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.
We are halfway through Zechariah’s vision sequence. Before we move on, I want to review the tradition of visions in the Hebrew scriptures. You may be wondering if Zechariah’s constant dreaming is out of line with the rest of the prophets.
Since the time of the Exodus, God has provided a series of righteous human mediators to communicate his will to the Jewish people. During the forty years of wilderness wanderings, God appointed Moses for the role. God declared Moses to be the humblest man on earth, so to him God spoke “face to face—clearly, not in riddles” (Num. 12:8). After the death of Moses came Joshua and then a series of judges who heard the voice of God even if they did not see his form.
After King Solomon, very few of Judah and Israel’s kings even pretended to seek after God. It was during this time of unrighteous leadership that God supplied a steady stream of prophets for the people. Some wrote their prophecies down and gave us the prophetic books. With this new line of mediators, God often spoke to them in dreams and visions. Read Numbers 12 to see how God, in a dialogue with Aaron and Miriam, predicted a day that dreams and visions would be his preferred method of revelation.
The literary prophets all fell between 900 and 500 BCE. During the four hundred years that prophets ministered in Israel and Judah, not all of them recorded dreams or visions. Haggai, for example, had a very direct message for the postexilic community and no visionary experiences. The books most known for their prophetic visions are Amos, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. Amos had visions of swarming locusts, consuming fire, a basket of fruit, and an almond tree (Amos 7-9). His visions were mostly static. Jeremiah also had static visions, one of a blossoming almond tree (Jer. 1:11) and another of a boiling pot tilted toward Judah (Jer. 1:13). Ezekiel was a prolific visionary and his scenes glitter with detail and movement. Among the most famous of his visions are the valley of the dry bones (Ezek. 37), God’s battle chariot flown by winged beings (Ezek. 1), and the divine blueprints of the New Jerusalem (Ezek. 40-48).
My point is that Zechariah’s visions are part of a long prophetic tradition and the fulfillment of a promise God made to the Israelites even before they settled in Canaan. However, Zechariah also marks a turning point in style. His visions are more active than his predecessors with a cast of characters whom the prophet often interacts. Amos and Jeremiah used their visions to warn the people of the consequences of their rebellion. The implications of Zechariah’s message are generally more encouraging about the possibilities of the future.
The book of Daniel and the book of Revelation will go much further with colorful dreams, elaborate symbols, and evocative interpretations, but Zechariah is the innovator that launched the apocalyptic-style visions. He carried on with something old but also started something new.
This week we are studying Zechariah 4, the fifth vision. By now, you have probably noticed a common structure to the visions as the prophet seems to be going in and out of prophetic consciousness.
The prophet awakens to witness a scene. He often asks an interpreting angel for the meaning of the actors and symbols. Usually, the angel acts as his docent, explaining the significance of what he sees. Usually, the chapter ends with an oracle from the prophet, often with a Messianic note of hope. Despite the similarity of the eight scenes, every vision takes creative liberty and departs in at least one unique way from the vision formula. In the case of vision five, Zechariah asks for the visions meaning but does not wait for the answer before delivering an oracle. He asks a new question and then the angel offers the meaning.
Zechariah sees a golden lampstand with a bowl on the top. Out of the bowl are seven lamps with seven channels (4:2). Like the menorahs used in both the Tabernacle and Temple, the lamp is solid gold, indicating its sanctity. Structurally, however, the description of the lampstand does not point to a menorah.
Hebrew scholars differ over the most accurate translation of Zechariah’s lampstand. In the NIV, the bowl of oil is connected to the seven lamps by seven channels. But the Hebrew word musaqot can translate as channel, opening, or lip—depending on the context. For difficult passages, where the Hebrew word can have several possible meanings, archaeology is a critical tool that often can illuminate the text, especially if the Bible is describing something found in Israel’s material record.
In the case of Zechariah’s lampstand, musaqot is probably referring to the spout or lip on the rim of the bowl. Archaeologists routinely uncover ceramic versions of lampstands with a pinch along the rim. Olive oil was placed inside the bowl and a piece of material was set along the indentation on the rim to soak the oil and keep a continuous flame. Multiple indentations along the rim of the bowl allowed for multiple wicks to provide additional light.
On each side of the golden lampstand are olive trees, to the right and left of the lampstand and slightly hovering over it (4:3). The trees drip oil from their olive clusters directly in the bowl. There is no need to nitpick the mechanics of the oil making. Normally, olives are picked and crushed to claim the oil. They do not drip oil directly from the branch. Fanciful illustrations like this remind the reader that this is a visionary experience. We are not meant to fact check the passages but to recognize the spiritual significance of the symbols.
Zechariah asks his mediating angel for an explanation of what he is seeing. The angel answered, “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of hosts. What are you, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel you shall become a plain, and he shall bring out the top stone amid shouts of ‘Grace, grace to it!’” (4:6-7).
Notice that the angelic mediator does not answer Zechariah’s inquiry the first time. The angel even seems a little miffed that Zechariah does not understand the vision right away. Instead of answering Zechariah’s question, the angel launches into the oracle: “not by might, nor by power.”
The message for the community is that military strength and political independence are not going to accomplish God’s will. The Temple will be rebuilt, the land restored, and the remnant returned by Yahweh, and the force of his spirit as he works through those he elects.
