Historical Background:

Zechariah the prophet was preaching in Jerusalem at the same time as Haggai. They both were speaking to the Jews who had returned to begin rebuilding the city, the temple, and their people. Zechariah’s visions are recorded as occurring in 520 BCE and then again in 518 BCE while Jerusalem was under rule of the Medo-Persian empire, specifically under the emperor named King Darius II. Only the first nine chapters, consisting of twelve separate visions, seem to be connected to the prophet Zechariah. The last six chapters of Zechariah are a number of oracles, prophetic statements, and psalms, which all thematically connect with the prophetic visions of Zechariah. The text of Zechariah was likely compiled sometime in the very late 6th century BCE and no later than the early 5th century BCE.

 

Literary Synopsis:

The primary theme throughout Zechariah is that the rebuilding of the temple reveals God has returned to Jerusalem with the returning exiled Jews, and therefore the punishment by God has come to an end.[1] The editor of Zechariah takes great care to explain why God sent Israel in to exile, and that the exiles have returned because they learned their lesson and have repented.[2] The Exile’s punishment has been reversed in the Return’s blessings.[3] Zechariah depicts this reversal with the language of the prophets who came before him. He uses the Spirit-language of Joel 2 to show that the return of the Jews to Jerusalem to begin rebuilding the people is not based on anything except the empowerment and blessing of their Creator god.[4] The Return to Jerusalem is also depicted as the beginning of the New Covenant the prophet Jeremiah foretold more than seventy years before.[5] The Jews know that it is God who is reestablishing his people because it was him who punished the people for their unfaithfulness. They know that the blessing of the Return is from God because he alone is the one who brought about the punishment of the Exile.

Zechariah spends a large amount of time showing prophetic support for the leaders of Jerusalem in the Return. The leadership of the temple, represented in the high priest Joshua, is quickly supported as essential in leading the Jews into worship in Jerusalem. The Jewish leadership is also represented by the Davidic descendent Zerubbabel, the governor.[6] The section about Joshua teaches that God has entrusted the priesthood with leading Israel in worship again through the temple cult, providing both sacrificial intercession and atonement,[7] because the priestly leaders have been forgiven.[8] Likewise, the Spirit empowerment of the people of God comes by the empowerment of Zerubbabel, the Davidic heir, who will lead the Jews into a good and honorable future among the nations.[9] Joshua and Zerubbabel are envisioned as two olive trees pouring their oil, which is the Spirit’s empowering presence in and through them, into the temple (the lampstand). These leaders, royal and priestly, have been forgiven by God to represent him to the people of God and the nations.[10] There is even a very strange vision given to Zechariah where Joshua is given a crown and declared “the Branch,”[11] a term for the awaited Davidic king who would bring the blessing of God’s presence to Jerusalem by being empowered by the Spirit.[12] Somehow Zechariah sees the merging of the temple and the throne in the person of Joshua the high priest, which will bring peace between these two forms of leadership over the people of God through obedience.[13]

In fact, the editor of Zechariah includes a number of strange prophetic visions and statements about the Davidic lineage connecting to Zechariah’s strange vision about Joshua as a Davidic priest-king. There is a psalm, possibly from days before the north was taken into captivity by Assyria, calling Jerusalem to celebrate the coronation of a new Davidic king who will bring the blessings of God to all who are liberated under his divinely-appointed rule.[14] There is a prophetic declaration that God is empowering the Davidic kingship so they are not overthrown by the other nations. This prophecy seems to be from sometime after the fall of the northern kingdom when Judah and Jerusalem feared they too would be overthrown by Assyria.[15] There are even three prophecies that seem to be extremely critical, if not against, Davidic kingship edited into Zechariah.[16]

There are two particularly powerful prophecies at the end of Zechariah about the coming of the awaited Davidic king.[17] In the first, the southern kingdom of Judah is promised blessing through the Davidic dynasty, who are elevated far above other humans by being called gods before men like the angel of the Lord.[18] The death of the “only son” and “firstborn,” no doubt the Davidic “god” upon the throne, will allow for the cleansing purification of the people of God and will also empower the people to discern and obey truth from God.[19] I believe the “son” reference is a reference to the title “son of God,” which was conferred upon whichever son of David ascended to the throne.[20] The second prophecy is the reflection of a person in the Exile imagining the return of God to Jerusalem through the return of the Davidic king.  This Davidic king will lead Israel in the right worship of the Creator god, even the nations will give up their idolatry and follow his rule in order to worship the Creator god.[21]

 

Observations:

