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 8, a continuation of the prophet’s response to the Bethel delegation’s question about fast days. In chapter 7, the question provoked a somewhat testy sermon from Zechariah. He warned the people about the consequences of straying from God and the pitfalls of hypocrisy and empty religion.
In chapter 8, the tone changes from rebuke to reassurance. The prophet encourages the people to obey and experience the fullness of their inheritance. But there is a hitch. The blessings are contingent on their ability to “love truth and peace” (8:19).
Last week, we covered the importance of all the minute details in the historical narrative: the timing of the prophecy, the historic enmity of Bethel and Jerusalem, and the continuation of Babylonian influence in the remnant. Zechariah 7-8 is a classic example of the importance of studying the historical and cultural background of the prophets. Of course, the same is true for the entire Bible.
The Bible has a dual nature. While the Bible’s message is eternal, Zechariah, and all the other biblical writers, ministered to a particular people, at a certain time and place. They packed their message in the language, commands, and stories most relevant to those people in that day.
Christian teachers often caution against interpreting the Bible. Instead, they promote reading the Bible’s “plain meaning.” But I have seen believers become discouraged by this advice. To most readers, the meaning is not at all plain. As a result, the believer feels less Christian when they cannot reconstruct the nuances of Zechariah’s visions or find any significant meaning in the text.
Allow me to relieve you of that burden that keeps boxing you out of the harder biblical books. You should not be expected to intuitively understand the cultural, geographical, literary, historical, and political nuances of the Bible.
The goal of Bible Fiber is for us to intelligibly approach the text together so hopefully we all become more adept at studying the prophets in their own context. The prophets are not trying to hide the bigger message. It is there for the taking. Discerning that message may require extra reading and studying commentaries. It may necessitate a little word study. Overall, I hope you feel what I intend. The prophets are making us all Biblical historians now!
The prophet Zechariah spends a good deal of his ministry trying to allay the insecurities of the returnees, calling them to look past the difficulties of their present and focus on the promise of their future. After decades in captivity, the community is anxious that Yahweh has transferred his favor to another nation, especially since the surrounding regions are experiencing a period of peace.
Chapter 8 begins with Zechariah reminding his audience that Yahweh is “zealous for Zion” (8:1), an exhortation he had already given in the first chapter (1:14). The Hebrew word qanah is translated as either jealous or zealous. In English, jealous has a negative connotation of uncontrolled anger while zealous is positive. The NRSV prefers zealous while the NIV goes with jealous. Zealous is almost too positive though in the next line when Yahweh reiterates the extent of his passion: “I am zealous for her with great wrath” (8:2). God’s loyalty to Judah will be at the expense of her enemies. In the past, jealousy provoked Yahweh’s discipline of the people when they went after other gods. Yahweh does not desire a repetition of the consequence of the previous generation. He is making a fresh start with the remnant by declaring his allegiance and defending his people.
Zechariah 8:2-8 make one unit, joined in theme and literary style. “Thus, has said Yahweh of hosts” signals the start of five prophetic declarations in succession. Each declaration is an idyllic description of Yahweh’s return to Jerusalem or the remnant’s return. God promises, “I will return to Zion and will dwell in the midst of Jerusalem; Jerusalem shall be called the faithful city, and the mountain of the Lord of hosts shall be called the holy mountain” (8:3).
So transformative will be the abiding presence of God that Jerusalem and the Temple Mount will warrant new names. Jerusalem is the “faithful city” or translations that follow closer to the Hebrew go with “city of truth.” Yahweh’s presence will radiate holiness throughout the city, giving the Temple Mount the epithet “holy mountain.”
Before the destruction of Jerusalem, the Judeans assumed that Yahweh would never leave his Holy Temple. If their god resided in his temple, their city was safe and protected. The prophet Jeremiah told the people that they were deluding themselves (Jer. 7:4). He warned them over and over that God’s presence was contingent on their faithfulness. He warned that unless they amended their ways, and repented of their wickedness, Yahweh would abandon the Temple. That is exactly what happened. In a vision before the Babylonian attack, Ezekiel witnessed Yahweh’s glory exit from between the cherubim over the Ark of the Covenant and depart Jerusalem’s city gate (Ezek. 10).
