Most of the problems we face in living for the Lord Jesus can be boiled down to one of two missteps: (1) saying ‘I can do it‘ or (2) saying ‘God can’t do it‘. We normally call the first mistake ‘pride’ – where think far too highly of ourselves – and the second ‘unbelief’ – where we think far too little of God. So honestly, which do you think you are more prone to? To saying ‘Oh yes, I can do this!’ or ‘Oh no, even God can’t do anything about that!’? But actually, it’s even more complicated than that – because many of us can actually manage to be both proud and unbelieving at the same time! The unfortunate truth is that when it comes to pride and unbelief, we are all born experts. And these are the twin temptations that Vision number 5 in Zechariah 4 tackles.
Remember it’s 520BC, 20 years after the first group of God’s people trudged back to Jerusalem from Babylon. The excitement has waned. Their city is still a wreck. The Persians are still in charge. The catchphrase of the returnees is ‘Is this it?‘ But then there’s the man who rejoices in the name of Zerubbabel. Zerubbabel is the closest thing to a private schoolboy they had in the province of Yehud. He had breeding – he was from the line of David. He had power – he was the Governor of the Returnees. And he was about to pull off something pretty spectacular by getting get the Temple back up and running. Now there’s something to get excited about – even to be proud of? Not if Zechariah 4 has anything to do with it – for this chapter is all about walking on the firm ground between the swamp of pride on one side and the bog of unbelief on the other. The message of this chapter in a nutshell is ‘You can’t do this – but God can!‘
VISION #5 – YOU CAN’T DO THIS, BUT GOD CAN!
After the excitement of the first 4 visions it’s all been too much for Zechariah, and he dozes off, only to be woken by the persistent angel in 4:1. And when he wakes up? 2 He asked me, “What do you see?” I answered, “I see a solid gold lampstand with a bowl at the top and seven lamps on it, with seven channels to the lamps. Now up to this point, we have been slightly spoiled – Zechariah’s visions have been unusual, but they haven’t been hard to interpret. And then we come to vision number 5. This one has a lot of detail, and the details matter – so stick with me as we work through this.
Basically Zechariah sees a golden lamp – in Hebrew, a ‘menorah’. But this isn’t any old lamp. From the beginning, there had been a lamp at the heart of Israel’s worship. There was one in the Tabernacle. There were actually ten in Solomon’s Temple. But this is some kind of uber-Menorah – for a start, it doesn’t need to be filled by priests or levites, this one is self-filling, thanks to the bowl on top of it and the channels, presumably providing an endless supply of light. Clever. What does this Menorah symbolize? It probably symbolizes the presence of Yahweh – who in line with 1:3, is committed to returning to be with his people. So far, so good. Then there are the trees.
Verse 3 reads Also there are two olive trees by it, one on the right of the bowl and the other on its left.” 4 I asked the angel who talked with me,”What are these, my lord?” 5 He answered, “Do you not know what these are?” “No, my lord,” I replied. It is a great comfort to know that when Zechariah saw all this, initially he had no idea what was going on – so if you feel a bit confused on the way through, you’re on the right track. Zechariah gets the fact that the oil for this mega-lamp is being supplied by two olive trees, which are somehow filling the bowl, which is in turn supplying the light-up bits via channels. But does he get what’s actually going on here? No he doesn’t. At least not yet. So the angel speaks again in verse 6. But instead of clarifying things for Zechariah, we get a message for the Mayor: So he said to me, “This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel: ‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the LORD Almighty.
Zerubbabel, is a real person. He is in charge of the returnees in this mini-province. He is organising the Temple rebuild. And according to God in this vision, he is doing some pretty impressive and important things: 4:7 “What are you, mighty mountain? Before Zerubbabel you will become level ground. Then he will bring out the capstone to shouts of ‘God bless it! God bless it!’ “8 Then the word of the LORD came to me: 9 “The hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundation of this temple; his hands will also complete it. Then you will know that the LORD Almighty has sent me to you.
