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Zechariah is numbered with what are called The Minor Prophets of The Old Testament. Everyone knows the ‘A’ list celebrity prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, for example. But these ‘C’ and ‘D’ list prophets are not at all well known. Even some of you who learned the books of the Bible at Sunday School many years ago may have forgotten who they were.
You do know however that the Jewish people were defeated by the Babylonians and Jerusalem was destroyed in 587BC. King Zedekiah fled but was captured near Jericho. His sons were executed in front of him and he was blinded and taken to Babylon where he died. The remnant of the people of God were herded over to Babylon as exiles during the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar. In 537BC the later Babylonian King Cyrus issued a decree of freedom for Jews to return to their own lands. However, they did not immediately set about rebuilding the city and temple. As the prophet Haggai put it - they were primarily concerned with rebuilding their own houses to a high standard. Zechariah’s prophecies and writings date to about 520 - 518 BC.
The purpose of this book is not strictly historical but theological and pastoral. The main emphasis is that God is at work and plans to live again with His people in Jerusalem. He will save them from their enemies and cleanse them from sin. Zechariah's concern for purity is apparent in the temple, priesthood and all areas of life as the prophecy gradually eliminates the influence of the governor in favour of the high priest, and the sanctuary becomes ever more clearly the centre of messianic fulfilment. Zechariah is keen to establish a theocratic state led by the Temple rather than by politicians. His ideal is like that of the Ayatollahs of Iran, or The Republic of Ireland when the Roman Catholic Church dominated every aspect of life. Scotland just after the Reformation may be similarly compared. The Islamic mission today is to establish such theocratic state – The House of Islam - throughout the whole world. Zechariah did not believe in the separation of church and state and he wished to spiritualise the public life of the returning Jewish community.
What is particularly interesting about Zechariah is that he was a deeply spiritually attuned man. His was a fertile spiritual mind. He was open to and subject to visions and intimations of the divine. He was a lively and inspirational type of character for whom the Living God was intimate and real. It is probably easier to read his thoughts than it as to know him. He may have been a difficult person, intense and provocative.
Verse 1 - the second year of King Darius’s reign was 520 BC. We have that date precisely. This was when Zechariah received his call to be a prophetic preacher and teacher. He initial message was one of recall, return and repentance. That is still the central message of us preachers. Remember the Lord who has been with you all your days. Return to the Lord who is waiting to bless you. Repent of your sins, especially those of spiritual neglect. We do not hear that message much from our Church leaders. Theirs is not a voice of distinct and deliberate Christianity. In England the Archbishop of York, the Ugandan John Sentamu is an exception as is the former Bishop of Rochester, who converted to Christianity from Islam, Michael Nazir-Ali. He has just resigned as a bishop to work with groups who help and defend persecuted Christians in Islamic countries. In Scotland, our Moderators tend only to speak of political issues and none in recent memory have ever called the nation back to God in Jesus Christ.
Verses 2 & 3 - “Return to me” says God, “and I will return to you”. There you have the proper order. Lots of people think that God has neither interest in them or time for them. Many who have believed in God have not kept their relationship on a good footing. Many ask God for favours. Many ask why God has not answered their prayers. We have to make the effort and take the first step. The prodigal son took the long way home only to find against his best expectations a warm and loving welcome from his Father.
Verse 4 - A theme of all the prophets is how the People of Israel let God down over the years and centuries. They lost the vision and purpose of their special calling. They gave up the spiritual struggle to be different. They assimilated other cultures and even adopted their religious practices. We today tend to think well of our fore bearers in the Christian faith. We think of them as having been largely faithful to their Christian calling. We think Scotland was once more Christian than it is now by far. Those of my generation may think we have done our best also. We look askance at the ingrained selfishness of our children and of theirs, express regret that they do not profess or live as Christians and feel guilty that we have not done enough to show them the benefits of a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ.
