Zechariah, a priest who returned with other Babylonian exiles to Jerusalem in 537 BCE, appears before the people in 520 BCE as a prophet. “The word of the Lord” comes to Zechariah—he is given a message from God to the people. Zechariah sees himself in line with the former prophets with a similar message, a message soaked in divine authority.
Zechariah is a prophet like Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, like the “former prophets” (1:1; 7:7, 12). It appears that the former prophets already had a canonical function for Zechariah—they, too, spoke the word of Yahweh. Their presence (and authority) is still felt in the community. Zechariah appears as a new voice in a new situation but with a very similar message.
This text emphasizes that the Lord has spoken and what the people say in response. The NIV does not translate the last word of Zechariah 1:1: “saying.” 1:2-6a are what the Lord says and 1:6b is how the people respond. The verb (‘amar) is used seven times in five verses. In addition, the noun (ne’em) is used twice: a thing uttered, or a prophetic declaration (Zech 1:3-4). The Lord speaks and the people listen and respond.
The Lord had been angry (literally, “angry with anger”) with Israel’s forefathers. They heard the former prophets but would not listen. God pleaded with them to turn away from their evil ways and deeds but they would not. Consequently, God was angry with them.
“Where are your forefathers now?” the Lord asks. They no longer exist. They went into exile. Jerusalem was burned. The people know the answer to that question. They know their history. They know what the earlier prophets said and the consequences Israel suffered because of their sin.
But the next question is intriguing. “And the prophets, do they live forever?” Some see this as an objection from the people as if the prophets are no longer around either or no longer relevant. But there is no indication in the text that the people are now speaking though the text may be answering a potential objection or at least the temptation to think in this way. The answer is that while the prophets do not live forever, their words do. What they spoke happened because they were Yahweh’s words. “My words,” Yahweh says, overtook your forefathers just as the prophets said it would. The word of the Lord is effectual; it will accomplish its purpose (Isaiah 55:10-11).
So, the point might be something like this: while the fathers are dead and gone, the prophets still live through their word. Though the prophets are dead they are yet present through their message. The word of the Lord, through the prophets, lives forever and it will accomplish its purpose. The word of the pre-exilic and exilic prophets still lives, and Zechariah will use their message to shape his own. Zechariah, as a text, is filled with allusions to earlier prophets.
At the heart of the message of Zechariah, however, is not a threat though it is certainly there—if you don’t listen now, then you will end up like your fathers. Rather, the heart of Zechariah’s message is a promise: “’Return to me,’ declares the Lord Almighty, ‘and I will return to you’.”
“Return to me” is a synonym for repentance but it involves much more than a changing of the mind or heart. It is a transformed way of living. It is choosing a way of life; turning from “evil ways” (paths). It is a renewal of life; it is a reorientation. Listen again to the word of the Lord!
The people responded accordingly. They acknowledged the justice of God’s anger. They confessed the sins of their forefathers and humbled themselves before the Lord. God did what he said he would do. The people “repented.” 1:6b, in fact, may actually come from the setting of corporate worship—Yahweh is just; Yahweh kept his word; we deserved what we got. This communal confession prepares the way for God’s return, just as Israel’s repentance in response to the preaching of John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus.
The promise, however, is astounding. “I will return to you.” How did Judah hear that message? 520, the year Zechariah began his prophetic ministry, was the year Judah began to rebuild the temple. “I will return to you” is the return of divine glory; it was the renewal of cultic relationship and God’s presence among his people. “I will return to you” is the promise to dwell again in the temple just as Yahweh had in the Tabernacle and in Solomon’s temple. This is the message that shapes the visions and oracles of Zechariah.
Post-exilic believers doubted whether God would love them again. If we rebuild the temple, will God come back? Will God remember his promises? Will God love again? This is part of the purpose of 1 & 2 Chronicles exemplified in the divine promise of 2 Chronicles 7:12-16: if the people will seek him, God will come to them. God still loves Israel and will remain faithful to them.
The call to repentance is conjoined with the certainty of the word of God through the former prophets. Given that the word of the Lord accomplishes its purpose—even if in judgment—the people can rest assured in God’s word of promise. If they listen, God will come. If they rebuild the temple, God will dwell among them once again.
God has no desire to abandon his people. God wants to renew relationship. God wants to dwell again among his people. God has come to speak to his people, but will his people listen? If they listen, God will dwell among them. If they built it, God will come.