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Zechariah 8:1-23

We’ve been away from Zechariah for several Lord’s Days, so let me remind you where we are. The prophet’s night visions took up the first six chapters. The second part of the book began with chapter 7, which we considered last time. Chapter 7, if you remember, was a call to self-examination and a warning against hypocrisy. It was imperative that this generation of Jews not content themselves with an outward show of religion without the true commitment of one’s life, which is what their ancestors had done, the very hypocrisy that had landed the Jews in exile in Babylon and which had, when punished by the Lord, so diminished their prospects as a people. But, as always in the Bible, we are encouraged to offer the Lord a thorough-going commitment and obedience not only with warnings of what will happen to us if we do not, but by the promise of blessing and reward if we do. That is the subject of chapter 8. The basic subject of the chapter has been raised already in Zechariah’s third night vision, 2:10-13, which has many connections with chapter 8. [Webb, 122]

Text Comment

v.1       Remember in the King James version “Lord of hosts” is Lord Sabaoth. “oth” is the feminine plural ending for nouns in Hebrew just like “im,” the letters im, are the masculine plural ending for nouns. So cherubim, more than one cherub; seraphim, more than one seraph; but Lord of hosts, Lord Sabaoth, “Hosts” is a feminine noun.

v.2       The Lord’s commitment to his people has not changed and will not. As a result there will be a new beginning for them. The wrath or anger mentioned here refers to his anger at anyone who would harm his people. He is determined to bless and keep them. No one will stand in his way. [McComiskey, 1137]

v.3       The Lord has returned to Jerusalem (Zion is another name for the city and, by metonymy, for the people). And he will dwell among them in a new way when the temple has been rebuilt. The Lord’s presence will again bless his people because they will again be a faithful and holy people. He will see to it. Now the specific blessings that are to come are enumerated.

v.4       People will live long and peaceful lives.

v.5       The picture is of happy children in a city whose streets ring with the sounds of children at play. All of this, of course, makes, particularly for the contemporaries of Zechariah, a dramatic contrast with the silence of the city after its destruction and the despair of the people who left Jerusalem vacant because it had become a ruin.

v.6       Such is the condition of Jerusalem that it will seem a miracle to people there to see the city so transformed. But the question is rhetorical. It will not be a miracle to the Lord!

v.8       The scattered people of Israel will be re-gathered and the promise of the covenant will be fulfilled. From the east and from the west is to say from everywhere; from the four corners of the world. It actually reads from the sunrise to the sunset. To say that they will be God’s people and he will be their God is to say in the fewest words possible everything the Bible means by salvation in its fullness, in all its dimensions. What’s the problem of the unbelieving world Paul says in Ephesians 2; “they are without God.” What’s the easiest way to describe what heaven is going to be? It is going to be that place, so we read in the early verses of Revelation 21, “where God is our God and we are his people.”

As we will notice later, each of these promises of renewal and of the return of the Lord’s blessing has both a present and a future aspect to it. Some measure of blessing will come immediately; the full measure waits for what is referred to as “those days,” especially in  v. 23.

v.9       “Lord of hosts” is being repeated again and again in this passage because this small and defeated people needs to remember who it is that is on their side. The fact that prophetic teaching was read aloud to the people indicates that they were already, as soon as they came from the mouth of the prophet, considered to be the Word of God.

v.10     The uncertainty, the violence, the presence of powerful enemies, and the ruin of the country had made economic development and trade difficult if not impossible. But that situation was now coming to an end. The stability necessary for economic activity and growth, for travel, and for investment in Judea’s future has now begun to appear and things will continue to look up for the Jews.

v.12     As so often in the Bible, material blessings stand for blessing of every kind. The word peace, shalom, occurs four times in this chapter.

v.13     Under God’s punishment Israel’s name came to be used as a byword, an example of a people God is cursing. But the reverse is soon to be true.

