What is Zechariah 1 About? Let’s turn our attention to Zechariah, chapter 1. We’ll be studying the first six verses in this chapter.
So, as we overviewed the entire book last time, we saw that there is a lot of hope and encouragement that Zechariah is giving the people of his day – the Jews who had returned from the exile in Babylon.
And so it’s kind of unexpected to receive this first message from the Lord in which he warns these people to not sin like their ancestors. And yet, in order to get to the encouragement, God needs to address the previous sins and get some assurance from these Jews that they do not intend to repeat the sins of those who have gone before them.
And I think that we’ll see at the end of this section that the people commit themselves to the Lord anew, which then allows God to move on to the rest of the encouragements in this book in subsequent messages.
We’ll read these six verses all together and then we’ll study each verse in detail…
What is Zechariah 1 About? Verse 1
So, let’s consider that first verse.
KJV Zechariah 1:1 ¶ In the eighth month, [in/of] the second year of Darius, came the word of the LORD unto Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, the son of Iddo the prophet [Zec. Is the prophet, not Iddo...], [saying/as follows],
What is Zechariah 1 About? "In the eighth month, in the second year of Darius"
Now, Darius was of course a king of Persia who ruled after king Cyrus. Cyrus was the one who is quoted in the Bible as allowing the Jews to return to their land and build a temple. Darius after him then ruled Persia from 522-486 BC. And that places this first prophecy of Zechariah’s at 520 BC. We’re not given a day, but the month mentioned would indicate a time of somewhere around October, November, or December.
Now, as I mentioned Cyrus allowed the Jews to return to their land. However, in Ezra 4:5 we’re told that the people of the land – the non-Jews who were already there at the time – they discouraged the Jews from building their temple. It says that that discouragement lasted, “all the days of Cyrus king of Persia, even until the reign of Darius king of Persia.”
So, the temple building began under Cyrus but really faltered until Darius took the throne. And now in his second year in 520 BC God is taking some action to make sure that his people start doing what he sent them there to do.
What is Zechariah 1 About? "came the word of the LORD"
And what kind of action is God taking? Well, he’s sending his word.
That phrase we just read, “came the word of the Lord” occurs 222 times in the Old Testament. The first time it occurs in Scripture is in Genesis 15 regarding Abraham after he had defeated the kings to recover his nephew Lot and right before God made a covenant with him. But the majority of the uses of this phrase occurs in the books of Jeremiah and Ezekiel – one, a prophet to Judah before the exile and the other, a prophet during the exile.
And now Zechariah comes on the scene and he uses this same exact phrase that had been in use for so many centuries. He utters this phrase 9 times – all in chapters 1-8. The Lord’s word is coming to him just like it did to Abraham so many centuries before and just like it came to the prophets of old – before and during the exile.
What is Zechariah 1 About? "unto Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, the son of Iddo the prophet"
And as we know, the Lord’s word came to this man named Zechariah, after whom this book is named.
He’s identified as the son of Berechiah – who is himself the son of a man named Iddo.
Now, there are several Zechariahs mentioned in Scripture:
- There was a Zechariah who was a king of Northern Israel and Jeroboam’s son.
- Zechariah was the name of the grandfather of the Judean king Hezekiah.
- There was a Levitical gatekeeper by this same name.
- There was a Zechariah in the family of king Saul of Israel.
- There was a harpist by this name who rejoiced at the coming of the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem.
- Zechariah was the name of someone sent by king Jehoshaphat to teach people God’s word.
- In the times of king Joash, there was a prophet by this name who proclaimed to the people the evils of their apostasy. This Zechariah is likely the one that Jesus mentions in the New Testament as having been killed between the altar and the temple.
- There was also a Zechariah who returned with Ezra the priest.
- There was a Zechariah who pledged to put away his foreign wife under the ministry of Ezra.
- And there are several others actually – both in the Old and New Testaments!
So, while there are many references to Zechariah in the Scripture, there’s of course only one post-exilic prophet Zechariah whose writings have been preserved for us.
This Zechariah – as we mentioned – is said to be the son of Berechiah, the son of Iddo.
