For about two decades now, I have been engaged in a wrestling match with the enigmatic book of Zechariah. It has often felt like a losing battle. I call Zechariah “enigmatic” because this book is notorious for its obscurity, and has been the despair of many would-be commentary writers before me. In my more macabre moments I point out to my friends that a half-dozen interpreters down through the centuries never lived to complete their commentaries, beginning with Origen in the third century.
For about two decades now, I have been engaged in a wrestling match with the enigmatic book of Zechariah. It has often felt like a losing battle. I call Zechariah “enigmatic” because this book is notorious for its obscurity, and has been the despair of many would-be commentary writers before me. In my more macabre moments I point out to my friends that a half-dozen interpreters down through the centuries never lived to complete their commentaries, beginning with Origen in the third century. Nevertheless I welcome this opportunity to say a few things about the relevance of this biblical book for the “city of man,” understanding that term to refer to what is sometimes called “the public square.”
To say that the book of Zechariah is obscure is not to say that it is not crystal clear about some of the main points of his message, such as the sovereignty and seriousness of God and the hopeful future that awaits those who put their trust in him. Nor is there anything ambiguous or unclear about the fact that this God claims all of life for his service (not just the worship service in the temple), and that those who “fear” him—that is, stand in awe of him as their covenant Partner—are called to serve across the whole spectrum of human life.
This is hardly surprising, because Zechariah was an Old Testament prophet, and like his fellow prophets, assumed the validity of the Torah—God’s legislation mediated to Israel by Moses— which gave divine instruction on a wide range of human affairs, including economic, social, juridical, and political ones. Over and over again, the prophets called Israel back to observe the Torah, and linked their trials to their failure to do so. Zechariah, one of the latest in the succession of Israel’s prophets, was no exception. He was uncompromising in his demand for social justice:
This is what the LORD Almighty says: Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion for one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor. In your hearts do not think evil of each other. (Zechariah 7:9-10)
But Israel had deliberately ignored this appeal. Again, Zechariah does not mince words:
But they refused to pay attention; stubbornly they turned their backs and stopped up their ears. They made their hearts as hard as flint and would not listen to the law [torah] or to the words that the LORD Almighty had sent by his Spirit through the earlier prophets. So the LORD Almighty was very angry. (Zechariah 7:11-12)
One of the most dramatic and horrifying results of God’s anger was the Babylonian exile, from which a number of God’s people had recently returned in Zechariah’s day. Like the other prophets, Zechariah was very explicit about linking the exile (and the earlier virtual annihilation of the northern kingdom) to the people’s failure to live by the Torah, notably to protect and care for the most vulnerable in society. It is this concern for the most vulnerable, specifically the widows, orphans, resident aliens, and the poor, which is one of the hallmarks of the Old Testament vision of social justice as embodied in the Torah and repeatedly echoed by the prophets. In his recent book, Justice: Rights and Wrongs, Nicholas Wolterstorff emphasizes this feature of the biblical notion of justice, and points out that the just-quoted passage from Zechariah is the only place where all four of these often-mentioned categories of the vulnerable in society are mentioned together.
The few verses I have quoted come from the middle section of Zechariah, which consists of chapters 7 and 8. These chapters are the most explicit and straightforward in Zechariah about God’s demand for justice for all levels of society, especially the socially and economically weak. These two chapters are quite accessible and richly repay an attentive reading. Among other things, they also include this following gem of a picture of what God wants the city of man to look like:
This is what the LORD Almighty says: “Once again men and women of ripe old age will sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with cane in hand because of his age. The city streets will be filled with boys and girls playing there.” (Zechariah 8:4-5)
The elderly and the young here stand as bookends for the whole population of the eschatological city, quite literally the “public square” as the prophet envisioned it, with the old taking their ease in peace and tranquillity and the young active and noisy (to play and to laugh is the same thing in Hebrew) as they play their games in safety on the city streets. (Incidentally, the mention of “men and women,” “boys and girls,” in the NIV is not due to a modern editor’s concern to make the Bible more palatable to modern sensibilities— it faithfully reflects the Hebrew at this point.)
But this central section of Zechariah is flanked by two others: chapters 1-6, which are dominated by the eight “night visions” which the prophet receives, and chapters 9-14, which speak mainly of the future trials and triumphs of the nations of the world, especially of God’s own people. Let me single out two passages from these two outer panels of the book to further illustrate the theme of Zechariah’s relevance to the public square.
The eight night visions of Zechariah are a series of phantasmagoric, dream-like scenes which the prophet saw on a single, exactly dated, night—as it happens, on the night of Valentine’s Day 2,530 years ago this year. In quick succession the prophet is shown the following: mounted scouts who report on a global reconnaissance mission, four horns which are destroyed by four workmen, a surveyor who is prevented from measuring the dimensions of Jerusalem, the high priest Joshua who is re-clothed in clean garments, a menorah which is fed from two adjacent olive trees, a flying curse-scroll which destroys the homes of sinners, a woman called Wickedness who is flown to Babylon, and four spirit-chariots that go out from the presence of God. Like dreams, they are often bizarre, surrealistic, and hard to interpret.
