Two months after Haggai had delivered his first address to the people in 520 B.C., and a little over a month after the building of the temple had begun (Hag. i.15), Zechariah appeared with another message of encouragement. How much it was needed we see from the popular despondency reflected in Hag. ii.3, Jerusalem is still disconsolate (Zech. i.17), there has been fasting and mourning, vii.5, the city is without walls, ii.5, the population scanty, ii.4, and most of the people are middle-aged, few old or young, viii.4, 5. The message they need is one of consolation and encouragement, and that is precisely the message that Zechariah brings: "I have determined in these days to do good to Jerusalem and to the house of Judah; fear not," viii.15.
The message of Zechariah comes in the peculiar form of visions, some of them resting apparently on Babylonian art, and not always easy to interpret. After an earnest call to repentance, i.1-6, the visions begin, i.7-vi.8. In the first vision, i.7-17, the earth, which has been troubled, is at rest; the advent of the Messianic age may therefore be expected soon. The divine promise is given that Jerusalem shall be graciously dealt with and the temple rebuilt. The second is a vision, i.18-21, of the annihilation of the heathen world represented by four horns. The third vision (ii.) -- that of a young man with a measuring-rod -- announces that Jerusalem will be wide and populous, the exiles will return to it, and Jehovah will make His abode there.
These first three visions have to do, in the main, with the city and the people; the next two deal more specifically with the leaders of the restored community on its civil and religious side, Zerubbabel the prince and Joshua the priest. In the fourth vision (iii.) Joshua is accused by the Adversary and the accuser is rebuked -- symbolic picture of the misery of the community and its imminent redemption. Joshua is to have full charge of the temple, and he and his priests are the guarantee that the Branch, i.e. the Messianic king (Jer. xxiii.5, xxxiii, 15), no doubt Zerubbabel (Zech, iii.8, vi.12; Hag. ii.23), is coming. In the fifth vision (iv.) the prophet sees a lampstand with seven lamps and an olive tree on either side, the trees representing the two anointed leaders, Zerubbabel and Joshua, enjoying the divine protection.
The next two visions elaborate the promise of iii.9: "I will remove the iniquity of that land," -- and indicate the removal of all that taints the land of Judah, alike sin and sinners. The flying roll of the sixth vision, v.1-4, carries the curse that will fall upon thieves and perjurers; and in the somewhat grotesque figure of the seventh vision, v.5-11, Sin is personified as a woman and borne away in a closed cask by two women with wings like storks, to the land of Shinar, i.e. Babylon, there to work upon the enemy of Judah the ruin she has worked for Judah herself. In the last vision, vi.1-8, which is correlate with the first -- four chariots issuing from between two mountains of brass -- the divine judgment is represented as being executed upon the north country, i.e. the country opposed to God, and particularly Babylonia.
The cumulative effect of the visions is very great. All that hinders the coming of the Messianic days is to be removed, whether it be the great alien world powers or the sinners within Jerusalem itself. The purified city will be blessed with prosperity of every kind, and over her civil and religious affairs will be two leaders, who enjoy a unique measure of the divine favour. In an appendix to the visions vi.9-15, Zechariah is divinely commissioned to make a crown for Zerubbabel (or for him and Joshua) out of the gold and silver brought by emissaries of the Babylonian Jews, and the hope is expressed that peace will prevail between the leaders -- a hope through which we may perhaps read a growing rivalry. [Footnote 1: It seems practically certain that the original prophecy in v.11 has been subsequently modified, doubtless because it was not fulfilled. The last clause of v.13 -- "the counsel of peace shall be between them both" -- shows that two persons have just been mentioned. The preceding clause must therefore be translated, not as in A. V. and R. V., "and he shall be a priest upon his throne," as if the office of king and priest were to be combined in a single person, but "and there shall be" (or, as Wellhausen suggests, "and Joshua shall be") "a priest upon his throne," (or no doubt more correctly, with the Septuagint, "a priest at his right hand"). As two persons are involved, and the word "crowns" in v.11 is in the plural, it has been supposed that the verse originally read, "set the crowns upon the head of Zerubbabel and upon the head of Joshua." On the other hand, in v.14 the word "crown" must be read in the singular, and should probably also be so read in v.11 (though even the plural could refer to one crown). In that case, if there be but one crown, who wears it? Undoubtedly Zerubbabel: he is the Branch, iii.8, and the Branch is the Davidic king (Jer. xxiii.5, xxxiii.15). The building of the temple here assigned to the Branch, vi.12, is elsewhere expressly assigned to Zerubbabel, iv.9. It is, therefore, he who is crowned: in other words, v.11, may have originally read, "set it upon the head of Zerubbabel." Whether we accept this solution or the other, it seems certain that the original prophecy contemplated the crowning of Zerubbabel. As the hopes that centred upon Zerubbabel were never fulfilled, the passage was subsequently modified to its present form.]
