The Word to Zerubbabel
Before we can begin to look at this chapter, we need to decide how the verses run. That might seem to be a silly question seeing as they’re numbered from 1 to 14 in most versions but, the way they stand, there is some confusion added to the interpretation because of the position of 4:6-10a (that is, from the very beginning of verse 6 through to the end of RSV’s ‘...in the hand of Zerubbabel’). Verse 10b, which begins ‘These seven..’ naturally poses the question ‘Which seven are we thinking of?’ seeing as no ‘seven’ has been even remotely hinted at since 4:2!
The NEB (New English Bible) and JB (Jerusalem Bible) seem to do quite a machete job on the text if Smith is to be believed, the former rearranging the contents of chapters 3 and 4 to follow the order
‘4:1-4, 11-14, 3:1-8, 9b-10, 3:9a, 4:10b, 4:4-10a’
while the latter is a bit more reserved with the order
‘3:1-4a, 5, 4b, 6-9a, 8, 9b-10, 4:1-6a, 10b, 11-14, 6b-10a’
But, the running order of chapter 3 is not inconsistent with the progression of thought as explained on those verses and the only real problem with the text of chapter 4 is to question why 4:6-10a appears almost out of place in the middle of a passage which is dealing with a vision given to Zechariah which relates to both Zerubbabel and Joshua (if this middle section is ‘removed’, their names do not actually appear!).
It is best, in my opinion, simply to treat Zech 4:6-10a as a parenthesis (that is, ‘brackets’) which outlines a specific word from God to Zerubbabel which has been inserted here by the prophet for whatever reason. This is not unfounded in other places in the Scriptures and there is an example of this type of compilation which was nearly contemporary with the life and times of Zechariah.
I noted above that Ezra 4:7-23 was also a parenthesis which occured some time after the completion of the Temple even though it is compiled as being close to (if not during) the original attempt of the exiles to rebuild the Temple when they first returned to the land.
There seems no good reason to move the text around in either Zechariah or Ezra to make it run ‘more logically’ so long as it is understood by the reader that there is an ‘inserted’ passage that divides the development of thought/the vision that is being related. For this reason, I have decided here to first comment on the vision given to Zechariah which runs 4:1-5, 10b-14 before going on to look at the prophetic word of God to Zerubbabel in 4:6-10a.
I have no doubt that both the vision and the word were given to Zechariah at the same time, on the ‘twenty-fourth day of the eleventh month’ (Zech 1:7) but, for ease of interpretation, I will deal with them independently.
The context of both vision and word can be summarised in a number of questions that find their answer here and which were possibly being asked by the exiles as they continued work on the Temple while waiting from a returned word from king Darius in Babylon:
Will Darius stop the Temple being built in the returned exiles’ time? See 4:7
Will they have to leave their rebuilding work through opposition to another generation? See 4:9-10
Will the task be too great for them? See 4:9-10
Will they need to take up arms to establish and complete their work? See 4:6 (‘not by might’)
Will they have sufficient manpower to complete the Temple? See 4:6 (‘nor by power’)
I know that I’m putting questions into the passage that are not obviously there in the text, but this passage answers all those fears and doubts that the Israelites would have been experiencing, summed up very nicely for us in 4:7 by the phrase ‘O great mountain’.
Truly, there were great difficulties and obstacles that continued to stand in their way but, before Zerubbabel, they are considered to be nothing and will be overcome by him to complete the commissioned work - but, as the Angel points out, only as he allows himself to realise and allow the Lord to do all things ‘by My Spirit’ (4:6).
I have used the ‘word’ rather than the ‘vision’ to explain the context, but that word comes out of the vision as will be seen and it is only in that vision that the word makes sense. But the context, once again, is the problems that the returned Jews were experiencing and which were probably being voiced amongst their number as to the final outcome of their endeavours begun very recently.
Zech 4:1-5, 10b-14
The vision appears to be fairly straight-forward even though the identification of the two olive trees presents some problems and Zechariah doesn’t spell out the entire scene that he is witnessing so that we have to read between the lines in a couple of places and make a couple of reasoned guesses.
Zechariah is first woken from slumber (1:1), a strange event seeing as the concluding verses of chapter three don’t imply that Zechariah has nodded off. And it does seem strange that Zechariah should have just received a tremendous revelation concerning the coming of the Branch with all that that meant (3:8-10) and then he seems to become so weary that he has to be shaken awake to witness another revelation concerning the returned exiles.
The prophet sees a vision of a lampstand with various attachments (4:2 - the seven ‘lips’ on each of the seven ‘lamps’ may be the wicks which would naturally have been needed to keep the lamspstand burning but this is by no means certain especially as at no time in the vision are we told that the lampstand is burning - rather, as below, we are told about the oil flowing) but which is being supplied with oil from each of two olive trees which stand on the right and left hand sides of the supplying bowl (4:2-3, 12) and empty the oil into the reservoir which then flows out to the ‘lamps’.
