Bible Commentary: Zechariah 4

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Zechariah 4

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"Not by Might nor by Power, but by My Spirit"

In Zechariah's fifth vision of the night, we see that he is " a man who is wakened out of his sleep" (verse 1). This seems to imply that he was in reality still asleep, but was roused from a period of unconsciousness to a dream state to experience the next vision—this time of the golden lampstand, two olive trees and a message for Zerubbabel.

The description of the golden lampstand—a candelabrum with seven pipes and lamps—evokes, as it would have for the people of Zechariah's day, the image of the seven-branched menorah of the temple. (The Hebrew word menorah is the word used in both cases for lampstand.) New here, however, is the picture of a bowl above it and an olive tree on each side of it.

As was noted in the Beyond Today Bible Commentary on chapter 3, the book of Revelation also gives us lampstand imagery, wherein seven lampstands symbolize the seven churches making up the whole of God's Church (see Revelation 1:12-16, Revelation 1:20). In a heavenly vision, the apostle John also saw "seven lamps of fire burning before the throne, which are the seven spirits of God" (Revelation 4:5)—seemingly parallel to the representative angels of the seven churches (see Revelation 1:20; Revelation 3:1).

A lamp allows people to see in the dark. It is scripturally a symbol of God's Word and law, the light of truth and understanding to illuminate the path His people must walk (see Psalm 119:105, Psalm 119:130; Proverbs 6:23). Jesus Christ, the living Word of God, was sent into the world as the Light (John 1:1-9,  John 1:14; John 8:12; John 9:5). But His light is also to shine forth from all of God's people—not only in proclaiming God's Word but in living it. As Jesus told His followers: "You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works [not just knowledge and words] and glorify your Father in heaven" (Matthew 5:14-16).

In Jesus' parable of the wise and foolish virgins in Matthew 25:1-13, God's servants are portrayed as carrying lamps—the wise with sufficient oil to keep their lamps burning and the foolish lacking oil so that their lamps are going out. The oil here—probably olive oil as in the temple menorah (see Exodus 27:20-21)—is the fuel for the flame. In Christ's parable it represents the Holy Spirit in the lives of God's people. To further demonstrate the symbolism, consider that oil was the consecrating agent in anointing and that Jesus was anointed with the Holy Spirit (Acts 10:38). Returning to the parable of the virgins, we should understand that to continue shining forth the witness of God and His Word in what we say and do, Christians require a constant supply of the Holy Spirit (see Galatians 3:5; Philippians 1:19). And as the apostle Paul told Timothy regarding that Spirit, we must "fan into flame the gift of God" (2 Timothy 1:6, NIV). Thus, it is through God's Spirit that His people are able to shine as lights and pierce the darkness of this world.

God's Spirit is a central element in the prophetic vision of Zechariah 4. Indeed, when Zechariah asks the meaning of the symbols (verse 5), the first answer he receives, which we will further examine shortly, is that it pictures the work of God's Spirit (verse 6). Consider the elements of the scene unfamiliar to Zechariah—the bowl above the menorah and the olive trees standing to the right and left of it (verses 2-3). Interestingly, we later find that the olive trees represent anointed ones—literally "sons of fresh oil"—who "stand by the Lord of the whole earth" (verse 14, J.P. Green's Literal Translation). In the vision they stood to either side of the bowl, which would seem to identify this bowl as both a container of oil and as God Himself—or as God's presence through His Spirit. Indeed, God is a container, so to speak, of His own Spirit. The bowl here is evidently the source of the menorah's oil—just as God is the source of His Spirit, which He supplies to His people. Furthermore, we should consider that this is a temple-related scene. The menorah was a temple fixture representing the light of God as shining forth from His people—especially from His spiritual temple, the Church. As the Shekinah glory, the divine presence through the indwelling Holy Spirit, had come down upon the Mosaic tabernacle and Solomon's temple, so this bowl representing the presence of God and the supply of His Spirit sits over the menorah.

The response given to Zechariah's inquiry was no doubt intended to be of great exhortation and encouragement to the people of his day—particularly to the Judean governor, Zerubbabel. But like Zechariah's other visions of this same night, this was a prophecy for not only his own time but the last days as well.

