We have visions six and seven of the eight so-called “night visions” before us this evening. Each is quite short and both concern a common theme: the judgment of sin, in the Jewish community in the first place and in the world as a whole. In the fourth vision we saw Joshua, as a representative of the people of God stand filthy and unclean before the Lord. But then we heard the Lord say to him, “Behold I have taken your iniquity away from you.” We then heard of the Branch, the Messiah who would come and remove the iniquity of the land in the single day. Such is what God does with the sin of the penitent. But what if people are not penitent? What if they continue to live sinfully in indifference to the will of God? What then? In these next two visions, the rebuilding of the temple recedes from view and the daily life of the community comes to the fore. As we know from Haggai and from Ezra and Nehemiah, at least some of the Jews who returned from the exile all too quickly returned to some of the sins that had brought God’s judgment upon them in the first place. Spiritual lessons are hard won and yet can often be quickly forgotten. Spiritual apathy and materialism are perpetual temptations, of course, but they also began, for example, to make peace with intermarriage with pagans, a practice that Nehemiah had to address, if you remember. That was a case of overt disobedience to the law of God, not simply an inadequate measure of zeal. We have been assured that the Lord will remain faithful to his Word, his promises and his people, but now the question is: will they remain faithful to him and what if they do not?
The size of this makes it more a flying billboard than a flying scroll. [Duguid, 115; Webb, 99] The size also makes it easy to read — important as the message is — and the fact that it is flying means that it will search out everyone. God’s curse, if it applies to you, will find you out!
The scroll had writing on both sides and obviously was unrolled so that it could be read. So was, if you remember, the scroll mentioned in Ezekiel 2, which likewise contained a warning of impending judgment on Jerusalem. [2:9-10] On the one side is the warning that anyone who steals will be banished, eliminated, or cleaned out. On the other side it is written that the same fate awaits the one who lies or commits perjury. Stealing and lying are a synecdoche, a part of the law standing for all of it; a few representative sins standing for all possible violations of the Law of God. The scroll, in other words, contains the terms of Yahweh’s curse, his threatened punishment of those who break his covenant. sinners. As you remember, the Law of Moses contained curses, or threats of punishments, for those who disobeyed. The scroll expresses Yahweh’s intention to root out of the community those who continue to live in defiance of his will.
Both terms “thief” and “false-swearer” have the definite article before them, the thief; the liar; so we are not talking about a temporary lapse from an otherwise godly life, but the settled character and behavior of a person who sins deliberately. [Webb, 98] These are willful and persistent sinners. And such people have no place in the community of God’s people. His promise is that he will turn them out.
Not only the individual thief or liar will be eliminated, but every trace of his house will be wiped from the face of the earth. This scroll, one very modern commentator observes, is “like a heavenly ‘smart bomb’ launched from high altitude. You can run from such a mobile missive, but where would you hide?” [Duguid, 115] The emphasis falls on how thoroughly God intends to rid his kingdom of people who make a life of sinning against him. It is equivalent to the statement in Revelation 21:8. After describing the glories of heaven and the life that God’s people are going to live there we read:
“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.”
A second vision is like the first. It too concerns the sinfulness of the people. Zechariah saw a basket, the kind of basket by which grain is measured, like our bushel basket. Literally the term is ephah, a measurement of grain equivalent to approximately five dry gallons. But this basket, like the scroll before it, is not standing still; it is moving away. Then in the vision the lead cover of this basket was lifted and lo and behold a woman was sitting inside the basket. No normal size woman could sit in a space that small, so there is a grotesque character to this image (as there always is when evil is personified). [Webb, 100]
The cover was lead, heavy, obviously intended to be too heavy for the woman to lift off herself. Why a woman? Probably the woman represents some female deity such as would have been worshipped by Israel’s neighbors. But it is also possible that there is a woman in the basket to represent the foreign wives that Jewish men had married upon their return to the Promised Land. [Duguid, 117] The two ideas are, of course, related, as they had been in Solomon’s case originally. By intermarriage with pagan women, idolatry was introduced to the life of God’s people. That would be precisely the argument Nehemiah would use (13:26) in ordering the Jewish men of his day to put away their foreign wives.
The woman stood for the wickedness of the people and so the woman — who had apparently begun to stand up — was pushed down into the basket and the lead cover returned to its place on top, shutting her in.
