Still Speaking

  • Nathan Schneider
Old radio

One of my earlier memories from childhood takes me back to my grandpa’s cabin in the Sierra’s (which you can read about from an earlier post I wrote). The memory is somewhat shaky. I can’t recall many details. It’s more of a memory of generalities. I remember sitting on the floor in the broad living room area of the cabin playing with a set of old poker chips my grandparents had, pretending they were army men in combat. I remember that someone was in the kitchen prepping food for a meal. It could have been morning or evening, I don’t remember. But the thing I remember distinctly is that the radio was playing, and the reporter was talking about a war. At the time, I had no context for understanding this war, what it was about, or who it was with. But I remember that moment, and I remember even more distinctly the reporter referencing the President of the United States at the time.

That memory is significant for me. It was the first time in my childhood memory bank that I had an historical context for my childhood beyond the reference points of my age and the place where we were then living. At that point, my life had a broader timeframe. It located me not simply on a timeline of my life, but on the timeline of our nation, and even the world. There was a president leading our nation, George H. W. Bush. There was a war underway which our nation was fighting, the Gulf War. Though these data points were not significant to me at the time, they hold profound significance now as I orient myself in history.

I thought of that memory as I read the opening verse of the book of Zechariah, because the words used by the prophet are no less profound and significant to God’s people then as my memory of listening to the radio as a boy in my grandparent’s cabin.

“In the eighth month, in the second year of Darius, the word of Yahweh came to the prophet Zechariah.”

To us reading these words in twenty-first century Western civilization, they don’t seem to carry much meaning. Translating them into our modern calendar, it date stamps Zechariah’s words to around October or November of 519 B.C. It’s a good little piece of trivia, but nothing more.

But for Zechariah’s audience, these were profound words. They were sobering words. They were words that reminded them of where they were in history and how much had changed. They were words that they didn’t want to here, but were nonetheless the reality facing them. 

So what is it, then, that’s so shocking in this opening verse? Simply put, Zechariah oriented his ministry historically in a completely new and different way than the prophets who came before him. By and large, the pattern of Old Testament prophets was to orient their writings within the reign of the current king of Judah. Consider some of these prophetic introductions:

“The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Israel and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.” (Isaiah 1:1)

“The words of Jeremiah, the son of Hilkiah, one of the priests who were in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, to whom the word of the LORD came in the days of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah, in the thirteenth year of his reign.” (Jeremiah 1:1-2)

“The word of the LORD that came to Hosea, the son of Beeri, in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah, and in the days of Jeroboam the son of Joash, king of Israel.” (Hosea 1:1)

“The words of the LORD that came to Micah of Moresheth in the days of Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah, which he saw concerning Samaria and Jerusalem.” (Micah 1:1)

“The word of the LORD that came to Zephaniah the son of Cushi, son of Gedaliah, son of Amariah, son of Hezekiah, in the days of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah.” (Zephaniah 1:1)

But Zechariah doesn’t do this. His opening words are different. They break the norm. They disrupt the expectations of how a prophet is supposed to talk about history.

So why would Zechariah do this? Why couldn’t he simply reference the Israelite king who was reigning at the time? Well…because there wasn’t one. There was no king of Judah. And that simple reality was a stinging gut check for the nation. The last legitimate king to sit on the throne of David was Jehoiachin, who was removed from the throne by Nebuchadnezzar in 597 B.C., taken to Babylon, and replaced by Zedekiah, a political puppet for Babylon (cf. 2 Kings 24:8-17; 2 Chron 36:9-10).

Eventually, Zedekiah rebelled against Babylon, inciting the third and final wave of Judah’s deportation which ended in the destruction of the entire city of Jerusalem and the razing of the temple. By the time Judah was allowed to return to their land 70 years later under the decree of the Persian king Cyrus, Judah as a nation was kingless. They were led by a man named Zerubbabel, a descendant of Jehoiachin and a legitimate Davidic civil leader. But he could never be king because of the curse that God put on the line of Jehoiachin (cf. Jeremiah 22:28-30).

For Judah, Zechariah’s opening words are a stark reminder of the consequences of unbelief and covenant treason. They were a slap-in-the-face reminder of the past and the fact that everything they had once known as a nation was now very much different.

But there’s more to it than even that. Since Zechariah couldn’t link his ministry to a Jewish king, he instead linked it to the reign of the current Gentile monarch. It’s as much to dump cold water on an already hypothermic patient.

The cold, hard reality was that the world Judah found themselves in after the exile was different. Things had changed for them in profound ways. They weren’t just kingless. They were now under the rule of the nations. The former times were gone when they enjoyed the privileges of living as an autonomous kingdom in their land, led by their own king. They were now living in the time of the Gentiles (cf. Dan 2:37; Luke 21:24; Rev 19:16).

Mark Boda sums up the significance of these times well:

“This reveals the new and unique circumstances of this period into which the prophetic word is delivered and the people must respond…. God’s revelation continues to be provided through his intermediaries as redemptive history endures. God’s purposes were not reliant on the Jewish royal house, even if there is enduring hope that such would have a role in the present and future. Those purposes can be accomplished even through a pagan emperor, whether it is Cyrus functioning as Yahweh’s shepherd and anointed one (Isa. 44:28; 45:1); Nebuchadnezzar, as Yahweh’s servant (Jer. 25:9; 27:6; 43:10); or Neco, as God’s mouthpiece (2 Chr. 35:21-22).” (Mark J. Boda, The Book of Zechariah, 65)

Don’t miss the significance of Boda’s analysis. Judah found itself in strange, seemingly unreal times. They were times they never thought they would ever see, when God’s own people would be subject to the rule of the pagan nations. They found themselves in this predicament because of the failures of the generation who came before them, and especially because of the wickedness of the kings who led them.

The people of Zechariah’s time didn’t choose to live when they did. They were thrust into this reality by God’s design and for God’s purposes. But the very fact that God continued to speak means that his people needed to listen. Despite the vacuum of royal leadership, they needed to respond. Despite the idolatrous powers who ruled over them, they still had a responsibility as the people of God. Their present circumstances, even if by and large out of their hands, did not absolve them of their duty to serve the Lord and accomplish his purposes in and through them.

You see, even though the world was very different, they served a God who never changes. Even without a king, God can still accomplish what he wills. In fact, He can even accomplish his purposes through the very tyrants who impose their rule on them. What God calls his people to is faithfulness, obedience, loyalty, trust, and love. And this call is equally true to the people of Zechariah’s time as it is for us as Christians in our time.