Tonight we have the second of the two central visions of the eight so-called “night visions” that were given to Zechariah. The first concerned the High Priest, Joshua, who in the vision appears as filthy and unclean but who by God’s grace is re-dressed in the finery of his office and promised an effective ministry upon condition of his faithfulness to his calling. The promise of that cleansing from sin and the keeping of Yahweh’s promises to Israel, no matter their betrayal of their covenant with the Lord, is grounded in the coming of the Branch, the Messiah, who would take away the iniquity of the people in a single day.
This second vision concerns Zerubbabel, governor of the Persian sub-province of “Yehud,” a version of the Hebrew “Judea.” The Jews would never again have a king ruling them as an independent kingdom — from this point until the destruction of the Jewish client state by the Romans in A.D. 70 and the end of a Jewish national existence, they would always exist as part of some greater and more powerful dominion — and, of course, when their true king came among them, they murdered him. So Zerubbabel is the new kind of ruler that the Jews would have to get used to. But at least he was a Jew and a descendant of David; those facts made him a sign. If you remember — and this is no accident — Zerubbabel features in both of the genealogies of Jesus, the one in Matthew 1 and the one in Luke 3.
The angel roused him to real wakefulness, perhaps a way of emphasizing the importance of what he is about to see and here. But he was awakened not to the middle of a normal night, but to a visionary experience. [Boda, 271] In any event the prophet is conscious that there has been a pause between the last vision and this one. [McComiskey, 1082]
A lampstand, or menorah, especially when it was made of gold was a ritual object, not something that might be found in a home. There was, if you remember, one of them in the tabernacle and ten of them in Solomon’s temple. There is little enough evidence to go by, but it seems there was but one again in the rebuilt temple. The lampstand supported a bowl that served as the reservoir for the oil that the lamps then burned. Each of the lamps, arranged around the top of that bowl, had seven lips or spouts. Individual seven-spouted lamps have been uncovered by archaeologists at various digs. What this means is that each lamp had seven wicks (the spouts are the channels that held the wicks and carried the oil to the wicks, making for a menorah with 49 wicks in all, a kind of super-candlestick. On each side of this lampstand stood an olive tree. The forty-nine flames that crowned the lampstand would have emblazoned the scene with unusual brilliance, gilding the deep green foliage of the gnarled olive trees. [McComiskey, 1083]
It doesn’t surprise us that Zechariah didn’t understand the meaning of the vision, but it apparently surprised the angel. But he doesn’t immediately explain what the lampstand means; instead he gives the message of the entire vision. Only later will he relate it to the details of the vision that Zechariah saw. It would be easier to grasp the details if one knew what message the vision was intended to convey.
Perhaps you remember from Sunday School the lines: “Zerubbabel, come on the doublebel; we are in troublebel; the temple is in rubblebel.” A way to remember the man’s name and his place in biblical history! The message to him is a simple one. He may not have the resources that the world thinks it needs and the obstacles in his way may seem formidable, but what he does have is the favor of God and the Spirit of God to help him. He will succeed because God will bless his efforts and make them successful. The angel is talking, of course, first and foremost, about the rebuilding of the temple, but with it he is also talking about the spiritual renewal of the people.
The great mountain is not identified. Many have thought it must refer to the immense pile of rubble that must be cleared for the rebuilding of the temple to proceed. But probably it is a metaphor, as elsewhere in the Bible, for all the difficulties that Zechariah and Zerubbabel faced in rebuilding Jerusalem and the temple: the mountain of rubble that had to be removed, the few people to do the work, the few resources of talent and money that were available, local opposition even, as you remember from Ezra, the recollection of the older Jews of Solomon’s temple before its destruction, a building they would never be able to rebuild in its former glory. But when the Lord is at work mountains become level plains and the impossible is done. This is an OT equivalent of Matt. 21:21 where the Lord said to his disciples that if they had faith in him they could say “to this mountain be taken up and thrown into the sea;” or of 2 Cor. 12 where Paul speaks of his learning how Christ’s power was made perfect in his weakness, or of Phil. 4 where he boasts that he can do all things through Christ who strengthens him.
