The Historical background
It is 520 B.C. Devastation has not only struck the land of Judah and Jerusalem, it has also struck the faith of the Jewish people themselves. Since the time of Moses (1400 B.C.?) the Jews had believed that God would not only choose a particular place to dwell but also that that place was Jerusalem and the temple itself. That belief was greatly challenged when Nebuchadnezzar from Babylon (modern-day southern Iraq) swept down first in 605 B.C., then in 597, and finally in 586 B.C. upon Jerusalem and the land of Judah. In the first 2 sweeps Nebuchadnezzar pillages the land and carries off the finest of the young men and women into slavery. In 586 though he conducts a scorched-earth campaign, destroying not only the city of Jerusalem, but also the temple itself.
The Jews had been conquered before; however, the temple itself had always been spared and Jerusalem had survived. Why not, since it WAS the dwelling place of the God of heaven, the city of God's anointed one, David. Moreover the temple was the center of Jewish life and religion. It more than anything gave the Jew his sense of identity. Now all that was destroyed. What did this say about God Himself and especially about God's promise to David, that God would establish his kingdom forever (2 Sam. 7:12-13)?
God had promised the Jews though that this punishment was only temporary and short-lived. Yes, the Jews would go into exile into Babylon but only for 70 years. At the end of that time Cyrus, the ruler over the Persian empire which had just conquered Babylon, would issue a decree and allow God's people to return home (Isaiah 45:1-7). It is now 539 B.C. Cyrus has just conquered Babylon, and one of the first things he does is to free the Jews and allow them to return to their homeland. Under the leadership of Zerubbabel (the Jewish prince and descendant of David) and Joshua the high priest, Jews begin to trickle back into Jerusalem and Judah. Obeying the instructions of the Lord, Zerubbabel and Joshua undertake the reconstruction of the temple. They go so far as to lay its foundations (536 B.C.), but no more than that.
Two things probably prevent Zerubbabel and the Jews from completing the temple. First, although Cyrus has conquered Babylon, there is still much unrest in the land. Cyrus dies an untimely death in battle (530 B.C.) and is succeeded by his son Cambyses who proves to be a weak ruler. Military and political turmoil rock the western part of the Persian empire, including Judah. Under such circumstances it was hard to concentrate on massive building projects. Second, even the first temple was built only after the Jewish people had settled the land of Israel and had constructed their own homes. It was hard for the Jews to concentrate on building the temple when they had not yet built their own homes and resettled the land.
It is this very situation that the great prophets Haggai and Zechariah address. It is 16 years since the Jews completed the foundation of the temple (520 B.C.). It is now time to finish the project. Haggai and Zechariah will ensure that the temple is finally completed.
The Message of Zechariah
Of the 2 prophets Zechariah is the more significant. He will motivate Zerubbabel to finish the temple, reminding him of God's promise to his father David, that God would establish his throne forever. This promise now particularly applies to Zerubbabel. If Zerubbabel reconstructs God's temple and follows the Lord, God will glorify him. In fact God will exalt Zerubbabel and humble the hostile nations surrounding him and Judah. He and his kingdom will enter into a time of glory. This essentially is the message of chapters 1-8.
There is a change though in chapters 9-14. In fact it is so different that most OT scholars claim that somebody other than Zechariah wrote these last 6 chapters. (That claim is both unnecessary and unsubstantiated.) The first 8 chapters focus on Zerubbabel; the last 6 focus on a new and future king, the Messiah, who indeed will usher in a time of glory and peace.
What has happened? Didn't God promise a glorious future for Zerubbabel? Neither the Bible nor Persian documents explain to us what happened to him. All we do know though is that whereas at first the Persians allowed Zerubbabel, a Jewish prince and descendant of David, to lead the Jewish people, a few years later Zerubbabel is off the scene. Had Zerubbabel done something wicked which caused God to remove him from office? Did the Persians get wind of the prophecies concerning Zerubbabel and decided he had to go? We don't know. All we know is that he is there one moment and not the next.