v.17     If Jerusalem is to become the faithful city, as we read in v. 3, it will become so because its people are themselves faithful. Gates are mentioned here because justice was dispensed in a city’s gates. That’s where the judges would hear and adjudicate cases. What we have here is a brief summary of some of the laws of Moses — not a direct quote of any law — a summary that stands for all of it. The Lord will bless his people so as to make them holy. It is important to note how such a description of the people’s behavior toward one another lies cheek to jowl with remarks about the rebuilding of the temple. Ritual life by itself cannot substitute for ethics any more than ethics can substitute for ritual life. Both are necessary; both are essential to the right practice of the other. We are to be both a worshipping people and people who love and care for others; not one or the other, but both. Always both.

v.19     These four months all figured in the history of the Fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians some seventy years before and its immediate aftermath: the fourth was the month Zedekiah and the Judean leadership fled from Jerusalem after the initial breach of the walls by the Babylonians (only to be captured in the plains near the Jordan soon thereafter and executed); the fifth month was when the city actually fell; the seventh month was when the Jewish man, Gedaliah, appointed by the Babylonians as governor, was assassinated; and the tenth month was the month in which the siege of Jerusalem first began. They were regular reminders of the wrath of God on account of Judah’s unbelief and disobedience and so in each month there was a fast of mourning and penance.  These months are about to be transformed into happy occasions.

When the Lord Jesus said that the law of God was summarized in two great commandments: to love God and to love one’s neighbor, this was not an innovation. That was already understood in the ancient epoch. Love had always been the fulfillment of the law.

v.23     Throughout the OT, from Genesis 3 onward, we are taught that the blessing of God will not be only for the Jews, but for all the nations of the world, at least those in those nations who will come to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

There is something very remarkable and, at the same time, very typical of this passage. It is typical of such prophesies in several ways. It prophesies great things for the people of God in the future. At the time, one would have had a hard time finding any ethnic group or nation with prospects as unpromising as those of the Jews. Particularly so since they had been a great people, but had fallen on such terrible times. They were a people who had been wrecked. They were inhabiting a ruin. Rebuilding was underway, but it was perfectly obvious that nothing was going to be as nearly as impressive as it once was. They were no longer an independent people. They lived and worked at the pleasure of the Persian empire and had exactly as much independence as the Persians cared to give them. Their economy was in shambles, their numbers were much reduced, and their territory was a tiny sliver of what it had been in the glory days of David and Solomon.

And yet, all of this prophecy about future success, about influence in the world, about the restored glory of the people of God came true! What we have at the end of the chapter is a perfectly obvious prediction of Pentecost and the spread of the gospel to the four corners of the earth. “Many peoples and strong nations shall come to see the Lord of hosts in Jerusalem,” we read in v. 22; a powerful and beautiful way of saying that many are going to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And they have. We are so used to this reality that we regularly fail to appreciate how astonishing it is as a fact if history that billions of people in the world today trace their spiritual lineage to these few Jews who began rebuilding Jerusalem and its temple in the later years of the 6th century B.C. Everything we know as the Christian church, the Christian message, came from them. Egypt had been conquered too. Babylon had brought to an end the thousands of years of Egypt’s imperial might and Egypt as a country has lasted into the modern world. It is still a nation today. But it never recovered even a portion of its former glory. It tried to rekindle imperial ambitions when the Babylonians fell to the Persians, but the Persians put paid to those efforts and ever since Egypt has been a country of modest size and less influence. “Many peoples and strong nations” don’t go to Egypt to find blessing for themselves or the favor of the Lord. Never have; never will. But the Jews of the post-exilic period became the foundation of the greatest movement in the history of mankind, a movement that today embraces day by day untold numbers of people and still today provides the only hope of true and lasting peace to the world. Remarkable! That small group of people so put upon, so poor, and so unpromising.

If you had asked the Jews of Zechariah’s day whether they thought it possible that they would become in time the largest community of people in the world, as we read in v. 6, they would have thought that nothing short of a miracle. But it has all come true. There are many such prophesies in the Bible about the world-wide conquest of the gospel and here is one of them, a particularly beautiful one.

