Now let me invite you again to take your copies of God’s Word in hand and turn with me this time to the prophecy of Zechariah chapter 5. Zechariah chapter 5 - you’ll find it on page 794 if you’re using one of the church Bibles. Zechariah chapter 5, page 794. Before we read the Word of God let’s ask for God to help us understand it and that He would meet with us in it. Let us pray.
We believe, our Father, that Your Spirit has inspired the text, that it is the very Word of God, the mouth of God, the voice of God addressing us. We confess that to be true. Yet we also confess that there are many times when Your Word is hard, when we struggle to understand. And so we humble ourselves before You this evening and we pray that the same Spirit who caused these words to be written and has preserved them would now illuminate our understanding and help us to see some new facet of the light of the knowledge of the glory of God shining upon us in the face of Jesus Christ as He comes to us and speaks to us in this portion of Holy Scripture. For we ask it in His holy name, amen.
Zechariah chapter 5, reading from verse 1. This is the very Word of Almighty God:
“Again I lifted my eyes and saw, and behold, a flying scroll! And he said to me, ‘What do you see?’ I answered, ‘I see a flying scroll. Its length is twenty cubits, and its width ten cubits.’ Then he said to me, ‘This is the curse that goes out over the face of the whole land. For everyone who steals shall be cleaned out according to what is on one side, and everyone who swears falsely shall be cleaned out according to what is on the other side. I will send it out, declares the LORD of hosts, and it shall enter the house of the thief, and the house of him who swears falsely by my name. And it shall remain in his house and consume it, both timber and stones.’
Then the angel who talked with me came forward and said to me, ‘Lift your eyes and see what this is that is going out.’ And I said, ‘What is it?’ He said, ‘This is the basket that is going out.’ And he said, ‘This is their iniquity in all the land.’ And behold, the leaden cover was lifted, and there was a woman sitting in the basket! And he said, ‘This is Wickedness.’ And he thrust her back into the basket, and thrust down the leaden weight on its opening.
Then I lifted my eyes and saw, and behold, two women coming forward! The wind was in their wings. They had wings like the wings of a stork, and they lifted up the basket between earth and heaven. Then I said to the angel who talked with me, ‘Where are they taking the basket?’ He said to me, ‘To the land of Shinar, to build a house for it. And when this is prepared, they will set the basket down there on its base.’”
Amen, and we praise God that He has spoken His own holy and authoritative Word to us. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.
A Ministry of Encouragement in the Midst of Hard Times
Well as you will know if you have been with us over these last weeks together in the book of Zechariah, the prophet has been sent to minister to the people of God who have come back to the land of Judah after seventy years now and more of exile in Babylon. The land is no longer called Judah, however. It is known as Yehud. It is reduced to little more than a vassal province of the mighty empire of the Persians and Medes. Its capital city, the city of Jerusalem, lies now in ruins. And all that can be seen of the once magnificent temple that stood at its heart is the bare foundation stone. If you’ve visited New Orleans since Katrina you can see sometimes, can’t you, bare foundation slabs where there was a home or perhaps a business that was wiped away and has not yet been rebuilt. Think of Jerusalem and even the temple in those sorts of terms - something as devastating as that has taken place. All you can see now of the temple where God had ordained to meet His people is a bare foundation stone. This was a profoundly disheartening season in the corporate life of the people of God, difficult hard days.
And so Zechariah is sent to God’s people to minister a word of encouragement and reassurance as God, through the prophet, will summon the people to press on and persevere in the great work of rebuilding this city and particularly of rebuilding the temple. A series of eight apocalyptic visions have been given to the prophet - that’s the opening first six chapters of the book - all of them coming to the prophet in the course of a single evening, February 15, 519 BC. Each vision bringing yet another word from the Lord for the people designed to help them struggle on against all the odds, to press on and to persevere. And tonight we are thinking about the two closely connected visions that we find in chapter 5, the sixth and seventh vision in the sequence of eight. Now bad news is hard to hear at any time, but Zechariah’s message in these visions must have been especially hard to hear at least at first. The people of God, remember, have suffered God’s terrible judgment in the exile and now that they have finally returned, life is really hard. They are surrounded by enemies, famine is a very real possibility, and although they’ve now come home at last they are still living under the boot heel of despotic, pagan, imperial power. And yet all of that hardship notwithstanding, here in chapter 5 Zechariah comes to the people and the Lord gives to Zechariah for the people two sobering visions that articulate God’s response to the people’s sin. God’s response to the sin of the returned exiles.
