What I need are a few blessings that aren’t in disguise.”
The people to whom Zechariah prophesied probably felt like that. They were a weak remnant of 50,000 people who had returned to a devastated land. Powerful enemies surrounded them. They were under Persian rule. While they saw glimmers of hope, these promises of God seemed a million miles away.
But God gave Zechariah these words of promise about the future to encourage His people to persevere in the present. Even though we presently experience only a foretaste of God’s promises for the future, the certainty of His sure word can encourage us to be faithful in the trials of the present time. Two truths shine through concerning God’s promised blessings:
These promises do not stem from Zechariah’s optimistic personality. The text repeatedly emphasizes that this is the sure word of Almighty God. Eleven times in this chapter we read, “Thus says the Lord of hosts,” or some similar phrase. The name “Lord,” (Yahweh, the name of the covenant-keeping God) occurs 22 times. Over and over God declares, “I will,” or “I am” to declare His sure purpose (8:2, 3, 7, 8, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15).
Commenting on verse 8, Kenneth Barker says, “Israel’s predicted complete restoration to covenant favor and blessing rests on nothing less than the faithfulness, veracity, and righteousness of God…. The theological principle involved is that God is a saving, forgiving, delivering, restoring God—one who delights to take ‘Not My People’ and make them ‘My People’” (Expositor’s Bible Commentary [Zondervan], 7:651).
As you may be aware, the doctrine of God’s ability to save His people according to His purpose and choice, apart from anything in them, is under attack. Two recent books, Chosen But Free [Bethany House, second ed., 2001], by Norman Geisler, and What Love is This? [Loyal Publishing, 2002], by Dave Hunt, both attack the doctrine of God’s sovereign choice to save a people for His glory. Both books assert that God desires to save everyone, but the outcome of who gets saved depends on the response of each person. In other words, God has given up His ability to save anyone, unless that person decides to respond! Thus both authors would have to explain God’s assertions in Zechariah 8 as being based on His foreknowledge of what Israel will one day do by their own free will, not as God’s declaration of what He will do by His mighty power.
But the text does not say, “I can foresee that someday Israel will turn to Me, and I’m sure glad, because I really wanted to save them. But the final result is up to their free will. What a relief that finally they will get it right and choose Me!”
What does the text say? “Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘Behold, I am going to save My people” (8:7). That seems fairly clear, doesn’t it? God does not say, “I’m going to do all that I can to try to save them, but they’re a tough bunch, so I’m not sure they will respond.” If we didn’t get the first declaration, there are more: “I will bring them back … and they shall be My people and I will be their God in truth and righteousness” (8:8). “I will cause the remnant of this people to inherit all these things” (8:12). “I will save you that you may become a blessing” (8:13). “Just as I purposed to do harm to you when your fathers provoked Me to wrath, … so I have again purposed in these days to do good to Jerusalem” (8:14, 15). Israel’s salvation depends on God’s purpose and might, not on Israel’s so-called free will!
God’s promised blessings of salvation do not depend on the impotent fallen will of man, but on the sure purpose and power of the Lord of hosts! “God’s purpose according to His choice [will] stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls” (Rom. 9:11). “It does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy” (Rom. 9:16).
This is not just a theological debate that has no practical value. Your assurance of salvation hinges on it! As Paul put it, if God began a good work in you, you can be confident that He “will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6). If you have repented of your sins and trusted in Christ alone for salvation, that repentance and faith did not originate in you. It came from God as His free gift, apart from anything that He foresaw in you. If it depends on anything in you, it is not based on grace, but on merit. That makes salvation depend, in part, on man. But Scripture is clear that salvation is of the Lord (Jonah 2:9). “He will save His people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). Thus if you believe in Christ, you can have assurance and hope, because your salvation came totally from God, not from anything in you.
But in spite of the assurance of God’s promised blessings, we all have times when it seems impossible that what God has promised will actually happen. Two things in these verses encourage us with the fact that God will do what He promises:
The Lord anticipates the response of these despondent people, “Yes, but …!” The population had been wiped out by the Babylonian invasion and captivity. The land was devastated and desolate (7:14). The thought of a prosperous Israel seemed impossible to them. But God promises that in the future, Jerusalem will be filled with the elderly and with children, living securely (8:4, 5).
Then He anticipates their faithless response. He repeats twice the assertion that this is the word of the Lord of hosts to emphasize its certainty: “Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘If it is too difficult in the sight of the remnant of this people in those days, will it also be too difficult in My sight?’ declares the Lord of hosts” (8:6).
“Yes, but …!” You’ve responded that way to God’s promises, haven’t you? I have! How often we make the mistake of judging God’s ability by our ability! Like David, we foolishly number our troops, thinking that our power is proportional to how many warriors we can muster for the battle. But the Lord does not save by many or by few (1 Sam. 14:6)! Like the disciples, we count up our meager five loaves and two fish, or we calculate the amount (which we don’t have anyway) that it would take to feed the vast multitude. But the Lord does not meet the need according to what we have or what we wish we had, but according to His purpose and His power.
Sometimes as a believer, you feel as if you’re on the losing team. Like Elijah, you think that you’re the only one left, and they’re seeking your life (1 Kings 19:10). Or perhaps you despair that you will ever overcome some besetting sin that keeps tripping you up. Or you get discouraged in the Lord’s work. You feel like you’re on Charlie Brown’s baseball team, where only five show up for the game and one of those is Lucy! You feel like giving up.
But remember, God always works through a remnant. Elijah wasn’t the only one; there were 7,000 others in Israel who had not bowed their knee to Baal (1 Kings 19:18). Joshua and Caleb were a minority, but they believed God’s promise and led the people into the Promised Land. Gideon and his 32,000 men were too many, but Gideon and his 300 men were enough with the Lord to conquer the vast Midianite horde (Judges 7). Picture Paul, shivering in his prison cell, asking Timothy to pick up his coat before he comes, and adding, “Only Luke is with me…. At my first defense no one supported me, but all deserted me” (2 Tim. 4:11, 16). Yet God used that man of faith like He has used few others!
You may think, “I’m the only believer at work or in my class at school.” God works through a faithful remnant. Believe His promises and trust His mighty power to save! His promised blessings depend on Him, not on us. But there is a second truth in our text concerning God’s promised blessings:
Divine sovereignty is always coupled with human responsibility. Just because God has promised to bless us does not mean that we can kick back and wait for the blessings to flow. His promised blessings require a response. In 8:9-17, Zechariah shows the remnant how the Lord expected them to respond to the promise of His blessing. His words apply to us as well.
Twice the Lord tells the people, “Let your hands be strong” (8:9, 13). Twice He tells them, “Do not fear” (8:13, 15). God doesn’t waste words. If He tells people twice to let their hands be strong, we can assume that they were tending to be weak. If He tells them twice not to fear, they were afraid. They were trying to rebuild the temple in the face of fierce opposition. Jerusalem was still littered with rubble. There was no wall to protect the city. The people had no army to defend themselves. So they were prone to be afraid and to give up the work of rebuilding the temple. But God says, “Be strong! Do not fear!”
Sometimes it seems like working to build Christ’s church is not worth the effort. I read recently that 1,500 pastors leave the ministry every month, many because of frustration and discouragement. You try to advance the cause of Christ, but you get attacked by fellow Christians. People you thought you could count on leave the church without even talking to you to try to work through their problems. Others fall into sin and go back into the world. Frankly, it’s easy to think, “What’s the use? I’ll go find another line of work where I don’t have these hassles!”
But the Lord says to us all, “Be strong! Don’t fear! I will build My church and the gates of Hades will not overpower it” (Matt. 16:18). That sure promise requires that we who know the Lord respond by committing ourselves to build His house.
Without holiness, anything that we do for the Lord will utterly fail. To call ourselves Christians and then to live like the world is to mock God before the world. The fact that the Lord dwells among us (8:3) demands that we be known as people of truth and holiness (see 8:3, 8, 16, 17, 19; note the repeated emphasis on truth).
As 8:16-17 make clear (see 7:9-10), holiness is a practical sort of thing. It demands that we speak truth to one another, that we judge with truth, that we not devise evil in our hearts against one another, and that we do not love perjury. God says that He hates these things. As His people, we must not only love what God loves; we also need to hate what He hates. Since He is the God of truth, we need to hate false doctrine, deception, lies, hypocrisy, and vague moral standards that drift with our godless culture.
The enemy paints a negative picture of holiness. We conjure up a bunch of Puritans in starched shirts, scowling at anyone who’s having fun. We fall for the lie that we will miss out on good times if we follow the Lord. But our chapter is clear that sin leads to great misery and curse (8:10, 13). Holiness and obedience to God are the way of great joy and gladness (8:19). God’s promised abundant blessings should motivate us to “deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age” (Titus 2:12).
But God does not promise to bless us so that we can sit around feeling blessed. Our text is clear that …
“I will save you that you may become a blessing” (8:13). I want to answer two questions: How do we become a blessing? Whom are we to bless? First, How do we become a blessing?
I think that 8:20-23 refers primarily to the Jews in the millennium. God will use them as a light to the nations, to point them to the Lord Jesus Christ. But these verses also apply to us now. In the context, verses 20-23 on being a witness flow out of verses 9-19 on holiness and joy. When people observe our lives, as godly people of truth, love, and joy, they will want what we’ve got, so that they grab us and say, “Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you” (8:23).
Beauty has an attractive power. Why do millions of people flock to Yosemite, Yellowstone, and the Grand Canyon every year? They are attracted by the awesome beauty of these places. When our lives reflect the beauty of God’s holiness and joy, people will say, “I want what you’ve got!” Every Christian should be able not just to bring people to church, but also to explain the gospel clearly so that those who do not know God can come to know Him through Jesus Christ. Living a beautiful (= holy) life is the foundation, but you should also be able to give a defense for the hope that is within you (1 Pet. 3:15). If you are not able to do that, I urge you to get some training in evangelism.
Both neighbors and distant nations are included in 8:20-23. We are to be witnesses for the Lord, beginning at our Jerusalem, but extending to the remotest part of the earth (Acts 1:8). We should pray for our neighbors and our contacts here in Flagstaff, that God would open the door to tell them about Christ. But we should not rest until every people group around the globe has had the opportunity to hear the good news. I commend to you Operation World, by Patrick Johnstone, and the monthly Global Prayer Digest (U.S. Center for World Mission), both of which will help you be informed, pray, and labor for the great cause of world missions.
An African proverb states, “There is only one crime worse than murder on the desert, and that is to know where the water is and not tell.” God has led us to Christ, the living water. He has blessed us with His salvation and He promises to bless us even more abundantly in the future. But He didn’t save us so that we can sit in the lifeboat feeling warm and cozy, oblivious to the lost of the world. He saved us so that we may become a blessing to others. If you’re saved, but you don’t have your focus on blessing others, you’ve only got half the picture. He blessed you so that you may become a blessing.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2003, All Rights Reserved.
One of the most familiar verses in the Bible is, “God helps those who help themselves.” The problem is, that “verse” is not in the Bible! There is a true sense to that bit of folk wisdom, in that the Bible exhorts us to be disciplined and hardworking in all that we do. To goof off all semester and then ask God to get you through a test is not a wise plan! Diligent study and prayer are God’s means for academic success.
But there is another sense in which the aphorism, “God helps those who help themselves,” goes completely against Scripture. Because of the fall, our human tendency is to trust primarily in ourselves and only secondarily, if at all, in the Lord. Thus we are quick to take the credit for any successes that come our way. We may give a passing tip of the hat to God for His part, but the primary glory goes to us for all our hard work or genius. But to the extent that we fail to give all the credit to God, we rob Him of glory.
When it comes to the matter of deliverance from God’s judgment (salvation), the Bible allows no tolerance for our boasting in anything that we do. “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). “But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, … that, just as it is written, ‘Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord’” (1 Cor. 1:30-31).
Zechariah 9 illustrates a principle that runs all through Scripture and is essential for you to understand and apply:
God brings down the proud, but He helps those who are helpless, who depend on His deliverance.
This does not mean that in every situation we sit passively and watch God work. As I said, we should be diligent and hardworking, trusting God to work through our labors. But in the matter of salvation, the Bible clearly shows that we can do nothing to contribute to the process, except to trust in the Lord Jesus Christ and His shed blood. Even that faith comes from God, not from us.
Zechariah 9-14 constitutes the third major portion of the book. Chapters 1-6 took place in the second year of Darius and contain Zechariah’s eight night visions. Chapters 7-8 took place two years later and give the prophet’s answer to a delegation from Bethel concerning some Jewish fasts.
But chapters 9-14 occur perhaps 40-50 years later. The temple has long been completed. Zechariah is now an old man. Israel is still weak and vulnerable, under foreign domination. Nehemiah had not yet returned to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. Powerful and aggressive neighbors still surrounded the weak remnant. The people worried, “What if these neighbors attack us? What if they tear down the temple we worked so hard to rebuild? What if they invade us and carry us off as captives again?” They feared what the future might hold for their families and their nation.
To these people Zechariah delivers the message of chapters 9-14, which prophesy of Israel’s future. It consists of two “burdens.” The first burden (chap. 9-11) focuses on Israel’s coming king, the Messiah, emphasizing His first coming and rejection. The second burden (chap. 12-14) focuses on Israel’s coming comfort, when the nation will go through severe trials and purging, but finally be delivered by the second coming of Her Messiah and King, the Lord Jesus Christ. Dr. Feinberg calls these last six chapters of Zechariah “an incomparable treasury of prophetic truth” (God Remembers [American Board of Mission to the Jews], p. 151).
Because many of these prophecies are miraculous, liberals doubt that Zechariah wrote them. But if we believe that God can reveal the future, there is no reason to doubt that He gave the prophet these messages. God gave these prophecies to encourage and comfort His chosen people with the message that He had not forgotten them. He would deal with their enemies through the coming Messiah-King and would fulfill His promises to bless His people in His appointed time.
Chapter 9 emphasizes that God will bring down the proud, but He helps those who are helpless who depend on His deliverance. The same message is illustrated three times, in the three sections of the chapter.
These verses describe God’s judgment on Israel’s neighbors while Israel itself is spared. Amazingly, Zechariah outlines Alexander the Great’s invasion of Palestine, which took place about 150 years after Zechariah wrote! Apart from the Lord, there is no way that Zechariah could have predicted these things.
Hadrach (9:1) and Hamath (9:2) were cities near Damascus, north of Israel. Tyre and Sidon (9:2-4) were the principal coastal cities of Phoenicia, to the northwest. Ashkelon, Gaza, Ekron, and Ashdod (9:5-7) were the main Philistine cities on the coast, south and west of Jerusalem. Zechariah predicts that God will judge all of these powerful neighbors, but God will protect Israel from the army that passes by and returns (9:8).
