The book of Zechariah falls naturally into two parts: chs. 1–8 and 9–14. The first eight chapters clearly come from Zechariah the son of Berekiah, son of Iddo, and are dated between the eighth month of the second year of Darius (520 bc) and the fourth day of the ninth month of the fourth year of his reign (518 bc).
Chs. 9–14 are very different in style from the first part of the book. They fall into two parts, 9–11 and 12–14, each introduced by the heading ‘An Oracle’ (or ‘Burden’; see commentary). The book of Malachi begins with the same word.
Zechariah’s grandfather was probably the ‘Iddo’ listed in Ne. 12:4 among the leaders of the priests and Levites who returned from exile to Jerusalem. He seems to have been an important man from the way he is referred to in Ezr. 5:1 and 6:14, ‘Zechariah … a descendant [son] of Iddo’. Zechariah’s father is omitted from this list but his grandfather is included. If this connection is right, then Zechariah himself was both a priest and a prophet.
Matthew refers to ‘Zechariah son of Berakiah’ who was ‘murdered between the temple and the altar’ (23:35). If this was our prophet, then it may throw light on the meaning of Zc. 12:10 and 13:7 (see Commentary below).
The name Zechariah means ‘Yah remembers’ (‘Yah’ is an abbreviated form of ‘Yahweh’ meaning ‘the Lord’). The name was a common one; probably about thirty different individuals were called by it in the OT. It was, however, an appropriate name for the prophet, for he called on the people to remember the past and to change their behaviour accordingly (1:2–6; 7:5–14; 8:14–17).
Zechariah probably returned from Babylon to Jerusalem in 538 bc. He prophesied from 520, along with Haggai, urging the people to rebuild the temple, and so to show that they had put God first in their thinking (cf. Hg. 1:9). To leave the temple as an unusable ruin was to show that they did not really care whether God dwelt in the midst of them or not.
There is nothing biographical in chs. 9–14 concerning the writer. See below (under ‘The compilation’) for a discussion of the authorship of these chapters.
In 538 bc King Cyrus conquered Babylon and published a decree allowing exiles from many countries, including Judah, to return home. The Jews had permission to rebuild the temple at Jerusalem (Ezr. 1:1–4) and came back full of joy and hope, under the leadership of Zerubbabel (who may also have been called Sheshbazzar; cf. Ezr. 3:8; 5:14–16). They managed to lay the foundations of the temple, but were hindered in their work by the neighbouring peoples throughout the reign of Cyrus (538–522 bc; Ezr. 4:4–5).
Zechariah and Haggai urged the people to take heart and take up the rebuilding again; Tattenai, governor of the province of Trans-Euphrates, and Shethar-Bozenai and their associates objected to this work and demanded to know their authority to carry it out (Ezr. 5:3). The authorities searched the royal archives in Babylon and discovered Cyrus’s decree (Ezr. 6:1–5), which not only allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem but specified that financial help should be given from the royal treasury (v 4) and that the temple gold and silver should be returned (v 5). So it was that Darius himself encouraged the Jews, complying with the earlier decree, paying for the rebuilding, providing animals for sacrifice (vs 8–10), and discouraging others from hindering their work (v 11).
Zechariah puts great stress on the completion of the temple under Zerubbabel’s direction (4:9–10; 6:12). It will be a sign that God has returned to dwell in the midst of his people (2:10; 8:8; cf. 1:17; 2:12). There was, therefore, great rejoicing when, in 516 bc, the temple was actually completed (Ezr. 6:14–16). The people renewed their dedication to God and looked forward to a time of blessing. Unfortunately, their expectations were not satisfied. They assumed that life would be wonderful, but it turned out to be very hard. No golden age dawned, and many began to ask whether God was really with them after all.
Our knowledge of the history of the post-exilic period is patchy. Some of the few sources of knowledge that we have cannot be dated accurately. Nevertheless, we can be sure that right through the period when Judah was part of the Medo-Persian Empire they remained an outwardly insignificant and powerless people, facing opposition from their neighbours (e.g. Ezr. 4:6–24). This continued when the Greek Empire was established through Philip of Macedon and his son, Alexander the Great.