By the way, it’s Zechariah who is the prophet – not Iddo. Sometimes that’s difficult to understand by a simple reading of the KJV. Zechariah is the prophet, whatever else Iddo may have happened to be.
Now, there’s a reference in Nehemiah 12:16 to a Zechariah who is the head of the household of Iddo. And these two men were priests. So, if this is the Zechariah who is mentioned in this book, then Zechariah is both a priest and a prophet.
Now, in Ezra, this Zechariah the prophet is mentioned twice. And in both cases he’s said to be the son of Iddo – with no mention of Berechiah. We can surmise any number of reasons as to why that is. But it isn’t unusual for grandsons to be referred to as “sons” of their grandfathers in the Old Testament.
Anyway, that’s the man – the prophet whose prophesies we’ll be studying.
What is Zechariah 1 About? Verse 2
So, now that we’re done with the introduction to this section, let’s get into the first message that God has for this prophet to proclaim to his fellow countrymen. And it’s a message of past judgement.
2 The LORD [hath been sore displeased/was very angry] with your [fathers/ancestors/forefathers].
Now, we’ve noted that this book is one that is filled with encouragement. But that’s not what we find in verse 2.
The message in verse 2 reminds the people of God’s great anger against their ancestors. Literally, in the Hebrew the verse starts with the verb form of “to be angry” and ends with the corresponding noun form. So, mechanically the word order goes like this: “ANGRY was Yahweh against your fathers ANGER.”
And I suppose that someone who is new to the Bible – and especially the Old Testament – might wonder why God was so angry. And the Lord will explain that in just a little while.
But certainly, the cause of God’s anger – and the reality of the results that God’s anger produced in the lives of their ancestors would have been obvious to the Jews of Zechariah’s time. They had – after all – just returned from exile in Babylon. And the main force behind that even happening was God’s very real and just anger.
What is Zechariah 1 About? Verse 3
But that’s not how things need to be for these people that Zechariah is now addressing – for the ancestors of those former Jews upon whom God’s anger was poured out. No – God wants to give these new Jews another chance.
3 Therefore say thou unto [them/the people],
Thus [saith/says] the LORD [of hosts/who rules over all/Almighty];
[Turn ye/Return/Turn] [unto/to] me, [saith/declares] the LORD [of hosts/who rules over all/Almighty],
[and/that] I [will/may] [turn/return] [unto/to] you, saith the LORD [of hosts/who rules over all/Almighty].
What is Zechariah 1 About? "saith the LORD of hosts"
Now, notice the authority that comes with this message of hope in verse 3. Did you catch how many times we’re told that this message comes directly from the Lord? He states that truth emphatically three times. That assurance – that this message is exactly what the Lord wants them to hear – it makes up the majority of the words in this verse.
And really, it starts sounding rather redundant in English. And even though in Hebrew there are two different words the Lord uses to say the word, “says” … yet, the redundancy would have been noticeable even to the original Hebrew audience. My point is that the unusual repetition here is not just an abnormality that’s created by translation from one language into another.
No – the Lord wants to make sure that these people know who is speaking this command. It’s the Lord – the God of the Hebrews – the God whose temple they’re supposed to be building – the God who cared enough about their ancestors to be angry with them and deal with their sin. This is their God speaking.
What is Zechariah 1 About? "Therefore say thou unto them"
And he’s speaking to “them.” Zechariah is commanded to give this message to “them.”
Who’s that? The fathers that God has been angry with?
No – it’s the people who were contemporaries of Zechariah.
What is Zechariah 1 About? "Turn ye unto me and I will turn unto you"
And the message is super simple. Really, when you cut out all the supporting words like “thus saith the Lord of hosts” the message is four words in Hebrew. Ten words in the KJV. It’s simple!
This is it. Return to me. And I return to you.
The Jews had departed. They had gone astray. And I think it’s important to note what they departed and went astray from.
Because God isn’t accusing them of leaving a creed. He wasn’t charging them with turning from a religious system. Those things might be in view. But the main object which they left wasn’t a thing. It was a person. It was the Lord. Their God.
And therefore, it’s not some creed or system or regimen that the Lord is commanding that these people return to – but rather they must return to him. The idea of the religion of the Bible really boiling down to a relationship with God is not unique to the New Testament. It’s right here even in the Old Testament.