In 334 B.C. Alexander, who was about 21, set out with an army of 35,000 men, moving west through modern-day Turkey, which was then under Persian rule. He defeated Darius at the battle of Issus and then marched south, sending one of his commanders to Damascus, while he moved unhindered toward the Phoenician cities. Tyre was a proud and mighty city that had already withstood a five-year siege by the Assyrians and a thirteen-year siege by Nebuchadnezzar. They weren’t too worried about Alexander.
Verse 3 has a Hebrew pun. In Hebrew Tyre is tsor. Fortress is matsor. The closest we could come in English is to say, “Tyre built herself a tower.” Zechariah is tongue-in-cheek saying, “Tyre thinks she is tough.” It was a mighty city, situated on an island about 700 yards off the coast from the original city. It had a double 150-foot high wall around it. The city’s powerful navy had gained it impressive wealth (9:3). Tyre was so corrupt and opposed to God that Ezekiel (28:11-19) used the proud king of Tyre to describe, in symbolic language, the pre-fall career of Satan. So when Zechariah predicted Tyre’s downfall, he was probably laughed to scorn.
But God used Alexander to bring the city down. It took him seven months, during which time his army took the rubble from the original city and built a causeway to the island city. He thus fulfilled literally the prophecy of Ezekiel 26:12, 14, where God says that He will throw Tyre’s stones and timbers into the water and that the city will never be rebuilt. Thus while the Lord dispossessed Tyre (9:4), He used Alexander to do it.
After taking Tyre, Alexander moved south through the Philistine cities. At Gaza, he encountered some stiff resistance; it took him five months to capture the city. This made him angry with the king of Gaza, so Alexander put thongs through the king’s feet and dragged him through the city until he was dead. Then he killed all the men of the city and sold the women and children into slavery. He repopulated the city with people from the neighboring areas, thus fulfilling verses 5 & 6. The “blood from their mouth” refers either to their pagan sacrifices or to their prey in battle (9:7).
Then Alexander moved south, where Egypt surrendered without a fight. On his way back north, Alexander had a score to settle with Jerusalem. While he had been attacking Tyre, Alexander had appealed to Jerusalem for supplies. But the high priest had refused, maintaining his allegiance to King Darius. Alexander was enraged and, as he demonstrated at Gaza, he could be pretty mean when he got mad!
According to the Jewish historian Josephus (The Antiquities of the Jews [Baker reprint], 11:8:3-5), when the high priest heard that Alexander was moving north toward Jerusalem, he entreated the Jews to offer sacrifices and pray. God told the priest in a dream to open the city gates, dress his fellow priests in white robes and put on his own priestly garments, and to march out to meet Alexander. The mighty general, who bowed to no one, saw this entourage, fell on his knees before the high priest, went into the city, and offered sacrifices to the Lord. The priest showed Alexander the scroll of Daniel, which predicts that he would be a world conqueror.
Alexander’s men were astonished at his actions and asked him why he bowed before the high priest. He replied that he didn’t bow before the priest, but before the God who made him high priest, because while he was still in Macedonia, he had a dream. He had seen this high priest in his robes, and he told him that he would conquer the Persians. We do not know whether Josephus’ story is truth or legend, but we do know that Alexander spared Jerusalem, just as Zechariah 9:8 prophesies. While proud, mighty Tyre’s impressive fortifications failed, Israel’s invisible stronghold, the Lord God, delivered them from the fierce conqueror.
By the way, as with many biblical prophecies, verse 8 spans the centuries. The first part was fulfilled when Alexander spared Jerusalem. The last part, that no oppressor will pass over Jerusalem any more, remains to be fulfilled when Israel’s Messiah returns in power and glory (Merrill Unger, Zechariah: Prophet of Messiah’s Glory [Zondervan], p. 159). The prophecy of Alexander’s destruction of Tyre and his sparing of Jerusalem illustrates the truth that God brings down the proud, but He helps those who are helpless, who depend on His deliverance.
This is one of the great Old Testament Messianic prophecies. I plan to examine it in more detail next week. But for now, let’s do a brief overview and see how it illustrates the theme, that God brings down the proud, but delivers those who trust in Him.
As you know, on what we call Palm Sunday, just before His crucifixion, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey in precise fulfillment of this prophecy (Matt. 21:1-11; John 12:12-15). The Jews in Jesus’ day were expecting a powerful political Messiah who would deliver Israel from Rome. They did not expect a suffering Messiah who would die for the sins of His people. Even though Jesus repeatedly had told the disciples that He would be killed and rise again, they did not comprehend what He was saying until after His resurrection (Luke 18:34; 9:45; John 12:16).
So as He approached Jerusalem on that final Sunday, Jesus acted out a public demonstration to show the rulers, the people, and His disciples that He was their Messiah. But He was not the powerful King that they were expecting, but rather the humble, suffering Messiah predicted by Zechariah, Isaiah, and others. In the context of Zechariah 9, the prophet is showing that the Messiah would come in humility and lowliness, not in a display of human might. In contrast to proud Tyre and to the proud and mighty Alexander, Israel’s Savior would come in humility, riding on a lowly donkey’s colt.
After Solomon’s time, kings and warriors rode horses, not donkeys. The donkey was a burden-bearer, used in times of peace. Powerful kings did not ride to battle on donkeys, especially not on the foal of a donkey! People of lowly rank rode donkeys. The word “humble” indicates one who is oppressed or afflicted by evil men. It looks at Jesus as our sin-bearer, despised by the rulers of His day, but bringing God’s salvation for those who would receive it.
Why does Zechariah give us this picture of Messiah in this context? I think that God is showing His people through the humility of Messiah the attitude that we must have to experience God’s salvation. God does not save the mighty, who just need a little boost from Him. He delivers the weak and helpless who trust in Him, epitomized by Messiah in His first coming, riding on the foal of a donkey.
The entire church age fits between verses 9 & 10. When He comes again, Jesus will cut off all opposition against Israel and He will rule in peace over the entire earth. Then God will highly exalt Jesus and give Him the name above every name, because He humbled Himself by taking the form of a servant and becoming obedient to death on a cross (Phil. 2:5-11). Thus the two comings of Jesus the Messiah, contrasted with proud Tyre and the mighty Alexander, illustrate the principle: God brings down the proud, but He helps those who are helpless, who depend on His deliverance.
Biblical prophecy often has multiple fulfillments leading up to the final fulfillment. Such prophetic events (or people) are centuries apart, although the prophecy doesn’t specify that fact. For example, Malachi 4:5 predicts that God would send “Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord.” In Matthew 11:14, Jesus explained that John the Baptist was that Elijah to come. But the great and terrible day of the Lord is yet to come, almost 2,000 years after John’s ministry. Thus when Revelation 11 predicts that two powerful witnesses will prophesy just prior to the Lord’s coming, many believe that one of these will be Elijah himself, the ultimate fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy.
That prophetic mode of multiple fulfillments, culminating in the final fulfillment, is used in Zechariah 9:11-17. On one level, Zechariah describes the victory that God granted during the Maccabean revolt against the wicked Antiochus Epiphanes in 166-160 B.C. This was the only time that the Jews fought against the Greeks (9:13). This wicked ruler suspended daily sacrifices, abolished the Sabbath, destroyed copies of the Scriptures, forbade circumcision, and erected pagan altars. To crown it all, in December, 167 B.C., he set up a pagan altar in the temple and offered swine’s flesh on it (an initial fulfillment of Daniel’s “abomination of desolation,” Dan. 11:31, 12:11; see James Boice, The Minor Prophets [Baker], 2:532-533). Antiochus is a type of the Antichrist who will come to world domination, setting himself up as God in the temple of God, the ultimate abomination of desolation (2 Thess. 2:4; see Matt. 24:15).
Thus while Zechariah 9:11-17 pictures on one level the victory that God would grant the Jews during the Maccabean revolt, on another level it looks ahead to the final victory when Messiah will return in power and glory to crush Antichrist and his followers. Since both Antiochus and the Antichrist are the epitome of worldly pride and power, their defeat and Israel’s deliverance illustrate the principle: God brings down the proud, but He helps those who are helpless, who depend on His deliverance.
These verses should encourage us because they show that God prepares deliverances for His people years before we even know that we need them. When Zechariah prophesied, it would be almost 200 years before Greece would pose a threat, and 300 years before the Maccabean revolt. And yet the Lord knew all of this in advance and prepared the victory for His people long before they knew that they even needed it. As Revelation shows, God has already prepared victory for His people in the Great Tribulation, when Israel will be hemmed in by the forces of evil. Just in time, Christ will return and “cut off the chariot from Ephraim, and the horse from Jerusalem,” and will reign over all the earth (9:10).
This means that the Lord has prepared deliverances for situations that you may encounter this week, later this year, and for the rest of your life. Our emergencies never take the Lord by surprise! When we are overwhelmed by some trial, we can trust in the Lord and know that He cares for us.
Note the assurances that He gives to encourage us to trust Him: We are in a blood covenant relationship with Him (9:11). He promises to give us victory over powerful enemies (9:13-15). We are the flock of His people, sparkling stones in His crown (9:16).
You may wonder, “But what about God’s people who have been tortured or slaughtered? What about those who go through horrible trials? What about the situations where wicked tyrants prosper and God’s people suffer? How does God deliver them?”
The Bible doesn’t dodge these hard issues. The forerunner, John the Baptist, whom Jesus called the greatest among men (Matt. 11:11), was beheaded because of the stupid promise of a drunken, lustful king. The godly Stephen was stoned by the wicked Jewish leaders. Most of the apostles died martyrs’ deaths. Revelation 6:9-11 pictures many martyred saints in heaven, waiting the day of their vindication. God tells them to wait because there are still others to be killed for their testimonies. Their vindication comes at the very end, when Jesus returns in power and glory to crush all opposition. At that time, the multitude in heaven cries out, “Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God… Let us rejoice and be glad and give glory to Him” (Rev. 19:1, 7).
When we experience God’s deliverance, whether it is the minor deliverances of day to day trials and temptations, or the final deliverance of His victory over all the forces of evil, praise and glory to God are the result. Zechariah 9:17 should be translated with the NASB margin, “For what comeliness and beauty are His!” The singular pronoun refers to the Lord. Verse 17 is a burst of praise coming from God’s people who have just experienced His deliverance.
There are two commands in this chapter that we should apply. First, “Rejoice greatly! Shout in triumph!” (9:9). It is significant that in Revelation, when God throws down wicked Babylon that has killed the prophets and saints, we read, “Rejoice over her, O heaven, and you saints and apostles and prophets, because God has pronounced judgment for you against her” (Rev. 18:20). Again, “Give praise to our God, all you His bond-servants, you who fear Him …” (Rev. 19:5). And, again, “Let us rejoice and be glad and give the glory to Him …” (Rev. 19:7). When we see how God will bring down the proud, but how He will ultimately deliver the helpless who trust in Him, we should praise His glorious name!
The second command is, “Return to the stronghold, O prisoners who have the hope” (9:12). This was directed to the Jews who still believed in the God of Abraham, but who had not yet returned to Israel from the captivity. Perhaps they were afraid to move back to Jerusalem, which had no visible wall and no human army to protect it. Zechariah is teaching them that God Himself is their sufficient defense, that He would be to them, as Isaiah 26:1 declares, a wall and a rampart (John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], p. 263).
Even so, some know Christ as Savior—they have hope in Him—but they are still prisoners, enslaved to some fears or sins. God wants us all to see that deliverance by any human source or scheme is in vain (Ps. 60:11). Christ Himself is our stronghold. Return to Him! “The king is not saved by a mighty army; a warrior is not delivered by great strength; … Behold, the eye of the Lord is on those who fear Him, on those who hope for His lovingkindness, to deliver their soul from death and to keep them alive in famine. Our soul waits for the Lord; He is our help and our shield. For our heart rejoices in Him, because we trust in His holy name” (Ps. 33:16, 18-21).
There is a story of a guy who was fixing the TV antenna on his roof when he slipped and slid toward the edge. He managed to grab the rain gutter as he went over the side. So there he was, dangling by his fingertips, two stories above the concrete driveway. In desperation, he looked down and yelled, “Is there anybody down there that can help me?” Total silence.
With no time to waste, he looked up and shouted, “Is there anybody up there that can help me?” Just then, the clouds parted and a deep voice boomed out of the sky, “Have faith, I’ll catch you. Just let go!” The man quickly looked down at the hard landing two stories below. Then he looked back up and shouted, “Is there anybody else up there who can help me?”
The answer is, “No!” God alone will help you if you are helpless and depend on His deliverance.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2003, All Rights Reserved.
You have probably had the experience that I have often had, where you are looking for something in the closet or garage, but you couldn’t find it because you had the wrong concept of what you were looking for. You thought that it was in a square brown box, but it really was in an oblong yellow box. So you stared right at it, and perhaps even moved it out of the way, but you missed it because your mental picture of it was wrong.
Most Jews in Jesus’ day missed Him as their Messiah and King because they were expecting a different kind of Savior. They thought that Messiah would be a mighty political deliverer, who would lead Israel to military victory over Rome. They were not looking for a lowly Savior, riding on the foal of a donkey. They could not conceive of a suffering Savior, who offered Himself as the sacrifice for sinners. And so, tragically, they missed the coming of their King!
Many people still miss Jesus because of wrong expectations. They’re looking for a Savior like Aladdin’s Genie, who will grant their every wish, but it hasn’t happened. They want a Savior who will instantly solve their deepest problems, but those problems have not gone away. Or, they expect a church where everyone always loves one another. But a church member treated them wrongly, so they dropped out in bitter disappointment.
In order joyously to welcome Jesus as our King, we need to understand properly who He is. Our text is one of the great Messianic prophecies of the Old Testament. Even most Jewish commentators down through the centuries have agreed that this is a prophecy about Messiah (Charles Feinberg, God Remembers [American Board of Mission to the Jews], pp. 167-168). Zechariah 9:9-10 teaches us that…
Because Jesus Christ is King and He is coming to reign, we who are subject to Him should rejoice greatly.
The news that a king is coming is not necessarily a cause for great joy. The first part of this chapter predicts the coming of Alexander the Great, who ruthlessly conquered Israel’s neighbors. The news of his coming would have struck terror into the hearts of those in his path. He often slaughtered all the men in a city and sold the women and children into slavery. He was not concerned about the well-being of his subjects, but only about his own power and dominion.
It is also difficult to accept the news of a coming king because there is a sense in which all of us want to rule our own lives. We can accept governmental interference to a limited degree, as long as it doesn’t get too close. But if a king started trying to control every aspect of our lives—how we do business, how we relate to others, including our families, and even how we speak and think—we resist the very thought! We certainly would not rejoice at the news of the coming of that kind of king!