God's message to Zerubbabel is that the work he is engaged in, that of building the temple, will be accomplished not "by might nor by power"—that is, not by mere human strength or ability—but by God's Spirit (verse 6). Zerubbabel, as we know, had had a rough go of it. He had been unsuccessful in getting past the foundation stages due to the Samaritan resistance and his own people letting down—and apparently his personal lack of zeal as well. Things had ground to a standstill for years. Now the work was back in full swing. Nevertheless, if left to mere human effort, problems would set in and discouragement would win out all over again. Satan, working to thwart God's people, would prevail. There were, in fact, already signs of concern. Some "despised the day of small things" (verse 10)—either viewing the lesser second temple project as nothing compared to the former glory of Solomon's temple (see Haggai 2:3) or looking only at the present meager circumstances and not envisioning the future God had promised.

But God blazes forth the wonderful truth that His Spirit is the instrument that will accomplish His will. It is the power that works in His people to give them ultimate success—the "oil" to fuel their lamps so that they can shine forth His glory in achieving whatever He has commissioned them to do. This should serve as a great encouragement to all of God's people. In the work of participating in the building of God's spiritual temple, His Church, we would certainly never succeed if left to do it on our own. If left to our own devices, we would never remotely succeed in living the kind of life God requires of us. But we are not on our own. God is ever with us to help us. "How timely this message is for our day with its complex and manifold committees, boards, drives, plans, organizations, contests, budgets, sponsors, rallies, groups, and much more. These can never avail themselves to bring about the accomplishment of the task God has entrusted to us; since it is from first to last a spiritual work, it must be by the omnipotent and unfailing and unerring Spirit of God. The arm of flesh fails; He never does" (Charles Feinberg, The Minor Prophets, p. 290).

Moreover, just because something starts out small does not mean it will stay that way. Great things may well lie in store. And that was certainly the case here. Indeed, Jesus would later explain that even God's great and glorious eternal Kingdom starts out like a tiny mustard seed (Matthew 13:31-32). A day of small things is a beginning, not the end. We must remember this in all our endeavors. With the power of God through His Spirit added to our efforts, what starts out as seemingly small and insignificant can grow to heights unimaginable to us. Even seemingly insurmountable obstacles can be overcome. As Jesus said, "With men it is impossible, but not with God; for with God all things are possible" (Mark 10:27).

Zechariah 4 has something to say about obstacles in this regard. After explaining that Zerubbabel's efforts will bear fruit through the power of God's Spirit (verse 6), God further states: "Who are you, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel you shall become a plain!" (verse 7). Jesus likewise told His disciples, "If you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you" (Matthew 17:20). In both cases, the image is one of removing whatever obstacles stand in the way. In Zechariah's day, the obstacles were the Samaritan resistance, the negative spiritual influence of Satan and the human tendency to give up in the face of antagonism.

Interestingly, the particular prophecy of Zerubbabel here seems to parallel the prophecy in Isaiah 40 of one who would prepare the way before the Messiah: "The voice of one crying in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill brought low; the crooked places shall be made straight and the rough places smooth...'" (verses 3-5). The idea again is one of removing obstacles from the path. As the Beyond Today Bible Commentary on Isaiah 40 explained, this prophecy was fulfilled in part by John the Baptist, who prepared the way before Christ's first coming, and yet it was to be fulfilled in a greater sense prior to Christ's second coming—preparing a people to receive Him at that time. Indeed, it may well be that the reference to Zerubbabel in Zechariah 4 is to not just the governor of Zechariah's day—that Zerubbabel here could also denote an end-time counterpart, as we will see.

Verse 7, in the NKJV and other versions, says that Zerubbabel would "bring forth the capstone"—that is, of the temple he was building. The "capstone" would be the top stone that finishes the project. This interpretation would seem to fit with verse 9, which says, "The hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundations of this temple; his hands shall also finish it." Yet the word for capstone is literally "head stone," and others equate this with the "head stone of the corner" in Psalm 118:22 (KJV)—that is, the cornerstone of the foundation (compare Isaiah 28:16; Job 38:6). Yet that would seem to make no sense in the prophecy of Zerubbabel in Zechariah 4:7 since he had already laid the foundation of the second temple—in fact he had done foundation-laying work twice and would do no more. For this reason, most interpret "head stone" here to be capstone—yet it could refer to the foundation cornerstone if a different, future Zerubbabel and a different temple were intended.