If a woman here epitomizes wickedness, two female figures with immense wings (storks, you remember, have very large wings), wings large enough to enable them to carry the great weight of a basket, containing a woman, covered by a lead lid, picked up the basket to carry it away.
The basket was flown to Shinar, that is, Babylon. As in 2:7, Babylon is the spiritual counterpart to Jerusalem as it will continue to be into the NT, especially in the book of Revelation. Babylon is the City of Man, the kingdom of this world, the kingdom of the Evil One, all descriptions of it given in the Bible. Babylon is the human race organized in defiance of God. [Webb, 101] This basket will remain there permanently in a structure built for it. The whole idea is that once it’s there it’s going to stay there. In Revelation as well, you remember, Babylon is depicted as a wicked woman who opposes the people of God. But the point here is that the idolaters are being removed from the vicinity of God’s people; to be kept at a safe distance from them. This is a visionary picture of the distance that separates heaven and hell and a reminder that within the City of God we will find people who actually belong to the City of Man, people who will someday be separated and removed and sent away.
Do you see now how clearly and powerfully these visions reveal the great doctrines, the truth of our faith: the sovereignty of God, his omniscience, his faithfulness to his people, the forgiveness of sins through faith in Christ, and now the beckoning destinies of heaven and hell? There had been to this point a concentration on the city of Jerusalem and the rebuilding of its temple. But now the attention shifts to the everyday life of the Jews in Jerusalem and to the question: are they living in obedience to the Lord? In the days before the exile, the Jews had lived in disobedience to God but trusted the temple to ensure their safety. Jeremiah had worked hard to disabuse them of that false confidence especially with his famous temple sermon in Jeremiah 7. The temple would be no talisman for a people who defied the Lord. Here the lesson is the same, but the application is wider still. Here the necessity of obedience and God’s promise to separate the wicked from his people is universalized. There will be a City of God, there will be a City of Man and never the twain shall meet.
This separation between the city of God and the city of Man, between Jerusalem and Babylon, between the righteous and the wicked, was not realized in Zechariah’s generation. As we proceed through the book it will become clear that this generation of the Jews was beset with moral and spiritual compromise as every generation of the people of God would be subsequently, Jewish and Gentile alike, up to the present day. The separation between the righteous and the wicked — by which the Bible ordinarily means the separation between those who live righteous lives and those that live wicked lives, remains imperfect and incomplete in this world. Always has, always will. There certainly is such a separation:
- We see it in the different lifestyles and behaviors of real Christians and those who are not;
- The distinction is enforced in faithful churches by the exercise of church discipline.
But there is nothing like this visionary separation between Jerusalem and Babylon; at least not yet.
- Believers sin and unbelievers do good deeds. The sharp line of division so often drawn in the Bible is thus blurred or smudged. At any given moment a real Christian who truly desires to live a godly life may seem to have stepped to the other side of the line and vice versa. While righteousness and wickedness are absolute and opposite conditions of life, in this world they are overlapping all the time.
- Whole churches, supposedly communities of the righteous, surrender themselves to the idolatries of their culture, further blurring the boundary between Jerusalem and Babylon.
But it is fundamental to the Bible’s philosophy of history that this separation exists already in principle and will eventually be made perfect and final. This is the point of the woman being taken in the basket away to Babylon, far from Jerusalem, where a house is built for the basket where it will remain. The populations will live in different worlds. This is the ultimate rationale of the double destiny of all mankind: everyone goes either to heaven or to hell. Why? Heaven is the place where the righteous live in perfect goodness under the blessing of God and hell is the place where the wicked will be separated from that world and from that population so as not to pollute it and to ruin it. This is the point, for example, of the Lord Jesus saying that the wicked will be “shut out” of the banquet and the door closed against them. They cannot go into that wonderful world. They must stay in a place suited for them. They will not be allowed to ruin the life of heaven – they must live in what the Bible calls “their own place.” I say, this fundamental and absolute division of the human race into these two groups — based on their respective ways of life — is everywhere the teaching of the Bible. It is found more often than I think most of us realize. It partakes, of course, of the “now but not yet” character of every aspect of biblical salvation. It is, that is, a present reality, but it is not yet a perfect, complete, immediately visible, and final reality as it will be when Christ returns.
