I want in this series of sermons to bring the truth of this great book to bear on your hearts and lives. I think you will find that it is extraordinarily relevant to our particular circumstances in the American church in the early years of the twenty-first century. But I also want to finish with you feeling that you really grasp this book, that you understand it, and you can turn to it to remind yourself and others of great and fundamental truth.
Zechariah is the longest of the Minor Prophets — just somewhat longer than Hosea — but has for a long time been largely ignored because it was thought to be the most difficult to interpret. Jerome called it the “most obscure” book of the Hebrew Bible. Two medieval Jewish scholars claimed that no one knew or could know what Zechariah’s prophesies meant! [WBC, 167] But that is actually absurd. Zechariah’s contemporaries understood his message, at least to the extent Zechariah himself understood it, and today we understand the book much better still because some of what he predicted has already come to pass.
While Zechariah might at first glance strike a reader as obscure and hard to understand, for the Christian reader it cannot be insignificant that the second part of Zechariah, chapters 9-14, is more often cited in the passion narratives of the Gospels than any other part of the Old Testament, and, apart from Ezekiel, Zechariah has exercised the greatest influence of any other biblical book on the book of Revelation. [Dillard and Longman, Intro to OT, 427] The Lord’s entry into Jerusalem was patterned after the prediction of Zechariah 9:9; his desertion by his disciples is said in the Gospels to be the fulfillment of 13:7; his betrayal by Judas for thirty pieces of silver was prophesied in 11:13; the piercing of his side on the cross in 12:10; his promise of living water flowing from the bellies of his disciples after the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost was drawn from 14:8 and so on. [Cf. M. Boda, NIVAC, 60-61]
It is in Zechariah, especially chapters 9-14, that the church has found the great philosophy of history, what we nowadays call realized and unrealized eschatology: the messiah would come, he would be rejected by his people, suffer and die; but this would by no means indicate the defeat of Gods’ kingdom, but would lead to the eventual triumph of it everywhere in the world. Some of that future, of course, has already come to pass in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the descent of the Holy Spirit, and the gospel mission of the last two millennia; but some of it clearly is still future. We live between the times, as God’s people always have to one degree or another. Eternal life has already experienced but not yet in its fullness and its consummation; there is yet a kingdom to be revealed in its power and glory and everywhere in the bible, but in a particularly potent way in the chapters of Zechariah, the meaning of the present is determined by the prospect of the future. The meaning of the present is determined by the prospect of the future.
Zechariah, or parts of it, is a specimen of what is called apocalyptic literature. (Apocalyptic is derived from the Greek word meaning “revelation.”) We have other examples in Daniel and Ezekiel and in the New Testament in the book of Revelation. It is highly imaginative literature in which the future is described in strange visions, bizarre figures, symbolic numbers, and other- worldly scenes. Apocalyptic literature is concerned with the future; it paints the future in bold strokes, describes it in terms of a cosmic struggle between good and evil — it is radically dualistic in that sense (only black and white; no gray in apocalyptic; in that respect it is a shock to post-modern sensibilities!) and is designed to emphasize God’s sovereignty over history and the certainty of the final triumph of his kingdom. That is why I said in the bulletin announcement that it is the kind of literature that someone familiar with The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia should understand and appreciate. Great truth is expressed vividly in apocalyptic literature and so captures the attention of the reader! We should think of apocalyptic as a literary device, another way of getting the main message across powerfully and memorably. [L. Morris, Apocalyptic, 53]
Apocalyptic literature originated in a historical situation in which the people of God were now a small minority, lacking any earthly power or influence and in which unbelief and evil seemed to be triumphant in the world. The apocalyptic writers used this way of writing to assure God’s people of the final victory of the kingdom of God in the world and that they were right to continue to follow the Lord even though outward indications might seem to suggest that the kingdom of God had been defeated. The apocalyptic portions of the Word of God challenge us to live our daily lives in the prospect of the great, extraordinary, world-changing events to come at the end of history. So, quite obviously, apocalyptic is for Christians in America today!
In any case we have much more confidence than Christian interpreters did in years past how to read the prophetic literature of the Old Testament and, in particular, texts like Ezekiel, Daniel, and Zechariah, laden as they are with this apocalyptic imagery.
