Reading Zechariah

Zechariah is the longest and, many think, the most difficult of the “minor” (smaller) prophets. It is also one of the most significant.

  • Zechariah is important for understanding the good news of Jesus the Messiah. Zechariah 9-14 is the dominant prophetic resource for the authors of the Gospels for narrating the meaning of Jesus’ passion.  The Messianic expectations of Zechariah shape the hearing of the gospel in the first century.
  • Zechariah is also one of the most important prophets for understanding the reign of God in the world and in the world to come. Other than Ezekiel, Zechariah is the most important resource for the Apocalypse (Revelation). The Apocalyptic expectations of the first century are understood, at least partly, through the lens of Zechariah. The coming Kingdom of God is one of the major themes of Zechariah 9-14.
  • Zechariah interprets the meaning of the rebuilding of the Temple and the restoration of Jewish life in the land.  Zechariah 1-8 is significant for understanding not only the Messianic nature of Jesus but also for envisioning the nature of the Christian community as restored Israel.

Zechariah returned to Jerusalem with the exiles in 537 with his grandfather Iddo who headed the priestly clan (Nehemiah 12:16; Berekiah of Zech 1:1 is presumably his father who for whatever reason is not in the picture in Nehemiah). As he matured, he served alongside of the younger (perhaps) prophet Haggai (Ezra 5:1; 6:14); they were neighboring pastors.

Haggai began prophesying on August 29, 520 BCE. (Hag 1:1)—all four of his messages are dated in 520 BCE. Zechariah began prophesying in Oct/Nov 520 BCE (Zech 1:1). His eight visions are dated February 15, 519 BCE (Zech 1:7). His oracles on fasting are dated December 7, 518 BCE (Zech 7:1).

The first half of Zechariah (chapters 1-8), then, is dated to the period of 520-518. Cyrus the Great, the Persian Emperor (559-529 BCE), had authorized the rebuilding of the temple in 538 and the foundation of the temple was laid in 536. But the work had stopped and the temple remained uncompleted. Darius the Great, another Persian Emperor (522-486 BCE), authorized renewed building activity in 519 (Ezra 5:3-6:14) and the prophets encouraged those efforts. The temple was rededicated on March 12, 516 (Ezra 6:15-18).

Zechariah 1-8 is situated in the hopes of the people for a renewed temple and renewed life in Palestine. Zechariah’s visions (Zech 1:7-6:8) sustain that hope while his prophetic message also calls for ethical renewal among the people (Zechariah 7:1-8:23).

The second half of Zechariah (chapters 9-14) is more difficult to locate historically. Scholars have sometimes placed this material in the pre-exilic period, but most in recent decades have placed it in the late Persian or Greek period of Israel’s history. The argument continues as to whether Zechariah 9-14 demonstrates a sufficiently different style, context, message and language as to demand two different authors. Whatever the case may be, some still believe that we can locate the two oracles of Zechariah 9-14 in the 480s BCE when Zechariah was older and living in a different historical situation. But these oracles are undated and thus we cannot contextualize with any certainty.

The two sections of Zechariah 9-14 are clearly distinguished by the delineation of two different oracles (Zech 9:1; 12:1). The first oracle is the announcement of judgment against the nations (Zech 9-11) and the second is the announcement of promise and hope for Israel (Zech 12-14).

Judgment and hope are common themes among the prophets of Israel and this is certainly part of Zechariah’s own sense that he continues in the line of earlier prophets (1:6; 7:12). In Zechariah judgment and hope are connected with the present and coming reign of God in the world. This resonates with the gospel theme of “repent and believe the good news” of the kingdom of God (cf. Mark 1:14-15).

To read Zechariah is to hear the joy, judgment and Jubilee of the kingdom of God. It is to live in the present hope that the rebuilt temple and restored priesthood embody. It is to recognize the judgment of God against the nations and against Israel’s past (and potentially Israel’s future as well). It is to believe the message about the coming reign of God in which the whole earth will be inscribed “Holy to the Lord” (Zech 14:20).

The message of Zechariah is good news; it is the gospel of the Messiah who will come to reign over the earth in his eternal kingdom.

One Response to “Reading Zechariah”

  1.   kyle Says:

    After a recent reading of Zechariah, I share your thoughts.

    Two passages come to mind: 1:6, and the “overtaking” power of God’s Word. The other is 12:10-14, and the pierced one, and the grief which ensues as if for the death of a firstborn child.

    Passionate words. Thank you for calling attention to them.

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