The concluding chapters of the prophecy (vii., viii.), delivered two years later than the rest of the book, vii.1, are occupied with the ethical conditions of the impending Messianic kingdom. To the question whether the fast-days which commemorated the destruction of Jerusalem are still to be observed, Zechariah answers that the ancient demands of Jehovah had nothing to do with fasting, but with justice and mercy. As former disobedience had been followed by a divine judgment, so would obedience now be rewarded with blessing, fast-days would be turned into days of joy and gladness, and the blessing would be so great that representatives of every nation would be attracted to Jerusalem, to worship the God of the Jews.
In Zechariah even more than in Haggai it is clear that prophecy has entered upon a new stage. There is the same concentration of interest upon the temple, the same faith in the unique importance of Zerubbabel. But the apocalyptic element, though not quite a new thing, is present on a scale altogether new to prophecy. Again, the transcendence of God is acutely felt -- the visions have to be interpreted by an angel. We see, too, in the book the rise of the idea of Satan (iii.) and of the conception of sin as an independent force, v.5-11. The yearning for the annihilation of the kingdoms opposed to Judah, i.18-21, has a fine counterpart in the closing vision, viii.22, 23, of the nations flocking to Jerusalem because they have heard that God is there. The book is of great historical value, affording as it does contemporary evidence of the drooping hopes of the early post-exilic community, and of the new manner in which this disappointment was met by prophecy. But, though Zechariah's message was largely concerned with the building of the temple, and was delivered for the most part in terms of vision and apocalyptic, the ethical elements on which the "former prophets" had laid the supreme emphasis, were by no means forgotten, viii.16, 17. [Footnote 1: Zechariah himself is conscious of the distinction, which is more than a temporal one, between himself and the pre-exilic prophets: notice the manner of his allusion to the "former prophets," i.4, vii.7, 12.]
Practically all the distinctive features of the first eight chapters disappear in ix.-xiv. The style and the historical presuppositions are altogether different. There are two new superscriptions, ix.1, xii.1, but there is no reference to Zerubbabel, Joshua, or the situation of their time. There the immediate problem was the building of the temple; here, more than once, Jerusalem is represented as in a state of siege. A sketch of the contents will show how unlike the one situation is to the other.
The general theme of ix.1-xi.3 is the destruction of the world-powers and the establishment of the kingdom of God. Judgment is declared at the outset upon Damascus, Phoenicia and Philistia, while Jerusalem is to enjoy the divine protection and to be the seat of the Messianic King, ix.1-9. Greece, the great enemy, will be overcome by Judah and Ephraim, who are but weapons in Jehovah's hand, ix.10-17. Then follows a passage in which "the shepherds" are threatened with a dire fate. Judah receives a promise of victory, and Ephraim is assured that her exiles will be gathered and brought home from Egypt and Assyria to Gilead and Lebanon; the cedars of Lebanon and the oaks of Bashan -- types perhaps of foreign rulers -- will be laid low, x.3-xi.3.
The next section is of a different kind. In it the prophet is divinely commissioned to tend the flock which has been neglected and impoverished by other shepherds. To this end he takes two staves, named Favour and Unity, to indicate respectively the favour enjoyed by Judah in her relations with her neighbours, and the unity subsisting between her and Israel (or Jerusalem, according to two codices); and thus invested with the instruments of the pastoral office he destroyed three shepherds in a short time. But the flock grew tired of him, and, in consequence he broke the staves, i.e. the relations of favour and unity were ruptured. A foolish and careless shepherd is then raised up, who abuses the flock, and over him a woe is pronounced, xi.4-17, more minutely defined in xiii.7-9, which appears to have been misplaced. Jehovah will slay the shepherd and scatter the sheep; a third of the flock after being purified by fire will constitute the people of Jehovah.
The next section, xii.1-xiii.6, introduces us to a siege of Jerusalem by the heathen, abetted by Judah. Suddenly, however, Judah changes sides; by the help of Jehovah they destroy the heathen, and Jerusalem is saved, xii.1-8. Then the people and their leaders are moved by the outpouring of the spirit to confess and entreat forgiveness for some judicial murder which they have committed and which they publicly and bitterly lament, xii.9-14. The prayer is answered; people and leaders are cleansed in a fountain opened, with the result that idolatry and prophecy of the ancient public type are abjured, xiii.1-6.
The theme of the last section also (xiv.) is a heathen attack upon Jerusalem, but this time the city is destroyed and half the inhabitants exiled. Then Jehovah intervenes, and by a miracle upon the Mount of Olives the rest of the people effect their escape, and Jehovah Fights with all His angels against the heathen. Those glorious Messianic days, when Jehovah will be King over all the earth, will know no heat or cold, or change from light to darkness. Jerusalem will be secure and the land about her level and fruitful, watered east and west by a living stream. Those who have made war against her will waste away, while the rest of the world will make pilgrimages to the holy city to worship Jehovah and celebrate the feast of booths. Then the mighty war-horses, once the object of His hatred, will be consecrated to His service, and the number of pilgrims will be so great that every pot in the city and in the province of Judah will be needed for ceremonial purposes.