But that is precisely the kind of King that Jesus is! He is rightfully Lord of all people and of all aspects of all people’s lives. Regarding this King, Zechariah exhorts, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout in triumph, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you.” The rest of verses 9 & 10 describe this King and explain why His coming gives cause for great joy. If we understand who this King is and what His coming will mean for all the earth, we will rejoice greatly at the news of His coming.
The phrase translated, “your king is coming to you” can also be translated, “your king is coming for you,” that is, “for your benefit” (Kenneth Barker, Expositor’s Bible Commentary [Zondervan], 7:662). To receive the benefits that this King brings, we need to recognize our need. Israel was under the domination of powerful foreign rulers. They were incapable of freeing themselves. But this King had the power to deliver them and He had their best interests at heart. Spiritually, we must admit that we are under the domination of sin that will destroy us and that we are unable to free ourselves. Then we will welcome the promised King and the benefits that He offers. He comes for you! But who is He?
Authority is bound up with the idea of kings, at least in the ancient world. Today, some monarchs, such as the Queen of England, have almost no authority. They function as official state dignitaries. Their wishes may have some weight with those who run the government. But they don’t have much authority.
But even in His first coming when He came as the humble, suffering Servant, Jesus Christ possessed a quiet but total authority over all people and events. Although the Jewish leaders hated Him because He threatened their authority, they could not lay hands on Him until His time had come (John 7:30; 8:20).
On Palm Sunday, to fulfill this prophecy, Jesus staged a public demonstration to show the Jewish people and their rulers that He is the Messiah, but not the kind of Messiah they were expecting. The chief priests and the Sanhedrin had given orders that if anyone knew where Jesus was, they should inform them so that He could be arrested (John 11:57). Jesus’ bold action of riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, to the cries of “Hosanna” led to His arrest and crucifixion at the very moment that the Passover lambs were being slaughtered in Jerusalem, in fulfillment of Scripture.
The uniform picture of all four gospels is that Jesus was firmly in charge of all these events. Jesus was not a helpless victim. No one took His life from Him. He laid it down on His own initiative (John 10:17-18). We cannot say for certain whether Jesus had prearranged for the colt to be loaned or if He simply knew in advance what would take place. Since He had clear foreknowledge of the specifics of His crucifixion and resurrection (Mark 10:33-34), I think that Jesus simply knew what would happen concerning the donkey. He told the disciples where to find it, what to say to the owner, and how the owner would respond.
The point is, Jesus was clearly in charge of the events surrounding His death, including the triumphal entry, the betrayal by Judas and the death plots of the Jewish leaders. None of it took Him by surprise. He is the King of authority who controls all things according to His purpose, even the events of His death (Acts 2:23; 4:27-28).
Before we move on, we need to personalize it: Is Jesus the King your King? Does He rule in your heart and life? The idea that you can choose Jesus as your Savior now and consider whether you want Him to be your lord later if you wish, is nonsense! While submitting to His lordship is a lifelong process, it begins at salvation, and if it has not begun in your life, you have reason to question whether you are truly saved.
Zechariah says that Israel’s king is just (some translate “righteous,” but the sense is justice). The primary reference in this context is to a king who administers justice in his kingdom. He is not corrupt, like so many world rulers. I recently read a news article of a former president of a Central American country who siphoned off over $100 million into personal and family bank accounts. That story could probably be repeated in dozens of countries. Much of the poverty and suffering around the globe stems from corrupt leaders who have no regard for justice. But Jesus Christ will be just in the administration of His kingdom because He is righteous in His person. He is not out to take advantage of His subjects for personal gain. He has their best interests at heart.
He is “endowed with salvation” (NASB). Scholars debate whether the nuance of the verb here is passive or reflexive (it can be either, depending on the context). If it is passive, the meaning is either that Jesus was endued, endowed, or clothed with salvation; or that He was saved through some ordeal, namely, the cross and resurrection. If the verb is reflexive, it means that He shows Himself to be the Savior. But the difference does not affect the meaning, that Jesus came to bring salvation to His people.
For the Jews, the salvation that Messiah would bring had national political overtones. For centuries, the Jews have been threatened by hostile nations that have sought to annihilate or enslave them (Ps. 129). Thus when God promised them a deliverer, they thought of one who would reign on David’s throne and bring “salvation from all our enemies, and from the hand of those who hate us” (see Luke 1:69-71).
Yet at the same time, salvation for the Jew also had a personal dimension related to the individual’s deliverance from God’s judgment on his sins. Thus the father of John the Baptist prophesied that he would go before the Lord’s coming “to give to His people the knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins” (Luke 1:77). Or, as the angel told Joseph, “you shall call His name Jesus, for it is He who will save His people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21).
Zechariah 9:10 refers to Messiah’s second coming, when He will fulfill the national sense of salvation by ruling over all the nations. But the New Testament makes clear (in conjunction with several OT prophecies) that in His first coming, Messiah came to bring spiritual salvation by offering Himself as the sacrifice to satisfy God’s justice against sinners. If God dismissed our sin without the penalty being imposed, He would not be just. God has declared that the penalty for sin is death, not only physical death, but also spiritual death, eternal separation from the holy God (Rom. 6:23). Through Jesus’ death as the perfect substitute, He paid the penalty we deserved, which allows God to be both just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Rom. 3:26).
There are two wrong notions that will keep many people out of heaven, and they usually go together. First, people wrongly believe that God is too loving to send decent, moral people to hell. But that kind of thinking grossly underestimates the serious nature of our sin. A single sin in thought, word, or deed is enough to condemn a person to hell! And it compromises God’s justice in favor of His love, which compromises His holiness.
The second wrong notion is that most of us are good enough to qualify for heaven. Sure, we all have our faults, but we’re not like murderers, terrorists, and child molesters. So we figure that the scales will tip our way when we stand before God because we were sincere and we meant well. Many Jews made this mistake. They thought that since they were descendants of Abraham, they observed the ritual law as prescribed by Moses, and they were better than the Gentiles, that God would not judge them. But their error was that it requires perfect righteousness to get into heaven.
That’s where Christ and the cross come in. On the cross, the perfect Son of God offered Himself as the substitute for sinners. He came “to give His life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Some day you will stand before God either clothed in your own goodness, which will condemn you, or clothed in the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ. God credits that righteousness to you the instant you renounce all trust in your own righteousness and put your trust in Jesus as your sin-bearer (see Rom. 3 & 4).
Jesus came the first time bringing salvation, but He will come the second time as the judge of all the earth. If you have trusted Him as your personal Savior, then you can rejoice at the thought of His coming as the judge, because He has borne your sins.
“King of humility” sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it? Perhaps we should say that He is the humble King. In contrast to the proud Alexander on his war horse, Jesus came as a servant on not only a donkey, but the foal of a donkey. As we saw last week, after Solomon’s time, kings and warriors rode horses, not donkeys. The donkey was a lowly animal, used for peaceable purposes by those who were of no rank or position. By riding the foal of a donkey, Jesus was showing Himself to be the King, in fulfillment of our text, but not the exalted political king that the people expected. In His first coming, Jesus was the suffering Messiah who offered salvation and peace with God through His death.
The Hebrew word for “humble” can also mean poor or needy in an economic sense, and that was also true of Jesus, who had no earthly wealth or possessions (Luke 9:58). The word also includes the meaning of a righteous man afflicted by evil men. Thus many commentators say that the word pictures the suffering of the righteous servant of the Lord (Isaiah 53). (Merrill Unger, Zechariah: Prophet of Messiah’s Glory [Zondervan], p. 163). Jesus willingly laid aside His rights and took the form of a servant, becoming obedient to the point of death on a cross (Phil. 2:5-8).
Charles Spurgeon pointed out that no false Messiah has ever copied Jesus in this taking the low place of a servant (Spurgeon’s Expository Encyclopedia [Baker], 3:129). But our Savior commanded us to follow Him in this regard. After He took the towel and basin and washed the disciples’ feet, He said, “I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you” (John 13:15). There are numerous commands in Scripture warning us not to think too highly of ourselves and to think more lowly of ourselves (Rom. 12:3, 16; Phil. 2:3). I cannot find any verses that tell us to build our self-esteem. In the same sermon (pp. 136-137), Spurgeon applies the need to imitate Jesus in His lowliness:
“But, then, persons have spoken evil of me. I do not deserve to be treated thus.” Clearly it is specially wrong for any one to speak amiss of such an excellent being as you are. There lies the grievance…. You reply, “But, really, it was so malicious, and the charge was so absurd and unreasonable.” Just so. People ought to be peculiarly careful not to hurt your feelings, for you are so deserving and praiseworthy. Is not self-esteem the spring of half our sorrow? … If we were really lowly of heart, we should say, “I have been treated very badly, but when I think of how my Lord was treated, I cannot dream of complaining. This … critic … has been finding fault with me, and his charges were not true; but, if he had known me better, he might have found more fault with me, and have been nearer the truth.
So we should learn humility from our Savior. He is the King of authority, justice, salvation, and humility. Finally,
This is evident from the fact that He rode into Jerusalem on an unbroken colt. I am no expert on horses, but I know enough not to climb onto an unbroken colt! Jesus’ riding on this colt shows His miraculous power over the creation that He spoke into existence by the word of His power.
There was also a spiritual significance in the fact that the colt was unbroken. In the Old Testament, when an animal was put to sacred use, it had to be one which had not already been used for common purposes (Num. 19:2; Deut. 21:3). Since this animal was now to be used for the Messiah, it had to be an animal that had never been ridden by man. Only the Lord of creation could do what Jesus did.
If Jesus is the Creator, then certainly we should obey Him. This colt, like Balaam’s donkey, was smarter than people are. The colt received Jesus on its back without bucking, but He came unto His own people, and they cast Him off. If we see Jesus correctly for who He is, we will submit to Him as the Almighty Creator.
If Jesus Christ is the King of authority, justice, salvation, humility, and creation, then it makes sense that …
Verse 9 predicts Jesus’ first coming in lowliness to offer Himself as the substitute for sinners. Verse 10 predicts His second coming in power and glory, to reign over all the earth. Jesus will remove all weapons of war, both from Israel and from all of Israel’s enemies. When it says that He will speak peace to the nations, it implies more than mere words. The power of His person and presence will effect peace on earth (see Feinberg, p. 166 and Unger, p. 165). Zechariah then quotes from Psalm 72:8, about Messiah reigning “from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth,” which is poetic language for worldwide dominion.
Jesus Christ predicted His own return to earth in power and glory (Matt. 24:30; 26:64). The Book of Revelation (19:11-16) shows Jesus coming again, this time not on a foal of a donkey, but on a white charger of war, to slay His enemies, as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. At that time, every person will meet Jesus. If you yield to Him now, you will joyfully meet Him as Savior. If you reject Him now, you will meet Him as Judge, when “He treads the wine press of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty” (Rev. 19:15).
As believers, what should our response be to the fact that Jesus Christ is King and He is coming to reign?
The double commands, to rejoice greatly and to shout in triumph, emphasize exuberant joy. The commands are addressed to the daughters of Zion and Jerusalem, which means, those who are in a covenant relationship to God (Rom. 2:28-29, 9:8). If Jesus is your King, then lift up your head and rejoice, for your redemption draws near (Luke 21:28)!
Perhaps you wonder, “How can I rejoice greatly when there are so many overwhelming problems in the world and in my personal life? Jesus’ coming will be nice, but that seems like a long ways off. How can I rejoice now?”
The answer is the same for us as it was for Israel then: We rejoice by faith in our coming King. It would still be four long centuries from Zechariah’s prophecy before Messiah rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, and even then, most of Israel missed Him! It has been twenty long centuries since then. Scoffers will taunt, “Where is the promise of His coming?” (2 Pet. 3:4). The bottom line is, we either believe the Word of God or we don’t! When He came the first time, Jesus fulfilled not only this, but hundreds of Old Testament prophecies. It is not unreasonable to assume that the prophecies about His second coming will also literally be fulfilled. But, meanwhile, we must live by faith. Faith in the hope of His coming will fill us with great joy, even in the midst of difficult trials.
May I ask, “How’s your joy in Jesus?” I have to fight the flesh to gain this joy, just as you do. Remember, joy is a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22). Octavius Winslow wrote (“The Sympathy of Christ,” at http://www.gracegems.org/2/religion_of_joy.htm):
The religion of Christ is the religion of JOY. Christ came to take away our sins, to roll off our curse, to unbind our chains, to open our prison house, to cancel our debt; in a word, to give us the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness. Is not this joy? Where can we find a joy so real, so deep, so pure, so lasting? There is every element of joy; deep, ecstatic, satisfying, sanctifying joy in the gospel of Christ. The believer in Jesus is essentially a happy man. The child of God is, from necessity, a joyful man. His sins are forgiven, his soul is justified, his person is adopted, his trials are blessings, his conflicts are victories, his death is immortality, his future is a heaven of inconceivable, unthought of, untold, and endless blessedness. With such a God, such a Savior, and such a hope, is he not, ought he not, to be a joyful man?
Are you pursuing that kind of joy? You should be, because your King is coming!
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2003, All Rights Reserved.
At the historic battle of Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington led the British forces against the mighty Napoleon. News of the battle’s outcome traveled by sailing vessel to the south coast of England and was signaled by semaphore overland to London.
On top of Winchester Cathedral, the signalman began to spell out the eagerly awaited message. The words came across, “Wellington defeated ….” At this point a thick fog settled in. The semaphore could no longer be seen, and the discouraging news of Wellington’s defeat spread through London.
But later the fog lifted and again the signaling semaphore atop the cathedral became visible. This time it spelled out the complete message: “Wellington defeated the enemy!”
If you have known the Lord for any time at all, then you have experienced something like that in your praying. You have prayed earnestly for something important. But it seemed as if God was not answering, or even worse, that His answer spelled defeat. Perhaps you are still in the fog and don’t understand why God seemed to do the opposite of what you prayed. I feel that way about several of my long-term prayer requests. At times you may wonder if God’s promises are really true.
But the Bible is clear that someday the fog will lift and we will see that all of God’s promises are yes in Christ (2 Cor. 1:20). From our limited vantage point, it may not seem so. But seen from the perspective of God’s prophetic plan for history, we can see that God always fulfills His promises for His people. It may not be in our time or in our way. But God always keeps His promises. This should encourage us to pray.
As we saw in our overview of Zechariah 9, the prophet encouraged the weak and fearful remnant with the truth that God helps those who are helpless who trust in Him. In chapter 10, he continues this theme by reminding the people of God’s promised blessings for Israel. The words, “I will,” or “they will” are repeated throughout the chapter to give assurance that God is not iffy about His plans for His people.
The only command in the chapter is in verse 1: “Ask rain from the Lord at the time of the spring rain.” God meant for this command to be taken both literally and spiritually. They were to ask God for the spring rains for their crops; but also, they were to ask God to pour out His spiritual rain on His parched people. God promises to bring His scattered people back to the land and to strengthen them to walk in His name. So Zechariah exhorts them to ask God to send His spring rains to fulfill these promises.