Another interesting feature of the book is that Zechariah 9-14 is very different from the first eight chapters of the book. Zechariah is not mentioned in the last six chapters, nor are there any dates given. The style and tone are different though there is certainly overlapping subject matter. But the differences, predictably, have led critical scholarship to the well-nigh universal opinion that the two parts of the book hail from different times and were written by different authors. There is no manuscript evidence for this and I won’t bore you with the details, but it is not difficult to make the case for the unity of the book, that is, that it is all written by Zechariah and all at the same time. Indeed, you should be aware that there is precious little evidence to suggest that a famous work of Hebrew Scripture, such as Isaiah or Zechariah, could be a patchwork of works from various authors, and no one knew it or cared at the time it appeared! The burden of proof rests very heavily on those who want us to believe that the Jews at the time did not know who wrote their Scriptures or that they would have been duped into believing that the book that bears a prophet’s name was in fact written, or in part written, by someone else some centuries after the prophet’s lifetime! This kind of parceling out the parts of pieces of literature from the ancient world to several different authors used to be practiced in a variety of fields. It was done with Homer, it was done with Shakespeare; but it has almost universally been given up as a bad job. Too much criticism fell too hard on these efforts. The conclusion of the matter was once famously given by Mark Twain: the Iliad was written by Homer or by another man with the same name.
To understand the book some knowledge of its historical setting is necessary as is true with almost all of the books of the Bible, coming to us as they do white-hot out of the history of the people of God. Zechariah is set against the background of the return of the exiles from Babylon. His night visions are dated to the second year of Darius (520 B.C.). Remember, Jerusalem was destroyed in 586 B.C. and the nation carried off into exile then. Yahweh had told them, through Jeremiah, that they would be in exile some 70 years. Now 70 is obviously a somewhat symbolic number in the bible, so we should not be surprised that the Lord was better than his word. They began returning, we read in Ezra 1, in the first year of Cyrus, that is 538 B.C, not quite fifty years later. Though Cyrus, the king of Persia, had authorized the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem, external opposition and practical difficulties delayed rebuilding until God sent his prophets Haggai and Zechariah to spur the people to action. [Ezra 5:1-2] Ezra tells this history of the ministry of Haggai and Zechariah. 520 B.C. was some three years shy of Jeremiah’s seventy years and there was consciousness of that among the people, as we will read in v. 12. Both prophets preached a similar message to the same people in the same circumstances so it is not surprising to find that there is quite a bit of overlap in the teaching of Haggai and Zechariah just like you find overlap between the book of Jude and the book of Second Peter in the NT.
The name Zechariah was a common one. It probably means “Yahweh remembers” though, like so many names with a discernible etymology, no doubt people heard the name as a name and didn’t think of the etymology. Just as when we are introduced to Mr. Baker, we don’t immediately think to ask the man if he has a loaf of bread. There are some 30 different Zechariah’s mentioned in the Old Testament.
This Zechariah was the son of Iddo, one of the heads of the priestly families that returned from Babylon with Zerubbabel (Neh. 12:4). Like Ezekiel, Zechariah was a prophet from a priestly family.
The date is 520 B.C, most likely October or November of that year, which makes it some two months after Haggai’s first oracle. Upon Darius’ accession to the throne a few years earlier there had been, as there often were at times of regime change, a period of instability in the Persian Empire. Darius had had to put down serious rebellions in Babylon and Egypt, but had largely done so and, as we will read next week in v. 11, the world was at peace. Darius — who would reign until 486 B.C., thirty-six years was a long reign for an ANE emperor — had divided the empire into 22 administrative districts. What was left of Judea was a sub-province (“Yehud”) of one of those districts. Its Persian name was “Beyond the River” and it stretched from the Euphrates River to the southern boundary of the Sinai desert. So, Jerusalem, where Zechariah lived and worked, still largely in ruins, was an obscure corner of a great empire that had no thought of Yahweh or his kingdom. So much were events under the control of foreign powers that events in Jerusalem were now being dated by the year of the Persian emperor’s reign. There was no Israelite king, just governors appointed by the Persians to act in their interests. The rebellions in Babylon and Egypt may have raised hopes in Jerusalem that Israel might again take its place as the seat of God’s rule over the nations, but Darius had crushed those rebellions and any such hopes had been thoroughly dashed. [Boda, 173]
The inhabitants of this little backwater were discouraged by the immensity of the task before them — to rebuild their shattered city and its temple and to restore some function to the remnants of their country — and were struggling to know how to deal with the apparent failure of Yahweh’s kingdom. Events seemed to have called into question the reliability of the Lord’s promises. Reading Isaiah and Jeremiah, one might have thought that the return from exile would be followed by times of tremendous blessing and advance. But such had not been the case. As a result they had made little progress since returning from Babylon. Into this overcast spiritual climate came two prophets of the Lord to provide both an understanding of their present circumstances and hope for the future.
