Zechariah: A Prophet for Advent

Four Advent candles could stand for four centuries of faithful Jews waiting in spiritual darkness for their (and the world’s) Messiah” (Luke 2:25).

“And of his kingdom there shall be no end” (Luke 1:33).

The wonderful four weeks of Advent are under way!

Many Christian groups use this time to commemorate the anxious waiting such as the Jewish people’s expectation for four centuries – the coming of the long-awaited Messiah (Luke 2:26). Advent means “coming” and Christians now look with fervent hope for their Master’s Second Coming.

So Advent celebrates two comings for the price of one!

One prophet who was saturated in this wonderful truth was the man named Zechariah. He lived in the 500s BC and his writings help round out the Old Testament. His rich treasure trove of prophecy combines references to Jesus in his first and second advent. This makes his book intriguing to read but not always easy to decipher.

This article is an attempt to reconcile these striking and colorful prophecies, employing wonderfully exalted speech and dressing historic events in rich symbolism – Satan vs. the High Priest, a woman in a 5-gallon jug, carpenters shaving off the horns of wild animals, etc. etc. all presented in a luxuriant kaleidoscope of dreams, visions and oracles. Through it all one message rings clear, a heart cry that Jesus expressed as “Thy Kingdom Come!”

Jesus in Zechariah

Jesus is all through Zechariah both as the carpenter from Nazareth and the Conquering King. Here are just some of the references:

  • Christ’s Triumphal Entry in Mat. 21:1-11 and John 12:12,
  • the forceful cleansing of the Temple (Zech. 13:1, 14:21 and Mat. 21:12),
  • the Gentiles coming to Jerusalem (John 12:20),
  • Messiah’s betrayal for 30 pieces of silver,
  • Israel’s Shepherd wounded by his friends (Zech. 12:10),
  • the sheep scattered (Zech. 12:7),
  • living water flowing from Jerusalem (Zech. 14:8, John 7:37),
  • Messiah the Light of the World (Zech. 14:7, John 8:12),
  • the prediction of Jerusalem’s destruction (Zech. 11:4, Matthew 24),
  • ongoing trouble for Jerusalem and the Jewish people (Zech. 13:2),
  • therefore all future hope rests on the coming Messiah (Zech.14:3).
That’s the book in a nutshell but there is so much more.

Setting the Scene

“Rich in apocalyptic imagery and packed with messianic prediction and allusion, Zechariah’s writings became a favorite of the New Testament evangelists and apostles,” wrote the scholarly Dr. Merrill. “The glorious hope expounded was viewed as being fulfilled in the saving work and witness of Jesus Christ. No Minor Prophet excels Zechariah in the clarity and triumph by which he looks to the culmination of God’s program of redemption.”

The Book of Zechariah is not for casual readers. His fourteen chapters illustrates how hard it can be to decode the dreams and visions of the Biblical prophets, especially if we are unaware of their original context. Past, Present and Future are often blended together by Old Testament prophets in ways technically minded 21st century readers often find frustrating.

For one thing, the Past is usually the lifetime experiences of the prophet and his people (14:5). Zechariah gave many “dark sayings” (Psalm 49:4, 78:2) somewhat easier to understand with this historic context in view. The essential background is this: After 70 years in exile in Babylon the Jewish people were allowed by the Persian Empire to rebuild their holy city of Jerusalem. This is crucial to the book.

The geography of the book fits his own time (14:10-11). The Future is a distant hope indeed (9:16). Past events are often confusing to today’s readers, e.g. the fast days in Chapter 7 and the earthquake in the days of Uzziah we’d all like to know more about (14:5).

There are ways through the difficulties, however.

First, to repeat, we must reconstruct what the prophet’s main “burden” is for his own time – why he wrote and when.

Secondly, we have to keep before us at the same time a clear focus on the grand theme of all prophecy: Jesus Christ and His centrality to the Plan of Redemption (John 5:39; Luke 24:44). Zechariah blends Jesus’ first and second coming in language and word pictures which were treasured so much by the early church. When Jesus rebuked his disciples for being slow to grasp his betrayal, death and resurrection, Zechariah may have been one book he cited often (Luke 24:25-27).

The High Priest’s cleansing in Zech. 3 is a positive encouragement from their God.

