A Great Beginning
In the eighth month of the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Zechariah son of Berekiah, the son of Iddo:
“The Lord was very angry with your forefathers. Therefore tell the people: This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Return to me,’ declares the Lord Almighty, ‘and I will return to you,’ says the Lord Almighty. Do not be like your forefathers, to whom the earlier prophets proclaimed: This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Turn from your evil ways and your evil practices.’ But they would not listen or pay attention to me, declares the Lord. Where are your forefathers now? And the prophets, do they live forever? But did not my words and my decrees, which I commanded my servants the prophets, overtake your forefathers?
“Then they repented and said, ‘The Lord Almighty has done to us what our ways and practices deserve, just as he determined to do.’ ”
Zechariah is one of the most difficult books of the Old Testament, but one thing is not difficult: the dating of the book. In the very first words of his prophecy, Zechariah says that he received his first revelation from God in the eighth month of the second year of Darius, the emperor of Persia. This places Zechariah within the same time frame—indeed, within the same years—as his contemporary Haggai. Haggai and Zechariah were among the 42,360 Jews who had returned to Judah under the leadership of Zerubbabel the governor and Joshua the high priest to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, and it was only two months after Haggai had received his first message from God that Zechariah received his. He thereby became the second prophet of the restoration. Since Haggai prophesied until near the end of the ninth month of the second year of Darius, Zechariah and Haggai overlapped as prophets for a short period.
These circumstances, plus the content of the books, encourage us to think of Zechariah’s prophecy as supplementary to that of Haggai. The burden of Haggai’s book is that the temple of God must be rebuilt, and that God would make it glorious. In speaking of this great but future glory, Haggai pointed forward to, but did not elaborate on, the messianic age. He promised that God would be with his people and would bless them once they began to rebuild the temple. These words must have encouraged the small committed band so overwhelmed by the enormity of the task. Like Haggai, Zechariah’s message is one of encouragement. But he was aware that not all the returned remnant were fully sincere in their desires to serve God, and he therefore counseled them to repent of sin and return to God with all their hearts and minds.
Zechariah’s encouragement made his book particularly dear to the reformers. Martin Luther has provided us with two commentaries on Zechariah, one in Latin (prepared by others from careful lecture notes) and one in German. Luther regarded Zechariah as the very “model” or “quintessence” of prophecy (Ausbund der Propheten), particularly in its messianic predictions.
John Calvin regarded it as particularly suitable to his age. “This doctrine may be fitly applied to our age: for we see how Satan raises up great forces, we see how the whole world conspires against the Church, to prevent the increase or the progress of the kingdom of Christ. When we consider how great are the difficulties which meet us, we are ready to faint and to become wholly dejected. Let us then remember that it is no new thing for enemies to surpass great mountains in elevation; but that the Lord can at length reduce them to a plain. This, then, our shield can cast down and lay prostrate whatever greatness the Devil may set up to terrify us: for as the Lord then reduces a great mountain to a plain, when Zerubbabel was able to do nothing, so at this day, however boldly may multiplied adversaries resist Christ in the work of building a spiritual temple to God the Father, yet all their efforts will be in vain.”
Zechariah should encourage anyone who is trying to do a work for Christ in any age.
Who Was Zechariah?
Zechariah is a common name in the Bible—at least twenty-seven Bible characters had it—but the author of the prophecy distinguishes himself as the “son of Berekiah, the son of Iddo” (Zech. 1:1, 7). Apparently his father died young, for he is named as the immediate successor of Iddo in the list of the heads of the priestly families in Nehemiah 12:12–21. Probably for the same reason, he is identified merely as a descendant of Iddo in Ezra 5:1 and 6:14. Since he is called a “young man” (Zech. 2:4), he was probably little more than a child when he returned with the first wave of the regathering exiles.
The only real problem with Zechariah’s identity comes from a New Testament saying of Jesus Christ. In Matthew 23:35 Jesus says to the people of his day, “And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar.” Since there is a story of the murder of a prophet named Zechariah, son of Jehoiada, by stoning in the courtyard of the temple in 2 Chronicles 24:20–22, it is assumed that Jesus confused the two, thinking that the later Zechariah, the eleventh of the minor prophets, was the earlier Zechariah, who died about 800 b.c. This introduces the additional problem that the earlier Zechariah, who died by stoning in the temple area, was the last of the Old Testament martyrs, which Jesus’ statement implies.
The solution to this problem is to start over again with the assumptions (quite well founded) that Jesus knew what he was talking about, that the Zechariah he was referring to was indeed Zechariah son of Berekiah, and that Zechariah son of Berekiah was also martyred between the temple and the altar in a manner reminiscent of the murder of the earlier prophet of the same name. One writer concludes, “Since Jesus referred to Zechariah as the last of the Old Testament martyrs, there can be no legitimate doubt that it was the eleventh of the twelve minor prophets he had in mind.… We can only conclude that the later Zechariah died in much the same way the earlier one did, as a victim of popular resentment against his rebuke of their sins. Since there are about twenty-seven different individuals mentioned in the Old Testament bearing the name Zechariah, it is not surprising if two of them happened to suffer a similar fate.”
We do not have any biblical or other history of this period, so we do not know what Zechariah’s life may have been like between the beginning of his prophetic ministry in 520 b.c. and his death by stoning years later. Because of the scattered time references throughout the prophecy, we do know that he continued to prophesy for several years at least.