Let me say as an aside that the message of these two destinies — the separation of the righteous and the wicked as the purpose of God and the inevitable destiny of mankind — is unquestionably the teaching of the Bible. In every generation, to be sure, there have been those who have sought to deny this, but it is invariably a case of spitting into the wind. The Bible is too clear. It is taught everywhere in the Bible here in the OT as well as in the NT. I remember reading that in the later 19th century an American journal of opinion proposed to have a debate in its pages on the subject of eternal punishment. They arranged to have the conservative Presbyterian theologian William G.T. Shedd write the “pro” article and Henry Ward Beecher, the celebrated liberal New England Congregationalist preacher, write the “con.” The proof sheets of Dr. Shedd’s defense of the biblical doctrine of judgment were sent to Beecher in order to help him prepare his reply. Instead the editor of the journal received a telegraph that read: “Cancel engagement. Shedd is too much for me. I half believe in eternal punishment now myself. Get somebody else.” Shedd’s argument, in fact, has never been answered except by wishful thinking.
It is because the doctrine of divine judgment is so eminently and obviously biblical and because it is so inevitably reasonable – 1) the moral nature of human life, the existence of a moral order demands a moral accounting; 2) the presence of judgment everywhere we look in this life portends a more complete and perfect judgment in the world to come, 3) the fact that while the sins of men often find them out they do not always do so — I say the reasonableness of the expectation of divine judgment and the separation of the righteous from the wicked as the reward of the one and the punishment of the other explains why this judgment was, until very recently a perpetual theme in the literature of Western civilization: from Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and Vergil’s Aeneid, to Dante’s Divine Comedy, to Milton’s Paradise Lost, to War and Peace and Moby Dick. It was part and parcel of our cultural worldview. The widespread denial of divine judgment in our culture is really quite new. Until recently this was a doctrine concerning which the Eastern Church, the Roman Church, and the Protestant Church were in agreement. In fact, until recently, it was only the cults, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, and Seventh Day Adventists who denied the reality of hell. [Gerstner, Repent or Perish, 29-30] I read a recent blog post on the website of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington D.C. that intelligently, forcefully, and unapologetically defended the reality of hell and divine judgment. Do we know something our forefathers didn’t? No. Have we thought harder about this question than they did? Hardly; most people comfortable in their blithe indifference to divine judgment have hardly thought about the question at all. The superficiality of modern thinking, the speciousness of the notion that we have a right to make up our own theology, is measured by nothing so much as its disinterest and indifference to divine judgment, while all the while reserving the right to pass judgment on everyone else, and doing so in a world that rings with judgment every day.
I want you to realize how superficial and self-incriminating this blithe indifference to divine judgment actually is. When I am at the gym I read a book or the paper and do the Los Angeles Times crossword puzzle while riding the exercise bike. I couldn’t tolerate the boredom if I didn’t have something to distract me. On the same page as the crossword puzzle is the Dear Abby advice column. That column, however unintentionally, is an open window on contemporary American culture. The advice invariably presupposes the moral insignificance of daily life and behavior. The banality of it all is frankly breathtaking. A woman writes that she desires a polyamorous marriage but is afraid that her beau will be unwilling when push comes to shove. Well, says Abby, she needs to level with her fiancé and be sure that he wants the same thing she wants. Another woman wants out of her marriage but worries about the effect of a divorce on her young children. Says Abby, she needs, of course, to care for her children but staying in the marriage won’t work. It wouldn’t be fair to her. Perhaps she should clarify her fears by seeing a counselor. A grandmother writes to express disappointment with the rudeness and thoughtlessness of her grandchildren but fears the consequences if she brings the matter up with her daughter. Abby’s solution: perhaps modeling better behavior before them will help them learn better manners. A mother writes of her concern for the adult life of her fourteen year old son who has announced that he wants to live a homosexual life. Says Abby, she needs, of course, to affirm him in his choice. She needs to take her fears to a counselor who can help her adjust to this entirely normal development. Almost all the subjects addressed are profoundly moral equations, they concern the difference between good and bad, right and wrong, righteousness and wickedness, but a thoughtless slave to the conventional pieties of early 21st century life, she addresses none of them as moral issues, as issues of righteousness and wickedness, but always as issues of self-adjustment, acceptance, and assimilation to the mores of a decadent, dying, and disgusting culture of self-worship, sexual license, and relational infidelity.
