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. 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 Zechariah 6. Zechariah 6 provides the eighth vision in the sequence. The final vision concludes with what biblical scholars call a prophetic sign-act, a real-life action on the part of the prophet that symbolizes a divine revelation. Chapter 6 upholds the major theme of all Zechariah’s visions: the restoration of Judah and construction of the Temple.
The vision opens with the prophet looking up and seeing “four chariots coming out from between two mountains—mountains of bronze” (6:1). Colored horses—red, black, white, and dappled—pull the chariots (6:2). Zechariah asks the messenger for the meaning of the horses. The messenger explains that the chariots are “the four winds of heaven going out” from the presence of the Lord (6:5).
The elements of commonality between vision eight and vision one signal to the reader that the last vision is the bookend to the first. Zechariah’s last vision is wrapping up what the first vision started. The first vision has four horses of four different colors ridden by four horsemen.
In the eighth vision, there are four chariots pulled by horses of varied colors. In the first vision, the horses are standing among the myrtle trees. In the last vision, horse-drawn chariots appear from between bronze mountains. In both visions, the teams of horses and their envoys are doing the work of Yahweh by patrolling the earth (1:10; 6:7). The horsemen in the first vision are tasked with a reconnaissance mission before any warfare. By the last vision, the appearance of horse-drawn chariots, instruments of warfare in antiquity, signals the commencement of a military campaign.
The angelic messenger does not explain the meaning of the bronze mountains. If the two Jerusalem mountains were not metallic, they would likely be identified as Mount Zion and the Mount of Olives. But bronze mountains are not an earthly occurrence. The prophet is pointing to the abode of heaven. Perhaps the mountains are bronze to signal a parallel to God’s earthly dwelling. Two bronze pillars, named Jachin and Boaz, beautified the entrance to Solomon’s Temple (1 Kgs. 7:13-22). Many times, in Zechariah’s visions, symbols are embedded in symbols. If the four chariots are coming out of the heavenly realm, as the bronze mountains indicate, the horsemen received their orders directly from Yahweh’s divine council.
Zechariah’s vision sequence frequently uses the Hebrew verb yatza, translated as “coming out” or “going forth.” The repetition of the verb gives the visions many layered movements. The action all climaxes in the last vision. Zechariah repeats yatza six times in reference to the chariots. There is no doubt that the visions have come to a climax with Yahweh intervening militarily on Israel’s behalf.
When the angelic messenger connects the chariots with the four winds, he is emphasizing the global dominion of Yahweh. In that way, the first vision sounds the same gong as the last vision. Yahweh’s reign extends over the whole earth.
A team of chariots goes to the north and to the south without any specific mention of east and west. For the prophets, the “land of the north” (Jer. 3:18; Zech. 2: 6) is code for all of Israel’s imperial enemies through the centuries, especially Assyria or Babylon. Advancing armies from Babylon or Assyria always approached Judah from the north. The black and white horses are leading the armies to attack Judah’s greatest historical enemies.
The dappled strong horses head south. Bible scholars debate the significance of the lands in the south. The first possibility is that south represents Egypt. Since Egypt was the original enemy of the Hebrew people, the source of their enslavement, the country makes for a sensible target. Perhaps the vision focuses on the vanquishing of all of Israel’s historical enemies by Yahweh’s equestrian army.
However, Zechariah’s visions tend to be historically specific to the prophet’s own day. Zechariah was ministering during the Persian period, a 200-year interval in Israel’s history (539-332 BCE) when Judah was a province in the Persian empire. During this time, Egypt was not a threat to the Judean province. That is why we do not see many references to Egypt in the postexilic prophets.
The other possibility is that Zechariah has the trauma of his postexilic audience in mind. The lands of the north and south could be referencing the two lands of their captivity. After the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem, the largest communities of exiles were either transported to Babylon or fled to Egypt. Sending the chariots in the direction of the exilic communities connects the vision to the coming restoration of all of Judah in all the lands of her captivity. I am originally from Louisiana and in my head, what Zechariah is doing here would be like a Louisiana governor after Hurricane Katrina messaging his constituents in Houston and Baton Rouge. People would automatically know the governor was speaking to evacuees from the hurricane simply by mentioning those two cities.