Did Zechariah write all of Zechariah? This has been questioned because of the differences between the first (chaps. 1–8) and second (chaps. 9–14) halves of the book. These contain different subject matter and are written in different styles. The first half is dated by reference to the years of King Darius; the second is not. These differences lead many scholars to posit two authors and two separate works that have somehow become joined.
These arguments are valid only if it is necessary to believe that a writer must use one and not a variety of styles and deal with one and not a variety of subjects. Many scholars operate on these assumptions, but they are highly questionable for any writer and particularly so for Zechariah who came so near the end of the line of the prophets. It is understandable that Zechariah would write of the conditions of his day, giving encouragement to those who were attempting to rebuild the temple. In this he is at one with his contemporary, Haggai. But it is also reasonable that he (or any prophet) should also be led of God to look ahead to that future day of full messianic blessing, as in the last six chapters. Since the last half of Zechariah deals with events that will occur largely in the future, how could the subject matter, moral issues, and historical setting not be different from chapters 1–8? Their difference is not fixed proof of separate authorship.
Call to Repentance
Zechariah is going to unfold many rich and comforting promises both in the first and also the second sections of this prophecy. But riches like these are for people who have repented of sin and are ready to embrace the will and declarations of God. For this reason, the book opens with a message calling on the people to return to God and not be as their forefathers who refused to listen to him.
The prophecy says: “The Lord was very angry with your forefathers. Therefore tell the people: This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Return to me,’ declares the Lord Almighty, ‘and I will return to you, says the Lord Almighty. Do not be like your forefathers, to whom the earlier prophets proclaimed: This is what the Lord Almighty says, ‘Turn from your evil ways and your evil practices.’ But they would not listen or pay attention to me, declares the Lord. Where are your forefathers now? And the prophets, do they live forever? But did not my words and my decrees, which I commanded my servants the prophets, overtake your forefathers?
“Then they repented and said, ‘The Lord Almighty has done to us what our ways and practices deserve, just as he determined to do’ ” (vv. 2–6).
These verses contain a number of valuable truths that are worth getting in mind at the outset of our study, even as the people of Zechariah’s day must have fixed them in their minds.
- God judges sin. If there is anything past history should have taught the returning exiles, it is that God does indeed judge sin. For hundreds of years the people were unwilling to acknowledge this, even when God gave them ample proof of his displeasure and unrelenting warnings of the destruction that was to come. There were warnings to the people of the northern kingdom of Israel by such prophets as Hosea and Amos. In the south Joel, Micah, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah warned of judgment. Jeremiah alone prophesied for a period of forty years. During this time, with the exception of a few brief periods of partial revival, the people continued to go their way, arguing that no judgment could come upon them simply because they were the chosen people of God and Jerusalem was God’s city. Indeed, for all those years it seemed as though these self-righteous and presumptuous people might be right. God did indeed seem reluctant to destroy their city.
Yet destruction came. Jerusalem was overrun, the people were deported, and both the temple and the walls of the city were destroyed. This was a great and inescapable fact of recent Jewish history, and the evidence of it was fresh on every mind. The walls were still down. The city was still a ruin. The land that had once flowed with milk and honey was now a barren wilderness.
So no one could possibly miss this first point when Zechariah reminded them of it. The prophet said, “The Lord was very angry with your forefathers.”
The hearts of the people would have been forced to echo, “Indeed, he was.”
Zechariah declared, “Where are your forefathers now?”
The people would have answered, “Gone, dead, scattered.”
“And the prophets, do they live forever?”
The people would have been forced to acknowledge that even the prophets had been carried away in the judgment that came upon Jerusalem.
“Did not my words and my decrees, which I commanded my servants the prophets, overtake your forefathers?” Zechariah asked.
The people would have answered that the word of God through the prophets had indeed come true and that the kingdoms of Israel and Judah had indeed been overthrown, as they had said. Could anything be more obvious? God judges all. Although in his patience judgment may be for a time delayed, it does at last come and sinners do have to give an accounting for what they have done, whether good or bad.
- Past judgments are a warning to us to turn from sin. This is the central point of Zechariah’s opening message to the remnant. They were aware of what had overtaken their forefathers for their obstinate refusal to heed the word of God. They could hardly escape this knowledge. But the facts of that earlier destruction were not merely items of historical interest. They were examples intended to bring about wholehearted repentance and subsequent obedience.
Some people have imagined a problem at this point. They point out that when Zechariah’s contemporary, Haggai, preached his first message just two months earlier, the people “obeyed the voice of the Lord their God,” “feared the Lord,” and got on with the rebuilding (Hag. 1:12–15). Does this mean that they had relapsed by the time Zechariah started his ministry? Did Zechariah read the situation wrongly? Or is something more involved here? We could point out that obeying one specific instruction from the Lord is not the same thing as a wholehearted turning from all sin, which is what Zechariah is calling for. But that is beside the point and probably is an underestimate of the depths of repentance under Haggai’s preaching. What the people needed now was renewed and deeper dedication. As Leupold writes, “Every repentance, every return unto the Lord is imperfect at best. It is an expression that requires deepening; it must be done more sincerely and thoroughly. In a sense, a godly life consists of perfecting repentance, always doing it more effectually. So what Haggai claimed was true: the people had God on their side because they had returned to Him. But what Zechariah claimed was also true: Israel needed to return with more sincere devotion if God’s promises for the future were to become a reality.”