The picture is one of Zerubbabel doing some very impressive excavation before putting the finishing touches to the Temple by adding the capstone, and as he does so either asking God to bless the newly finished Temple, or perhaps better, that God has graciously blessed it. Moving the mountain is probably a metaphor for every difficulty standing in the way of God’s people (like the expression in Isaiah 40:4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.) Zerubbabel is a determined kind of guy, and in this vision, he gets the job done with God’s help. Incidentally, is the the background of Jesus’ mountain-moving sayings in the synoptics.) Nothing can stand in the way of God’s purposes – when it comes to God doing his work, whether that involves rebuilding a Temple in Jerusalem or replacing it. So what have we got so far: God is with his people, and Zerubbabel’s Temple rebuild is evidence that God is at work. Which is confirmed in 4:10 “Who dares despise the day of small things, since the seven eyes of the LORD that range throughout the earth will rejoice when they see the chosen capstone (a key brick in the temple) in the hand of Zerubbabel?” This does sound a bit weird – but the point is that people who ‘despise the day of small things’ – who mock Zerubbabel’s ‘rebuild the temple’ project – are making a big mistake, because God himself, represented by the seven lamps of the mega-Menorah, is rejoicing as he sees what’s unfolding in Jerusalem and in fact, all over the world. God is with them and at work. Hopefully that’s starting to get a bit clearer – but we’re not finished yet:
4:11 Then I asked the angel, “What are these two olive trees on the right and the left of the lampstand?” 12 Again I asked him, “What are these two olive branches streams beside the two gold pipes that pour out golden oil?” 13 He replied, “Do you not know what these are?” “No, my lord,” I said. ‘But you still haven’t told me about these live-streaming olive trees that provide the oil for the lamp’ says Zechariah, with a hint of frustration, which takes us to the final part of this vision in verse 14 So he said, “These are the two who are anointed sons of oil to serve the Lord of all the earth.”
Now far be it from me to play down any messianic significance in an OT passage, but there isn’t any messianic significance here. The sons of olive oil are not messianic – they are simply the guys or more accurately the trees who keep the oil flowing. Got all that? It’s quite straightforward really! So let’s put all the details of the vision itself together, before we move on to the easy bit – applying the message of the vision. Zechariah is introduced to two men, who, like olive trees, provide the fuel by the power of the Spirit for the mega-menorah, which represents the presence of Yahweh among his people. Two men through the Spirit make God’s presence obvious among his people. So final question – who are the two men?
There are several options. but I think they are the 2 prophets who were there the day the foundation was laid for the Temple – they are Haggai and Zechariah. I think that explains why Zechariah keeps saying ‘I don’t get this’. He just can’t work out who the olive trees are, these ‘sons of oils’ who stand by the Lord – now he finds out – it’s him and his pal Haggai! It’s through their ministry of the word in the power of the Spirit that God works, making his presence obvious in the world. The irony of the vision is that Zechariah doesn’t recognise himself in it! But he is there – and through his ongoing proclamation of the word of Yahweh in the power of the Spirit, Zechariah himself is the key player in Yahweh returning to his people in word and spirit.
Now I’ve got to say that I think this chapter is just about as hard as it gets when it comes to reading the Bible. It’s complicated and confusing. It’s even hard to translate. But the great news is that the message is crystal clear. God is saying to people who are getting carried away with the Temple project (like Zerubbabel), and people who are still moaning about how hard it all is back in Jerusalem, YOU CAN’T DO THIS BUT I CAN. There is a sense in which if you get verse 6, you’ve got the point of the vision: “This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel: ‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the LORD Almighty.
No doubt Zerubbabel was a very capable leader, a great motivator and an effective organiser – but he, like all of us, needed to get this straight – in the words of Solomon, that other Temple Builder from Psalm 127 – Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain. We’re not given any detail on Zerubbabel and his issues, but it’s obvious that he was about to about to do something hugely significant – God was going to use him to rebuild the Temple. Which is why along with every single one of us who ever thinks ‘we can do it’ he needed to hear this message: ‘Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit.‘ Nothing of any lasting value will be achieved unless God in his kindness works through the power of the Spirit. Nothing.
That’s a great word for us to hear at MPC. As we refresh our vision, as we start to appoint new staff, as we start to pull together, and find ways to use the rich gifts God has given us in new ways, as we start to reach out with new energy – we need to remember this: nothing of any lasting value will be achieved unless God in his kindness works through the power of the Spirit. Nothing.