The Happy Return

Regarding the first point, Zechariah wrote when he and his companion Haggai, were commissioned to stir up the Jewish EXILES who had returned from Babylon. They had not rebuilt the House of God. This was a primary part of the reason for their return from Babylon as the prophet reminded them (Zech. 8:9-15). The Babylonian Exile was (and is) a watershed event for the Jewish people – one that lasted 70 years before they were allowed back in their holy city of Jerusalem to focus more on their calling as a special people, a nation preparing to receive their Messiah as the Hope of Israel and the Light to the Gentile world (Luke 2:29-32).

Ah, Jerusalem. Here is a key. If Zechariah can be quickly summarized it is this: Jerusalem is and will be at the center of God’s program of Redemption for Jews and Gentiles (8:22-23). Jerusalem will be dynamically involved in Messiah’s First and Second Coming. As another prophet had stated: The Lord himself will come to his temple (Malachi 4:1). See Box: Jesus in Zechariah.

Ringing with Truth

The Jewish people preserved the writings of Zechariah and his fellow prophet Haggai because their words came to pass. The temple was built. Their main task of stirring on the exiles from Babylon succeeded. The prophets drew strength from dreams, oracles and word pictures God gave them that pointed to their own time and far beyond.

Some we have seen already. Consider Zechariah’s allusions to the Triumphal Entry of Jesus in Mat. 21:1-11 on a donkey, his dramatic cleansing of the Temple (Zech. 13:1) and betrayal for 30 pieces of silver. In the process of all this the Messiah/Shepherd would suffer wounds (Zech. 12:10), scattering his flock temporarily (Zech. 12:7), after he offered the living water of the Holy Spirit in Jerusalem (Zech. 14:8, John 7:37), and also predicting Jerusalem’s destruction (Zech. 11:4), which happened in 70 AD.

Thus, even being cloudy and mystical, Zechariah sets up some key NT themes. Though his “over the top” apocalyptic style has mystified many he makes more sense in terms of the Jewish past.

Part One: A Feast of Visions

Zechariah loves to use prophetic hyperbole, paradox and clouded hints. Sometimes he considers the ideal as having been already fulfilled even though he knows it hasn’t (Zech. 1:16).

The vision in Zechariah 4 recalls this well-known Jewish symbol.

Chapter 1-6 give us eight visions he had in one night – Feb. 15, 519 BCE. The Eight Visions show there is underlying order in the text especially relevant to the prophet’s own day – the Persian period, the 500s BCE:

Vision One: Colored Horses – 1:14-17, Yahweh’s Patrol, keeping watch on the nations. Note they are echoed in Vision Eight, the Four Chariots vision (6:1-8). “Babylon is behind us, Persia is on our side, the earth is at rest and peace, so…no reason not to get on with the Work!!” Zechariah tells his people.

Vision Two: Four Carpenters Saw off Four Horns – 1:18-21, Four Powerful Horns – the great empires that have harassed God’s people. They’re echoed in Vision Seven – the Woman (Babylon) inside the 5-gallon jug, symbol of Babylon’s commercial greed (5:5-11) Lesson: “Babylon is Gone, get on with the work!!”

Vision Three: The Measuring Rod – 2:15, symbol of inspection, judgment. Echoed in Vision Six – the Flying Roll in 5:1-4 – lesson: the curse is removed from Jerusalem, finish the Temple!!

Vision Three and Four: The Turning Point. “Your High Priest is Cleansed and Two Olive Trees symbolize the never-failing power of God’s Spirit.” God will revive Temple Worship if you follow His Spirit (Zech. 4:6). What are you exiles waiting for? Get on with the work of finishing the temple.

These hard-hitting visionary oracles focus on the work ahead for the regathered exiles in his own day. The next series of visions in Zechariah 9-14 focus on the future for Jerusalem and the nations. First there is an interlude in Chapters 7 and 8. The climax comes in Two Long Oracles with occasional utterances dark and drear (9-11 and 12-14).

Interlude: True Spirituality

Chapter 7 and 8 can be off-putting for modern readers. Here Zechariah answers some of the remnant who had been left behind in the land as to whether they should continue the fasting they had begun when the original (Solomon’s) temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE (7:1-7). The prophet reminds them that true spirituality was to care for each other as neighbors – part of the Great Commandment Jesus would reaffirm (7:8-14).

Chapter 8 is a reminder that God has returned to Jerusalem with his people (8:3). A better future awaits IF they will buckle down and build the temple (8:9). Zechariah 8:22 is a great Promise: Gentiles will come and worship before God in Jerusalem. This was fulfilled in part by the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8 who came to the temple to worship but discovered Jesus instead!