And so, that’s the message for all of us as well. This is what God wants us to do as often as we find ourselves straying from him. We need to return… to him! When you are distant from God, the ultimate answer isn’t engagement in church programs or any other sort of external religious exercise. Those things are fine and good in their place. But they’re ineffective in facilitating your return to a person – to the God who loves you.
Picture how ineffective this is in human relations. If you have personally offended a fellow human in a very grievous way, will showing up to his house to shovel his driveway or wash his car – will that just immediately and magically mend all of your issues with that person? No, you need to actually talk to that person and restore the relationship before you do anything for him.
And that’s what God prescribes for his people the Jews. Return – not to stuff and actions – but to a person – to me.
And so, as we’ve noted now many times, the commanded action is that the Jews turn. This action indicates a rejection of their own ways and an embracing of the one true God and his desires and his work in the earth.
And that second line that promises that the Lord will turn and fully embrace these people is related to the first line (that the people would turn to God) in the sense that it’s a promise. If the people turn to God he promises to turn to them. There’s no possibility that they will turn to him just to have their embracing him met with coldness by the Lord toward his people. It’s a promise – “if you turn, I will turn as well.”
And the attendant idea is that God is very willing to do this. No one is twisting his arm. He’s ready and willing and waiting to be reconciled to his people.
What is Zechariah 1 About? Verse 4
Well, the Lord had made similar statements to the ancestors of these people with little result. And therefore, the Lord reminds them of this fact and warns these Jews not to act like their ancestors in this regard.
4 [Be ye not as/Do not be like] your [fathers/ancestors/forefathers],
[unto/to] whom the [former/earlier] prophets [have cried/proclaimed/called out], saying,
Thus [saith/says] the LORD [of hosts/who rules over all/Almighty];
[Turn ye/Return] now from your evil [ways,
and from your evil doings/wickedness/ways and your evil practices]:
but they [did/would] not [hear/listen],
[nor/or] [hearken unto/give heed to/pay attention to] me, [i.e., they would by no means obey me...]
[saith/declares/says] the LORD.
What is Zechariah 1 About? "Turn ye now"
So, notice that the message that God sent to these people’s ancestors was basically the same as the message he is giving them now. The message to God’s covenant people, the Jews, had been the same for centuries. “Turn!” or “Return!” or “Come back!
What is Zechariah 1 About? "from your evil ways, and from your evil doings"
The pre-exilic Jews were on the wrong “path” – which is another way to translate the word “ways” in the KJV. That’s referring to a road or path that you would walk down. The problem with the metaphorical path that these people were on was that it was characterized by the moral quality of “evil.”
And unsurprisingly while these pre-exilic Jews were on this road of evilness, they were doing things that matched the morality of that road. The people were engaged in “evil doings.”
And yet, despite the wickedness that these people were involved in and how offensive this all was to the Lord, yet he held out to them the possibility of turning from those things and returning to him.
What is Zechariah 1 About? "but they did not hear, nor hearken unto me"
But what was the response of the Jews before the exile to God’s gracious call to them? Well – they didn’t turn. They didn’t even hear or listen! They paid no attention whatsoever to God’s gracious call.
They acted as if there would never be any fallout from their disobedience to the Lord of hosts – the Lord of armies – who commands those armies of heaven.
What is Zechariah 1 About? Verse 5
But there was indeed fallout. And that’s what the Lord reminds the children and grandchildren of these disobedient pre-exilic Jews now through Zechariah.
5 [i.e., as for...] Your [fathers/ancestors/forefathers], where are they?
and the prophets, [do/did] they live for ever?
What is Zechariah 1 About? "Your fathers, where are they?"
Now, God is gracious here in the brevity of his statements in this verse.
God could have called to mind the horrors that the pre-exilic Jews faced as a result of their disobedience. Their land was invaded by terrifying armies. Their cities were destroyed. Their homes burned. Their temple burned to the ground. This once-free people had become slaves. This people who had been the object of God’s favor had become the objects of his wrath. They were mocked and taunted in captivity. They were placed in compromising humiliating situations. They were targeted for mass extermination – think of the story in Esther with Haman and his plot to murder all the Jews.
