Theme & Background
Nearly 20 years after their return from the Babylonian exile in the time of Cyrus (538 B.C.), discouragement dogged God’s people, replacing their earlier enthusiasm. The foundation of the temple had been laid shortly after the initial return, in 536 B.C., but powerful opposition had prevented any further progress on rebuilding the temple. Though Persian foreign policy accorded a significant role to local traditions—unlike the previous overlords, the Babylonians (prior to 538 B.C.)—life was still hard in the province of Judah (often referred to as “Yehud” in this period). Taxes were high, especially as the Persian king, Darius Hystaspes, prepared for a campaign against Egypt. There was little evidence of the kind of transformation of the state of things that the earlier prophets had anticipated, whether externally in a restoration of Jewish sovereignty, or internally in a moral reformation of the people. In particular, the city of Jerusalem was still only partially rebuilt and was on the sidelines of world significance. Under the circumstances, it was easy for the people to conclude that theirs was a “day of small things” (Zech. 4:10) in which God was absent from his people. In such a context, faithful obedience was viewed by many as useless: pragmatically, it made more sense to pursue the best life possible in spite of the present difficulties.
Zechariah addressed such discouragement by reminding his hearers that, though hidden, God’s envoys were watching everything, and that when the time was right, he would act to reorder the universe (Zech. 1:8–11). Their forefathers had discovered God’s faithfulness to judge his people if they failed to heed the words of the prophets (Zech. 1:4–6). If the people would heed the words of the prophets and turn to the Lord, they would discover him turning to them. He would trouble the nations who were enjoying rest and grant rest to his troubled people, making Jerusalem once again the center of the world, a place of universal pilgrimage (Zech. 1:14–17). The temple that was being rebuilt and the priesthood that would serve in it were signs of the Lord’s commitment to his people, a commitment that would be demonstrated by the ultimate removal of all their sin from the land (Zech. 3:8–10). This would happen when the promised Davidic king, the Branch, arrived (Zech. 3:8). The result would be peace, harmony, and prosperity for all the inhabitants of the land, as the Lord once more dwelt in their midst.
The latter chapters of Zechariah also show that the coming of this Davidic ruler will not be without challenge. A new ruler will come to Jerusalem, a ruler who will not be like the existing rulers but will be righteous and humble, bringing salvation (Zech. 9:9–11). In contrast to the shepherds who feed themselves at the expense of the flock, this good shepherd will take care of the flock and provide for them (Zech. 9:16). He will cleanse them of all their iniquities (Zech. 13:1). Yet the flock will themselves reject this good shepherd, and the Lord’s own sword will be unleashed against him (Zech. 11:4–16; 13:7). The sheep will be scattered and left to their oppressors in a time of trial and testing. Yet ultimately God will redeem his flock and rescue his city. Final judgment will come upon all the nations that assaulted God’s people, and the end result will be the complete holiness of Jerusalem. It will be restored as God’s chosen city, to which the nations will come on pilgrimage (ch. 14).
The book of Zechariah is densely mined for quotations by the NT, whose authors discerned in it several prophecies concerning the Messiah’s coming. The clearest instances come from Zechariah 8:16 (in Eph. 4:25), Zechariah 9:9 (in Matt. 21:5 and John 12:15), Zechariah 11:12–13 (in Matt. 27:9–10), Zechariah 12:10 (in John 19:37), and Zechariah 13:7 (in Matt. 26:31 and Mark 14:27). In addition to these are numerous allusions, which are sometimes difficult to assess; one estimate, however, finds about 54 passages from Zechariah echoed in about 67 different places in the NT, with the lion’s share of these found in the book of Revelation.
History of Salvation Summary
After the horrors of the exile, God is renewing his commitment to restore Judah as his treasured people. They will still suffer more distress, but in the end God will judge the Gentile oppressors and Judah will produce the Messiah, who will rule over the whole world, bringing them to worship the true God.