God’s abundant promises for His people should motivate us to pray for their fulfillment.
Even though God has promised to complete the work that He has begun in us (Phil. 1:6), He doesn’t do it automatically, apart from our active participation in the process. Prayer is God’s appointed means of bringing down His showers of blessing. So we need to pray God’s promises into reality. The major part of our chapter shows that …
For Zechariah’s audience, these promises seemed so far removed from their immediate situation as to sound like fairy tales. Most of the Jews were still scattered across the Persian empire. The weak remnant that had returned was threatened by hostile neighbors. The land was still devastated from the Babylonian conquest. But here Zechariah predicts that Israel will someday trample her enemies and be regathered in the land to the extent that no more room could be found (10:10). The Jews must have thought, “This prophet has his head in the clouds!”
Perhaps some of you feel that way. When you hear of God’s abundant promises, you think, “No way!” The reality gap between where you are living and what God has promised is so great that you have trouble believing that it ever could happen. If you can identify with that, then our text is for you!
It falls into two sections: verses 1-5 outline God’s promised deliverance from enemies; verses 6-12 describe God’s promises of restoration and strength for His people, whom He will regather into their homeland. While these verses apply spiritually to the church, I agree with Charles Simeon (Expository Outlines on the Whole Bible [Zondervan], X:508), who wrote over 100 years before Israel became a nation. He asked, if the Jews’ regathering to the land is figurative, how could God say anything literal in plainer language than He uses here? At the present time, only part of this prophecy has been fulfilled. The Jews are returning to the land from all over the world, but they have not yet returned to the Lord. To that end, we should pray for the conversion of the Jews.
Two enemies are mentioned here: the false gods in which the people had trusted through false prophets; and, the corrupt leaders that had dominated the nation for their own gain.
For the most part, Israel did not fall into idolatry after the Babylonian exile, but that sin had been a major cause of the exile. So Zechariah warns against it here. When the Lord did not seem to answer their prayers for rain, the Jews easily could fall prey to false prophets who promised rain through idols, divination, or false dreams. Idolatry involves a reversal of our proper position before God, where instead of submitting to Him, we try to manipulate Him (or other spiritual powers) to get what we want. It often is a subtle shift, where we take control and God becomes our servant, to carry out our will. If the living and true God won’t cooperate, we use other spiritual means to get what we want.
Israel often did this with teraphim, which were household gods. Although obviously pagan, we find them repeatedly in Israel’s history (Gen. 31:19, 34; 1 Sam. 19:13; 2 Kings 23:24). They were used to try to determine God’s will through magical or occult means (divination). Zechariah says that even though people may gain temporary comfort through such methods, it is false and empty comfort, because it does not rely on the living God.
The warning is this: Whenever God puts you on hold, you are susceptible to turning to false gods or false teachers for help. I’ve heard of Christians turning to astrology or fortune telling for guidance. A woman in my church in California was in chronic pain. She started going to a Science of Mind healer. When I pointed out to her husband that this is a dangerous false cult, he curtly replied, “My wife is in pain. This relieves her pain.” They dropped out of the church.
Many false teachers prey upon God’s people who are suffering. They teach that it is God’s will to heal everyone or to make us wealthy. Desperate people flock to these godless men, only to be disappointed because “they comfort in vain.”
Scholars differ over whether the shepherds and “male goats” of 10:3 refer to Israel’s leaders or to the foreign leaders who dominated Israel. Certainly, Israel had suffered from both! “Male goats” refers to leaders who selfishly dominated others by force, much as goats try to butt their way into dominance over the flock. Israel suffered from false shepherds, who took advantage of the flock for their own gain (Ezekiel 34). Because of the flesh, leaders must always be on guard against lording it over the flock and using people for selfish purposes (1 Pet. 5:2-3).
God promises to visit His flock and to make them like His majestic horse in battle (3b). The pronoun “them” (10:4) is literally “him,” referring to Judah. From Judah will come the cornerstone, the tent peg, the bow of battle, and every ruler. God’s people will then “be as mighty men, treading down the enemy” in battle, “for the Lord will be with them.”
Some commentators interpret the terms in 10:4 as referring to God’s raising up strong leaders from Judah, in contrast to the corrupt leaders of 10:3, but they do not see a messianic reference here. But since the ultimate leader over Israel will be Messiah, since some of these terms are used elsewhere for Messiah, and since the Jewish targum (an Aramaic paraphrase and commentary on the Scriptures) on this section refers it to Messiah, many see these terms as messianic. Taken this way, …
*Christ is the cornerstone of His people. The Old and New Testaments frequently use this designation for Christ (Isa. 28:16; Acts 4:11; Eph. 2:20; 1 Pet. 2:6). In Zechariah, it speaks of Christ as the leader upon whom the government rests and holds together. Christ is the cornerstone of His church.
*Christ is the tent peg of His people. This refers to the peg in an Oriental tent on which the residents hung many valuables (Isa. 22:23-24). It refers to Christ as the one on whom the glory of the Father dwells. Everything of value that we have is in Him.
*Christ is the bow of battle for His people. He is the coming conqueror, who will vanquish all of God’s enemies when He returns (Ps. 110:5-7; Rev. 19:11-16).
*Christ is the ultimate ruler of His people. Some commentators who take the first three terms as referring to Christ object to taking the fourth term in a similar manner, since the word usually refers to a tyrannical or oppressive ruler. They interpret it to mean that all oppressive leaders will depart from Judah when Messiah comes to reign. But the word can have the sense of a strong leader in a good sense (BDB Hebrew Lexicon takes it this way, p. 620). In light of verse 5, which pictures God’s people trampling their enemies, it makes sense to see them under the leadership of their supreme ruler, Jesus Christ.
We can apply these promises for deliverance in two ways:
Jesus Christ is our “all in all” (Col. 3:11). In Him “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” We have been rooted in Christ. We are to be built up in Christ. “In Him all the fulness of Deity dwells in bodily form and in Him you have been made complete.” God made us alive from the dead in Christ, through whose death we have forgiveness of all our sins. In Him we have victory over every spiritual foe (see Col. 2:3, 7, 9, 10, 13. 14, 15). If we are defeated by our sins or by some problem, it is because we have not learned to lay hold of the sufficiency of Jesus Christ.
This doctrine of Christ’s sufficiency is subtly under attack. John MacArthur perceptively deals with this in Our Sufficiency in Christ [Word, 1991]. He shows how humanistic psychology and pragmatism have invaded the church and replaced the need to rely totally on the riches that we have in Christ. He says (p. 31), “The clear message [of ‘Christian’ psychology] is that simply pointing Christians to their spiritual sufficiency in Christ is inane and maybe even dangerous. But on the contrary, it is inane and dangerous to believe that any problem is beyond the scope of Scripture or unmet by our spiritual riches in Christ.”
I would also commend the final chapter, “Christ is All,” in J. C. Ryle’s Holiness [James Clarke & Co.]. He writes (p. 317), “The true way to be strong is to realize our weakness and to feel that Christ must be all. The true way to grow in grace is to make use of Christ as a fountain for every minute’s necessities.”
Note the balance (10:5), “And they will fight, for the Lord will be with them.” The Lord’s presence and strength do not imply that we sit back and do nothing. “Let go and let God” is not the total picture. MacArthur devotes Chapter 9, “A Balance of Faith and Effort,” to this topic, expounding on Philippians 2:12-13, which exhorts us to work out our own salvation because it is God who is at work in us. While Jesus Christ is our strength, we have to engage in the battle. Disciplining ourselves for godliness (1 Tim. 4:7) goes hand in hand with reliance on God’s Spirit (Gal. 5:16).
Thus the theme of verses 2-5 is that God promises deliverance from our enemies as we learn to do battle in Christ.
The emphasis here is on the Lord as the One who will strengthen and deliver His people: “I will strengthen… I will save… I will bring them back…” (10:6). “I will bring them back… I will bring them into the land…” (10:10). “I will strengthen them in the Lord…” (10:12). God is very definite about what He will do! His plan does not depend on the so-called “free will” of people. It is not that God forces human will, but rather, after He converts us, by His grace He enables us freely to will and to do that which is spiritually good (see The Westminster Confession, IX:IV, and The Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689, 9:4).
So the balance of Scripture is, on the one hand, God sovereignly saves, strengthens, and sustains His people. On the other hand, we must actively rely on His strength and take action to walk in His name (10:12). We must return to the Lord, but we can only return to Him in the strength that He imparts.
Two practical observations:
*God sometimes scatters His people in weakness so that they will look to Him alone to save. Note verse 9: “When I scatter [lit., sow] them among the peoples, they will remember Me in far countries…” Egypt and Assyria (10:10) are representative of all of the places around the globe where God has dispersed His disobedient people. When God says that He will whistle to gather back to the land (10:8), it refers to a shepherd’s blowing a pipe-like whistle to call his flock back to the fold. Just prior to Messiah’s return, God will gather the Jews back to the land from around the globe.
God’s sowing His people among the nations pictures them as seed awaiting a harvest. F. B. Meyer (The Prophet of Hope [Christian Literature Crusade], pp. 102-113) has a helpful sermon, “God’s Sowing.” He shows that sowing implies death, darkness, and loneliness, as the seed is planted in the ground. But God does not forget the seed, any more than a farmer would forget the crop that he has planted. In due time, that seed that falls into the ground and dies will bear much fruit (John 12:24).
God often has to plant us in situations of overwhelming despair so that we look to Him alone. Paul was burdened excessively, beyond his strength, so that he despaired even of life, “in order,” he said, “that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead” (2 Cor. 1:8-9). Hudson Taylor said, “All God’s giants have been weak men who did great things for God because they reckoned on God being with them.” He also said that when God wanted to open inland China to the gospel, He had to look around for a man weak enough for the task.
*When weak people experience God’s strength, great joy results. Note verse 7: “And their heart will be glad as if from wine; indeed, their children will see it and be glad, their heart will rejoice in the Lord.” When God has brought us to the end of ourselves, where we are forced to rely on Him alone, not only do we experience great joy; our children also enter into our joy!
The way to bring great joy to your children is not to give them all the junk that the world says we need in order to be happy. Rather, by your example of faith and prayer, teach your kids the reality of our weakness, but of God’s strength and sufficiency. Read them stories of great men of faith like George Muller, Hudson Taylor, Adoniram Judson, and John Paton. As a family, present your needs to the Lord in prayer, and rejoice when He provides. That leads to the means that God has ordained for us to lay hold of His promises:
You may wonder, “Why pray if God has promised to do it? Won’t it happen anyway?” God’s purposes will happen, but if you don’t pray, you won’t be blessed. There are four good reasons to pray for the fulfillment of God’s promises:
God tells His people to ask Him for the spring rains (10:1). God has ordained for His eternal purpose to be fulfilled through the prayers of His people. That’s why the Lord taught us to pray, “Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10). God’s kingdom will come. The question is, will you be a part of the process by praying for it to come?
We don’t pray to inform God of things that He doesn’t know! Jesus explained, “Your Father knows what you need, before you ask Him” (Matt. 6:8), and then went on to tell us how to pray. In prayer, we confess our total dependence on God.
God commands them to ask Him for rain. Rain is a natural phenomenon. Scientists can explain the process without mentioning God. When they can’t figure it out, they attribute it to good old Mother Nature! But don’t let them fool you: It is God who sends rain! If the crops grow, it is because God makes them grow. If you sit down to a meal that you bought with money you earned, it is God who provided that meal, and you need to give thanks to Him.
When God tells His people to ask Him for the spring rains, they needed to pray literally for the spring rains. But, also, they needed to ask Him to fulfill the promises of this chapter, to save, restore, and strengthen His people for His glory. “Your kingdom come, Your will be done…” That will happen, but it will happen through God’s people asking Him to send His rain.
Did Zechariah’s audience realize the fulfillment of these messianic promises? No. Did their children? No. It has been 2,500 years and these things are still not fulfilled. The Jews are back in the land, but they are not walking with God. They have not yet looked on Him whom they pierced and mourned (Zech. 12:10). As God’s redeemed people, we should be praying for the conversion of the Jews and all of God’s elect from every nation.
John Piper has often pointed out that the church is engaged in spiritual warfare, but that most believers have a peacetime mentality. Having this mindset, we use prayer as a domestic intercom rather than as a wartime walkie-talkie. He pictures Jesus, the field commander, issuing each of His troops a walkie-talkie tuned to the general’s headquarters. If they have any need on the battlefront, they can call for help. Then he writes (http://www.desiringgod.org /library/topics/missions/prayer_work.html),
But what have millions of Christians done? They have stopped believing that we are in a war. No urgency, no watching, no vigilance, no strategic planning. Just easy peacetime and prosperity. And what did they do with the walkie-talkie? They tried to rig it up as an intercom in their cushy houses and cabins and boats and cars—not to call in fire power for conflict with a mortal enemy, but to ask the maid to bring another pillow to the den.
The Lord did instruct us to pray for our personal needs (our daily bread), but only after we pray for His name to be hallowed, His kingdom to come, and His will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. So we ought to pray for rain to end the drought in our part of the country. But first and foremost, we ought to be praying for God to send the rain of His Spirit to bring the nations into His kingdom. It will happen! But it will happen through God’s people asking Him to send His rain.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2003, All Rights Reserved.
Nobody likes tragedies. Wars, famines, epidemics, earthquakes, floods, tornadoes, terrible accidents—all result in tragic loss of human life and in difficult consequences for the survivors.
Nobody likes to study tragedies. I suppose that we all have a morbid curiosity that attracts us to read the papers and watch the evening news when great tragedies occur, but it would be unbearably depressing to dwell on these things constantly. And yet the study of tragedies can yield positive results if we learn to avoid the factors that led to the tragedy and to prepare ourselves for the time when we may face similar circumstances.
Zechariah 11 is an anatomy of history’s greatest tragedy. The interesting thing is, this analysis of this tragedy was not written after the fact. It was penned 500 years in advance! And yet it outlines with amazing detail the tragedy of the nation Israel rejecting Jesus as their Messiah and the awful consequences that would follow. It teaches us a vital lesson:
The greatest tragedy possible is to reject Christ, the Good Shepherd.
Zechariah 11 stands in stark contrast to the glowing promises of chapters 9 and 10. The prophet has just spoken of how God will save and regather His chosen people, restore them, and strengthen them so that they will walk in His name. But then chapter 11 hits with predictions of ruin and doom. What’s going on here?
In order for God’s people to appreciate and not neglect their great salvation (Heb. 2:3), they need to keep the alternative in view, namely, what it means to reject Christ and come under God’s awful judgment. We’re all prone to develop a ho-hum attitude toward the things of God and even toward the Savior who shed His blood for us. It’s easy for those of us raised in the church to become so familiar with the story of salvation that we think, “That’s nice!” But we go out the door and pursue our careers, our families, and our hobbies, without giving much thought or effort during the week to the things of God.