So, God could have mentioned all of that and much more to get this new generation of Jews to listen to his call to turn to him. But he doesn’t. Instead, the Lord just asks a simple question. “Where are your fathers? Your ancestors? Where are they?”
And of course, to a thoughtful attentive Jew, they would have gone through in their minds all that I had mentioned. They didn’t need to be reminded of details. They knew very well what happened as a result of their ancestors’ disobedience.
And so, we see that God asks them what happened to their ancestors. Well, they suffered for their disobedience.
What is Zechariah 1 About? "and the prophets, do they live for ever?"
But what about the next group that the Lord mentions? The prophets. Why does the Lord mention them?
Well, in my mind, the key is to identify which prophets God is referring to.
Choice #1 is that these prophets that God references as not living forever is a subgroup of the larger group of prophets – these then are the false prophets. The Old Testament doesn’t seem to have a word or phrase like we do in English or in biblical Greek that designates a false prophet as opposed to a true prophet. A false prophet in the Old Testament is simply referred to as a prophet.
So, perhaps God is here referring to the false prophets – so many of whom were telling the pre-exilic Jews that they were safe. No reason to fear what those other prophets were warning regarding God being angry and wanting them to turn from their sins and back to God. No reason to fear an invasion by Babylon. And sometimes these false prophets would get really spiritual and argue this way – the Lord’s temple is in Jerusalem and therefore there is no way that he will let his temple be destroyed. I mean, it’s his temple!!!
But despite what these people claimed, God is now able to look back upon them and ask for rhetorical effect, where are those guys who said there’s no danger and that God isn’t angry?
So, that’s the first choice regarding who these prophets are that God mentions in verse 5.
The second choice is that these prophets that God is referring to are all the prophets, good and bad – but with a primary focus on the good ones. In this case, God is saying that yes, the pre-exilic disobedient Jews are gone. They were dealt with for their disobedience. And yet, it’s not just disobedience that causes the passing of a generation. Even the prophets – even the good ones – they pass on just like everyone else.
But why would God say that? Why would he mention that even the good prophets passed away?
What is Zechariah 1 About? Verse 6
It’s because in verse 6, God ends this first message through Zechariah by pointing to a great contrast. The rebels died and are gone. Even the prophets – good and bad – died and are gone. But on the other hand, you have God’s unchangeable, unshakeable words.
6 But my words and my [statutes/decrees], which I commanded my servants the prophets, did they not [take hold of/overtake/outlive] your [fathers/ancestors/forefathers]?
[and/then] they [returned/repented/paid attention] and [said/confessed],
Like as the LORD [of hosts/who rules over all/Almighty] [thought to/purposed to/said he would/determined to] do unto us,
according to our ways,
and according to our [doings/deeds], [i.e., because of our sinful ways or what our ways and practices deserve]
[so hath/indeed] he dealt with us.
What is Zechariah 1 About? "my servants the prophets"
So, note first that the prophets are simply servants of the Lord. The word they give – the good ones, at least – is the Lord’s and not their own. They’re simply messengers of the sovereign Lord.
What is Zechariah 1 About? "did … my words … not take hold of your fathers?"
And so, God’s words – spoken through his prophets – took hold of the pre-exilic Jews. “Took hold of” is a term that evokes images of hunting. It’s as if God’s words of judgement had hunted the Jews until they caught them – as in, when they were exiled.
- That word that’s translated as “take hold of” is also used of Laban when he caught up to and overtook Jacob when Jacob was fleeing his crooked father-in-law.
- This is the word used of Joseph’s Egyptian henchmen and their pursuing and overtaking Joseph’s brothers as they left Egypt with money in their sacks that they were unaware of.
- Or when Pharaoh sent his army out after the Jews who left Egypt in the Exodus.
We could go on and on as this word occurs 50 times in the Old Testament. But suffice it to say that God is using a very picturesque word – one that involves hunting and pursuing and catching.
OK, so God mentions that his word overtook the Jews of old. Well, what words is God speaking of as overtaking them? Does he have any subset of all of the things that God has ever said in particular in mind? I think we do.