In the ancient near east, the conventional opinion was that sex at the sanctuary stimulated the gods and so the fertility of the soil. The conventional wisdom was that human beings could satisfy the gods with gifts and then live pretty much as they pleased. The conventional wisdom was that sexual promiscuity, particularly by men, was inevitable and uncontroversial. The conventional wisdom was that nations had a right to take whatever they had the power to take and to impose, however brutally, their will on others. And so on. They believed their conventional pieties just as firmly as Americans believe theirs in the twenty-first century. We recoil in horror. Except that our conventional wisdom is in so many respects of the same kind: the dog eat dog of the market, the exploitation of women, the debasement of the soul with pornography, the worship of wealth and pleasure in the irresponsible use of credit, in the proliferation of gambling, and the prurient fascination with celebrity, and on and on. This is a culture that cares not a fig and worries not a whit for divine judgment all the whole piling up idts sins! Why? Because it cannot bear to face the obvious: if a separation between the righteous and the wicked were to take place, they would be sent in a basket to Shinar to live forever with people of their own type: no entertainments to distract them from the true character of their lives and the lives of everyone around them.
I say, this principle of judgment, this division between the righteous and the wicked, already exists in principle. The Bible teaches that a hundred ways. In the Word of God “faith” means not only intellectual agreement and spiritual confidence in the Lord, his Word, his promises, and his salvation. It means “allegiance” to him, loyalty to him, a positive moral reaction to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. [Buswell, The Nature of Eternal Punishment, 43] That is why in the Bible to believe in Jesus is, in the nature of the case, to follow him, to obey him, and to serve him. It is this fact that explains the logic of such biblical commonplaces as:
“…without holiness no one shall see the Lord…” or
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”
We find that unbreakable bond between faith and obedience in every part of the Bible and untold numbers of times. The believing are the righteous and the righteous are the believing, not because faith and righteousness are the same thing, faith and obedience can be distinguished from one another, but because you never find the one without the other. In the Bible the forgiveness of sins is never an end in itself, but a means to the true and final intention of God’s grace, viz. the transformation of a sinner’s life, his or her becoming righteous in thought, word, and deed. God chose us for salvation, we read in Romans 8, in order that we might be conformed to the image of his Son, that we might become Christlike!
So the fact that this distinction between the righteous and the wicked was not yet complete and final did not mean that the message of these two visions was not of immediate relevance to Zechariah’s contemporaries. They were reminded in this way of what we are reminded again and again in Holy Scripture:
- God cares deeply that his people live obedient, righteous lives;
- He takes careful note of those who obey and those who disobey;
- Persistent and willful disobedience to God may not bring immediate judgment, but it will be judged and when it is the punishment will be ferocious — the point of the timbers and the stones of the sinner’s house being consumed.
- Obedience and faithfulness now will have their reward in due time: life in a place where everyone else is good to the bottom. The world may imagine that such a place is boring, but the truth is the reverse. This is sin’s big lie; what the Bible refers to as the deceitfulness of sin, to dress itself up as entertaining, attractive, and exciting. As Simone Weil, the remarkable perceptive French Jewess Christian, memorably put it:
“Nothing is so beautiful, nothing is no continually fresh and surprising, so full of sweet and perpetual ecstasy, as the good; no desert is so dreary, monotonous and boring as evil. But with fantasy it’s the other way round. Fictional good is boring and flat while fictional evil is varied, intriguing, attractive and full of charm.” [Cited in Muggeridge, Christ and the Media, 46] [Who makes a serious movie about a loving and faithful husband and wife who are raising their children to be obedient, faithful, and compassionate?] In the world of evil it is always eros not agape that is exciting and entertaining; celebrity and success are desirable, not a broken and contrite heart; Jesus Christ in lights on Broadway gets the billing; not Jesus on the cross.
Zechariah’s contemporaries needed to remember that the path to what they truly wanted, wholeness of life, security, satisfaction in living meaningfully, happiness in the heart, in the family, and in the community, and the favor of God over it all, I say they needed to remember that obedience to God was the path to that life and disobedience as a way of life took one further and further from that path until finally there would be no way to find one’s way back.
For Christians this reminder is a spur. Even in the fourth vision, that concerning Joshua the priest and his filthy clothes and his forgiveness, we were told that Joshua would enjoy God’s blessing only if he remained faithful to the Lord.
“Thus says the Lord of hosts: if you will walk in my ways and keep my charge, then you shall rule my house and have charge of my courts, and I will give you the right of access among those who are standing here.”
