Zechariah. Well-known in Jewish circles as a prophet of hope. “On that day, God will be One and God’s name will be One” (Zech 14:9). A utopian phrase widely understood to encourage inter-faith reconciliation.
Zechariah. Known in Christian circles as a fiery precursor to the book of Revelation. A prophet who predicts the Messiah’s return. And welcomes God’s all-out war to establish a divine kingdom on earth.
Would the real Zechariah please stand up? Does he believe humans must create an ethical future? Guided by God’s spiritual teachings? Or does he believe God will actually appear? In person, so to speak? To wage divine warfare, destroy sinners and then establish a spiritual kingdom? Or both?
Today, these are urgent questions. We need all the help we can get to wade through end-times rhetoric. Especially rhetoric that leaves all the work to God.
Zechariah: Historical Background
First, some historical background on our prophetic helper. Was Zechariah even a real person? Probably he was.
A superscript at the beginning of the Book of Zechariah tells us exactly when he began to prophesy: 520 BCE. That places him 66 years after the Babylonian army invaded the southern Israelite kingdom of Judah. That army destroyed the capital city of Jerusalem. Devastated the land. Forcibly exiled the educated, landed and wealthy citizens. And left the poor without urban infrastructure or healthy rural fields.
Zechariah speaks of this destruction. But he focuses on restoration. Only 19 years before he began to prophesy, Babylonia fell to Persia. The Persian Emperor Cyrus encouraged Jews to rebuild Judah’s political and religious institutions. A conservative nationalist group accepted the challenge, but made only a tiny start. Finally — just two years before Zechariah’s 520 BCE start — the new Emperor Darius re-funded the revival project. The re-building started for real. And Zechariah is part of it.
Clear historical references in Zechariah chapters 1-8 confirm this dating. Names of people and places check out. So do the controversial public issues Zechariah discusses. Thus, most historical scholars agree: a historical prophet Zechariah wrote it.
But chapters 9-14 are vague. Few historical references check out. So, historical scholars divide the book into two halves. Then, they speculate. Have these two distinct books been edited into one? If so, then who wrote part two? And when? But they draw no definitive conclusions.
Still, there are other ways to divide the book. Instead of historical references, we can use literary themes.
Zechariah: Literary Structure
The Biblical book of Zechariah includes 14 short chapters. It makes its case in less than 5,000 words. Yet it includes all genres of prophetic writing. Oracles of comfort. Oracles of doom. Moral rebuke. Dreams. Travel to heavenly realms. Performance art. Poetry. The book explores all the main themes of Biblical prophecy. Utopia. Dystopia. Morality. Politics. Economics. History. Spirituality.
But these aren’t all piled on randomly. Rather, the book divides neatly into three sections. Each section focuses on a theme. And presents it through a particular genre of prophetic writing. The sections are: Apocalypse (chapters 1-6). Morality (chapters 7-11). Eschatology (chapters 12-14).
Zechariah’s First Theme: Apocalypse (Chapters 1-6)
We use the word apocalypse in everyday conversational English. Usually, it refers to a big game-changing event that will destroy and then restore human society. But in Biblical scholarship, apocalypse has a different meaning. There, apocalypse means “revelation.”
Apocalyptic literature tells stories about human beings ascending to the heavenly realms. Typically, an angelic escort explains metaphysical secrets. Meteorology, morality, destiny — i.e., hidden secrets of world governance. Apocalyptic literature was popular in ancient Babylonia. So it’s no surprise that Zechariah, returning from Babylonia, would use it to express his insights.
Zechariah describes his heavenly tour in detail. He describes it as a night vision. An angel guides him through seven scenes. But Zechariah finds the symbols puzzling. So, his angelic angelic guide interprets them.
Four horsemen report that the earth is at peace. Four horns represent divine powers on the move. A young man with a measuring tape learns that Jerusalem will become a city without walls, protected only by God’s glory. The high priest Joshua and the political governor Zerubavel are anointed to lead side by side. A flying scroll has driven thieves and liars out of the community. A flying tub has removed evil. And, finally, four horse-drawn chariots, representing the four winds, emerge from the mountains ready to advance.