But I do realise that not everyone is feeling excited just now. For some of us, we’re weary, despondent and even afraid. Are the great days of MPC in the past? Will we ever get a new senior pastor? Will COVID and the PresCare debacle cripple us forever? We may need to hear these words: who is it who despises the day of small things? Gospel ministry in most places for most of the time is about doing hard yards, often with very little to show for it. You do realise that, don’t you? It’s a hard slog.
I’ve been living as a Christian now for about 40 years. There have been some real high points for me – when I was in my last year at school, and it seemed like someone was coming to Christ every couple of days. The first couple of Christianity Explored courses I ran, when it seemed like everyone who came was going to become a Christian. When we launched a church plant in Dublin, and it took off from day 1. Those were great days – but to be honest? They were exceptional. For every day like that there were twenty, where not much was happening and ministry was hard, and it felt very much like a day of small things. So what does Zecharaiah say? ‘who is it who despises the day of small things?
Now I know that we growth is a gospel essential, and should shape our expectations and strategy and so on. There is a sense in which we should never be content with small – we should always long for more and more and more gospel growth. But there is another sense in which we need to shut up, trust God and get on with it – as we repeat quietly – and regularly to ourselves: Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the LORD Almighty. Which takes us to visions 6,7 and 8 in chapters 5 and 6.
We’ll race through these much more quickly because these flow on from the gooey vision of chapter 4, as Zechariah’s angelic friend is his guide as he gets to see what happens when God comes to town. What happens when God works not by our might or power, but by his Spirit. And not only is it very impressive, it is the most powerful, forceful reminder that we can and must expect God to work in real time! Time is short, so let’s get cracking:
VISION #6 – DISHONESTY IS DEALT WITH (5:1-4)
Up to this point, Zechariah’s visions have lacked a certain panache – he has only got to see things like standard lamps and linen underwear. But now, things start to hot up: 5:1 I looked again, and there before me was a flying scroll. 2 He asked me, “What do you see?” I answered, “I see a flying scroll, twenty cubits long and ten cubits wide.” This is a very big flying scroll. The biggest scroll I’ve ever seen is the Isaiah Scroll from Dead Sea Scrolls in Israel. It’s a big scroll – almost 10m long – but its only about 30cm tall. But this one? It’s about the same length by almost 5m wide. It’s actually the same size as the porch of Solomon’s Temple. This is less of a scroll and more of a flying billboard!
Scrolls aren’t mentioned very much in the OT, but when they are, it is almost invariably bad news – very bad news indeed. In Jeremiah 36, the prophet presents King Jehoiakin with a scroll spelling out the judgement that’s about to hit his kingdom. Jehoiakin is so angry with the contents that he cuts up the scroll and throws it in the fire. In Ezekiel 2 and 3, this prophet has to eat a scroll, which has on one side words of mourning and woe, and on the other side words of lament. Not surprisingly, the words taste bitter. In other words, if you had happy news to share, you didn’t generally put it on a scroll – even a giant one. A scroll means bad news for somebody. And a flying giant scroll? Giant bad news that it coming very, very quickly. 5:3 And he said to me, “This is the curse that is going out over the whole land; for according to what it says on one side, every thief will be banished, and according to what it says on the other, everyone who swears falsely will be banished. This scroll is written on both sides. It’s full of writing, because there is no shortage of evidence to convict those members of the returned community who are paying no attention to the commands of Yahweh.
It seems that the Jerusalem community was a hotbed of petty theft and perjury, but when Yahweh comes back dwell with his people, then dishonesty has to go: 4 The LORD Almighty declares, ‘I will send it out, and it will enter the house of the thief and the house of anyone who swears falsely by my name. It will remain in that house and destroy it completely, both its timbers and its stones.’ “ The giant flying billboard is dispatched, and like Dorothy’s house in the Wizard of Oz, deals very effectively with the bad guys. When God comes to town, dishonesty is driven out. This is the way in which God works.
In this vision, God acts in real time to deal with dishonesty. Why? Because God hates dishonesty – it is the opposite of everything he stands for – he is light and truth and beauty – it is the devil who is the father of lies. And God will deal with dishonesty, sometimes sooner, sometimes later, but deal with it he will. For in the words of Rev 21:8, But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.” So vision 6 says that dishonesty will be dealt with. Then in Vision 7, injustice is banished.
