God is on the move (Zechariah 1)

Why read the Book of Zechariah and why preach on it and study it? Like all other Bible books, it is a revelation of Jesus and he appears more frequently in this book than we may think at first. That is a good reason for looking at it – to discover more about Jesus. It is part of the living Scriptures, the food of our souls.

Yet that reason would make the book very relevant in every age. So we must ask if it is particularly relevant to our time and to the church of Jesus in our society. It is. In its pages, we see a call for realism about one’s situation – they lived in a ruined city, with a great past. Just like the church around us today. There is also a call to repentance, because ruin is a sign that we have departed from God and are under his judgements. And wholehearted repentance is called for, because there had been some response to the ruins already, but not enough. In addition, there is a call to recognise the overall plan of God, to get a grasp of the big picture, because that is the message that God sends through Zechariah.

The book of Zechariah begins with the Jews in exile in Babylon and ends with references to the second coming of Jesus. So we can see that it covers a lot of ground. The book may seem obscure at times because of its peculiar visions. Those visions belong to a type of literature called apocalyptic in which important events are depicted in detailed and unusual visions. This type of literature was becoming common at this stage in history and we can see that God was prepared to use it.

The obvious feature of apocalyptic literature is that it is not meant to be taken literally. Instead it describes events in picture language and we have to look for its meaning. Sometimes the meaning is obvious and other times it is not. Indeed, sometimes we are told what the meaning is, as in the visions in the Book of Daniel. We will consider briefly the two visions in chapter Zechariah 1.

Historical situation
The background to the Book of Zechariah is the completion of the seventy years of captivity that the Jews endured in Babylon because of their sins. But God had promised that their captivity would last a certain time and he had used the Persians to let his people go back to their homeland in 538 BC (we can read about the return in Ezra 2) and they had laid the new temple’s foundation in 536. The Persians did what was regarded at the time as unlikely when they overpowered the Babylonian Empire. They had their reasons for doing it, but God had his reasons for using them. Here we have a reminder of the amazing sovereignty of God – he can use whoever he wishes to bring about his purposes.

The book opens with events that were taking place about sixteen years after the initial group of Jews returned to the promised land and laid the temple’s foundation. It is likely that those original returnees were disappointed with the way things had turned out. Although they had laid the foundation stone of the new temple, not much progress had been made. So God sent messages to them through his prophets Haggai and Zechariah in the year 520 BC.

It begins with a description of Zechariah’s call to serve as a prophet in the eighth month of the second year of Darius. This was during a time of spiritual recovery as we can see from the Book of Haggai. In Haggaichapter one, we are told that in the sixth month the people in Jerusalem repented of their apathy towards the rebuilding of the temple and resumed working on it. That was a couple of months before Zechariah received his call.

Then in the seventh month, God gave wonderful encouragement to those Jews who were working on the temple when he told them through Haggai that its glory would be greater than the glory that had been connected to the magnificent temple of Solomon in that many nations would yet come and worship there. More encouragement was given in the ninth month when Haggai told the people that they would receive ample harvests and that kingdoms would be overthrown (Haggai 2). It was in between the giving of those messages that Zechariah received his call.

We know from elsewhere that Zechariah was from a priestly family (Neh. 12:16) and would have been expected to take up his priestly duties when he was thirty. It is not possible to know how old he was when he received his call to be a prophet, but whenever it came it would have been a surprisingone because he would have been anticipating life as a priest. It is good to remember that the Lord has surprising tasks in store for his people at times whether they are in prominent roles, as Zechariah, or in less public activities. Surprise is never a reason for refusing his call.

Some details from the first message (1:1-6)
Zechariah’s message was a seriousone because in it he reminded the people of the sins that had got their forefathersinto their recent exile. It is important when speaking forthe Lord to be consciousof the potential of people for sinning. God did not wanthis servant to keep the Israelites in the dark about what could happen. Sometimes we glorify the past, yet it is obvious that one reason for present judgements is the failures of previous generations to honour God.

Moreover, the message Zechariahdelivered was a soberingone because he declaredthat sometimes the Lord’s servants have fruitless ministries. Hesummarised the contributions of previous prophets who had served Godfaithfully even although their warnings had not been heeded. We could say that Zechariah was aware alsoof the shortnessof his ministry when he asked if the prophets live forever. Even if he were to serve for many years, it would only be a short time.