Does this cast doubt upon the credibility of Zechariah's prophecies? No. God does promise incredible blessings and futures for His people, if only they will follow Him. It is no telling what kind of story David's life would have made if he had only kept true to God and not gone after Bathsheba. Yet that is the essence of the human story: we start out great and end up screwing it up royally.
This was reinforced for me recently when I saw the new Nicholas Cage movie Knowing. In the movie the earth is about to be destroyed by solar activity. Mysterious beings who end up being angels come to save a select few. Do they transform them into new creatures (like the NT claims)? No. Rather, the angels take them totally unchanged in spaceships to a new planet which can sustain life. My response to the movie? "Oh, great! Now man is going to screw up another planet!" That's our story. We're human and are going to mess things up.
But do God's promises still have meaning? Yes, because ultimately God will fulfill them Himself. Man is still a sinner and unable to bring in the incredible future and blessings God has for us. It takes a radical intervention of God into history and human affairs for things really to be perfect. The first coming of Christ is proof that God does things perfectly and that we don't. Only God can do this. He will fulfill God's promises in Zechariah by sending His Son, the Messiah. Only God Himself breaking into history will be able to change the course of human affairs once and for all.
ZECHARIAH'S CALL TO REPENTANCE (1:1-6)
The first 6 verses serve as a general introduction to the entire book of Zechariah. According to verse one, it is October of 520 B.C. The Lord calls out to the Jewish people to repent.
Zechariah first warns the people that they will suffer the same fate as their fathers if they do not repent. For over 300 years God had sent prophet after prophet to the nations of Israel and Judah, warning them that if they did not repent, catastrophe would overwhelm the nation. In spite of these warning the Israelites did not repent. First, the northern kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrian hosts (721 B.C.). In spite of seeing firsthand God's destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel, the southern kingdom of Judah refused to repent. As a result, the Babylonian empire wipes out Judah (605, 597, 586 B.c.). Zechariah informs the Jews of his day that if they do not repent, then God will visit upon them punishment just like He visited punishment upon their fathers.
The same holds true for America today. Do we really think that we can go on flaunting God's moral laws and escape devastation? Tuesday September 11, 2001 didnít wake us up. To be sure the next Sunday the churches were overflowing with people. We didn't even have to work to have a high attendance day that Sunday (Sept. 23), and I fear that the economic crisis of 2008-2009 isn't going to wake us up either. We have mistakenly concluded that the government and its leaders will get us out of the financial mess we are experiencing.
Yet our problem is not financial. It is moral. Do we honestly think that we can continue to abort 1 and 1/2 million babies each year and the God of the universe will just wink at our behavior? Do we honestly think that we can continue to condone homosexuality and God won't care? We have example after example of warning in the Bible for us. Since God is consistent (faithful), we can be sure that just as He punished people in the past for abandoning His moral law, God will punish people today when they have abandoned His moral law. The Jews had to learn it the hard way, and I fear that we as a nation are going to have it learn it the hard way as well.
Second, after warning the people of the consequences of rejecting God, Zechariah then promises the people a great blessing if they do repent. "Return to Me and I will return to you." Zechariah is echoing Jeremiah (late 7th century B.C.) who persistently called out to Judah to return to her God. Peter puts it this way: "Repent, therefore, and return, that your sins might be wiped away, in order that times of refreshing may come from the Lord" (Acts 3:19). God promises to return to His people when they return to Him.
Notice 2 things about this.
ZECHARIAH'S EIGHT VISIONS (1:7-6:8)
Zechariah's First Vision: The Four Horsemen (1:7-17)
The first six chapters of Zechariah are dominated by 7 visions the Lord gives to him. As you read these visions and other parts of Zechariah, you are going to pick up on some major themes and symbols which the NT writers will use in their writings. For example, it is no great stretch of the imagination to see the 4 horsemen of Zechariah 1 and think instantly of the 4 horsemen of Revelation (chapter 6).
