There is great tension in Zechariah. On the one hand, God desires and promises to bless His people. But on the other hand, they remain undeserving. Throughout the book, “leadership” has never been far from the mind of Zachariah and the Lord – leadership both good and bad. In chapter eleven, because of poor leaders, God puts Zechariah in charge of His people. But they do not listen to Zechariah. Though the Lord blesses His people in chapter twelve, they turn on Him and pierce His side – a text used later by John to refer to Jesus (John 19:34-37).
Yet, in chapter thirteen, God provides cleansing. In fact, the cleansing is mentioned twice: first from a fountain, and second through the work of another leader, a shepherd whom the Lord Himself strikes (a text used later by Matthew and Mark to refer to Jesus).
These final chapters were intended to be confusing and precisely because of the tension between God and His people, what He wants to do, and what He has to do. God desires to forgive and bless. But the people are determined to live their own way, so God must punish and discipline. God longs for peace. His people long for peace. But each wants a peace of their own design. And so, back and forth it goes, with God blessing and punishing, the people rejoicing and disobeying, and all the while, leaders who are both good and bad.
It would appear that despite the exile, nothing has changed since the days of Moses.
In oracles against His own people, nations comprising the rod of God’s discipline come to Israel and Judah from the north. Jeremiah’s vision of the boiling pot tipping south, about to pour its painful contents on the land is just one example of that (cf. Jeremiah 1:13-16). But in chapter nine of Zechariah, the promises of God are to come from the north. It is to be the Lord Himself, leading his army against those who oppressed His people. Hadrach was north of Syria and south of that came Hamath and Damascus.
Surprisingly, the cities that follow are along the Israeli coast: Sidon, Tyre, Ashkelon, Ashdod, and Gaza. These cities were intended to belong to Israel, but they never had. That’s why this text is so surprising. God is promising a conquest Israel had always been promised but which she had never received. God is coming and his empire will encompass the earth and His people will be blessed as never before. Notice the words: The Lord their God will save them on that day as the flock of his people. They will sparkle in his land like jewels in a crown. How attractive and beautiful they will be! Grain will make the young men thrive, and new wine the young women.
Zechariah is speaking in the fifth century B.C. The Israelites who heard his promise must have, in time, viewed the promise as empty . . . unless, in time, they understood it to refer to the coming of the Messiah. Both Matthew and John use it that way and the crowds who welcome Jesus acknowledge the imagery. But the Messiah riding on the foal of a donkey was only part of it. What about the completeness of it, the triumph and recognition of God’s people?
Jesus came to initiate the fulfillment of such prophecies as this. But their complete fulfillment awaits the second coming of the Christ when the seventh trumpet will sound and the “mystery of God will be accomplished, just as He announced to His servants the prophets” (Revelation 10:7).
When God’s people returned to Jerusalem from exile, they were led by Sheshbazzar, likely the son of king Jehoiachin and called Shenazzar in 1 Chronicles 3:17. He does not last long in Jerusalem, but disappears after the foundation of the temple is laid. He is succeeded by his nephew Zerubbabel. Probably, Sheshbazzar was appointed governor by Cyrus and after his passing, Zerubbabel was appointed by Darius.
After nearly two decades, who would be empowered to rebuild the temple?
And would the people follow them?
In chapter three, Joshua receives the anointing by God for the job. Here, in chapter four, Zerubbabel is appointed to accompany him in the position of leadership and together, the temple will be rebuilt.
In chapter three a stone is set in front of Joshua with seven eyes on it. In chapter four, a gold lampstand stands before Zerubbabel with seven lights on it. These represent the eyes of the Lord. He is watching His people, and Zerubbabel and Joshua are His appointed leaders. The people must follow them.
The eyes of the Lord are upon us all. He expects that we will submit to His leadership and those He appoints. His appointees may seem unqualified and insufficient in our eyes, but God seldom chooses whom we would choose so that what is accomplished is seen as possible not because of the superior qualifications of the appointed, but because of the active power of God.
In the first six chapters of Zechariah we have eight visions. Chapter three introduces us to the fourth one in the series. In the first three, the focus is on the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the temple and the glory of Israel. The nations constituting the rod of God’s disciplining wrath are condemned and the Lord promises to bring them into His nation. To the first readers, this is a promise of triumph for Israel, but it is in reality a promise of triumph for God, the achieving of His eternal dream.