There are times, aren’t there, when we feel like things have been hard enough, that we deserve a break, that God really ought to cut us some slack. “Enough already!” we feel like saying. That’s perhaps how it seemed to Zechariah and to the people as these two visions came to them. After all they’ve been through - “Couldn’t You just lighten up a little for a while? All this talk of sin is such a downer.” But as we’ll see, as hard as it may be, the Lord’s relentless confrontation of His people over their sin actually reflects His loving commitment to pursuing their eternal welfare. He knows, as John Owen famously put it once, that “if we are not always killing sin, sin will be killing us.” He knows that our sin does not sleep, it does not stop; it is a festering malignancy and it will destroy us in the end unless we take action. And our circumstances, however hard they may be, must never be allowed to become an excuse we use for backing away from the task given to us of slaying our sin and fleeing to God for mercy. We cannot allow self-pity to paralyze us in the pursuit of holiness. And so God here confronts His people with a powerful rebuke of their remaining corruptions, even in the midst of all of their ongoing trials.
I. Sin Cursed
Let’s look first of all at verses 1 to 4. Here is sin cursed. Sin cursed. Zechariah sees a flying scroll and I picture immediately the blood draining from the prophet’s face. In the Old Testament Scriptures and in the prophets, a scroll almost invariably spells coming judgments. So for example, Ezekiel chapter 2 verses 9 and 10 - Ezekiel sees a picture of a scroll, a vision of a scroll, bearing words of lamentation and mourning and woe. So here’s a flying scroll and I imagine Zechariah thinking, “Oh boy, this is not going to be good.” Notice the length of the scroll. It is, verse 2, twenty cubits in length, ten cubits in width. That makes this scroll thirty feet long, fifteen feet wide; it’s huge. A few weeks ago my family and I were at the coast and several times a day there was a small plane with one of those advertising banners that it was pulling along behind it. I think it was advertising a restaurant or something down on the coast. And the message was unavoidable. It was clear for everyone to see. Think of something of that order. That’s what Zechariah sees - a huge banner whose message cannot be avoided; clear for all to see. Whatever the message is, there’s no way to remain ignorant of it.
Curse for Covenant Transgression
And look at the angel’s explanation in verse 3. Here is the message writ large on this huge banner. This is the curse that goes out over the face of the whole land. “For everyone who steals shall be cleaned out according to what is on one side, and everyone who swears falsely shall be cleaned out according to what is on the other side.” That word for “curse” there is virtually a technical term in the Hebrew Scriptures for a judgment incurred for the transgression of a covenant. It’s the word reserved particularly for the consequences of transgressing the Mosaic covenant. It’s used in Deuteronomy 29:20 where, “the curses written in the book will be upon him and the Lord will blot out his name from under heaven.” That is all those who break the covenant. Like the two tablets of the Ten Commandments, according to Exodus 32:15, this scroll is written on both sides and the two sins that are particularly highlighted here represent transgressions of the eighth commandment and the third commandment - theft and swearing falsely by the name of the Lord; taking His name in vain. The third commandment there represents the first table of the Law - our duty toward God, what it looks like for creatures to be rightly related to their Creator. And the eighth commandment represents the second table of the Law - our duty toward our neighbor, what it looks like for creatures rightly related to their Creator now to live in right relationships with one another.