There is another thing very typical of this prophecy of great things to come for the people of God. I have often reminded you that characteristic of prophetic writing in the Bible is what scholars call foreshortening or telescoping. It is so characteristic of biblical prophesies of the future that it has come to be referred to as the “prophetic perspective.” This term refers to the prophet’s manner of seeing the future as a whole, of his easy movement from things near at hand to the distant future, from present anticipations to the final consummation. You find this prophetic perspective in texts prophesying judgment. For example in Isaiah 13 we find an oracle of judgment against Babylon. In the soaring poetry characteristic of Isaiah, the prophet describes the doom that is hurtling toward Babylon, what she will suffer for her sins and how. But, suddenly, the prophet isn’t talking about Babylon any longer. The prophecy has morphed into a prediction of the judgment, the punishment of the entire world. The judgment of Babylon — which lay only so far in the future — became for the prophet an anticipation of the judgment of the entire world at the end of days. Then it is back to Babylon again at the end of the chapter.

But you find the same perspective, the same telescoping in prophesies of salvation and blessing, as you find it here. We begin with the Lord’s declaration that he has returned to Zion and that he will dwell in the midst of Jerusalem (v. 3). Any Jew of that day would understand the promise of the Lord’s dwelling in Jerusalem to be fulfilled when the temple was rebuilt and consecrated to the worship of God. The temple was always, in that way, the place of God’s dwelling. The Lord’s blessing had already begun to descend, of course, with the arrival of so many Jews back from exile in Babylon. So the blessings spoken of here were not simply distant fortunes, far removed from the life experience of the Jews to whom Zechariah was preaching. Those people had already begun to experience them. What the Lord had already granted — extraordinary enough, if you think about it, that the Persians should have allowed many thousands of Jews to return to Jerusalem to rebuild their city and to reconstitute their life as a people — I say, what the Lord had already granted were the first fruits of still greater blessings to come. They were, as Paul says of the Holy Spirit in Ephesians 1, a “deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.” [Webb, 122-123]

In other words, the prophet sees the future as one undifferentiated whole.  The classic illustration of this is to imagine oneself looking at a mountain range on the far horizon, say the Grand Tetons from forty or fifty miles east of Jackson Hole, Wyoming. From that perspective you see the mountains as a solid wall of summits. But, in fact, unbeknownst to you, because you haven’t gotten closest enough to see, some summits are much closer to you than others; they are separated from one another by deep valleys, rushing streams, vast forests on their lower slopes. You can’t appreciate the depth of the mountains from that perspective as well as you can appreciate the width and the height. Well it is something like that. The prophets see the future as an outcome, but do not describe it in its chronological detail. You hardly ever read, “first this will happen, then many years later this next thing, and then finally this last thing.” We get very little of the chronological depth of future developments in biblical prophecy. What we get is the grand prospect of the future as a whole, which, after all, is the main thing. Some of the Lord’s blessing would be granted Zechariah’s generation of the Jews, still more of this promised blessing would begin to overspread the world at Pentecost, and it will finally reach its consummation in perfect peace at the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. The prophet doesn’t say this in so many words, but he clearly distinguishes, as do the prophets in general, between what will be true in the near future and what will be true only in those days, that is in the distant future.

Then there is still another typical feature of this prophecy of the blessing of the Lord. And that is the way it trades on our own experience of happiness and fulfillment to paint the joys that will someday come to the people of God. You will have noticed this as we read through the chapter. The Lord’s coming to his people and dwelling among them would bring them exactly what?

Well, we begin in v. 4. People will live to a ripe old age; they will also enjoy a city in which the streets are full of happy children. The nation will swell in size as people come from every direction to take their place among the people of God. In v. 10 we read that people will be gainfully employed and be able to make a good living, there will be peace with the nations round about as well as harmony among neighbors. In v. 12 we read of the vine giving its fruit and the ground its produce and the heavens their dew. Dew is very important to crops in that part of the world. The land will produce bounty and people will enjoy good food and drink. The reputation of the people, so badly mauled over the last two generations, will be restored and others will think well of them. In v. 19 we read of joyful feasts as a regular feature of the life of the people. And they will be, as we read at the last, the envy of all the people of the world.

Now, to be sure, the Jews of Zechariah’s day did not get all of this. They got the first stages of it; they got enough to know that the Lord was again among them to bless them. We have got more of it than they, but still we have not got all that is promised here. That awaits those days that are still to come.

