We are studying Zechariah 8:1-17 [technically, not including verses 9-10] for Sunday, May 10. This is a prophetic speech that paints a picture of a community restored for a life of peace and justice. [Some questions on the text are here.] Here are my notes on this text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: The book of Zechariah dates itself from “the second year of Darius,” twenty years after the return of the Judean exiles from Babylonia.
The narrative situation: the exiles have returned, but they haven’t finished rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem. [Although they have found time to build some pretty sweet residential housing, according to the prophet Haggai, a contemporary of Zechariah’s.] The immediate purpose of the visions and oracles Zechariah relates is to get the people moving on the Temple restoration project. The motivation comes from the divine promise of peace and abundance Zechariah relates. That peace and abundance will grace the people when/as they enjoy YHWH’s presence and follow God’s instruction.
The first part of the book of Zechariah, chapters 1-8, has a carefully nested structure of eight paired visions, followed by a set of prophetic speeches – “the word of YHWH.” The arrangement of the visions emphasizes God’s plans for the peaceful future of Jerusalem, and hinges on the visions of the high priest Joshua [chapter 3] and the gold lampstand and Zerubbabel [chapter 4]. That is, the focus of these visions is on the Jerusalem religious and political leaders who will, with God’s blessing, mobilize the restoration of the Temple.
The outer rings of this vision cycle, the first and last visions, both include what we might think of as military images: an angel standing in a myrtle grove reporting on the results of an angelic patrol (Zechariah 1:7-17), and the four chariots of the four winds (Zechariah 6:1-8).
The speeches begin with a question about fasting and mourning “in the fifth month” (Zechariah 7:3). This is presumably the month of Av, the month of the destruction of the Temple [of Solomon, in those days]. We reckon this from the text’s mention of the month of Chislev as “the ninth month.” The speeches end with a word on the transformation of the important fasts in the calendar into “seasons of joy and gladness” (Zechariah 8:18-19). Our text is the middle speech of the set of three (counting by the opening formula “the word of YHWH came, saying”).
The final chapters of the book, chapters 9-14, feature a distinct shift in style and content, seem to date from a later time according to scholars, and refer to a more indefinite period of time. The themes in these later chapters include apocalyptic and messianic images that have made them favorite texts of Christian commentators, beginning with the New Testament authors.
In particular, that includes Zechariah 9:9-12, the part about “your king comes to you” riding on a donkey. That’s the only text from Zechariah that appears in the lectionary, once every three years, making our text from chapter 8 another one of the things you wouldn’t know about the Bible if all you knew was the lectionary.
CLOSER READING: God in this text is emphatically YHWH Sabaoth, the Commander-in-Chief of the Heavenly Armies, or as the KJV says, “the LORD of Hosts.” That title is mentioned eleven times in these seventeen verses. We might take it as a reminder that God is fighting for Judah’s restoration.
In verse 2, YHWH is “jealous” for Zion with great jealousy and with great wrath jealous for her. That is, a little emphatic chiastic (X-shaped) poetic statement of God’s jealousy, that the English translation flattens. We could substitute zealousy for jealousy here, if that would make us feel better.
God will return and dwell in Jerusalem (v3), and will be the cause of people coming back and dwelling there (v8) – a nice completion of that poetic circle.
At the center of this part of the speech, vv4-5, is a vision of streets, literally open squares, and of old men and women, the beneficiaries of long lives not cut short by violence, sitting and resting there, and of children, with every hope of living full lives themselves, playing in these peaceful, open spaces.
Our word “streets,” at least these days, probably more often connotes poverty and violence. [Think of “growing up on the streets” or “life on the street.”] The “open squares” of this text, in contrast, speak of peace and well-being, of God’s shalom. They are restful living spaces that aren’t surrounded by security barriers, because people don’t live in fear of attack. [We would probably enjoy having streets like that, too.]
Jerusalem will be called “the faithful city” or “the city of truth” [we might want to think of someone who is “true to” their beloved]. In v8, more faithfulness and righteousness.
Our selected text leaves out verses 9-10, which, together with verse 11, provides the immediate instruction: get down to business, get to work, “let your hands be strong”. In v12, there is a recurrent image of the gifts that will be showered on the people as the fruit of the sowing of peace. This is what will allow the restored remnant to be a blessing instead of a cursing, so – the conclusion of this little section, repeating its beginning, “let your hands be strong.” [So, see, we need to read verse 9.]
Also, we might have the feeling we’ve heard of this “sowing of peace” before. We might have, in James 3:18, “a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.” James had read Zechariah, probably.
In the concluding verses, YHWH is determined to do good to Jerusalem. This doing of good may include helping the people meet the standards laid out in verses 16-17: speaking truth, rendering true judgments that make for peace rather than conflict and animosity, not devising evil in their hearts against one another and not loving false oaths.
[We people of today could probably use some help with that stuff, too.]