INTRODUCTION TO THE BOOK OF ZECHARIAH
Background to the Book of Zechariah is incredibly important if we are to be able to understand the significance and relevance of the prophetic utterances to the people to whom they were originally given.
I said in my comments on the Seven Churches of Revelation that it is quite amazing how the Holy Spirit takes verses (such as Rev 3:20) and allows them to be used, out of context, in the proclamation of His Truth but that does not mean that we should ignore the original and intended meaning.
If we do such a thing we will find ourselves drifting away from the full counsel of God as revealed in the complexity of Scripture and into very restrictive interpretations that limit the vastness of God's character.
May we hear what God might also say to us through the Scriptures in addition to the original meaning, but let us not forget that it is only the original and plain meaning of Scripture that defines whether these alternative interpretations have any accuracy of themselves.
The subjects covered are:
Haggai and Zechariah
Who was Zechariah
The Unity of Zechariah
References and Sources
I will summarise here the historical background surrounding the prophesying of both Haggai and Zechariah, the two prophets who were responsible for compelling both Jeshua and Zerubbabel (and the rest of their brethren) to rise up to continue the building of the Temple in Jerusalem following the exiles’ return from Babylonian captivity.
It would be best that, before attempting to read the commentary (or, preferably, before doing your own study using these notes as pointers), both Isaiah 44:24-45:7 and Ezra chapters 1-6 are read as they provide a fitting backdrop to the entire Book of Zechariah. What I intend doing here is simply to summarise the main points which should provide a refresher of the history as I understand them.
Isaiah the prophet had been used by God to specifically name Cyrus as the instrument through whom He would establish and rebuild both the Temple and the city of Jerusalem (Is 44:24-28) many years before Cyrus was even born. Though there is a direct link between Cyrus and these events, the prophecy stops short of saying that it would be in Cyrus’ day that both these would take place.
When Cyrus came to the throne in October 539BC upon the subjugation of Babylon (his reign as king of Persia actually began in 559 and continued to 530), he decreed (in 538) that the Jews who were presently exiled in the new extension to his kingdom should be given resources by the residents of where they dwelt to return to the land of Israel and to rebuild the Temple so that their God might be honoured (Ezra 1:1-4). This was a magnificent opportunity for the Jews to return to the land that God had sworn to their fathers to give them as an everlasting possession (which they did in 537BC) and to make a fresh start but, through a series of incidents and because of what lay in the hearts of the men who returned at that time (Ezra 2), they failed to use that open door which God had given them.
It wasn’t that the Jews could have been in anyway uncertain as to God’s decree concerning what he required from them - Cyrus’ decree was plain and unambiguous in its command (Ezra 1:2) when it said
‘...[God] has charged me to build Him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah’
and Isaiah was also definite when he described Cyrus (Is 44:28) as the one who
‘”...shall fulfil all my purpose”; saying of Jerusalem “She shall be built” and of the temple “Your foundation shall be laid”’
So, the returnees knew God’s calling upon their lives to rebuild the Temple and many gave of their own possessions that the work should continue on the construction of the Temple (Ezra 2:68-70). During the first ‘seventh month’ of the Jewish calendar after the exiles had returned (this seems to be how the text should be read), they rebuilt the altar (3:3), celebrated the Feast of Tabernacles (3:4, Lev 23:33-36) and arranged to begin work on the Temple (3:7) even though the Temple’s foundation at that time had not yet been started (3:6).
The ominous words which point to what is shortly to take place are Ezra 3:3 where we read that the reason for them setting up the altar of the Lord was that
‘...fear was upon them because of the peoples of the lands...’
Even though they knew the calling of God upon their lives and had a decree directly from Cyrus that the building of the Temple was ‘king’s business’ (and, therefore, opposition to that work would be to oppose the throne of Persia with all the consequential events that that act would reap), they were still living in the fear of what might happen to them at the hands of those people who had taken up residence round about them.
About six months later, they began work on the Temple (3:8 - ‘in their second year...in the second month’ means that two years had not yet elapsed and, as the celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles took place in the first year during the seventh month, my approximation of six months is arrived at) and completed the foundation of the Temple with great rejoicing (3:10-13).
