“Return to Me”

Commentary through Zechariah

Zechariah 1:1-6
Dr Steve Orr

I don’t know how well you know the Old Testament book of Zechariah or what comes to your mind if you hear it mentioned but I’ve had it in mind for some time to attempt a series on Zechariah and now that series is beginning. When I started preparing, I turned to James Montgomery Boice’s little commentary on Zechariah and was dismayed to read his opening sentence: “Zechariah is one of the most difficult books in the Old Testament”. However, as I read a bit more widely I came across plenty of encouraging comments such as: “Zechariah is the most Messianic of all the writings of the Old Testament”. Or: “The key to unlocking the truth contained in Zechariah is the Messiah, Jesus”. Someone else said: “At least 33 portions of Zechariah are quoted in about 50 different places in the New Testament. Many of these are in connection with the Lord Jesus Christ”. So, the consensus is that the book of Zechariah is full of Christ! Therefore, it is also full of encouragement. In fact, one writer said: “Zechariah is the Barnabas of the Old Testament – a true son of encouragement”.

So, Boice might be right in saying that Zechariah is a difficult book but I reckon it should be well worth the effort of trying to understand it and we should expect to find plenty of encouragement in doing so. With no more ado, let’s turn to Zechariah 1v1 where we read; “In the eighth month, in the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, son of Iddo”. There we find some answers to the obvious introductory questions: “When?”, “Who?” and What?”.

When?

We see that it was “In the eighth month, in the second year of Darius”. Now, Darius reigned as emperor of Persia from 522 BC until 486 BC so the book begins in the 8th month of the year 520 BC. That’s very precise but you’re probably not much the wiser for knowing it. To flesh out the historical context, you’ll remember that way back in Israel’s history the kingdom was split in two. That happened in 930 BC when 10 tribes formed the northern kingdom of Israel and 2 tribes formed the southern kingdom of Judah. In 723 BC the northern kingdom was taken into captivity by Assyria and never returned. Judah continued but was eventually taken into captivity in Babylon in 586 BC. That captivity began to come to an end when Babylon was captured by the Persians in 539 BC. The Persian king was Cyrus and, in 538 BC, he decreed that the captives could return to Jerusalem to re-build the temple. One group of them returned immediately under the leadership of Zerubbabel.

King Cyrus was succeeded by Darius in 522 BC so the book of Zechariah begins about 16 years after the first exiles had set off to return to Jerusalem. However, plenty of them still remained in Babylon under Persian rule.

Who?

That seems obvious. We’re told that the Word of the Lord came to Zechariah. However, there are 27 different Zechariahs mentioned in the scriptures! So, it’s a good job that we’re told that he was “Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, son of Iddo”. In Nehemiah 12v16 we read the peculiar words: “of Iddo, Zechariah; of Ginnethon, Meshullam”. What’s that talking about? It becomes clear if you look at Nehemiah 12v.12 where we read: “And in the days of Joiakim were priests, heads of fathers’ houses: of Seraiah, Meraiah; of Jeremiah, Hananiah”. So, those words “of Iddo, Zechariah; of Ginnethon, Meshullam” appear in a list of the heads of the priestly families. That tells us that Iddo’s family was a priestly family and, at that time, his grandson, Zechariah, was the head of the family. So, Zechariah wasn’t only a prophet – he was also a priest.

Why did Nehemiah give this list of the heads of the priestly families? Well, if we look at Nehemiah 12v.1-4 we read: “These are the priests and the Levites who came up with Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, and Jeshua: Seraiah, Jeremiah, Ezra, Amariah, Malluch, Hattush, Shecaniah, Rehum, Meremoth, Iddo, Ginnethoi, Abijah”. That tells us that Iddo was one of the priests who had returned with Zerubbabel and it seems that Zechariah, probably as quite a young man, had done so too. He’d have seen the work of re-building the temple begin. He’d have seen the opposition to that re-building arise. He’d have seen the re-building eventually grind to a halt. In Ezra 4v.24 we read: “Then the work on the house of God that is in Jerusalem stopped, and it ceased until the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia”. So, the work remained at a standstill until the 2nd year of the reign of Darius. That was in 520 which, as we’ve already seen, was when the Word of the Lord first came to Zechariah.

