Zechariah 4:1-14 — Two Olive Trees and the Oil of God

Awakened from lethargy or deep reflection by the angel who had previously spoken to him (Zechariah 2:3) as if he had been woken from a sleep, the angel directs Zechariah’s attention to a new vision. “What do you see?” asked the angel.

This is Zechariah’s fifth vision. Paired with the fourth vision, these two are the central visions of the series of eight. Both are functionally visions within the temple courts or sanctuary. The visions are a sure word from God that God will accomplish his purposes for Israel and the temple.

Also, the vision is filled with dramatic pauses as Zechariah participates in the vision itself. He questions the angel whose initial responses might be characterized as stalling or, better, drawing out the scene for dramatic effect. “Don’t you know?” the angel asks on two different occasions. These pauses have the literary effect of emphasizing the significance of what is seen.

What did Zechariah see? Though sometimes difficult to discern from some translations, what Zechariah sees is a cylindrical shaft on top of which sat a large bowl.  Seven small bowls are placed on the rim of the large bowl. The rims of the small bowls are pinched together in seven places in order to provide seven wicks on each bowl (as in the picture below, an Israelite lampstand from around 800 BCE). A total of 49 wicks (7 bowls x 7 wicks) would give off an impressive light. The multiple sevens represent a kind of divine perfection. This, then, is not a seven-branched menorah as is often pictured. The Solomonic temple lampstands, unlike the tabernacle (Exodus 25:31-40), were not seven-branched.

Interestingly, such bowls have been found at archeological sites and always at religious sites (cf. R. North, Biblica 51 [1978] 183-205). What is amazing about this lampstand is that it is golden. Both the religious form and the expensive metal indicate the important significance of the lampstand. In light of the temple-building pursued in Zechariah’s visions, it seems likely that this lampstand is intended to represent the one that belongs in the Holy Place of the temple. While Solomon had ten in his temple (1 Kings 7:49), post-exilic Israel only used one (1 Maccabees 1:21).

This lampstand, however,  is not pictured in the temple itself but as standing between two olive trees. Olive trees, of course, produced oil for multiple purposes. These two olive trees produce two streams of golden oil that supply the golden lampstand. Supplied directly from the trees, the oil is practically unlimited and abundant. The lampstand is supplied from the life of the trees themselves.

It is a curious picture and Zechariah wants an explanation. The give-and-take with the angel is somewhat playful–Zechariah, prophet of God, you don’t know what this represents? The angel, at first, only explains the lampstand (6-10). Zechariah will have to press him–twice!–for an explanation of the trees (11-14). The text exhibits dramatic pauses through the questions and a dramatic climax by the need to press again (twice!) for explanation of the trees. The picture, curious though it is, is a dramatic proclamation of God’s work in Israel.

The lampstand announces that the temple will be rebuilt by the power of God’s Spirit. Nothing will prevent this–neither mountains nor despisers. God, who sees the whole earth with his “seven eyes” (cf. 2 Chronicles 16:9), will ensure the completion of the temple.

Two factors hindered the building of the temple–mountains and despisers.  The mountains may be literal as ground is leveled for the building of the temple but it is more like that the mountains represent the nations who scoff at this backwater province’s audacity and seeming self-importance. As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the hostile nations surround Judah (cf. Ezra 3:3; 4:4-5) . The nations are not impressed. Despisers are probably those within Israel (perhaps even inclusive of the nations as well) who think this temple is a “small” thing (Ezra 3:12; Haggai 2:3). It is unimpressive and has little value. It does not compare with the glory of the Solomonic temple.

But the temple will be rebuilt, and Zerubbabel will measure out is dimensions and lay its final stone. Israel will rejoice and Zechariah will have the assurance that he was truly sent by God to herald the rebuilding of the temple. Neither the nations nor the despisers can stop it.

Yet, how will this happen? By what power or strength will Israel accomplish this task of rebuilding? Yahweh speaks the answer directly to Zechariah: “Not by might or by power, but by my Spirit.” The temple is rebuilt not by human military might or by human ingenuity/strength; it is built by the Spirit of God.

The oil that keeps the lamps burning is the Spirit of God. God is the one who will accomplish this rebuilding, empower Israel for service, and protect them from the nations and the despisers. The oil, the Spirit of God, renews Israel and there is an unlimited supply.

Zechariah is not satisfied; he wants a full explanation. What are these olive trees doing in the scene? The angel identifies them as “the two who are anointed to serve the Lord of all the earth” (4:14). This is the climax of the vision itself.

Who are these anointed? There are at least two viable interpretations. One suggests that the two are Zechariah and Haggai who, by the Spirit of prophecy, continually encourage and empower the rebuilding of the temple. The point is that the lamp burns by the light of the prophetic word. While this vision has certainly emphasized the prophetic role of Zechariah (he is sent by God), there is no indication that Haggai is in view within the text of Zechariah.

Probably, the better understanding is to identify the trees with Joshua the high priest and Zerubbabel the Davidic governor. This is suggested by the fact that visions four (3:1-10) and five (4:1-14) are the center of the chiasm and thus constitute a pair. Paired together, priest and king stand as God’s surety for the temple. These two stand in the heavenly court of God and represent the renewal of Israel’s institutions.

The vision assures Israel that the temple will be rebuilt and God will do it by his Spirit. It also signals the vital role that priest and king will play in the inauguration of restored Israel. And yet the combination of priest and king reminds us of the suffering servant, the Davidic branch who is yet to come (Zechariah 3:8). Joshua and Zerubbabel, priest and king, point beyond themselves to one who will unite the offices as priest-king, the Messiah, because neither fully represents the full reality that God ultimately intends to actualize upon his earth. The Messiah is yet to come.

The vision identifies what empowers the renewal of Israel. When God acts by his Spirit, his purposes will be accomplished. No human can claim any credit and no nation can obstruct. God will anoint, empower and accomplish restoration and redemption. This is the confidence of the children of Abraham, including we who are heirs of the promise of Abraham through faith.

We, as believers, live not by our own power or might, but by the Spirit of God.

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