Free Bible Study Magazine
Introduction: The Setting of the Prophet’s Ministry
1:1 In the eighth month of Darius’ second year, the word of the LORD came to the prophet Zechariah, son of Berechiah son of Iddo, as follows:
The inspired historian who wrote down Zechariah’s prophecies dates his ministry as beginning during the reign of Darius of Persia (522-482 B.C.E), meaning that Zechariah (like Haggai) began at the time when the Jews had already begun their return from exile in Babylon and were rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem.
Zechariah was a prophet who heard directly the word of the Lord; his family line is noted in order to emphasise that, like Ezekiel, he was a priest as well as a prophet. It appears that his relationship with the other religious leaders started off well, although by the end of his ministry the people had become hard-hearted and the challenges of this man of God were too much for them; Jesus later spoke of Zechariah’s martyrdom at their hands (Matt. 23:35).
There is a good deal of debate among scholars as to whether Zechariah is a literary unity, or whether it is actually two separate books, written by different prophets at different times. For the purposes of this study, we will treat the book as being essentially one, with the prophecies from chapters 9-14 containing earlier material utilised by Zechariah and moulded by him to illustrate his contemporary God-given message to the exiles. Yet although the larger portion of the message was relevant to the Jews at the time of their return from exile, we shall find that many of the lessons expressed endure in their relevance to all believers throughout all time.
1:2 The LORD was very angry with your ancestors.
The questions of ‘Why have we been in exile?’ and, ‘What is this return to Israel all about?’ must have been an important to those returning from Babylon; especially since there were very few left alive who had ever seen Israel at all, or who could remember the former temple and their previous way of life in Jerusalem. ‘Why did our ancestors leave Israel, and why are we returning now?’ was a hot topic. A political answer might have been, ‘because Nebuchadnezzar conquered our country and took us as his slaves’; but Zechariah wants to underline the moral and spiritual reasons which lay behind these world-changing events. Zechariah’s instruction of the exiles began with reference to the sovereignty of God. It was not because of the mere geo-political situation that the Jews had been exiled. It was God who became very angry with their ancestors because of their sin and caused them to fall into the hand of their enemies who carried them off as slaves. Their turning from God had caused him to cast them out of the land they were living in.
To a Jew, the favour of God and the blessing of living in the Promised Land were inseparable ideas. Their national identity rested largely on this: that God had brought them out of slavery in Egypt to be his people, and had given them the land to live in. Consequently a removal from the land was seen as a symbol of God’s anger, whilst returning to the land was a sign of his gracious favour.
1:3 Therefore say to the people: The LORD who rules over all says, “Turn to me,” says the LORD who rules over all, “and I will turn to you,” says the LORD who rules over all.
So Zechariah next urges the younger generation not to repeat the mistakes of the past. ‘Turn to me’, says God through Zechariah’s message, ‘and I will turn to you’. By implication God’s turning to them again meant a restoration of blessing in terms of their national identity and dignity.
1:4 “Do not be like your ancestors, to whom the former prophets called out, saying, ‘The LORD who rules over all says, “Turn now from your evil wickedness,” ‘ but they would by no means obey me,” says the LORD.
Even in such a day of grace, Zechariah found it necessary to warn the returning exiles not to be stubborn and heard-hearted as their ancestors had been; who refused to hear and obey the voice of God through the former prophets. Such a warning always remains poignant, and believers today are similarly cautioned not to follow the examples of unbelief witnessed among God’s people in history, but to readily hear and heed the voice of God (Heb. 3:7-8).
1:5-6 “As for your ancestors, where are they? And did the prophets live forever? But have my words and statutes, which I commanded my servants the prophets, not outlived your fathers? Then they paid attention and confessed, ‘The LORD who rules over all has indeed done what he said he would do to us, because of our sinful ways.’ “
What profit did Israel make by refusing to heed God’s voice? Although they rebelled against the word of God, that word stood fast and came to pass, whilst they were taken away in judgment. The word of God outlived their ancestors. It always will. No word of God can ever fall to the ground; it must accomplish the purpose for which it was sent (Isa. 55:11). Jesus said ‘My words shall never pass away’ (Matt. 24:35). In view of this, an abiding principle becomes clear: it is forever unwise to ignore or disobey the word of God.
1:7 On the twenty-fourth day of the eleventh month, the month Shebat, in Darius’ second year, the word of the LORD came to the prophet Zechariah son of Berechiah son of Iddo, as follows:
A large portion of the revelation God gave to Zechariah came in the form of dreams or visions which had meanings relevant to the people that he was ministering to. The first two of these are described in this chapter.
First Vision: The Four Horses
1:8-10 I was attentive that night and saw a man seated on a red horse that stood among some myrtle trees in the ravine. Behind him were red, sorrel, and white horses. Then I asked one nearby, “What are these, sir?” The angelic messenger who replied to me said, “I will show you what these are.” Then the man standing among the myrtle trees spoke up and said, “These are the ones whom the LORD has sent to walk about on the earth.”