Oddly enough, there is some question as to whether Zerubbabel remained as governor much longer beyond the time that Zechariah gave this prophecy—some question as to whether he even was still directing the temple reconstruction at its completion. After the intervention of the Persian emperor Darius to promote the temple's rebuilding in Ezra 6, which we will soon read, there is no mention of Zerubbabel working on the project during the period in which it was finished (see verses 13-22)—only a mention of the "elders of the Jews" doing the building (verse 14). Some have speculated that this is because Darius or one of his subordinates removed Zerubbabel from power.

Recall that Darius, in securing his own position, had just put down a succession of revolts all over the empire—most instigated by claimants to the royal thrones of their respective areas. And Zerubbabel was of the line of David. In his book Old Testament History, Dr. Charles Pfeiffer writes: "The disappearance of Zerubbabel from his position as governor of Judah may be a result of the civil reorganization effected by Darius. There is no hint in the Biblical records that he was removed for sedition, as some have suggested. The fact that his name simply drops out of the Biblical record may suggest that the change of policy which Darius inaugurated resulted in his removal" (1973, p. 519).

Historian John Bright, in A History of Israel, points out that some of Haggai and Zechariah's prophecies could have been interpreted by the Jews of that day as pointing to Zerubbabel as the Messiah. Bright says that even if Zerubbabel himself was not thinking in these terms, "the talk had a seditious ring, and Zerubbabel could scarcely control it. What the Persian authorities would have thought of it, had it come to their ears, one can readily guess. And apparently there were those who took pains to see that it did [referring to the Samaritans].... What happened to Zerubbabel is a mystery. It is entirely possible that the Persians ultimately got wind of the sentiment in Judah and removed him. But we do not know. There is no evidence whatever for the assertion that he was executed. Yet, since we hear no more of him, and since none of his family succeeded him, it is likely that the Persians did strip the Davidic house of its political prerogatives" (2000, pp. 371-372). Expositor's says one commentator "suggests that Zerubbabel was probably summoned back to Persia since one of his descendants, Hattush, returned with Ezra (Ezra 8:2; 1 Chronicles 3:19-22)" (note on Ezra 5:15-17).

If Zerubbabel was still in office at the temple's completion, then Zechariah 4:9's statement, "his hands shall also finish it," would certainly apply to him. But they would not have to apply exclusively to him, as there could still be a later fulfillment wherein Zerubbabel serves as a type of someone else. On the other hand, if Zerubbabel was gone from office when the second temple was completed, then verse 9 most likely refers not to him at all but to a future figure fulfilling a similar office of whom Zerubbabel was a type. It should also be remembered from the example of Elijah and Elisha that a person's special commission can be fulfilled by someone else—as Elijah's three-fold commission at Mount Sinai (1 Kings 19:16) was only partially fulfilled by himself, the rest being completed by Elisha and someone else whom Elisha sent.

Who would the later Zerubbabel figure be? Consider again the voice of one crying in the wilderness in Isaiah 40, preparing the way before Christ. As already explained, John the Baptist fulfilled that role on one level. He even "brought forth the head stone with shouts of 'Grace, grace'" (Zechariah 4:7). As several verses show, Jesus is the foundation stone, the head of the corner (see Matthew 21:42; Acts 4:11; 1 Peter 2:7, KJV). And John the Baptist is the one who announced Him to Judea, proclaiming His grace (John 1:14-16, 29). Furthermore, consider that John's ministry prefigured another Elijah-like work of the end time that would accomplish a great restoration and prepare a people for the second coming of Christ (see Malachi 4:5-6; Matthew 17:11-13). Of course, the people being prepared in the latter days are part of the Church of God, the spiritual temple. So we again see that Zerubbabel's work of restoring the physical temple finds its parallel in an end-time spiritual counterpart. This end-time counterpart could even involve the laying of a foundation—for though, as the apostle Paul explained, Jesus Christ is the ultimate foundation of His Church (1 Corinthians 3:11), he also implied that a great apostolic-type work in an area was in essence the laying of a foundation (see Romans 15:20).

Yet we should recognize that the ultimate builder and restorer in this picture is the Messiah Himself, Jesus Christ. This is clear from what was stated at the end of this sequence of visions in Zechariah 6:12: "Behold, the Man whose name is the BRANCH! From His place He shall branch out, and He shall build the temple of the Lord; yes, He shall build the temple of the Lord." The point is repeated for emphasis. Even the work that Zerubbabel the governor was doing was really the work of Jesus Christ—that is, Christ was the one accomplishing it. In the case of Zerubbabel's end-time counterpart, again Christ is the one truly doing the work. He accomplished the building of the physical temple. And He accomplishes the building of the spiritual temple. As He said, "I will build My church" (Matthew 16:18). And He will finish that work.

