‘And now for something completely different… ‘ The catchphrase of the anarchic and ground breaking 1970s British comedy show Monty Python’s Flying Circus is actually a pretty good introduction to the book of Zechariah. For it’s different. Very different. But then books written by prophets generally were.
Throughout Israel’s history, God sporadically sent his spokesmen, guys we call prophets, to break the silence and to break through his people’s reluctance to listen to shock, surprise and woo his people – to call them back to him. And sometimes, it took a lot. That’s why prophetic books tend to be a bit different. Out there even. Prophets tend to do and say and experience strange things. They see and paint vivid pictures. They act out painful messages. They speak searingly and poetically and dramatically. Mostly, they take words that God has already say and apply them to RIGHT NOW. Sometimes, they fill out more of God’s stunning, all-conquering plan. And they always do it with style. In the prophetic books, God speaks at full volume to a world which desperately needs to hear. In Zechariah, which I think is just about the most neglected book in the Bible, God speaks dramatically to his people at a moment when they are disillusioned, disappointed and generally fed up.
The year is 520BC. 20 years earlier, some of God’s people had started to dribble back from 70 years exile in Babylon. But it’s fair to say that the novelty of coming back to the home of their ancestors to rebuild a once great kingdom has worn off. To be honest, life is a bit of a let-down. What has been called Judah has been renamed ‘Yehud’ by the Persians who now rule from Babylon, and reduced to an area of 55x65kms. It’s now too small to have a functional economy. The Jewish Calendar has been abolished for the Babylonian one. Those who have come from Babylon look down their noses at those who never left; those who never left are suspicious of the returnees who look and smell like Babylonians. All is not well. But as he has the wonderfully predictable habit of doing, Yahweh sends his man.
Zech 1:1 In the eighth [Babylonian] month, in the second year of Darius, the word of the LORD came to the prophet Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, son of Iddo. Through this man Zechariah, a priest whose grandad Iddo was one of the original returnees according to Ezra, we hear the voice of God. 8 visions. 2 Oracles. Fourteen chapters. God’s word to people who are pretty hard pressed. Even a bit despondent. Who are on the back foot. Pretty unpopular in the community. Struggling with challenges – like riding out relational tensions, and finding new leaders, and having to survive financial pressure that wasn’t their fault, and to operate in premises which were less than ideal. Let’s hear God’s word to us, his people.
This morning we’re going to look at Zechariah’s opening announcement in 1:1-6, which functions as an introduction to the whole book and then his first two visions in 1:7-17 and 1:18-21. We’re in for a quite a ride, as his message starts by calling us to…
COME HOME! (1:1-6)
Here’s how Zechariah’s opening message starts: 2 “The LORD was very angry with your ancestors.” Perhaps that opening is part of the reason why Zechariah is one of the less well known books of the Bible. It’s actually worse than that in the original – it says Yahweh was angry with your fathers in anger. About 700 years of Israel’s history summed up in a phrase – ‘you made God really angry!’ The actions and attitudes of their forebears had driven their God, Yahweh, the covenant God, to send them to Babylon. But the big question is ‘has anything changed?’ Have they learned anything? They may have made it back home to Yehud, to Jerusalem, but have they come back home to God, to delight in and obey him? That’s not quite so clear:
1:3 Therefore tell the people: This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘Return to me,’ declares the LORD Almighty, ‘and I will return to you,’ says the LORD Almighty. 4 Do not be like your ancestors, to whom the earlier prophets proclaimed: This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘Turn from your evil ways and your evil practices.’ But they would not listen or pay attention to me, declares the LORD. 5 Where are your ancestors now? And the prophets, do they live forever? Zechariah calls on his people, God’s people, to return to him. These are incredibly tender words, as the God of the universe woos his people – ‘Come home, come home to me!’
