Welcome to Bible Fiber where we are encountering the textures and shades of the prophetic tapestry in a year-long study of the twelve minor prophets, one prophet each month. I am Shelley Neese, president of The Jerusalem Connection, a Christian organization devoted to sharing the story of the people of Israel, both ancient and modern.
This week we are studying the second chapter of Zechariah, a continuation of the prophet’s vision sequence: eight visions in one night making up the first six chapters of the book. The chapter begins with the prophet speaking in first person, “I looked up and saw a man with a measuring line in his hand” (2:1). Looking up or being roused is Zechariah’s standard introduction for every vision except the fourth.
Zechariah, accustomed to interacting with the characters in his visions, asked the man with the measuring line, “where are you going?” The man answered the prophet, “To measure Jerusalem, to see how wide and how long it is” (2:2). The man’s optimistic answer comes off as either naïve or noble. In the sixth century BCE, the postexilic community was tasked with rebuilding their once beautiful but now ruinous city. They were low on resources and, according to Haggai, also low on enthusiasm. The young man’s response is heartening to Zechariah. He is not only measuring the foundations of the Temple, but he is also surveying Jerusalem’s old boundary lines, in anticipation of the full city’s restoration.
In Zechariah’s first vision, Yahweh assured the prophet that as he rebuilt the nation a “measuring line shall be stretched out over Jerusalem” (1:16). Now the task of the measuring line is being carried out. When reading Zechariah, it is helpful to keep a look out for how the themes of each vision interlock as the scenes and characters change.
The man with the measuring line represents the community once they have internalized God’s message through Haggai and set ambitiously to the task of rebuilding Jerusalem. The man in the vision cannot see how God is complementing his efforts. The same is true with the returnees. While they might feel discouraged that Jerusalem is never going to reach its former stature, Yahweh is moving in another sphere of time and space to bring about their redemption. Only Yahweh knows every link in the chain of the restoration process.
In verse three, two new characters enter the vision. Zechariah refers to the first as “the angel who spoke with me” and the second is vaguely referred to as “another angel” (2:3). Zechariah scholars often identify the first angel with the angel on the red horse from the scene in the myrtle trees. The second angel may be the mediating angel that was also in the previous vision. Throughout Zechariah’s dream sequence, certain angels appear and reappear, giving the sequence continuity of characters.
Zechariah addresses his questions to the second angel while the first angel runs to meet the young man with the measuring line. The scene has a lot of hurried movements. The first angel instructs the young man to stop his work because he has good news to share: “Jerusalem shall be inhabited like unwalled villages because of the multitude of people and animals in it” (2:4).
Apparently, the man was measuring Jerusalem’s dimensions in order to rebuild the city’s wall. The angel tells the man that Jerusalem cannot have a wall because an influx of returnees is coming that will far surpass the city’s capacity. The new Jerusalem has to be unwalled and unlimited.
Ezekiel, the prophet in exile, also experienced a vision of an unlimited Jerusalem (Ezek. 40-48). In Ezekiel’s vision, the prophet was transported to a mountaintop overlooking all of Israel. An angel with a bronze-like appearance met Ezekiel on the mountaintop with a measuring reed in his hand (Ezek. 40:3). The angel preceded to give Ezekiel a precise blueprint of the future Temple with its gates, courts, recesses, and chambers. Zechariah’s vision is brief and fleeting by comparison to Ezekiel’s longer account, but clearly the two visions connect. Even the methods of measurement are the same. The only time length and width are used in reporting Jerusalem’s dimensions are in Zechariah (2:2) and Ezekiel (45:6).
Biblical scholars wonder if Zechariah’s vision is intentionally alluding to the vision of his exiled predecessor. There are plenty of other times in his book that he references other prophets so the move would be on brand. Either way, Zechariah and Ezekiel’s visions of an unlimited Temple never materialized in Judah’s history.
The idealistic temples are meant as progressive prophecies that most likely apply to the Messianic Age. However, their Temple visions differ in several ways as well. For one, Ezekiel’s New Jerusalem seems much larger. The prophets also have different emphases. Ezekiel’s vision was concerned about separating the Temple’s sacred space from the profane parts of the city. His glorified Temple elevates the sacrificial system. Zechariah is more concerned about sanctifying the whole city of Jerusalem, beyond the Temple. Zechariah’s Jerusalem must be expansive to absorb the rush of returnees.
In the Persian period, Jerusalem was in desperate need of repopulation. When the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem, they exiled the city’s elite and impoverished those who remained. The size of the Jewish community was drastically reduced due to death, exile, assimilation, and dispersion. Naturally, Zechariah’s audience felt insecure as the Jewish community was smaller in number than ever before. The Kingdom of Israel had long been lost to history and now the Kingdom of Judah was dispersed to Babylon and beyond.
According to Josephus, once Nehemiah restored Jerusalem’s city wall, the population of the city exploded. If Josephus is right, Zechariah’s prophecy may have been fulfilled in the short term. But with most prophetic forecasts in the Bible, prophecies can connect to historical fulfillments and yet also have eschatological implications.
When the angel stopped the young man from measuring Jerusalem’s dimensions, it was not only because of Jerusalem’s population growth, it was also because Jerusalem did not need a wall for security. Yahweh declared he would provide the city’s protection personally: “I will be a wall of fire all around it, says the Lord, and I will be the glory within it” (2:5).
In our previous minor prophet studies, every time Yahweh referenced fire, it was an instrument of destruction (Amos 1:4,10). When fire personifies God’s power, it is usually within the context of his wrath poured out on Judah’s enemies. In Lamentations 2, Yahweh’s fury was the fire that destroyed the walls of Jerusalem (Lam. 2:3-4). Zechariah’s vision intentionally reverses the fire of Lamentations. Instead, fire is the personification of Yahweh’s love and protection.
