The Olive Trees and the Lampstand (Zechariah 4:1-14)
Zechariah is confronted with a fourth vision of a golden lampstand, topped with a bowl and flanked by olive trees on its left and right. The lampstand was a ritual object that adorned both the tabernacle and the former Temple of Solomon. One of the duties of Israel’s high priests was to supply the lamp with olive oil continually, so that the flame never burned out. The lampstand symbolized, among other things, God’s gift of life and prosperity to his people. According to God’s command, the flame was fed by olive oil that was offered up to God by the people of Israel (Exodus 27:20-21). However, in Zechariah’s vision, the lampstand is not fueled by offerings. The oil is supplied by two olive trees which serve as endless sources of fuel for the lampstand.
Here, it might be easier if I give you a visual of Zechariah’s vision. A vision-visual. I worked really hard on it, as you’ll be able to tell.
In verse 4, Zechariah asks the question that you’re probably asking right now: what is this? Great question; this is arguably the trickiest vision we have read thus far. Luckily, Zechariah’s angelic guide has all the answers.
The angel explains that this particular oracle is addressed specifically to Zerubbabel. Zerubbabel was the appointed governor of the post-exile Jewish community. He was charged with the task of rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem (Haggai 1:1). Recall from previous chapters the theme of “rebuilding”. Central to the post-exilic Scriptures is the story of Israel’s urgent effort to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple. But the prophets offer a reminder to God’s people that the work cannot be done without God’s divine help, and that the Jerusalem of old will pale in comparison to the city that will be rebuilt by the hand of God. This is the first message that God communicates, specifically to governor Zerubbabel, through Zechariah’s vision: The temple will be rebuilt, “not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit” (Zech. 4:6).
What a great verse. Write that on a sticky note and put it somewhere visible in your house or your office as a reminder of your dependence on the Holy Spirit to do God’s will.
“Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit.”
The olive trees dripping endless oil symbolize an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, which will empower Zerubbabel to accomplish the task he has been given. The mountain of obstacles before the governor, God proclaims, will become a level plain, and those who have allowed resentment and bitterness to grow in their hearts during the long, arduous rebuilding project (literally, “the day of small things”) will soon rejoice. If you find yourself in a “day of small things”, let this be a reminder to you to not grow to resent it, but to recognize that it is a day of preparation for something greater. In the New Testament, Jesus reminds us that God’s Kingdom grows exponentially, but starts from small, insignificant things (Matthew 13:31-33).
The angel then addresses the seven lamps on top of the stand: they represent God’s watchful eye over the affairs of the world. The two olive trees, the angel explains, represent God’s “anointed ones” (bene hayyitshar, lit. “sons of new oil” [ESV Study Bible footnote]). The precise identity of these anointed ones is not clear, but there is very good reason to believe that the olive trees represent Zerubbabel and Joshua, the appointed leader of the Jews and the High Priest. Their presence in God’s heavenly court represents God’s favor upon them. God’s divine favor upon the priestly advocate and the appointed leader of Israel, in turn, means an endless supply of anointing and blessing to the whole nation. Israel has not earned favor by her own power or might, but has been granted favor by the outpouring of God’s Spirit. The lamp of God’s blessing will not be extinguished because God has made it so.
Summary of Zechariah 4
The vision of the lampstand and the olive trees represents God’s power to restore his people and accomplish his divine purposes through them. The outpouring of God’s Spirit empowers and enables his people to accomplish his will, no matter how daunting the task.
Zerubbabel and Joshua will come up again in the prophecies of Zechariah. In chapter 6, we will see the theme of the Righteous Branch (seriously, read Jeremiah 33:14-16 if you haven’t yet) recur, and God identifies the Branch as the person who will rebuild the temple. Many Jews, no doubt, believed that Zerubbabel was the promised Righteous Branch, and others believed the Branch to be Joshua. However, these two individuals, though they are important figures in Zechariah’s visions, are symbols of the coming Messiah, Jesus Christ, who will execute both offices simultaneously. Jesus will be the High Priest, advocating for God’s people, and the King who rules the world in righteousness.