This must have been a bit puzzling to Zechariah’s first audience. After all, hadn’t they ‘returned’ 20 years ago? Weren’t they home already? The prophet’s answer is clear – ‘NO YOU ARE NOT – there’s a difference between returning to Jerusalem, and returning to Yahweh.’ The enduring issue which led to the Exile is highlighted in 1:4 – God’s people refused to listen to God. And that issue can’t be fixed getting on a bus for Jerusalem. Coming home to God can only happen when we start to listen to God again.
Now there isn’t anything new here. Zechariah echoes the words of Jeremiah, as he explained the reason for the Exile in the heat of the moment 70+ years before – 7: 25 From the day that your fathers came out of the land of Egypt to this day, I have persistently sent all my servants the prophets to them, day after day. 26 Yet they did not listen to me or incline their ear, but stiffened their neck. They did worse than their fathers. 27 “So you shall speak all these words to them, but they will not listen to you. You shall call to them, but they will not answer you. 28 And you shall say to them, ‘This is the nation that did not obey the voice of the LORD their God, and did not accept discipline; truth has perished. God’s people end up in Exile because they wouldn’t listen to the voice of Yahweh. That’s still the big issue. Returning from Exile isn’t really about geography – it’s about coming home to God by starting to listen to him again and to do what he says. And according to Zechariah, doing anything less is just plain dumb! Not least because of who God is.
Did you notice how Zechariah refers to God here? The Lord Almighty – lit. Yahweh of hosts. Yahweh of the armies. Thus declares Yahweh of the armies: Return to me, says Yahweh of the armies, and I will return to you, says Yahweh of the armies. 4 Do not be like your fathers, to whom the former prophets cried out, ‘Thus says Yahweh of the armies… Before the Exile, it was fairly normal to talk about God as Yahweh of the armies, the God who fought for Israel. Standing behind and beside and before their armies were his armies – his hosts. The Lord of hosts was the God who had defeated all-comers before them in Egypt and in Canaan and and and… The problem was, of course, that they insisted on taking all the credit when they won. But they weren’t winning anymore. They were a nation of losers. They didn’t even have any hosts – any army of their own. But the Lord of hosts remains the all-powerful God – the one whose power and might is undiminished. And according to Zechariah, their only hope is to return to him. To come home to this God.
Now to state the obvious, we are not living in the province of Yehud in 520BC. Our God hasn’t sent just sent us a spokesman to bring us a message, he has sent us his son. And what does Jesus ministry open up with? He bursts into our world saying ‘Repent – come home to God – and believe the good news’.
He says ‘Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Dane Ortlund, in a new book called simply Gentle and Lowly: The heart of Christ for sinners and sufferers, which is one of the most remarkable books I have ever read, writes this: ‘His yoke is kind and his burden is light. That is, his yoke is a nonyoke and his burden is a nonburden. What helium does to a balloon, Jesus’ yoke does to his followers. We are buoyed along in life by his endless gentleness and supremely accessible lowliness. He doesn’t simply meet us in our place of need, he lives out of our place of need. He never tires of sweeping us into his tender embrace. It is what gets him out of bed in the morning… This is who he is. It is his very heart. Jesus himself has said so.’
The call of Zechariah and the call of Jesus himself is a simple one: come home. Come home by listening to Jesus, and embracing the truth about Jesus, and running into his waiting arms.
If you’re not yet a Christian, may I humbly say that this is your greatest, your most pressing, your overwhelming need. You need to come home to Christ. You were made by God for God, and it is only in Christ that you will find the security and satisfaction and significance that you were made for. Coming to church is great, but coming home to God in Christ is peerless.
But what about those of us who have been following Jesus – perhaps for years? It would be really easy for these words about God’s anger to be like water off a duck’s back. We know that we are eternally protected from the burning wrath of the Father by the work of the Son on our behalf, applied to us by the Spirit. Hasn’t Jesus sorted this for us? Yes he has. But it is possible for people like you and me to experience the burning love of our God as his fatherly displeasure because we’re not really listening to him? Yes it is. We may need to hear these simple but powerful words – ‘Return to me, and I will return to you’.