Zechariah 11 was written to God’s covenant people to warn them about the ultimate tragedy of rejecting the Good Shepherd. Yes, godless pagans need to be warned about the consequences of rejecting Jesus Christ, but so do those who attend church regularly. Though we profess to have accepted Christ as Savior, it’s easy to fall into a way of life where practically we reject Him.
Our text falls into three sections. Verses 1-3 describe the ruin of the land when God’s judgment is unleashed. Verses 4-14 portray, through a prophetic parable acted out by Zechariah, the nation’s rejection of the Good Shepherd, the Lord Jesus Christ, and the consequences. Verses 15-17 predict the nation’s subjection to the foolish or worthless shepherd, who will exploit them and then come under judgment himself. So Zechariah graphically portrays Israel’s suffering for rejecting the Good Shepherd. First, we need to explain the text; then we will apply it.
Some scholars understand 11:1-3 as a general description that could fit any invasion of the land. But, as James Boice argues (The Minor Prophets [Baker], 2:538), since chapter 9 specifically described both the invasion of Alexander the Great and the Maccabean wars, it is reasonable to think that these verses describe a specific situation. The context of chapter 11 indicates that verses 1-3 refer to the destruction of the land that occurred in the Roman wars of A.D. 66-70, when Titus destroyed Jerusalem and slaughtered the Jews. The survivors were scattered worldwide and Israel ceased to exist as a nation for 1,900 years.
Lebanon, Bashan, and the Jordan (11:1-3) represent the whole of the land. The destruction of Lebanon’s stately cedar forests was literal, but also may figuratively portray judgment on the nation’s leaders. Even the shepherds wail over the end of their peaceful way of life.
Verses 4-17 describe a prophetic drama that Zechariah was to act out for the nation. First, he portrays the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ (11:4-14); and then the worthless shepherd (11:15-17). God tells Zechariah to pasture the flock doomed to slaughter (11:4). This may refer to the sheep being kept for temple sacrifice. The shepherds didn’t care about the welfare of this flock. They just saw the flock as a means toward their own prosperity (11:5). This ultimately refers to the greedy religious leaders of Jesus’ day, who made a comfortable living off of religion, but had no concern for the people. God interjects that He will no longer have pity on the people of the land, but will give them up to those who strike the land (11:6).
In obedience to God’s command, Zechariah takes two staffs, one called Favor (picturing God’s favor on Israel) and the other called Union (picturing the brotherhood between Judah and Israel). In one month he gets rid of the three shepherds (presumably by firing them). One commentator (Joyce Baldwin, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi [IVP], p. 181) says that the first words of verse 8 “probably are the most enigmatic of the whole Old Testament”! No less than 40 interpretations have been suggested, so we can only be tentative.
The best view is probably that the three shepherds represent the three main offices in Israel: prophet, priest, and king. “One month” represents a relatively short period of time. Because the religious and political leaders rejected Jesus as Messiah and abused their roles for personal gain, and because in His person Jesus fulfilled the roles of prophet, priest, and king, He abolished those roles during His earthly ministry. John the Baptist was the last of the prophets. After A.D. 70, there was no temple and no high priest to offer sacrifices. And after that time there would be no king of the Jews, because there was no Jewish nation.
Then (11:8b) the shepherd grows impatient with the flock and they grow weary of him. So he gives up his role as shepherd and leaves the flock to its fate. Some die, others are annihilated, and the remainder eat one another’s flesh. This happened literally during Titus’ siege of Jerusalem, as the Jewish historian Josephus described (The Wars of the Jews [VI:III:4]).
Then (11:10) the shepherd breaks his staff called Favor, signifying breaking his covenant with the nations. God had previously restrained the nations from destroying Israel, but now that restraint is lifted, allowing Titus to destroy the city and the nation. The afflicted of the flock (11:11), who recognize that this is the word of the Lord, may refer to believers in Jerusalem during the siege. Titus unaccountably lifted the siege for a few days. The Christians remembered the Lord’s warning to flee (Matt. 24:16) and left the city for Pella, thus escaping the fate that shortly fell on the rest.
Verses 12-13 describe the nation’s rejection of the shepherd. He asks for his wages, signifying the termination of his role as shepherd. They weigh out for him 30 pieces of silver, which was the price of a slave who had been gored by an ox (Exod. 21:32). This shows how cheaply they valued his service! It was like saying, “You’re about as useful to us as a gored slave!” The Lord, with sarcasm, instructs him to throw this “magnificent price” to the potter. Zechariah does so in the house of the Lord.
Matthew 27:3-10 describes the fulfillment of this prophecy. Judas betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver, but then felt remorse and tried to return the money to the Jewish leaders. When they refused it, he flung it at their feet in the temple and went out and hanged himself. The chief priests, who paid Judas to betray Jesus so that they could kill Him, were too scrupulous to put blood money in the temple treasury. So they used it to buy a potter’s field as a burial place for strangers, thus fulfilling Zechariah’s prophecy.
There is a difficulty in Matthew 27:9 in that Matthew ascribes the Old Testament quotation about the 30 pieces of silver and the potter’s field to Jeremiah, not to Zechariah. This is a thorny problem, with several proposed solutions (see D. A. Carson, Expositor’s Bible Commentary [Zondervan], 8:562-566; or, Hobart Freeman, An Introduction to the Old Testament Prophets [Moody Press], 340-342). Some say that since Jeremiah was at the beginning of some lists of the prophetic writings, Matthew may have used his name (“the Jeremiah scroll”) to refer to the section from which the less prominent prophet, Zechariah, was contained. A more complicated, but perhaps better, answer is that Matthew brought together prophecies from both Jeremiah and from Zechariah 11, and refers to them by the name of the more prominent prophet.
There is also debate about why the money was thrown to a potter. Probably the potter was seen as one of the lowest of the working classes. Clay pots were for common use and cheaply replaced when broken. By throwing the money before the potter in the temple, the prophet reinforced the message of how cheaply Israel regarded its shepherd (Charles Feinberg, God Remembers [American Board of Mission to the Jews], pp. 209-210).
After throwing the silver to the potter, the shepherd cuts his second staff, Union, into pieces, signifying the breaking of the brotherhood between Judah and Israel (11:14). This predicts the intense fighting among the Jews that Josephus describes, which led to the Roman invasion and final conquest of A.D. 70 (T. V. Moore, Zechariah [Banner of Truth], pp. 182-183).
Between verses 14 and 15 is the entire church age. Then, in the final section (11:15-17), the Lord instructs Zechariah to take up the equipment of a foolish (morally corrupt) shepherd to show that God will raise up a self-seeking, worthless shepherd, who will ravage the flock for his own advantage. After he serves God’s purpose, God will then judge him by withering his arm and blinding his right eye. His arm that should have been used to defend the flock, destroyed it. His eye that should have kept watch over the flock instead looked for opportunities for personal advantage. Thus God judges him (Merrill Unger, Zechariah: Prophet of Messiah’s Glory [Zondervan], p. 204).
Who is this evil shepherd? Some argue that it is Rome, which became the “shepherd” of Israel after her leaders cried out, “We have no king but Caesar” (John 19:15; see Moore, pp. 184-185). While Rome may represent an initial fulfillment, the prophecy probably also looks ahead to the Antichrist. In league with Antichrist will be a powerful false prophet, a religious figure, who will cause the world to worship Antichrist (Rev. 13:11-18). In contrast to Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who laid down His life for the sheep, this false shepherd will devour the flock for his own greedy purposes. But when God, who raised him up as an instrument of judgment, is finished with him, God will judge him.
We had to work through that lengthy explanation in order to apply the text properly!
When a nation comes under God’s judgment, the individuals in the nation suffer greatly. While the Jewish nation was in many respects primarily liable for rejecting and killing her Messiah (1 Thess. 2:13-16), when any nation defiantly turns against the light that God has given it, it comes under His judgment (Rom. 1:18-32). What Israel did nationally in crucifying her Savior, every sinner has done individually. When the Lord no longer has pity on you and gives you over to ruthless rulers and to wicked people who are out to destroy you (Zech. 11:6), you’re in a bad situation! Our text reveals four horrible tragedies that stem from rejecting Christ.
Bob Dylan has a song, “You Gotta Serve Somebody.” If you don’t serve the Lord Jesus Christ, you will be subject to selfish shepherds who will use you for their own purposes. The devil, the world, and sin are not friendly shepherds! They promise you fun and freedom and they give you enough initial payoff to lure you in. Having sex outside of marriage is pleasurable, at first. Doing drugs at a party makes you forget your troubles for a while. Piling up a fortune to spend on yourself can bring a very comfortable lifestyle. But living for selfish pleasure is short-sighted, because it forgets the inevitable fact of death and eternity. Living for sin ultimately corrupts and enslaves you, leading to eternal doom (2 Pet. 2:18-19).
Phillip Keller, in A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 [Zondervan], describes watching a flock of sheep being led down to a pristine, clear mountain stream to drink. But some of the sheep couldn’t wait for what the shepherd was leading them to. So they stopped to drink at filthy pools along the way that had been contaminated by the manure and urine of previous flocks. It quenched their immediate thirst, but they didn’t realize that it would eventually infect them with parasites and disease. Then Keller observes (p. 57),
People often try this pursuit or that with the causal comment, “So what? I can’t see that it’s going to do any harm!” Little do they appreciate that often there is a delayed reaction and that considerable time may elapse before the full impact of their misjudgment strikes home. Then suddenly they are in deep trouble and wonder why.
As Charles Feinberg sums it up, “Nothing in the world is so disastrous as sin” (The Minor Prophets [Moody Press], p. 325). You’ve gotta serve somebody! Will it be Christ, the Good Shepherd, or the evil shepherd who kills and destroys (John 10:10-14)?
This comes through repeatedly in the chapter: “I shall cause the men to fall, each into another’s power” (11:6). “Let those who are left eat one another’s flesh” (11:9). “Then I cut my second staff, Union, in pieces, to break the brotherhood between Judah and Israel” (11:14).
If you don’t have Jesus Christ as your Shepherd, you are thrown into a dog-eat-dog world. It’s you against the next guy, because everyone is looking out for number one. When I was in Boot Camp in the Coast Guard, James 3:16 hit me in a fresh way. It sums up life in the world: “For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing.” Or, as he goes on to say, “What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you? Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members? You lust and do not have, so you commit murder. You are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel” (James 4:1-2). That’s the spirit of the world: exploit the other guy for my advantage!
While because of the flesh we’re all prone to seek our own way, the fruit of the Spirit stands in stark contrast to James’ description: “Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal. 5:22-23). Our relationships in our homes and our church should be marked by these qualities, not by the deeds of the flesh (Gal. 5:19-21).
Verses 1-3 in poetic form lament the destruction of the land. In the Bible, the land of Israel is described as heavily forested in parts, with lush pastureland in other parts. Today, because of wars and God’s judgment, the place is largely a desert (although they’re working on reforestation). Around the globe, greedy entrepreneurs wipe out the rain forests and deplete natural resources for their own profit. Poachers threaten endangered species without any concern for the future. Christians should worship the Creator, not the creation. But also, we should be good stewards of the environment, because God entrusted His creation to our care.
Israel rejected her Shepherd and her Shepherd rejected Israel (11:6, 8-9). Some of the most chilling words in the Bible are when the Jewish leaders shouted to Pilate concerning Jesus, “His blood shall be on us and on our children!” (Matt. 27:25). What a horrible judgment to call down on yourself! Think of the history of the Jews for the past 1,900 years, culminating in the Holocaust! As we know from Romans 11 (and from Zechariah), the Lord has not permanently rejected Israel. He will yet redeem them and use them in His sovereign purpose. But there is nothing worse than rejecting the Lord Jesus Christ to the point that He finally consigns you to eternal judgment!
But we need to consider briefly what it means to reject Christ and the opposite, what it means to accept Him. If religious people like the Jews, who professed to believe the Scriptures, could reject their Good Shepherd, we must take care so as not to make the same mistake!
The real meaning of whether or not you truly accept or reject Christ is tied up in your response to His request (11:12), “Give me my wages.” The wages that the Lord desired from Israel were their love, devotion, and obedience. But instead they valued Him at the price of a worthless slave.
It’s a question that each of us needs to consider carefully: At what price do I value the Lord? If we value the Lord, it will be reflected in the way we live. Do we value the pleasures of sin above the pleasure of knowing Christ? Do we give Him a couple of hours on Sunday now and then, but live the rest of the week for ourselves? Do we drop a few bucks in the offering plate when our guilt level rises, while we squander the rest on our toys? Or, do we submit all that we are and have to His lordship? Our time is not ours, but His. Our money is not ours, but His. Our lives are not ours, but His.
In Matthew 13:44-46, Jesus said,
The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field, which a man found and hid again; and from joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking fine pearls, and upon finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
Do those examples describe how you value Jesus? With Paul, can you say, “I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ” (Phil. 3:8)?
To realize and apprehend all that Jesus is worth is a lifelong quest. As Paul went on to say, he had not yet arrived, but he pressed on toward the goal (Phil. 3:13, 14). But ask yourself, “Is Jesus more precious to me now than He was a year ago, or five years ago?” Is there progress in my life in valuing Jesus above everything and everyone else?
The starting point is to value His death on the cross for you as the supreme gift. To accept that gift, you trash your good works, your love of sin, and your love of self. You say, “Lord, I should be the one to die, because I have sinned and am guilty in Your sight. But I trust in Your death on my behalf as the just penalty for my sins. I submit myself to You as my Good Shepherd.”
Jesus told the story (Luke 14:16-24) of a man giving a dinner, who sent out invitations. But those he invited made up excuses for why they could not attend. “I have bought a piece of land and need to go out and look at it.” “I have bought some oxen and need to try them out.” “I have married a wife and need to spend time with her.” Those excuses are not sinful activities in and of themselves. There is nothing wrong with purchasing land or oxen, or with getting married. What’s wrong is when we value those activities more than we value dinner with Jesus!
Even so, those who know the gospel invitation need to be warned about the tragedy of rejecting the invitation. Those who are familiar with the things of God can reject Christ because they value other legitimate things more than they value the Good Shepherd.
Lucy and Linus were talking. Linus said, “I’ve been thinking. Charlie Brown has really been a dedicated baseball manager. He’s devoted his whole life to the team. We should give him a testimonial dinner.”
Lucy replies, “Is he that deserving? How about a testimonial snack?”
Make sure that you don’t just give Jesus a testimonial snack!
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2003, All Rights Reserved.
Just outside of Madrid is a famous old monastery, the Escorial. The kings of Spain have been buried there for centuries. The architect who built the church made an arch so low that it frightened the king. Fearing that it would collapse, he ordered the architect to add a column to uphold the middle of the arch. The architect protested that it was not necessary, but the king insisted and so the column was built.