In Ezra 5v.1-2 we read: “Now the prophets, Haggai and Zechariah the son of Iddo, prophesied to the Jews who were in Judah and Jerusalem, in the name of the God of Israel who was over them. Then Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel and Jeshua the son of Jozadak arose and began to rebuild the house of God that is in Jerusalem, and the prophets of God were with them, supporting them”. So, Zechariah and Haggai were contemporaries. They both prophesied at the same time and place and spoke to the same situation. But, it’s worth noting that their prophecies were very different in style and character. Haggai was down to earth and practical. Zechariah was much more of a visionary. So, they complemented one another. There’s an important lesson there. That is that the Lord uses all sorts of people. He uses people with different personalities, different temperaments, different ways of looking at things. Imagine how dull it would be if we were all Haggais – all “facts and figures” people? You can imagine him with his clipboard in hand and consulting his spreadsheets. But then, imagine how frustrating it would be if we were all Zechariahs – all dreamers and visionaries? You can imagine Zechariah dozing on his beanbag humming the Beach boys “Wouldn’t it be nice” to himself! Wouldn’t it be nice if the temple was built! But, having Haggais and Zechariahs working together as directed by the Lord is powerful and effective.

What?

We’ve been told that “the word of the Lord came to the prophet Zechariah”. God had something to say and He spoke it to Zechariah. Zechariah, in turn, told the people. He emphasised that it was God’s Word that was being spoken. Verse 3 says: “Thus declares the Lord of hosts: Return to me, says the Lord of hosts, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts”. He said “declares the Lord” and “says the Lord”. This wasn’t just emphasised here at the outset. You’ll find it throughout the whole book. Time and time again God spoke and Zechariah was very conscious of the fact that it was the Lord who was speaking. Sometimes, He spoke in strange visions that are difficult to understand. Sometimes, He spoke in prophetic language that can also be difficult to understand. But the first thing He spoke through Zechariah was abundantly clear as we see in chapter 1v2-6. In this first Word of the Lord to Zechariah we see that it included:

A word of Announcement
A word of Appeal
A word of Assurance
A word of Advice

A word of Announcement

In verse 2 we read: “The Lord was very angry with your fathers”. We often read in the Old Testament that God is slow to anger and abounding in love. Jonah, for instance, knew that to be true. Thank God that it is true! But we mustn’t think that that means that God is never angry. This prophecy of encouragement begins with the announcement that God had been “very angry” with the forefathers of Zechariah and his contemporaries. What had they done that had made the Lord who is “slow to anger” to be so “very angry” with them? We find the answer if we look, for example, at II Chronicles 36v14-16: “All the officers of the priests and the people likewise were exceedingly unfaithful, following all the abominations of the nations. And they polluted the house of the Lord that he had made holy in Jerusalem. The Lord, the God of their fathers, sent persistently to them by his messengers, because he had compassion on his people and on his dwelling place. But they kept mocking the messengers of God, despising his words and scoffing at his prophets, until the wrath of the Lord rose against his people, until there was no remedy”. The Lord had “persistently” sent His messengers to them. He was slow to anger. He had “compassion” on His people. He was abounding in love. But, they had mocked God’s messengers, despised God’s words and scoffed at His prophets until the wrath of the Lord was aroused against them.

We speak of some people as having “short fuses” don’t we? The tiniest thing that displeases them makes them react angrily. God isn’t like that. But, if He is continually mocked and despised and ignored, His anger grows until His wrath is poured out. Well, His wrath had been poured out on their forefathers in the mass slaughter at the hands of the Babylonians and the survivors being taken into captivity. Now, God was speaking to a new generation that was making a new beginning. They were pioneers and would have been full of enthusiasm and optimism. What did He announce to them through Zechariah? He told them that, right from the outset, they needed to keep in mind what had happened to their forefathers.

