After 70 years in exile, God began fulfilling his promise to restore the people of Israel to the land. He did not inspire them to revolt, or to wage war against their oppressors. Instead, according to his promise in Isaiah, he raised another nation to achieve his purposes. In 553 BC, Cyrus took hold of the Median empire, and swiftly became the most powerful force in the region, forging the Persian empire. In 539 BC he conquered and absorbed the Babylonians. Within a year, he decreed that all exiled peoples in Babylon could return to their lands. He even gave provision for the Temple in Jerusalem to be rebuilt (Cyrus Cylinder; 2 Chron 36:22-23; Ezra 1:1-4). In this context, the book of Zechariah focuses on the rebuilding of the temple and, as a result, on what it means for the Jewish people to not have a king, but be part of a large empire and ruled by a pagan emperor. The book has two clear halves (chs 1-8, 9-14) which some scholars argue are written by different people. I am going to take the book as a whole and consider it to be written by Zechariah. However, there is no change in the theology of the book (and some support for my thesis, which I will discuss in the next post) if the second half is newer than the first.
The first half of Zechariah has two parts of its own (chs 1-6, 7-8), both of which focus on the Temple. The first section (along with much of Haggai) is an exhortation to re-build the Temple. There is much historical speculation about what was happening at the time, but in chapters 3, 4 and 6 we see the suggestion that the High Priest Joshua is needed to lead the people in building the Temple, even though the King Zerubbabel is the one who started the project. There are many theories as to why Zerubbabel needs the assistance, one of the most convincing is the suggestion that Zerubbabel had been arrested by Persian forces for attempting (or appearing to attempt) a revolt against the Empire. In the years just before the writing of Zechariah, there had been a change of emperor in Persia and a couple of years of empire-wide revolt, only to be pacified by the new emperor Darius. Darius then spent a few years pacifying the entire Empire, which included marching down the Levant (the thin bit of land along the Mediterranean coast between Persia and Egypt that Israel is part of – look it up) to bring Egypt to heel. In that process, if any messianic movements in Israel looked like being a revolt, they would have been wrapped up at the same time.
Whether or not this is why Zerubbabel was absent or unable to continue the temple building, this historical context makes a lot of sense of the visions of the four horsemen (1:8-11), four craftsmen (1:18-21) and four chariots (6:1-8). These visions give the message that God’s forces have gone out and brought the world to peace. In the historical context, it seems that the forces of God that have pacified the world are Darius’ forces bringing an end to the rebellions. What did this mean for the Jews of the day? They had returned from exile with Ezekiel’s promises of restoration echoing in their ears, only to find that they are a small province of a mighty empire and their ruler only sits on his throne by the will of a distant emperor. Then their new-found stability is rocked by empire-wide revolt, and the mighty armies of Darius plough through their land, crushing their close neighbours and pacifying Egypt. In that milieu, God says that he is the one bringing peace to the world, and he is doing it for his purposes, and they are centred on his people. The province of Yehud (Judah) is not backwater corner of the mighty empire, it is the centre of the world and everything that God does is for them.
How are the Judeans to respond to God’s sovereign control of the world? By building the temple. Zechariah does not call the people to participate in God’s pacification of the world, but to praise him for it, and to return to their job of restoring correct worship in the land. The whole world has been brought to peace by God (working through Darius) for one purpose – to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple.
The second section (chs 7-8) then moves to the completion of the temple, and considers a future of prosperity and peace. Again, the people’s role in this is obedience:
16 These are the things you are to do: Speak the truth to each other, and render true and sound judgment in your courts; 17 do not plot evil against your neighbor, and do not love to swear falsely. I hate all this,” declares the LORD. (Zech 8:16-17)
There is no hint that the people need to participate in God’s victory. Indeed, the prophecy to Zerubbabel comes with something that sounds very much like a rebuke:
6 “This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel: ‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the LORD Almighty. (Zechariah 4:6-7)
God has promised that the temple will be rebuilt, and he will achieve it. The terms might (חַיִל) and power (כֹּחַ) are most often used as military terms. Whether or not Zerubbabel had attempted (or considered) a military revolt to advance God’s plans, it is clear that God is rejecting the idea. He will take care of the international scene. Zerubbabel’s job was to rebuild the temple (4:8-10)