Without a completed Temple and without the presence of God in the ruins of their city, the returnees in Zechariah’s time questioned the meaning of the covenant relationship. They did not know if God had abandoned them forever, like what seemed to happen with the Kingdom of Israel. Zechariah’s divine oracle is good news. The crisis of Yahweh’s departure is soon to be resolved.
Zechariah prophecies that news of Yahweh’s return to the “holy mountain” will prompt the exiles to return as well. Yahweh promises, “I will save my people from the east country and from the west country, and I will bring them to live in Jerusalem” (8:7). Yahweh’s return only makes sense if it is accompanied with the return of his people so the covenant relationship could be restored. The preexilic prophets had pointed to a time when the exiles would return. Micah foresaw a day when Jacob and Israel would be regathered “like sheep in a fold, like a flock in its pasture” (2:12). Even the Psalmist anticipated the return of all the scattered peoples from every cardinal direction (107:3).
Zechariah utters, “Thus says the Lord of hosts: Old men and old women shall again sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand because of their great age. And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets.” (8:4). The blissful image of children playing and the elderly sitting in peace conveys the ultimate sense of a society free from fear and suffering. Zechariah uses the verb, sahaq, which appears at other points in the scripture to describe dancing, laughing, or playing (Jer. 31:4). The elderly and children are the most vulnerable generations.
Children and the elderly represent the longevity of generations, something the restored community lacked. Most likely, many returnees from Babylon were middle age. The long journey would have been difficult for the elderly.
According to the archaeological record, the population of Judah during Zechariah’s day was paltry, hovering around 20,000. Considering this was only a third of the region’s population before the exile, the community had anxieties about population growth. A generational presence in the population was not something the returnees took for granted.
Zechariah’s idyllic images of Jerusalem in this section seem detached from Judah’s dystopian reality. For this reason, a rhetorical question interrupts the oracle to emphasize the sovereignty of God: “Even though it seems impossible to the remnant of this people in these days, should it also seem impossible to me” (8:6). What is about to take place is supernatural, the initiative of the divine.
The second section begins with the repeated signal “thus says the Lord of hosts.” The exhortation “let your hands be strong” brackets the mini sermon (8:9,13) at the beginning and end. Zechariah addresses all the people who have been hearing from the prophets since the laying of the Temple foundation. Presumably, he means himself and Haggai.
Calling back to the early waves of returnees, Zechariah acknowledges the period of lack that the people suffered before renewing the Temple’s construction. In Haggai’s account of those days, a broken economic system led to unchecked inflation (Hag. 1:6). Zechariah describes a time when there were “no wages for people or for animals” (8:10). Most Bible commentaries assume the people suffered from unemployment, but the dysfunctional economy portrayed in Haggai could also mean the people were working without pay. No wages for the animals likely meant there was no money to even pay for the use of animals on the farms.
Throughout Zechariah’s account, Yahweh’s immanence is stressed. Yahweh was behind all the challenges that they encountered on their return, including the constant harassment of their neighbors, as described in Ezra 4-6. The people could not move about the land safely (8:10). The limited resources aggravated the situation further, leaving them to turn on one another out of competition (8:10).
Yahweh promises a reversal of fortune. The turmoil of the early years will subside. Just as he was behind the obstacles the returnees faced, he is responsible for the coming blessings. The metaphorical language to describe how the tough times will give way to good times is almost entirely agricultural: “the vine shall yield its fruit, the ground shall give its produce, and the skies shall give their dew” (8:12).
Throughout the Hebrew scripture, vines and seeds are associated with peace and provision, newfound prosperity and security. The land’s abundance, out of divine favor, is a direct reversal from chapter 7’s description of the desolation of the land during the exile (7:14).
In the past, Yahweh had “purposed to bring disaster” on their ancestors (8:14) because they provoked his wrath with their disobedience. For the current generation, God desires to bring them blessing. The text says God has “purposed” to “do good to Jerusalem” (8:15). Once again, God is shifting a negative of the past to a positive of the future, a theme repeated in each section of the chapter.