That is why these stories of God’s past judgments are still relevant for us, even though we may have turned from sin to Christ in our conversion. We can be Christ’s and still live for a time as the disobedient Israelites. We can go our own way and turn a deaf ear to God’s warnings. Are you doing this? If so, you must learn from God’s judgments and allow them to turn you back from sin. We must all be warned to follow closer after God.
- Obedience brings blessing. Sin brings judgment, but obedience brings blessing. This is the point most emphasized in Zechariah’s message: “This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Return to me,’ declares the Lord Almighty, ‘and I will return to you,’ says the Lord Almighty” (Zech. 1:3). The point is clear: if the people will return to him, God will return to the people and will bless them. The threefold repetition of the name “the Lord Almighty” underscores its certainty.
We think of what God said through Haggai. In the second chapter of that book, in a message delivered about a month after Zechariah had begun his ministry, Haggai quoted God as saying: “ ‘Now give careful thought to this from this day on—consider how things were before one stone was laid on another in the Lord’s temple. When anyone came to a heap of twenty measures, there were only ten. When anyone went to a wine vat to draw fifty measures, there were only twenty. I struck all the work of your hands with blight, mildew, and hail, yet you did not turn to me,’ declares the Lord. ‘From this day on, from this twenty-fourth day of the ninth month, give careful thought to the day when the foundation of the Lord’s temple was laid. Give careful thought: Is there yet any seed left in the barn? Until now, the vine and the fig tree, the pomegranate and the olive trees have not borne fruit.
“ ‘From this day on I will bless you’ ” (Hag. 2:15–19).
This passage is, in a certain sense, a commentary on Zechariah. Up to the twenty-fourth day of the sixth month the people had been disobeying the Lord out of twisted priorities and motives. They had been serving themselves, and their lives and work had not prospered. Their fields had not flourished. Their vines and trees had not borne fruit. But they had responded to Haggai’s word and had obeyed God, and God had said that their fortunes would be spared from blight, mildew, and hail. They would see the fig, pomegranate, and olive trees begin to produce fruit in abundance. The vines would flourish, and the wine vats would again be full. This is a remarkable promise of material well-being predicated on a life of obedience by God’s people. But it is what Zechariah is saying too, though in perhaps more spiritual terms. If God seems far away, it is because we are removed from him by our sin. It is not God’s fault. If we return to him, he will return to us and bring blessing.
- Like God Himself, the word of God is inescapable. The prophecy says, “But did not my words and my decrees, which I commanded my servants the prophets, overtake your forefathers?” (Zech. 1:6). The fathers of the remnant thought they could escape God’s judgment, but the word overtook them and they perished. So it was with the flood generation. So it will be at Christ’s final judgment. No one escapes God’s word. God’s word is eternal. It is longer lasting even than the prophets who speak it. They passed away (v. 5), yet the word spoken through them lived on and was fulfilled in the people’s experience (v. 6). Jesus said, “Until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished” (Matt. 5:18).
“Return to Me”
The last sentence of Zechariah’s message tells of a past generation: “Then they repented and said, ‘The Lord Almighty has done to us what our ways and practices deserve, just as he determined to do” (v. 6). He is not speaking about the generation that perished in the destruction of Jerusalem, but their successors, those who saw the hand and justice of God in what happened. This is the spirit Zechariah wants to see in the remnant before he begins to unfold the visions that constitute the bulk of his book.
If we had only Haggai to go on, we might assume, however wrongly, that God was interested most of all in the temple, that is, in buildings. But this is not the case. True, God had given instructions about this building. But most of all, God was interested in the people to whom he had given this work, and he was concerned that they be truly surrendered to him. Luther saw this and wrote: “This, then, is a brief outline of this first sermon of Zechariah: he first wishes to make the people pious and God-fearing by means of threats and promises; and in order to frighten them, he offers them the example of their fathers. For while they are to build the temple and the city of Jerusalem and do good deeds like these, he first wants them to be pious, so that they might not think that God would be satisfied with their work of building the temple and the city, as their fathers had thought that it was good enough if they sacrificed. No, my good man, rather than all good works he wants faith and a heart converted to him. That is all he is interested in. This must come first and be preached first: ‘Return to me, and after that build me a temple,’ and not, ‘first build me a temple, and after that return to me.’ Good works inflate us and make us proud, but faith and conversion humble us and make us despair of ourselves.”
This is the good beginning God wants. He wants it to be said of us, as it was of the believers of the apostle Peter’s day: “You were like sheep going astray, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (1 Peter 2:25).
Return to Me
The Lord was very angry with your fathers. Therefore say to them, “Thus declares the Lord of hosts: Return to me, says the Lord of hosts, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts.” (Zech. 1:2–3)
One of the great questions of life is “How do we start again?” It is a question every sinner faces at one time or another. Broken marriages face the question, as do broken friendships and broken dreams. It was a question pressing hard upon the people of Judah in the time of the postexilic prophet Zechariah, who was charged with speaking for God to a people trying to start over again. Theirs was a broken relationship with God, a broken covenant. Having returned from bondage in far-off Babylon, their generation was asking, “How do we start again?”
The opening passage of this book clues us into the approach this prophet takes. Beginning in verse 2 of chapter 1, Zechariah points the people to the Lord. Three times in two verses he confronts them with the name “the Lord Almighty.” In order to deal with the past, and therefore with the present and the future, he says, the people would have to turn to God. That is always true. The power to heal what is broken, to start again what is ended, and to raise up what is cast down is always and only found with the Lord. “How do we get right with God, and what will it mean to us if we do?” That is where Zechariah begins, and that was the issue facing those who had come back to the Lord to start over again.
