What is Zechariah 4–6 talking about?

by | Sep 29, 2022 | Ask the Pastors

QUESTION

I find the prophets confusing most of the time and don’t understand all the analogies. Specifically Zechariah 4–6 this week. What is that talking about?

ANSWER

First, we’ll give some specific teaching about these chapters in Zechariah. But then we’d like to give some teaching and encouragement about reading and understanding the Bible’s prophetic literature in general.

At the outset, it is absolutely essential that we consider the historical context of the prophets as we read them. We are explicitly told in Ezra 5–6 that Zechariah was sent by God to His people after their return to exile, in order to strengthen them for the work of rebuilding the temple. He was sent after the people had become sinfully negligent in that work. It will help to remember that as you read each vision and prophecy in Zechariah. Ask yourself, How might this be accomplishing God’s goal of getting His people to rebuild the temple?

Zechariah 4

Zechariah sees a vision of a lampstand being continually fed with fresh oil by two olive trees. One of the reasons this vision is difficult for us to understand is simply that we do not have lampstands or ancient Middle Eastern lamps today, or olive trees for that matter. However, even Zechariah, who would have been familiar with such things, has to ask what they mean. The angel says this vision is for the encouragement of Zerubbabel. Well, that means we have to know who Zerubbabel is.

Zerubbabel, by God’s appointment, had overseen the laying of the foundation of the temple (see Ezra 3), but then discouragement from their Samaritan neighbors led to the people of Judah leaving the work unfinished (see Ezra 4). Almost nothing got accomplished for 13 years. Some had probably begun to doubt whether the temple really would be finished. Imagine being Zerubbabel, commissioned by the LORD to rebuild the temple, but then running into more than a decade of discouragement and frustration. Most of us would be tempted to give up. But God sends this vision through Zechariah for Zerubbabel’s encouragement. The work will be finished, and the sign of God’s blessing to those paying attention would be that Zerubbabel himself would oversee the completion of the temple, which would eventually happen more than 20 years after the foundation had been laid. (See a timeline here.)

The angel then says that not even a mountain will be able to stand in the way of Zerubbabel and his God-given task. This should make us think of Jesus telling His disciples that faith can move mountains. The obstacles to Zerubbabel’s work were indeed formidable: oppression from hateful neighbors, laziness and worldliness among God’s people, and perhaps even literal hills and mountains which had to be moved: after all, you need a flat space to build a secure building.

The important part, though, is how this work will be accomplished. “‘Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ says the LORD of hosts” (Zech. 4:6). And that is what Zechariah’s vision is meant to teach. The lamp is God’s kingdom, meant to be a light to the world (as Israel was in the OT, and the church is in the NT). The olive trees represent the continual supply of grace from the Holy Spirit which will bring about the success of the work. (Tip: Oil showing up in Scripture should make us keep our eyes out for some truth about the Holy Spirit.) Notice that God does not flatter Zerubbabel by telling him how great he is, and that of course he’ll finish the work if he just believes in himself. No, God essentially acknowledges the hopelessness of Zerubbabel’s task, and only encourages him by calling him to hope in the grace of God alone.

Zechariah asks the angel what two particular branches of the olive trees represent. The angel responds that these are two anointed ones who stand by the Lord of the whole earth. This shines light on one of the coolest things in this part of Israel’s history which we may overlook. God anoints two men—Zerubbabel and Joshua (spelled Jeshua in Ezra and Nehemiah)—for the reestablishment of worship and the rebuilding of the temple after exile in Babylon. Who these men are is very important. Zerubbabel is of the line of David and a physical ancestor of Jesus Christ (Matthew 1:12–13). Joshua is the high priest at the time. Both these men were anointed by God to fulfill special roles for His people: Zerubbabel a kingly one, Joshua a priestly one. These men are types of Jesus Christ who would eventually come and take upon Himself both offices of King and Priest (more on that in Zechariah 6). (And don’t forget that Jesus is actually the Greek rendering of the Hebrew name Joshua.) In addition, we also have the ministry of the third Christly office—that of Prophet—going on with Haggai and Zechariah at this time as well.