New starts, new beginnings can be very dangerous times because people are swept along on a tide of optimism and euphoria. Things seem so good. The world’s your oyster! But, however exciting and exhilarating the circumstances, those caught up in it still have sinful natures so things can go very badly wrong very quickly. Imagine the excitement of the Children of Israel as they left Egypt. They’d seen God’s power as He made Pharaoh relent and let them go. They’d seen Him part the waters of the Red Sea for them to pass through and then drown the pursuing Egyptians. What a thrilling adventure! Yet, how quickly they were grumbling and wanting to go back! Remember the early settlers in America. They were so optimistic and idealistic in setting about building their “New World”. But, how quickly it was beset with all the failings of the “Old World”. The very evils they thought they’d left behind they found they’d carried there with them in their very own hearts! Well, these Jewish settlers had returned full of enthusiasm. Then they’d met opposition and run out of steam and ground to a halt but now things were looking up again. And, at that point Zechariah comes along and begins by bringing them back to earth with a bump by saying: “The Lord was very angry with your fathers”. It’s as though he’s saying: “Remember – you’re no different from your forefathers and the Lord is no different than He was then either. History will repeat itself if you ignore and reject the Lord as your forefathers did”.

Exactly the same is true today. Those who persistently ignore and reject the Lord Jesus Christ will eventually know the anger of God in Hell.

At the beginning of verse 3 the Lord says to Zechariah: “Therefore say to them”. Since the Lord had been so angry with their forefathers, this was what they needed to be told. The first part of what Zechariah was to say was:

A word of Appeal

What was the appeal? We see it as we continue in verse 3: “Return to me, says the Lord of hosts”. The word translated as “return” really means “turn back”. The Lord was saying: “Turn back to Me. He was saying “you’ve come back to the land, you’ve come back to Jerusalem but that isn’t enough. You must come back to Me”. The appeal isn’t to just return to settle the land or to rebuild the temple or to conduct religious ceremonies. The appeal is for a personal return to the Lord Himself.

It’s very informative to note the point in the proceedings at which this appeal came through Zechariah. Remember that it came in the 8th month of the 2nd year of Darius. We read in Haggai 1v1: “In the second year of Darius the king, in the sixth month, on the first day of the month, the word of the Lord came by the hand of Haggai the prophet to Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest”. So, Haggai had already been prophesying for at least 2 months before this appeal came through Zechariah. Haggai had given a word of rebuke that was intended to shake them out of their ease and preoccupation with their own comfort and they were greatly stirred by that message as we see from Haggai 1v.14b-15 where we read: “And the Lord stirred up the spirit of Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and the spirit of Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and the spirit of all the remnant of the people. And they came and worked on the house of the Lord of hosts, their God, on the twenty-fourth day of the month, in the sixth month, in the second year of Darius the king”. So, Haggai’s message had had an immediate effect. They’d returned to the work of rebuilding the temple. Things were moving again. They were busy again. Now, they were on their way! Then look at Haggai 2v1: “In the seventh month, on the twenty-first day of the month, the word of the Lord came by the hand of Haggai the prophet”. That was one month later and he went on to prophecy concerning the future glory of the temple that they were building. That would have been a great encouragement for them to keep on building. However, that was still before Zechariah started prophesying. It was after that encouraging prophecy from Haggai that Zechariah chimed in with his reminder of the Lord’s anger with their forefathers and his appeal that they should return to the Lord.

You see the point? They’d heard the word of the Lord through Haggai. They’d heeded it. They were building the temple again and that was good. They’d been enthused by the word of the Lord. BUT, none of that activity and enthusiasm meant that their hearts were right with God. They still needed to return to the Lord. Activity isn’t enough. Being stirred by rousing words isn’t enough. We must come to the Lord Himself. That’s the appeal or invitation that the Lord gives: “Return to Me. Come back to Me”. In fact, it’s much stronger than a mere invitation. The translation of verse 3 quite rightly reflects the fact that two different Hebrew words are being used. You’ll notice the words “declares” and “says”. The word translated as “declares” has the urgency of being a challenge or a charge or a command. It’s not like an invitation to a birthday party which really is saying: “Please come if you can. I hope you’ll be able to make it”. The word “declares” is saying “This is what you must do. This is important”.

It’s exactly what Jesus Himself said in Matthew 11v28 where we read: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest”. In saying that He wasn’t competing with the Father’s appeal to “Return to Me”. It’s not an alternative. We read in John 14v6 that Jesus also said: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”. Coming to Jesus is the way to obey the Father’s command to “Return to Me”. So, the word of appeal was an urgent command from the Lord to return to Him.