But see how earthly joys are used to describe the blessing of God. Jesus did the same thing, you remember, when he spoke of those who make sacrifices for him receiving in return a hundred fold of houses, fields, husbands, wives, children, brothers and sisters in this world and then in the world to come, eternal life. He also compared heaven to a wedding feast — surely a time in our experience when pleasures of all kinds are enjoyed at once — as this author does in his own way in v. 19, and the Lord also compared heaven to living in a palace of many rooms. A gifted poet, such as the 17th century Englishman Henry Vaughan, might begin to speak of heaven in this way:

I saw eternity the other night

Like a great ring of pure and endless light.

But the Bible does not typically describe heaven in such a way. It describes heaven in terms of our life in this world and our happiest experiences of life in this world.

Milton, in Paradise Lost has the archangel Raphael say this to Adam in the garden before the fall. They are talking at this point about the difficulty human beings have relating to the unseen, spiritual world. Raphael explains to Adam that he will have to use earthly analogies, but then adds this important afterthought.

Though what if Earth

Be but a shadow of heaven, and things therein

Each to other like, more than on earth is thought?

That is, you learn what heaven is like in looking at earth and the best that is found and experienced on earth. After all, heaven, we are taught in the Word of God, will be a new earth! I think there are at least two reasons why the Bible so regularly describes the blessings of the Lord in such terms: food, drink, friendships, houses, fields, and so on. Even the description of heaven in Revelation 21 and 22 trades on the pleasures of life in this world, pleasures we experience by our five senses and in the feelings of our hearts.

  1. First, it is easy for us to grasp such a description and to be enticed by it. We love good food and drink. We love to spend time with friends. We love a beautiful home. We are enthralled by a sunset or a beautiful landscape, or a beautiful woman or a handsome man, or darling children. We understand these things; we are attracted to them. More ethereal pleasures, such as the sight of God, the beatific vision as it used to be called, are harder for us to comprehend, even if they may be the greatest conceivable pleasures of eternal human life. Perfect goodness, again, is something Christians long for, but is so foreign to our personal experience that we find it hard to know what it will feel like to awake to life with a perfect heart, with nothing but love for God and man motivating every mental and physical motion of our lives every moment of every day.
  2. Second, I think the Bible uses earthly and familiar things to describe even the ultimate blessings of God in heaven because they will be part of that life. Heaven, everywhere in the teaching of the Bible, will be an extension of life in this world. What is best about our life here will be part of our life there. All the glory of the nations shall be brought into heaven we read in Revelation 21. What is most beautiful and pleasing here will continue to be beautiful and pleasing there because these are pure, good things that God himself has made for us to enjoy. That is one reason why the resurrection is so important to the biblical system of truth. We are still going to be human beings in heaven, with eyes, ears, noses, taste buds. We are still going to love and be loved, laugh, and rejoice over many of the same happy things that we love, enjoy, and admire here.

That is why so many people believe in heaven: there are so many anticipations of it here on earth!

Somerset Maugham, the English novelist, perfectly encapsulated the unbelieving mind when he said that he imagined that heaven would be dull. But that is a travesty of misunderstanding. Heaven is not people sitting on clouds playing harps. Do what this text and so many others invite you to do. Think of the things that have made you happiest in your life, the things that have most fulfilled you and satisfied you and pleased you. The things you can’t help but remember for the joy and the pleasure it brings for you to recall them.

Surely for many of you who are older looking back over your lives, and for some of you who are just teenagers, you will think of the delicious experience of falling in love. How enthralling all of that was! You realized once you felt the power of that love for him or for her in your heart — and especially when you realized that he or she loved you back — that you had only been half alive to that point. This was something wonderfully new, beyond anything you had experienced so far. Would that you could always be as happy as you were then! Love and joy often go together in this world.

And then think of your children and all the love and delight they brought into your life. To hold your own child in your arms as a baby, to feel the power of that love; it’s extraordinary. It’s wonderful. And then so many of you can remember particular moments in your life: beautiful vistas that took your breath away, some delicious meal on a summer’s evening at a side-walk café in Sorrento or the Piazza Navona in Rome, or standing in front of a magnificent painting or sculpture. No one put this point more beautifully than Harry Blamires, first the student then the colleague of C.S. Lewis.