For Zechariah’s contemporaries, God’s return to them meant that he would make his presence obvious with them again, and send his Messiah to restore the blessings of the covenant to them as he sets up his everlasting kingdom. On this side of Jesus’ resurrection, we know that God has already ‘returned to us’ in the Lord Jesus Christ – he has become flesh and dwelled with us, and poured himself out to us, even into us, in the Holy Spirit. But we if we have introduced a chill to our relationship with our Father and our King by giving him the cold shoulder; by refusing to listen to him; by taking what he has given us for Christ for granted, and not delighting in him each day – what are we to do? What does it mean to come back to him?
In his commentary on this passage, Calvin makes the comment that ‘we cannot embrace God’s offered favour except our sins become hateful to us’. And he’s right. We will only return if we realise that we have wandered off. If we face the fact that we have been as stupid as the generations who happily careened down the road to Exile. We will only repent when we feel the weight and the pain and vileness of our sin. Which according to 1:6, is exactly what they did –
So they RETURNED (not repented) and said, ‘As the LORD of hosts purposed to deal with us for our ways and deeds, so has he dealt with us.'” Right at the start of the book, we are given a great model of what it means to come back to God.
This is where it’s good to know that Zechariah’s generation weren’t particularly bad. They weren’t idolaters – the Exile seems to have cured them of that. They weren’t sexually immoral. Their sin? They were a bit indifferent. God had re-configured the entire political landscape of the Ancient Near East to get them back to Jerusalem to restore his name, his reputation and his Temple, and they were doing nothing about it. As Haggai said just a few weeks earlier: 2 “Thus says the LORD of hosts: These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the house of the LORD.” 3 Then the word of the LORD came by the hand of Haggai the prophet, 4 “Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins? 5 Now, therefore, thus says the LORD of hosts: Consider your ways. God saw their materialistic apathy, and called them to consider their ways. To return to him. To come back home.
Could that be the word of the Lord to us this morning? To you and me? At this moment in Brisbane? Neither MPC, nor the PCQ nor the wider church in our city is not rotten with immorality and idolatry, but I think you could say we are pretty comfortable; perhaps anaemic, lacking passion, and risk-taking. So what are we to do? I suspect that James has this very passage in mind when he writes these words:
4:8 Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 9 Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you. Let’s come home to our God, Yahweh of the Armies, and to the Lord Jesus Christ. And as we come home, let’s…
A couple of weeks ago, Fiona and I celebrated our 29th wedding anniversary. That in itself is a great mystery to me and incontrovertible evidence of the grace of God. But in particular, I am deeply grateful to Fiona for enduring any number of sleepless nights in the bed next to me, as I have restlessly thrashed around in my sleep, keeping her awake for hours at a time, only to wake up and tell her that I slept terribly! Being in bed next to Zechariah can’t have been much fun either, because in a single night, about a month after verses 1-6, Zechariah sees 8 visions one after the other. He dozes off briefly in 4:1, only to be shaken awake by an inconsiderate angel for more of the same – but for the rest of the night, he is wide awake, as he is confronted by the God who is fearsome, but also deeply gracious.
Zechariah describes his first vision like this: Zech 1:7 On the twenty-fourth day of the eleventh month, which is the month of Shebat, in the second year of Darius, the word of the LORD came to the prophet Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, son of Iddo, saying, 8 During the night I had a vision, and there before me was a man mounted on a red horse. Let me pause there for a second – for some reason many English translations make this scene seem weird, like something from an episode of My Little Pony, by calling it a red horse. But ‘red’ here should almost certainly be translated ‘chestnut’. This is not a weird horse. The point is not its unusual colour, as we shall see. As we read on,
He was standing among the myrtle trees in a ravine., and behind him were red (chestnut), brown, and white horses. [more normal coloured horses] 9 Then I said, ‘What are these, my lord?’ The angel who talked with me said to me, [they’re horses!] ‘I will show you what they are.’ So in this vision, there are lots of horses, and two angels with speaking parts – one riding a chestnut horse, and the other doing a commentary for Zechariah, accompanied by lots of other angels on horseback. Got that? Then let’s keep going.