However, what they had experienced initially (3:3 - above), they continued to allow to dominate their experience (4:4) and, when counsellors were hired against them (4:5), they listened to the words of men rather than use the door of opportunity that had been given them in Cyrus and through his decree, prophesied as being ‘of the Lord’ through Isaiah.
Very simply, they decided to get on with their own lives and neglected to do the work to which they had been called by God through fear.
16 years later (they had returned in 537 and had completed the Temple’s foundation somewhere during 536. The first prophecy recorded for us in Haggai 1:1 gives us the year of 520) the prophets Haggai and Zechariah were raised up by God to prompt the Israelites to recommence building on the Temple which they had neglected all that time.
God had waited patiently for 16 years (that period is worthy of gasping sharply at at least a few times!!) before He raised up two of His servants to prophecy into their situation that the time was right to recommit themselves to building His house. Under both Zechariah and Haggai’s ministry, the Israelites ‘built and prospered’ (Ezra 6:14) and were a ‘help’ to both Zerubbabel and Jeshua as they sought to rebuild the Temple (Ezra 5:2) - a timely reminder that religious resolve and commitment needs to be allied with the prophetic word of God in order for it to succeed and achieve its ultimate goal.
Without trying to oversimplify the situation that the exiles found themselves in, there are parallels here that we as the Church would do well to consider. God gave the returned exiles an opportunity to commit themselves to His work in 537/6 upon their return but, when they allowed fear to so restrict their effectiveness, He waited sixteen years before He gave them a further opportunity through two prophets that He used to provoke them to action.
Consider the children of Israel travelling through the wilderness as well as another example of the importance of rising to do the Lord’s work at the Lord’s time. Because of their deliberate disobedience to the revealed will of God that they should go in and take possession of the land (Num 14:1-3) - and that through fear as it was in the case of the Temple and the returned exiles (Ezra 4:4) - the nation had to wait forty years (Num 14:26-35 - actually some thirty-eight years as the forty years was inclusive of the time they had already spent travelling through the wilderness upto that point) before God was to give them another opportunity to take possession of what was already theirs by promise.
Why do modern churches, then, seem to wander about aimlessly for years on end and achieve nothing worthwhile? Why do fellowships that struggle in the work of the Lord fail to see the Kingdom of God advance and the Church of Christ built?
One of the possible answers to those questions is that they have failed (for whatever reason) to do God’s will at God’s time and so are put to one side until the time comes round once more when God will begin to move in their midst and speak to them specifically concerning ‘that same work’ which they could have achieved years ago had they not been unwilling to risk all for Him.
It is not without significance, either, that God’s first word to His people through both Haggai and Zechariah is one of repentance (Haggai 1:1-11, Zech 1:1-6 - the former, though, is not strictly calling the nation to account for what they failed to do 16 years previously while the latter speaks specifically about the 'sins of their fathers'. Haggai is saying that the time is right to rebuild the Temple while Zechariah is saying that the time is right to repent of the ways of their fathers which must include their failure to do what they knew God had called them to do 16 years previous to the prophecy) which is subsequently followed, upon a correct response from the people, with prophecies of promise and direction.
Until the Lord’s people show themselves willing to up their roots and follow after God, promises of future blessing and signposts that point the way ahead are useless.
And, besides, after their refusal to do the will of God and build the Temple in Jerusalem sixteen years previously, repentance has to be the first word of a new move of God as it was when Jesus began preaching the Good News of the Kingdom (Mtw 4:17).
As an event calendar, this section provides a list of dates that can be determined from references made within Scripture and from historical sources at my disposal. Not all references agree on the dates and I have tried to use the ones that seem to be most satisfactory. However, the time periods between each of the dates should be correct as I have endeavoured not to allow any discrepancies here (that is, if two fixed dates could be either 580 and 567 or 585 and 572, it makes no odds which ones are chosen as it is the difference which is significant).
605BC - Nebuchadnezzar came with his troops against Jerusalem and king Jehoiakim in the third year of his reign (Dan 1:1) and carried away some of the vessels of the Temple to Babylon (II Kings 23:36-24:4, II Chr 36:5-7, Daniel 1:1-4). Jehoiakim reigned for a further eight years in Jerusalem after the incident.