The interpretation seems best to be taken as showing the necessary anointing of God upon the work of the Lord in Jerusalem which underpins the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel recorded in the middle of the vision.
The two olive trees can only, in my opinion, be regarded as the historical figures of Zerubbabel and Joshua, the High Priest, the Jews whom the Lord stirred the spirits of (Hag 1:14) to believe the first word of God given to them through Haggai and to rise up and start rebuilding the Temple.
The oil which flows from these two olive trees is therefore representative of the Holy Spirit (this is the most usual symbolic meaning of ‘oil’ and, in the context of the subsequent word to Zerubbabel, has the most relevance.
The lampstand is a little tricky but seems best to be taken to represent God’s people Israel, having now returned to the land - this interpreation is strengthened by the use of the lampstand in the Book of Revelation (see, for instance, Rev 1:20) where the lampstands that Jesus walks in the midst of are representative of His Church.
The ‘cups’ or ‘lamps’ (as RSV) needn’t pose a problem as the interpretation of their significance is actually given to us by the angel in Zech 4:10b where the best translation appears to be
‘These seven [lamps] are the springs of the Lord which flow through the whole earth’
The Hebrew word I’ve represented as ‘springs’ (Strongs Hebrew number 5869) is the identical one used in Zech 3:9 where the RSV uses the English word ‘facets’ but which we similarly translated with the word ‘springs’ when we came to the interpretation of the passage - it therefore is seen to tie in with chapter 3.
These ‘lamps’ are, again, God’s people Israel and are only used as a separate article to represent the complete population of Israel (the seven denotes the entire [‘perfect’ or complete] nation).
Many commentators see this vision as presenting to Zechariah a seven-branched candle stick but, as Baldwin notes
‘The first important fact revealed by archaeological studies of lamps is that the seven-branched candlestick pictured on Titus’ arch in Rome, and still used by the Jews...is not known earlier than the first century BC...Zechariah’s lampstand [the Hebrew is actually transliterated as ‘menora’ but the modern interpretation of this word is somewhat different] was probably just a cylindrical column, tapering slightly towards the top, on which was a bowl. Innumerable pottery versions of bowl lamps show how the rim was pinched together to form a holder for the wick, the better the light needed the more places for wicks, seven being the most popular number’
To try and gain a consistent interpretation of this vision, we need to use the most straight-forward understanding of the individual items which hold together to give the meaning that what Zechariah is seeing is a revelation from the Lord of how the work will get done that they are now undertaking.
It is in standing close to the Lord that the anointing of the Holy Spirit will flow from the two leaders’ lives (4:14 - they ‘stand by the Lord’ and are literally called ‘sons of oil’) and into the nation of Israel (4:12). This, in turn, will pour out/overflow from the nation’s life as a witness into the entire world. We aren’t looking at a purely local expression of the presence of God through His Spirit but, just as the Spirit flows out ‘through the whole earth’ (4:10b), so too will the witness for God be evident in all the nations to whom the news of what they are achieving will come. The Israelites might think small (4:10), but the implications for what is happening here are universal in scope and will be paralleling the time still to come when the springs of God’s healing stream will overflow out from them in the days of the Branch, the Messiah, and remove the guilt of the land (3:9).
One thing they mustn’t do is think small - neither should any believer think in similar terms when God has commissioned and empowered him for active service in His Kingdom. Even though a work of God may seem to us to be of such small worth that it will be swallowed up, it has consequences that go far beyond our natural expectations and flow out to people as a witness to the presence and power of God by the Holy Spirit.
But the work of God in Jerusalem will not, as the prophetic word points out to Zerubbabel (4:6), be achieved by military might or by the strength of their own hands, but by allowing the Holy Spirit to flow out from them in obedience to the known will of God.
The Word to Zerubbabel
As explained above, this passage seems to be a parenthesis within the vision and I have chosen to deal with it separately here so as to avoid the confusion of having to ‘half-address’ the whole before returning to the explanation of the vision which most of us would have, by that time, probably forgotten about!
The angel declares a specific prophetic word to Zechariah for Zerubbabel, the one who, with Joshua, had been instrumental in causing the Israelites to return to rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem at the prophesying of Haggai the prophet (Hag 1:14).
The word is that the work that they are now setting themselves to complete (Zech 4:6) will be achieved
‘...not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit, says the Lord of hosts’
Both ‘might’ and ‘power’ conjure up different concepts in different people but the Hebrew words are fairly self-explanatory here, even though they have many different shades of meaning depending on context and usage.
‘Might’ (Strongs Hebrew number 2428) is better translated ‘military strength’ - that is, the size of an army used, as Baldwin notes, for
‘...the “army” of workers Solomon had to enable him to build (I Kings 5:13-18)...’
The returned exiles’ success was not going to be dependent upon the strength of any army in removing or subjugating the enemy’s opposition (Ezra 5:3-6:13). There was no need to think that if they were better equipped and had more numbers with which to fight off an assault that they were bound to succeed no matter what would come against them. The work would succeed regardless of their military capability.