One talking angel says ‘I’ll show you what’s going on’, and the other, the man standing among the myrtle trees explained, “They are the ones the LORD has sent to go throughout the earth.” 11 And they [presumably the riders rather than the horses] answered the angel of the LORD who was standing among the myrtle trees, and said, ‘We have patrolled the earth, and found the whole earth to be at peace.’ So the man riding the chestnut horse is the ‘Angel of Yahweh’, and seems to be in charge of this huge patrol who have covered the known world, and found out that everything is at peace.
For Zechariah’s peers, this was a relatively familiar scene. The Persians were famous for their mounted patrols, who ranged far and wide over their empire to keep their eye out for any revolting natives. These angelic horsemen are the biblical non-scary equivalent of the ringwraiths, the Nazgul, the black riders. And when they go on patrol, what do they find? Peace on earth. How lovely – very Christmassy. Right? Wrong.
Verse 12: LORD Almighty, how long will you withhold mercy from Jerusalem and from the towns of Judah, which you have been angry with these seventy years?” It turns out in this vision that this is the bad kind of peace. This is the kind of ‘God’s enemies are on top with no sign of them getting their comeuppance’ kind of peace.
Think about this for a second. God’s people have come home. They are back in the land. The Exile is over – kind of. So what’s the problem? The problem is that God’s people are still under Persian rule. The problem is that God is not acknowledged as King. This is a world content without God kind of peace, where God’s people are marginalized, and ignored, and despised The problem is that this is peace without the gospel. This is a let’s go to the beach/ throw another prawn on the barbie kind of peace. This is ‘a beautiful one day perfect the next kind of peace. This is our kind of peace. So does God have anything to say in a world like this?
13 So the LORD spoke kind and comforting words to the angel who talked with me. 14 Then the angel who was speaking to me said, “Proclaim this word: This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘I am very jealous for Jerusalem and Zion, Our God is deeply, passionately concerned for his church and his world. He speaks gracious and comforting words to his passionless, ineffective people. Where is the hope for the future? Where is the hope for our city, our state, our land? It is in the passion and grace of God – the exclusive, jealous loving determination of God to gather his people for his glory through the gospel.
But we can’t forget that in the Bible, God’s rescue always comes hand in glove with his retribution. Salvation comes with judgement. Grace comes with justice. and I am very angry with the nations that feel secure. I was only a little angry, but they went too far with the punishment.’ What does God say? He speaks words of salvation and judgement. He speaks words of grace and warning. God will comfort his people, and show mercy, and choose them, and pour out all the blessings of the covenant on his King, and his Kingdom, and he will judge those who oppose him and his people. This is our God
God’s apathetic people may still be oppressed – but God is in control, and he is merciful – and, as we have already seen, he will return to his people.
16″Therefore this is what the LORD says: ‘I will return to Jerusalem with mercy, and there my house will be rebuilt. And the measuring line will be stretched out over Jerusalem,’ declares the LORD Almighty. [measuring out the reconstructed Jerusalem] 17 “Proclaim further: This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘My towns will again overflow with prosperity, and the LORD will again comfort Zion and choose Jerusalem.’ “ This is our God. And he is talking about us.
Around 500 years before Jesus, Zechariah sees in vivid pictures what God is going to do for people like us, as he gets on the tools to construct the next stage of his grand designs – expanding his people to include people like us – a new Israel.
One of the reasons God has given us the Old Testament is to make sure we get the stunning, gobsmacking implications of our God acting in both rescue and judgment. Zechariah sees God both dealing with the wicked, and tenderly pouring all the resources in the universe into bringing us home. Paul sums up his message like this:
1 Cor 6:9 Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, 10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. This is the reality to which these verses point.