“Lord of hosts,” a shot across the bow of any depressed Israelite. Their God is the God of Gods and the King of Kings, he rules over the entire world; that’s the sense of that name, the Lord of hosts.
The prophets didn’t choose their own message. They were told what to say and their duty was to deliver the Lord’s word, no matter its likely reception among the people. Obviously the lesson of Israel’s immediate past had not been well enough learned, for this generation too must repent.
Zechariah’s first order of business was to remind the Jews of why they were in the mess they were in. In fact the Lord’s word had proved good in every particular. He had warned his people of the consequences should they refuse to repent and continue their rebellion against him, and they had suffered precisely those consequences: the destruction of their land and its cities and exile to Babylon. They had refused to live as his people and, as a result, he had rejected those generations of his people.
Verse 4 following on verse 3 indicates that Zechariah’s generation also needed to repent of evil ways and practices. It does not appear that they were seduced into the cruder forms of idolatry — bowing down to wood and stone — that had formerly so bedeviled Israel’s life. The Babylonian exile seems to have cured Israel of that kind of idolatry forever. But there are more subtle forms of idolatry, including what we know from Haggai was a problem when Zechariah was preaching his message: viz. caring more for their personal peace and affluence than for the kingdom and the worship of God. As Haggai famously asked them: “Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins?”
Anyway, “Return from your evil ways…” sums up the message of the prophets as you can gather from the fact that there are so many statements similar to it scattered throughout their writings and from the fact that it is an almost word for word repetition of Jeremiah 25:4-5. [Duguid, 70-71]
Good and bad perished before the wrath of the Lord. The only thing that survived was the word of God! Even the righteous are not spared the judgments of the present when the church as a whole proves unfaithful. You and I, in this culture, are paying for the infidelity of generations of American Christians.
The generation that went into exile, at least in good number, did eventually repent, but only after suffering the consequences of their rebellion. Zechariah is urging his contemporaries to repent immediately and thoroughly so that the same would not happen to them. The people may admit that they had been punished for their sins against the Lord and his covenant, but their behavior doesn’t yet suggest that they are motivated by true repentance. Otherwise the work on the temple would be far advanced and actually it had hardly begun. Zechariah’s obvious message in this introductory sermon is: learn the lesson of your history and don’t repeat it!
Though only in these opening verses do we find the vocabulary of “repentance,” the theme of repentance permeates Zechariah’s message.
We may well wonder, all the more in our day, why a book of the Bible should begin on such a somber note. “The Lord was very angry with your fathers. Terrible things happened because they had refused to repent and return to the Lord. Don’t you make the same mistake.” Dismal and gloomy or not, this message is found everywhere in the Bible because it is so fundamental and so often necessary. The fact that it is unwelcome to the human heart makes its repetition even more necessary. It has to be hammered home before people will believe it. Everything depends upon the reality of our sin and God’s judgment. God’s grace is rescue but unless we understand and appreciate our need to be rescued, God’s grace will never matter to us. It’s why it doesn’t matter to most people in our country today. God’s grace requires repentance, but unless we are brought to the point where we fear and loathe our sin enough to practice real repentance, we never shall. Terrible as the conquest of Jerusalem and its destruction had been, as many as did not survive the Babylonian invasion and as cruelly as many of them died, as heart-rending as the exile had been it had a salutary effect: it had made God’s people realize that they could not remain in covenant with Yahweh if they flaunted his commandments.
There is great grace here, to be sure. The people are back in the Promised Land, remarkable in itself. Most conquered peoples carried off into exile never returned to their homelands. But Israel has returned and even has the permission of the imperial government to begin rebuilding their city and its temple at government expense. But still the spiritual issue looms over everything: “Return to me, says the Lord of hosts, and I will return to you.” It does not appear that things are yet as they need to be. Divine grace is and must be embraced by repentance. In the prophets repentance is always the first step.
Nothing was to change in the New Testament. The Gospels begin with Jesus preaching a message of repentance. At the beginning of the Gospel of Mark we read:
“Jesus came into Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.’”
And later in his ministry the message was the same. In Luke 13:5 we read him saying to the crowds who gathered to hear him: “Unless you repent you will all perish.” A concept as fundamental as repentance, a practice as essential to everything in believing life as repentance, is one Christians should understand very well so that they know how to pray for it, aspire to it, and practice it day by day. But it is a biblical concept easy to misunderstand and often misunderstood.