Years later, the king died and the architect then revealed that the column was a quarter of an inch short of touching the arch, and that the arch had not sagged in the slightest. I have heard that tour guides still pass a lath between the arch and the column as mute proof of the architect’s knowledge (Donald Barnhouse, Let Me Illustrate [Revell], p. 245).
That arch illustrates our salvation, which comes totally from the Lord. It stands because of God, not because of anything that fallen sinners can add to it. But, like the Spanish king, people want to add something to help God out. The idea that salvation is totally from God is an affront to our pride. So even many that profess to believe in Christ as Savior are prone to think that their salvation rests at least partially on something that they must do, rather than completely on what God has done. We keep adding our columns, but God’s Word clearly shows that God’s salvation does not need our human support.
God’s mighty power will save His people according to His purpose.
Zechariah 12-14 contains the second “burden” that the prophet received from God (see 9:1). This burden focuses on Israel, and specifically on Jerusalem (22 times in these chapters). The phrase “that day” occurs 17 times and “the nations” occurs 14 times, pointing to the period of time when God brings His purpose for Israel and the nations to culmination. As we saw last week, chapter 11 predicts Israel’s rejection of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, and her subjection during the Tribulation to the worthless shepherd. This will plunge the nation into a time of severe testing, described by Jeremiah (30:5-7) as “the time of Jacob’s distress.” Daniel (12:1) calls it “a time of distress such as never occurred since there was a nation until that time.”
This time of testing culminates in the Battle of Armageddon (Joel 3:9-16; Rev. 16:16-21; Zech. 12:1-9; 14:2-3), when God will gather all the nations against Jerusalem to battle. At the last minute, just before Israel is annihilated, God will supernaturally rout the enemy and deliver His people. Our text describes the physical deliverance of Israel in verses 1-9, and the spiritual deliverance of Israel in verses 10-14. The great military victory that God will achieve for His helpless people illustrates the great spiritual salvation that He also brings. Both sections emphasize the truth that God is mighty to save His people according to His purpose.
First, God establishes His sovereign authority and power as seen in His role as the creator and sustainer of the universe. Then He shows what will take place with His chosen people, Israel, in the end times, and how He will “destroy all the nations that come against Jerusalem” (12:9).
“Burden” means a message from God that is weighted with important words of judgment and deliverance. We might say, “That’s a heavy message.” It is a burden “of the word of the Lord concerning Israel.” This is further underscored by “Thus declares the Lord…” So before he even describes who the Lord is, Zechariah wants us to know that this is not his human word; it is the word of Almighty God.
Then he describes God as the one “who stretches out the heavens, lays the foundation of the earth, and forms the spirit of man within him.” The Hebrew participles refute the idea of deism, that God created the earth, but has nothing to do with it now. Rather, He continually stretches out the heavens, lays the foundation of the earth, and forms the spirit of man within him (E. W. Hengstenberg, Christology of the Old Testament [Kregel], p. 355). As Colossians 1:17 states of Jesus, “in Him all things hold together.” If Jesus decided to “let go,” the universe would chaotically self-destruct! He is the Lord who is speaking here! If He spoke the universe into existence and sustains it by the word of His power (Heb. 1:3), then when He states what is going to transpire in the future, He has the authority to make it happen. We should thus believe His word and submit ourselves to Him as the Sovereign Lord.
If all that we had to go on was 12:2-9, we might conclude that the battle will not be too bad for Israel. These verses show how God will strengthen the nation for battle so that her enemies will be defeated. But 13:7-9 and 14:2-3 reveal that things will get pretty desperate for Israel before the Lord intervenes. The city will be captured, houses plundered, women raped, and half of the city exiled before the Lord fights against the nations. Two parts of the land will be cut off and perish and the third part will be brought through the fire. Only after this will Israel be delivered.
God will make Jerusalem a cup that causes reeling to all the nations (12:2). The nations will greedily consume Israel like a cup of wine, but instead of satisfying them, it makes them stagger and fall to the ground. God also promises (12:3) to make Jerusalem a heavy stone, so that whoever tries to lift it will only injure himself. Also, God will strike the horses with bewilderment and the riders with madness (12:4). Scholars differ over whether there will be literal cavalry in the campaign of Armageddon or whether the prophecy uses language of the times (maybe God will cause the computer systems to go haywire!).
Some understand verse 5 to mean that the leaders (NASB, “clans”) of Judah will side with the nations until they recognize that God is empowering those in Jerusalem (F. Duane Lindsey, in The Bible Knowledge Commentary [Victor Books], 1:1566). Or perhaps the faith of those in Jerusalem will inspire these leaders to trust in God. He will make them like a fire to consume their enemies (12:6).
Then (12:7) God promises to “deliver the defenseless country [“tents of Judah”] before the fortified and well-defended capital, so that both may realize that the victory is of the Lord” (Charles Feinberg, God Remembers [American Board of Mission to the Jews], p. 225). Merrill Unger observes, “The Lord will manifest Himself in such deliverance as will honor faith, unite His people, and cause them mutually to make their boast wholly in the Lord, instead of partially in themselves” (Zechariah: Prophet of Messiah’s Glory [Zondervan], p. 212, italics his). God promises further that the weakest of the inhabitants of Jerusalem will be like David and the leaders (“the house of David”) will be like God, further described as like the angel of the Lord going before them.
In 12:9, when the Lord says [literally] that He “will seek to destroy all the nations that come against Jerusalem,” it is not as if there is any doubt about the outcome! Verse 1 shows us God’s omnipotent ability to do whatever He purposes to do. Rather, it is using human language in the sense of focusing full attention on the matter, so as to say, “When God sets His mind on doing it, it’s a done deal!” (See Unger, p. 213.)
God’s reason for delivering His chosen people physically (12:2-9) is so that later He can save them spiritually (12:10-14), and all of this is for His glory. Many of God’s people can testify that God saved their lives from physical death years before He later saved their souls from spiritual death. John Newton, the wicked slave trader, who was saved to become a pastor and hymn writer (“Amazing Grace”), more than once narrowly escaped death before his conversion. Once he fell overboard when he was drunk and was harpooned to get him back on deck, but he survived! If God has spared your life, but you have not yet come to Christ, He wants you to turn in faith to Him today!
There is another lesson here: The safest place for any of God’s people is in the center of His will and purpose. When Zechariah wrote, many Jews were still in Babylon. Perhaps they thought, “It’s just not safe to move back to Jerusalem. There is no army there and no wall around the city. The place is surrounded by hostile neighbors. I’ll just stay here in Babylon.”
But Zechariah is showing them that even if all the hostile nations in the world are lined up against Jerusalem, it is the safest place in the world to be, because Almighty God has promised to destroy the nations that come against Jerusalem. This doesn’t mean that we should throw caution to the wind, or that there are not times when God’s servants should flee for their lives. But it does mean that God watches over His people (12:4), and that no one can touch them unless it fits with God’s purpose. All the armies on earth can line up against God’s people, but they will not thwart God’s mighty purpose to save His people for His glory.
Verse 10 is one of the most remarkable prophecies in the Bible. There is no way to explain it apart from the incarnation, death, and resurrection of one who is both God and man. The speaker throughout this passage has been God, who now says, “They will look on Me whom they have pierced.” “Pierce” is consistently used of someone being run through by a sword or spear (Num. 25:8; Judges 9:54; 1 Sam. 31:4). No one can pierce God, unless God first takes on human flesh. And the Jewish nation cannot someday look on this one whom they pierced unless He is then living, having been raised from the dead. When the soldier thrust his sword through Jesus’ side as He hung on the cross, he inadvertently fulfilled this prophecy in remarkable detail (John 19:36-37)!
Before we look at several aspects of the spiritual salvation that God promises to bring to His chosen people, note that it is entirely of God. God does not say, “I would like to save My people someday, but they must exercise their free will in order for the process to happen.” Nor is this prophecy based only on God’s foreknowledge of what will happen, but rather on His mighty power that causes it to happen. In other words, God isn’t looking down through the centuries here and exclaiming, “Finally, after all these years, I can see that the Jews will soften their own hearts by their own free will and trust in Me! I’ve always wanted them to do this, but I couldn’t do anything about it because of the sovereignty of human free will. I’m so glad that they finally decided to follow Jesus!”
That is how many evangelicals view salvation in our day, but it is definitely not what the Bible teaches. It shows that salvation is of the Lord, from start to finish. While we must trust in Jesus Christ and repent of our sins, neither saving faith nor repentance originates in the fallen human heart. They are God’s gift, so that none can boast (Eph. 2:8-9; Acts 5:31; 11:18).
Note briefly five things about God’s salvation:
Before God saves the Jews spiritually, He will take them through the awful events of the Tribulation, culminating in the horrifying campaign of Armageddon. Lest you think that God is merely describing what will happen in the future, apart from His causation, in 14:2, He states, “For I will gather all the nations against Jerusalem to battle….” Those nations will be accountable for their hatred against the Jews, but behind all events is God, “who works all things after the counsel of His will” (Eph. 1:11).
When you encounter trials, you are prone to doubt either God’s love or His sovereign power. You may even go so far as to doubt His existence: “If there is a loving, all-powerful God, then why are these terrible things happening to me?” But our text is clear that God is by far stronger than the most powerful armies in the world and that He cares for His people, whom He will save.
There are Christians who say that anything bad that happens to us is from the devil and that it was not God’s will (imagine!). But the implication, then, is that Satan got one over on God! The Bible is clear that God sometimes uses Satan to carry out His will, but Satan can go no farther than God permits (Job 1-2). It brings far more comfort to know that even severe trials are under God’s sovereign will, than to think that somehow they are not.
In the chemistry lab, every substance has its melting point. The same is true of the hard human heart. God graciously brings trials into our lives to soften us and prepare us to receive His grace. Before the trials, we didn’t know that we needed God. We thought that we were in control. So God yanks the rug out from under us by bringing all the armies of the world against us to cause us to cry out to Him for help!
God promises to pour out on the Jews “the Spirit of grace and of supplication.” This is a reference to the Holy Spirit (Isa. 44:3; Ezek. 39:29; Joel 2:28-29; note all three persons of the Trinity in Zech. 12:10). Jesus told Nicodemus that the new birth is effected by the Spirit (John 3:5-8). “It is the Spirit who gives life” (John 6:63). Unless the Spirit of God convicts us of sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:8) and imparts new life to us, we remain dead in our transgressions and sins (Eph. 2:1, 5), excluded from the life of God because of our hard hearts (Eph. 4:18). Salvation, like the original creation, requires the sovereign power of God (2 Cor. 4:4, 6).
He is called here “the Spirit of grace and of supplication.” Grace means God’s undeserved favor. The Jews who pierced their Messiah do not deserve God’s favor, and neither does any sinner. Grace means that we do not have to clean up our lives or accumulate good works in order to qualify for salvation. Those things follow salvation, but they do not precede it to prompt God to act.
The “Spirit of supplication” means that when He graciously intervenes in a sinner’s heart, that sinner cries out to God, “Save me, Lord, or I perish!” All subsequent prayer stems from God’s gracious Spirit of supplication moving us to cry for help. If you recognize that you are a sinner in God’s sight and you have cried out to Him to save you, it is because He has poured out His Spirit of grace and supplication on you. If you know Christ as Savior, but you lament the hardness of your heart, and you are crying out, “God, soften my heart towards You,” it is because His Spirit of grace and supplication is working in you.
Israel will “look on Me whom they have pierced.” As I said, the only way that this can be explained is if the one pierced is both God and man. In the 16th century, John Calvin fought against the same errors that we face in Unitarianism and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who deny that Jesus is fully God. He comments on this text to show that Christ is the same in essence with the Father and the Spirit, but distinct in person. Thus God the Father was not pierced, because He did not take on human flesh. But He can say, “They shall look on Me” because He is one in essence with the Son (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], on The Twelve Minor Prophets, pp. 365-367). While you do not need to understand the Trinity to be saved, you really cannot understand the gospel unless God opens your eyes to see that Jesus is fully God and fully man. He had to be God to be sinless, so that His sacrifice would be acceptable to the Father. He had to be man or that sacrifice could not apply to humans.
But not only must we see the Savior accurately, as God and man; we must also see that “He was pierced through for our transgressions” (Isa. 53:5). There is no salvation apart from Christ and Him crucified (1 Cor. 1:23-24; 2:2). Apart from the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness for sins (Heb. 9:22). To follow Jesus as a great moral example is not enough. To be saved, you must apply His shed blood to your sins.
The Jews who will be living during the Battle of Armageddon did not physically kill Jesus. True, their ancestors did. But God says here that they pierced Christ. We need to apply this to ourselves: I pierced Christ by my sins! You pierced Him! If you do not see that fact, you do not understand God’s salvation.
Thus God often prepares us for salvation through trials. He brings us to salvation through His Spirit and by opening our eyes to see the Savior accurately.
The emphasis in looking “on Me whom they have pierced” is not on looking on the Messiah literally, but on looking to the Messiah in faith (Kenneth Barker, Expositor’s Bible Commentary [Zondervan], 7:683). It is the same as when Moses erected the bronze serpent, and whoever looked to it in faith lived (Num. 21:9). Some interpret this as happening at the second coming of Christ, but I understand it to be just prior to that event. At that point, there will be a widespread conversion of the Jews, as Paul states in Romans 11:25-27. No one, Jew or Gentile, can be saved apart from looking in faith to Jesus Christ as the crucified and risen Son of God.
Israel will mourn over the pierced Savior, as one mourns for an only son, and as the Jews mourned for the good King Josiah in the plains of Megiddo, when Pharaoh killed him.
Genuine repentance is not something that a person must work up in order to be saved. But it does necessarily accompany saving faith, so that the New Testament views saving faith and repentance as flip sides of the same coin (Acts 20:21; 26:18). Just as saving faith is not a one-time thing, but ongoing, so with repentance. Ongoing repentance should mark the life of a believer, as we continually look to the Savior who was pierced for our sins.
As believers, we should look frequently to the Savior whom we pierced, and mourn. It must be personal, so that even husbands and wives mourn separately. That is the point of the repetition of “by itself” (12:12-14). The family of David refers to the rulers; the family of Levi refers to the priests. “All the families that remain” refers to everyone else. True repentance is not glib, shrugging off sin as no big deal. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matt. 5:4). The Lord’s Supper is a good time to look in faith to the Savior whom we pierced.
Why did God give this remarkable prophecy to people who lived at least 2,500 years before it would take place? It was not so that they could draw up prophecy charts and read books about how soon these things would take place. He gave these prophecies to comfort His people as they went through trials and faced threatening enemies with the solid truth that He is a mighty Savior, and that no one can touch His elect apart from His purpose.