The second part of what Zechariah was to say was:

A word of Assurance

Having said “Return to Me”, he goes on to say: “and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts”. Now, the word translated as “says” means just that. This is a simple statement of fact. If you return to the Lord, you have His word that He will return to you. We find much the same thing in James 4v8a where we read: “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you”. Then James continues through to verse 10 by saying: “Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you”. You see, God won’t come near to you if you attempt to come to Him lightly – in a presumptuous or self-righteous way. You must come in repentance and recognising your need of Him. If you come with that humility, He will lift you up. Why? Because He’s slow to anger and abounding in love. Return to the Lord in repentance and He will return to you with spiritual blessing.

That’s what Jesus illustrated so clearly and powerfully in what we tend to refer to as the parable of the prodigal son. It’s really the parable of the loving father. The son had left his father and struck out on his own. He was determined that he would do exactly what he wanted to do. And, where did that lead him? He ended up all alone and reduced to eating pig food. That eloquently pictures what it is like living away from God. Then, he came to his senses and remembered that even his father’s servants were in a far better condition than he was. So, he decided to return; not saying “I’m your son and I demand that you take me back” but saying, “I’ve sinned against you. I was wrong. I’m no longer worthy to be your son but perhaps you’ll be willing to give me a job as a servant”. He returned with repentance, humility and no presumption. That’s a picture of someone returning to the Lord in the right way. What happened next in Jesus’ story? While the son was still a long way off, his father saw him, was filled with compassion, ran to him, threw his arms around him and kissed him. “Return to me, says the Lord of hosts, and I will return to you”. The son said he’d sinned and wasn’t worthy to be his son. He really meant it and it was true wasn’t it? And what did the father do? He gave him the best robe. He put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. The one who wasn’t worthy to be a son was received as a son and treated as a son. Why was that? It was because he’d returned in humility and his father was gracious and compassionate.

We’re not worthy to be God’s sons. We’ve been far away from Him. We’ve sinned against Him. But He says: “Return to Me and I will return to you”. He gives that word of assurance.

The last part of what Zechariah was to say was:

A word of Advice

Moving to Zechariah 1v4 we read: “Do not be like your fathers, to whom the former prophets cried out, ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts, Return from your evil ways and from your evil deeds.’ But they did not hear or pay attention to me, declares the Lord”. Here we see the message that the Lord had given the forefathers through the earlier prophets. It had been: “Return from your evil ways and from your evil deeds”. The message Zechariah was now bringing was “Return to Me”. It is essentially the same message again! The Lord’s message is always the same because the problem is always the same, the need is always the same and the Lord’s solution is always the same. Jesus said “Come to Me”. The apostles said “Repent and believe” The message is always the same, the appeal and promise are always the same but the response isn’t. The word of advice given through Zechariah was to heed the lesson of history and not make the fatal mistake that their forefathers had made.

Their forefathers had heard the same message. How had they responded? We read “But they did not hear or pay attention to me, declares the Lord”. And, what was the result of that? They were taken into captivity and died in captivity. That was exactly what the Lord had warned them would happen if they continued to turn away from Him. We read in Zechariah 1v5-6a: “Your fathers, where are they? And the prophets, do they live forever? But my words and my statutes, which I commanded my servants the prophets, did they not overtake your fathers?” And, when it eventually did happen, they had to admit that God was just in doing so. Continuing in verse 6b we read: “So they repented and said, ‘As the Lord of hosts purposed to deal with us for our ways and deeds, so has he dealt with us”. They deserved it. They’d been given every opportunity to return to the Lord. He was slow to anger and abounding in love but they had spurned Him and His anger had eventually come upon them. It will be exactly the same for every sinner in hell. None will be able to say: “It isn’t fair. I don’t deserve it”.