Few problems in the Old Testament are more perplexing than that of the origin and relation of the sections composing, ix.-xiv. to one another. The utmost that can be said with comparative certainty is that the prophecy, in its present form, is post-exilic, while certain elements in it, especially in ix.-xi., are, if not pre-exilic, at any rate imitations or reminiscences of pre-exilic prophecy. Many scholars even deny that ix.-xiv. is a unity and assign it to at least two authors. Though the superscription in xii.1, which seems to justify this distinction, was probably added, like Malachi i. i, by a later hand, the presence of certain broad distinctions between ix.-xi. and xii.-xiv. can hardly be denied. In the former section, Ephraim is occasionally mentioned in combination with Judah, cf. ix.13; in the latter, Judah alone is mentioned, and partly, on the strength of this, the former section is assigned to a period between Tiglath Pileser's invasion of the north of Palestine in 734 (xi.1-3) and the fall of the northern kingdom in 721, while the latter is assigned to a period between the death of Josiah in 609, to which the mourning in Megiddo is supposed to allude, xii.11, and the fall of the southern kingdom in 586.
Even within these sections there are differences which are held to be incompatible with the unity of each section. The most notable difference is perhaps that affecting the siege of Jerusalem. In ch. xii. the heathen are destroyed before Jerusalem, while the city itself remains secure; in ch. xiv. the houses are rifled, the women ravished, and half of the people go into captivity before Jehovah intervenes to protect the remainder. These and other differences are unmistakable, yet it may be questioned whether they are so serious as to be fatal to the unity of the whole section, ix.-xiv. It is not impossible that they may be due to the eclectic spirit of an author who gathered from many quarters material for his eschatological pictures. Besides, the sections which have been by some scholars relegated to different authors, occasionally seem to imply each other. The general assault on Jerusalem in ch. xii., e.g., is the natural result of the breaking of the staves, Favour and Unity, in ch. xi. But, even if ix.-xiv. be a unity, it is well to remember, as Cornill reminds us, that there is "much in these chapters which will ever remain obscure and unintelligible, because our knowledge of the whole post-exilic and especially of the early Hellenic period is extremely deficient."
This leads to the question of date. The last section (xii.-xiv.) at any rate is obviously post-exilic. The idea of the general assault on Jerusalem is undoubtedly suggested by Ezekiel xxxviii.; the curiously condemnatory attitude to prophecy in xiii.2-6 would have been impossible in pre-exilic times; the phrase, "Uzziah king of Judah," xiv.5, rather implies that the dynasty is past, and the reference to the earthquake in his reign has the flavour of a learned reminiscence. These and other circumstances practically necessitate a post-exilic date, and the objection based upon xii.11 falls to the ground, as that verse alludes, in all probability, not to lamentations for the death of Josiah, which would no doubt have taken place in Jerusalem, but to laments which accompanied the worship of the Semitic Adonis. Nor can any objection be grounded upon the allusion to idolatry in xiii.2, as idolatry persisted into post-exilic times.
If ix.-xiv. be a unity, a definite terminus a quo is provided in ix.13 by the mention of the Greeks, whose sons are opposed to the sons of Zion. Such a relation of Jews to Greeks is not conceivable before the time of Alexander the Great, and this fact alone would throw the prophecy, at the earliest, into the fourth century B.C. But there are other facts which seem to some to make for a pre-exilic date: e.g. the mention of Judah and Ephraim together, ix.13 (cf. ix.10), seems to presuppose the existence of both kingdoms, and Egypt and Assyria are placed side by side, x.10, 11, precisely in the manner of Hosea (ix.3, xi.5). But these facts, significant as they may seem, are by no means decisive in favour of a pre-exilic date. Assyria was the first great world power with which Israel came into hostile contact, and the name was not unnaturally transferred by later ages to the hostile powers of their own day -- to Babylon in Lam. v.6, to Persia in Ezra vi.22, and possibly to Syria in Isaiah xxvii.13. Consequently, in a context which assigns the passage, at the earliest, to the Greek period, Assyria and Egypt would very naturally designate the Seleucid and Ptolemaic kingdoms respectively, and the prophecy might be safely relegated to the third century, B.C. The allusion to Ephraim is not incompatible with this date, for the prophecy presupposes a general dispersion, x.9, which must be later than the fall of Judah in 586, considering that residence in Egypt, x.10, is implied (cf. Jer. xlii.-xliv.). Nothing more need be implied by the allusion to Ephraim than that there will be a general restoration of all the tribes that were once driven into exile and are now scattered throughout the world.
If chs. ix.-xiv. belong to the third century B.C., they give us an interesting glimpse into the aspirations and defects of later Judaism. They reveal an unbounded faith in the importance of Jerusalem, and in the certainty of its triumph over the assaults of heathenism; on the other hand, they are inspired by a fine universalism, xiv.16ff. But this universalism has a distinctly Levitical and legalistic colouring, xiv.21. Membership in the kingdom of God involves abstinence from food proscribed by the Levitical law, ix.7; and even for the heathen the worship of Jehovah takes the form of the celebration of the feast of booths, xiv.16. There is in the prophecy a noble appreciation of the world-wide destiny of the true religion, but hardly of its essentially spiritual nature.