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Verse 1

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ZECHARIAH THE PROPHET

Zechariah 1:1-6; Ezra 5:1; Ezra 6:14

ZECHARIAH is one of the prophets whose personality as distinguished from their message exerts some degree of fascination on the student. This is not due, however, as in the case of Hosea or Jeremiah, to the facts of his life, for of these we know extremely little; but to certain conflicting symptoms of character which appear through his prophecies.

His name was a very common one in Israel, Zekher-Yah, "Jehovah remembers." In his own book he is described as "the son of Berekh-Yah, the son of Iddo," and in the Aramaic document of the Book of Ezra as "the son of Iddo." Some have explained this difference by supposing that Berekhyah was the actual father of the prophet, but that either he died early, leaving Zechariah to the care of the grandfather, or else that he was a man of no note, and Iddo was more naturally mentioned as the head of the family. There are several instances in the Old Testament of men being called the sons of their grandfathers; {Genesis 24:47, cf. 1 Kings 19:16, cf. 2 Kings 9:14; 2 Kings 9:20} as in these cases the grandfather was the reputed founder of the house, so in that of Zechariah Iddo was the head of his family when it came out of Babylon and was anew planted in Jerusalem. Others, however, have contested the genuineness of the words "son of Berekh-Yah," and have traced their insertion to a confusion of the prophet with Zechariah son of Yebherekh-Yahu, the contemporary of Isaiah. This is precarious, while the other hypothesis is a very natural one. Whichever be correct, the prophet Zechariah was a member of the priestly family of Iddo, that came up to Jerusalem from Babylon under Cyrus. {Nehemiah 12:4} The Book of Nehemiah adds that in the high-priesthood of Yoyakim, the son of Joshua, the head of the house of Iddo was a Zechariah. If this be our prophet, then he was probably a young man in 520, and had come up as a child in the caravans from Babylon. The Aramaic document of the Book of Ezra {Ezra 5:1; Ezra 6:14} assigns to Zechariah a share with Haggai in the work of instigating Zerubbabel and Jeshua to begin the Temple. None of his oracles is dated previous to the beginning of the work in August, 520, but we have seen that among those undated there are one or two which by referring to the building of the Temple as still future may contain some relics of that first stage of his ministry. From November, 520, we have the first of his dated oracles; his Visions followed in January, 519, and his last recorded prophesying in December, 518.

These are all the certain events of Zechariah’s history. But in the well-attested prophecies he has left we discover, besides some obvious traits of character, certain problems of style and expression which suggest a personality of more than usual interest. Loyalty to the great voices of old, the temper which appeals to the experience, rather than to the dogmas, of the past, the gift of plain speech to his own times, a wistful anxiety about his reception as a prophet, {Zechariah 2:13; Zechariah 4:9; Zechariah 6:15} combined with the absence of all ambition to be original or anything but the clear voice of the lessons of the past and of the conscience of today these are the qualities which characterize Zechariah’s orations to the people. But how to reconcile them with the strained art and obscure truths of the Visions-it is this which invests with interest the study of his personality. We have proved that the obscurity and redundancy of the Visions cannot all have been due to himself. Later hands have exaggerated the repetitions and raveled the processes of the original. But these gradual blemishes have not grown from nothing: the original style must have been sufficiently involved to provoke the interpolations of the scribes, and it certainly contained all the weird and shifting apparitions which we find so hard to make clear to ourselves. The problem, therefore, remains-how one who had gift of speech, so straight and clear, came to torture and tangle his style; how one who presented with all plainness the main issues of his people’s history found it laid upon him to invent, for the further expression of these, symbols so labored and intricate.

We begin with the oracle which opens his book and illustrates those simple characteristics of the man that contrast so sharply with the temper of his Visions.

"In the eighth month, in the second year of Darius, the word of Jehovah came to the prophet Zechariah, son of Berekhyah, son of Iddo, saying: Jehovah was very wroth with your fathers."

"And thou shalt say unto them: Thus saith Jehovah of Hosts: Turn ye to Me-oracle of Jehovah of Hosts-that I may turn to you, saith Jehovah of Hosts! Be not like your fathers, to whom the former prophets preached, saying: ‘Thus saith Jehovah of Hosts, Turn now from your evil ways and from your evil deeds,’ but they hearkened not, and paid no attention to Me-oracle of Jehovah. Your fathers, where are they? And the prophets, do they live for ever? But, My words and My statutes, with which I charged My servants the prophets, did they not overtake your fathers? till these turned and said, As Jehovah of Hosts did purpose to do unto us, according to our deeds and according to our ways, so hath He dealt with us."

It is a sign of the new age which we have reached, that its prophet should appeal to the older prophets with as much solemnity as they did to Moses himself. The history which led to the Exile has become to Israel as classic and sacred as her great days of deliverance from Egypt and of conquest in Canaan. But still more significant is what Zechariah seeks from that past; this we must carefully discover, if we would appreciate with exactness his rank as a prophet.