Likely, what came to mind for the people was the story of the pillar of fire that protected the Israelites from the Egyptians (Ex. 14:19) and guided them in the wilderness for forty years. The imagery would have been poignant for all those vulnerable returnees in Zechariah’s audience who lived among the charred debris of the Babylonian attack. Once again, Yahweh was going to be the pillar of fire that protected his chosen at their most vulnerable time. Consistent with Zechariah’s focus on all of Jerusalem, the fire surrounds the entire city, not just the Temple. It is as if God is expanding the sphere of holiness so that his glory rests on the whole city.
One of the chief concerns of the Judahites at the time was their lack of security because their walls lay in ruins. Almost all cities in antiquity took pride in their fortifications and Jerusalem had none. We know from Ezra that at least for a brief period, Judah’s enemies managed to turn the Persian leaders against the returnees and forbid the rebuilding of their walls (Ezra 4:11-23). However, by the time of Nehemiah in 445 BCE, a faithful group did rebuild Jerusalem’s walls. In Zechariah’s vision, God was not putting an eternal prohibition on building walls around the city. Instead, he was providing assurances for the returnees that risked living in an unfortified Jerusalem for seventy years.
Yahweh, in Zechariah’s vision, sends out a directive to all those who remain in exile to come and return to Judah. He says, “Up, up! Flee from the land of the north” (2:6). In case there was any doubt that the “land of the north” was Babylon, the book gives further clarification: ‘Up! Escape to Zion, you who live with daughter Babylon” (2:7). Despite the waves of exiles who left Babylon to return to their covenanted land, there were still Jews who preferred to stay in Babylon because it was a sophisticated prosperous city.
But to restore Judah, the people must leave Babylon and return to Judah. Zechariah’s message would have been extremely comforting to the remnant that had already returned. They needed the reminder that they had indeed made the right choice despite their current hardships. The Persian empire was not persecuting their Jewish minority, but the longer any portion of the community remained in exile, the higher their risks of assimilation.
Translations of Zechariah 2:7 differ over whether the exiles are called to Zion or if they are identified as Zion. While the NRSV translates the Hebrew imperative: “Escape to Zion,” the NIV translates it “Come, Zion” (2:7). Either work, but I prefer the theological implications of the later that equates the people with Zion. If the people are Zion, the prophet is reinforcing the point that the return of the community is a fulfillment of God’s restoration plan just as much as the physical rebuilding of Judah.
In 2:10, Zechariah calls the people “Daughter Zion” which was the phrase Isaiah used for all the Jewish captives taken to Babylon (Isa. 52:2). The postexilic prophet is encouraging the returnees and the exiles to identify as one people. Even if they are in different lands, they are united by their collective identity in Yahweh. Centuries later, when the Romans exiled all of Judah, the Jewish people found themselves in an exile that lasted two millennia, rather than seventy years. These kinds of prophetic reassurances about the oneness of the people even without independence were the glue that held the community together.
Zechariah’s second chapter closes with a promise of vengeance on Babylon. They are blamed for harming the apple of God’s eye (2:8). The phrase could also translate the “gate of the eye” or “daughter of the eye.” Either way, the Hebrew writer is equating the people of Zion with an organ so precious and sensitive that Yahweh’s reaction to defend his people is instinctive.
With Babylon’s defeat, a summons to rejoice is issued throughout the land (2:10) as Yahweh returns to dwell among them. Zechariah says, “many nations shall join themselves to the Lord on that day and shall be my people” (2:11). Zechariah’s vision has a universal component that both parallels and surpasses previous prophets. Micah foresaw all the nations coming together in peace (4:2). Zephaniah envisioned all nations praising Yahweh with one voice (Zeph. 3:9). Haggai believed a restored Temple would launch Yahweh’s universal rule (Hag. 2:22). Zechariah goes even further, fully incorporating gentiles into the restoration promises of Yahweh.
When God first called Abraham, he promised the patriarch that through him all the nations of the earth would be blessed (Gen. 12:3). The prophets held on to that ideal, but the timing of its fulfillment was elusive. Zechariah’s verse about many nations joining themselves to Judah contains the ambiguous phrase “on that day.” When prophets invoke “on that day,” they are hinting that the fulfillment of the prophecy is still in the future.
The difficulty with Zechariah’s visions, and all the prophets really, is the uncertainty in identifying their fulfillment. We want to look to specific points in history and make a one-to-one match with known events and prophetic predictions. But the prophecies of the Bible are more nuanced than that. They somehow both transcend time and embody their own age.
To me, that is the beautiful part about studying the prophets and studying them in community. When I am deep in the prophetic word, I spend my time trying to plant my feet in their world, grasping the importance of the culture, politics, and events that defined their time. At the same time though, as a believer, I am also waving my hands up to the prophetic sky and trying to grasp a piece of truth from a realm far higher and more spiritual than I can normally reach. We must do the work of discovering the world beneath the prophet’s feet, but we also hope and pray that we can experience a fragment of the heavenly revelations going on above our heads.
The Little Prince put it best: “I must endure the presence of a few caterpillars if I wish to become acquainted with the butterflies.” Studying the history of the Persian empire, the nuance of Hebrew word study, and the archaeology of sixth century BCE Jerusalem seems like caterpillars. But it is all part of trying to understand the butterfly.
For next week, read chapter three for Zechariah’s fourth night vision. Thank you for listening and please continue to participate in this Bible Reading Challenge. For all of the Biblical references each week, please see the show transcript on our blog or by signing up for our emails at www.thejerusalemconnection.us/
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