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Back to the Bible - Revisiting the Old Testament

Jim Moyers


7: Haggai & Zechariah

I am not at all familiar with these two minor prophets from the post-exilic period.  I don’t recall ever reading them and, unlike other prophets so far, nothing in them sounds like a verse I often heard quoted in Adventist circles or literature.  


Haggai and Zechariah were leaders in rebuilding the temple who are mentioned in the book of Ezra.  Precisely dated visions place both prophets in Jerusalem from 520-518 BCE, about twenty years after Cyrus’ proclamation allowing the return of the Judean captives to their homeland.  Glowing prophecies by earlier prophets of a restored Zion were a long ways from being fulfilled.  Judah of the returned captives was a small Persian province.  God’s “anointed” Cyrus had died and been replaced by Darius as the Persian ruler.  Not much progress had been made towards rebuilding the temple and Jerusalem was seriously impoverished.


Political events are touched on in both books, but the details are less than clear.  Zerubbabel, a descendent of David, was appointed governor by the Persians.  Joshua was the high priest, the first mention in prophetic literature of that office, who seems to have been at least for a time a joint ruler with Zerubbabel.


In the course of the two books the theme of a Davidic king/messiah ruling over a perfected Land of Israel shifts to become an idealized hope for the distant future.  First will be an apocalyptic Day of the Lord in which all other nations will be conquered, after which they will come to Jerusalem to join Israel in worship of the one God.


Haggai is a very short book of two chapters which relates five visions occurring between August/September and October of 520 BCE.  The focus is the rebuilding of the temple.  Judah’s poverty is due to not having rebuilt the temple:  “You have looked for much, and, lo, it came to little; and when you brought it home, I blew it away.  Why? says the Lord of hosts.  Because of my house which lies in ruins, while you busy yourselves (each) with his own house” (1:9).  But, once the temple is rebuilt, God will destroy all the other kingdoms of the earth and make Zerubbabel his messiah to rule over a restored Israel.


The first eight chapters of Zechariah describe a series of visions and dreams with many symbolic images which further develop Jewish apocalyptic tradition.  A man riding on a red horse accompanied  by three other horses “sent to patrol the earth” finds that “all the earth remains at rest.”  God is “very angry at the nations that are at ease” while Jerusalem and the temple have not been rebuilt.  But restoration is promised (1:8-17).


Four horns are cast down by four smiths signifying that the kingdoms which have scattered Israel will be overthrown.  Jerusalem will be so large no walls can contain it, but God will protect it with a wall of fire (1:18-21).


A flying scroll conveys a curse on evildoers (5:1-4).  Zechariah sees a large container with a woman personifying wickedness shut up inside.  Two winged women convey the container with the woman in it to Babylonia where it will be enshrined (5:5-11).  Another vision has four chariots going off in four directions.  The meaning is unclear but may involve the coming messianic age (6:1-8).


Zechariah contains several biblical firsts.  For the first time in prophetic literature a heavenly messenger to the prophet is described as an angel (1:8).  Zechariah 2:12 contains the only description in the OT of Palestine as the “holy land.”


Zechariah 3:1-10 is one of the few instances in the OT in which Satan - in Hebrew literally “the Accuser” - is named.  He is not the utterly evil being he became in Christianity but, as in Job, a functionary who brings up charges against humanity in the court of God.  Satan accuses the high priest, Joshua, of not being ritually pure.  But God rejects the accusation, gives Joshua new garments, and puts him in charge of the temple.


In chapter four’s vision of a gold lamp stand things begin to get complicated in relation to the role of Zerubbabel, the governor who Haggai describes in messianic terms, and Joshua.  Zerubbabel has “laid the foundation of this house; his hands shall also complete it.”  But there are “two anointed who stand by the Lord” which seems to imply that both the governor and high priest are messiahs (“anointed ones”).


Then in the sixth chapter there is a confusing passage in which singular and plural, priest and governor, are mixed up.  There are hints in Zechariah of a failed attempt to restore the Davidic monarchy.  It is thought the original text in which the governor was to be crowned king was revised to make Joshua rather than Zerubbabel, of whom there is no further mention, the messianic figure who will rebuild the temple and rule Israel.  Whatever may be the historical events behind the textual confusion, there was no post-exilic monarchy.  The high priest became the ruler.

