Click here for a print-friendly version
Spring Quarter: Justice and The Prophets
Unit 3: Called to God’s Work of Justice
Sunday school lesson for the week of May 10, 2020
By Dr. Hal Brady
Zechariah 8:1-8, 11-17
- Describe the expressions of the peace that God promises.
- Explain why jealousy is not a sin or character defect when applied to God.
- Discuss “God’s New Normal” with the class.
We are told that there is a little known psychiatric condition called “athazagoraphobia.” It refers to an irrational fear of being forgotten, and the associated anxiety can be debilitating. Individuals who suffer from this condition may feel the need to check in with family constantly while traveling. Or they might excessively remind a co-worker about an upcoming meeting. And changes in plans can bring on panic attacks as these sufferers’ lives are filled with anxiety and fear.
There are a few passages in the Bible that speak of a fear of being forgotten by God (example: Lamentations 5:20), but there are many more passages that speak of the reality of people forgetting God (example, Jeremiah 3:21) and that fact speaks directly to a critical role of prophets pointing out the reality of God’s memory and its implications for us (example: Zechariah 10:9).
It is reported that there are at least 30 men in the Bible who go by the name Zechariah. However, the one who wrote the book of today’s study was the prophet from a priestly family whose ministry occurred after the Babylonian exile. Zechariah’s ministry began in the second year of Darius’ reign in Persia (520 BC) and ceased in the fourth year of the king’s reign (518 BC).
The setting in post-exilic Jerusalem is essential to understanding Zechariah’s prophecies. Twenty years after returning from exile, signs of God’s continued favor seemed to have disappeared (Ezra 4:24; Haggai 1:1-11). Many of those who returned undoubtedly wondered if God had forgotten them.
In chapter 8, we have a vivid glimpse not only into Zechariah’s hopes and ideals, but also into the forlorn condition of the people and the land. Many of the Israelites were still in exile (v.7). They themselves were slack, timid, disheartened (vv. 9a, 13b). There were few old people to be seen in Jerusalem and few children (v.4). Unemployment was widespread, the neighboring peoples were hostile, there was internal dissension (v.10), a drought (Haggai 1:11) had ruined the crops and their name was a derision in the world (v.13). The situation was so desperate that it seemed as if only a miracle could transform it (v.6). No problem says Zechariah, miracles are God’s business, and He is equal to the task. Thus, the misery of the former days before the building of the Temple was begun in 520 BC would be turned into joy.
The Picture of a Restored Society Stability
The phrase “the word of the Lord…came to” occurs dozens of times in the Old Testament as a standard introduction to a prophecy. Much rarer, however, is the inclusion of the description “Almighty,” most occurring in this book (compare Isaiah 39:5; Zechariah 7:4; 8:18). It serves to stress God’s power. God is both fully present and fully capable to accomplish whatever he determines to do. Verse 2 says, “I am very jealous for Zion; I am burning with jealousy for her.” There is no doubt in the prophet’s mind that the Lord has the right to be “jealous” for his people; they are his exclusively (see Joel 2:18). God’s jealously, however, is not like that of a boy who has a fit if he sees his girlfriend flirting with someone else. The biblical concept of jealousy when applied to God indicates a profound sense of caring and commitment.
And this is even more apparent where a word in the original language is translated “jealousy” in one passage but “zeal” in another. For example, the Hebrew noun translated “jealous” here and “jealousy” in Ezekiel 8:3,5 is rendered “zeal” in Isaiah 9:7. The common idea is one of fervency. God’s jealousy implies his right to protect his people and to be angry at those who would hurt them (Zechariah 1:14, 15).
“This is what the Lord says: “I will return to Zion and dwell in Jerusalem” (verse 3).
Zechariah’s ministry includes encouraging the returned exiles to finish rebuilding the temple (see Ezra 4:24-5:2). When God declares his intention to “dwell in Jerusalem,” he refers specifically to the temple (Zechariah 1:16). Zion can refer to the entire city of “Jerusalem” or to only the temple area. Both of these represent the entire nation. For the returned exiles, God’s presence signifies the restoration of his favor (Zechariah 2:10).