The eight vision concludes with the presumption of military victory. The messenger declares that the chariots in the north country have set Yahweh’s “spirit at rest” (6:8). Another way to translate the passage is that the chariots have appeased God’s wrath. In the first vision of the horsemen, Yahweh declared that the “carefree nations” (aka Babylon) would pay for destroying Jerusalem. While God had been only a little angry at Judah, Babylon “made the disaster worse” (1:15). In other words, the empire went beyond their mandate in punishing Judah. As a result, the prophets, psalmist, and chronicler all anticipated Yahweh’s retaliation on Babylon.
Though Zechariah’s visions carry on the Babylonian theme, at the time of Zechariah’s ministry, Babylon was no longer an imperial power. That honor had passed to the Persian empire, first under the reign of King Cyrus, and then King Cambyses II and King Darius. By the time Zechariah began having visions, Persia had been the dominant force for twenty years. So why are his visions predicting God’s vengeance on Babylon as if it had not already happened?
Though the Persians subdued the kingdom of Babylon in 538 BCE, King Cyrus did not eradicate Babylon. Instead, he allowed Babylon to continue as a Persian province. Around the time of Zechariah’s visions, in the second year of King Darius, Babylon was trying to make a comeback, rebelling twice against the empire to overthrow Darius. When Darius put down the rebellion of Babylon, near the beginning of his reign, he did so more decisively and violently than any other of the challenges to his throne.
Putting the vision in its immediate historical context, Zechariah’s portrayal of the chariots bringing peace to the north is most likely his declaration that Yahweh is the source behind Darius’s final victory over Babylon. By his second year, Darius had already defeated Babylon. The vision is an explanation of the historical reality and a recognition that Yahweh is responsible for Babylon’s collapse. The Persian army, like the four chariots, were doing Yahweh’s bidding, even if they did not realize it.
The prophets interpret every historical event as an act of God. The prophet Isaiah attributed King Cyrus’s initial overthrow of Babylon to the hand of Yahweh (Isa. 45:1-4). Addressing Cyrus, Isaiah assured the Persian king, “I will go before you and will level the mountains; I will break down gates of bronze and cut through bars of iron” (Isa. 45:2). Before Zechariah’s ministry, the major preexilic prophets had already normalized this way of speaking about foreign, even godless, leaders who Yahweh strengthens to fulfill his will.
Indeed, once King Darius squashed the Babylonian rebellions, peace spread throughout the region, giving the returnees the quiet they needed to rebuild the Temple. Only with regional peace secured could the postexilic leaders, like Joshua and Zerubbabel, move forward with rebuilding Jerusalem, the Temple, and their nation.
Zechariah 6 nicely synthesizes all eight of the preceding vision reports. After the reconnaissance mission in vision one, the six intervening visions encourage the returnees to repent, return to Yahweh, and pursue obedience. In the last vision, God takes the credit for setting things right on the world stage by fully punishing Babylon. The postexilic community has the green light to move forward. Babylon’s defeat was the promised sign for all the exiles to return.
With the conclusion of the last vision, Yahweh asks Zechariah to carry out a symbolic action. Prophetic sign-acts pop up frequently in the major and minor prophets. They are the prophet’s version of immersive theater with object lessons. For example, Ezekiel built a miniature Jerusalem out of clay and laid siege ramps around it like a toy soldier setup (Ezek. 4-5). Isaiah preached naked for several years (Isa. 20:1-4). And Hosea had to marry a woman with a reputation for cheating.
Zechariah’s sign-act is to visit three exiles who have recently returned from Babylon: Heldai, Tobijah, and Jedaiah (6:10). The return of the three exiles, none of whom are known historically, foreshadow the return of all “those who are far off” (6:15).
The exiles arrived with silver and gold offerings, most likely the result of a collection taken up from the Jewish diaspora in Babylon.
The Book of Ezra gives several accounts of donations coming in from Persia to the Jewish temple (Ezra 1,2, and 8). In some cases, those donations came from the Persian treasuries. In other cases, it was Jewish exiles sending free will offerings for the Temple. Either way, the Temple priests were accountable for guarding and inventorying all the donations.