As with other prophets, Zechariah conveys a moral message along with all the strange imagery.  “Render true judgements, show kindness and mercy each to his brother, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor; and let none of you devise evil against your brother in your heart” (7:9-10).


Zechariah appeals to the Jews who are still in Babylon to return.  Echoing passages in Isaiah and Micah, the prophet proclaims that God is coming to dwell in Zion and many nations will join in worshiping him in Jerusalem.  “Many people and mighty nations will come to seek the Lord of hosts in Jerusalem, to worship him. . . . In those days ten men of all nations of different languages shall take hold of the garment of a Jew, saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you’” (8:20-23).  This would seem to answer Ezekiel’s concern about God’s reputation “among the nations.”


Like Isaiah, Zechariah is divided into a an initial part relating the prophet’s messages to Israel followed by material written some time later.  Chapters 9-14 are a series of poetic and prose oracles about a coming messianic age of peace when Israel’s enemies have been destroyed and/or converted to worship Israel’s God.  In style, vocabulary, and theology they differ from chapters 1-8.  There is no claim to authorship by Zechariah; the authors are unknown.  Mention of Greeks (9:13) places the date for at least some parts of the text sometime during or after the conquests of Alexander the Great who died in 323 BCE.  The oracles were probably not the work of a single author but at some point were collected together and someone decided to attach them to a scroll containing Zechariah 1-8.  


The theme is the restoration of Israel.  A messianic Prince of Peace and Good Shepherd will ride in triumph into Jerusalem “on an ass, on a colt the foal of an ass,” (9:9) (not the two animals Matthew 21:5 has Jesus improbably riding on).  There is a rather bewildering mix of metaphors with the Lord’s sheep compared to a steed in battle, then in succession a cornerstone, tent peg, battle bow, ruler, and finally mighty men in battle (10:3-5).

  

Among the oracles are some rather mysterious passages  A shepherd breaks his two staffs of Grace and Union which represent respectively the covenant between God and Israel and brotherhood between Judah and Israel.  He is replaced by a “worthless shepherd.” (10:4-15).  God’s flock are scattered after their shepherd is slain (prehaps a reference to some now unknown event), but a third of the flock is saved, refined and tested in the fire, ready to take their place as the new Israel (13:7-9).


The coming triumph of Judah over all nations will be followed by mourning for a person whom they have slain.  It is unclear if the reference is to a martyred individual whose identity has been lost or is symbolic (12).


In another puzzling passage, along with idols who will be “remembered no more,” “prophets and the unclean spirit” will be “removed from the land.”  If anyone claims to be a prophet his parents must kill him “for you speak lies in the name of the Lord” (13:3).  Perhaps this harsh pronoucement means that prophecy will no longer have a place in restored Israel; anyone who claims otherwise will be lying.  Or it may represent the priestly religious establishment's disdain for prophets who so often challenged the importance of the temple and its rituals conducted by priests.


A final oracle in chapter 14 depicts an apocalyptic battle of all nations against Jerusalem in which the city will once again be destroyed with half its population exiled.  But “then the Lord your God will come, and all the holy ones with him to . . . smite all the people that wage war against Jerusalem.”  Survivors of the other nations will come annually to Jerusalem to keep the feast of booths (14:16).  The one God will reign over a land of “continuous day” with “neither cold nor frost.” “Living waters shall flow out of Jerusalem” and “it shall continue in summer as in winter” (14:6-8).  Living as I do in California which has a climate similar to that of Israel where everything dries up in rainless summer makes that last bit less of a mystery than it would have been when I lived elsewhere.


It’s clearer to me now why I didn’t hear much about these two books when I was an Adventist.  Except for some of the messiah and “new Israel” references the text is not as amiable to a Christian interpretation as are other prophetic books.  In addition the historical events behind the text are more than a little obscure, making it harder to explain the books to church school students.     


© 2021 James Moyers

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Next

       8: Obadiah, Malachi, Joel

      9: Jonah  

     10: Daniel

     11: Psalms

     12: Proverbs

     13: Ecclesiastes

     14: Job

     15: Lamentations & Song of Songs

     16: Genesis 1-11

     17: Genesis 12-50

     18: Exodus

Previous

       Introduction

       1: Amos & Hosea  

       2: First Isaiah

       3: Four More Pre-Exile Prophets

       4: Jeremiah

       5. Ezekiel

       6. Second Isaiah