In chapter three, the Lord turns from the city, temple, and Israel’s glory to the priesthood. As exemplary as the priest Joshua has seemed up to this time, we get a look at him from God’s perspective here. He is a sinner. Satan stands before God to accuse Joshua, but God instead rebukes Satan. In essence: “You should be ashamed of yourself.” God is unwilling to condemn Joshua. After all, he represents Israel, the “apple of [the Lord’s] eye” (2:8). Rather than condemn, God forgives.
Forgiveness is represented by dressing Joshua in clean clothes, and the sight of God’s forgiveness is so exciting to Zechariah that he can’t help shouting “put a clean turban on his head!”
God’s people are all “burning sticks, snatched from the fire.” But for God’s grace and action, we would be consumed. But because God loves us, we’ve been rescued, clothed anew with His forgiveness. The result is a life of peace that we invite others to, a seat under the vine and fig tree of God’s protective care.
The first order of business for the returnees from Babylon was to rebuild the house of the Lord. The foundation of the temple was completed about 537 B.C., two years after their return. But due to opposition from surrounding non-Jewish neighbors, the building ground to a halt for the next seventeen years.
In the second year of Darius, the Lord raised up two prophets, Haggai and Zechariah, who urged (and at times shamed) the people into completing the task.
But it wasn’t just a matter of getting back to work. The very thing that had stopped the construction, opposition from surrounding nations, had to be dealt with. The opponents went straight to Darius.
Ezra chapter five continues the thread we have seen so often in the Old Testament. God moves to make those not His people be supportive of those who are. Hiram sent supplies to David. The queen of Sheba and the kings of Arabia paid homage to Solomon. Hezekiah was highly regarded by the nations (2 Chronicles 32:23). Jehoiachin was given a seat at the table of the king of Babylon (1 Kings 25:28). Now, Darius affirms the favor Cyrus showed the Jews and (in chapter six) not only approves the construction of the temple, but also orders the opposition to pay for it and pronounces the death penalty on anyone who gets in the way of its construction.
An important point here is that the writer of Ezra not only knew his facts, but also knew of the documents supporting those facts. The Bible did not originate in the fertile imaginations of men, but is the trustworthy account of the people of God and His dealings with them.
Chapter two of Ezra looks very much like those other not-so-inviting chapters of genealogy in the Bible. But just like them, it is not there for decoration. It has purpose.
The return from seventy years of Babylonian captivity was not a hodge-podge “olly olly oxen free,” “whosoever will” can go home kind of return. It was organized, and you had to be qualified to return. You had to prove that you were of Jewish heritage. Sometimes that was done by proving your connection to your ancestral town (2:21-35), but even that connection could not qualify you for everything. To serve as a Levite or priest, you also had to come up with ancestral records (2:36-58).
The chapter begins with mention of eleven specific leaders. One is missing, likely due to a copyist’s error. The twelfth (Nahamani) is mentioned by Nehemiah (7:7) and this brings up a matter of reliability. When you compare this list with the same list in Nehemiah, you will see that there is very little variance between the names listed. There are, however, huge differences between the numbers. In the transmission of the text, numbers are the most difficult to transmit – which is why critics of the Bible so often point to number variances. It does not, however, materially alter the meaning of the text.
Notice how God has blessed His people even in captivity! These 43,360 people have among them a servant for every family (perhaps more than one per family) and are able, upon arrival in Jerusalem, to give God 1,100 pounds of gold and three tons of silver.
One final point, and it’s not a pretty one: It is significant that of the twenty-four families of priests designated in the time of David, only four families are willing to return. The majority of those entrusted with ministering before the Lord fell in love with Babylon and would rather live there than serve the Lord. Never underestimate the allure of the world.
Like the marathon runner who, exhausted, looks only for the tape of the finish line, so the writer of Chronicles speeds quickly to the end in his final chapter. The exile is not the end of the story, but it is the end to which the story has been progressing since the days of Ahaz. To see the speed with which the writer is finishing his story, note that this chapter is the only time in 2 Chronicles 10-36 that the writer deals more briefly with the same subject matter than Kings.
Four points are worth considering as the book closes: First, the failure of Israel was not the failure of the monarchy alone, or of any one generation of people, but the failure of the whole nation throughout its history. There have been bright spots, but these have been too few. Second, it is possible to be beyond the help of God (note the “no remedy” of verse 16). Not that Israel is beyond ever being forgiven, only that she is beyond deliverance from discipline. She committed the crimes and will do her time in Babylon – penitent or not. As Martin Selman observes: “Though the exile provides further evidence that God is always gracious and compassionate (cf. 2 Chr. 30:9), the opportunity to call on his mercy will not always exist. It is therefore wise to take God’s invitation seriously (v. 23).”