The “top stone” could refer to the corner stone, laid at the outset of rebuilding, or the capstone that would mark the completion of it. It probably doesn’t matter much which we choose because, as we will read in v. 9: Zerubbabel laid the foundation of the new temple and will bring its construction to completion. Nevertheless, as the people shout “Grace to it,” that is, “God bless it,” upon his laying of that stone, it may seem more likely that the construction is thereby finished, not that it has just begun. Upon the completed house of worship the people will invoke God’s presence and blessing as they might shout “God save the King” at a coronation. [Webb, 92]
It appears that the promises of Haggai and Zechariah that Yahweh would enable them to rebuild the temple had not convinced everyone. The obstacles were simply too daunting. But the fulfillment of those promises would be the proof that the word of the Lord these prophets had received had been true in every respect.
To say that one “despised the day of small things,” in this context was to say that he or she despaired of the promises of God. The circumstances they observed made it seem to them impossible for the kingdom of God to advance. What is more, they identified the progress of Yahweh’s kingdom with great events: the exodus, the giving of the law, the conquest, the establishment of Israel’s greatness under David and Solomon, the miracles that accompanied the ministries of Elijah and Elisha. What could a few people in such a small Persian province do compared to that? What was the point of rebuilding a small, unprepossessing temple? Where were the days of old? But God works in mysterious ways and little things can portend great events to come!
Now the angel returns to the vision to give an explicit explanation. The message of the oracle is that Zerubbabel would finish the work he had been assigned, he would rebuild the temple, not because the resources were superabundant or because Zerubbabel was such a visionary and commanding leader, but because the Holy Spirit would enable the work to be done. Archaeological research has led to the general rejection of “plumb line” as a translation for the term used here. Rather it probably refers to the same stone mentioned in v. 7, the top stone, the stone that represents the completion of the construction.
The seven lamps represent the eyes of the Lord. The Lord is watching over his people and over the entire world on behalf of his people. We heard something of that in the very first vision. We have the same phrase “the eyes of the Lord which range through the whole earth” in 2 Chron. 16:9, and there we read:
“For the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to give strong support to those whose heart is blameless toward him.”
That is the thought here. As God’s presence with his people is embodied in the temple, the rebuilding of the temple will signify the Lord’s presence to help his people. A new day of renewal is about to dawn for them.
The menorah had been explained but what about the two olive trees? What is more, two new details are mentioned that were not described at first: two branches (or twigs) of the olive trees and two golden pipes. The general idea is clear enough: the branches and the pipes connect the lamp to the unending supply of oil supplied by the two trees. Unlike the menorah in the first temple, which had to be constantly refilled by the priests, this lamp will never go out. That would have seemed rather obvious at the outset to anyone who knew that the oil burned in lamps was olive oil, but the additional features makes the meaning unmistakable. Olive oil is generally clear so it appears to be gold because it is flowing through gold pipes into a gold bowl to fuel gold lamps and all under the illumination of the forty-nine wicks that are burning.