Approaches to the Study of Zechariah
We should begin our study of Zechariah by specifying the approaches that will enable us to interpret this book of Scripture rightly. First, we will approach Zechariah historically. We should always be historical in our study of Scripture, since the books of the Bible were given by God through actual men in the context of real circumstances and settings. As a result, our study of Zechariah will increase our knowledge of Old Testament history. We will become familiar with important figures unknown to many Christians: Sheshbazzar, the prince of Judah; Zerubbabel, the son of Shealtiel of the house of David and ancestor to our Lord Jesus; the high priest Joshua, of the line of Zadok; as well as Zechariah and his prophetic colleague Haggai.
Second, we will consider this book doctrinally. While this and every book of Scripture comes to us out of a historical setting, it also is part of the whole Bible given by God for our instruction in salvation. The book of Zechariah has a great many truths to set before us, doctrines of our faith that were at a particular stage of development in the progress of God’s redemptive work. We want to take stock of its teaching both in light of how it was then presented and how the various subjects would ultimately be rounded out in the completed canon of Scripture.
Third—and this is a strong emphasis in the book of Zechariah—we will approach this material christologically. We will trace the line of thought as it leads to Jesus Christ, the Messiah anticipated by the Old Testament, and the Savior who fulfills its promises and answers its questions. So frequent and dramatic are the pointers to Christ in Zechariah that the book might be dubbed The Gospel according to Zechariah. It is sometimes said that the gospel is in the Old Testament concealed and in the New Testament revealed. When we get to the book of Zechariah, Christ is barely concealed but often blatantly revealed to the eyes of those trained by the later revelations of the New Testament.
Fourth, we will approach this book from a practical perspective, applying its message to our own setting and lives so as to derive its full benefit. Though we are separated by time and circumstances from the prophet and his generation, the issues of faith and godliness have not ultimately changed. Everything God revealed in this book for individuals and for Israel as a whole finds a contemporary application for Christians and the church.
The Historical Setting of Zechariah
First, let us consider the historical setting from which this book of Scripture comes to us. A good place to start is in the year 586 BC, when the Babylonian conqueror Nebuchadnezzar seized and destroyed the Israelite capital, Jerusalem. This was an event long portended in the prophetic writings, most nearly by the prophet Jeremiah, whose title, “the weeping prophet,” was earned from his participation in those horrible events. At the beginning of his prophecy, Jeremiah explained all that was going to take place, and why:
The Lord said to me, “Out of the north disaster shall be let loose upon all the inhabitants of the land. For behold, I am calling all the tribes of the kingdoms of the north, declares the Lord, and they shall come, and every one shall set his throne at the entrance of the gates of Jerusalem, against all its walls all around and against all the cities of Judah. And I will declare my judgments against them, for all their evil in forsaking me. They have made offerings to other gods and worshiped the works of their own hands.” (Jer. 1:14–16)
Despite warning after warning, from prophet after prophet, the day finally came when the Lord brought judgment upon his people for their sins, and especially the sin of idolatry to which they were so addicted. At the end, the situation was as described in Jeremiah’s brokenhearted book of Lamentations: “How lonely sits the city that was full of people!… The Lord has afflicted her for the multitude of her transgressions; her children have gone away, captives before the foe” (Lam. 1:1, 5).
Jerusalem lay in ruins, empty, her walls torn down, and her buildings scorched with fire. Thus concluded a key stage in the history of God’s people, one brilliantly begun in the exodus, gloriously advanced under King David, but brought to ruin by the sins of his hardhearted people. Despite their status as God’s people, despite God’s presence in their midst, despite the institutions of the theocracy, the temple and the royal palace, and despite the holy hill of Zion where Israel worshiped, even the Israelites were not spared the judgment for their sins. The fall of Jerusalem stands as a lasting testimony to the folly of presumption and the wages of sin.
The Israelites went into exile, to weep by the waters of Babylon while the Promised Land was inhabited by other people (Ps. 137:1). Yet God promised grace to his people in their sorrow. Through Jeremiah he said:
For thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for wholeness and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me. When you seek me with all your heart, I will be found by you. (Jer. 29:10–14)
Other prophecies of hope came from the latter chapters of Isaiah, written about two hundred years beforehand. So specific were Isaiah’s predictions that he even named the ruler who would restore the fortunes of Israel: “I will raise up Cyrus in my righteousness: I will make all his ways straight. He will rebuild my city and set my exiles free” (Isa. 45:13 niv).
Liberal critics of Scripture use this prediction to claim a postexilic dating for the latter chapters of Isaiah, presupposing that actual foretelling is impossible. But God’s expressed purpose was to give confidence to his people at a time when many would have wondered about his ability to save. When this specific prediction was fulfilled, it was a staggering proof of God’s sovereignty. “I am God,” he insisted, “and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose’ ” (Isa. 46:9–10).
Cyrus the Great was the Medo-Persian emperor who overthrew Babylon and gave the orders for the Israelites to return to their land (see Ezra 1:1–4). Accordingly, in 538 BC, forty-eight years after the fall of Jerusalem, Sheshbazzar received the temple articles from Cyrus and led the return of the first party to the ruins of Jerusalem. It was a moment of epochal significance and great drama.
Sheshbazzar, the son of Jehoiachin, the last legitimate king of Judah before and during the exile, would have been fairly aged by this time. We do not read a great deal about him in Scripture, except to learn that he succeeded in laying the foundation for a rebuilt temple on Mount Zion (Ezra 5:16).
