READ : Zechariah 8:1-23
Some of the most obscure and difficult to understand parts of the Bible can also yield some of its richest truths. The book of Zechariah is one of them.
Zechariah is another prophet whose message is sometimes difficult to understand. When St. Jerome, the greatest biblical scholar of the early church, was studying the book of Zechariah, he complained, “that he passed from one labyrinth and cloud to another,” until he lost himself trying to find Zechariah’s meaning. And having read this prophecy more than once, I think I can identify with that!
Zechariah was an exact contemporary of Haggai, another prophet who came back to Jerusalem with the first group of exiles who were permitted to leave Babylon by the Persians. Like Haggai, Zechariah dated his prophetic writings with precision. He says that the word of the Lord came to him on the first day of the sixth month of the second year of King Darius, which scholars tell us was August 29, 520 b.c. (Zechariah 1:1). That was just two months after Haggai was inspired by the Lord to start preaching in Jerusalem. As you might expect, given this close connection of time and place, Zechariah’s prophecy is addressed to the same basic situation, even to the same individuals in Jerusalem – Zerubbabel the governor of the city and Joshua the high priest. And Zechariah’s basic theme is the same as Haggai’s as well. He writes a message of encouragement to the people and their leaders urging them to complete the building of the temple in Jerusalem.
VISIONS IN THE NIGHT
Where these two prophets differ is in their style. Haggai was straightforward and simple in calling Jerusalem’s inhabitants to get busy working on the temple. He offered direct encouragement to the people by proclaiming the promise that the Lord was with them.
But Zechariah’s message is rather more indirect. It’s difficult to understand the meaning of what he’s writing because much of his message is expressed through symbolic dreams. The first half of the book of Zechariah describes a series of eight visions which came to him in the course of a single night (1:8). Each of those visions was intended to be an encouragement to the people of Judah to persevere and complete the work begun on the rebuilding of God’s temple.
One of Zechariah’s clear themes is that God is in control of the universe and everything that happens in it. His first vision, for example, is of a man with four horses, patrolling the whole earth (1:8-17). That speaks of the Lord’s special care for his people and his intention to restore Jerusalem and put his house there again. The eighth and final vision, depicting four chariots drawn by powerful horses of different colors (6:1-8), says that God’s providence rules the whole earth; he is sovereign over all people, places and things. In between those two visions are six other scenes, all of which proclaim in one way or another that God is in control, both of our individual lives and of world events.
The message of the book of Zechariah, like that of each biblical prophet, is that human history is the arena in which God is working out his purposes for the world. His chief purpose is to save his people, so that they can know him and enjoy life with him forever. You realize, of course, that the real story of what’s going on in the world isn’t the one we read in the headlines each day. If there had been newspapers and television in Zechariah’s time, these would all have focused on the growing world dominance of the Persian empire. All the reporters and correspondents would have been rushing to Susa or Babylon, just as today they flock to Washington or London or Baghdad. But the real story in Zechariah’s world was what was happening in out-of-the-way Jerusalem, where God was making a new beginning at the job of creating a people to belong to himself. The world is hung up on economics and politics and entertainment; these are the things most people think are important. But God is interested in building a church. That’s what is truly important. That’s the only thing that will really last.
Zechariah tells us more than almost any other Old Testament prophet about the coming Messiah through whom God’s work of salvation will be accomplished. The whole book of Zechariah, especially its later chapters, is full of references and prophecies which point to Jesus Christ. In fact, there are at least ten specific predictions about Christ in these chapters. Included among them are predictions of his coming in lowliness and humility (6:12), his ministry as prophet and priest (6:13), his betrayal for 30 pieces of silver (11:12-13), his triumphal entry into the city of Jerusalem on Palm Sunday riding on the back of a donkey (9:9), his second coming in glory (14:4), and his eternal reign of peace and prosperity (9:10).
“NOT BY MIGHT NOR BY POWER”
Perhaps the best thing in the whole book of Zechariah is a word directly from God himself. In the middle of one of Zechariah’s most puzzling dreams the Lord says something that everyone can understand: “Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of hosts” (Zechariah 4:6). Zechariah reminds us that we don’t build God’s city or temple; we don’t bring in his kingdom. God does those things. It’s so easy to think too much of ourselves, and too little about God.