One of the reasons we moved to the ESV was so that I wouldn’t have to correct the translation as often as I formerly needed to do, but Biblical scholarship is always advancing and we learn new things. The “two anointed ones” is now thought by most commentators to be a mistake. It is not a reference to Joshua and Zerubbabel as has traditionally been thought. There is no evidence in any case that Zerubbabel would ever have been anointed as merely the governor appointed by the Persians. That would probably have been regarded by them as a provocative act, a claim to being a king in his own right. Moreover, the word for the oil used for anointing is always a different word for oil than the word used here. The text literally reads “the two sons of olive oil,” which in the Hebrew idiom of the Old Testament means “fertile olive trees.” In Isaiah 5:1 a vineyard that is a “son of oil” is a fertile vineyard. So the simple point of the last verse is that these two trees will produce an inexhaustible supply of oil to keep the lamp shining. It’s a little hard to understand how Zechariah and Zerubbabel would be supplying oil to the Lord’s seven eyes in any case. His people can count on the Lord’s watchful concern for his people and they can count on it forever. The burning lamps were a sign of God’s presence, so lights that never went out held obvious meaning for them. [cf. Duguid, 111; Boda, 274-275; McComiskey, 1093]
Unlike the previous vision concerning Joshua, the sin of the people, and the coming of the Branch who would remove their iniquity in a single day, this vision about Zerubbabel is more immediately related to the specific circumstances facing the believers and their leaders in Jerusalem in the later years of the sixth century B.C. But in addressing those circumstances — what are referred to here as “the day of small things” — we receive in this vision given to Zechariah equally timeless truth. For the fact is, there have been throughout history and there are today days of small things. One has, of course, to make judgments. Some days of small things are smaller than other days of small things. Sometimes one is starting to exit a day of small things — things are getting better spiritually, the gospel is again taking wing, the church is beginning to grow, and Christians are finding a new voice — and sometimes it is perfectly obvious that a day of large things has run its course and smaller things lie on the horizon.
Think about this in terms of biblical history. After the appearance of the Pharaoh who did not know Joseph, Israel suffered through several centuries of very small things in Egypt, slaves living at the beck and call of their Egyptian masters; small things indeed for the people of God. But then suddenly came the greatest days in Israel’s history: the exodus, the wilderness, the conquest of the Promised Land. But that was followed by a long period of very small things under the Judges. That period ended with Israel’s golden age under David and Solomon, very great days, only to see that triumph squandered and Israel’s greatness wither away to nothing over the following three and a half centuries. The Babylonian exile was a nadir for the people of God; it seemed that everything had been lost.
But now something over 40,000 had returned to Judea to join a smaller number of those who had never left, an utterly unprecedented deliverance made possible by remarkable providences of God. But they were a poor people and what remained of their country was a ruin. They had nothing of David and Solomon’s wealth with which to rebuild the temple and the capital city. The vision doesn’t say that people shouldn’t have thought of it as a day of small things. There is nothing of the power of positive thinking here. It was a day of small things. The fact is, when the temple was rebuilt by Zerubbabel, it was smaller and in every way a less ornate version of what had existed before. It would not be restored to glory as one of the great sanctuaries of the world until Herod the Great’s immense building project in the later years of the first century B.C. And Herod virtually started over. At the most only some of the masonry of Zerubbabel’s temple survived in Herod’s temple. That later temple built by Herod is the temple you see in all the pictures of Jerusalem in Jesus’ day. It took Zerubbabel three and a half years to build his temple with a skeleton crew; it took Herod, with many more skilled workers and a far larger investment of money, forty-six years (John 2:20). Some of the cut stones in the foundation of Herod’s temple weighed 400 tons! The highest point of that temple, if you remember, the point from which Satan Jesus was tempted to jump was fully 426 feet above the valley floor. The area of the temple complex was immense, some 33 acres, room enough for upwards of 400,000 Muslims at Ramadan today. It was five times the area of the Acropolis in Athens. Herod’s grand building, by the way, would not last a century. In fact, final touches were put on it in A.D. 64, only six years before the building would be destroyed by the Romans.
But since the history of Israel is our history as Christians, for we are the continuation of the Israel of God and Israel after the Spirit, the story continues in the same vein. The days of the Lord’s ministry, his crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, the coming of the Holy Spirit, and the triumphant advance of the gospel into the world was a day of very great things. But it was to be replaced by days of small things, as the church was overwhelmed in North Africa, compromised by idolatry in Europe, and ran out of steam in the east. Until the 7th century it appeared that the Christian faith would eventually rule the east, but the rise of Islam brought that cheerful expectation to its shattering end. Within a decade after the death of Muhammad, Damascus, Jerusalem, and Alexandria, three ancient and great Christian cities and centers of Christian intellectual and spiritual life, had come under Muslim rule. The situation is largely the same, or worse, today. The Reformation was a day of great things, and so was the second reformation of the 17th century, but the tide receded quickly and by the end of the 17th century the influence of the gospel was markedly less than it had been just fifty years before. But then came the Great Awakening and the renewal of evangelical life and gospel witness. But, predictably, that movement too in time went to seed. There have been in various times and places times of great things and times of small things; revival in this place; persistent spiritual doldrums in that, and so on.