VISION #7 – INJUSTICE IS BANISHED (5:5-11)
When it was first broadcast in the UK, I think I briefly watched an episode of Kath and Kim and swiftly moved on. After 10 years in Australia, it’s much funnier. Lots of the humour is based on knowing what life is actually like here. If you don’t get that, you don’t really get Kath and Kim. In the same way, if you don’t know what’s happened in the story of Judah up to this point, you won’t get what happens in vision #7. In particular, knowing the book of Ezekiel helps. Ezekiel had a particular worrying vision of God abandoning his people, as the winged creatures, the cherubim, who flanked the Ark of the Covenant in the Temple, took off and left. Now that God is back, there is another sharp exit – but this is a good vision – the mirror image of that, as this time God stays and the bad stuff leaves – an anti-ark belonging to an anti-God carried by anti-cherubs to an anti-Temple in an anti-Jerusalem.
5:5 Then the angel who was speaking to me came forward and said to me, “Look up and see what is appearing.” 6 I asked, “What is it?” He replied, “It is a basket.” And he added, “This is the iniquity of the people throughout the land.” The word translated basket here is actually the word ‘ephah’, which is almost always used to describe a large quantity (about 35 litres). But it also has another context – But the idea of the ‘ephah’ also has another connotation – the ‘honest ephah’ was proverbial in Israel. To cheat your brother by using a dodgy ephah was to invite Yahweh to bring down the curse of the covenant, which is exactly what was happening – and it was horrible. 7 Then the cover of lead was raised, and there in the basket sat a woman! 8 He said, “This is wickedness,” and he pushed her back into the basket and pushed its lead cover down on it. So Zechariah discovers that lifting up the lid of this basket, reveals the corrupt heart of the people of God. Yahweh puts this wicked metaphorical woman firmly back in her ephah.
But we’re not done yet: 5:9 Then I looked up-and there before me were two women, with the wind in their wings! They had wings like those of a stork, and they lifted up the basket between heaven and earth. 10 “Where are they taking the basket?” I asked the angel who was speaking to me. 11 He replied, “To the country of Babylonia [the home of opposition to God] to build a house for it. When the house is ready, the basket will be set there in its place. When God comes, injustice is banished. It’s that simple. God always has – and always will – have a problem with injustice – and in particular, with those who claim to belong to him and deliberately exploit others. He repeatedly warns us of this in the Old Testament. He confronts such injustice in the person of Jesus when he comes. On this side of the cross, God insists that we, his people, have no truck with favouritism or racism or any other kind of injustice, and he says in the strongest terms that when Jesus Christ returns, he will deal with every level of injustice. We would do well to remember the words of William Wilberforce, who put it bluntly: A private faith that does not act in the face of oppression is no faith at all. In his book Generous Justice, Tim Keller puts it like this: ‘A life poured out in doing justice for the poor is the inevitable sign of any real, true gospel faith.’ Whether it is the plight of indigenous teenagers in the Northern Territory, or those on bridging visas here in our city, or genuine refugees confined like animals in detention centres, or any number of vulnerable groups in our society, we need to be prepared to stand against injustice, because our God is a just God. So dishonesty is dealt with and injustice banished, and thirdly, in Vision 8…
VISION 8 – THE NATIONS ARE DEFEATED (6:1-8)
This final vision rounds off the whole series – and it shows the dramatic, comprehensive victory of God over all-comers. 6:1 I looked up again, and there before me were four chariots coming out from between two mountains-mountains of bronze.. Obviously, these are no ordinary chariots – chariots were really only any use on flat areas, like car parks – but these chariots can handle mountains. And they come out from between bronze mountains. Seen any bronze mountains lately? Me neither. But I do know that back in 1 Kings 7:13-22, Solomon set up two enormously fat mountainous bronze pillars (he even gave them names – Jachin and Boaz – Yahweh is strong) at the entrance to the Temple. These four chariots it seems, are coming right from the presence of God himself. It’s game on.