It’s important, I think, to know at this point that many commentators actually highlight the mercantile character of the sins that are involved here, the economic character of the sins that are being denounced here. As far as we can tell, the formal practice of pagan idolatry that had been so much a part of Israel’s sin prior to the exile and the reason, the primary reason they were sent into exile, idolatry, formal idolatry at least never again afflicted the community in quite the same way. The people, it seems, have returned to the worship of the Lord alone. His worship was the only worship that had a regular place in the life of the people of God after the exile. But lying and invoking God’s name to make a swift buck or two, stealing by means of unjust weights and measures in the marketplace, well that was a different story altogether.
A Devastating Rebuke: The Messy Nature of Sanctification
And that’s actually a reminder to us, isn’t it, of the messy nature of sanctification of the life of the people of God. Israel have indeed made real progress in one area - formal pagan idolatry is now gone. The great besetting sin that sent them into exile in the first place is now a memory and yet there remains a great deal of progress still to be made. There are still shocking blind spots in their lives, stunning inconsistencies that are still to be addressed, deeper idolatries that they have not yet forsaken. And so far from allowing Israel a moment of self congratulation for having come so very far, the Lord now here drills down relentlessly into their hearts to deal with their deeper idols, those areas where they’ve been giving themselves a free pass. And so the warning is writ large on a banner in the sky. I wonder if you can hear the warnings addressing you. This is what the Lord is saying to Israel; perhaps what he’s saying to us - “You think you’re doing well by attending carefully to My worship? That’s good. But you lie, you cheat, you steal, you invoke My name to lend credibility to your deceptions. You line your own pockets while with your mouth you sing My praises. Can’t you see that all you’ve really done is swap your obvious idols for the subtler, deeper, false gods of material gain and personal advancement?” It’s a devastating rebuke.
No Happiness at the Expense of Holiness
And look at the details of the curse itself in verse 4. The accusing scroll, we learn, “will be sent out and it will enter the house of the thief and the house of him who swears falsely by God’s name,” or to put it differently, “You can run but you can’t hide.” The judgment of God cannot be escaped and the judgment promised matches the offense perfectly, doesn’t it? To those for whom material prosperity and its pursuit trumps personal integrity, the Lord will strike at the very heart of their material comforts. The curse will consume the very things we pursue and come to live for. It shall remain in His house and consume it, both timber and stones. Those of us who are prepared to sacrifice holiness for happiness will find that pursing happiness without holiness will eat away at us so that we attain neither in the end. Sin cursed.
II. Sin Covered
But then look at the second vision with me. Zechariah has more than a word of judgment, a word of rebuke, a word of repentance, a call to repentance. He has more than that for us. Look at verses 5 to 8 first of all. Here is sin covered. The image changes from a flying scroll. Now Zechariah sees a basket, symbolic of the iniquity of the people. The basket, by the way, is literally here an ephah - that’s a kind of measuring container with a capacity of somewhere around five gallons and it was often used in trading in the marketplace, reinforcing again the point that the besetting sins of the community, at this point in their lives, are primarily economic in character. Unusually, this particular ephah is fitted with a heavy led covering, and now the image takes a turn toward the grotesque, doesn’t it? As the lid is lifted, Zechariah sees a woman crouching inside the basket. The woman’s name, we are told, is Wickedness. She is the sin of the people personified. She is Wickedness. Now some commentators suggest that the reason Zechariah sees a woman here is so that the symbol might agree in gender with the noun that identifies her. The word “wickedness” is feminine in form and so the symbol is naturally enough, a woman. But perhaps there’s another reason. The woman Zechariah sees may well be a temple prostitute, part of the idolatrous system of ancient pagan worship, so that the image graphically reinforces the point we were making earlier on - the economic and materialistic sins of the people have simply become a new form, a deeper form, perhaps even a subtle form, a more acceptable form of idolatry, of false worship in place of the more obvious idols of the pagan nations that once plagued them prior to the exile. Now that they’ve come home, they’ve found a far more pernicious and deceptive idol to enslave them. They’ve become worshipers at the altar of materialism and personal profit.