The generosity of Babylon’s exiles echoes a similar collection of free will offerings that occurred centuries before after the exodus from Egypt. When Moses commissioned the Tabernacle, he held a public collection for precious materials (Ex. 25:1). The former slaves gave spontaneously and generously to the point that Moses had to call off the donation drive because he had a surplus (Ex. 36:6). Perhaps, Zechariah hopes that once again God will move the hearts of the people so Zerubbabel’s Temple has a similar outcome.
Zechariah goes with the men to the home of Josiah. Josiah, perhaps a goldsmith, obediently fashions two crowns out of the gold and silver. Perhaps by now you have noticed a pattern in Zechariah’s eight vision reports. Almost every vision concludes with real-life endorsements of Israel’s leaders, Joshua and Zerubbabel.
Zechariah takes the newly constructed crown and places it on Joshua’s head (6:11). Joshua is a priest, not the king. Priests wear turbans, like in the vision of the priestly robing ritual (Zech. 3:5), not crowns. In the traditions of Israel, the line of David and the line of Levi have distinct roles. At no point in Israel’s history did God approve of the merging of priest and king. The crowning of Joshua conveys a message, but the message leaves more questions than answers. The crowning of Joshua is difficult to interpret, partly because of the oddity of the act and partly because of the awkwardness of the sentence structure in Hebrew.
Is God coronating Joshua, giving him the authority of both priest and king? Zerubbabel, the only legitimate heir to the throne, is nowhere around. Zechariah addresses Joshua about the Branch and does not seem to be addressing Joshua as the Branch. In previous visions, the Branch was associated with Zerubbabel, the Branch being a term familiar from the prophet Jeremiah (23:5, 33:15) and Isaiah (42:1-4; 49: 1-7). The Branch is an “epithet” used mostly in connection to a restored Davidic king.
Joshua descended from the line of Levi. His grandfather was Seraiah, the high priest taken prisoner at the time of Jerusalem’s capture (2 Kings 25:18). Zerubbabel, on the other hand, was a descendant of King Jehoiachin, exiled in 597 BCE (2 Kings 24:12-16; 25:27-30). According to Judah’s traditions, Jehoiachin’s line was the only hope for a royal throne.
My understanding from the vision is that Zechariah is expressing a Messianic hope, rather than an immediate reality. The mere survival of the priestly line is an “omen of things to come” (3:6) that points also to the coming of the Branch.
As subjects of the Persian empire, Joshua’s role as high priest may have seemed more definitive than Zerubbabel’s position as provincial governor. Zechariah, repeatedly in his visions, affirms the roles of both Joshua and Zerubbabel. Therefore, it must be Zerubbabel who is in view when the prophet announces, “it is he who shall build the temple of the Lord; he shall bear royal honor and shall sit upon his throne and rule” (6:13).
Towards the ends of Zechariah’s sign act, the prophet calls for balance of authority, saying “there shall be a priest by his throne, with peaceful understanding between the two of them” (6:13). The book is not promoting the immediate priestly takeover of the royal position. In the past, the prideful King Uzziah tried to usurp the role of priest. God was so disgusted with the arrogance of the act that he afflicted Uzziah with leprosy (2 Chron. 26:16-20). Zechariah’s visions should halt any temptation to combine the role of priest and king. The “peaceful understanding” between Joshua and Zerubbabel is likely an endorsement of their separate but complimentary roles. Joshua is responsible for the religious affairs of the community and Zerubbabel oversees the civil affairs.
In Zechariah’s final declaration, he repeats the promise that the exiles will return to rebuild the Temple. But the fulfillment of the prophecy is contingent on their obedience to the voice of the Lord (6:15). The sign-act ends with the command to place the crowns inside the soon-to-be-built Temple as a memorial.
Only with this direction do we confirm that Joshua is not meant to wear the royal crown. Instead, the exhibited crowns are a tribute to the obedient of Judah. Zechariah’s sign-act, as a conclusion to his visions, is an expression of the hope that is to come. The Temple is not complete, and already two expensive crowns are endowed with spiritual symbolism destined for the sanctuary.
Join me next week in reading Zechariah 7. The prophet does not mention Joshua or Zerubbabel again for the rest of his book, but he does have more to say about the need for covenant renewal.
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