The development of religion may be said to consist of a struggle between two tempers, both of which indeed appeal to the past, but from very opposite motives. The one proves its devotion to the older prophets by adopting the exact formulas of their doctrine, counts these sacred to the letter, and would enforce them in detail upon the minds and circumstances of the new generation. It conceives that truth has been promulgated once for all in forms as enduring, as the principles they contain. It fences ancient rites, cherishes old customs and institutions, and when these are questioned it becomes alarmed and even savage. The other temper is no whit behind this one in its devotion to the past, but it seeks the ancient prophets not so much for what they have said as for what they have been, not for what they enforced but for what they encountered, suffered, and confessed. It asks not for dogmas, but for experience and testimony. He who can thus read the past and interpret it to his own day-he is the prophet. In his reading he finds nothing so clear, nothing so tragic, nothing so convincing as the working of the Word of God. He beholds how this came to men, haunted them and was entreated by them. He sees that it was their great opportunity, which being rejected became their judgment. He finds abused justice vindicated, proud wrong punished, and all God’s neglected commonplaces achieving in time their triumph. He reads how men came to see this, and to confess their guilt. He is haunted by the remorse of generations who know how they might have obeyed the Divine call, but willfully did not. And though they have perished, and the prophets have died and their formulas are no more applicable, the victorious Word itself still lives and cries to men with the terrible emphasis of their fathers’ experience. All this is the vision of the true prophet, and it was the vision of Zechariah.

His generation was one whose chief temptation was to adopt towards the past the other attitude we have described. In their feebleness what could the poor remnant of Israel do but cling servilely to the former greatness? The vindication of the Exile had stamped the Divine authority of the earlier prophets. The habits, which the life in Babylon had perfected, of arranging and codifying the literature of the past, and of employing it, in place of altar and ritual, in the stated service of God, had canonized Scripture and provoked men to the worship of its very letter. Had the real prophet not again been raised, these habits might have too early produced the belief that the Word of God was exhausted, and must have fastened upon the feeble life of Israel that mass of stiff and stark dogmas, the literal application of which Christ afterwards found crushing the liberty and the force of religion. Zechariah prevented this-for a time. He himself was mighty in the Scriptures of the past: no man in Israel makes larger use of them. But he employs them as witnesses, not as dogmas; he finds in them not authority, but experience. He reads their testimony to the ever-living presence of God’s Word with men. And seeing that, though the old forms and figures have perished with the hearts which shaped them, the Word itself in its bare truth has vindicated its life by fulfillment in history, he knows that it lives still, and hurls it upon his people, not in the forms published by this or that prophet of long ago, but in its essence and direct from God Himself, as His Word for today and now. "The fathers, where are they? And the prophets, do they live forever? But My words and My statutes, with which I charged My servants the prophets, have they not overtaken your fathers? Thus saith Jehovah of Hosts, Be ye not like your fathers, but turn ye to Me that I may turn to you."

The argument of this oracle might very naturally have been narrowed into a credential for the prophet himself as sent from God. About his reception as Jehovah’s messenger Zechariah shows a repeated anxiety. Four times he concludes a prediction with the words. "And ye shall know that Jehovah hath sent me," as if after his first utterances he had encountered that suspicion and unbelief which a prophet never failed to suffer from his contemporaries. But in this oracle there is no trace of such personal anxiety. The oracle is pervaded only with the desire to prove the ancient Word of God as still alive, and to drive it home in its own sheer force. Like the greatest of his order Zechariah appears with the call to repent: "Turn ye to Me-oracle of Jehovah of Hosts-that I may turn to you." This is the pivot on which history has turned, the one condition on which God has been able to help men. Wherever it is read as the conclusion of all the past, wherever it is proclaimed as the conscience of the present, there the true prophet is found and the Word of God has been spoken.

This same possession by the ethical spirit reappears, as we shall see, in Zechariah’s orations to the people after the anxieties of building are over and the completion of the Temple is in sight. In these he affirms again that the whole essence of God’s Word by the older prophets has been moral-to judge true judgment, to practice mercy, to defend the widow and orphan, the stranger and poor, and to think no evil of one another. For the sad fasts of the Exile Zechariah enjoins gladness, with the duty of truth and the hope of peace. Again and again he enforces sincerity and the love without dissimulation. His ideals for Jerusalem are very high, including the conversion of the nations to her God. But warlike ambitions have vanished from them, and his pictures of her future condition are homely and practical. Jerusalem shall be no more a fortress, but spread village-wise without walls. Full families, unlike the present colony with its few children and its men worn out in middle life by harassing warfare with enemies and a sullen nature; streets rife with children playing and old folk sitting in the sun; the return of the exiles; happy harvests and spring-times of peace; solid gain of labor for every man, with no raiding neighbors to harass, nor the mutual envies of peasants in their selfish struggle with famine.

It is a simple, hearty, practical man whom such prophesying reveals, the spirit of him bent on justice and love, and yearning for the un-harassed labor of the field and for happy homes. No prophet has more beautiful sympathies, a more direct word of righteousness, or a braver heart.

"Fast not, but love truth and peace. Truth and wholesome justice set ye up in your gates. Be not afraid; strengthen your hands! Old men and women-shall yet sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand for the fullness of their years; the city’s streets shall be rife with boys and girls at play."

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