The 1970s were a time of great things in America — a number in this sanctuary became Christian in those days and know others who did as well — but that momentum has been spent and the gospel has been slowing down in this culture for some years now. We seem to be entering a day of small things, though that fact is somewhat obscured by the wealth and outward vitality of American evangelical Christianity. But all the measurements are down and are continuing to fall. But the last half century has been a time of the greatest things ever for the gospel in China and Africa, in Nepal, in India, and in parts of South America. Blake Purcell will tell you that the early 90s were a time of great things for the gospel in Russia, but that those days are already over; have, in fact, been over for some time. It is now a day of small things, a day for building a smaller, less impressive temple, a day when believers need to know and actively work to believe that the eyes of the Lord, which range through the whole earth, are always upon them and that the Lord is present to help them and keep his promises.
My point is that the teaching we are given here, the picture of reality that the vision represents, is as relevant today as ever it was in the late 6th century B.C. When I was growing up, no one in the American evangelical world would have thought we were living in a day of small things. The Christian faith was honored everywhere, Billy Graham was filling immense stadiums with thousands upon thousands of hearers. When there were relatively few television stations he was on the television at a number of times every week. Christian institutions were thriving, churches were being built everywhere one looked. In 1976, the cover story of Newsweek — titled “The Year of the Evangelical” — attested to the cresting influence of the evangelical movement. Newsweek reported that 50 million Americans professed to be “born again,” fully a quarter of the population of just over 200 million. Theologically conservative churches, Newsweek noted, enjoyed noteworthy spiritual growth and were channeling unprecedented numbers of students into America’s evangelical colleges and theological seminaries. How times have changed. Few churches are being built; many more are being sold for other purposes. Very few denominations can report much in the way of statistical growth in membership or attendance. Our own Presbyterian Church in America reported growth of approximately 3% between 2011 and 2012, but so many of our churches do not report their statistics, that it is quite possible that actual growth was much smaller. But that number reflects church membership. From just 2011 to 2012 professions of faith by adults in PCA churches were down by almost 10%, professions of faith by covenant children down by 8%, adult baptisms were down by 23% and infant baptisms down slightly. And the PCA is a particularly healthy church by American standards.
We don’t have a mountain of rubble staring us in the face, but we have a great mountain before us nevertheless in a culture that is increasingly indifferent or actively hostile to the teaching of the Word of God. There are various ways to combat these discouraging indications of decline, of our finding ourselves, in fact, in a day of small things.
- One can deny them, as television preachers often do. They will say that we are on the cusp of a great revival, or that America has never been as spiritual as it is today. Like the host of an infomercial on late night television one must be relentlessly positive and one must exaggerate in order to sell the product, and, as we have learned in the news from time to time, one often must tell outright lies to get even a gullible public to believe and buy. By the way, does anyone have any interest in 45 cases of Blue-Green algae?
- Or, among more seriously-minded Christians one can talk a great deal about revival. We need another Great Awakening; we should be praying for that. This was, I think, a mistake widely made in our Reformed and Presbyterian circles some years ago under the influence of the teaching of Martyn Lloyd Jones and the Banner of Truth. Revivals are wonderful and I would love to live through one, but the teaching of Zechariah 4 is plainly not to sit on one’s backside waiting or even praying for a revival, but to do the work that God has given us to do no matter the unpromising circumstances. The concentration on revival can make ministers and congregations passive rather than active, as if we were simply marking time until the Spirit began to move again.