This foretells the theme of the whole world being redeemed by God’s activities in and around the strategic city of Jerusalem.

The Persian Empire was one world power favorable to the reestablishment of the city of Jerusalem.

Part Two: The Coming of the Warrior Shepherd

The last chapters have a lot to say about who really rules in the kingdoms of men, a keynote of all prophecy (Daniel 4:17). Hence the laundry list of judgment on Judah’s neighbors who have afflicted them over the centuries. Chapter 9:1-10 is the famous blending of the Two Advents. For example, verse 9 is a flash ahead to the gentle Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey. Then verse 10 abruptly changes direction and shows this same Jesus “speaking peace to the heathen” through physical force.

These blended themes animate the next few chapters. Chapter 10 shows God’s wrath against the false shepherds who will disastrously mislead the Jewish people while Chapter 11 pictures the True Shepherd, Jesus, being betrayed for 30 pieces of silver (11:12).

These are some of the most unmistakably inspired moments in the panoply of Old Testament prophecy. The verses leap out at us – pointing ahead to Jesus and his ministry. Zechariah 12 is a prophetic snapshot of the coming salvation to the Jewish people who have suffered so much. God pours out the Spirit of grace and supplications on his people, people who have pierced their Messiah (v. 10) and from his side pours a cleansing fountain of forgiveness (13:1). The language is very vivid here.

Though the True Shepherd is seemingly rejected at first (13:7) yet a remnant of Judah will be saved. Many expositors see this as referring to the 3000 who repented when Peter preached the first sermon to the same people who had called out for Jesus’ blood. 13:9-9 could refer to what the New Testament teaches as the Remnant Prophecy – in Paul’s theology a remnant of Judah will indeed repent and believe and fulfil prophecies such as Zechariah’s (Romans 11:15).

The Back Story

In Zechariah (and Haggai) the Persians are running things, specifically Darius I (521-486 BCE).

Zechariah’s dates run from 520-518 and he saw a rudimentary temple finished by 515 BCE. But more needs to be done. Ezra and Nehemiah will finish the work some 70 years later.

Nevertheless Zechariah sounds the certain theme amid many ups and downs. His theme is the great and certain future of Jerusalem as the scene of ultimate redemption for Jew and Gentile. Though he seems to allude to Jerusalem’s second destruction by the Romans in 70 AD (Zech. 14:1-2), the future hope is unstoppable. It rests solely on the coming Messiah – Jesus in his first and second appearances (Zech.14:3).

Prime Sources: Cornfeld and Freeman, Archaeology of the Bible Book by Book; David Webb, The Message of Zechariah; Lasor, Hubbard and Bush, Old Testament Survey.

The Lord is King!

All of Zechariah is saturated with colorful and grandiose presentations of salvation emanating from Jerusalem for the peoples of the whole earth. In large part, this is the story of the early church and the book of Acts. Some elements of Zechariah refer to Jesus’s earlier teaching about the offering of “living water” he preached in the midst of the Jerusalem temple (John 7:37). The pivot of the chapter, the book and in some ways the whole Old Testament is Zechariah 14:9. “And the Lord shall be King over all the earth. In that day it shall be said – the Lord is one. And his name one.”

“No more utter destruction” is promised to Jerusalem’s inhabitants when Jesus returns and not only to the Jewish people but for all the nations. This is the reason for the reference to Egypt at the end of the book (14:16-21). An Old Testament prophet writing in the spirit of the Lord yet with a still limited human perspective can think of no more happier ending than mortal enemy Egypt coming to Jerusalem to worship the Jewish Messiah. That would be “far out” to the people of Zechariah’s day but…with God all things are possible.

The Feast of Tabernacles mentioned in 14:16, 18 and 19 was the festival of overflowing abundance in ancient Israel, when the nation rejoiced in her successful harvest. This becomes Zechariah’s template for the whole world dwelling in peace and abundance at last reinforced by the power of God on display as a guarantee (v. 12-15).

Zechariah shows in his last chapters that he has grasped the grand theme of all prophecy: the return of Christ in power and glory to inaugurate a New Jerusalem and even, a New Heaven and a New Earth under the true Shepherd-King, Jesus the Messiah, the Lion of Judah and the Savior of the world.

All of this moved into high gear when a little baby boy was born in Bethlehem of whom it was said, of his kingdom there shall be no end. Thank God for such a vision, such a purpose and such a hope.