597BC - The king following Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin, reigned just three months and ten days in Jerusalem before Nebuchadnezzar once again came against the land (II Kings 24:10-17, II Chr 36:8-10), took Jehoiachin captive away to Babylon along with other members of his household (II Kings 24:12) and raided the treasures of both the Temple and the king's house (II Kings 24:13, II Chr 36:10). There also appears to have been a very comprehensive exile of the entire population of Jerusalem at that time (II Kings 24:14) while Nebuchadnezzar installed his own king, Zedekiah, over those who were left in the city of Jerusalem (II Chr 36:10).
586BC - Zedekiah rebelled against both the rule of Babylonia (II Chr 36:13, II Kings 24:20) and the Word of the Lord through Jeremiah the prophet (II Chr 36:12) so that the empire once more came against the city and defeated it in 586BC. When the military forces finally breached the defences, they burnt the Temple to the ground and broke down the defence walls of the city of Jerusalem to prevent it from being a future place of refuge or rebellion against the Babylonian Empire (II Chr 36:17-21). When the 'seventy years' are calculated, it is normally from this date to the completion of the Temple in 516BC if the prophecy is interpreted as referring to a literal seventy years.
559BC - The reign of Cyrus, king of Persia, begins. It was in the first year of Cyrus that the proclamation to rebuild the Temple was made but this refers to the reign of Cyrus after his conquest of Babylon which took place in 539BC (Ezra 1:1). His first year proclamation can be dated to 538BC.
537BC - The first wave of exiles return to the land of Israel (Ezra 2).
537BC - In the seventh month (our September/October), the exiles set up the altar of the Lord and offer sacrifice (Ezra 3:1).
536BC - In the second month (our May/June), the exiles began work on the House of the Lord in Jerusalem.
?536BC? - The Temple work ceased from this time until the second year of Darius (Ezra 4:5, 24).
530BC - The reign of Cyrus, king of Persia, ends.
520BC - The first prophecy of Haggai was given (1:1) during the second year of Darius on the first day of the sixth month when crowds would be gathered together to celebrate the sighting of the new moon. The prophecy should not be thought of as being a word that was hidden from the masses but God appears to have inspired Haggai at the time when many of his fellow countrymen would have been able to witness what had been said. In our calendar, this took place on 29/8/520. It is at this time that the Scriptures record that both Haggai and Zechariah (Ezra 5:2-3)
‘...prophesied to the Jews who were in Judah and Jerusalem, in the name of the God of Israel who was over them...and with [Zerubbabel and Jeshua] were the prophets of God, helping them’
and (6:14) that
‘...the elders of the Jews built and prospered, through the prophesying of Haggai...and Zechariah...’
520BC - The returned exiles started work again on the Temple on the 24th day of the sixth month (Haggai 1:14-15a) which was 21/9/520.
520BC - Haggai’s second prophecy took place on the 21st day of the 7th month in the second year of Darius (Haggai 1:15b-2:1), 17/10/520, which was the 7th day of the Feast of Tabernacles - again, a significant date when many of the inhabitants of the land would have been in Jerusalem for the festival.
520BC - Zechariah’s first prophecy (and a short one at that) occurred in the eighth month in the second year of Darius (Zech 1:1) which places it here even though the exact date is not given us.
520BC - Haggai’s final two prophecies took place on the 24th day of the ninth month in the second year of Darius (Haggai 2:10, 20), 18/12/520. Haggai, therefore, if these prophecies are the sum total of all that he spoke to the people, only prophesied for some four months!
519BC - Zechariah’s first series of prophecies occurred on the 24th day of the eleventh month in the second year of Darius (Zech 1:7), 15/2/519. Haggai has stopped prophesying by this time (or he’s just stopped recording his prophecies or having them recorded. It would be unfair to say that Haggai had either died or was no longer of any use to God - we have no way of knowing why God seems to have used him only for a short four month period and then, almost exclusively, used Zechariah.