“Then Jerusalem will be called the Faithful City,” though the Jews had suffered judgment, Zechariah reinforces God’s intentions on their behalf. God’s renaming of “Jerusalem” uses a term that evokes themes of loyalty and trustworthiness. Post-exilic Jerusalem is to have a reputation of residents who keep faith with one another. That trustworthiness is to be without as the covenant between God and his people if fully honored.
We are informed that in the New Testament the “New Jerusalem” represents the final, complete fulfillment of God’s intention (Revelation 3:12; 21:2,10).
“And the mountain of the Lord Almighty will be called the Holy Mountain.”
The renaming continues. The “mountain” to which Zechariah refers is the hill upon which the temple will be rebuilt. To designate “the mountains of the Lord Almighty” as “the Holy Mountain” serves to set it apart from normal human activity; it is to be reserved wholly for God’s use. Such an image of God’s holy mountain shows up several times in prophecy in this regard (examples, Isaiah 66:20; Ezekiel 20:40; Joel 3:17; contrast Isaiah 65:11).
The re-designation of both the city and the mountain suggests the idea of uncompromised loyalty to God – true faithfulness.
So Zechariah gives a vivid portrayal of what Jerusalem will be like when city and temple are restored and the exiles have returned. It shall happen that if the ethical commands are observed, God’s favor will be manifest in their midst, resulting in seasons of joy and gladness and cheerful feasts (Zechariah 8:19).
Two details of this city stand out in interest. It is one in which older people and children are obviously happy and contented (Zechariah 8:4-6). Too often, men and women tend to measure a city’s significance by its businesses, professions and industry, its buildings, wealth, and culture. Zechariah, however, suggests that we measure the significance of our cities by their effect upon two groups so easily overlooked – the old and the young.
Thus, the prophet establishes the welfare and contentment of older people and children as the mark of a city functioning as a city is meant to function. And there is something that is very contemporary in the observation of this ancient prophet. So often in our time the very old and the very young, who cannot look after themselves and who serve no social or economic function, are treated as less than human and to be pushed aside.
But what a challenge to the churches! The churches are called to reverence the value of all persons regardless of age, and numerous churches are doing just that with their caring, creative ministries to older adults and children. Hats off to those churches!
In the course of describing this very different restoration future, Zechariah counters a possible reservation: What God announces through Zechariah will seem too harsh. It will seem so hard as to be impossible (Zechariah 8:6). And this reservation is attributed to “the remnant of this people,” a term that appears again in vv. 11-12, but nowhere else in Zechariah. In each case, however, it appears in a reference to the future, contrasted with the past.
Clearly, in verse 11, we see that the future is beginning “now.” By referring to the people as a remnant, Zechariah again signals a change from the adversity produced by the past and still affecting the present. That change will include God’s saving “my people” from countries east and west (v.7).
In verse 8, we see that the powerful themes presented thus far are repeated. To exist fully as God’s people suggests their taking his characteristics of “being faithful and righteous” as their own. God’s loyalty to his people is thus to come full circle in their loyalty to him. That has been God’s intent since the first sin (compare John 12:32). In the New Testament, God’s intent to include Gentiles is very clear. Even so, that inclusion is nothing new, as underlined by quotations from the Old Testament in the New (see Acts 13:47; Romans 15:12). As we are told, Zechariah’s prophecy finds its ultimate fulfillment in the church.
Here we see God moving the new normal a step further. This new time of restoration will not follow any pattern expected by “the remnant.” God has such a change in mind that it vastly exceeds whatever their recent experience may predict. Thus far, they have faced the uphill battles of reclaiming their land, rebuilding their heritage and maintaining priorities while doing so (see Ezra 4; Haggai 1:2-4). The result has been poor harvests and inadequate clothing.