  1. There are a number of very interesting things throughout Zechariah. One of them is the curse on Jews who are returning to Jerusalem from Babylon in 5:1-4. Goldingay does not translate this as a “curse,” but instead he uses the word “vow.” The curse/vow is that if any Jew steals from his brothers or deals falsely and untrustworthily with his brothers the curse/vow will come to bring ruin to their household. Revealed in this vision is a harsh dedication to living rightly with one’s fellow Jews as they rebuild the nation.
  2. This curse/vow vision works into another vision that reveals some perspective on the Return. In Zechariah 5:5-11, the prophet sees a woman trapped in a basket. The woman is the living representation of “Wickedness,” or as Goldingay says “Faithlessness,” and she belongs in the valley of Shinar, the place where Babylon is located.[22] This could easily be a critique of those Jews who have chosen to stay in Babylon even though God has offered his people the opportunity to return to Jerusalem. Those who remain in Babylon have been seduced by the life (woman) of Babylon. They don’t have the faith to obey God’s call to return to Jerusalem or they would rather choose the wicked life of Babylon over the obedience of returning to Jerusalem. This would fit well with God’s statements to “Flee the north” (Babylon) and “Escape to Zion, you who dwell in Babylon” found in 2:4-7.
  3. There is also the strange text of 11:4-17, which describes God annulling the relationship of favor Israel has with the nations and the relationship of brotherhood between the northern kingdom and the southern kingdom. The way this is done is by God rejecting bad kings and bringing about a king who will destroy the people. The kings are depicted as living embodiments of the covenant with Israel. The way they interact with God speaks for the whole kingdom and the way God treats, or forms, the king effects the whole people.
  4. There is an interesting tension between the temple leadership and the Davidic throne hinted at in 6:11-13. I wonder how this latent tension between the two and this text about the two merging affected the Jews’ interpretation of the Hasmonean dynasty.
  5. There are also a number of anti-leadership or anti-king statements throughout the prophecies added to the visions of Zechariah. Particularly the texts 11:4-17, in which following God’s chosen king would lead to doom for the people, and 13:7-9, in which God calls for violence against the king and refinement through slaughter of two thirds of the people. Again, it is hard to imagine these texts were written after the Return to Jerusalem in the midst of the joyous hope of reestablishing the people. These texts reflect on the central place of the Davidic kingship in the process of refining the people of God. The Davidic family leads the people in evils, sufferings, refinement, purification, and restoration.
  6. The central importance of the Davidic kingship is on full display in 12:1-13:6. The family of David is portrayed as gods living on the earth and the qualities of David as a human is imbued into the entire kingdom of Israel.[23] There isn’t chance the nations would be able to overthrow this superhuman race which is led from Jerusalem.[24] The text then depicts a scene after a great battle in which the “only son” and “firstborn”, likely euphemisms for the Davidic king, has been shockingly killed. This creates great sadness and petitioning to God for graciousness and mercy by all the families of the people, including the families of the prophets, the priests, the Levities, and the royal family.[25] God chooses to be gracious and merciful, and he uses the sacrifice of this Davidic king to bring purification to the people of God. This purification leads the people to become faithfully obedient to worshipping God alone, rejecting idols and mystic prophets who speak about them.[26] It is intriguing that these text would portray the Davidic family as divine and then show that such “divinity” would lead to sacrifice for the people of God in order to create purification and obedience to the true divine one, Israel’s Creator god.
  7. But the purification of Israel is not the only purification that occurs in Zechariah. Following the theme first seen in Zephaniah, the text of Zechariah voices the idea that the nations will also be purified by God resulting in their worship in Jerusalem with, or under, the leadership of Israel.[27] This is most noticeable in 9:1-8 and in 14:12-19. There is still judgment that comes from God to punish the nations, but this punishment will not utterly destroy the entirety of the peoples of the earth. Instead, it will purify them so that their remnants will be like one of the tribes of Israel[28] and they will be taught to obey the way of life given to Israel in the Law.[29]

 

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This post is a part of a Read-Through project in which I am reading through biblical and extra-biblical literature. I’m reading the texts in an order based on a couple of timelines I compiled. If you would like to join me on this journey the timelines are available, as well as my prior posts. Each one gives some historical background, a literary synopsis, and a few observations I found interesting enough to share about the examined text.

 


[1] 1:3, 16, 2:10-13, 8:7-9, 20-23, 14:20-21.

[2] 1:4-6, 7:8-14.

[3] 8:10-17, 9:11-12, 10:8-12.

[4] 4:6b-10a.

[5] 8:7-8; Jer. 31:31-34.

[6] 3:1-4:14.

[7] 3:6-10.

[8] 3:3-5.

[9] 4:6b-10a.

[10] 4:11-14.

[11] 6:11-12.

[12] Isa. 11:1-5; Jer. 23:5-6.

[13] 6:13-15.

[14] 9:9-17.

[15] 10:1-12.

[16] 11:1-3, 11:4-17, 13:7-9.

[17] 12:1-13:6, 14:1-21.

[18] 12:7-9

[19] 12:10-13:3.

[20] Psalm 2; 2 Sam. 7:12-16; 1 Chron. 17:7-14.

[21] 14:1-21.

[22] Gen. 11:2.

[23] 12:8.

[24] 12:9.

[25] 12:10-14.

[26] 13:1-6.

[27] 2:11, 3:10, 8:20-23, 9:1b, 7, 14:16.

[28] 9:7.

[29] 14:16.

Posted by Justin Gill

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