2 The first chariot had red (chestnut) horses, the second black, 3 the third white, and the fourth dappled-all of them powerful. 4 I asked the angel who was speaking to me, “What are these, my lord?” 5 The angel answered me, “These are the four spirits of heaven, going out from standing in the presence of the Lord of the whole world. 6 The one with the black horses is going toward the north country, the one with the white horses toward the west, and the one with the dappled horses toward the south.” 2 out of 4 horses go north, where all the trouble had come from in Israel’s recent past (Babylon and Assyria), one goes south in the direction of Egypt, and one east towards Moab and Edom. Why no east? Because they’d fall into the sea, that’s why! Yahweh’s forces are itching to get on with it: 6:7 When the powerful horses went out, they were straining to go throughout the earth. And he said, “Go throughout the earth!” So they went throughout the earth.
And in a flash, it’s all over. 8 Then he called to me, “Look, those going toward the north country have given my Spirit rest in the land of the north.”
The word for ‘rest’ here isn’t the normal word for putting your feet up and relaxing – this word is almost always used to describe the situation when God’s anger has been satisfied – that justice has been done (see Ezek. 16:42; 21:17; 22:20; 24:13), and God’s enemies silenced. Back in 1:11, there was an eerie rest because the nations were in charge – now the tables have been turned – the one and only God has defeated all nations. Remember – this is where history is going. God is going to win. His absolute, total, final victory is only a matter of time. In the words of Colossians 2, God [has already] disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in Christ. Which, remarkably, is exactly what Zechariah says will happen.
CONCLUSION: WHEN WILL ALL THIS HAPPEN? (6:9-15)
But when? At the end of these 8 visions which describes how God will return, and how sin will then depart or be defeated, God gives the answer through his prophet. This is going to happen when ‘Shoot’, the Davidic Messiah, shows up. But this being Zechariah, the answer comes beautifully wrapped in prophetic symbolism!
6:9 The word of the LORD came to me: 10 “Take silver and gold from the exiles Heldai, Tobijah and Jedaiah, who have arrived from Babylon. Go the same day to the house of Josiah son of Zephaniah. [Josiah is presumably a jeweller] Zechariah is to pick up some spare precious metals from these three mates of his, go to the jeweller, get him to make a crown, and then pop round to the high priest Joshua’s place and stick the crown on his head. Then, he is to perform a slightly bizarre ritual – you can see it in verse 12 Tell him this is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘Here is the man whose name is the Branch, and he will branch out from his place and build the temple of the LORD. 13 It is he who will build the temple of the LORD, and he will be clothed with majesty and will sit and rule on his throne. And he will be a priest on his throne. And there will be harmony between the two.’ At that point, he is to take the crown off his head again, and deposit it in the Temple. 14 The crown will be given to Heldai, Tobijah, Jedaiah and Hen son of Zephaniah as a memorial in the temple of the LORD. Just imagine – someone comes to your door with a crown in their hand – says ‘Here, put this on’, then shouts at the top of his voice ‘Long live the King’, then whips the crown off and says ‘You didn’t really think I meant you, did you?’ before taking the crown away and sticking it on display in the about-to-be-built Temple! That’s what has just happened.
This is all an elaborate way of saying the real action will start – -all this will happen when the one called ‘The Branch’ – or actually, that’s too substantial for the Hebrew word – it’s really the Shoot, or Sprig – it will happen when he shows up. He is the true King. Not Joshua the High Priest, or Mayor Zerubbabel, or even Zechariah and Haggai, the olive oil guys. God says watch for Sprig. Shoot is the one you’re looking for. ‘Shoot’ will launch his mission, and, by the power of his Spirit, build the ultimate Temple. He will be the real descendant of David. He will rule forever. He will be the ultimate priest and the ultimate King. You can’t do it. But God can. And we know that in the Lord Jesus, he has.
We know that Christ, ‘Shoot’ has appeared. He tackled hypocrisy and injustice head on, and defeated sin and death in his own death and resurrection. And those of us who follow, those on whom the end of the ages has come, are caught up in the ongoing work of the Messiah, Shoot, the Priest-King, who rules this universe, and continues to patiently advance his agenda, holding people accountable for every dishonest and unjust act, restraining evil and building his kingdom, until that moment comes when Christ the King says ‘enough is enough’, and he finishes what he has started. We can’t do it. But he can. And he will. In Christ, by the power of the Spirit.
Given all that, shouldn’t we expect him to keep working? Perhaps we need to re-examine both our over-confidence and our low expectations, and our pale dreams, and weak desires, our pride and our unbelief – and put our confidence in him. Not by might. Nor by power. But by my Spirit says the Lord.