There’s another very important context in which the word we have translated here as “take hold of” is used. And that’s at the end of Deuteronomy. That’s where God moves Moses to remind the people of the covenant that he made with them – which is encapsulated in the Ten Commandments. At the end of Deuteronomy there are three times in which this word is used. You can turn there or just listen to these verses as I read them.
KJV Deuteronomy 28:2 And all these blessings shall come on thee, and overtake thee, if thou shalt hearken unto the voice of the LORD thy God.
OK, so there’s a promise to Israel. Obey the Lord and you will be amazingly blessed! In fact, it’s as if the blessing from God will pursue you like an eager and zealous army! That’s what Israel was promised by God for obedience to God’s words.
But then there has to be some repercussion if they disobey. And so, the Lord says just about the same thing again – but now he’s not talking about obedience and blessing. Rather, he’s going to address what happens when the people disobey a few verses later in Deuteronomy 28:15.
KJV Deuteronomy 28:15 ¶ But it shall come to pass, if thou wilt not hearken unto the voice of the LORD thy God, to observe to do all his commandments and his statutes which I command thee this day; that all these curses shall come upon thee, and overtake thee:
And it gets even worse, as the Lord uses this word one more time a few verses later in verse 45.
KJV Deuteronomy 28:45 Moreover all these curses shall come upon thee, and shall pursue thee, and overtake thee, till thou be destroyed; because thou hearkenedst not unto the voice of the LORD thy God, to keep his commandments and his statutes which he commanded thee:
And this is the special context that is in the Lord’s mind as he speaks through Zechariah. God had told the ancestors of the Jews of Zechariah’s day that obedience will result in unimaginable blessing! But disobedience will eventually result in curses that would be just as unimaginable.
And so it happened – disobedience to God’s words in the covenant he made with them finally resulted in exile for those people. And now, the Lord reminds the Jews that he kept his word.
What is Zechariah 1 About? "and they returned"
That much is clear. But it’s at that point where we are thrown a bit of a curve ball as we attempt to interpret the rest of verse 6.
I don’t know who you might think the “they” is referring to. There are two options.
Either “they” is referring to the Jews who went into exile. Or “they” refers to those post-exilic Jews who were listening to Zechariah.
And what makes it really difficult is that there is no final, “Thus says the Lord” to finish off the thought.
So, if “they” is referring to the Jews who went into exile, then the Lord is saying that those people acknowledged their sin in Babylon and they returned to the Lord in their hearts.
But, if “they” is referring to the Jews who were listening to Zechariah’s message then it’s saying that as they were listening to Zechariah’s reminder to them of their ancestors unfaithfulness, they themselves acknowledged that unfaithfulness – in addition to their own unfaithfulness in terms of refusing to rebuild the temple – and they repented and acknowledged that God is right and that they and their people have been wrong. And so, Zechariah is just reporting what happened as a result of his first prophesy to them.
Honestly, I think it’s something of a toss-up as to the identification of “they.” Most commentators seem to take it as the Jews of Zechariah’s day. And I personally like that interpretation.
That seems to go along with the generally very positive and hopeful tone of this whole book. It also allows God to move on from this opening oracle of past judgement to now him being able to work with a people who have actually repented and paid attention to his message. Plus, this goes along with what we hear about in Ezra and Nehemiah where the people do God’s will and finish building the temple under the leadership of Zechariah and Haggai and Joshua and Zerubbabel.
So, can you picture the difference then between what the former prophets and Zechariah faced when they proclaimed God’s word to his people? Jeremiah and all the others were ignored or persecuted or even killed. But Zechariah gives this super-simple message – “turn and I will turn, says the Lord” and all of a sudden the people do exactly what God says! They turn! They acknowledge God’s righteous judgments of times past. This is amazing!
But it shouldn’t be. This is after all the right thing to do. When God speaks, his people ought to listen and respond.
And so, these Jews who heard Zechariah’s message are an example for us. As we hear God’s word, is it our practice to ignore it? Is it our practice to flare up against it, even, and attack the one who’s giving us that word? Or is our response a humble and quick accepting of God’s demands?
That response is the only one that will receive God’s encouragement and hope. So, may the Lord help us to be like these Jews in hearing and promptly obeying God’s word.