So what is repentance? We have a brief definition of it here in vv. 3-4. A more elaborate definition is found in 2 Chron. 6:36-38, all the more important as it appears in Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the temple, a prayer that anticipated a variety of circumstances in which repentance would be required of the Lord’s people, including the very one that Zechariah is talking about in these introductory verses of his book.
“If they sin against you [that is, God’s people] — for there is no one who does not sin — and you are angry with them and give them to an enemy, so that they are carried away captive to a land near or far, yet if they turn their heart in the land to which they have been carried captive, and repent and plead with you in the land of their captivity, saying, ‘We have sinned and have acted perversely and wickedly,’ if they repent with all their mind and with all their heart in the land of their captivity to which they were carried captive, and pray…then hear from heaven…and maintain their cause and forgive your people who have sinned against you.”
So we know that repentance involves a sincere and heartfelt acknowledgement of wrong, it includes confession of one’s sins, and it is expressed in prayer. But still we don’t have a sufficient definition because in that definition the words “repent” and “repentance” continue to be used. You can’t use the word you are attempting to define in the definition of the word. The Hebrew term translated “repent” is the verb שׁוב shuv, which means “to turn” or “to return,” just as we have it in vv. 3 and 4. The term in the Greek New Testament is metanoia, which literally refers to a change of mind.
The terms are clear enough — shuv refers to turning away from sin and turning back to God and obedience; metanoia suggests a fundamental transformation of mental and spiritual perspective from sinfulness to righteousness, but it takes the whole Bible to teach us what these terms really mean and what repentance actually consists of. After all, one can turn in some ways and fail to repent; one can change one’s mind to some degree but not repent. So let’s put a biblical definition of repentance together in four parts.
- First, repentance is an act of faith.
Sinners may be summoned in the Bible to repent with nothing particularly said about their needing first to believe. Even here in v. 3 it appears that repentance comes first: “Return to me and I will return to you, says the Lord.” But the fact is no one turns, no one ever shall turn, who does not first believe. In the Reformed faith this point is made emphatically clear in the confessions and catechisms. Faith is first and repentance is an act of faith. Obviously it is by faith that one knows that God is and that he rewards those who seek him. It is by faith that one knows that sin is sin and an offense against God and needs to be repented of. And it is by faith that one knows that there is forgiveness with God that he may be feared. No one repents who does not think his repentance will do any good. The marvel is that God invites sinners, rebels, in their filthy rags, just as they are, to find life by trusting in Jesus Christ. Repentance is a first act of that new life of faith and only a believing sinner can perform it. Or, as the Puritans would have put it, repentance is a fruit of faith. As one of them, Zachary Crofton, put it in a sermon:
“Repentance, the soul’s pump, is dry…until faith pour in the blood of Christ, and water of gospel-promises. So that faith must precede repentance, as the cause to the effect, the mother before the daughter.” [Cited in Packer, Quest for Godliness, 173]
- Second, repentance is first a quality of the heart or soul, a disposition wrought within us by the Holy Spirit.
That is why in the Bible there is a jumble of terms and ideas and practices that we associate with repentance. Repentance is a state of mind and heart, a disposition, a quality of the Christian character out of which comes sorrow for sin, confession of sin, prayer for pardon, humility before God and man, and a cataract of obedient behavior. You remember how John the Baptist put this. He called upon his congregations to “bear fruit in keeping with repentance.” [Matt. 3:8]
So the same Zachary Crofton defined repentance as
“a habit, power, principle, spring, root, and disposition, not a bare, single, and transient action. Repentance is…not the work of an hour, or a day: but a constant frame, course, and bent of the soul…” [Packer, 174]
This is a very important point and a means by which to test our own repentance and to repent of it if it does not fully meet that test. Out of the heart flow the issues of life but sometimes it is the heart, the disposition, the quality of repentance that is wanting, the failure or the weakness of a true spirit or disposition of repentance.
I don’t know how many times this has happened in my experience. I am sitting in my office talking with someone about their sin, something that has been discovered and the discovery of which has caused great problems in a marriage or a family or a company or simply a personal life. The person is admitting to me what he or she has done and taking responsibility for it. But I can tell — it is not hard to tell this — that a “but” is coming. He or she is going to take responsibility but it was also someone else’s fault. The blame is being parceled out. An excuse is about to be offered. There is no getting round the fact that the sin was committed, a wrong was done, some shameful behavior took place, but it wasn’t entirely his or her fault. The suggestion is that if that other person hadn’t done what he did or she did, perhaps I wouldn’t have done what I did.