The promises in verse 12 reads like a reversal of the curse God put on all the earth after Adam and Eve’s sinning (Genesis 3:17-19). Similar prophecies draw even clearer parallels (see Ezekiel 34:25-29; Haggai 2:15-19). Lists of blessings elsewhere reflect similar promises (example: Leviticus 26:3-10).
Therefore, the promise of good harvests goes hand in hand with the promise of stability in the land. That also implies no war, no raids, and no political unrest to destroy the fruitfulness of the land.
Zechariah’s people knew what it was to be poor. They had been political exiles and had returned to a land that had been plundered by the enemy. So when the prophet told them of peaceful prosperity that was coming, they would appreciate it as God’s gift when it became reality.
In verse 13, we see the themes of blessing and curse being brought full circle. Here God reminds his people of his original promise to bless the nations through Abraham (Genesis 12:2,3). However, they had been a “curse” in that while claiming to belong to God, they were disloyal and followed every kind of wrong behavior.
No one could have looked at pre-exilic Judah and understood either who God is or what belonging to him really means. Instead of drawing the nations toward God, their behavior ridiculed him.
But now it will be different! Now God’s people will prove his love and his power in this new normal of living in God’s presence. Just as Abraham proved to be a blessing to the world by living a life of loyalty to God, so will they be. Despite their history of disobedience, God promises restoration without fear of reprisal.
To strengthen one’s hands in the Old Testament is to renew one’s power and motivation to act. This results in a person being encouraged to act confidently in the services of God.
Francis of Assisi was one who acted confidently in the services of God. On one occasion he came upon a half-frozen beggar. Wrapping his own coat about him, Francis said, “Here friend. Here is thy cloak. I have kept it from thee for too long already.” Francis identified with the beggar and then extended mercy.
As a basis for the continued encouragement of God’s people, verses 14 and 15 return to the matter of ancestral disobedience and consequent judgment, but only in order to contrast it with “these days,” in which God purposes to do good to Jerusalem and the house of Judah. Again, we see the contrast vividly in the words “just as” of verse 14 with the words “so now” of verse 15. So the reversal is explicit!
Verses 16 and 17 remind us that God’s people must reflect his character in their relationships. This is why the themes of “judgment” and “truth” turn up again. These two concepts go hand in hand and should define the lives of God’s people.
The word “courts” refers to a city’s entrance where legal issues were settled (example: Ruth 4:1,2,11). To practice justice there is to set the proper example for everyone watching to do the same. There will be no bribes, no partiality shown to anyone (see Exodus 23:8; Isaiah 33:15,16; etc.).
For God to state what he hates establishes boundaries of human behavior.
Ancient covenants established between kings and citizens frequently listed the positive attributes and actions of the ruler before listing the expected reciprocal responsibilities of the citizen. Thus, Zechariah’s prophecy is essentially a covenant in miniature: it institutes a new normal of peace in light of God’s presence with his people.
When a relationship needs to go from bad to good, someone has to make the first move. The text for today tells of a time when God did just that. The bad relationship between God and his people was solely the fault of the people. Therefore, they should have made the first move. But God in his compassion took the initiative, promising great things to his people. And so it still is. God promises great things for us when we actually deserve the opposite. However, God’s determined to redeem all who are willing to acknowledge him as sovereign Lord. Thanks be to God!
Resources for this lesson
- What’s the single most important thing your church can do right now to make it a welcome haven for people of all ages?
- Which kind of change should you work on most: learning to love what the Lord loves, or learning to hate what the Lord hates? Why?
- How do you understand Zechariah’s concept of restoration and why do you think it is important?
Dr. Hal Brady is a retired pastor who continues to present the Good News of Jesus Christ and offer encouragement in a fresh and vital way though Hal Brady Ministries (halbradyministries.com).
- “2019-2020 Standard Lesson NIV Commentary, Uniform Series, International Bible Lessons for Christian Teaching,” pages 309-315.
- “The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume VII,” pages 735-738, 794-798.
- “The Interpreter’s Bible Volume 6,” pages 1085-1088.
- “The Abingdon Bible Commentary” by J.L. McFadyen, page 824.