How to read Zechariah


    • Content: visions aimed at encouraging the postexilic community, especially the leadership, to rebuild the temple, plus oracles about the future coming King who would be slain and eventually triumph

    • Prophet: Zechariah of Jerusalem, a contemporary of Haggai, but with a longer known ministry (cf. Zech 1:1 and, 7:1 with Hag 1:1;see also Ezra 5:1; 6:14)

    • Date of prophetic activity: 520 B.c. until sometime in the early 400s

    • Emphases: God is with the remnant community of people who have returned from exile; God will prosper her leaders; the future of Jerusalem and Judah is bright and full of peace and glory; Israel's King will come back to Jerusalem in triumph, yet he will be slain for the sins of the people; God will punish his people's enemies, yet many of the nations will come to know the Lord


This eleventh of the Book of the Twelve has two such distinct parts (chs. 1-8; 9-14) that many scholars believe chapters 9-14 to be from someone else. But the Bible presents both parts together, with the second to be understood in light of the first. Here is a case where the near future and the great future of God exist in tension by the very structure of the book.

Both sections have recognizable parts. After an introductory call to repentance (l:2-6), you encounter a series of eight night visions (1 :7-6:15), which are interpreted by an "angel who was talking with [Zechariah]" (1:9). These center in visions 4-5, which focus on the leadership of Joshua and Zerubbabel and the building of the temple. The rest of this section (chs. 7-8) uses a question posed about certain fasts to preach about the true nature of fasting and to announce God's future blessing of Jerusalem.

Chapters 9-14 contain two "oracles" (chs.9-1 I and 12-14) having to do with God's glorious future for his people and judgment on his/their enemies. The first contains a judgment against the nations (9:1-8) set in the context of the coming and subsequent rejection of God's kingly Messiah (9 :9-17; ll:4-17) and the great regathering of his scattered people (10:1-11:3). The second oracle picks up all of these themes but sets them into an even more obviously eschatological context, as they focus on "that day," climaxing in chapter 14 with the final defeat of God's enemies and the establishment of his universal kingdom, when all the nations come to worship him.


Most people find Zechariah an especially difficult read even for a prophetic book. This is undoubtedly due to the highly symbolic nature of the night visions plus the normally complex character of prophetic eschatological oracles-and these are what make up most of Zechariah. But with a bit of help you should be able to negotiate your way through the book and appreciate some of its grandeur.

For the history of the period and the basic concerns of the prophet, see "Specific Advice for Reading Haggai". What is important to note here is that all of the primary concerns of Israel's prophetic tradition occur in Zechariah-judgments of God's people for their own sins; judgments against surrounding nations because of their sins against God's people and because Yahweh is sovereign over all the nations; a glorious future for the redeemed and purified people of God-and all of this set in tension between soon-to-be temporal realities and the final glorious future of God. What is also a pronounced feature of Zechariah is his expectation of God's future messianic king, which is why he is quoted so often by the New Testament writers (especially with regard to Christ and the final expression of the kingdom of God).

A couple of observations may help your reading of the night visions. First, they are arranged in a concentric (chiastic) pattern. Note that visions I and 8 (1:7-17;6: 1-8) both envision four groups of colored horses, whose purpose is to go throughout the whole earth, as the backdrop for the building of the temple. Visions 2 and 3 (1:18-21;2: 1-13) and 6 and 7 (5:1-4;5:5-11) have to do with obstacles facing the restoration community and its building of the temple (in2 and 3 the obstacles come from without and in 6 and 7 from within). Visions 4 and 5 (3: 1 -10; 4:1- 14) are the centerpiece, dealing especially with Joshua's and Zerubbabel's leadership, both for the building of the temple and for leading the community.

Second you will note a similar pattern to most of these visions: Zechariah describes what he sees, he asks about its meaning, and an interpreting angel gives the explanation. Four of the visions ([1] 1:14-17; [3] 2:6-13; [5] 4:6-10a; [8] 6:9-15) also contain one or more oracles, which make specific the message of the visions. The heart of all of this is a word of encouragement, declaring to the people that the time is ripe-the conditions are now in place for them to rebuild-while at the same time it is, as with Haggai, a word of encouragement to those in leadership.

The two oracles in chapters 9-14 are especially difficult to follow, but in the main they follow a pattern as well. Both have to do with the triumphal intervention of the Lord in the affairs of Judah and the nations. The first looks toward the more immediate future, the second toward the final coming of God's universal rule. Common to both is the central place of God's kingly Messiah, and the fact that he is rejected by the people.

One final note. Later prophets sometimes make use of the language and images of earlier ones. This is especially true of Zechariah, who not only mentions the "earlier prophets" (1:4, 6; 7:7 , 12), but deliberately echoes their language in a number of places (e.g., cf. 1 :4 with Jer 35: 15). This may be the best explanation for the intriguing piercing and suffering of God's kingly Messiah in Zechariah 11-13, which sounds like further reflection on Isaiah's suffering servant (Is a 52:13-53 :12). This also helps to explain why the New Testament writers refer to these two passages so often as the way to explain the Messiah's crucifixion.