So, what is the word of advice? It’s there in verse 4a: “Do not be like your fathers”. Of course, in many respects, they were inevitably like their forefathers – same race, same nationality, same religion, same sinful nature. There was nothing they could do about any of that. But, there was one way in which they could “not be like their forefathers”. What had their forefathers been like? They would not listen or pay attention when the Lord told them to turn from their evil ways. We see it in verse 4b: “But they did not hear or pay attention to me, declares the Lord”. Zechariah’s advice was: “don’t be like that! Don’t repeat their mistake but heed the Lord when He says “Return to Me”. If you do, He promises “and I will return to you” If you don’t, His words and decrees will overtake you as surely as they overtook their forefathers.

I said at the beginning that the book of Zechariah is a message of encouragement. You might think that being urged to repent and humble yourself doesn’t sound very encouraging but this opening message is vitally important. The fact is that there can be no real encouragement unless you first come to the Lord in repentance and humble faith.

 

How a Christian Witnesses with Good Deeds

One metaphor our Lord uses to describe the witness of the Christian is light (Matt. 5:14–16). Christians are the light of the world—a world that, by implication, is shrouded in thick darkness.

Jesus talks about two sources of physical light: the light from a city set on a hill, and the light from a lamp set on a lampstand. The first source, the city, is often misunderstood. Some think that Matthew, in recording Jesus’s teaching, became somewhat confused and put in an irrelevant illustration about a city visible from a great distance because of its elevation. The illustration is colorful, it is thought, but out of place in a context concerned with light. Such critics, I think, are only revealing that they live in the industrialized world where light is so readily available. 

Importance of Light

They don’t know how dark nature can be. In Canada it’s possible to go camping hundreds of miles away from any city or town. If it’s a cloudy night, and there’s no phosphorus in the area, the darkness is total. A hand held three inches from your face can’t be seen. But if there’s a city nearby, perhaps 100 miles away, the darkness is relieved. The light from the city is reflected off the clouds, and the night, once perfectly dark, is no longer quite so desolate. Likewise Christians who let their light shine before men can’t be hidden; the good light they shed attenuates the darkness that would otherwise be absolute.

Christians are the light of the world—a world that, by implication, is shrouded in thick darkness.

When once we imagine a world without hundreds of watts of electric power at our instant personal disposal, we’ll understand how darkness can be a terror and a symbol of all that is evil. The light from the city, even if it isn’t as powerful as our modern sources of illumination, makes the darkness a little more bearable than it was before.

Light is so important that it’s ludicrous to think anyone would want to extinguish the flickering flame from an olive-oil lamp by smothering it with a peck measure. That burning wick may cast only a little light by modern standards, but if the alternative is pitch blackness, its light is wonderful, quite sufficient for everyone in the house (Matt. 5:15).

Importance of Good Deeds

“In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:16).

What is this light by which Jesus’s disciples lighten a dark world? In this context, we read of neither personal confrontation nor ecclesiastical pronouncement. Rather, the light is the “good deeds” performed by Jesus’s followers—performed in such a way that at least some men recognize these followers of Jesus as sons of God, and come to praise this Father whose sons they are (Matt. 5:16).

The norms of the kingdom, worked out in the lives of the heirs of the kingdom, constitute the witness of the kingdom. Such Christians refuse to rob their employers by being lazy on the job, or to rob their employees by succumbing to greed and stinginess. They are first to help a colleague in difficulty, last to return a barbed reply. They honestly desire the advancement of the other’s interests, and honestly dislike smutty humor. Transparent in their honesty and genuine in their concern, they reject both the easy answer of the doctrinaire politician and the laissez-fare stance of the selfish secular man. Meek in personal demeanor, they’re bold in righteous pursuits.

The norms of the kingdom, worked out in the lives of the heirs of the kingdom, constitute the witness of the kingdom.

For a variety of reasons, Christians have lost this vision of witness and are slow to return to it. But in better days and other lands, the faithful and divinely empowered proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ (who himself is the light of the world par excellence [John 8:12]) so transformed men that they in turn became the light of the world (Matt. 5:14). Prison reform, medical care, trade unions, control of a perverted and perverting liquor trade, abolition of slavery, abolition of child labor, establishment of orphanages, reform of the penal code—in all these areas the followers of Jesus spearheaded the drive for righteousness. The darkness was alleviated. And this, I submit, has always been the pattern when professing Christians have been less concerned with personal prestige and more concerned with the norms of the kingdom.

“In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”

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