Reducing mountains to plains is a common metaphor in prophetic parlance (Mic. 1:4; Nah. 1:5; Hab. 3:10). Ezra 4 and 5 gives the historical context for Zechariah’s prophecies, making it easy to identify the proverbial mountains in Zerubbabel’s way. According to the narrative in Ezra, the remnant returned from exile and almost immediately ran into opposition from the “people of the land” (Ezra 4:4). The “people of the land” were the grandchildren of those Judeans who never went into exile. They also intermingled with people groups who migrated to Judah over the decades.
When the returnees began to rebuild the city and the Temple, the “people of the land” demanded that they take part in the rebuilding projects. Zerubbabel rejected their request. The Bible does not give his reasoning. In response to Zerubbabel’s rejection, the “people of the land” sent letters and bribes to Persian officials to try and get the Temple project stopped. The letters claimed that Zerubbabel and his followers were conspiring to revolt against the Persian empire. After a year of empire-wide uprisings, King Darius was paranoid enough to take all whisperings of revolt serious. Darius shut down Zerubbabel’s construction plans.
Ezra tells us that at this time Haggai and Zechariah were sent to the community to minister over them in the name of God (Ezra 5:1). The people were fueled by the encouragement of the prophets and they renewed their work on the Temple, despite the Persian ban. The “people of the land” wrote another letter to the Persian king to sound alarm bells that the returnees were defying the empire’s orders. Eventually, the king rescinded the ban after Persian officials searched the royal archives and located King Cyrus’s original decree that allowed the Jewish exiles to return and rebuild their destroyed Temple.
Haggai and Zechariah’s prophecies spoke to the troubles of the people, whether they were facing opposition from their enemy neighbors, a depressed economy, a bad crop yield, or the empire’s building bans. The message from Zechariah’s fifth vision is that human strength will not complete the temple. God was sending his spirit to energize Zerubbabel and flatten the mountain of obstacles. Haggai consoled the people with the same message: “My spirit abides among you; do not fear” (2:5).
The angelic mediator does not explain the symbolism of the lampstand but it seems the oil is God’s strength and the lamp is the community temple builders. Without oil, a lampstand is merely furniture with no function. In the vision, the oil drips down into the lamp as an endless supply.
Though the temple is incomplete, Zechariah’s vision anticipates a day when the final stone is laid and the people rejoice. In their rejoicing, they shout “grace!” because they know all credit belongs to God (4:7).
Vision five couples with vision four. Both visions are unusual in that the characters are historical people, even contemporaries of Zechariah. The prophecies were partially meant to encourage Joshua and Zerubbabel for the task at hand, but they also would have been prophetic warnings to any opposition the leaders faced from their own ranks. At the time of Zechariah’s prophecies, elders in the community and priestly groups may have questioned the legitimacy of Joshua and Zerubbabel, especially when the Temple project faltered.
Haggai and Ezra do not explicitly mention opposition to their leadership but Zechariah’s fourth and fifth vision subtly suggest it may have been an issue. Why else would there be back-to-back visions boosting them as Judah’s national leaders chosen by God. In Ezra 3, when the builders finished the foundation of the temple, some in the crowd cheered and others wept. Perhaps the elders and older priests that resented the degraded Temple also resented the leadership of Zerubbabel and Joshua. In Zechariah 7 and 8, the prophet directly rebukes a contingent of priests who may have been among Joshua’s challengers.
Just as Zechariah’s fourth vision laid out the divine selection of Joshua as High Priest, the fifth vision endorses Zerubbabel as the one Yahweh chose to start and finish the temple: “The hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundation of this house; his hands shall also complete it” (4:9). God is equating the undermining of Zerubbabel with the undermining of God’s will. When the Temple is complete, Zerubbabel and Joshua will be validated. The prophets will also be endorsed when their messages are fulfilled. Zechariah says, “then you will know that the Lord of hosts has sent me to you” (4:9).
After the interruption of the oracle, Zechariah returns to his questions for the interpreting angel. His persistence in pursuing the meaning of his visions is admirable. He narrows his question to the meaning of the oil-producing branches that drop oil directly into the bowl. The angel answers: “These are the two anointed ones who stand by the Lord of the whole earth” (4:14). The “two anointed ones” could also be translated “two sons of oil.” Either way, the most popular interpretation is that the sons of oil are Zerubbabel and Joshua. This view is based off the prevalence of the historical leaders in the fourth and fifth visions. In Judah’s history, priests, kings, and prophets were the only ones ritually anointed with oil as part of their initiation (Ex. 28:41; 1 Sam. 16:3; 2 Sam. 2:4). If the lampstand is the second Temple, then Yahweh selected Joshua and Zerubbabel to provide the leadership needed to finish the task.
In every vision, Zechariah addresses an insecurity of the people. In the first vision, he assures them that the prophetic plan to put Jerusalem at the center of world order and peace still holds. In the third vision, Zechariah promises Yahweh will be their protection, even without fortifications and a beleaguered population. In the fourth vision, the prophet assures them that the sins of their fathers do not rest on their heads. In the fifth vision, Zechariah reinforces the divine selection of their national leaders. Even if progress is slow, Joshua and Zerubbabel are the ones appointed for this time.
Before the exile, the prophets highlighted the sins and failures of the people and warned Israel and Judah of coming destruction. Mixed in those doom messages were glimmers of Messianic hope, promises of restoration, and pleas to return to God and walk in his ways. After the exile, the prophets have a much more positive message. They get to console, comfort, and reassure. Of course, this is not always the case. The postexilic community was far from perfect. But to be sure, the tone after exile has changed.
Please join me next week for Zechariah 5 and the flying scroll.
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