518BC - The prophecy concerning the nation’s fasting was given on the fourth day of the ninth month in the fourth year of Darius (Zech 7:1), 7/12/518. Two years later, the Temple was to be completed but there is not even one prophecy recorded during this two year gap which might give us an indication of how Zechariah was being used by God. There is the possibility, though, that Zechariah chapters 9-14 were given during this time period and beyond - chapters 12-14 certainly seem to imply that the Temple is in existence but also that the nation is once again independent from the nations (which it wasn’t for some years yet to come).
515BC - The building was finished in the 6th year of Darius on the 3rd of Adar (Ezra 6:15). Adar is the twelfth month of the Jewish calendar which begins March/April. Therefore, the precise date would have been in the early part of the year of 515BC as Williamson (though many commentators date it to 516BC and make the seventy years to be exactly fulfilled - I have kept with the date of 516BC in most places in the narrative even though my own understanding of the dates places it at the beginning of 515BC).
515BC - The Israelites celebrated the Passover on the fourteenth day of the first month (our March/April). Though it was at the beginning of a new year for the Israelites, it would have been in the same year as we reckon time (Ezra 6:19).
Haggai and Zechariah
The two prophets’ ministries overlapped as can be seen by a brief read of the dates noted in the previous section. Both their ministries lasted only a very short period of time (Haggai about 3.5 months, Zechariah about 2 years 1 month). Both the prophets were people who God raised up for a specific time in order to propel His people into action and, when the need no longer was present, they appear to have ceased.
It was Haggai who was first used by the Lord to speak into His people’s situation and then not on an insignificant day of the Jews’ calendar, but on the day of the new moon festivities that took place on the first day of each month (Haggai 1:1). His second prophetic word was given on the seventh day of the annual feast of Tabernacles, the Great Day, when post-exilic Jewish expectation of the arrival of their Messiah was at its highest (Haggai 2:1 - though how fervent the expectation was at this time in the nation’s history is difficult to determine).
In this way, God reached more than just ‘a few locals’ - there were more Israelites in Jerusalem at these two times than there would have been had He spoken on indiscriminate dates.
The prophetic word of Haggai 2:10, however, that the Lord would give His people an abundant harvest, came not at a festival and neither a particular gathering but at the time when the seed would have finished being sown for the next year’s harvest - it therefore had significance because of the time at which it was given.
When we come to Zechariah’s prophecies, however, there doesn’t appear to be any reason, within the contexts of the Israelites’ calendar and agricultural cycle, why the Word of the Lord was given on these days (Zech 1:1, 1:7, 7:1). Certainly, the visions of 1:7ff were reliant upon the correct response of the people to the utterance of 1:1-6 (as will be seen when we discuss that passage), but the days specified appear to have no particular significance.
Who was Zechariah?
This section can do no more than state what’s in Scripture and make some assumptions from which conclusions are drawn that are by no means certain. The authors of the Bible did not always consider it expedient to list the ins and outs of every prophet, king or leader including those characteristics that we, today, find so interesting and important such as height, hair colour and even clothing!
But let’s start with what we do know about Zechariah.
The Book of Zechariah tells us twice (1:1, 1:7) that he was
‘...the son of Berechiah, son of Iddo...’
while the story related in Ezra names him twice (5:1, 6:14) simply as
‘...the son of Iddo...’
There may appear to be a discrepancy here to our western minds but it is often the case that one generation or more are skipped and grandfathers become the remembered fathers of sons which some may never have met.
This has already been noted in my comments on the Genealogy of the Messiah (here) where it was seen how there were a great many ‘omissions’ for numerous generations throughout the line of descendants - both within the Gospel records and in Scripture itself. I quoted Morris there (Morris II) on Ruth 4:18-22 who wrote that
'It seems likely that the genealogy is somewhat compressed, with certain names being omitted. NBD dates...Judah...c.1750-1650 BC, with David's accession c.1010 BC. To cover this span of c.640 years, the genealogy lists but ten names (including that of David)’
But, who was ‘Iddo’? There may be a clue in a passage that occurs in Neh 12 (verse 1) where speaking about
‘...the priests and the Levites who came up with Zerubbabel...’
the passage notes an Iddo (12:4) and goes on to make mention (12:16) that, in the days of Joiakim the high priest (12:12), the head of the household was Zechariah (12:16).
