Prisoners of Hope
A Study in the Minor Prophets: Zechariah
November 1, 2002 - The first time I read Zechariah, it seemed confusing and disturbing. Yet the words of Zechariah are quoted or alluded to many times by Jesus and the New Testament authors. They used the prophet's words to understand Jesus' ministry and to describe the Christian life. The book of Revelation and other New Testament books also use many phrases from Zechariah's prophecies of the End Times. Those prophecies helped New Testament authors to live in the tension between fulfilled promises and delayed prophecies.
by Pamela Scalise
Zechariah is a book for people who are waiting, who ask when God's promises will be fulfilled completely, and who long for the time of God's reign. The book addresses people living in peace and people living in wartime. Oppression of God's people may take place in either setting. On any given day the faithful may suffer the despair of being crushed or oppressed, or live in danger of concerted violence. The ability to perceive the reign of God in such circumstances is a gift of grace.
Zechariah 1–8 is set in a period of relative quiet in the Persian provinces. King Darius I kept the peace and a sense of freedom among subject peoples by permitting a measure of autonomy in religious practice. The rebuilding of the house of the Lord in Jerusalem and the reinstallation of priests and Levites are examples of this policy.(1) God could be worshiped in the Temple as long as the sovereignty of the Persian emperor was acknowledged.
Yet in that Temple they were praising the Lord as King: "Say among the nations, 'The Lord is king! The world is firmly established; it shall never be moved. He will judge the peoples with equity.'"(2)
Zechariah's visions reveal other ways of perceiving God's reign in spite of the concrete evidence of the emperor's power. Persian kings sent messengers throughout their realms as their eyes and ears. However, in Zechariah's first vision, the horsemen are gathering information and reporting to God.(3) In the eighth vision the Persian war chariots patrol the earth for "the Lord of all the earth,"(4) not for King Darius. The reports of the visions enable hearers and readers to look at the king's spies and soldiers and see reminders that the Lord reigns over the Persian monarch's realm and beyond it.(5)
Zechariah's situation reminds me of a time in my life 20 years ago when I was part of a small mission church. We rented a ballet studio on Sunday mornings for Bible study and worship. Each week, after the sign was put away, the church was visible only in its members. We had no building and no group influence in the town, but together we knew the reign of God in our lives.
The dates in the book of Zechariah come from the years of Darius' reign. In his fourth year, 518 B.C., a group of pilgrims traveled to Jerusalem with a question about the fulfillment of prophecy.(6) God had promised, however, that Babylon's rule would last only 70 years.(7) Those years had passed, and the Lord had returned to Jerusalem with compassion. Exiles had come back to the land, and the Temple was being rebuilt. Yet the hegemony of foreign kings continued, and the modest restoration had only begun to fulfill the glorious prophecies of the Lord's reign from Jerusalem.
The book of Zechariah reaffirms those prophecies but pushes their fulfillment into the future. At the end of the 70 years God again promised to bring the exiles and their descendants back to the land, to restore the monarchy and to receive the worship of the peoples of the earth. God reassured doubters, saying, "Even though it seems impossible to the remnant of this people in these days, should it also seem impossible to me?"(8)
Before God's people will enjoy the promised blessings, however, they need to wait in hope through further suffering caused by false leaders and enemy attacks. Zechariah 9–14 includes prophecies of this long time of waiting. The name of Zechariah and the dates from Darius' reign disappear from these chapters, and God no longer speaks in visions. God is portrayed as a divine warrior who saves His people and disarms the nations, and as the Creator who controls the rain, the rivers and the topography of the earth.
The New Testament identifies in Jesus' ministry the fulfillment of prophecies from the book of Zechariah. Jesus was the humble king, riding on a donkey instead of on a warhorse.(9) Thirty pieces of silver paid for His betrayal.(10) He was the One who was pierced.(11) He was the stricken Shepherd whose disciples scattered.(12) Yet many prophecies in Zechariah remained unfulfilled today. Christian readers of the book of Zechariah also need to wait in hope and are encouraged to trust all of God's promises.
"Prisoners of hope"(13) is an apt title for every generation who reads the book of Zechariah. The specific reference in Zechariah 9:12 is to Jews living throughout the Persian Empire, waiting for restoration to their land. They were prisoners because they were descendants of the Babylonian exiles: "Their captors have held them fast and refuse to let them go."(14) Even Jews living in Jerusalem called themselves "slaves"(15) to the Persian king.
People who believe God's promises remain hopeful in the midst of their captivity. The paradoxical title, "prisoners of hope,"(13) identifies those who continue to believe in spite of the contrast between their present experience and the promised realization of the Lord's reign. Because of their faith, they are caught in the dilemma of unfulfilled prophecy. Hope holds them fast.
We cannot calculate the date of the Last Days on the basis of the prophecies of Zechariah, but we do not need to know when they will come in order to be ready. There are many obscure passages in Zechariah whose references to the future will be identified only in retrospect.
The goodness of God is not obscure, however. It is evident in the promises and in the descriptions of blessing. When people hear God's plan for the land and for Jerusalem, they will say, "What goodness and beauty are his!"(16) In this plan everyone will have an inheritance in the land, and it will produce abundant food. The streets of Jerusalem will be so safe that children and old people will be able to play and sit outside. The Lord will remove wickedness from the land and purify the people.
God's reign in our lives will be visible to others whenever we are open and obedient to God's Word. Believers, in waiting for the fulfillment of prophecy, need to be characterized by honest dealings, just decisions, protection of the vulnerable, and doing good to others. In this way—even in the tension between fulfilled promises and delayed prophecies—we put hope into practice.