The second chapter of Ezra, which along with Nehemiah is the main historical record of this period, tells us that the initial party returning to Jerusalem consisted of 42,360 Israelites. Although Cyrus had placed Sheshbazzar in command, it seems clear that from the start the acting leader was the younger and presumably more able Zerubbabel, the son of Sheshbazzar’s older brother Shealtiel, along with Joshua the high priest. These two represented the kingly and priestly lines going back to David and Zadok his faithful priest.
One of this multitude was Zechariah, who must have been a young man or boy at the time of the return. He is named in verse 1 as son of Berechiah, and grandson of Iddo. In the record of Nehemiah 12, Zechariah is listed as the head of the house of Iddo, so many commentators reasonably suggest that Zechariah’s father must have died young, leaving him as the principal heir of Iddo’s house. His was a priestly family, something Zechariah held in common with both the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel.
The New Testament provides one additional piece of biographical information having to do with Zechariah’s death. In Matthew 23, as Jesus was speaking his woes upon the Pharisees and upon Jerusalem, he recounted the people’s record of killing the prophets. “On you,” he cried, “may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of innocent Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar” (v. 35). Liberal commentators consider this an error in the Bible, since 2 Chronicles 24:20–22 records a different Zechariah being slain in the temple courtyard, long before the time of our prophet. This assumes that there could not have been two different prophets of this name (and Zechariah is a fairly common name in Scripture) so that Jesus was therefore in error. Rather than presupposing Jesus’ fallibility, we do better to accept his word and conclude that our Zechariah, the postexilic prophet, had his own life ended at the hands of the people in the very temple God used him so mightily to see to completion. As such he was the last of the prophets slain in the Old Testament, a line started outside the gates of the Garden with the murder of Abel by his brother Cain.
There would be sixteen years between Israel’s initial return with the laying of the temple’s foundation in 536 BC and the beginning of Zechariah’s ministry. His prophecy, we are told, begins “in the eighth month, in the second year of Darius” (1:1)—that is, in the year 520 BC. Darius was a general who assumed the Persian throne after a plot resulted in the apparent suicide of Cambyses, the son and successor of Cyrus, who had been away effecting his conquest of Egypt. By this time a dispirited restoration community in Jerusalem had become bogged down both spiritually and materially. One commentator explains:
If the returned exiles expected the dawn of Yahweh’s universal reign, with Jews and Gentiles flocking to Jerusalem, their hopes soon faded. Jews did not leave the population centers of [Babylonia] in vast numbers, and interference from the longtime inhabitants of the land frustrated the building efforts, bringing the work on the temple to a halt.
Two months before Zechariah’s first vision from God, the prophet Haggai had broken the silence and called the people into action: “Go up to the hills,” he cried, “and bring wood and build the house, that I may take pleasure in it and that I may be glorified, says the Lord” (Hag. 1:8). While Haggai focused the people on building the temple for the Lord, God came to Zechariah and focused him on rebuilding the people and their faith.
Return to Me!
The opening lines of Zechariah highlight a doctrinal theme that will be important throughout the book: repentance. Zechariah explains the situation: “The Lord was very angry with your fathers. Therefore say to them, Thus declares the Lord of hosts: Return to me, says the Lord of hosts, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts” (Zech. 1:2–3). We are reminded here of the Lord Jesus’ teaching as he started his gospel ministry five hundred years after the prophet: “Repent,” Jesus cried, “for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17).
There are at least four points to be made about repentance from this passage. First is the need for repentance. This need is established by the fact that God judges all sin. The problem with the Israelites’ forefathers was that they doubted God’s judgment and therefore denied the need for their own repentance. Since they were God’s chosen people, and since they possessed such divinely ordained institutions as the temple, they thought God would never punish them. This is why they ignored and often persecuted the prophets God sent to them. The fall of Jerusalem and the Babylonian captivity were God’s telling response to their hardness of heart in refusing to repent. Zechariah’s generation asked, “How do we start again, when our relationship with God is damaged by sin?” This is a question many people ask today. The answer is that we begin with repentance.
Zechariah pressed the need for repentance upon his own generation by recalling their nation’s recent history. He warned, “Do not be like your fathers, to whom the former prophets cried out, ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts, Return from your evil ways and from your evil deeds.’ But they did not hear or pay attention to me, declares the Lord” (Zech. 1:4). Then he asked leading questions designed to make his point: “Your fathers, where are they? And the prophets, do they live forever?” (Zech. 1:5). The answer was obvious as they stood amidst the ruins of the once magnificent city. Their fathers had gone into slavery and exile, and even the prophets were gone. Finally, Zechariah drove home the reality of God’s prophetic Word: “But my words and my statutes, which I commanded my servants the prophets, did they not overtake your fathers?” (Zech. 1:6).
Though these events were in the past, the Word of the Lord had prevailed and come forward into the present. As Isaiah had said, “All flesh is grass.… The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever” (Isa. 40:6–8). The one thing that could never fail was God’s Word, and Zechariah was bringing it forward into this new generation. Zechariah’s name means “the Lord remembers”; on the one hand God remembered his people, but on the other he remembered his words and decrees, which must always be reckoned with, then as now.
