In 587 B.C., the prophet Jeremiah was imprisoned in the palace of Zedekiah in Jerusalem. The city had been under siege by the Babylonian army for a year, and the Babylonian hordes were only moments away from overwhelming the city’s defenses, capturing Jerusalem, and shipping her inhabitants off to exile in Babylon. The word of the Lord came to Jeremiah in these dire circumstances. God assured Jeremiah that, while the destruction of Jerusalem and the coming exile was imminent, God would preserve his people in Babylon and allow them to return to Jerusalem eventually. More than that, God promised to “restore the fortunes of Judah and the fortunes of Israel and rebuild them as they were at first” (Jeremiah 33:7) and install a leader over Israel who would be a descendant of David. This leader would rule over God’s people in righteousness, rebuild the temple, and restore Jerusalem to its former glory:
Fast forward 49 years. Babylon has been conquered by the Persians and the Persian king, Cyrus, issues a decree allowing the Jewish exiles to return to their homeland. The prophet Zechariah is among the community of Jews who are returning from Babylon in 538 B.C. Naturally, the returning exiles are eager to see the fulfilment of God’s restoration promises, and they quickly set to work on rebuilding the city and the temple. However, apathy quickly sets in. Persia is preparing for war against Egypt, so taxes are extremely high, making progress on the rebuild slow and expensive. Lawlessness and immorality are rampant. Jerusalem is a shell of its former self, having lain sacked and largely abandoned for decades. Israel is a lowly vassal state under the controlling arm of the mighty Persian empire. No righteous leader from David’s line has assumed power and rallied God’s people back to national prestige. 20 years after their return, Zechariah’s people are desperately searching for reason to hold out hope and remain faithful to a God who had seemingly forgotten his own promises.
It is in this moment that God speaks through his prophet Zechariah, and reminds his beloved people that, though they have returned physically from exile, they are still far removed spiritually from all that God desires for them. He is still present among them, but they are not seeking him. Thus, God proclaims, “return to me, and I will return to you” (Zechariah 1:2).
Key Themes in Zechariah
- God’s concern for the distress of his people
- God’s faithfulness to his promises.
- God’s “absence” vs. God’s presence.
- Repentance and the removal of sin as a sign of God’s presence.
- The coming of the Messiah, who will rule as both High Priest and King from his seat of power in Jerusalem.
- God’s ultimate sovereignty over the affairs of the world.
Key Features of Zechariah
- “Zechariah” is an anglicized rendering of the Hebrew name “zakar’yah” which means “Yahweh Remembers”. Fittingly, the book of Zechariah is a reminder to God’s people that God is faithful and does not forget his promises.
- Zechariah’s prophecies can be dated with a high degree of certainty, as a few of them contain the specific month, day, and year that they were spoken. For example, Zechariah’s first vision came to him “On the twenty-fourth day of the eleventh month, which is the month of Shebat, in the second year of Darius . . .” In today’s terms, that’s February 15, 519 B.C.
- Images and symbols are a prominent feature of Zechariah’s oracles. His otherworldly visions are meant to be interpreted as symbolic depictions of what God plans to do literally in the hearts and minds of his people, and in the world.
- There is no discernable narrative or storyline woven throughout Zechariah. The visions and oracles are distinct units tied together thematically (see “Key Themes” above).
- It appears that Zechariah wrote chapters 9-14 at a later date. These chapters are composed of distinctly Messianic prophecies and differ from the former chapters in style and content.
Grab a Study Bible and join me as I dive into the book of Zechariah over the next several weeks!
Cover Image: Unknown artist, The Vision of Zechariah, about 1300, Tempera colors and gold leaf: 7.3 × 17.5 cm (2 7/8 × 6 7/8 in.), Ms. 35, leaf 2 (88.MS.125.2.recto). The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. 35, leaf 2