Third, the key to a successful spiritual life is emphasized. As chapter thirty-four comes to an end, Huldah the prophetess tells Josiah that his relationship with God has been enhanced by taking God’s word seriously and humbling himself in obedience. In this last chapter, Israel’s failure is due to the opposite response: “The Lord, the God of their fathers, sent word to them through his messengers again and again, because he had pity on his people and on his dwelling place. But they mocked God’s messengers, despised his words and scoffed at his prophets until the wrath of the Lord was aroused against his people and there was no remedy” (vss. 15-16).
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is the lesson of the abiding presence of God. Even in a foreign land, exiled for moral and spiritual on a national scale, God was looking out for her – and looking to her future. And so, “in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah, the Lord moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation throughout his realm” that would allow God’s now disciplined people to return home. The only question remaining would be: “have they really learned their lesson?”
Chapter thirty-two opens with a noticeable contrast: “After all that Hezekiah had so faithfully done, Sennacherib, king of Assyria came and invaded Judah.”
How’s that reward for faithful service?
He might have legitimately cried to God: “I’ve done all you asked and tried to be faithful in every way and this is how you repay me?”
But perhaps Hezekiah understood what we all understand: the only obligation God ever has to us is that of His own making. We cannot put Him in our debt.
Sennacherib left his own account of the siege of Jerusalem. It can be seen on the Sennacherib Prism in the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago (the image is reproduced here). He claims to have captured 46 walled cities and deported 200,150 people and shut up Hezekiah “like a bird in a cage.” He does not mention defeating Hezekiah. Herodotus (Histories 2.141) also gives an account of Sennacherib’s defeat.
The Chronicler does not mention that Hezekiah tried to buy off Sennacherib with the temple’s gold, nor does it mention that Hezekiah appealed to Egypt for help (compare to 2 Kings 18), not because he sought to cover up those failures, but solely because he chose to emphasize Hezekiah’s faithfulness – such as it was – and God’s willingness to bless.
Likely, the first readers knew the whole story. But the idea for them, and us, is that God’s help does not depend on perfection, but on faithfulness, however hobbled it might appear.
How do you repent?
It’s an important question because it is an important matter, though one we don’t hear much about these days. And yet, Jesus talked about it a lot and conditioned salvation on doing it.
2 Chronicles 28 gives us an example.
God often sent warring peoples against Judah to punish Judah for her sins. But the warring peoples all too often took that opportunity as a time for excessive cruelty and exercised a vindictiveness that reached far beyond the intent of God’s discipline. You see this plainly in Zechariah 1:14-15. There, an angel is astonished by the seemingly hostile nature of God’s punishment. God replies: “I am very jealous for Jerusalem and Zion, but I am very angry with the nations that feel secure. I was only a little angry, but they added to the calamity.”
In chapter twenty-eight of 2 Chronicles, Israel is the rod of God’s discipline toward Judah, but in that discipline, Israel goes too far. Confronted with this fact by the prophet Oded, how will Israel repent?
Repentance involves a change of heart that results in a change of life, often involving seeking to make up for sin. You can’t really “make up” for sin, but you can act like you sorry and seek to mitigate the results of your actions. In this case, Israel takes all her captives from Judah, clothes them, doctors them, and delivers them back home with compensation for their inconvenience.
Repentance isn’t just being sorry for sin, it’s acting like we are sorry and seeking to make right the wrongs we have committed.
Chapter twenty-five summarizes the reign of Amaziah – one of the most difficult to date. He is said to rule Jerusalem 29 years, but he was also a captive in Israel for a while. Perhaps it is best to presume that his son, Uzziah (Azariah), was made co-regent when Amaziah was taken captive and that he was taken captive about five years into his reign.
Previous chapters have underscored God’s displeasure with the northern kingdom and the adversity visited on the southern kingdom for its alliance with the north. You see it again here. Amaziah hires 100,000 mercenary soldiers for 100 talents of silver – which works out to about an ounce of silver each. Why would mercenary soldiers work for such low wages? More importantly, when the contract was cancelled, why would they rebel? The answer is to be found in the spoils of war. The soldiers hoped to make much more from pillage – which explains why they ravaged the Judean towns on the way home.
God told Amaziah he could not ally himself with the evil people of Israel. Amaziah responded that he’d already spent a lot of money on them. God told him to cut his losses. Better to lose all that silver than to go into battle with God against Him.
Amaziah does cut his losses, but he doesn’t learn the lesson. He foolishly adopts the gods of the Edomites, and God immediately effects his downfall. Here’s the point: no matter how successful you seem, it is God who determines your destiny, whether in this life or the next, God will have the final say.