For the people to know this new kind of existence, they must recommit themselves to their covenantal responsibilities. Zechariah lists the contingencies: “speak truth to one another, render in your gates judgments that are true and make for peace, do not devise evil in your hearts against one another, and love no false oath” (8:16). Until now, Zechariah has yet to specify or explain the people’s wrongdoing, other than his opening call for repentance (1:4). Apparently, the same problems with injustice that persisted in the preexilic generation have endured. While idolatry was no longer a problem in the postexilic community, their sins are in the category of moral and ethical. The people must stop violence, lying, and mistreating one another. They must prioritize obedience, characterizing their society with truth, justice, and compassion.
While the former generation failed, the remnant has a chance to change their trajectory. Three times in the chapter, Zechariah refers to his audience as the “remnant,” affirming that they are the remnant foretold by the earlier prophets to survive and rebuild (8:6,11,12).
Only in 8:18 does Zechariah finally circle back to the original question about fasting. Apparently, the Bethel delegation is still present in Zechariah’s audience, waiting for an answer to their question. Chapter 7 mentioned two fasts on the fifth and seventh months (7:5). Now, Zechariah is referencing two additional fast days on the fourth and tenth months.
The fast days were not divinely mandated. The Day of Atonement is the only biblically mandated fast day (Lev. 16:29). The exiles in Babylon instituted the four fasts to ritually remember every dramatic moment from the siege to the destruction of Jerusalem.
Yahweh declares that in the restored community, the fast days will be transformed to “seasons of joy and gladness and cheerful festivals for the house of Judah” (8:19). He is not explicitly canceling the fast days, but rather changing their mood from lament to celebration. In a righteous society with a rebuilt Temple, the past trauma will fade in light of the renewed covenant. The experience of the exile will be understood as the necessary discipline that turned their hearts back to God.
The people of Yahweh were self-aware that their long history did not give off the impression to their neighboring nations that they were a chosen people. The loss of their temple and the decades of captivity put them among the cursed in the eyes of the nations, but they are soon to become a blessing (8:13).
Zechariah 8 closes with a universal message. While Haggai focused on the importance of renewing the work on the Temple, Zechariah exhorts them to work on the moral and ethical fabric of their society. What they produce, with the rebuilt Temple and the elevation of their covenant, is important not just for Judah but for the entire world. When the people respond obediently to God’s call and walk in his ways, it will impact the nations. The goodness and justice of the community will radiate outward.
Zechariah echoes earlier prophets who describe the nations excitedly flocking to Jerusalem (Micah 4:1-4; Isa. 2:3, 45:14). Haggai envisioned the nations bringing offerings to the Temple (Hag. 2:6-7). In Zechariah, a great multitude of foreigners from “strong nations” (8:22) will encourage one another to join them in their pilgrimage and pay homage to the God of Judah. Zechariah says, “In those days ten men from nations of every language shall take hold of a Jew, grasping his garment and saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you’” (8:23). The nations will recognize the oneness of God and make the journey to Jerusalem as the place where Yahweh has revealed himself. They will recognize and uphold the people that Yahweh revealed himself to. What a beautiful image, especially for a community who is suffering from self-doubt.
In Zechariah’s universal recognition of Yahweh’s sovereignty, he is glimpsing the coming kingdom. Normally, it is difficult to pinpoint the fulfillment of prophecies. However, as Christians we read ourselves into these broader worldwide visions, and I believe rightly so.
I started out talking how the meaning of the text can sometimes be buried in the layers of historical cultural details. In this last verse in Zechariah 8, however, the meaning is clear, hanging out in the open for all. The implications of Zechariah’s vision of gentiles passionately clinging to the hem of the robes of Jews extends out past Zechariah’s own time and place, and into ours. I know Jews and Christians who today gather regularly for Bible studies because of this prophetic verse!
Join me next week reading Zechariah 9. The prophet leaves the dreams and visions and mini sermons and goes fully into the age of the Messiah.
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