Both the heading, which dates about two months after Haggai's initial word, and the words that follow serve as a validation of the prophet: This is what God has told Zechariah to tell the people, which affirms that the covenant is still in effect and calls for their obedience (in contrast to the way their ancestors behaved).


Vision 1: The Horsemen: God's Return to Jerusalem

Note the parts as you read: (1) the vision itself (v.8); (2)Zechariah's question about meaning (w. 9-10); (3) the interpreting angel's response: They are the patrol who has gone throughout the whole earth and find it at rest; (a) the oracle(s)-Yahweh is returning to Jerusalem, so the people must not rest but must rebuild the temple.


Vision 2: Four Horns Destroyed

Note how this vision is in two parts with explanations. The days of the nations responsible for the exile (of both Judah and Israel) are over.


Vision 3: Jerusalem Cannot Be Measured - The Return of Prosperity

Note how the explanation (vv. 4-13) takes the form of a series of oracles-the coming greatness of Jerusalem with Yahweh as her protector (vv. 4-5); a call to the exiles in Babylon to return (vv. 6-9; thus picking up from vision 2);Yahweh's dwelling in Zion as universal sovereign (vv. 10-13; thus filling out the present vision). Note also how verse 13 echoes Habakkuk 2:20.


Vision 4: The Reinstatement of the High Priest

Remember that this is the first of the two central visions. Since at stake is the rebuilding of the temple, the place of God's presence, this vision has to do with cleansing the high priest, who is to function in the temple once it is rebuilt. Note the progression from clean garments and turban (vv. 3-5) to recommissioning (vv. 6-7) to the promised Branch (v. 8, referring ultimately to the coming Davidic king; cf. Isa 11:1 ; 53:2; Jer 23:5); the vision concludes by anticipating the oracle in Zechariah 8: 1 -8.


Vision 5: The Lampstand and the Olive Trees - God's Renewing Spirit/Presence

Note the slightly different structure: the vision (vv. 1-3), now with two sets of questions (vv. 4-5, 1 I - l3) and explanations (vv. 6-10, 14) - to encourage Zerubbabel that God's Spirit will bring about what human power cannot-plus an affirmation of his and Joshua's leadership.


Vision 5: The Flying Scroll - Banishment of Evil from Judah

Now you are back to a brief vision and explanation: The evil that persists in Judah will be banished from the land.


Vision 7: The Woman in a Basket - Wickedness Exiled to Babylon

Watch for the irony in this vision, &S well as its relationship to previous visions: The people will return from exile (vision 3), Babylon has been overthrown (vision 2), the temple will be rebuilt (visions 4-5); so what happens to wickedness? It will be exiled to Babylon!


Vision 8: The Four Chariots - God at Rest and a Crown for Joshua

Note how this vision wraps up the series. This new patrol of four horsemen again goes throughout the earth and finds it at rest (especially Babylon, the o'north country," v.6)-all of this to say that the time for rebuilding is now.

The "word" that came to Zechariah that concludes the visions (vv. 9-15) both supplements and reinforces the concerns that have preceded (Joshua, the Branch, the rebuilding of the temple).


In Response to a Question about Fasting

A question related to special fasts in connection with the fall of Jerusalem becomes the catalyst for a series of oracles that take a concentric (chiastic) pattern similar to the visions.

7:1-3 The question: Do we continue to mourn and fast over Jerusalem's fall?

7:4-14 A judgment against fasting without obedience to the covenant

8:1-8 A picture of restored Jerusalem, which serves to inspire

8:9-13 An encouragement to rebuild the temple

8:14-17 True fasting expresses itself in showing mercy and justice (Isa 58)

8:18-19 The question answered: Let the fasts be turned into joyful celebrations

Note how the two appended oracles (8:20-23) anticipate the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant that includes the Gentiles (Gen 12:3). And finally note how the two sections of the book end on this same note (Zech 8:20 -23 ; I 4: | 6 - 19)


Zion's King and the Glorious Future for God's People

This first oracle resorts to the poetic pattern of the earlier prophets. Look for the following progression: What begins with a judgment on the surrounding nations (9:1-8) turns into the promised restoration of the Davidic king (w. 9-17) and of a united Israel (10:1, 3b-12). Note that the latter is enclosed by a denunciation of false shepherds ( 10:2-3a; 11:1 -6, 14-17) and that the last of these encloses a picture of God's true shepherd who will be rejected by the people (11:7-13), which in turn anticipates the central section of the next oracle (12: 10-13:9).


The Smiting and Final Triumph of God's King

Note how this second oracle picks up themes from the first one, especially the rejection of the true shepherd while setting the whole in a more totally eschatological setting regarding the day of Yahweh ("that day"). This in turn is placed in the setting of the final eschatological expression of the holy war, where the enemy surrounds and ransacks Jerusalem (12: 1-3 a; 14:1-2) and the King is killed (12: 10- 13:7)-but in the end God's glorious final kingdom emerges (12:3b-9; 14:3-21).

The book of Zechariah advances the biblical story by reminding us

that God's presence by his Spirit is at the heart of a restored Israel, while

at the same time anticipating the sacrificial death of the Messiah who is

to come.