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Posts Tagged ‘Zechariah’

The scent of impossibility lingers about YHWH’s most improbable achievements until the moment that they have become real in space and time, have become history, have become redemptive fact on the ground.

The prophetic book of Zechariah aligns with its larger cousin Isaiah in anticipating YHWH’s rescue of long-exiled Judah and his return of his bereft sons and daughters to the land that they believed to have slipped their grip forever.

Zechariah and Isaiah also envision the leveling of the insurmountable topography that—metaphorically speaking—stands between exile in Babylon and anything worthy of the label ‘Return’. Yet Zechariah goes beyond the familiar declaration that steep climbs and dark descents shall become for these home-bound travelers a level path. He allows himself to taunt the ‘great mountain’ that lies between exile and promise, between loss and recovery, between the death of a dream and its realization.

Narrating his encounter with an angelic messenger, the prophet writes:

Then he said to me, ‘This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts. Who are you, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel you shall become a plain. And he shall bring forward the top stone amid shouts of ‘Grace, grace to it!’.”‘ (Zechariah 4:6–7 ESV)

Zerubbabel numbers among a select group of Judahite leaders who will find themselves the human agents of YHWH’s stubborn determination to look again upon his bereft Jerusalem and show her consoling mercies. His must have seemed a daunting task, indeed an impossibility shot through with potential for both catastrophe and shame.

Thus the angel’s encouragement, now become a prophet’s message.

The first part of this ‘word of the Lord to Zerubbabel’ is often quoted, and for good reason. The rhetorical taunt of the great mountain that follows is not.

Yet it manifests exquisitely the emerging confidence of a prophet that this thing shall be. That it has become YHWH’s purpose and therefore shall go forward, shall stand, unstoppable.

This confidence must have strengthened Zerubbabel-lian weak knees.

Who are you, O great mountain? You shall become a plain.

Indeed, the cry reverberates still, and strengthens the weak knees of us who know almost nothing of this strange-named Zerubbabel.

Before impossibilities, great mountains loom. But who are you, O great mountain?

When what was impossible has just now become a fact that we will tell to our grandchildren, we learn—slowly, if surely—to whisper to ourselves yet another word with Zecharian pedigree: ‘Grace, grace to it!’

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The twelfth chapter of the book of Zechariah is timid about neither the Zion-centered nationalism that it celebrates nor the corresponding defanging of the nations that besiege Jerusalem ‘in that day’. To the contrary, the Lord announces through his prophet that he will make Jerusalem ‘a cup that sends all the surrounding peoples reeling’. Then, via the extravagant mixing of metaphors that is characteristic of the genre, the Lord ‘will make Jerusalem an immovable rock for all the nations. All who try to move it will injure themselves.’

The harassed Judahite city will become the Archimedean point that cannot be shifted while its attackers are levered violently this way and that, their former belligerence reduced suddenly to drunken impotence. (more…)

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The medium-sized prophetic book of Zechariah seems long among the twelve ‘minor prophets’. It ends with an idiosyncratic take on a sturdy prophetic theme: the destiny of the nations in YHWH’s plan.

As with the other prophetic books that touch upon this theme, the nations’ prospects appear to the modern reader’s eyes and tastes to be decidedly mixed.

Then all who survive of the nations that have come against Jerusalem shall go up year after year to worship the King, the LORD of hosts, and to keep the festival of booths. If any of the families of the earth do not go up to Jerusalem to worship the King, the LORD of hosts, there will be no rain upon them. And if the family of Egypt do not go up and present themselves, then on them shall come the plague that the LORD inflicts on the nations that do not go up to keep the festival of booths. Such shall be the punishment of Egypt and the punishment of all the nations that do not go up to keep the festival of booths. (Zechariah 14:16–19 NRSV)

First, the stock of those nations that comes here under consideration is a remnant of those peoples that have lately made war against YHWH and his city.

Yet these are offered a stunning fate: they are to make annual pilgrimage to that Zion which they had intended to obliterate, there to participate as though they were YHWH’s own Jewish people in the ‘festival of booths’.

The festival of booths is known alternatively as Sukkoth or tabernacles. A harvest festival, booths becomes in the biblical transformation of the agricultural cycle into a rhythm that celebrates YHWH’s great redemptive feats a commemoration of the forty years of Israelite wanderings in the desert prior to their ‘inheritance’ of the land that had YHWH had promised to them. Though the people experienced the frailty and predicament of nomadic aliens, YHWH’s provision got them through.