But consider vision six. Zechariah sees a billboard-sized flying scroll that is identified simply as “the curse,” directed against thieves and perjurers, whose homes it will enter and destroy. The Hebrew is desperately difficult in parts, but the overall picture is clear and arresting. In my own translation the prophet’s first-person account reads as follows:
And again I looked up, and what should I see but a flying scroll! And he said to me, “What do you see?” And I answered, “I see a flying scroll, twenty cubits long and ten cubits wide.” Then he said to me, “This is the curse that is going out over the whole land, for everyone who steals has gone unpunished for this—just like that! And everyone who swears has gone unpunished for this—just like that! I have brought the scroll forth—declaration of the LORD of armies—and it will enter the house of him who steals and the house of him who swears by my name falsely, and it will stay overnight in his house and destroy it, timber and stone.” (Zechariah 5:1-4)
This outsize magic carpet of a scroll, possibly containing writing specifying the covenant sanctions against violators of the Torah, does a strange thing. Like a smart bomb in modern warfare, it targets the houses of specific offenders and manages (despite its size) to enter them. (Through the chimney? Through a window? We are not told.) Apparently it enters unobserved and spends the night in the sinner’s house, postponing its detonation like a ticking bomb. Then finally it unleashes it destructive force, apparently blowing up the house it has targeted, and destroying it lock, stock, and barrel.
Despite the obscurity of details, the message is uncomfortably clear. God demands fair dealing in economic exchanges and integrity in judicial testimony, and he is prepared to exact a terrible punishment if his demands are ignored. The covenant curses of the book of Deuteronomy are real and terrible. But at the same time there is the hint of something else—something that we might not have expected from those Deuteronomic curses. The flying curse-scroll enters the house and “spends the night” there before wreaking destruction. The smart bomb seems to have a built-in delayed action mechanism. Could this be a hint of God’s patience, of his willingness to give a second chance to the thief and the perjurer? Zechariah does not tell us, but we are free to draw that conclusion in the light of what the Bible as a whole tells us about his patience and long-suffering, and his willingness to forgive. Perhaps this detail also reminds us that the consequences of covenant disobedience may be a long time in coming, that a secularizing society may for some considerable time enjoy the fruits of the leavening power of the gospel before it disintegrates. The vision invites us to ponder implications like this in the light of both the canonical witness as a whole and the lessons of history.
We pass over the other night visions, skip the middle section we have already briefly discussed, and turn our attention to the concluding panel of the book of Zechariah, with its kaleidoscope of comforting and frightening projections of the future. In this third panel we pass over the messianic prophecy in chapter 9 which Jesus deliberately enacted on Palm Sunday, we pay no attention to “the thirty pieces of silver” passage in chapter 11 which the New Testament applies to Judas, and we go to the very end of the book of Zechariah for our last example of prophetic light on contemporary Christian responsibility in the public square.
Chapter 14 is another chapter full of fantastic images—of the country around Jerusalem dropping in elevation to the level of the Dead Sea, leaving Jerusalem safe and sound atop a lofty promontory, of the Lord coming down from heaven and creating a deep valley through the Mount of Olives, of nations from all over the world coming to celebrate the feast of Shelters in Jerusalem, and much more. But it ends with these shocking words (again, in my own translation):
On that day there will be on the jingles of the horses: HOLY TO THE LORD, and the pots in the house of the LORD will be like the basins before the altar. And every pot in Jerusalem and in Judah will be holy to the LORD, and all the sacrificers will come and take from them, and will boil [their meat] in them. And there will no longer be any Canaanite in the house of the LORD of armies on that day. (Zechariah 14:20-21)
I call these words “shocking” because they subvert a fundamental feature of Old Testament religion, namely the way the holy is conceived. The Torah presupposed a categorization of the holy and the profane which in many ways ran parallel to that of other religions, with the holy associated with the cult (worship, the priests, sacrifices, the temple), and the profane or “common” associated with the ordinary business of life outside the cult. In fact, the priests of Israel had as part of their job description that they had to teach the people the distinction between the holy and the common (and of course the anti-holy or “abominable”). That distinction underlay the entire structure of Mosaic legislation, as indeed it underlies most religions in general. But here, at the end of the book of Zechariah, there is a glimpse into the future where that distinction will be applied in a completely different way.
HOLY TO THE LORD will be written on the little tinkling strips of metal (not “bells”) worn by horses. The significance of this is that horses, which were unclean animals according to the Torah, and which moreover in the Bible almost always mean warhorses (the ancient equivalent of tanks in modern warfare), were to wear the inscription which according to Moses was reserved for the headdress of the high priest, the central figure of the cult. The category of holy is being expanded to include the common. By the same token it is now no longer exclusively the specially consecrated vessels of the temple which must be used in offering sacrifices, but also the ordinary pots and pans from the kitchens of Jerusalem and its environs. And just as the common things of life can be drawn into the sphere of holiness, so the temple, heretofore the seat of holiness, must expel the “Canaanite” (not “trader”), which is here the symbol of the ethically and religiously unclean.
(Parenthetically, it was Calvin who first understood the point about the horses bearing the same inscription as the high priest, an interpretation of this verse which is now universally accepted.)
In terms of the phenomenology of religion, what we here see announced at the end of Zechariah represents a kind of Copernican revolution in religious categories. In the future envisaged by the prophet the distinction between holy and profane still holds, but it is now no longer a distinction of spheres or realms which divide human life into a holy area (mainly the temple and its personnel and accoutrements) as distinct from a profane area (the non-cultic), which in practice embraces most of life. Instead, it is now a distinction of religious direction which pervades every area of life.
The future reality which Zechariah glimpsed became a reality in the New Testament. The category of holiness is expanded to include all people and all areas. The holy person or “saint” is no longer just the priest, but every believer. Sacrifice is no longer the offering of specially consecrated animals, but of living human beings in the integrality of their lives. (See the beginning of Romans 12.) The temple is no longer a building but a community. Incense is no longer a physical cultic offering, but the prayers of the saints.
What does this have to do with the public square? Simply everything. The concern for justice and sound public policy is a concern for holiness in this area of human endeavour. The city of man is meant to become the city of God—not by turning it into a church, but by arranging its civic affairs in a manner which deserves the epithet HOLY TO THE LORD.
In that way it can be proleptically said of the city of man what is said in Zechariah of Jerusalem: It will be called the City of Truth and the Holy Mountain (Zechariah 8:3).