Zechariah, as he delivered this message, also tasted the sweetnessof God’s call when he informed the people that God would fulfilhis promise to restore his people if theyrepented. Perhaps we can also note the simplicityconnected to restoration – repentance. The Lord calls them to repent in verse 3 when he commands them to return to him.

The chief horseman (vv. 7-17)
This vision is called the word of the Lord in verse 7, a reminder to us of the opening words of Hebrews thatsays that God spoke to their fathers by various means. Moreover, the prophet has a heavenly guide to explain what he is seeing – the guide is an angel (v. 9).

The vision describes a report meeting in which several angels, depicted as horsemen, report to a senior angel who possesses a red horse. What are the angels reporting about? They have travelled throughout the earth on horseback (this means they did it speedily – horses were known for their speed). Their report said that it was calm everywhere. Instead of accepting that this was a good situation, the senior angel turns and prays to God to show mercy to Jerusalem and to Judea.

Who is this senior angel who can speak in this way to God? We get a clue in the description of him in verse 12 – he is the angel of the Lord, the divine being who speaks for God as God, and who is generally regarded to be the second person of the Trinity. So Zechariah, as he begins his ministry of restoration, is reminded that behind the scenes the Son of God is interceding for his cause. It is intriguing that this angel is called a man in verse 8, perhaps a hint that the incarnation is coming.

In the vision, the angelic guide now passes on a divine message to Zechariah, a message described as ‘gracious and comforting words’. What is the message? First, the people of God are special to him(v. 14). Second, he is angry that the nations are not concerned about his kingdom – remember that Persia had commenced a restoration of the Jews to their land, but this commitment was short-lived (v. 15). Third, the time of divine chastisement was over and God, who had left the city of Jerusalem before the exile, had now returned to it(v. 16). Fourth, there were great days ahead for the people of God(vv. 16-17). Fifth, it was all based on God’s mercy. That was a wonderful message for the prophet to pass on.

As we try and apply this to our situation, what can we deduce from this vision? First, don’t depend on powerful politicians because they will not ensure that God’s will is done. Second, remember the intercession of Jesus and his desire to see the mercy of God displayed.Third, there are great days ahead for Zion, probably in this world, and certainly in the next. Fourth, value the presence of God and his commitment to his promises.

The enemy is there, or are they?(vv. 18-21)
Zechariah has a second vision – he will have another six. Or maybe he has one vision with eight parts. This second one has to do with four horns who had scattered the Jews. Horns would have been a suitable illustration for a people who knew about the destruction horned animals could cause. 

Who are these horns and who are the nations who scattered God’s people? One answer is that they are the Babylonians who led Israel into captivityseventy years earlier. The obvious problem with that suggestion is that the Babylonians had lost their powerwhen it was overrun by the Persians. Anotherand I think better answer is that the hornsare the various nations that are mentioned in Ezra 4 as preventing the Jews from rebuilding the city, which lasted until the second year of Darius (Ezra 4:24).It is interesting in this regard that Ezra 5:1 says: ‘Now the prophets, Haggai and Zechariah the son of Iddo, prophesied to the Jews who were in Judah and Jerusalem, in the name of the God of Israel who was over them.’They would have preached knowing that God was at work.

Then Zechariah sees that four craftsmen are coming to deal with the four horns. The angelic guide tells Zechariah that the four craftsmen will terrify the four horns and destroy them. We are not told who the craftsmen are, although one thing we can say about craftsmen is that they know what to do regarding their craft. Certainly when Darius heard about those peoples who were trying to stop the Jews he used his power to cause them to cease their opposition, and we can imagine how terrified they would be. The prophet is being told that his God knows howto deal with the conniving enemies of his cause and can easily remove them when he chooses to do so.

The application to us is that God has the answer to our enemies. I suppose the number 4 could suggest that we can be surrounded by enemies just as Jerusalem would have been surrounded on the north, south, east and west. And I suppose the number 4 in the four craftsmen reminds us that God when he chooses can deal with all our enemies simultaneously.

So although written in a way that we perhaps imagined would be difficult to understand, we can also see that God’s Word through his prophet Zechariah speaks about our situations today even as it spoke about the prospects for God’s kingdom after the exile. 

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