God’s Merciful Act in Restraining Sin
But look what happens next in verse 8. “And he thrust her back down into the basket and thrust down the led and weight on its opening.” The verbs there are physical and forceful. He thrust her back down, thrust down the weight. There’s a struggle going on, do you see? And the woman called Wickedness, the point I think we’re meant to grasp is that she wants to be free to deceive the people of God at will. She wants to prosecute her campaign of disseminating idolatry of the people as they pursue the selfish and self-centered ends, without restraint and without hindrance. But she is thrust down and covered over. Her deceit is restrained, her enslaving power is contained. The Lord will not allow her free reign. That’s good news. Here’s the other side of God’s response to the sin of His people - a word of rebuke. And how thankful we should be for the other side of this picture, that He doesn’t simply stand aloof to condemn and rebuke our sin, He also acts to contain it. He doesn’t simply denounce our sin; He graciously restrains it.
Zechariah’s vision here I think reminds us of what is surely one of the most overlooked mercies of God’s grace in our lives. Many of us battle with besetting sin on a daily basis and the fight isn’t easy. Sometimes we struggle, sometimes we lose the struggle - we stumble and fall, and when we do, as often as not, guilt can simply overwhelm us. The voice of a self-recriminating conscience relentlessly condemns us. And in the middle of that experience it is remarkably easy to forget that God has already been graciously restraining sin in our lives so that though we may have stumbled and fallen and struggled and battled we are not as bad as we might have been had God not been, all the time, working by His Word and Spirit to hold wickedness in check. Sin does not have free reign. Praise God that it’s true! Wickedness is not free to ensnare and deceive us howsoever she wills. The sovereign Lord keeps her malice in check. And that knowledge alone ought to reassure us in the fight, so that even though we might lose a particular skirmish with temptation we remember it’s the Lord, it’s the Lord, not the woman, Wickedness, who has ultimate dominion in our lives. Sin, however grotesque and malevolent and mighty it may appear is not now the ruling power in your heart, believer in Jesus. “Hallelujah, for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth.” Right? Sin is not in charge, does not hold the reigns of your life if this evening you are a believer. The sovereign Lord restrains wickedness and its malice and He reigns, even in your heart. Sin cursed and sin covered.
III. Sin Carried Away
Then thirdly, look at verses 9 through 11. Here is sin carried away. I managed to make all of these alliterate this evening at least. Two more women come forward now. If the woman, Wickedness, shut up in the ephah basket, offers us a rather grotesque image of sin, these two women are beautiful, aren’t they? They have wings like the wings of a stork. A stork in Hebrew is literally “a faithful one.” They are faithful, divine servants, and Zechariah says the wind, the ruach, the breath of God fills their wings so that they can carry this basket away. Storks were migratory birds and so Zechariah, rather naturally, anticipates that there will be some journey undertaken and so he asks where they are taking the basket. And I think the message of this part of the vision is pretty clear. Although God utterly condemns the sin of His people, restrains its effect and power in their midst, we also ought to remember that He will not allow it to remain. He condemns is, He retrains it, but He is also acting to remove it. It’s a promise, I think, of Gospel mercy holding out to us the opposite of the covenant curses that are threatened in the first vision. To those who persist in sin there remains only the covenant curse of God, but for all who turn in repentance and faith to Jesus Christ God will work by His Spirit to bear our guilt away forever.
Sin Atoned and Curse Removed at Calvary
How that would take place Zechariah doesn’t make clear here, but we know how that would take place, don’t we? Galatians 3:13 - “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us. For it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.’” The curses that should fall on covenant breakers who flee to Jesus, those covenant curses fall on our Savior and not upon us. At the cross, the condemnation announced by Zechariah’s scroll engulfed Christ so that instead we might be engulfed in the mercy of God. It is Jesus who is the Lamb of God, as John the Baptist put it, remember, who takes away the sin of the world. “It’s Christ who appeared in order to take away our sins” - 1 John 3:5. Because of His blood and righteousness, as far as the east is from the west so far has he removed our transgressions from us. Bless God for the Gospel of grace that does not merely restrain sin’s worst effects but takes away its curse forever, nailing it to the cross.