Zechariah’s Second Theme: Morality (Chapters 7-11)
Moral teaching is a staple of Biblical prophecy. So is moral rebuke. Prophets usually express them through poetry and performance art.
Zechariah is no different. He criticizes mechanical approaches to religion. Then he reviews the essentials of justice. Don’t defraud the widow, the orphan, the stranger and the poor. Instead, live in truth and faith. Then, the whole word will see your utopia and want to join your religion.
Zechariah criticizes avarice. Greedy empires will fall, he says. Through an act of poetic justice. Developers who exploited the forests of Lebanon will suffer when the forest burn. Zechariah also scolds corrupt and apathetic political leaders. With symbolic public theatre, he predicts the end of “shepherds” who abuse their flocks.
Zechariah’s Third Theme: Eschatology (Chapters 12-14)
Eschatology is study of the eschaton, i.e., the “end times.” In real-time, life is a jumble of events, good and bad. We have limited control over them. So, sometimes it’s helpful to imagine that our messy reality is a brief anomaly. To imagine that true time began with the arche, a perfect ancient utopia. And that it will end with the eschaton, a perfect future utopia. In between, lies history as we know it. A sad story of human exploitation by greedy warring empires. But that history will come to an end. And then our children be free from suffering.
Zechariah recognizes that history moves in cycles of destruction and restoration. But he predicts the cycles will end. The region’s final war, he says, will be waged against Jerusalem. Foreign invaders will capture the city, plunder the houses and rape the women. Two-thirds of the city’s people will perish. But survivors will extend compassion, experience healing, and receive true prophecy.
Then, God will counter-attack, moving mountains, flattening deserts, and disrupting the cycle of day and night. Finally, a spirit of healing and holiness will prevail. Survivors from all nations will worship God in a rebuilt Jerusalem. That day will mark the eschaton.
Assembling Zechariah’s Themes
Apocalypse, morality, eschatology. Zechariah presents them in that order. Should we understand the order as a historical timeline? God reveals the plan, then judges the community, purges enemies, and inhabits a perfected world?
No, I don’t think we should. Instead, we should read them in reverse order. Eschatology, morality, apocalypse.
Zechariah speaks of the eschatological war at the end of his book. At the beginning, however, Zechariah says the war is over. He speaks of the “earlier prophets” who correctly predicted the Babylonian invasion (1:4-6). Eventually, these prophets taught, a remnant of the people would return. And so they did, with Zechariah among them.
Now the revolutionary peace has begun. And the returnees ask urgent spiritual questions. How should we behave? Which community projects should we prioritize? What can we expect from God?
The returning remnant, Zechariah teaches, should focus on morality. Individuals should behave with integrity. As a community, they should support the vulnerable. God has assigned these tasks to human beings. Through humanity, God’s guidance will spread to the four corners of the earth.
Zechariah’s apocalyptic visions answer the returnee’s questions about God. They can expect God to manage regional dynamics. Peace will prevail. Jerusalem can safely welcome strangers. Religious and political leaders will work together.
Yes, Zechariah sees chariots. But they are not weapons of war. In fact, Zechariah asks his guiding angel, “What are these?” The angel says, “these are the four winds of heaven.” Then, God clarifies, “they place my spirit” on the earth.
So, Will the Real Zechariah Please Stand Up?
So, does Zechariah believe humans must create an ethical future? Yes. Guided by God’s spiritual teachings? Yes. Does he believe God will actually appear? Yes. In person, so to speak? No; only as a spiritual presence. But will God wage divine warfare? Depends how you understand it. Will God destroy Jerusalem and its enemies? No; humans have already done that. But will God at least send emissaries to establish the kingdom? Yes, God will. We humans are those emissaries. And our weapons are integrity, truth, and interpersonal care.