“It is in fragmentary glimpses that the joys of the kingdom are flashed before our faces on our earthly pilgrimage. We all have our stores of memories that keep their power to blind us with the dazzle of the wonder and beauty they revealed. When you first took a hand that is now cold in the grave — when you first looked into eyes that imprinted their gaze forever on your mind — when you first caught sight of that remote village nestling in the elbow of a valley, all white and green in the sun — when you first saw your wife with your baby in her arms — when a lyric of Byron’s first throbbed through your brain in school days — when Toscanini revitalized the fabric of a Beethoven symphony — when Maria Callas released flooding waves of emotion upon a few syllables, ‘Alfin son tua,’ in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor: we all have our store of such particular memories. If we wanted a single adjective to characterize what was common to them all, we should say quite naturally, quite unaffectedly, ‘It was heavenly.’

Well, that is what Zechariah has given us here, an invitation to think about the consummation of the blessing of God in terms of the best, the happiest, the purest, and the most thrilling experiences we have had in our lives in this world. Some of you are into politics and you can remember your joy when your candidate won the election; how for days you basked in the triumph. Others of you are sports fans and you can remember how ecstatic you were when your team won the championship; how you shouted and jumped up and down and pumped your fists in celebration. Well, that is the idea of vv. 20-23. We are going to share in a great triumph of the kingdom of our standard bearer, our hero. Our kingdom will triumph and the whole world will know that our King, Jesus Christ, is, in fact, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

But I want to finish with this. The greatest promise in this description of the impossibly splendid things that we will enjoy in those days,is what we read in v. 3 where the Lord says “I will dwell in the midst of Jerusalem” and in v. 8 where he says that “I will be their God” and in vv. 20-23 where he speaks of people coming from everywhere to be worship God. We may not be able fully to appreciate this, but at least some of us have had experiences that are an anticipation of the greater presence of God and how overwhelmingly wonderful that presence is, how captivating, how empowering, how delightful and delicious it is. I have had such an experience; I know some of you have as well. I was overcome with the joy of knowing the Lord and feeling his presence for a period of several hours many years ago. The memory of that moment in my life has never faded. I think of it often. I pray, often, that the Lord would give it back to me, but he never has. I was, almost like Paul, lifted up to the third heaven. It really was as if I were peering into heaven itself or, perhaps better, as if I were for those few hours in the outskirts of heaven and were breathing its atmosphere. I couldn’t stay; one cannot live in heaven on this earth; but what a privilege to know from one’s own experience, that the place is there and that I am suited for it. Whenever I think of that experience I can’t help but wonder what life is going to be like when one’s heart is always as full of joy and gratitude and love as mine was for those several hours.

All the blessings that heaven will afford, all the wonderful things we will enjoy there, all the glorious things we will see and hear and taste and touch and smell, all the people who will so enrich our lives there — who it will be our privilege to know and love and to be loved by in return — I say, all the blessings are summed up in this one: God will be our God and we will be his people, really, fully, perfectly and constantly.

Lest we forget, heaven is what it is all about! It is to get us to that place, that life with God, that Christ came, died, rose again, and will someday come again. It is to get us back to the garden from which we were driven on account of our sin, and a still more wonderful garden, that the Holy Spirit placed our feet on the narrow road that leads there. We cannot too often be reminded that we are heading to a place and a life so impossibly wonderful that we can only barely begin to grasp its wonder. The poets try, but with their help we only catch the occasional glimpse. Even the prophets themselves have to appeal to our imagination with images drawn from our life in this world.

“In those days…” but, then, if only we have eyes to see, anticipations of those days are everywhere we look. There are imperatives in this chapter. We are told to let our hands be strong, to love one another, not to fear, to tell the truth, to be holy and faithful. That is how they live who know they are going to live in the world of joy and love forever.

Why does heaven often seem so far away? I think it is because if the Lord showed us too much of heaven, gave us a real taste of life there, if he allowed us to hear the voices of those living there, to feel the glory of God to that extent in our souls, we would be unable to go on with our lives in this world because we would be too glad.