Add to this uncertainty the fact that we cannot be sure of the date of chs. 9–14, and it is clear that we cannot specify very precisely the historical background for these later chapters. We must be satisfied with rather general knowledge of the whole period, and remember that there may have been many variations in the situation, and many events of which we have no record.
The outline of events may be set out as follows:
Text and canon
The text of chs. 1–8 is generally clear and free from the mistakes which often result from the copying out of manuscripts over several centuries. The grammatical sense is almost always clear, though the prophet’s precise meaning is sometimes obscure (e.g. 2:8–9; 3:8–9; 4:10b; 5:6). Chs. 9–14 are much more obscure (e.g. 11:13; 12:10) and many have suggested ‘corrections’ to the text. Some scholars have also proposed a rearrangement of sections of the book to make it more logical. For example some would remove the section in ch. 4 that begins with ‘This is the word of the Lord … ’ (v 6) and ends with ‘ … the hand of Zerubbabel’ (v 10). This would have the effect of restoring a connection between ‘So he said to me … ’ (v 6) and the second part of v 10. In view of the careful arrangement of the text by the author and/or editor, this would not seem to be a wise course of action (see the Commentary). Further changes are suggested in chs. 9–14, and 13:7–9 is sometimes moved to the end of ch. 11 so as to keep the ‘shepherd passages’ together.
Ecclus. 49:10 (c. 180 bc) refers to ‘the twelve prophets’, and this would suggest that the prophetic canon was already fixed by the beginning of the second century bc. The order of the so-called ‘minor’ prophets varies between different manuscripts, but chs. 1–14 of Zechariah are always found together.
The bulk of chs. 1–6 consists of a series of eight visions (1:7–6:8) to which have been added additional oracles (2:6–13; 6:9–15; cf. 4:6–10a).
Chs. 7–8 consist of a question about fasting put to the prophet by some men from Bethel. Zechariah gives an extended rebuke, command and promise, before finally answering the question.
There is no doubt that the basic material of chs. 1–8 comes from Zechariah himself. There may well be passages which come from an editor or editors (e.g. 1:1; 1:6b; 2:6–13; 4:6–10 [see above]; 6:9–15; and parts of Zc. 7), although the most likely explanation for the additions to the visions is that they came from the prophet himself at a later time.
The last six chapters have been more hotly disputed. Conservative scholars have generally held that they came from the author of chs. 1–8, Zechariah the prophet. Liberal scholars have universally denied it and often argued that this section of the book is a patchwork of prophecies which are often unrelated to each other; and come from a wide historical period much later than 520 bc.
A change in climate came with the work of P. Lamarche who argued that the whole of Zc. 9–14 forms an intricate structure in which the ‘Messianic’ passages occur at points which correspond to each other and may be taken together to give a picture of the Messiah. This study received a fairly warm reception generally, and was particularly appreciated by conservative scholars.
While there are reasons why this cannot be accepted in detail (see the Introduction above) there is, nevertheless, a unity to these chapters. They deal with recurring themes, notably judgment and blessing through military action, and the leadership of God’s people (under the figures of ‘humble king’, ‘shepherd and flock’ and ‘pierced one’). There are several passages which are referred to by Jesus in the NT. (See also ‘Contents and structure’ below and the Commentary.)
The theology of Zechariah
Throughout the book of Zechariah there is an emphasis on God’s power over the whole world. He has allowed the nations to visit judgment on his people, Judah, but there are strict limits to what they may do. Judah has been and remains God’s elect and his judgment is for the purpose of restoring them to a pure relationship with himself. Those nations that have overstepped the mark will now be judged. Within this plan there is an important role for certain individuals. The historical characters Zerubbabel (the governor) and Joshua (the high priest) are mentioned as restoring the temple and its worship. But they have a more far-reaching significance than this. They represent the ‘anointed ones’ who stand before ‘the Lord of all the earth’ (4:14), and Zerubbabel is identified in some sense with ‘the Branch’ (3:8; 6:12), which is a word used to describe the Messiah in Je. 23:5 and 33:15 (cf. Is. 4:2).