Zechariah 5

Vision 1: The Flying Scroll

After a clean break in the narrative, Zechariah sees a vision of huge (30 ft by 15 ft) flying scroll. Though details like specific measurements in prophetic visions often seem strange and unnecessary to us (think of Ezekiel and the temple’s measurements), they do help the reader visualize what the prophet saw. Zechariah could have just said he saw a “large” scroll, but what would you imagine? Almost certainly something different from the person next to you. Giving a measurement makes the vision more vivid for the reader. (Note—Some measurements have symbolic significance. This scroll happens to be the exact size of the porch of Solomon’s temple, which is seen by commentators to have varying degrees of significance. It seems a bit of a stretch to me to read too much into it in this case.)

The scroll has a curse written on it. The fact that it’s been written down is a sign of the certainty of the curse coming, and the fact that the scroll was so large means that the curse on it was rather extensive, and was therefore intended to strike fear in the hearts of those whom it condemned. The curse seeks the sinner out, even into his house, bringing judgment and destruction. This is a warning to those who were concerned with building their own houses, rather than God’s house. God has just declared that He was going to build His house (the temple) no matter what stood in the way (see Zechariah 4). Meanwhile, the houses of sinners would be utterly consumed. Remember, the people had been neglecting the house of God in order to build their own houses: “Is it time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses while this house lies desolate?” (Haggai 1:4).

The scroll condemned two particular sins:

  1. Stealing
  2. Taking the LORD’s name in vain

These two sins have a couple of levels of significance.

  • First, they were common sins among God’s people at the time. Nehemiah 5 (written shortly after Zechariah) records the practice of some Jews demanding exorbitant interest from their poor brothers in a time of famine, forcing them to mortgage their fields, and even taking them as slaves. This is an egregious form of stealing. Similarly, in this post-exilic time period, God’s people had a propensity for taking the LORD’s name in vain. We see this corroborated by the prophet Malachi, who wrote roughly a century after Zechariah. In Malachi 1, God condemns the priests of the time for profaning His name. Jesus confirms this indictment of the Jews in the Sermon on the Mount when He preaches about making false vows (Matthew 5:33–37). The point here is that prophets always condemn specific sins of specific people. They are never general, because their goal is to convict the consciences of their hearers in order to bring about real repentance.
  • Second, these two sins stand as representatives for the two tables of God’s law: sins against man (Table 2) and sins against God (Table 1). The point here is that God’s people, as they return to the Promised Land, are to diligently keep the entirety of God’s law. Even as the Jews receive God’s blessing, His words are not all comfort and peace. He has blessed them by fulfilling His promises, and yet they must continue in repentance, lest God’s judgment fall on them again.

Vision 2: The Woman in the Measuring Jar

It is important to acknowledge that some parts of Scripture are more difficult to understand than others. Incidentally, many commentators seem to think this vision is one of those more challenging passages to interpret. We’d just like to share an extended excerpt from one commentator’s interpretation of this vision which seems to faithfully comport with other prophecies and their fulfillments in Scripture:

The general meaning of this is to show, that when the measure of the people’s wickedness became full, then their punishment should come, and they should again be carried into the land of their enemies in exile, not for seventy years, but for a long time. As the flying [scroll] symbolized the certainty and completeness of their punishment, so this vision indicated its swiftness and mode. The ephah is selected simply as a common dry measure, to symbolize the thought that there is a certain measure of sin beyond which the people cannot go with impunity. The woman sitting in it, represents the Jewish people, by a common figure. The phrase, “this is their appearance (Heb. eye) in all the land” (v. 6), simply means, this represents that to which the people are looking, or tending, viz., to fill up the measure of their sin, and when they have filled up the measure of their sin, God will lay upon them their punishment. When the prophet perceives the woman in the measure, he is told that this is (represents) wickedness, i.e., that of the Jewish people. … The mass of lead symbolizes the heavy judgment that God was holding over them, and which at the fulness of time he would allow to fall. Accordingly, the wicked woman is thrust down into the small measure, crushed and doubled together, and the heavy weight laid upon her to keep her thus prostrate. Then there appear two winged messengers, with outstretched pinions, as if the wind was raising them up, and their wings were strong for flight like those of the stork. There were two because it required two persons to lift such a measure. They symbolized the messengers of God’s wrath that should desolate Judea, and banish the people. They were to carry it into Shinar, which is here the symbol for an enemy’s country. … There it was to be put in a house, shut up, and this house to be built strongly and securely for a permanent habitation, to show that this exile would not be like the first, a brief sojourn, but a long, weary and enduring banishment from the land of their fathers; when their resting should not be on God, or on the rock Christ Jesus, but on “their own base,” they should be left to themselves, weighed down like lead with judicial blindness, stupidity, darkness, and hardness of heart.