Jesus will also cause a new temple to be built in the Millennium. Indeed, besides what we've already seen, the mention of a great mountain becoming a plain before Zerubbabel in Zechariah 4:7 may be related to this. For Zechariah 14:10 says that during the reign of the Lord, the mountainous area of Jerusalem and its surroundings will be turned into an elevated plain. Of course, we should also consider that the original Zerubbabel, if resurrected as one of God's saints, could very well play a leading role in the leveling and temple-building work of the millennial age. It should also be noted that the great mountain becoming a plain is seen by some as referring to the world government of Satan being blasted away at the return of Christ.

In Zechariah 4:10, the plumb line in Zerubbabel's hand, a device for making sure walls were vertically straight, means that he is engaged in his building work. In the spiritual parallel, Christ makes sure that all are aligned with Him. And those who will not be brought into alignment are purged (compare Amos 7:7; Isaiah 28:17).

"These seven" who rejoice to see the work in progress in the same verse—referred to as the "eyes of the Lord"—have no immediate antecedent. It would have to be referring back to either the seven lamps of this vision (verse 2) or the seven eyes of the previous vision (Zechariah 3:9)—or both if their meanings overlap. Indeed, seven spirits do seem to stand as angelic representatives for the seven churches that constitute the whole of God's Church. This was examined to some degree in the comments on our previous reading. While part of what is intended here is probably God and His angels being pleased at Zerubbabel's restored work on the physical temple, the depiction is also applicable to the Church and its representative angels rejoicing at the building up of the spiritual temple and the purging of its problems. (Amos 5:7-9 describes a vision of God standing on a wall with a plumb line, setting it in the midst of Israel to show the people as crooked and to remove whatever was not aligned with Him and His way.)

Zechariah now returns to his inquiry, wondering at the meaning of the two olive trees in the vision (Zechariah 4:11). In verse 14, they are referred to as the two anointed ones or, literally, "sons of fresh oil" (Green's Literal Translation)—evidently nourished from the bowl above the scene, representing God as the reservoir of His Spirit. But the flow of God's Spirit does not stop with the olive trees. In verse 12, Zechariah describes branches of each tree—or "two olive clusters" (Green's Literal Translation)—dripping oil into the golden pipes next to them. Thus, these two sons of oil are not only anointed with the Spirit, they are also anointing—administering it to others.

In his book Glory in Our Midst: A Biblical-Theological Reading of Zechariah's Night Visions, Dr. Meredith Kline notes on this passage: "The misunderstanding of the sons of oil as [simply] anointed ones has led to the common interpretation of the two as the royal and priestly offices, represented in Zechariah's day by Zerubbabel and Joshua. But if the trees are the (mediatorial) source of the oil that streams to the menorah, if the sons of oil are not the anointed but the anointers, we must think of prophets, not kings or priests. The prophets, outstandingly the paradigm prophet Moses, were God's chief agents for anointing. Moreover, in Rev[elation] 11:4 it is the two prophetic witnesses [verse 3] that are explicitly said to be the two olive trees. Further, the description of the sons of oil as 'standing by the Lord of all the earth,' that is, as his servants, comports with the familiar designation of the prophets as God's servants (cf. Amos 3:7; Jeremiah 7:25; Jeremiah 25:4; Revelation 10:7; Revelation 11:18). This description also points to prophetic identification in that it denotes the status of those admitted into the divine council...a special privilege of prophets" (2001, pp. 164-165).

In Zechariah's own day, he and Haggai were the two prophet witnesses whom God used in a special ministration of His Spirit to redirect the nation back to Him—to bring, through a call to repentance, Zerubbabel, Joshua and the nation back to the work to which they were called. In that sense, Zechariah was being given a vision concerning his own work. Yet the vision was not only for that time as we've seen. God has repeated this pattern in history. The final two witnesses of the end time will be given great power to accomplish their work (see Revelation 11:3-6). Yet as always, the power to do the will of God will not come from themselves—indeed, it cannot. Rather, it will be of God's Holy Spirit—as it must be. That is the lesson we must all learn.