Chs. 1–8 form a very clear unity with certain important recurring themes:
a. God’s anger with ‘the fathers’ and the judgment that followed (1:2–6; 7:7–14).
b. God’s anger transferred to the nations (although they started out in accordance with his intentions), and his compassion for Judah and Jerusalem (1:12–17, 21; 8:1–2, 15; cf.3:2).
c. God’s intention, therefore, to dwell in the midst of his people in Jerusalem again, and to be their God (2:10–12; 8:3, 8).
d. The concern that people should know that God has sent a messenger to them (2:8–9, 11; 4:9; 6:15).
e. The provision of harmonious civil and religious leadership authorized by God (3:7–9; 4:6–10; 6:11–14).
f. The purifying of God’s people, and their future obedience (3:3–5; 5:3–4, 5–11; 6:15b; 8:16–17).
g. The eventual blessing of peoples outside Judah, who will join themselves to God/come to entreat his favour (8:20–23).
In chs. 9–14 we see similar concerns, though they are expressed differently:
a. God’s ‘impatience’ with ‘the flock’ and his judgment, partly expressed in the attack by the nations and partly somehow related to his provision of bad leaders (11:4–14; 14:2).
b. God’s giving victory to Judah and Jerusalem (and David) over the nations, although they succeed at first (9:1–8; 12:1–9; 14:1–4, 12–15).
c. His promise to be their God (13:9; cf. 10:6; 12:5), worshipped in Jerusalem (14:16, 20–21).
d. The implicit concern that the people should recognize God’s word (11:11; cf. the staffs and the pieces of silver? 12:5; cf. 10:1–2).
e. The provision of a humble and righteous king/shepherd (9:9–10; 10:2–4; 11:4–17; 13:7–9).
f. The purifying of the people from all uncleanness, somehow related to the cursing/piercing of an individual, who belongs to, but is treated with hostility by, God. He achieves God’s purposes by being judged; also the purifying of the temple (12:10–13:9; 14:21).
g. The eventual (only ch. 14) blessing of nations (including Egypt) outside Judah, who will come to worship God in Jerusalem (14:16–21).
The connections are not strong enough to establish that one editor put the whole book together as a unity.
As mentioned above, our understanding of the book of Zechariah has been enhanced by an appreciation of the sometimes intricate structure that the author/editor has woven into his material.
Very often we can discern what scholars call a ‘chiasmus’ (or ‘chiastic structure’). The word is derived from the Greek letter chi (χ, which has the form of a cross). This implies that the first part of the passage is reversed (or crossed over) in the second part. So ABCD becomes DCBA. At the centre of a chiasmus we generally find the most important emphasis or point of the passage—sometimes a turning point in a narrative. Quite often the final part is similar to the first, but the situation has also been transformed. Progress has been made, and the structure of the whole brings this fact home to the reader or hearer.
An analysis of each of the main sections of the book is given at the appropriate point in the body of the Commentary. (For more detail on this see, M. Butterworth, Structure of the Book of Zechariah [Sheffield Academic Press, 1992].)
J. M. Boice, The Minor Prophets, 2 vols. (Zondervan, 1983, 1986).
J. G. Baldwin, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, TOTC (IVP, 1972).
D. R. Jones, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, TBC (SCM, 1962).
D. L. Petersen, Haggai and Zechariah 1–8 OTL (SCM/Westminster/John Knox Pres, 1984).
K. L. Barker, Zechariah, EBC (Zondervan, 1985).
OT Old Testament
c. circa, about (with dates)
NT New Testament
TOTC Tyndale Old Testament Commentary
TBC Torch Bible Commentaries
OTL Old Testament Library
EBC Expositor’s Bible Commentary
Carson, D. A. (1994). New Bible commentary : 21st century edition. Rev. ed. of: The new Bible commentary. 3rd ed. / edited by D. Guthrie, J.A. Motyer. 1970. (4th ed.) (Zac 1.1). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press.