It is February 519 B.C. During the night Zechariah receives the vision of a man sitting on a red horse, under a myrtle tree. First, the branches of the myrtle tree were important because the Jews used them to make huts during the Feast of Booths (Tabernacles), a feast which will figure prominently later on in Zechariah. Second, the man sitting on the horse seems to be the angel of the Lord Zechariah mentions later in chapter 1. Three other horsemen, one sitting on a red horse, another on a dappled horse, and the third on a white horse, approach the angel of the Lord sitting on the first red horse. He sends them out to patrol the earth (the Persian empire specifically).
It was only appropriate for Zechariah to use the imagery of the 3 horsemen as patrols. The Persian emperors developed a network of roads on which they could send their horsemen to patrol the empire. This system allowed the emperors to keep check on what was going on throughout the empire. Here the Lord through His angel is patrolling the empire, checking out its condition, especially as to how it affects His people.
The 3 horsemen return and give what seems at first to be a positive report: "The earth is peaceful and quiet." That sounds great, but it is not. There are 2 kinds of peace. The first peace is that in which 2 people live in harmony with each other. The second is that in which one has beaten down the other. The first always has his way because he has oppressed the second to such a point that the second can't resist. This second kind of peace and quiet the 3 horsemen are referring to. Yes, the Jewish people, God's people, have peace and quiet; yet, they are only at peace because first the Babylonians and now the Perians have beaten them into oppressive submission. God is not pleased.
The angel of the Lord sitting on the first red horse cries out to God asking Him how long this situation will continue. For 70 years God's people, the Jews, have been oppressed. Will it never end? God comforts the angel first by telling him about His attitude towards the Persians and Babylonians and second by telling him what He is about to do for His people, the Jews.
First, God is NOT pleased with the Babylonians and Persians for the way they had treated His people. Yes, God was not happy with His people because they had turned away from God. Yes, God did want the Babylonians to discipline the Jews; however, the Babylonians had gone too far. It was one thing for the Babylonians to conquer Judah and her armies. It was quite another thing though for them to destroy the holy city and the Temple, and to transport huge chunks of her populace into other parts of the empire.
We always need to be careful in the matter of discipline. We should neither come up short of God's Law nor go too far in discipline. When we come up short of God's moral law, we reap moral chaos, just like we are reaping moral chaos today in our western culture. Pope Benedict XVI claims that we are now a culture of evil. On the other hand, we don't need to go too far in discipline. C. S. Lewis highlights this principle. For example, how do you feel whenever somebody you don't like gets his just desserts for something wrong he did? Do you enjoy it? Or how do you feel whenever that person you don't like actually is found to be quite innocent? Are you disappointed? There is one creature in particular in the universe who loves for everybody to get their "just" desserts. His name is Satan. When I go down the path of over-disciplining or enjoying seeing people get theirs, I have stepped onto the slippery slope of becoming like Satan.
After telling the angel of the Lord about His attitude towards the oppressors of His people, God goes on to say what He is about to do for His people, the Jews.
Side Note on the Identity of the Angel of the Lord
Scholars have debated for centuries about the identity of this angel. At times he is called "the angel of the Lord," while at other times, he almost seems to be the Lord Himself. So who is he?
Some claim that He is God Himself, coming to the prophet in the form of a theophany. The only problem with that explanation is that at times God Himself speaks to the angel of the Lord, which is what happens here in Zech. 1. It would be strange for God to be speaking to Himself.
Others claim that the angel of the Lord is simply that, just an angel. The only problem with that is that he sometimes speaks as if he is God Himself. We see a similar situation in which God tells Moses that Moses will be like God to Pharaoh, his words would actually be God's words to Pharaoh. This appears to be the safest explanation.
There is a third possible explanation. The angel of the Lord might be Christ Himself before He became incarnate. This is what we would call a Christophany. We just don't know; HOWEVER, even if this angel is not Christ, he gives us a preview of the coming of Christ. Why? Because just like Christ, this angel speaks so much for God Himself, that listening to this angel is the same as listening to God. In the same token, God the Son spoke so much for God the Father, that listening to Jesus was the same as listening to God the Father (John 6:45).