When we start to believe that everything depends on us, all sorts of bad things can happen. If things are going well and our church (or ministry or business or family) is prospering, we become secretly proud of ourselves and our great ability. In the opposite circumstances, we become terribly discouraged and filled with guilt over our failure. Worst of all, whenever we forget that every good spiritual result depends in the end on the working of God, we start to think that it is by our might and power – and then we seek to acquire and employ those things. We try to “make things happen” on our own. We begin to manipulate people. We amass personal power or wealth. We attempt to “buy” kingdom success, either with money or with technique or with programs. We end up building our kingdom instead of God’s. We become proud and arrogant, and contemptuous of others.
How much better it is to work our hardest, to do the best job of building up God’s work that we can, but finally to trust everything to the Lord, take no credit for ourselves, and give all praise to him!
THE WORD DID IT
One of my teachers, Professor John Hesselink of Western Theological Seminary, has related a powerful example of this truth from his own experience. Dr. Hesselink spent the first part of his ministry as a missionary in Japan. He went there as a young missionary pastor and teacher more than forty years ago. Like all new arrivals John’s first assignment was to learn Japanese. It happened that while he was in his first term there and still struggling to learn that very difficult language, one of the veteran missionaries was due to return home for a furlough. This man had been conducting regular visits in a prison, where he met with a small group of convicts who had been condemned to death for their crimes. But now the missionary had to leave, and there was no one else to take over responsibility for those prison meetings. John would have to do it. But he couldn’t even speak Japanese yet. He could barely pronounce some of the words, let alone preach and teach and carry on meetings and speak in sensitive conversations with these hard-core criminals! Nevertheless, he would have to do just that. There was no alternative.
So for the next year John traveled to the prison every week. At first he had all he could do just to read a passage of scripture in Japanese. Sometimes he would haltingly share a short message that he had written in English which was then translated into Japanese. The prisoners rarely said anything; even if they had, John would have been unable to communicate with them on any deep level. Most of the time, though, they just sat there with blank expressions on their faces.
As the time set for the prisoners’ execution drew near, one day something astonishing happened. After the Bible lesson, several of the men came forward to speak with the young missionary. After months of listening to his struggling attempts to teach them about Jesus, this was the first time they had spoken to him directly .“Hesselink-sensei,” they began, “We wish to ask you something. We believe what you have been telling us. We accept the message about Jesus. We would like to ask you to baptize us.” He did, and when those men died shortly thereafter, it was in the confident hope that they were going to be with the Lord. How does John Hesselink explain this remarkable story? “The word did it! It certainly wasn’t anything I did or said. It was the power of God!”
“‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord.”
BLESSINGS FOR THE NATIONS
God’s saving love through Jesus Christ is the most wonderful thing in the universe. And the best thing about it is that it’s for everybody. There isn’t a nation or people on earth where Jesus Christ is not Lord. There isn’t a person on earth whom he does not care about. My very favorite passage in the whole book of Zechariah comes in the eighth chapter, where God promises to restore and bless his people:
This is what the Lord Almighty says: “I will save my people from the countries of the east and the west. I will bring them back to live in Jerusalem; they will be my people . . .
“The seed will grow well, the vine will yield its fruit, the ground will produce its crops, and the heavens will drop their dew. . . . As you have been an object of cursing among the nations, O Judah and Israel, so will I save you, and you will be a blessing. . . .”
But that blessing isn’t just for them, as God goes on to say:
“Many peoples and the inhabitants of many cities will yet come, and the inhabitants of one city will go to another and say, ‘Let us go at once to the Lord and seek the Lord Almighty. I myself am going.’ And many peoples and powerful nations will come to Jerusalem to seek the Lord Almighty and to entreat him.”
This is what the Lord Almighty says: “In those days ten men from all languages and nations will take firm hold of one Jew by the hem of his robe and say, ‘Let us go with you, because we have heard that God is with you.’”
(Zechariah 8:8, 12-17, 20-23, niv)
As everywhere throughout the Bible, Zechariah reminds us of the universal scope of God’s love. He isn’t just the God of Judah and Israel; he’s the God of all languages and nations. His presence, his life and his power aren’t only for the inhabitants of Jerusalem; they are for anyone, they are for everyone, no matter what their background or nationality or race. They’re for you!
There’s an attractive power in the life of a person or a community where God is really present. People will take hold of folks like that and say, “Let us go with you, let us live with you, because we can see that God is with you. We want to know him like you do!” Has anyone ever said that to you? If not, maybe you need to get out a little more and mix with your neighbors who are hungry for God. Maybe you need to let a little more of his life and his love and his Spirit to shine through you. Or maybe you need to grab someone who does know God and say to them, “Let me go with you. I want what you have.”