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 third chapter of Zechariah, the prophet’s fourth vision out of a sequence of eight. The end of Zechariah’s third vision segues into the opening scene of the fourth vision. At the close of Zechariah 2, the prophet called for silence from “all flesh” out of reverence for Yahweh who “roused himself from his holy dwelling” (2:13). In chapter three, the prophet awakens to find that he has been transported to what seems like a heavenly throne room. Among the divine council, Zechariah identifies three characters: Joshua the high priest, the Angel of the Lord, and the accuser.
Joshua is the first historical character introduced in Zechariah’s visions. Joshua is known from other biblical books as one of the returnees in 538 BCE (Hag. 1:1, Ezra 2:2, Neh. 12:1). Even before the vison, Joshua was well known to the prophet Zechariah as they were both leaders of the postexilic community. In the vision, Joshua was standing before the Angel of the Lord (3:1). When the Bible uses the Hebrew verb for “standing before,” it often has a courtroom connotation. The person “standing before” someone is usually being judged. This verb is the reason most commentaries discuss Zechariah’s fourth vision as if it was a tribunal.
Joshua was a descendant of Aaron, and therefore a legitimate candidate for High Priest. Considering all the community went through over the prior century, the survival of the Zadokite priesthood was a miracle. In the Hebrew religion, the priests intervened with Yahweh on behalf of the community (Ex. 29:44-46). The restoration of the priesthood was necessary before they could bring back the Temple ritual offerings. And yet, Joshua was selected as High Priest before he had a Temple to service.
The accuser in Zechariah’s vision is unnamed. Some Bible commentaries equate the accuser with Satan, a supernatural enemy of God. Others conjecture that the accuser must have been a human historical figure, an opponent of Joshua. Satan, as a named figure, is at this point in the Hebrew scriptures undeveloped. The aspects of Satan’s character familiar to us today came much later in Jewish and Christian tradition.
Before the book of Zechariah, the only time Satan appears in the Bible is the beginning of Job. In Job, the accuser presented himself before the Lord with other heavenly beings (Job 1: 7). God asked the accuser from where he came and the accuser answered, “from going to and fro on the earth and from walking up and down on it” (1:8).
In both Job and Zechariah, the Hebrew word satan has a definitive article hasatan. Translators see hasatan as a title more than a name so they translate it “the accuser.” Other times in the Bible, like often in the Psalms, satan has no definite article. In those contexts, satan is translated as accuser, opponent or adversary, but those satans are always human.
There are enough parallels between Job’s accuser and Joshua’s accuser to assume they are the same. In Job, Satan argues with God about the righteousness of his servant Job. In Zechariah’s vision, Satan is silent, but the reader presumes Satan is claiming Joshua is unfit for the priesthood. In both Job and Zechariah, the accuser freely enters the abode of heaven to lay out his complaints. There are certainly enough parallels between the two accusers to entertain the option that they are the same. However, there are so few references to Satan in the rest of the Hebrew scriptures that it is impossible to know for sure. Apart from Job and Zechariah, the only other time the Old Testament uses the term accuser with the definite article (“the accuser”) is when David allows Satan to incite his pride and conduct an unwarranted census (1 Chron. 21:1).
In Zechariah’s vision, the angel in the divine council represents Yahweh as judge. From the phrasing, the angel in the fourth vision is the same Angel of the Lord that rode the red horse in the first vision and that spoke to Zechariah in the third vision. Here, the angel is speaking on behalf of Yahweh as judge. On occasion, Yahweh interrupts to speak directly to Joshua or the accuser. In the first scene, Yahweh rebukes the accuser for bearing false witness. He says, “The Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is not this man a brand plucked from the fire?” (3:1).
The prophet Amos also used the idiom “brand plucked from the fire” when he described the coming judgement (Amos 4:11). In Amos, the fire was Yahweh’s tool of discipline. In Zechariah, the fire is metaphorical for the period of exile, a punishment that scorched but did not consume the remnant. The way God asks the question rhetorically demonstrates his lack of will to punish the people any further. If he had wanted, God could have left them in permanent exile to disappear into history. But instead, he preserved them in exile and then moved the heart of Cyrus to allow their return to Jerusalem. That intervention on behalf of the people should hint to the accuser that the divine judge is bound to give a lenient ruling for Joshua too.
The narrative describes Joshua as standing before the angel “wearing filthy clothes” (3:3). The Hebrew word which is translated as “filthy” in 3:3 only occurs this one time in Zechariah and nowhere else in the Bible. However, there are similar Hebrew words (with the same consonantal roots) in the Bible, and those synonyms for filthy almost always pertain to bodily fluids: excrement, vomit, and urine (Deut. 23:13, Ezek. 4:12, Isa. 36:12, 2 Kings 18:27). The communicative intent of the writer of Zechariah is meant to shock the audience by using the worst possible word for filthy.
In Zechariah 3, the accuser’s case against Joshua is unrecorded as is Joshua’s response. Yahweh controls the dialogue in the entire scene. However, Joshua’s clothes reinforce the accuser’s case without him even saying a word. Judging from the defiled garments, Joshua was unfit for the priesthood.