The vision of the four horses ought not to be confused with John’s later vision of the four horsemen of the apocalypse in Revelation 6:1-8. For these riders have no sinister intent. They are servants, possibly angels, who had been sent by the Lord on a reconnaissance mission to report on the state of the earth. We may not know whether God actually does send angels to report on human affairs, or whether their presence in the vision is symbolic of God knowing completely the affairs of the world. In either case the vision speaks of God’s complete and perfect knowledge of world events. Those returning from exile needed to be aware that everything which was happening was known to God and was ultimately in his hands. God always has a plan and a purpose, and Zechariah’s vision shows that he was about to bring that plan to pass for the sake of the exiles of Judah.
1:11 The riders then agreed with the angel of the LORD, who was standing among the myrtle trees, “We have been walking about on the earth, and now everything is at rest and quiet.”
The report given by the riders was that everything on earth was at rest and quiet. Why was this information passed on to the exiles through Zechariah? Were they fearful of attack and invasion by hostile foreign powers? The word of God indicated that no such attacks were imminent or likely, and this must have reassured them to continue the work of rebuilding without fear. God had made a time of peace, so that his temple might be rebuilt. This is the reason why Christians are urged to pray for all in authority, so that we too might enjoy a similar time of peace in which we might live godly lives without fear (1 Tim. 2:1-3).
1:12-13 The angel of the LORD then asked, “LORD who rules over all, how long before you have compassion on Jerusalem and the other cities of Judah which you have been so angry with for these seventy years?” The LORD then addressed good, comforting words to the angelic messenger who was speaking to me.
Again, it was not for the angel’s benefit that this question was asked or answered. It was that the people to whom Zechariah was ministering might know the answer. God had already said that he exile would last seventy years (Jeremiah 29:10). Daniel came to understand this (Dan. 9:2); and Zechariah’s vision indicated that this period of time had at last been fulfilled. The return of the exiles to Jerusalem was neither the result of their own impulse, nor of a political decision by the earlier king Cyrus – it was the result of God’s own plan being carried out by his wisdom and mighty power. The words of assurance given to the angel indicated that God would be with his people to help and strengthen them. God’s promises through the earlier prophets would be fulfilled: the temple and the city would be rebuilt and the people would dwell in safety, walking in God’s laws. More than that, if they only knew, the time was coming near for the Messiah to be born, and he would be born in one of those cities of Judah which was being rebuilt near Jerusalem; a place called Bethlehem.
1:14 Turning to me, the messenger then said, “Cry out that the LORD who rules over all says, ‘I am very much moved for Jerusalem and for Zion.
Whilst the vision contains symbolic elements, there are also clear utterances of what God says to his people such as the words here: ‘I am moved for Jerusalem and for Zion.’
1:15 But I am greatly displeased with the nations that take my grace for granted. I was a little displeased with them, but they have only made things worse for themselves.
God had determined to punish the nation for its idolatry and disobedience, but the nations whom he had sent to execute this punishment had gone too far in their anger. God had sought to only punish his people, but Israel’s enemies sought to destroy them. The prophet hereby reveals that it was never God’s intention to destroy Israel.
1:16 “‘Therefore,’ says the LORD, ‘I have become compassionate toward Jerusalem and will rebuild my temple in it, ‘says the LORD who rules over all.’ Once more a surveyor’s measuring line will be stretched out over Jerusalem.’
God’s love is always greater than his anger. Though he had punished Israel, he had not forsaken her or turned away from her completely. He reassured the exiles that he – God – would see to the rebuilding of his temple. They would be his helpers in the work; surveyors and builders to work with him; but the rebuilding would be accomplished according to the immutable purpose of God.
1:17 Speak up again with the message of the LORD who rules over all: ‘My cities will once more overflow with prosperity, and once more the LORD will comfort Zion and validate his choice of Jerusalem.’ “
God wanted the people to know that when the city and its temple were rebuilt, his blessing and their resulting prosperity would be overflowing. It would be a time of abundant blessing, in which God would once again make known to all nations that he had chosen Jerusalem as his dwelling and Israel as his people.
Vision Two: The Four Horns
1:18-19 (2:1) Once again I looked and this time I saw four horns. So I asked the angelic messenger who spoke with me, “What are these?” He replied, “These are the horns that have scattered Judah, Israel, and Jerusalem.”
The vision has now changed. Zechariah saw four horns – always symbolic of military rulers. It was true that military rulers had scattered Israel and Judah and Jerusalem. Four great empires had ruled over them since the dispersion: the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Medes, and now the Persians.
1:20-21 Next the LORD showed me four blacksmiths. I asked, “What are these going to do?” He answered, “These horns are the ones that have scattered Judah so that there is no one to be seen. But the blacksmiths have come to terrify Judah’s enemies and cut off the horns of the nations that have thrust themselves against the land of Judah in order to scatter its people.”
But although men had scattered the people of Israel, God was already in the process of gathering them together again. Blacksmiths are not soldiers but craftsmen; and it was not military might that would restore Jerusalem. It was by the act of rebuilding that the nation would become a terror to its previous enemies. For when they saw what God had done for Israel, they realised that God was again among them (Neh. 6:16), and so they were dissuaded from attacking Jerusalem.
Israel at this time remained part of the Persian Empire, an empire later taken over by Alexander the Great. Alexander’s armies never actually fought in Palestine; the ‘possession’ of Israel merely passed to him when he defeated the Persians, at which time Jerusalem paid him tribute. So following the return from exile, there was to be no more scattering of Israel until the Romans in AD 70, nearly 600 years later.