Called to Repentance
The book of Zechariah is among the most profound in the Old Testament and of great importance in view of the times and circumstances in which it was written. Zechariah summed up and condensed most of what the former prophets wrote concerning Messiah’s First and Second Advents.
His words are important not only for their Messianic predictions but also for their apocalyptic and eschatological predictions regarding the ultimate destruction of Israel’s enemies and the glories that will be hers in the Millennial Kingdom.
The book’s theme is Messiah’s work of redemption and Israel’s future restoration. Zechariah began his prophecy by calling Judah to repent of her sin and be restored to a right relationship with the Lord her God.
The Jewish people had longed for liberation from their seventy-year Babylonian Captivity. It came in 536 B.C. and, with it, a return to Jerusalem. It was after their return (commonly called the postexilic period) that Zechariah received his prophecy. He gave the exact date: “In the eighth month, in the second year of Darius [October 27, 520 B.C.]” (v. 1).
The Historical Scene. In 538 B.C. King Cyrus of Persia, having defeated the Babylonian Empire (539 B.C.), issued an unprecedented decree allowing the Jewish people to return to Jerusalem. Zechariah, along with his contemporary Haggai, was among the fifty thousand Israelites (Ezra 2:64–65) who returned to their land under the able leadership of Zerubbabel, who became governor, and Joshua, the high priest.
The returnees started to rebuild the Temple and brazen altar with the assistance of Phoenician workmen and the materials they provided. Samaritan volunteers wanted to help, but the Jews refused their aid.
Within two years the foundation was laid, after which the Samaritans were successful in stopping further work by appealing directly to the Persian Kings, Cyrus and his son Cambyses.
For the next sixteen years no work was done on the Temple. Apathy set in, and the Jewish people showed little interest in finishing the project. Over time their spiritual commitment declined as well. Instead of building the Temple, they focused on constructing luxurious houses for themselves.
In the meantime, Cyrus died; and his son Cambyses committed suicide, leaving no one to rule Persia. A struggle for leadership ensued, resulting in many revolts. Eventually Darius I crushed the revolts and restored peace to Persia under his leadership.
Soon after coming to power, Darius found Cyrus’s original decree that gave the Jewish people permission to return to Judah. The decree paved the way for Darius to give the Jews permission to resume reconstruction of their Temple.
In 520 B.C. Haggai and Zechariah urged the people to finish the task of rebuilding (Ezra 5:1–2; Hag. 1:1). Haggai preached four sermons in four months that motivated them to resume construction. Two months later, Zechariah called them to spiritual renewal and inspired them to finish the rebuilding by revealing God’s plan through eight prophetic visions of Israel’s future (Zech. 1:1—6:8).
Consequently, the Jewish people were inspired to resume the work on September 21, 520 B.C. (Hag. 1:15) and completed the task on March 15, 516 B.C. (Ezra 6:15).
Zechariah’s Background. The prophet gave a short profile of his ancestry. He simply said, “Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, the son of Iddo” (v. 1).
The name Zechariah was extremely common. At least twenty-seven men in the Old Testament bore it. Zechariah means “he whom Jehovah remembers” or “Jehovah remembers.”
His name was a reminder that God would not forget His commitment to Israel but would bring restoration and redemption to His people. Even today Zechariah’s prophecies reach into the future and are an ongoing testimony to Jewish people of every generation that God does not forget His promises to Israel.
The name Berechiah means “Jehovah blesses”; and the name Iddo means “his time.” Put these three names together and they mean “Jehovah remembers and blesses in His time.”
Many believe Zechariah’s father, Berechiah, died soon after the family returned to Judah (536 B.C.), because Zechariah is often referred to as the son of his grandfather, Iddo; and he succeeded his grandfather in becoming head of the priestly family (Ezra 5:1; 6:14; Neh. 12:4, 16).
Zechariah was one of the returnees who had been born and reared in Babylon. After he came to Jerusalem, God called him to prophesy to the Jewish people. Zechariah’s message was clear: He called the Israelites to return to God, repent of sin, and commit to finish constructing the Temple begun sixteen years earlier.
Like Daniel and Ezekiel, Zechariah was given a number of visions in his prophecy. The prophet was a young man (2:4) when he received these visions and probably continued his ministry long after the last date presented in this book (Dec. 7, 518 B.C.). He may even have ministered into the early reign of Artaxerxes (465–424 B.C.). Age has no bearing on God’s call into the ministry. Not only did God call Zechariah early in life, He also called Daniel, Jeremiah, and Samuel when they were young.