Against this backdrop, Zechariah’s vision of a YHWH-day when old distinctions will be broken down and forgotten, is quite astonishing. YHWH’s, Israel’s, and Zion’s worst enemies are, in a matter of speaking, invited into the family as kin and invited to cut the Thanksgiving turkey.

If there is a most unanticipated carrot for this privileged residue of the world’s great and arrogant powers, there is also a stick. YHWH will withhold the earth’s blessing to those who do not make annual pilgrimage, those who survive the YHWH-storm but for reasons of rebellion, ingratitude, or neglect choose not to belong.

We modern and post-modern readers may stumble here over our axiomatic conviction that matters of faith and religion are above all else matters private, voluntary, and of the heart. The Bible rarely entertains such a conceit and so is unlikely to soothe our bruised aesthetics on this count.

In Zechariah’s prophetic vision, several of the otherwise indelible fractures of human experience are broken down as YHWH has his way, unimpeded, with his world.

The old, normal, and troubling distinction between secular and sacred goes the way of all flesh. Zechariah trusts his readers to rejoice at this.

A wounded Egyptian, helped along towards Jerusalem by daughters and sons who never fully understood the depth of his former rage, shuffles bright-faced to Zion. Together—within earshot of cousins bantering the way holiday-makers do, in Hebrew—they build a booth.

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The end of the image-filled, enigmatic, apocalyptic biblical book of Revelation is replete with urgency.

The text interconnects two matters in order to create this impression. On the one hand, Jesus promises to ‘come’ soon. On the other, by invitation and by direct speech the imagined beneficiaries of his promised arrival agree that his schedule is the appropriate one.

At some length the passage reads as follows:

‘See, I am coming soon! Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book.’

I, John, am the one who heard and saw these things. And when I heard and saw them, I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who showed them to me; but he said to me, ‘You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your comrades the prophets, and with those who keep the words of this book. Worship God!’

And he said to me, ‘Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near. Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy.’

‘See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone’s work. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.’

Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates. Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.

‘It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.’ The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.

I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book; if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away that person’s share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.

The one who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! (Revelation 22:7–20 NRSV)

Christian readers have for centuries been required to wrestle with the twin realities of Jesus’ promises to come soon and the evident sense of delay as twenty centuries have come and gone. Such hermeneutical and indeed existential challenge ought not to be glibly evaded.

Yet what strikes one in this passage today is not that difficult conundrum but rather the mutuality of the coming that is addressed. Jesus promises to come to those who live in the distressed earth whose fate has been addressed in the chapters of this book. Yet John’s visionary text also invites ‘those who are thirsty’ to come to the waters of life that have been introduced early in the chapter.

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations …

The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’
And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift
.

The encounter that comes into view is not so much a unilateral arrival as a meeting in Jerusalem Descended.

And then, more obviously, the text has its protagonists virtually cry out in invitation to the one who has promised to come quickly that he should indeed come quickly, as promised!

If the bride is by already developed imagery the bride of this coming one, it is perhaps more surprising that the Spirit—in the Johannine literature necessarily the Spirit of Jesus and of God himself—should also audibly agree with Jesus’ promise.

With such details, the text almost viscerally anticipates Jesus’ presence on the scene. More, it longs for him to appear, to participate, to do his comforting work and to receive a grateful people’s praise.

Unfortunate eschatologies that imagine a whisking away of God’s chosen to another place so that this world might burn have lost their way with the text, opting instead for supra-biblical systems with their own coherence but little organic connection with the book from which they claim to derive.

Instead, Revelation has—with ample biblical precedent—all things becoming new, Jerusalem Descending, a world become what it must be but has heretofore failed ingloriously to become.

Those who have suffered most the deep rift between purpose and promise, on the one hand, and fractured, pained reality on the other, are best poised to lean with anticipation into this imagined future and whisper or shout ‘Come!’ with hoarse throats burned dry by the heat of unholy fire. It is they who lap thirstily the waters of life, finding the relief in its coolness to form the words ‘Come, Lord Jesus!’ on refreshed lips before dipping their faces to gulp again.

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The biblical prophets Isaiah and Micah avail us of the familiar motif of many Jewish nations eagerly flowing up to Jerusalem to learn how to live by virtue of the instruction meted out there by ‘Jacob’s God’. The two offer strikingly similar variants on this theme.