This immediately has parallels with the genealogical statements that we have already noted in both the Book of Zechariah and Ezra but caution needs to be exercised as there were numerous ‘Zechariahs’ mentioned throughout Scripture - Baldwin noting 29 OT characters - Smith 30 - while Zondervan states that there were a total of 31 different characters in both Old and New Testaments. The name is no more specific, therefore, than the title ‘John’ would have been in our day and age!
If this is the same Zechariah, though, it would indicate that the prophet was fairly young when God first used him to prophecy to the nation. Jeshua was the high priest in the days of the prophet’s recorded ministry (Ezra 5:2) who then fathered, in order, the line of Joiakim (the high priest mentioned in connection with Zechariah as head over the household of Iddo), Eliashib, Joiada, Jonathan and Jaddua (Neh 12:10-11).
Eliashib was the high priest in Nehemiah’s day (Neh 3:1) and a gap of some eighty years exists between the high priesthood of Jeshua and Eliashib with only Joiakim in-between. While it is possible that the genealogy we’re reading is not a complete one, it is more likely that the ‘reign’ or office of the high priests was fairly extensive, making Zechariah the head of the family of Iddo much later in time then one generation would imply.
There is also the possibility from Zechariah’s name that we should be looking at a man used by God who was a teenager (are you mad Lee? Only old people can be used by God!). ‘Zechariah’ means something like ‘The Lord remembers’ and it is quite conceivable that such a name was given to him to mark an event that had occurred recently to his birth (or because of his birth) as ancient people were wont to do.
A few national ‘highlights’, so to speak, were the fall of Babylon in 539BC (the context being that the Lord had remembered to judge the nation which had been used to judge the people of the Lord - though the overthrow of the city was not as violent as would be expected, Cyrus marching into the city after diverting the city’s water-course), the return from exile in 537BC (that is, the Lord had remembered both His people and His promise and was working to restore them into the Promised Land) and the setting up of the altar of the Lord and restoration of the sacrificial system in 537BC (for similar reasons).
Alternatively, he could simply have been named because ‘the Lord had remembered’ the father’s prayer for a male child which would remove any necessary tie to a significant national date - or the father could just have liked the sound of the name or used the name in remembrance of one of his descendants!
But, if the name did come about because of the events surrounding the year 537BC, it would make Zechariah not more than 17 years of age when the Lord called him to speak to the nation of Israel in 520BC, becoming the head of his father Iddo’s house much later in life.
Noteworthy in passing, here, is Mtw 23:34-5 (my italics) which reads
‘I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of innocent Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar’
where the comparison ‘from Abel to Zechariah’ is meant to be indicative of the complete history of the Old Testament, Abel being the first martyr and Zechariah the last.
Commentators struggle to explain the text seeing as, the way the Hebrew Scriptures were put together, II Chronicles occurs last of all and the passage is probably relating to the incident of II Chron 24:20-22 even though the genealogy of the individual concerned records him as being ‘the son of Jehoiada the priest’ and the genealogical record in Matthew seems to indicate a more modern compilation and ordering of the Scriptures with the last Zechariah to be mentioned the one under consideration in these notes who was ‘the son of Berechiah’.
France’s explanation that
‘...the two Zechariahs were frequently confused in Jewish tradition...’
does nothing, in my opinion, but undermine the infallibility and inerrancy of the Scriptures (let alone the problem that, if Jesus’ words are accurately recorded, then He must have been confused about the matter Himself [note the capital ‘H’]!) while Morris notes several explanations including that the father of Zechariah in II Chr 24:20-22 had two names and it is the alternative that is being used here and that the grandfather may be cited rather than his direct father.
Another explanation - not cited by either France or Morris - is that, a later scribe who was copying the Scriptures, added the name ‘son of Berechiah’ when the ordering of the OT Scriptures was fixed much the way it is today to show to the reader that the totality of all the martyrs were what Jesus had in mind when He used the phrase. Unfortunately, no textual evidence exists for such a theory even though it has been widely accepted as the best explanation.
Maybe, even, Jesus used the phrase in order to convey the truth necessary in the language that his hearers would understand even though He knew the incorrectness of His statement?
There are so many explanations that could answer the problem, though none of which are provable, that it is best to hold a solution with a loose hand and not be dogmatic about one over another.