Sin: Removed from the People of God, Handed Over to the World
But the vision does not end here, does it? Zechariah wants to know, verse 10, “Where are they taking the basket?” The answer is fascinating. They are taking it, he is told, “to the land of Shinar to build a house for it. And when this is prepared they will set the basket there on its base.” Shinar is the name that’s used in Genesis chapter 11 for Babylon; it’s where the Tower of Babel was constructed. It is the consistent Biblical symbol of the world in opposition to God. And there a house will be built for this woman called, Wickedness. The house, really I think, should be translated “a temple” and the base on which the basket is set is a pedestal used to display an idol. And the message, I think, is a sobering one. If God acts in the Gospel to restrain and to remove the sin of His people, He also acts in His judgment to hand the world over to sin. I think that’s the point Paul makes so forcefully in Romans chapter 1 verses 18 and following. “God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator who is blessed forever.” God gave them up! He handed them over! Wickedness is sent to a place where she belongs. A temple is built for her. She’s placed on an idol stand that she might be worshiped. God rescues His people from their sin; God hands a rebel world over to their sin. God gave them up, Romans 1:26, “to dishonorable passions.” God gave them up, Romans 1:28, “to debased minds.”
Gracious Warnings; Slow and Steady Judgment
That is the way that judgment usually works this side of eternity. It is not immediately catastrophic and sudden. No, it’s typically slow and it’s the typically slow and steady abandonment of your mind and your body to the idols you have chosen for yourself till they consume you, never delivering the pleasure or the satisfaction that they promised you. Instead, they leave you empty, continually lusting for more and never filled. God’s wrath in this world is typically the quiet handing over of a heart and a mind to the domination and control of the lies it has chosen for itself. And you know what the most chilling thing of all about that reality is? No one ever notices when it happens to them. Reflecting on or adapting the words of Revelation 3:20, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.” Robert Murray M’Cheyne once remarked, “Jesus gives last knocks.” Jesus gives last knocks. That’s sobering, isn’t it? Jesus gives last knocks. There are offers of mercy made out to you. There are warnings of coming wrath and there are precious promises of pardon announced to you in the preaching of the Word of the Gospel. Zechariah sees both the terror of covenant curses and the hope of wickedness taken away. But one day if we will not respond, Jesus Christ will give His last knock. God will give us over to the lusts of our hearts, to dishonorable passions and debased minds. God will give us over to wickedness and to the idols we have chosen. Wickedness will come to live in a house where she belongs and we will never have noticed that it happens. It will be incremental and quiet. There will have been no sharp U-turns in our lives; we will simply have drifted slowly but surely further and further and further away. We will have been so busy running after our empty idols that we will never have noticed how little the Gospel pricks our consciences anymore. We no longer see how little sin worries us anymore. The threatening of the Law of God no longer make us tremble and we are indifferent to the fact. Our consciences have been inured to our danger. Oh, how careful we need to be. How careful we need to be to listen to the knocks that our Savior issues and gives us in the Gospel and in the preaching of the Word. There are warning knocks, right? Zechariah has a vision of covenant curses - warnings. And there are Gospel knocks - sin restrained and eventually taken away. Jesus Christ is knocking in the preaching of the Word. May the Lord be gracious to us so that we might hear them and run to Christ who bore the curse for us and who can carry our iniquity and our wickedness away. Sin cursed and sin covered and sin carried away. Will you pray with me?
Our Father, we praise You that Jesus is able, He is able to save to the uttermost, all the way to the end, all who come to God by Him. We do that now. We come to You resting on Jesus. Help us to hear the knocks in the warnings and in the Gospel promises, to be alarmed and alerted and enable us to forsake our idols, to tear them from Your throne and to set apart there only Jesus Christ as Lord. For we ask this in His name and for His glory, amen.
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