12. Reflections on Old Testament Prophets (Zechariah)

Prophetic Relevance (Zechariah 1:1-6; 7:8-14)

Published in Mennonite Weekly Review (August 6, 2007)

These prophecies from the book of Zechariah date from around 520 BC, about two generations after Jeremiah and Ezekiel.

As we have seen, following several generations of prophetic warnings, the nation-state of Judah with its king’s palace and elaborate temple came to an end.

The Babylonian Empire’s might provided the historical action that destroyed Judah.  However, the prophets had made it clear that the true reason for the nation’s demise was generation after generation of unfaithfulness to God.

However, the story of God bringing healing to all the families of the earth through the people of the covenant did not end.

Israel’s restoration

On one level, we see in the on-going maneuverings of the great powers an opening for Israel’s restoration.  Babylon, which had taken many Judeans into exile, fell to the next empire, Persia.  And the Persians’ policy included the return of the exiles to their homeland.  So, about 50 years after Judah’s fall, the people of Israel have another opportunity.

On a deeper level, according to the prophetic witness, we see in these events evidence of God’s commitment to the promises made to Abraham and his descendants.  The injustices, the idolatries, the anxieties could not defeat God’s promise.

The God of the Old Testament is indeed a merciful God and a faithful God.  And the task God has given God’s people remains: witness to this mercy to all the families of the earth.

By the time of Zechariah, who addressed Israel putting the pieces of the society back together, 20 years since the return from Babylonian captivity had passed.

Rebuilding the temple

A key element of the work of recovery was rebuilding the Jerusalem temple.  However, Zechariah makes it clear that this new temple must remain subordinate to the prophetic call to live faithfully in light of the message of the Law of Moses.  This message is summarized in 7:9-10: “Render true judgments; show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.”

Zechariah makes it clear that the failure to embody this message led to Israel being “scattered…with a whirlwind among all the nations” (7:14).  However, as with all the other prophets we have studied, we find here the promise that should the people repent and return to the Lord, “I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts” (1:2).

The rebuilt temple will make God’s return concrete.  Even more, though, the call to live with trust in God and God’s message in Torah (and not trust in idols), and to practice justice, mercy, and kindness, especially toward vulnerable members of the community (and not gathering wealth and “devising evil” versus each other) remains central to Israel’s future.

God’s faithfulness

God’s presence will be linked with the temple, but more centrally with the faithfulness of the people.  The hope that Zechariah witnesses to does not rest on human institutions and physical structures.  Certainly, as the people now know, such hope does not rest on the permanence of nation-states.

Ultimately, the people’s hope rests only on the faithfulness of God–and on their willingness to trust in God alone and to allow God’s law to shape their common life.

The drama of ancient Israel reveals the consequences of the failure to trust.  More so, though, in the end, it reveals the perseverance of God’s loving kindness.  And it makes clear that the original calling of God’s people–to bless all the families of the earth–remains in effect.

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