Verse 1 says, “The word of the Lord came to the prophet Zechariah.” If any one message characterized the prophetic mission—any one “word of the Lord”—it was this call to repentance. Although the prophets of old were gone, God had raised up a new prophet to perform the same task and bring the same message. The forefathers had realized this in exile, once it was too late, repenting and saying, “As the Lord of hosts purposed to deal with us for our ways and deeds, so has he dealt with us” (Zech. 1:6). A clear expression of repentant prayer among at least some of the exiles is found in Daniel 9, where that prophet-in-exile expounded upon these very words. His and others’ willingness to repent left this later generation of their children without excuse if they did not follow suit.
If the first lesson is the need for repentance, the second is a definition of repentance. Repentance is both turning from sin and turning to God. God had said to the earlier generations, “Return from your evil ways and from your evil deeds—” (Zech. 1:4), and that is no less a requirement now. Repentance is turning away from sin, both from the way of sin and the works of sin. Repentance is about both our actions and our attitude. We tend to think we have repented if we just curb our behavior a small bit, but repentance includes our hearts and desires, as Zechariah explained, “Return from your evil ways and your evil deeds.” Along with turning from sin, we are called to turn to God. Zechariah 1:3 puts this directly: “Return to me, says the Lord of hosts, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts.”
These two are inseparable—turning from sin and turning to God. On the one hand we cannot turn to God except by turning from the sin he abhors; on the other hand until we come back to God, we simply lack the strength to overcome the sin that holds us in bondage. Only his light can cast out our darkness.
Zechariah’s words are especially striking in light of the particular audience to whom he was speaking. These were the people who had returned to the land. The majority of their fellow countrymen had remained comfortably ensconced in Babylonia, where the Jews had grown prosperous. Yet as Haggai’s prophecy made clear, the hearts of the returnees were not fully devoted to the Lord. They had walked back down the long road to God’s city, yet they had stopped short of God himself. Partly due to opposition from nearby enemies and partly due to their own indifference, the restoration community had lost interest in rebuilding God’s temple. T. V. Moore describes the situation before Zechariah:
He had witnessed the growth of that selfish greed for their own individual interests, and their neglect of the interests of religion, that was so mournful a characteristic of this period.… Now, as the temple was to them the grand symbol of revealed religion, indifference to it was an undoubted symptom of backsliding and spiritual declension.
“Return to me!” says the Lord, and that is a command we too must note. It is not enough for us merely to call ourselves Christians and to go to the places where the Lord is worshiped and served. We must actually worship and serve him from the heart. “Return to me,” God said to this people who had come so far to the city but had grown cold in their hearts toward him. “Return to me, and I will return to you.” That is always the rule of spiritual life and blessing.
This leads to the third point about repentance: God graciously receives all who turn to him. “I will return to you,” he promised. What a blessing those words must have been to these children of idolaters, sons of an adulterous generation whom God might well have repudiated altogether. Yet this is the grace that always characterizes the heart of our Savior God. Even before the exile he had given every chance for the people to repent, inviting their return to him in faith: “Return, faithless Israel, declares the Lord. I will not look on you in anger, for I am merciful, declares the Lord; I will not be angry forever. Only acknowledge your guilt, that you rebelled against the Lord your God” (Jer. 3:12–13).
This is our great incentive for repentance, that however great our sin and backsliding, God is ready to receive those who come to him in repentance and faith. This is the gospel according to Zechariah, the good news of great joy that God will gladly receive those who turn to him in repentance and faith.
Jesus taught this in the parable of the prodigal son. The prodigal had taken his share of the father’s wealth, which he then squandered in sinful living, only to find himself in desperate straits. Despondent, but having come to his senses, he determined to go back to his father, begging for mercy. But Jesus said:
While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father said to his servants, “Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.” And they began to celebrate. (Luke 15:20–24)
Such is our God; why would anyone refuse his loving heart?
This leaves a fourth and final point about repentance: it is only through the blood of Jesus Christ that God forgives those who repent. We noted that our approach to Zechariah will be christological, and here is where the opening verses point to Christ. God’s call to repentance was directly linked to the rebuilding of the temple. There is a reason for that, for it was at the temple that the blood sacrifices were offered that dealt with the problem of sin. God is a holy God; he must always judge sin. Therefore God could not accept these sinners unless atonement was made. In Zechariah’s day this required the blood of lambs at the very temple they were to rebuild, but ultimately it required the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. Jesus is the true Lamb of God, and his was the blood shed to take away our sin. Theologian J. I. Packer explains: “Between us sinners and the thunderclouds of divine wrath stands the cross of the Lord Jesus. If we are Christ’s through faith, then we are justified through His cross, and the wrath will never touch us, neither here nor hereafter. Jesus ‘delivers us from the wrath to come’ (1 Thess. 1:10).”
When we repent, therefore, we must come through faith in Jesus Christ and in his blood, which turns God’s righteous anger into joyful acceptance and love. Because Jesus was slain upon the cross for us, God robes us in his righteousness and is glad to receive us with arms open wide in bounteous grace as we return in penitent faith.
An Urgent Appeal
Our approach to Zechariah will be historical, doctrinal, christological, and also practical. Therefore, we must apply these words to our own situation: “Return to me, says the Lord of hosts, and I will return to you” (Zech. 1:3).
The earlier generation of Israelites thought God would not judge them for their sin; the ruins of their city bore eloquent testimony to their folly. Our generation is also piling up ruins out of folly, even within the church. “Do not be deceived,” Paul wrote: “God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he 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).
