For an introduction to the entire chapter 5, see on 5:1-4 where I noted that the two visions contained within this chapter should not be allowed to stand alone seeing as they represent two parts of the one work of God in dealing with sin and its root cause.
For the context of this passage, see also 5:1-4 where I pointed out that there were little historical pointers in the situation that the returned exiles found themselves in which illuminate the passages, even though the previous prophetic words do give a good background to what the Lord says within this chapter.
The ephah which Zechariah sees is a unit of dry measurement roughly corresponding to 5 gallons and it is especially used of grain (Num 15:4, 6, 9) though various ‘authorities’ place the volume at anywhere between 3.66 and 18 gallons. Whichever capacity we opt for, it would still not be large enough to contain a woman in real life (Zech 5:7) so it becomes obvious that what the prophet is seeing in the vision must be symbolic and not literal.
The volume of the ephah was often made smaller by the deceitful traders of Israel (Amos 8:5 - ‘...that we may make the ephah small and the shekel great...’) in order to get a larger return on the grain they sold. This dishonesty in trade is also mentioned in both Hosea 12:7 and Micah 6:11 but it is only the dishonest scales that are spoken of here.
God condemned all those who acted in such a dishonest manner, using the most severe of all His proclamations to refer to them (Deut 25:13-16, Lev 19:36), something that, in today’s age, we would consider to be unwarranted (unless, of course, we are the victims of such crimes!).
God says (Deut 25:16) that
‘...all who do such things...are an abomination to the Lord your God’
The use of the volumetric measurement ‘ephah’ is deliberately chosen by God in the vision to Zechariah to indicate wrongdoing and points the listeners back to the words of Zech 5:3 which condemns ‘everyone who steals’. Even though it’s the ephah which represents the transgression of the people in the land (Zech 5:6), it is the ‘force’ of wickedness, the power of sin, that is shown to be working its way through society and finds personified expression through the lives of those who submit to its desires. It is this which is being identified and removed through the Lord’s action here - that is, the RSV’s
‘...This is their iniquity [see below on the RSV’s translation] in the land’
refers directly to the ephah - not the woman - but, within the structure, Wickedness lies hidden (5:7-8), the power at work which tempts and compels the nation to sin.
‘Their iniquity’ (Zech 5:6) is, without the RSV’s emendation of the text, ‘their eyes’ or ‘their fountain’ and is the identical word (Strongs Hebrew number 5869) employed in both Zechariah 3:9 where the RSV translates it ‘facets’ and 4:10b where the RSV chooses ‘eyes’. The only reason why the word used to translate it here becomes ‘iniquity’ is through an accepted alteration of the received text (supported by both the Greek and Syriac versions) so that it is brought in line with the ‘Wickedness’ of Zech 5:8. The emendation is only a minor one but, as will be shown below, it isn’t necessary.
In both the previous occurrences, we used the alternative translation ‘fountains’ and saw how, in each place, the meaning concerned God’s spring of the Holy Spirit that He would cause, firstly, to flow out into the land to bring healing from their guilt (3:9) and, secondly, to flow out into all the earth through His people as they relied upon the Spirit and stayed in close proximity to the Lord (4:6, 14).
In Zech 5:6, there need be no change of the text when the angel equates the ephah (not the woman shortly to be revealed as being inside it) with being representative of the transgressors’ ‘...fountains in all the land’ (where the transgressors are those mentioned in the preceding vision, hence the preceding ‘their’ to which it can only naturally refer - Zech 5:1-4).
[NB - The AV’s translation, though cumbersome (‘...This is their resemblance through all the earth’), is even to be preferred to ‘their iniquity’ as it gives the meaning that the ephah is the outward demonstration of what will be shortly seen to lie behind it - that is, the prophet is being told that the ephah is what can be seen throughout the land while Wickedness, though invisible, can only be witnessed when the Lord reveals it]
The angel will go on to show that the root of their transgression needs identification and removal (a subject that must be closely paralleled with the NT’s concept of the ‘fallen nature’ or ‘old man’), named as the woman with the title ‘Wickedness’, but here the differing fountains are being contrasted that have been mentioned in the last three chapters.
The Lord’s fountain brings liberation and freedom from sin’s effects through cleansing, but those of the transgressors’ bring spiritual pollution and death, so much so that, not only must they be removed from the land (5:1-4) but the root cause of their actions must also be exiled away from God’s presence (5:11).
The fountain of wickedness must be stopped from flowing in the midst of the Lord’s people and this can only be done if it is exiled away from their midst, back into the ‘type’ of place from which it comes, Babylon (5:11).
The problem of the transgressor is not so much the sin that is being committed (even though God has shown that He will deal with it in the previous vision) but the propagation and multiplication of their rebellious lives in all the earth. Therefore Hosea prays (Hosea 9:14) that the rebellious people of Ephraim should be given
‘...a miscarrying womb and dry breasts’
and that their children might be slain (Hosea 9:12) so that their wickedness might not be perpetuated.
Not only will God remove the evildoer from His people (Zech 5:1-4), but He will remove the root cause of sin that stimulates men to follow evil rather than good (Zech 5:5-11). God is about to act in order to cut out the cancer of sin from within His people, to pull out the root of the problem that generated a progressive spread of wickedness.
One of the puzzling aspects of the vision is why the ephah containing Wickedness is taken to Shinar (Zech 5:11).
Shinar is the plain in which Babylon is found, where the rebellion of man began and had to be acted against by God (Gen 11:2). Babylon came to be used figuratively as the symbol of worldliness, of all that sets itself up in opposition to God, the exile probably becoming the pivotal event for closer associations with this concept than would otherwise have happened.
As shown in the vision, Wickedness does not belong resident within God’s people - it belongs to those who are in rebellion to God - hence it is removed to the land where wickedness is served, the house that is to be prepared for it being in reality a temple where it will be worshipped. The ephah, then, is to be removed to the place of rebellion and away from the people and presence of God but not immediately.
First, a group, unspecified in the text (Zech 5:11), must
‘...build a house for it; and when this is prepared...’
it will be removed to its resting place. Even though the speedy removal of the transgressor is proclaimed in the first of these two visions, the permanent removal of the root of wickedness which lies behind all their transgressions will have to await its time until preparation has been made for its founding in another land.
It is tempting to see a reference here to the work of Christ on the cross. While God may temporarily act and cleanse His people by certain persons being removed from the nation, there was always the need for a permanent solution to the sin problem, one that struck at the heart and root cause of the problem which lies resident within man (Mk 7:20-23).
Throughout the pages of NT Scripture, it is taught that only in Christ that this can be dealt with. Therefore Paul writes (Rom 6:6) that
‘We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin’
and, concerning His own experience (Gal 2:20), that
‘I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me’
So, although the final solution to the ultimate problem is yet to take place at the time of the vision, God proclaims to the believing nation that He will act in the future, at the appropriate time when preparation has been made, to sort out the root problem of mankind which propels them towards transgression rather than obedience.
We saw in 5:1-4 how the vision must have been an encouragement to the faithful believers within the nation who had set about to do the work and will of God in their generation because, by removing transgressors from His people, the judgment of God could not again fall upon them.
There is encouragement here as well as God shows the remnant that He will, ultimately, deal with the tendency to sin which lies at the root of transgression and consequently make for Himself an obedient people who are concerned to obey the will of God from the heart.
But, what they had no way of knowing, was that the time of its fulfilment was still to be a long way off. Even so, they could rest assured that God would deal with the problem and make the nation righteous (Jer 31:33, Ezek 11:19, 36:26).
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