That’s how He wants us to apply it. If you have not yet repented of your sins and trusted in Christ as your Savior, God may have kept you alive until now so that today you would look on Him whom you pierced and mourn. If you have trusted in Christ, He wants you to know that no enemy, whether “tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword,” or even death itself, will be able to separate you from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:35-39)!
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2003, All Rights Reserved.
You’ve been working out in the yard on a hot summer day. Your sweaty body has attracted the dirt like a magnet. You’re caked with grime. You need to attend a wedding that afternoon, so you go inside, put on your best clean clothes, and head out the door.
Wait a minute! What’s missing? A shower! Nobody would just change clothes without first washing off the dirt and sweat. When you’re hot and dirty, nothing feels better than a shower.
This physical picture has a spiritual analogy, but there’s a difference. The entire human race reeks of sin in the presence of the holy God. But because we all smell the same, we tend not to notice how foul we really smell. Many go their entire lives without sensing their need for cleansing from sin. Others may think that their good works cover the foul odor of their sin, and so they put on their clean clothes without showering. But the Bible has great news:
God has graciously provided a fountain for sinners to be cleansed so that they may become His holy people.
That’s the message of Zechariah 13, which is closely connected with chapter 12. We saw there how God promised to save His people according to His purpose. The primary interpretation of these verses is with reference to the Jews (“the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem,” 12:10; 13:1). God promises to pour out on them “the Spirit of grace and of supplication, so that they will look on Me whom they have pierced; and they will mourn for Him, as one mourns for an only son” (12:10). When 13:1 begins, “In that day,” it refers to that day of great mourning in Jerusalem (12:11). Just prior to the second coming of Jesus Christ, God will pour out His Spirit on the Jews, so that, as Paul puts it, “all Israel will be saved” (Rom. 11:26).
But since the Gentiles have now been made partakers of the New Covenant through the gospel (Rom. 11:12-24; 15:8-12), the promises of Zechariah 12 & 13 apply to all people. For us, as well as for the Jews, God has opened a fountain for sin and for impurity. Everyone who is dirty and defiled by sin may come to God’s fountain for cleansing. Zechariah 13 makes four points:
“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). If we compare ourselves with ourselves, we may conclude that we’re not very dirty: “I’m cleaner than the criminals in prison. I’m cleaner than the people who hang out in bars. I’m cleaner than my neighbor who doesn’t go to church. I’m cleaner than my family members, who have numerous faults that I could tell you about. I’m cleaner than those hypocrites who go to my church. Sure, I’ve got my faults, but I’m not filthy!”
But then, like Isaiah, we get a glimpse of the Lord, high and lifted up, and of the holy angels who never cease proclaiming, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts,” and instantly we cry out, “I am undone!” One of the first evidences that God’s Spirit is at work in your heart is that you recognize your sinfulness in the presence of the holy God and your need for cleansing. Note three things about God’s fountain:
Israel pierced the Messiah whom God sent to save them (12:10)! They did not deserve His mercy or forgiveness, but God graciously provided a fountain to cleanse from sin and impurity. The Hebrew word for “sin” comes from a root meaning, “to miss” (Merrill Unger, Zechariah: Prophet of God’s Glory [Zondervan], p. 222). It is used of sins against other people and of sins against God. The word for “impurity” designates “that which is to be fled from or shunned” (ibid.). It was used of the ceremonial defilement of women on their menstrual cycle and of the defilement that came from touching a dead body. Together these words show that we all have missed God’s standard of holiness in our relationships with Him and with one another. And, our sins are repugnant and offensive to God. To try to cover our sins with our good works would be like putting on clean clothes over a filthy body.
If we are to be forgiven and cleansed, it can only come through God’s undeserved favor, His grace. Augustus Toplady put it this way in his hymn, “Rock of Ages”:
Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to Thy cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress, helpless look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly, wash me Savior or I die!
We don’t often see natural fountains or springs in dry Northern Arizona, but there is an impressive one at Fossil Springs. As I recall, it pours forth over a million gallons of water every day, feeding Fossil Creek. A fountain like that is fed from huge underground aquifers, so that it keeps flowing, even in times of drought.
That is a picture of God’s inexhaustible fountain for sin and for impurity. It flows and flows and flows. God has grace greater than all of our sins! You may be thinking, “But you don’t know how terrible some of my past sins were!” True, but God does know, and He opened this fountain for sin and for impurity. That fountain cleansed the sins of David, an adulterer and murderer. It cleansed the sins of wicked King Manasseh, who practiced witchcraft, offered his sons in the fire to false gods, and led Judah into horrible sin. It cleansed the sins of the chief of sinners, who described himself as “a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor.” But he went on to say, “the grace of our Lord was more than abundant” (1 Tim. 1:13-15, italics mine). That same inexhaustible grace is available to you.
Charles Spurgeon (“The Open Fountain,” [Ages Software]) points out that it would be ludicrous for someone to protest, “I can’t bathe because I am too filthy!” It would be equally ridiculous to say, “I need to clean up myself before I come to this fountain!” God provides the fountain to cleanse the most foul, dirty, defiled sinners. Their dirt can never pollute this fountain, because it just keeps on flowing to wash away all of our filth.
This fountain won’t do you any good if you look at it and think, “I wish my wife and kids would get under that water!” It won’t do you any good to stand there and think, “It probably would be refreshing to plunge in.” To receive the benefit of God’s fountain, you must look to Jesus and recognize that your sins put Him on the cross. As God’s Spirit opens your eyes to your true guilt before Him, you will mourn. But don’t stop there! Let that mourning motivate you to jump into God’s fountain. You’ve got to apply it individually to your heart. The instant that you do, you will know the joy of God’s forgiveness.
I like the outdoors, but I’m not a true outdoorsman, because I can’t stand to go for days without a shower. True outdoorsmen can hike for days with a heavy pack, sweating in the same underwear without taking a shower. Some of them are hearty enough to jump in a snow-fed stream to wash off, and I’ve done that when I was desperate. But I’m only good for a night or two in the backcountry before I am desperate for a warm shower.
To enter a relationship with the holy God, we must come to His fountain to cleanse us from our sins. And, we should take frequent showers to wash off the defilement of the sins that we commit after salvation. As 1 John 1:9 promises, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Come often to God’s fountain!
Again the Lord repeats the phrase, “that day” (13:2, 4), which refers to the day just prior to Christ’s return, when He will make Jerusalem a cup of reeling to the peoples around and destroy the nations that come against her (12:2, 9). Also, in that day the Jews will mourn over their sin of crucifying Messiah (12:10-11). At that time, God declares that He will completely cut off idolatry, false prophets, and the unclean spirit that is behind such false prophecy (13:2 is the only occurrence of “unclean spirit” in the O.T.). The thrust of these verses is that those who have received God’s cleansing from sin must also be zealous to separate themselves from every form of sin. Or, in Paul’s words, “Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 7:1). We dare not continue in sin that grace might abound!
The sin of idolatry in its most blatant form involves worshiping manmade statues or images as if they were God. While that sin may be much more prevalent in other countries, it is right here in Flagstaff, where we have an entire store devoted to selling idols! But, as J. I. Packer argues in Knowing God ([IVP, p. 39), the commandment not to make graven images also forbids worshiping the true God by images that supposedly represent Him. Packer shows how such images dishonor God by obscuring His glory and mislead men by conveying false ideas about God (pp. 40-41).
Packer goes further: “It needs to be said with the greatest possible emphasis that those who hold themselves free to think of God as they like are breaking the second commandment (p. 42, italics his). In other words, when people say, “I don’t like to think of God as Judge; I like to think of Him as my loving Father,” they are guilty of idolatry, because they are making God into their own image. We aren’t free to pick and choose which aspects of God’s attributes we like. We must submit to the revelation that God has given of Himself in His Word. Any deviation from that is idolatry.
Coupled with idolatry is false prophecy or false teaching, which is invariably demonically instigated. Being fallible humans, none of us teach the Bible infallibly. We should strive for greater accuracy and understanding, but in this life, we all will fall short. But there is a vast difference between errors or misunderstandings on minor points of doctrine and errors that pervert the nature of God and His salvation. Satan, the great deceiver, has always had his false teachers who infiltrate the ranks of God’s people to lead astray the unsuspecting.
We live in a day where even the evangelical church is downplaying the importance of sound doctrine. We hear statements such as, “Doctrine divides. Let’s come together on the things we agree on, not on the areas that divide us. They will know that we are Christians by our love, not by our doctrine.”
But look at verse 3. The Lord commends the fact that in this day when He removes false prophets from Israel, parents will pierce through even their own son when he prophesies falsely in the name of the Lord! “Pierce through” is the same Hebrew word used for piercing Messiah in 12:10. The Jews would have immediately thought of Deuteronomy 13:6-11, where Moses directed that “if your brother … or your son or daughter, or the wife you cherish, or your friend who is as your own soul” entice you to serve other gods, not only were you not to listen to them. Moses said that you were not to pity him, spare him or conceal him, but rather, to kill him!
I am not suggesting that we are to apply such commandments literally, of course! We are not a theocratic nation, bound by such laws. But these commands should impress on us the importance of God’s truth and increase our zeal to hold firmly to sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict (Titus 1:9). False teaching on the fundamentals of the faith is not just a different way of looking at things. It is eternally destructive to the souls of people. We must love God and His Word of truth so fervently that by way of comparison, we hate our father, mother, wife, children, brothers, and sisters, and even our own lives (Luke 14:26).
In 13:4-6, Zechariah illustrates how God will purge the land of false prophets. These men will be ashamed and will put off their hairy robes that they had worn to deceive people into thinking that they were true prophets. They will renounce their role as prophet and say instead that they were workers in the soil, sold as a slave in their youth.
But then someone notices the wounds between his arms (lit., “hands”; probably referring to his chest). Most likely, these were the wounds that false prophets inflicted on themselves in the frenzy of their worship or prayers (1 Kings 18:28; Jer. 47:5; 48:37). The false prophet’s response is subject to several interpretations. He may be making an excuse to dodge judgment, saying that he was wounded either by his parents or by friends (Hebrew = “those who love me”) in some accidental manner. Or, the wounds may have been inflicted by parents or friends out of loving discipline (Calvin’s view). Or, he is admitting that the idols were formerly his friends, but he now renounces them, either in repentance or out of fear of reprisal.
Whatever the interpretation of the illustration, the overall point of this section is that God will purge all sin from those who profess His name, and that we should be quick to judge all sin in our own lives. But, lest we fall into the common error that salvation is a matter of our own efforts to purge our lives from sin, Zechariah abruptly comes back to the only way that a fountain for cleansing can be opened:
In chapter 11, Zechariah pictured the false shepherds of Israel in contrast with the Good Shepherd. In our text, the contrast seems to be that just as the false prophet endeavored to turn people from God, but was slain by his father, so the true prophet would be slain by His Father to turn people to God (Charles Simeon, Expository Outlines on the Whole Bible [Zondervan], X:528-529). Echoing the language of Isaiah 53 (and Ps. 22:15), which says that Messiah would be smitten of God and crushed by God, Zechariah pictures God as calling for the implement of death (sword) against His Shepherd, whom He also calls, “the man, My Associate.” In the garden, with reference to Himself, Jesus cited the phrase, “Strike the Shepherd that the sheep may be scattered,” just before the disciples all left Him and fled (Matt. 26:31).
Woven into Zechariah 13:7 are several crucial theological concepts. First, God’s Shepherd, Jesus Christ, is both man and God. He had to take on our flesh in the incarnation or He could not die for the sins of the fallen human race. But in so doing, He did not cease to be what He is from eternity, the fulness of God (Col. 2:9).
“Associate,” in Hebrew, is used only in Leviticus, and in all cases of an equal, an associate, or neighbor (Unger, p. 232). The great German scholar, C. F. Keil, says that “God would not apply this epithet to any godly or ungodly man whom He might have appointed shepherd over a nation.” He goes on to state that this term means “community of physical or spiritual descent.” The one whom God calls His neighbor “cannot be a mere man, but can only be one who participates in the divine nature, or is essentially divine” (Commentary on the Old Testament [Eerdmans], p. 397). Jesus, speaking of Himself as the Good Shepherd who would lay down His life for the sheep, said in the same context, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). The Jews recognized it as a claim to deity and took up stones to stone Him. They should have fallen at His feet in worship!
There is a sense in which evil men crucified the Good Shepherd, and they are accountable for doing so. But at the same time, such evil men, acting according to their own sinful choices, only fulfilled the sovereign purpose of God to provide a substitute for our sins (Acts 2:23; 4:27-28). By putting His own Son to death in the place of sinners, God can be both just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Rom. 3:26). That God would strike His own Son for our sins shows both His great love for us and His utter intolerance of sin.
Thus Zechariah has shown that we all need God’s fountain to cleanse us from sin and impurity (13:1). Those who are cleansed from sin will be zealous to separate themselves from it (13:2-6). God Himself is the only one who can open a fountain for cleansing from sin, and He has done so by killing His Shepherd, Jesus Christ (13:7a). Finally, he shows that…
The scattering of the sheep after the Shepherd is struck down refers initially to the apostles’ reaction to Jesus’ arrest. Beyond that, it refers to the dispersion of the Jewish nation after Titus destroyed Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Then God says that He will turn His hand “against the little ones” (NASB, NIV). The phrase can also be translated, “bring my hand back over the little ones.” It is used to express either judgment or salvation, depending on the context (Keil, p. 398). In light of verses 8 & 9, it probably here refers to God’s protection of the remnant of Jewish believers, both in history and especially during the Great Tribulation, when the majority of the nation (“two parts,” a general term for the majority) will perish, but God will bring the third part through the fire to refine them. The final result is, “They will call on My name, and I will answer them. I will say, ‘They are My people,’ and they will say, ‘The Lord is my God.’”
Again, while the primary interpretation of these verses is for the Jews, they certainly apply to all of God’s people. He promises to preserve us, even though He takes us through the refining fires of affliction, so that we will share His holiness. I know that you can say with me that while affliction is never pleasant, it is during such times that I call upon the Lord with more intensity than at other times. When He answers me, He gives the assurance that I am one of His people, and I can then testify to others that He is my God. As the great hymn, “How Firm a Foundation,” puts it:
When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
My grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply.
The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.
Here are some questions to ask yourself to apply these verses:
If you feel dirty, remember that God’s fountain doesn’t maintain business hours. It is always open. As sinners, we may come for cleansing as often as needed, so that we may become a people for God’s own possession, set apart for Him.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2003, All Rights Reserved.
The older you get, the less you look forward to birthdays. They are just another reminder that “the old gray mare ain’t what she used to be”! (That applies to the old gray stud, too!)
But kids love birthdays! When our kids were young, for weeks in advance of their birthdays they would excitedly look forward to that day. They would tell strangers they met, “I’m five but I’m almost six!” They looked forward to the party and the presents. Having a birthday meant that you could go to school and tell the other kids, “You’re only five, but I’m six!” Even though the other kid may turn six in a few weeks, it gave you the competitive edge!