If you are a Christian, but backslidden into sin and spiritual decline, remember the history lesson Zechariah placed before his generation. Your sin will not bring blessing but ruin, however sweet its deceptive song in your ears. If you persist in sin you will at the least bring upon yourself God’s chastisement, and at the worst you will prove that you have really not believed at all, ultimately to reap the destruction you are now sowing with the seeds of sin. In fact, this invitation from God speaks grace to every Christian, every day—backslidden or not! In the ups and downs of our spiritual lives, how wonderful to see God’s open arms encouraging continual repentance and trust!
If you are not a Christian, these words are especially for you. If God hates sin enough to punish even his own people, what do you think will happen to you? If God allowed his chosen people Israel—the elect nation of his own love and purpose—to fall to the sword, to be dragged off in chains, and the city and its temple reduced to ruin—what, then, will be your fate if you continue to rebel, you who have no such claim upon his affection? The lesson is clear: You must repent at once, turn from your sin and to this God of grace who offers everyone salvation through the blood of the Savior Jesus Christ. If you will repent and turn to him in faith, your sins will be forgiven on the spot and you will enter into everlasting life.
“Return to me,” says our God, “and I will return to you.” “Come to me,” he offers, “return!” Those who do will find God ready to forgive through Jesus Christ, ready to restore, and ready to bless from out of the depths of his abounding grace. No matter who you have been or what you have gone through, by turning to God you will be able truly to start again, because God will return to you.
A reminder of their fathers (vv. 1–6)
God was calling these people to return to him (v. 3). Why did they need to return? Because they had been refusing to obey him. After their release from Babylon, these people did well for a while. They came out of that captivity with a burning desire to serve God faithfully. They immediately set to work on rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem and made good progress.
But with the passing of time, their interest in the Lord’s work began to wane. For fourteen years, the temple work was neglected, which is another way of saying that God was neglected.
Sadly enough, Zechariah’s people were not kindly disposed to the message of repentance. Sinful people never are so disposed apart from the grace of God! They needed a history lesson, and the prophet was ready to supply it.
It has often been pointed out that those who refuse to learn from history are destined to repeat it. That is Zechariah’s message in this passage. In particular, he urges the people to think about their fathers. They had lived in sin, and God had sent prophet after prophet to confront them and call them to repentance. But those people refused to listen. So Zechariah asks his hearers, ‘Your fathers, where are they? And the prophets, do they live forever?’ (v. 5).
Zechariah was saying that both the wicked fathers and the righteous prophets were gone. The swift tide of death had carried them away. But the great lesson taught by the fathers and the prophets was still present for everyone to see! What was that lesson? That the word of God always comes to pass!
Their fathers had been told to repent or else experience God’s judgement. They refused to repent, so God’s judgement came in the form of the Babylonian captivity. For a long time, the fathers thought that they were getting away with their sins. The captivity did not come right away, but it did come. The message of the righteous prophets overtook that generation. Zechariah was now calling his people to repent of their own indifference towards the Lord and not wait for God’s judgement to wring repentance out of them as it had with their fathers in Babylon.
The prophet’s message met with a positive response. The people returned to the Lord, admitting that the Lord had dealt with them according to what he had promised (v. 6). They also resumed work on the temple and completed it.
This is a message for all who truly know the Lord. How easy it is for us to become so wrapped up in our own concerns that we become indifferent to the things of God! God is patiently pleading with his people to lay aside lesser things and to give themselves wholeheartedly to serving him. We can turn heedless ears to his pleas, thinking all the while that we are no worse off for our indifference. But the God who loved us enough to save us also loves us enough to punish our disobedience (Heb. 12:3–11). His promise of chastisement will finally catch up with us!
This is also a message for unbelievers. The Bible has a clear message for all those who refuse to repent of their sins and who spurn the salvation available in Christ. It promises eternal destruction for all such (2 Thes. 1:9).
It may not now appear that the Word of God is true. But the truth of God’s Word does not depend on consensus. Its truth will ultimately be revealed and its rejecters punished.
Zechariah’s first message also brings comfort. The same Word of God that promises judgement also tells us that God is gracious and forgives sinners. Just as the word of judgement will not perish, so the word of forgiveness will also endure.
The Call to Return to God (Zech. 1:2–6)
The initial word of warning and invitation summarizes the story of the Israelite forefathers and God’s word to them through the earlier prophets. The wording of this retrospective summary resembles passages such as Jeremiah 25:4–11. But verse 6 adds two additional steps to the account of what had happened—divine judgment and repentance. The course of this history corresponds to the four occurrences of your forefathers in this unit. First, the Lord was very angry with them (v. 2). Verse 4, the précis of prophetic preaching which had called upon the ancestors to abandon their evil ways and evil practices, reveals the reason for this anger. The forefathers refused to repent (v. 4), and God’s word of judgment was fulfilled (vv. 5–6). Several passages in Jeremiah (e.g., Jer. 7:25–26) make it clear that the prophets’ preaching and the ancestors’ refusal to heed the divine word had extended over many generations. God’s word to Zechariah’s audience uses this part of the story as a cautionary example, Do not be like your forefathers. After the Babylonian conquest, another generation of ancestors did repent (“turn,” as in v. 4), acknowledging the justice of God’s judgment and identifying the cataclysm of 587 b.c. as a fulfillment of the divine word (v. 6b).
1:2–4 / The issue for Zechariah’s audiences is their response to the Lord’s invitation and promise, “Return to me … and I will return to you” (v. 3). Will they refuse to turn, like the preexilic generations (vv. 4–5), or will they turn, as had their ancestors who survived 587 b.c. (v. 6)? The repetition of the verb shwb highlights this choice and ties the past examples to the present decision. It is a decision that every generation and every individual must make. (The niv translates shwb with 3 different English words and obscures this feature of the passage: return, twice in v. 3; Turn in v. 4; and repented in v. 6.)