Normally, priestly garments were impeccably clean. On the Day of Atonement, when the consecrated High Priest came closest to Yahweh’s presence, he had to wear fine white linen vestments and a jeweled ephod. In the wilderness, even the least imperfection in a priest disqualified them from service in the sanctuary (Lev. 22:3). Here, Joshua is standing before Yahweh in a wretched state.
Surprisingly, Joshua’s appearance does not repulse the angel. Instead, he is compassionate. He commands helping angels to remove Joshua’s filthy clothes. The angel explains to Zechariah the meaning of the scene. The removal of the defiled garments symbolizes the removal of Joshua’s guilt (3:4). As priest, Joshua is a stand-in for the whole community. His purification has broader implications for all of Judah.
After the filthy clothes are taken away, angelic assistants replace Joshua’s old clothes with “fine apparel” (3:4). The symbolism is clear. Yahweh has forgiven Judah, purified them, and reaffirmed his covenant commitment. Remember at the outset of Zechariah, the prophet preached about the sins of their ancestors. In response, the people repented, separating themselves from their forefathers’ path of rebellion. That repentance allowed for this level of purification, the removal of filthy garments and the putting on of the new clothes.
Watching the ritual robing ceremony, Zechariah is so moved that he suddenly speaks out, “Let them put a clean turban on his head!” (3:5). In previous visions, Zechariah asked his interpreting angel for the meaning of the visions, but here he does not need to ask. As a prophet and a priest, the vision makes sense to Zechariah.
Instead of a question, the scene prompts an unsolicited interjection. Zechariah knew that the headpiece was the last part of the priestly ordination (Lev. 8:12). Even though he uses a unique Hebrew word, many scholars believe Zechariah’s headpiece is referring to the golden crown worn by the High Priest only on the Day of Atonement inscribed with the words “Holy to Yahweh” (Ex. 39:30). Zechariah understood the implications of adding the golden crown and wanted to witness Joshua’s purification completed. The Day of Atonement signified the highest order of forgiveness, transitioning the whole of the community from a state of impurity to purity. The oracle suggests a connection with the Day of Atonement. Zechariah anticipates Judah’s transgressions being removed “in a single day” (3:9).
Still, the covenant remains a two-way commitment. Yahweh reminds Joshua that he must be obedient and faithful. If so, Yahweh will place Joshua in charge of the restored Temple (3:7). God exhorts, “If you will walk in my ways and keep my requirements, then you shall rule my house and have charge of my courts” (3:7). House and courts are synonymous with Yahweh’s Temple. Yahweh is repeating the words of Moses from Exodus 19:5. In this context, “walk in my ways” references keeping God’s laws.
In God’s original plan for his people after the Exodus, all of Israel were to be a holy kingdom of priests (Ex. 19:6). After the golden calf episode, they lost that privilege. From then on, only the Levites could uphold the priestly holiness standard (Lev. 21). Throughout the Kingdom of Judah, the leaders balanced power dynamics between the courts, royal household, elite, and priests. In the postexilic period, the role of the High Priest was magnified. They had no civil leaders or royalty. This was also the time that the community was focused on the Temple rebuild, putting the priests in the most important role of daily communication.
Zerubbabel was in the line of David but he was given the Persian title of governor and had no right to rule independently while Judah was part of the Persian empire. Without a king, God is commissioning Joshua to the high priesthood, but the position will have to assume new responsibilities. Perhaps that is what God means when he tells Joshua to “take charge of my courts” and “I will give you the right of access” (3:7).
Even though Yahweh is blessing the expanded role of the priest for the moment, he also calls out to a future reinstallation of Judah’s royal house. In the vision, God tells Joshua, “I am going to bring my servant the Branch” (3:8). The Branch was a term introduced by the prophet Jeremiah when he described the rise of the ideal Davidic ruler (Jer. 23:5; 33:15). It is possible that Zechariah means Zerubbabel as the one who will restore the royal line. But the next vision mentions Zerubbabel by name. So why refer to him as the Branch here and his name later? I am not certain. Perhaps this prophecy has both temporal and eschatological applications.
In summary, the fourth vision with the priestly robing ritual is about the purification of the priesthood and the broader community. Going back to God’s opening rebuke of the accuser, it is important to point out the careful selection of Yahweh’s words: “The Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you!” (3:2). The beautiful part in this line is that Yahweh is not countering the accuser’s case against Joshua by invoking Joshua’s righteousness or justifying his position based off his right doings.
Instead, Yahweh emphasizes Joshua’s election. God adds, “I have taken your guilt away from you” (3:4), absolving Joshua not only of his outer impurities but also his spiritual state. We see that the upgrade in Joshua’s garments from filthy to fine is deeper than ritual purity. There is a full spiritual renewal happening.
One misconception Christians often have of the Jewish faith is that they assume Judaism lacks the language for mercy and only has the language of law. Nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, Christianity got its language, its ideas and its theology from the law, prophets, and psalms. The Hebrew scripture celebrates God’s mercy and grace which is why Zechariah’s vision drips with those attributes of God’s love.
The New Testament is a continuation of the theology of hope and grace. For Christians, reading Romans 8, we experience the climax of our story. Paul wrote, “And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (8:30). Joshua was appointed High Priest to mediate on behalf of the remnant. Jesus is our High Priest mediating on our behalf.
Please join me next week for Zechariah 4.
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