Or, one can do what we are taught to do here: trust ourselves to a present and faithful God, who has work for us to do whatever the circumstances, however encouraging or discouraging, and that what we do in obedience to the Lord will count for something in the long reach of the kingdom’s development in this world. It was imperative to keep the light of faith burning in Israel until the arrival of the branch. Joshua’s and Zerubbabel’s faithfulness would be an important means of establishing a tradition of faithfulness in Israel for generations to come. In a very real way Zechariah and Elizabeth, Joseph and Mary, Simeon and Anna, John the Baptist and Peter, James, and John were the inheritance of Zerubbabel’s faithfulness, impossible as it would have been for Zerubbabel to see that in his day; such people were the spiritual fruit of the rebuilt temple that transmitted to the heart and kept alive in the mind the conviction of God’s presence among the people.
The problem the believers faced in Zerubbabel’s day was discouragement. They doubted that anything they did would matter. They were struggling to see the point. They already had an altar built and sacrifices were being offered regularly. Why bother with a costly building that would be something of a public demonstration of how far Israel had fallen from its former glory. And that is our temptation today, is it not? We all know the power of that temptation today. We’ve shared the gospel with many who continue to show no interest, we’ve invested in ministries here and abroad that have little to show for the work that has been done, we’ve prayed for years for the salvation of friends and loved ones or of communities elsewhere in the world and, so far as we can tell, they remain as impervious to the gospel as ever. And all around us the culture is going to hell in a hand basket and convincing more and more people that they do not need the temple of God.
But God has not departed. He may be at work in judgment more than in salvation, he may be biding his time, he is certainly at work unfolding plans we know nothing about and a thousand of our years are but a day to him, but he is present and he is always faithful to his Word and to those who honor him by obedience to that Word and the experience and the history of God’s people is the proof of that. Zerubbabel would not make a temple nearly as grand as Herod’s, but he rebuilt the temple and its proper worship was restored, and, interesting to note, Zerubbabel’s temple would last more than a century longer than even Solomon’s. How like the Lord to honor the weakness of the faithful rather than the strength of those who build for other reasons than the glory of God or who as true believers do their work riding on the crest of a wave!
Our work may be less transforming the culture than it is raising our children to withstand the pressure of this culture, to reject its orthodoxies, to see through it lies, and to remain faithful to the Triune God and the truth of his Word. But who is to say what one of our children or grandchildren or great grandchildren may accomplish for the kingdom of God in times to come because we have done our work faithfully now? The most intrepid evangelist will not see as many conversions as in other days, but he will see some, and who is to say what those Christians and their descendants might do for the gospel in some later day?
Besides, even in a day of great things, it is the Lord’s power and blessing that deliver the results, that change the world, and that advance the kingdom. He will determine the measure of success, but this never changes: our confidence must be in him and not ourselves, in the present Holy Spirit not in the circumstances of our time. Dr. Schaeffer used to say that we always ought to be praying and working for what seems impossible so that God might reveal his power in us, so that we might actually see in our lives the mountain be picked up and cast into the sea. If we commit ourselves only to the likely, the result that will be predictable, unsurprising; it will be impossible for us to avoid thinking that it was accomplished in our own strength. There will be less encouragement to our faith and to the faith of others; less reason to praise the Lord; and less reason to be still more confident in attempting the next thing in obedience to him.
And, brothers and sisters, when the roll is called, what will count for more: the great success of those who rode the crest of the Spirit’s wave or the faithful plodding who refused to let discouraging circumstances deter them from faithful service to the kingdom of God? To ask the question is to answer it. Each of you is experiencing a day of small things in some fashion, I suspect. Take the Lord’s Word to you to heart. Trust and obey. Practice the presence of God. Take comfort from the many great and precious promises he had made to you promises that will not and cannot fail. And refuse to despise the day of small things, but in dependence upon the Holy Spirit pray and work until the mountain before you is a plain! Look up and see the beautiful golden light reflecting off the green foliage of the two olive trees.