Zechariah began with a review of God’s past anger: “The LORD hath been sorely displeased [literally, angry or furious, full of wrath] with your fathers” (1:2).
God had been furious with the returnees’ forefathers because they had rebelled against their covenant relationship with Him, rejected the prophets’ messages to repent, and refused to stop their idolatrous practices. Yet God was now ready to turn from His anger and comfort this returning generation of Jewish people. But first they would have to put away the sins that brought on their destruction and seventy-year captivity.
Through Zechariah, the Lord extended a gracious invitation:
Therefore, say thou unto them, Thus saith the LORD of hosts, Turn unto me, saith the LORD of hosts, and I will turn unto you, saith the LORD of hosts (v. 3).
The threefold repetition of God’s name, “LORD of hosts [armies]” (used once more in verse 4), gave authority to Zechariah’s message. This urgent invitation required and expected an immediate response.
The Hebrew word for “turn” or “return” carries with it the same meaning as the Greek word for “repent.” Bible scholar F. Duane Lindsey makes a good point when he writes,
The condition for their receiving divine blessing was not simply to resume building the temple, but to return to Him—not just to the Lord’s Law or to His ways but to the LORD Himself. Their repentance two months before (cf. Hag. 1:12–15) apparently involved an incomplete commitment, resulting in delay in rebuilding the temple. Now a complete return to the LORD would bring divine blessing, expressed by the words, I will return to you.1
People often try to mimic the lifestyles of their ancestors or elders, but Zechariah commanded the Jewish people not to do so:
Be not as your fathers, unto whom the former prophets have cried, saying, Thus saith the LORD of hosts: Turn now from your evil ways, and from your evil doings; but they did not hear, nor hearken unto me, said the LORD (v. 4).
The words your fathers are used four times in verses 2–6, exhorting the Israelites not to follow in their fathers’ evil footsteps. For their fathers either did not hear or turned a deaf ear to the messages of the pre-exilic prophets. They utterly disregarded the prophets’ calls to repent (cf. Isa. 55:6–7; Jer. 3:12; Hos. 7:10; Joel 2:12–13; Amos 5:4, 6; Mal. 3:7).
Although permanently cured from the practice of idolatry, this new generation was in danger of giving only lip service to the Lord instead of giving Him their hearts. Zechariah’s message is an ageless truth for two reasons. First, repentance must always come before blessing; and second, change must follow repentance. All too often believers give lip service to God’s message and show little change in the way they live.
Zechariah warned the Jewish people to repent and not delay their decision, as did their fathers. The prophet illustrated his point with two rhetorical questions: “Your fathers, where are they? And the prophets, do they live forever?” (v. 5).
The obvious answer to both questions is no; they are dead! The prophet used these questions to disarm any objections the people might give to the admonition in verse 4. The returnees might have objected by saying, “True, our forefathers are dead; but so are the prophets who gave them the message. So these events have long passed and have no relevance to our generation.”
Zechariah nullified that prospective argument by saying, essentially, “Yes, your forefathers passed on long ago, as did the preexilic prophets. But the words of the prophets given to your forefathers were fulfilled, and such will be the case with this generation if it does not repent.”
The lesson is obvious. Israel’s forefathers were evil and guilty of disobeying God’s law. They turned a deaf ear to the prophets’ messages to repent. Judah’s destiny was to spend seventy years in the depths of a demoralizing and degrading captivity.
God gives people time to repent. But once the opportunity is gone, their destiny is sealed. Failing to respond to Zechariah’s message would bring deadly consequences to this generation of Jews, just as it did to their forefathers.
Although the preexilic prophets are long gone, the words God gave them will be fulfilled:
But my words and my statutes [decrees], which I commanded my servants, the prophets, did they not take hold of [overtake] your fathers? And they returned [repented] and said, As the LORD of hosts thought to do unto us, according to our ways, and according to our doings, so hath he dealt with us (v. 6).
The curses that God’s Word promised did indeed overtake the evildoers (cf. Dt. 28:15, 45). During the Babylonian Captivity some Jewish people either had a change of mind or repented (Dan. 9:1–19). They admitted God’s judgment and their captivity were justified because they had ignored the preexilic prophets and persisted in their sinful “ways” and “doings.” God’s judgment is always based on the ways and conduct of His people.
The message is the same today. When we confess that we have sinned against God and repent of our sins, then our restoration begins.
- F. Duane Lindsey, “Zechariah,” The Bible Knowledge Commentary, ed. John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1978), 1,548.