This has happened so often in such conversations that when I can hear that but coming, I stop the person and tell them, “I hear a “but” coming. You are about to say that you are responsible, but…” I want you to know before you utter the word, that if it comes out of your mouth it will, so far as I am concerned, nullify everything you have said so far. I’m immediately going to dismiss your confession and your expression of repentance as insincere and unserious. A truly repentant person doesn’t parcel out the blame for his sin, doesn’t go looking for excuses, and certainly doesn’t attempt to hold someone else accountable for his moral failure. The spirit of true repentance does not express itself in such a way; it never uses the word but! Humility which is an aspect of the quality or disposition of repentance in the heart is not self-serving or self-protective in that way and never blames others for its own failures. The fact of the matter is that someone else’s sin is never an adequate excuse for yours and the repentant heart knows that full well.
- Third, repentance is personal; it always has to do with our relationship with God and with others.
This is a characteristic emphasis in the Bible’s teaching about repentance. Here we have it in a very typical form in v. 3: “Return to me, says the Lord of hosts, and I will return to you.” He might have said, as the Bible sometimes does, indeed, as Zechariah effectively does in v. 4: “Return from your evil ways to godly ways.” True repentance does that, of course. But before that repentance is personal. Again and again in the Bible we encounter this emphasis on the relational nature of repentance.
“Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God, for you have stumbled because of your iniquity. Take with you words and return to the Lord; say to him, ‘Take away all iniquity…” [Hosea 14:1]
When we disobey the commandments of God, when we flaunt the will of God, that is personal; we are offending him, showing him disrespect, rebelling against him. And so it is that in true repentance we will acknowledge our sin to him, grieve before him, ask him for forgiveness and for grace to live better, and seek to obey for his sake. This is the burden of Christina Rossetti’s beautiful verses.
Am I a stone, and not a sheep,
That I can stand, O Christ, beneath thy cross,
To number drop by drop thy blood’s slow loss,
And yet not weep?
Not so those women, loved
Who with exceeding grief lamented thee;
Not so fallen Peter weeping bitterly;
No so the thief was moved;
Not so the sun and moon
Which hid their faces in a starless sky.
A horror of great darkness at broad noon —
I, only I.
Yet give not o’er
But seek thy sheep, true shepherd of the flock;
Greater than Moses, turn and look once more
And smite a rock.
Repentance is about you and your relationship with the Lord and then it’s about you and your relationship with others. Repentance fixes, mends, repairs those relationships.
- Finally, repentance is a change of behavior.
It is more than that; it is deeper than that, as we have said. But the behavior must change or it is not repentance. That is the burden of v. 4. We must mend our evil ways and our evil deeds. We must repudiate them in our behavior. Even if not perfectly in this life, there must be a constant turning away from behavior the Lord has forbidden to behavior that he approves. I do not say that repentance must be perfect to be true. Nothing we do is perfect in this life, certainly not our faith or our repentance, and yet the whole Bible bears witness to the fact that imperfect faith and imperfect repentance can still be real faith and real repentance. But that reality must be demonstrated in behavior, a constant turning away from doing what is wrong to doingwhat is right, again and again, and more and more consistently.
And, of course, as here in Zechariah 1:2-6 so throughout the Bible, the emphasis falls not only on our personal and individual repentance and its behavior, but on the turning to obedience on the part of the whole church. The pronouns are plural in these verses. We tend to think in highly individualistic terms while the Bible, while never neglecting the individual and his or her own heart and life, his or her own private relationship with the Lord, always emphasizes the life of the believing community together. It is what we are together that is most important for the world.
We too increasingly face a situation not so unlike that faced by the exiles upon their return to Judea. The world, especially the western world, considers us of no consequence, none. Western culture is sweeping us away like a fly. We are a mere annoyance to them, criticizing from the sidelines and unwilling to get involved in what really concerns them. It has no sympathy with our theology or with our ethics. The world seems to be going on without us. They don’t seem to miss us. We live at the leave of unbelieving people. Perhaps soon we will die at their will. I don’t know how you are feeling about all of this, but I am struggling with discouragement all the time. It is discouraging.
Zechariah begins the work of bucking us up by telling us that the place to begin is to acknowledge that what is happening in the world is precisely what we should think would happen in a sinful world in rebellion against God. What we see when we open our eyes in whatever direction we look is over and over and over again the confirmation of the truth of God’s Word; dismal, depressing, discouraging as that confirmation may have to be. And so he says first thing, repent. Put your life right before the Lord and then all of you do that together. Practice the sort of faithfulness that repentance produces, the sort of faithfulness that God loves to bless and to use. Repentance before God is the most powerful thing in the world because God loves it and honors it wherever he sees it!