The vision then predicted what happened four hundred years afterwards, when the measure of their iniquity being full by the rejection and murder of the Messiah, their hearts being gross and their ears heavy, the hour of vengeance came. Then appeared the Roman eagles, and after the most desperate struggle, the Jewish nation was crushed, and scattered to the four winds, wandering in enemies’ countries, not resting on the promise of God, but weighed down with leaden obstinacy, and resting on their own works and righteousness. How striking the symbol! how fearful the fulfillment! (T. V. Moore, A Commentary on Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi, Geneva Series of Commentaries [1856; Banner of Truth, 1979], 163–166)

Zechariah 6

Vision: The Four Chariots

Zechariah sees four chariots coming from between two bronze mountains. Several trustworthy commentators see these mountains as representing the strong and immutable nature of God’s divine will. When we see chariots coming forth from indestructible mountains of God, we know that what is being prophesied is absolutely going to happen.

These chariots remind us of the four horses and their riders in Revelation 6, which represent manifestations of the judgment of God. I think it makes sense to interpret Zechariah’s chariots led by different colored horses in a similar way. The red horse in Revelation represents war and bloodshed. The black horse in Revelation represents famine, or the terrible consequences of war and of God’s judgment. The white horse in Revelation represents God’s victory. In Zechariah, we have red horses, black horses, white horses, and those of a mixed (dappled) color. These likely symbolize, respectively, the carnage of war, famine and death, God’s victory, and a mixture of those.

Groupings of four are common in the prophets, and often correspond to the four points on the compass, representing the extent of God’s judgment: that it goes out over the whole earth. No one will escape. Black and white horses are sent to the north country, which likely represents God’s punishment and then victory in the land of Israel’s enemies, such as Babylon. The land of the north is common prophetic language for the place of enemies, both of God and of His people. The dappled horses sent to the south may represent God’s judgment on lands to the south, such as Egypt, in particular. But then note that the judgment is indeed sent out over the whole earth. It begins in the house of God, but then extends to all nations.

This vision would be an encouragement to Zerubbabel and to God’s people in general, especially after several sobering visions of their own suffering under God’s judgment. In the end, God will deliver His people by judging their enemies.

Crowning Joshua

The second half of Zechariah 6 is not a vision, but a prophetic act which Zechariah is commanded to carry out. He is to have an ornate crown made, and he is to set it on the head of Joshua the high priest. This illustrates a glorious melding of the offices of priest and king, which is a wonderful foreshadowing of Jesus Christ the Messiah. As Zechariah crowns Joshua, he shines as a type of Christ who is both priest and king. Jesus is the “Branch” who God says “will build the temple of the LORD, and He who will bear the honor and sit and rule on His throne. Thus, He will be a priest on His throne, and the counsel of peace will be between the two offices” (Zechariah 6:13). This identification of the Messiah as the “Branch” is also used by Isaiah (4:2; 11:1; 60:21) and Jeremiah (23:5; 33:15). The image carries with it at least the following: an illustration of Jesus growing out from the root of the line of David, His bearing of much fruit for the kingdom of God, and the strength of the scepter of His kingly rule over the nations.