The post-exilic prophet Zechariah plays upon a related note. Deploying his prophetic burden in the context of the establishment of a Jewish commonwealth in Jerusalem and its environs after the furnace of the Exile has finally been unlocked, Zechariah seems often to be required to lift the spirits of dispirited returnees. Back in Babylon, the drama of return and restoration had fired their ambitions. The mud and dust of Zion’s ruins pressed hard against such dramatic vision. More than once the partisans of Return must have wondered what they were thinking and whether the Jewish community back in the Empire’s stultifying if predictable center might have been for them a far better lot than this.

Indeed, some might have felt themselves to have become the laughingstock of multiple audiences. Against such headwinds of communal depression, Zechariah’s prophetic imagination contemplates a far different—indeed, an enviable—identity for the practitioners of restoration.

Thus says the LORD of hosts: Peoples shall yet come, the inhabitants of many cities; the inhabitants of one city shall go to another, saying, ‘Come, let us go to entreat the favor of the LORD, and to seek the LORD of hosts; I myself am going.’ Many peoples and strong nations shall come to seek the LORD of hosts in Jerusalem, and to entreat the favor of the LORD. Thus says the LORD of hosts: In those days ten men from nations of every language shall take hold of a Jew, grasping his garment and saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.’ (Zechariah 8:20–23 NRSV)

Readers who find in the biblical literature a pregnant capacity for bearing life and meaning beyond the immediate context of its inscription will read Zechariah’s vision in line with the Zion-centric and nation-blessing images of Isaiah and Micah. Yet Zechariah paints from a palette that contains colors beyond those employed by his prophetic compeers. They glimpsed Jacob’s God offering life-orienting instruction to many peoples and nations, even calming their mutually destructive madness via his irreproachable judgments. Zechariah adds the detail of the favor enjoyed by those who have been the very daughters and sons of the Hebrew deity.

In the moment of YHWH’s exaltation as Lord of lord and King of kings, the Jew—bound to him by covenant through centuries of privilege and depravation—becomes the agent, even the personal representative of this God to the nations who have become hungry seekers of his blessing.

One might surmise that Zechariah was dreaming, a species of religious fantasizer whom Jews, Judaism, and their Christian cousins have come in time to resent and even to fear.

Yet millennia hence, on Christmas Day, it is not difficult for a Christian reader of this Hebrew prophet to look about him at a global celebration of Bethlehem’s child and marvel at the precision of Zechariah’s foresight.

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To judge by the diverse biblical material that speaks of the restoration of a Jewish presence in post-exilic Judah, the project required enormous tenacity. Rebuilding projects usually do. Because we hold the template of the past in our minds and because we knew that past as a fact on the ground rather than a work in progress, we underestimate what achieving it again will cost.

Restoration is not for the faint of heart.

The romance of the notion may inspire at the outset but it fails to sustain the long effort required.

When the Jewish returnees have finally erected their temple, it doesn’t hold a candle to its Solomonic predecessor. The newbies, perhaps, dance for joy at what appears to be its fabulous novelty, eyes moist with the emotion of it. Yet those who bear memories of what once was shed tears of nostalgia, perhaps even of disappointment.

The biblical book of Zechariah has an encouraging word for those whose memories stubbornly constrain their hope:

For whoever has despised the day of small things shall rejoice, and shall see the plummet in the hand of Zerubbabel.

Restoration requires getting started. It demands a capacity for glimpsing a better future in the modest successes that are all the harvest that re-initiators are likely to reap.

‘To despise the day of small things’ is understandable, for one has known better. Yet it is not enough.

One must scan the new-built walls for traces of eventual glory.

This, too, is a spiritual discipline.

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The book of Zechariah ends with a Jerusalemite flourish. YHWH sees off the agglomeration of nations that besiege the city, unending feasting is established as the soup du jour inside the walls, and the peoples of the world schedule their vacations—admittedly under some compulsion—so that they can join the noise.

In the process a long-standing priestly imperative is undermined. An important feature of the biblical plot line underscores the lethal danger that living in close quarters with a holy God entails for Israel. The priestly legislation is aimed in part at establishing and then carefully maintaining the equilibrium that is required if the people are to survive YHWH’s company. Careful distinctions, not least between what is holy and what is mundane, contribute to this blessed status quo and are maintained against the rage that might ensue if YHWH’s proximity were to be met with casual indifference. (more…)

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