The journalist Rod Liddle writing in The Spectator on 14 March this year said of our children, “This is the generation which has managed to spend the hard earned cash built up over the years by its parents and also has busied itself spending any possible inheritance to its children. A generation which takes but will not give. The money spent uselessly on divorces, on serial monogamy, or holidays, or consumer durables. A generation deprived of genuine hardship and poverty and cosseted by a liberal theology which insisted, at every turn - no, go on, do your own thing, whatever it is and let there be no recriminations. A generation for whom notions such as discipline, obedience and conformity were not merely antithetical but actually risible. A generation which inherited the highest standard of living this country has ever enjoyed and thus saw no great problem in simply spending until all the money was gone. A generation which believes in self expression and emotional incontinence, which believes it owes nothing to anyone. And nor is it to blame for anything, even when its kids turn out to be real trouble”.
Even if there never actually was a golden age of Christianity in Scotland, there was a sense of value at that level which is now lost. There is no over-arching and unifying principle or Christian truth which binds the nation.
Verses 5 & 6 - reminds the people that God cannot be dispensed with, forgotten and abandoned and that there will be no consequences resulting. God’s Word comes true sooner or later and it cannot be thwarted or circumvented. We see that also today not only in Scotland but in Britain and in western Europe and America more generally. An American writer called Michael Spencer thinks that the mega churches in America will decline rapidly in the 21st century. He thinks evangelicals will also decline in numbers and influence. He thinks Christian schools in America will close. He sees an increase in hostility to Christianity in a more and more secular society. Here the decline seems as if it will continue but at a slower pace than was expected. Unless there is a re-connection between Christianity and public life and values this seems inevitable. To be a convinced and convicted Christian in Britain today is to stick out like both a beacon and a sore thumb.
Verse 7 - One of the great issues prophets had to deal with was to explain why bad things had happened to the chosen people, called and loved of Almighty God. Their stock answer was that the chosen people had sinned collectively and lost God’s favour. God’s favour was both practical, involved and saving and it showed and it mattered if suddenly it was no longer discernible or present. The prophets always encouraged collective repentance and invoked a re-establishing of the covenant relationship with God. They believed that if this happened sufficiently, full restoration of the fortunes of the people of God would be possible. It was in that context that John the Baptist began preaching national repentance and it was in that context that people welcomed Jesus as a possible answer to their prayers. In Him they actually saw the living God at work.
Verses 8, 9 & 10 are somewhat mystical in nature. Zechariah was resting but not sleeping. He was thinking, dreaming and praying. The first vision of Zechariah begins with a man riding a red horse and standing among the myrtle trees. Israel has been taken captive by the Babylonians. But in this chapter God promises, “I am returned to Jerusalem with mercies” (v.16). Consider the meaning of the myrtle trees. The myrtle is a large evergreen shrub that grows to the size of a small tree. It receives moisture to make it healthy and strong. It withstands drought and remains green even after cut. When its leaves are crushed, they bring forth a sweet fragrance. In ancient times, the Jews would welcome the Sabbath with two bouquets of myrtle. It was also used to make the booths for the feast of tabernacles. Zechariah says that the characteristics of the myrtle apply to Israel at the time of her return from Babylonian captivity.
Horses and horsemen were usually symbols of danger as they are for example in the Book of Revelation. That was because the armies of enemies arrived on horses. Here they are messengers of peace (verse 11).
Verse 12 & 13 - It seems that the question to God is that other nations, tribes and peoples are at peace - why are the people of God still suffering? There is a very positive answer in verse 13. So the Lord spoke kind and comforting words to the anger who talked with me, says Zechariah describing his vision. God is present and God cares and God is faithful and will bring peace and prosperity again to His chosen people.
That is our own declared faith also. There is nothing too great for the Lord. If people will return to public worship and practising Christianity great things will happen again in our nation and society. There were great men and women in our Christian past and history and there can be such again. It is not inevitable that our national and social life must disintegrate completely. There is a way back. There is a way forward. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. Halleluiah! Nothing is too great for such power and no-one is beyond such love. Amen.