Ever read the book of Zechariah? My parents named me after him.
You probably haven’t read it, in any case; you know, those minor prophets really never get their due most of the time. Whether because they’re hard to understand (and trust me, they can intimidate even the most knowledgeable of us) or because the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible tends to get the short shrift on the “Jesus” scale, I imagine most Christians of the modern age aren’t too familiar with these books of the Bible. Heck, I just found out Satan is mentioned in it (what? Really?), which motivated me to writing about it. Although not so much about Satan, honestly. Much of its content demands either a bare knowledge of the history or a host of Bible commentaries to make any sense of the whole.
Firstly, as history, Zechariah starts his visions under the reign of Darius starting in 530 AD – specifically, the ruler of Persia during the time period. If the Babylonian exile occurred in 586 BC (correct me if I’m wrong), then Cyrus conquered and/or routed the Babylonians out of town in the ensuing years. Persians, being a fair bit nicer than Judah’s Babylonian overlords, decided to allow the exiled Israelites of both kingdoms to return to their homeland. In the same way that the Roman Empire allowed religions to operate autonomously among its conquered ethnic groups, so did Darius see this as a boon to peaceful rule over the region.This heralded great joy for the return of God’s chosen people to their land. Sure, there was much rebuilding to be done and much hardship to overcome, politically and physically (Ezra and Nehemiah depict this), but their longsuffering God finally deigned to give back the land and their people. He is merciful, after all! If we got the dates right (and, as far as the Bible scholarship community knows, we do), then Zechariah’s visions begin in 520 – 536 was the year when the exiles were allowed to return.
Furthermore, we know little to nothing about Zechariah as a person. Did people know him back then? Maybe! Other than knowing he came from a priestly family (that is, a descendant of the priesthood of the Israel religion), that’s it. There’s no personal context nor imagined personality in which to relate – there are just the Words of God, and that’s it. Intimidating? Now that I think about it, just a TINY bit. To present an example: Zechariah’s second recorded vision says thus:
7 On the twenty-fourth day of the eleventh month, which is the month Shebat, in the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came to Zechariah the prophet, the son of Berechiah, the son of Iddo, as follows: 8 I saw at night, and behold, a man was riding on a red horse, and he was standing among the myrtle trees which were in the ravine, with red, sorrel and white horses behind him. 9 Then I said, “My lord, what are these?” And the angel who was speaking with me said to me, “I will show you what these are.” 10 And the man who was standing among the myrtle trees answered and said, “These are those whom the Lord has sent to patrol the earth.” 11 So they answered the angel of the Lord who was standing among the myrtle trees and said, “We have patrolled the earth, and behold, all the earth is peaceful and quiet.”
Question number 1 – So angels apparently wander the earth and observe everything? Why the horses? And what is a myrtle tree, anyway? Obviously, this was not at all written for a modern context, so lots of fun there! If you’re wonder why Jesus (other than being God) gets all the street cred, it’s probably due to the ease of use and how easy it seems to understand exactly what Jesus says in the Gospels (which, at points, appear as bizarre as anything else in the Bible, but that’s a subject for another entry). However, look a little deeper and you’ll see that even these historically contextualized visions and imagery do present some relevance. Take, for example, John Calvin’s interpretation:
But let us now enquire the Prophet’s design. I regard this as the object — that horsemen were presented to the Prophet, that he might know that God does not remain shut up in heaven and neglect the affairs of men; but that he has, as it were, swift horses, so that he knows what things are everywhere carried on. As then kings having horses at command, send their riders here and there, and bid them soon to return to them that they may know what to do; so the Prophet ascribes here to God the character of a chief sovereign, who inquires respecting all the affairs of men. It is indeed certain, that God receives no information from angels, for nothing is hid from him: nay, all things were fully known to him before he created angels. God, therefore, needs no such helps in order to know what is going on from the rising to the setting sun; but such a mode of speaking often occurs in scripture; and it is a common thing, that God assumes the character of man in order that he may more familiarly instruct us. Let us then especially bear in mind, that the riders who appeared to the Prophet were angels, who are ever ready to serve God. And they were sent here and there, not that they might declare to God any thing unknown to him, but that we may believe that God cares for human affairs; and that though angels appear not to us they are always engaged, and survey the world, so that nothing is done without the knowledge and will of God. This is one thing.
If you imagine yourself in the context, this makes perfect sense as a predecessor for what’s to come. Zechariah, to simplify the whole book, is a series of visions showing the returning people that, yes, God is with them. He hasn’t abandoned them in any way, even if at times it felt as if YHWH abandoned them to the caprices of the other nations. It is not that they don’t remember what caused it in the first place; it is trying to understand the length and the severity of the punishment. Zechariah does not intend to show us historical events, but presents a theological argument for God’s providence and control over the events of human affairs. Zechariah’s vision, then, functions as a humanistic way to convey an eternal truth: that God’s in control.
And yes, even through the weird confusing parts of everything that happens to you in your life.