Standing in awe of God’s gracious Spirit empowering Israel’s relationship with Yahweh (Zechariah 4), something catches Zechariah’s eye. The first line of the sixth vision highlights the sudden appearance of a strange object. Literally, Zechariah turns around to see what caught his attention, looks up into the sky, “sees” something and “behold,” that is, astonishingly, he sees a “flying scroll.” The rhetorical effect is surprise and wonder.
The angel, the same one standing with him in the previous vision, asks Zechariah what he sees. This functions as a dramatic pause that anticipates the description in the next verse.
What does he see? He sees a scroll that is 30 by 15 feet (literally, 20 x 10 cubits). Scrolls could reach lengths of 30 feet but were usually no more than 12 inches in width. This scroll is like a huge placard similar to a sign trailing a plane with an advertisement or a marriage proposal. The dimensions are significant but the reason why is rather uncertain. Perhaps it is simply large enough to read from a distance as it flies in the sky. Perhaps the dimensions say something about the enormity of the sins which the scroll curses.
One suggestion, that seems to make some sense, is that the dimensions are exactly those of Solomon’s temple portico (1 Kings 6:3) where priestly justice was probably administered (cf. Joel 2:17) and where innocents sought justice (1 Kings 8:31-32; cf. Psalm 7). The previous two visions were located in the temple and were about the rebuilding of the temple. The portico was the place where the curses (oaths) of the law were adjudicated. The flying scroll—a message from God (it is flying!)—is about justice, curses and oaths.
The angel interpreted the scroll in the context of justice. It is a “curse” (or oath) that covers the whole land of Judah, primarily focused on Jerusalem. Like the Ten Commandments themselves (Exodus 32:15), both sides of the scroll were inscribed with the words of God. The curse, like the Deuteronomic curses of the law (Deuteronomy 27-29, especially 29:11-20), is a threat against covenant-breakers. There is evidence in the Ancient Near East that curses were written on a separate scroll in covenantal documents.
Through this curse, God will remove sin from the land. The curse will enter the homes of covenant-breakers and destroy them—whether their houses are built of timber or stones. God will execute the curse against these wealthy homeowners. What Zechariah sees envisions a time when God will remove sin from the land of Judah.
But this is where it gets interesting. Upon what sins does the scroll focus? It seems that one part of the picture is the false administration of justice. Boda (Haggai, Zechariah of the NIV Application Commentary) argues convincingly that the NIV’s “will be banished” should be rendered “has been cleared” (see the use of the same Hebrew term in Numbers 5:19, 21). “The curse,” Boda says (p. 294), “is going out because the guilty are going unpunished.”
Who is going unpunished? The angelic interpreter specifies thieves and those who testify falsely in a court trial. Boda links this language to the Holiness code in Leviticus 19:11-18. The problem is economic injustice. The needy and the poor are oppressed and when they seek justice in the priestly courts, they are denied that justice. Under the economic distress of the early Persian period, the poor are denied justice by priests who should protect them from those who are stealing their land and means of sustenance. Boda notes that “swearing” and “falsely” appear together in contexts where one is oppressing or cheating another (Genesis 21:23; Leviticus 19:12; Jeremiah 5:2; 7:9; Malachi 3:5).
The sin of the land is the corruption of the priestly justice system where the poor are oppressed by thieves and their lying witnesses. The “flying scroll,” inscribed with a curse against economic injustice, promises to end this inequity and destroy the homes of the powerful. The sin of economic justice will be removed from the land, says Yahweh, the God of Israel.