There is a day mentioned repeatedly in the Bible that we should be anticipating with eagerness. It is called “the day of the Lord.” It is a major theme of this chapter (14:1, 4, 6, 7, 8, 9, 13, 20, & 21). The day of the Lord is not a 24-hour day, but that future period of time when the Lord will bring judgment to the wicked and salvation to His faithful. The New Testament makes clear that the hallmark of this day will be the second coming of Jesus Christ to earth. He will destroy the nations that are on the verge of destroying Israel, and establish His millennial reign over all the earth from Jerusalem.
But before He comes, Jesus prophesied that there will be a time of tribulation such has never occurred before, nor ever will occur after. I used to believe that the church will be raptured before the tribulation, but I now am not so sure about that. But whether we are raptured beforehand or go through the tribulation, we certainly must be prepared for persecution. At the end of the tribulation, there will be cataclysmic events in the heavens, all the nations of the earth will mourn, and then “they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory.” He will send forth His angels to gather His elect from all over the earth (see Matt. 24:21-31). Then Jesus will rule the nations with a rod of iron (Rev. 12:5; 19:15).
Zechariah 14 refers to this coming “day of the Lord.” Although some seek to explain the chapter in terms of past historical invasions of Israel or the ongoing spiritual battles of the church, I think that in light of the context of Zechariah, this chapter is best explained in reference to the Jews and to events that are yet future. It refers to the great final battle, elsewhere called the Battle of Armageddon (Rev. 16:16; 19:11; see Ezek. 38 & 39). When Israel is surrounded by the armies of the nations and on the verge of annihilation, the Lord Jesus will return in power and glory.
When Christ returns as King, He will defeat His enemies and establish His righteous kingdom over all the earth.
We can divide the chapter into two parts: 1-15 describes the return of Christ and the defeat of His enemies; 16-21 portrays the establishment of Christ’s righteous kingdom over all the earth.
The first verses of chapter 14 go back to the last two verses of chapter 13, and to the battle mentioned in 12:2-9. The earlier description did not mention that Jerusalem would be overrun before the Lord would intervene, but that is the picture here (14:2-3). In 14:1, the enemies are leisurely dividing the spoil from Jerusalem in its streets, thinking that they have defeated the Jews. Then Jesus will return, His feet will touch down on the very place from which He ascended, the Mount of Olives, it will be split in two, the surviving remnant will escape, and Jesus will rout His enemies. I can’t deal with all the details, but note 3 things:
Israel’s enemies will be gloating over what they think is their victory when the Lord will suddenly wipe them out. Verses 12-15 describe in more detail the extreme suddenness of God’s victory: The enemy’s “flesh will rot while they stand on their feet, and they eyes will rot in their sockets, and their tongue will rot in their mouth” (14:12). The same fate will befall their animals (14:15). It sounds like a description of a nuclear attack, but it may be a plague from God. Before this plague destroys everyone, in panic, the enemy coalition will fight against each other (14:13). But the point is, it will be a last minute, sudden victory for God.
Revelation 18 pictures it the same way. The evil world system, called Babylon the Great, is sitting pretty. The merchants of the earth have become rich by the wealth of her sensuality. She boasts, “I sit as a queen and I am not a widow, and will never see mourning.” But then in one day, in one hour, judgment falls and she is destroyed (see Rev. 18:3, 7, 8, 10, 17, 19).
These prophetic sections of Scripture were not written so that we could draw up cool prophecy charts and speculate about the end times. God wants us to apply these prophecies. The application is: Do not be deceived! In spite of how things now look, this evil world will not win. God will win and He will win big! He sovereignly gathers the nations against Jerusalem for this final showdown (14:2). His purpose for the ages is to enthrone Jesus Christ as King of kings and Lord of lords, and He will accomplish His purpose!
We’re all tempted at this point. We look around and it seems like the bad guys are winning. The guy at work who cheats and lies gets the promotion. You’re honest and come out the loser. Worldly people spend their time and money pursuing pleasure and seem to live pretty well. You obey God, give your money to His kingdom, and seem to have problem after problem. Like the guy in Psalm 73, you wonder, “What’s going on? The wicked forsake God and prosper. I follow God and am chastened every day!” You’re tempted to join the other side. But God warns us, “Don’t be deceived!” Even if you suffer persecution or martyrdom, you will be blessed because God’s side is going to win in the end!
You may be thinking, “That’s easy to say. But how can you know for sure that these prophecies will literally come true? What if I deny myself and suffer for Christ’s kingdom, but He never comes back? What if I put all my hope in heaven, but it isn’t true?”
There are good reasons within the Book of Zechariah (not to mention the rest of the Bible) for staking your life on these prophecies. Zechariah has given us many specific prophecies about the first coming of Jesus Christ that were literally fulfilled. He predicted that Jesus would come to Jerusalem, “humble, and mounted on a donkey, even on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (9:9). Jesus fulfilled that prophecy on Palm Sunday. Zechariah prophesied that Jesus would be rejected by the nation, sold for 30 pieces of silver, and that the money would be thrown to the potter in the house of the Lord (11:12-13). Judas Iscariot precisely fulfilled that prophecy in his betrayal of Jesus.
The point is, if Zechariah could precisely predict these events about Christ’s first coming 500 years in advance, shouldn’t we believe that he is accurate in predicting the details about Christ’s second coming, especially when his predictions line up with many other Scriptures? So when it seems as if evil is winning, don’t be deceived! Don’t switch sides! Jesus is coming quickly and His reward is with Him (Rev. 22:12).
The defeat of God’s enemies at Armageddon will be accompanied by an awesome display of power. As we’ve seen, a powerful plague will rot off the flesh of His enemies while they are still standing. In addition, there will be frightening changes on the earth and in the heavens. The Mount of Olives will be split in half, creating a large valley (14:4). A new river will flow out of Jerusalem, half toward the Dead Sea and half toward the Mediterranean Sea. I understand this to be a literal river that also has a spiritual meaning (which I will explain in a moment). The land surrounding Jerusalem will be leveled into a broad plain, with Jerusalem elevated above it (14:10). While we cannot determine the exact locations of all these sites now, the specific names show that they should be taken literally.
There also will be cataclysmic changes in the heavens (14:6-7). (The NIV translation, “no cold or frost,” is not based on the Hebrew text and should be rejected.) The sun, moon, and stars will be dimmed (Isa. 13:9-10; Joel 2:31; 3:15; Matt. 24:29; Rev. 6:12-14; 8:10-12; 16:8-10). It will be a kind of murky twilight, unlike any time before. The phrase “at evening time there will be light” probably refers to the end of that period of judgment when light from the heavenly bodies will be restored and the light of the glory of the Lord will illumine the earth. It will be an eerie, frightening time, demonstrating God’s mighty power through His creation.
Two other facts here underscore the Lord’s power. The first is that Zechariah clearly believed in the deity of Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ. In 14:5 he states, “Then the Lord, my God, will come, and all the holy ones with him!” “Holy ones” refers both to the angels (Matt. 25:31; 2 Thess. 1:7) and to believers who have been in heaven with the Lord (1 Thess. 3:13; 4:16-17). The Lord, whose human feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, is God in human flesh. He is powerful enough to defeat all His enemies!
The second fact that underscores the Lord’s power is His personal, bodily coming. He is coming back just as He departed (bodily, not just spiritually), so that every eye will see Him (Acts 1:11; Rev. 1:7). Jesus describes His second coming as being “with power and great glory” (Matt. 24:30). John saw Him as a mighty warrior on a white horse, His eyes a flame of fire, His robe dipped in blood, a sharp sword coming from His mouth, and all the armies of heaven following Him on white horses (Rev. 19:11-16). He is going to win big!
The application is, Do not despair! You may be overwhelmed by horrible trials or powerful enemies. It may look as if the evil side has already won. Perhaps you are filled with doubts and despair. But our dire extremities become God’s choice opportunities to display His mighty power on our behalf! Remember the theme of Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, the son of Iddo: Whom the Lord remembers (“Zechariah”) He blesses (“Berechiah”) at the appointed time (“Iddo”). God has not forgotten you in your trial. He will deliver you in His appointed time.
You may be thinking, “I know that God is able to deliver me from any and every trial. But what if He doesn’t do it? What if the enemy—sickness, persecution, some catastrophe—wins?
At such times, our answer should be the same as the answer that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego gave to Nebuchadnezzar when he threatened to throw them into the furnace for refusing to bow down before his idol. They said, “… our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire; and He will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But even if He does not, let it be known to you, O king, that we are not going to serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up” (Dan. 3:17-18). They did not know if God would deliver them from death, but they knew that He is still the only true God. They remained obedient to Him even in the face of impending death. As Paul puts it in Romans 8:36-39, even if we are put to death as sheep for the slaughter, we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us.
Thus the Lord’s triumph over His enemies at the last day will be sudden, so that we should not be deceived when it seems that evil forces are winning. It will be powerful, so that we should not despair when we are overwhelmed by enemies that are stronger than we are. Also,
Note verse 9: “And the Lord will be king over all the earth; in that day the Lord will be the only one, and His name the only one.” Right now, only a minority of the earth’s population worships God as the only true God, and Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Vast segments of the world are under false religions and beliefs. Most of the world’s Jews reject Jesus as their Messiah. Even in Christendom, millions of people wrongly think that they will get into heaven based on their good works, rather than through faith alone in Jesus Christ and His shed blood. But in that day, when Jesus returns, the whole earth will bow before Him as Lord and King. Satan and his demons will be bound, so as not to deceive the nations (Rev. 20:2-3). Righteousness will prevail on earth.
Granted, some will only feign obedience to Him, while their hearts are still in rebellion (14:17-19; see Ps. 66:3). At the end of the millennium, Satan and his evil forces will be loosed to stage one final rebellion before he is defeated and thrown into the Lake of Fire (Rev. 20:7-10). But during His millennial reign, Psalm 2:8-9 will literally be fulfilled. The Father says to the Son, “Ask of Me, and I will surely give the nations as Your inheritance, and the ends of the earth as Your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron, You shall shatter them like earthenware.”
A few years ago, I had a friend who was not able to watch the Super Bowl on the day it was played, so he videotaped it and planned to watch it the next evening. He studiously avoided listening to the radio or looking at any TV or newspapers that would reveal the outcome of the game, because he wanted the suspense of not knowing in advance who won. Suppose that I had watched the game and I offered to bet him a lot of money on the outcome. (Gambling is wrong, but bear with my illustration.) That man would have been crazy to place that bet, because the outcome of the game was certain.
There is no doubt about the outcome of world history: Someday, every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father (Phil. 2:10-11). Jesus Christ will be king over all the earth! All of God’s enemies will be thoroughly defeated. Why would anyone want to put, not their money but their eternal destiny, on the losing side? Jesus will reign! Make sure that you are on His side before He comes to judge the earth!
So the return of Christ as King means the defeat of His enemies (14:1-15). But also,
Let’s face it, righteousness or holiness doesn’t get good press in our day. Even to the Lord’s people, it may not sound too exciting or fun. But our text reveals three reasons why you will enjoy and should look forward to the day when Christ rules the earth in righteousness.
*Refreshment—living waters, year round (14:8). While the river that will flow out of Jerusalem is literal, it has a spiritual significance. In that hot, desert climate, the picture of an abundant river, flowing all year, meant refreshment. Imagine hiking in Phoenix in the summer. You’re parched and about to faint when you come to a clear, cold stream of pure water. Ahh!
Holiness or righteousness is like that. Sin not only defiles us, it is like a disease that slowly destroys us. God’s Word cleanses us and renews us. Jesus’ righteous reign will be refreshing!
*Peace—security (14:11). When righteousness reigns, people dwell securely. They do not need to lock their doors in fear of intruders. They do not have to worry about their children being abducted on the streets. They do not fear terrorists or foreign armies invading their cities.
*Joy—the Feast of Booths (14:16). The Feast of Booths was the last of the feasts in the Jewish calendar year. It commemorated when Israel lived in temporary shelters after their deliverance from Egypt (Lev. 23:33-44). It was also a feast of ingathering, or harvest (Deut. 16:13-15). Thus was a joyous celebration (Lev. 23:40; Deut. 16:15) of God’s salvation and provision for His people.
On the last day of this feast, the Jewish priests would leave the temple, go to the Pool of Siloam, draw water, and carry it back to the sanctuary. They would pour it out while the worshipers recited Isaiah 12:3, “You will joyously draw water from the springs of salvation.” One day as they completed this ritual, a young man stepped forward and cried out loudly, “If any man is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being shall flow rivers of living water’” (John 7:37-38). When that speaker, the Lord Jesus, reigns in holiness in your heart, His Holy Spirit, the living water, will fill you with refreshment, joy, and peace.
There will be justice on earth when Jesus rules with a rod of iron. We do not know for certain why Egypt is singled out here from other nations. Perhaps because of Egypt’s historic oppression of Israel, they are mentioned here to show both God’s kindness (in that they are included in the millennium at all) and His severity (in that He will judge all that do not submit to Him).
The punishment on those nations that do not submit to Christ will be drought or no rain. While this will be literal, it obviously has spiritual ramifications. Those who do not submit their lives to Jesus and know the joy of His salvation will experience dryness and famine in the soul. Finally,
“Holy to the Lord” was the inscription on the plate worn on the forehead of the high priest. In the millennium, that inscription will be put on the bells of the horses, which were animals of commerce and transportation. The meaning is that all of life, including mundane work, will be as sacred as the rituals performed in the temple by the priests. Even the cooking pots in the temple and in private homes will be holy to the Lord in that day. “No Canaanite in the house of the Lord” (14:21) means that no spiritually or morally unclean person will defile the Lord’s house in that day.
These verses mean that when the Lord reigns in righteousness, His people will not divide life into sacred and secular compartments. When you do that, you quickly fall into hypocrisy. On Sundays, you put on your religious hat and look “Oh, so spiritual!” The rest of the week, you set aside your religion and live like the rest of the world lives. It’s phony to the core! God’s people should live all of life as holy to the Lord. “Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).
Zechariah’s bottom line is this: If Christ is returning as King to defeat His enemies and to establish His righteous reign over all the earth, then we must walk in holiness before Him. As John puts it, “Everyone who has this hope [of His appearing] fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure” (1 John 3:3). As Peter contemplated the day of the Lord, he concluded, “What sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God …” (2 Pet. 3:11-12).
Do you long for His coming like a child longs for his birthday? God’s aim in history is that Jesus Christ will reign as King over all of heaven and earth. “Let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who wishes take the water of life without cost…. He who testifies to these things says, ‘Yes, I am coming quickly.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus” (Rev. 22:17, 20)!
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2003, All Rights Reserved.