Penitential prayer had become an important individual and communal practice in the time when the audiences of Zechariah the prophet and the first readers of Zechariah the book lived. These biblical prayers describe the transformation of understanding, commitment, and action involved in accepting the call to turn. The book of Lamentations and prose prayers such as those of Daniel and Ezra acknowledge that the loss of land, temple, and monarchy was the result of the nation’s rebellion and sin (Lam. 1:3–8; Dan. 9:7–11; Ezra 9:7; Neh. 9:16–18, 26, 29–30). Thus these prayers teach Israel to understand its identity and history in terms of the story of the failure of the disobedient Israelite kingdoms to realize the Lord’s reign on the earth. Yet the story of Israel’s failure is also the story of God’s mercy, faithfulness, and commitment to justice and righteousness as expressed in the Torah.
After the end of royal rule from Jerusalem in 587 b.c., Israel was not able to act as a nation in the person of the king and his court. There was no longer a central authority or representative figure whose faithfulness or rebellion influenced or determined commitments and consequences for the people as a whole. God thus addresses the invitation to return to individual Jews, their households, and communities. Ezekiel 18 reviews the consequences for individuals of turning away from, or turning toward, God’s way. Neither the sins of one’s forebears nor one’s own past unrighteousness would make it impossible for one to turn to God and receive life.
We must understand God’s promise, “and I will return to you,” against its ot background. Many Psalms, as well as Lamentations, express the perception of abandonment by God. God had turned his back on Israel, and, perhaps, had rejected [them] forever (Lam. 5:21–22). Ezekiel’s elaborate vision of conditions in the Jerusalem temple (Ezek. 8–11) climaxed in the departure of the glory of the Lord toward the east (Ezek. 10:18–19; 11:22–23). Jerusalem had been left vulnerable to attack and destruction. The final vision, however, anticipates that the glory of the Lord will come to fill the temple once again (Ezek. 43:1–4). Zechariah 14:5 also uses the verb “come” for the Lord’s promised return to Jerusalem.
At the same time that Zechariah was promising the Lord’s return, Haggai was assuring his audience of God’s promise that “I am with you” (Hag. 1:13; 2:4) and “my Spirit remains among you” (Hag. 2:5). This presence is like God’s presence with Israel after the exodus (Exod. 33:14; Num. 14:7). Yahweh’s powerful presence “with” Israel preserved them alive and brought them into the land. Doesn’t this assurance contradict the promise to “turn/return”? If God is already “with” them, what is the meaning of the promise to “return” to them? Although being “with” seems to follow logically on “returning,” the Lord’s “return” belongs to a different set of ideas in its ot usage. The two concepts do not appear together.
Zechariah 1:16 reiterates God’s promise, “I will return,” but the destination is Jerusalem. The results of God’s returning to Jerusalem are the building of the temple, towns overflowing with good things, and comfort for Zion. This is like the return of the glory of the Lord to the temple in Ezekiel’s vision (Ezek. 43:1–5).
Malachi 3:7 makes the same invitation with the promise, “Return to me, and I will return to you.” The context indicates that the people’s return consists in keeping God’s statutes, from which they had “turned aside.” Bringing the required tithes to the storehouse is an example of this return. The agricultural blessings God promised to the people who return are the blessings that follow God’s turning to them (Mal. 3:10–12). God had announced this coming in glory in Malachi 3:1–5.
1:5–6 / The rhetorical questions here in verse 5 prepare the ground for the assertion about the enduring nature of God’s word in verse 6. “Where are your forefathers now?” Many died at the hands of the Babylonians in the course of conquest and deportation in the early sixth century. Their deaths, according to the interpretation of the preexilic prophets, demonstrated the effectiveness of God’s “words” and decrees, as “commanded” through God’s “servants the prophets.” Other ancestors survived in exile, or in the conquered land. The exilic generation who had repented had also been overtaken by God’s word. They accepted the truth of the prophets’ preaching as the explanation for their servitude to the conquering empire, and they committed themselves to keep the statutes of torah. “And the prophets, do they live forever?” No, for the prophets were mortal, like their audiences. Yet the messages they had carried from God endured. The living word of the living God does not lose its power and truth.
A third rhetorical question makes the point: “did not my words and my decrees, which I commanded my servants the prophets, overtake your forefathers?” This question personifies not only words of warning and judgment, but also God’s will expressed in law, as predators or enemy attackers from which the ancestors could not escape. The text does not mention here the human armies who carried out the attack. This sentence succinctly illustrates the relationship between God, prophetic messengers, and the people. Prophets set God’s word loose in the world to accomplish God’s will, generation after generation.
Then they repented reports what the succeeding generation did. Survivors of the Babylonian conquest, along with their children in exile and in the land, had accepted the prophets’ explanation from God about the reasons for their defeat. But they had also trusted in the divine words of promise. Jeremiah 31:18–19 is an example of such repentance. For Jews in exile, this turning to God could also require a long and dangerous journey back to Jerusalem. (See Ezra 8:15–32 for an account of such a journey decades later.)
God addresses the invitation, “return to me” (v. 3) to every generation of audiences of Zechariah’s book. The book continues to look for a return from dispersion. Beyond physical return to the land is the constant call to everyone who believes in God to align their steps with the way of the Lord.