‘Power’ (Strongs Hebrew number 3581) is, better, ‘human strength’ - that is, their own natural physical prowess. Baldwin notes that the word is
‘...used for the “strength” of the load-carriers in Neh 4:10’
Regardless of their individual strength or their strength of numbers in the manpower available to them in the rebuilding work, the completion of their task was still to be achieved. Had they been two in number, God would still have been able to equip them with the strength of Samson if He so wished it!
No, the work would be achieved ‘by My Spirit’. That is, it would come about as a direct work of God Himself. Zerubbabel, who was one of the two leaders of that work along with Joshua, must be concerned to follow after the movings and voice of the Holy Spirit and ignore what confidence could be gained from the evidence of natural phenomena such as vast armies or workforces.
As the vision instructs them, the two olive trees (indicative of Joshua and Zerubbabel) are the ‘sons of oil’ (Zech 4:14) from whom flow the anointing of the Holy Spirit out into Israel (4:12) and then beyond Israel into the whole earth (4:10b). But it is only if they ‘stand by the Lord of the whole earth’ (4:14 - that is, they stay close to God and the way that His Spirit is prompting them) that this oil will flow from them and so achieve God’s purpose both in them and through them.
The Good News Bible has the best translation of all those I’ve read on Zech 4:6 when it says that
‘...You will succeed, not by military might or by your own strength but by My Spirit...’
catching the intention of the angels’ words perfectly.
Whatever the obstacles that may stand in Zerubbabel’s way, they shall become levelled out and shall in no way hinder the move of God (4:7) - but, again, this can only take place as he sets his life to listen to the words of the Holy Spirit and to obey Him.
If Zerubbabel does this, the work will be completed. The angel proclaims that
‘...he shall bring forward the top stone...his hands shall also complete it...[you] shall see the [last ceremonial coping stone - as Baldwin] in the hand of Zerubbabel...’
The word that the exiles are still awaiting from Darius (Ezra 5:6-17) cannot hinder the work of God - no matter what it says - if Zerubbabel continues to follow after the way of God’s Spirit. Not only that, but he shall not leave the work he began to another to complete. Through this word, therefore, the exiles knew that the Temple would be rebuilt without delay (if they believed the word of the prophet - Zech 1:4ff).
And, even though the work seems so finite and infinitesmal in their own eyes, it is a pivotal work of God upon which His plan in human history depends. The angel states (4:10) that
‘...whoever has despised the day of small things shall rejoice...’
When the foundation of the Temple had been laid nearly twenty years previously (Ezra 3:12) many of the Israelites, who had seen the former building which had been destroyed by the Babylonians, wept, presumably because of the smallness of the restoration (Hag 2:3). But God promised them that their task, once accomplished, would be regarded as no small work.
Haggai was so bold as to proclaim from the Lord (Hag 2:9) that
‘The latter splendour of this house shall be greater than the former’
which may be a reference to the coming of Jesus, the Branch (Zech 3:8) into its courts - the Herodian Temple which sat on top of this restoration currently under way was only an expansion of this work and evidence from the stonework especially at the south-eastern edge of the Temple platform shows that Herod didn’t so much build the Temple that stood in Jesus’ day as expanded and beautified it.
The days of the Branch would be those that brought to the earth the life-giving stream previously mentioned (3:9) which would once and for all time cleanse the land of its guilt but, more than this, that cleansing fountains would flow out to the ends of the earth (4:10b) and so bring healing from sin and the restoration of all mankind into the potential of a right relationship with God.
When God restores a people’s welfare (even after disobedience and many years of neglect as it was here), He often adds to the original quality and quantity of His blessing upon them and brings something that they may have thought had been lost forever.
Finally, Baldwin summarises this vision and prophetic word well when she writes
‘God’s Spirit flows through His servants who wait on Him to turn the day of small things into the day of world-wide rejoicing, as the last living stone is added to the structure...’
We shouldn’t think of the rebuilding of the Temple as a purely local expression. God has chosen to reach out through this act of obedience into all the world when the Branch will come - and come He will. But not before they have completed the House into which He will come in glory.
I noted at the beginning of this web page that the vision and prophetic word answered certain questions that may have been circulating in the minds of the Israelites and which may have even been discussed in day to day conversation as the workers set about rebuilding the Temple.
The effect of this passage is to answer all their doubts and to assure the returned exiles that, so long as they follow after God’s Spirit, the success of their venture is guaranteed - no matter what the obstacles that have mounted up against them.
Though they may look at the smallness of their work, they are assured that their work will usher in the age of the Branch, God’s Messiah, who will not only heal the land of its guilt but reach out through them into all the earth.
The word and vision should have encouraged them to continue building with confidence looking not solely to the construction of stone upon stone - but to the age that would come, founded upon their current work.
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