General Directions and Encouragement for Reading and Interpreting the Prophets

Context

Understanding context is essential to understanding prophecy. Of course this is true for all of Scripture, but understanding the prophets actually requires more work in this regard. Reading the Bible’s books of history can be a little easier, because they are their own context; they tell you what’s going on and who’s involved. The prophets often don’t. They were written to the people of the time with the assumption that the original hearers/readers already knew what was going on around them. This means we have to exert more effort in figuring out the context, so that we can better understand what the prophet is saying.

Heavenly Visions

Furthermore, the prophets can seem confusing because they sometimes give us glimpses into the unseen heavenly realm, something which is difficult for our earthly minds to comprehend. This is especially the case in Ezekiel, Daniel, Zechariah, Jude, and Revelation, where God’s throne room is described, or events which take place in the realm of heavenly messengers and powers are illustrated visually.

Encouragement

In general, I tell people not to be discouraged when they don’t immediately understand something in the prophets. Like we said, correctly interpreting the prophets takes real investment of time and energy. And then, we also have sin which gets in the way. We often don’t want to hear what God has to tell us because of our hard hearts. We must pray that God would enlighten our minds as we read Scripture. We need the Holy Spirit to understand the Bible rightly.

This dependence on the Holy Spirit is demonstrated in the prophets themselves. I’m always encouraged when a prophet who receives a vision seems to have no idea what’s going on. Because I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t either, if I were in his position.

Take Zechariah. In chapter 4, the prophet twice asks the angel, “What are these?” Twice he is prompted by the angel to confess that he really has no idea what things mean. John Calvin says we should take the following lesson from Zechariah’s slowness to understand:

As the Prophet himself attentively considered what was divinely revealed to him, and yet failed to understand what God meant, we are hereby reminded that we ought not to be indifferent as to what is here related; for without a serious and diligent application of the mind, we shall not understand this prophecy, as we are not certainly more clear-sighted than the Prophet, who had need of a guide and teacher. There is also set before us an example to be imitated, so that we may not despair when the prophecies seem obscure to us; for when the Prophet asked, the Angel immediately helped his ignorance. There is therefore no doubt but that the Lord will supply us also with understanding, when we confess that his mysteries are hid from us, and when conscious of our want of knowledge, we flee to him, and implore him not to speak in vain to us, but to grant to us the knowledge of his truth. The angel’s question to the Prophet, whether he understood or not, is not to be taken as a reproof of his dullness, but as a warning, by which he meant to rouse the minds of all to consider the mystery. He then asked, Art thou ignorant of what this means, in order to elicit from the Prophet a confession of his ignorance. Now if the Prophet, when elevated by God’s Spirit above the world, could not immediately know the purpose of the vision, what can we do who creep on the earth, except the Lord supplies us with understanding? In short, Zechariah again recommends to us the excellency of this prophecy, that we may more attentively consider what God here declares. (John Calvin, comments on Zechariah 4:1–6, trans. John Owen, The Ages Digital Library Commentary [Books for the Ages, 1990])

Resources

God has given His church a great gift in Matthew Henry’s commentary on the whole Bible. This is the closest thing to a one-stop shop for help with understanding any part of Scripture. Many commentaries have been written by many good men on many different parts of Scripture, but there are none that are quite so comprehensive as Henry’s, and it’s also easily accessible: print versions are available, but it’s also readily available online. For instance, if you go to https://www.ccel.org/study, you can read Henry’s commentary right alongside any passage of Scripture. With a couple clicks, you can reference a few other good commentaries as well (including John Calvin’s commentaries, when available). Matthew Henry was a Nonconformist minister in England in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. It’s a good rule of thumb to use commentaries that have stood the test of time. More than three centuries of Christians have found Henry’s commentary helpful. It’s possible books written today will last for hundreds of years, but the truth is, most of them won’t. If you don’t have all the time in the world to give to reading everything that’s out there, it’s better to give your time to something older and more tested by more generations of our fathers in the faith.

We’ve also attached a tip sheet on how to read and understand the prophets.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1971, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. All rights reserved.

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