There are no promises in the gospel that can be claimed without a life of allegiance to Christ, without the demonstration in our lives of our loyalty to him. The prophets were “scare” preachers. So was Jesus. He preached the same message we have here in these two visions many times during the course of his public ministry. He was not afraid to threaten people with the consequences of their choices. He knew that fear was an important motivation. It is hardly the only motivation for becoming and remaining a follower of Jesus Christ; it is not perhaps even the first motivation. But it is an important motivation as we learn by the number of times it surfaces in the instruction of the Bible.
So let us take this message to heart. God loves righteousness; he hates wickedness. He separates the righteous from the wicked already, though that separation will someday be made complete and final. Those who are wicked, who sin willfully and persistently, who are indifferent to the will of God, will someday find themselves cast away from God and his people, to live in a place where wickedness comes to fruition. Everyone in Babylon will be grotesque, like this woman crouching in her basket. Everyone will care for himself or herself and not for others. Everyone will be utterly uninterested in anyone but himself or herself. Thoughts and actions both banal and vicious will be the whole story of life; human beings will be made small by the absence of God and of good people around them, their minds will be preoccupied with themselves; their sinful pleasures will be crippling addictions that suck the spiritual life from them and from everyone else.
There, in that place, in Babylon, no longer will evil be called good, no longer will darkness seem to be light, no longer will the bitter be made sweet. Things will be and will be seen to be what they actually are. Fictional evil will have given way entirely to the real thing. All the excuses that people use to salve their consciences and defend themselves will be seen through and repudiated and laughed at by everyone else. The exposure of the heart, the attitudes, the secret desires and judgments about others will be exposed for all to know. No one will like anyone else, no one will tolerate anyone else because everyone will see the other as he or she actually is. This is the meaning of C.S. Lewis’ picture of the homes in hell moving ever further and further away from one another.
But in that other world, the crooked will be made straight, wrongs put right, any and all alienations will be overcome, love will prevail, as will the spirit of forgiveness and humility and mutual appreciation. People will rejoice in what is good and there will be good within them and all around them so they will be rejoicing all the time. All who have struggled under the burden of sins they wish they could have put to death long ago, will be rewarded for their loyalty to Jesus by finding that their hearts are pure and clean. Selfishness will have given way to true selflessness, love for neighbor and for God, the kind of love that purifies and ennobles the heart, an ecstasy of love such as we have felt only inklings of in this world.
Oh yes; there is a reason to strive to be and to remain loyal in your thought, speech, and behavior to your Savior and Lord. There are many reasons. But chief among them is this: the Lord loves the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked shall perish. As Augustine summarized the teaching we find here in visions six and seven:
“After the resurrection, when the final universal judgment has been completed, there will be two kingdoms, each with its own boundaries, the one Christ’s and the other the devil’s, the one consisting of good, the other of bad.”
To be sure, Christ will be over the kingdom of darkness too — every knee will bow and every tongue confess him Lord — but that will make matters only worse for those shut up in Babylon. There will be no hope for them; no escape. They will not repent, they cannot and do not want to, and he will not make them. The message of these visions is simply this: the best way to be sure that you find yourself in that happy world of true goodness at the end is to live in it and to strive to be worthy of it while you live in this world. That is what Zechariah’s contemporaries needed: the encouragement to be good and do good, to resist evil and to shun it — as God defines the good — no matter their circumstances, no matter the temptations that beset them on every side, no matter the many, even in their midst, who were finding their peace with a sinful life. Make the separation now as clear and obvious as you can for the sake of Christ’s name and the souls of men, the souls of your children and your own soul. Do you know George Eliot’s The Choir Invisible?
Oh, may I join the choir invisible
Of those immortal dead who live again
In minds made better by their presence; live
In pulses stirred to generosity,
In deeds of daring rectitude, in scorn
For miserable aims that end with self,
In thoughts sublime that pierce the night like stars,
And with their mild persistence urge men’s search
To vaster issues. So to live is heaven:
To make undying music in the world,
Breathing a beauteous order that controls
With growing sway the growing life of man…
This is life to come, —
Which martyred men have made more glorious
For us who strive to follow. May I reach
That purest heaven, — be to other souls
The cup of strength in some great agony,
Enkindle generous ardor, feed pure love,
Beget the smiles that have no cruelty,
Be the sweet presence of a good diffused,
And in diffusion ever more intense!
So shall I join the choir invisible
Whose music is the gladness of the world.