The Unity of Zechariah
Both Smith (pages 243-249) and Baldwin (pages 66-70) list many different theories as to why the author of chapters 9-14 was not the same as the author of 1-8 - but there is such a variety of assertions by the authors cited that it is difficult to arrive at any definitive statement regarding the Book’s unity even though both commentators make it plain that they do not believe that the same Zechariah wrote the entire contents of the Book which bears his name.
But my original statement is actually too simplistic - as will be noted in Smith, even chapters 7-8 are taken apart so that the unity of those two chapters is thrown into doubt, Smith urging his readers to believe that the contents represent certain oracles and sermons that were given over a period of time and which were put together by some sort of ‘Chronicler’ at a later date. Chapters 9-14 are then broken up into further sections and different dates are assigned to them as ‘internal’ evidence indicates - the problem is that, if this evidence was so conclusive, why do different commentators achieve different dates which range somewhere from 800-200BC?!!
Style has also been an important factor in the theories that have been put forward and the ‘ordinary’ reader who turns to the Book will not miss the sudden difference in content that chapter 9 brings - or that chapter 12 heralds. But does that mean that a different author must have written each section that differs significantly from another?
Readers may be aware that I write modern day parables which hide or reveal spiritual truth under the pretension that it is actually our pet hamsters who are writing them (you can find them at www.arlev.co.uk/george.htm). What if these were to be compared with the teaching notes? Would it be able to be proven that a different author was responsible and, perhaps, even that a different date should be assigned to them for, in those stories, dated headers exist as in Zechariah 1-8 but, here, there isn’t one - would this be proof that a chronicler had, at a later date, put them together and included them on a web site so that they didn’t get lost?
Unfortunately, the critical analysis which is used by scholars is so hit and miss when it divides Biblical books up into different dates from another critique and which proves dates that don’t correspond with others’ proofs, that it is best to ignore it all even though their arguments are quite interesting and may illuminate certain passages that ‘normal’ commentators gloss over.
Baldwin’s conclusion at the end of her discussion of the unity ‘problem’ goes a long way to answering all those who try to divide up Zechariah even though she does this herself (my italics):
‘...when every argument has been considered, the fact remains that all fourteen chapters have been handed down to us as one book in every manuscript so far discovered. Even the tiny fragment of the Greek manuscript found at Qumran, which includes the end of chapter 8 and the beginning of chapter 9, shows no gap or spacing whatsoever to suggest a break between the two parts’
Whatever we may like to see ‘within’ Zechariah, what the recorded facts of history show us to date is that the Book has never been considered to be less than one complete unit, has never been considered to indicate more than one author and has never existed in a form different to that which we now possess.
That’s the weightiest proof of all and I make no apologies if I fly in the face of modern scholarship and accept the unity of Zechariah from chapter 1 through 14 and accept unreservedly that the one prophet, Zechariah, wrote it - unless conclusive documented proof exists otherwise - such as a recovered manuscript earlier than that recovered from Qumran - and that would, then, only give the texts a different context and pull away at their authority.
Common References listed under the ‘References’ page of ‘The Cross’ series of teachings are not duplicated here. I have also cited some other works in the text when I had only an intention of quoting from them once.
Baldwin - Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi, Joyce Baldwin, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, Inter-Varsity Press
Edersheim - The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Alfred Edersheim, MacDonald Publishing Company
Edersheim 2 - The Temple, Alfred Edersheim, Wm B Eerdmans Publishing Company
France - Matthew, R T France, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Inter-Varsity Press and Wm B Eerdmans Publishing Company
Kidner - Ezra and Nehemiah, Derek Kidner, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, Inter-Varsity Press
JFB - Commentary on the Whole Bible, Jamieson, Fausset and Brown, Zondervan Publishing House
Morris - The Gospel according to Matthew, Leon Morris, Inter-Varsity Press
Smith - Micah to Malachi, Ralph L Smith, Word Biblical Commentary, Word Books
Williamson - Ezra and Nehemiah, H G M Williamson, Word Biblical Commentary, Word Books
As above, with the following additional works
Chart of Old Testament Kings and Prophets, John C Whitcomb, 4th Revised Edition, Grace Theological Seminary
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