And why does God give Zechariah this picture? Why does Zechariah write it down for people like us? Why does it come wrapped up as a vision? So that we can picture it in our minds eye and gasp. This vision is here to provoke us to gasp at our God, the God of salvation and judgment. For some of us this morning, this will be the takeaway – we don’t need necessarily need to remember something new, or have a question answered – we may just need to stand back and gasp… and then to do one more thing. In the shortest of Zechariah’s visions in 1:18-21, he urges us to…
BOW DOWN! (1:18-21)
1:18 Then I looked up, and there before me were four horns. 19 I asked the angel who was speaking to me, “What are these?” He answered me, “These are the horns that scattered Judah, Israel and Jerusalem.” Commentators have devoted lots of energy to working out what these horns are – animal horns? Musical horns? The horns from the altar? Scary steel-tipped pointy fighting horns? They’ve all been suggested. The explaining angel doesn’t really help us much – ‘Yes, they’re horns’ he says, and doesn’t add anything more other than to say that ‘they have scattered Judah, Israel and Jerusalem’. The language of scattering comes from Leviticus 26 and elsewhere, where God warned Israel that if they refused to listen to God and obey him, instead of enjoying the blessings of the covenant, they would feel the awful weight of the covenant curses, including being scattered among the nations. Which is exactly what happened. But what of the nations whom God used to do the scattering? Assyria, Babylon and the rest. Do they get off scot free? No they don’t. Haggai had already warned the nations that they could get what was coming to them – God says ‘I am about to shake the heavens and the earth, 22 and to overthrow the throne of kingdoms. I am about to destroy the strength of the kingdoms of the nations, and overthrow the chariots and their riders. And the horses and their riders shall go down, every one by the sword of his brother. Here, and in many other places, the nations get what they deserve. What’s so fascinating about Zechariah’s second vision is the way in which this happens.
20 Then the LORD showed me four craftsmen. [tradies] He answered, “These are the horns that scattered Judah so that no one could raise their head, but the craftsmen have come to terrify them and throw down these horns of the nations who lifted up their hornsa against the land of Judah to scatter its people.” How is God going to bring the nations to their knees? These four mighty horns will be brought down by four tradies! Carpenters to be more precise, but the point is that God will use these ordinary blokes to bring about his purposes in the world. He uses these tradies to bring salvation and judgment.
It’s hard to avoid seeing the connection with Jesus here, isn’t it? Because in the Lord Jesus Christ, one who happened to be a tradie, a carpenter of all things, God brought about the reconciliation of the entire universe, bringing everything together under the beautiful rule of his son. Jesus’ message was that weak and broken people, sinful people, can find life and freedom and forgiveness in him. Jesus’ manner, his whole approach, was to walk in weakness, and in apparent foolishness, to shame the wise and to demonstrate for all time the love and power of God. And Jesus; method? He broke the powers of sin and darkness, of death and hell, by triumphing over them on a cross – the very symbol of weakness and shame and brokenness and curse. And yet in that single, unthinkable act of submission to death on a cross, Jesus broke the power of sin and death. This is how God works. He works like this in the run up to the cross, and on the cross, and this is how he works on this side of the cross.
God uses the weak to shame the strong. It’s just the way he does things. Why? Because this is the way in which he ensures that his glory and honour are promoted in our world. Because this is how he makes sure that people get the message – both the message of life and the message of death – the message of salvation and judgment. It is our sovereign God who has so set things up that he will build his kingdom through us, as fools like us take the message of salvation and judgment to our world. That in and through our weakness and brokenness and the apparent foolishness of this message that every power and ideology and empire and movement will one day be brought to its knees before the Lord Jesus Christ. So what must we do? Bow before him.
So this is Zechariah’s God – the God who burns with anger against sin, and yet says return to me and I will return to you. Come home to me. The God who sends his angelic scouts ranging far and wide, even as he speaks comforting and gracious words to his people. The God who directs global history to enact his plans, and makes us gasp. The God who uses the weak to shame the strong. This is our God, the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, the God of the gospel. This morning what are we to do as we step into this book and these visions? Simple – come back to him, wherever we’ve been. Gasp at his power and splendour. And bow down before him in gratitude and delight. Let’s pray together.