Now if you would, please take your copies of God’s Word and turn once again with me to the prophecy of Zechariah, Zechariah chapter 4. If you’re using one of the church Bibles you’ll find that on page 794. Zechariah chapter 4. Before we read let’s go to God and ask for His help. Let’s pray together.
Our Father, we believe that the Lord Jesus has the words of eternal life. To whom else can we turn? So we come pleading that we might hear Him in this portion of Your holy Word. Give to us indeed ears to hear what the Spirit says to His Church. In Jesus’ name, amen.
Zechariah chapter 4. This is the Word of Almighty God:
“And the angel who talked with me came again and woke me, like a man who is awakened out of his sleep. And he said to me, ‘What do you see?’ I said, ‘I see, and behold, a lampstand all of gold, with a bowl on the top of it, and seven lamps on it, with seven lips on each of the lamps that are on the top of it. And there are two olive trees by it, one on the right of the bowl and the other on its left.’ And I said to the angel who talked with me, ‘What are these, my lord?’ Then the angel who talked with me answered and said to me, ‘Do you not know what these are?’ I said, ‘No, my lord.’ Then he said to me, ‘This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD of hosts. Who are you, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel you shall become a plain. And he shall bring forward the top stone amid shouts of ‘Grace, grace to it!’’
Then the word of the LORD came to me, saying, ‘The hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundation of this house; his hands shall also complete it. Then you will know that the LORD of hosts has sent me to you. For whoever has despised the day of small things shall rejoice, and shall see the plumb line in the hand of Zerubbabel.
‘These seven are the eyes of the LORD, which range through the whole earth.’ Then I said to him, ‘What are these two olive trees on the right and the left of the lampstand?’ And a second time I answered and said to him, ‘What are these two branches of the olive trees, which are beside the two golden pipes from which the golden oil is poured out?’ He said to me, ‘Do you not know what these are?’ I said, ‘No, my lord.’ Then he said, ‘These are the two anointed ones who stand by the Lord of the whole earth.’”
Amen, and we praise God that He has spoken to us in His holy and inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.
A Dramatic Vision and a Dozy Prophet
It is late in the night of February 15, 519 BC, in the middle of the ruined city of Jerusalem. The people of God have returned from exile in Babylon and they have begun to rebuild. But the work on the temple in the heart of the city had stalled completely and had remained unfinished for some seventeen years since the foundation stones were laid. And Zechariah the prophet has been sent to minister to the returned exiles as they resume the reconstruction project. But poor Zechariah is having a rough night. There are a series of eight dramatic visions given one after another throughout the course of the evening for the people, each of them designed in their own way to encourage them to persevere in the work. So far, four of these night visions have passed and as we turn now to Zechariah chapter 4 we find the poor prophet in something of a stupor as the chapter opens. It’s hard to blame him, really, after the night he’s having.
Look at chapter 4 verse 1. “And the angel who talked with me came again and woke me like a man who is awakened out of his sleep.” If you pay attention to such things you will have noted that the simile here tells us Zechariah wasn’t actually sleeping but he was in that abstracted, fuzzy, half-consciousness we sometimes have to battle when sleep has eluded us. Perhaps you’re already beginning to battle that now as the sermon has begun! He is what we might say a rather jetlagged prophet at this point and I can’t help but wonder just how hard the angel had to poke him to get him to focus for what will be round five. We ought to be immensely grateful that the angel perseveres with the sleepy prophet, however, because the vision of this fourth chapter is wonderfully comforting and strengthening for us, as it was intended to be for God’s people then, as we seek in our own challenging contexts to persevere in the work to which the Lord has called us.
I. Recognize the Beauty of the People of God
There are three things that this passage invites us to do and the first of them that I want us to consider together is the call to recognize the beauty of the people of God. Recognize the beauty of the people of God. The angel, perhaps to keep a dozy Zechariah fully alert, engages with him in what develops into a rather blunt, almost comic dialogue. He asks in verse 2, “What do you see?” and Zechariah describes his vision. There’s a golden lampstand with a wide bowl fixed at the top of the central stand and there are seven smaller lamps fixed to the rim of that larger bowl. And each of these has seven lips into which the wick would be placed so that when lit this lampstand would have forty-nine flames. Seven lamps with seven wicks on each lamp, all of them burning brightly. Beside the lamp, feeding it with a constant supply of oil, are these two olive trees; one on each side. This they do, verse 12 explains, by means of two golden pipes giving a steady flow of oil to keep the lamps burning. It would have been a beautiful, if rather mysterious image, and Zechariah found it quite impenetrable at least at first. That is always an immense encouragement, isn’t it, when even the author of Scripture struggles to understand what’s in front of him when a Biblical author doesn’t grasp what God is saying to him. There are times, let’s be honest, when the Scriptures are hard and we don’t get it. Zechariah certainly feels that way about this fifth vision. Verse 4 – “And I said to the angel who talked with me, ‘What are these, my lord?’” It is a question that he persists in. Verse 11 and again in verse 12 find him pressing the angel for an explanation.
And just as an aside, I do think we ought to be encouraged by that, not just that Zechariah didn’t understand but that he wasn’t willing to settle for a lack of understanding. He persists in seeking clarity. God’s Word sometimes is difficult but I think we ought to learn from Zechariah’s example not to stop pursuing a deepening grasp of its message. There ought to be no no-go areas of Scripture for any of us where we resign ourselves never to turn because we perceive them to be just too hard. Instead, I hope you can begin to cultivate the attitude that when you are faced with a difficult passage you find in it instead an invitation to wrestle on with the message and to pray for illumination. Almost certainly when you do that, you will find as Zechariah found here – precious truth that will enrich our Christian lives to the glory of God.
The Lampstand: An Emblem of the People of God
Well the interpreting angel responds to Zechariah actually with a mild rebuke. “Do you not know what these are?” It seems that Zechariah ought to have grasped at least something of their significance. The lampstand, for example, would immediately have echoed the lampstand, the seven-branched menorah that was placed in the tabernacle under Moses. It would have been redolent, suggestive of the seven golden lampstands Solomon installed in the temple. And here Zechariah sees another golden lampstand once again in the context of the temple. The Scriptures elsewhere leave us in little doubt about the symbolic significance of the lampstand. Isaiah 42:6 tells us that Israel were to be a light to the nations. And Jesus takes up that phrase in Matthew 5:14 and perhaps also borrows the image of the lampstand from here in Zechariah 4 and says now of His disciples that we are to be like lamps on a stand, the light of the world. And then Revelation chapter 1 – there are seven golden lampstands which represent, we are told by John, the seven churches to which the letters of the book of Revelation are addressed. And among them, the Lord Jesus walks present with His people. The lampstand is an emblem of the covenant community, the people of God.
But Zechariah’s lampstand doesn’t look like the seven-branched menorah that stood in the original tabernacle and in the temple. In fact the precise configuration of Zechariah’s lampstand has been debated by scholars ad nauseam with little real consensus emerging about precisely what it looked like. But actually that, I think, may well be the point. There’s dissonance here. There are echoes of the older lampstands that stood in the former temple, but this lampstand is larger and grander and brighter – forty-nine flames burn around it and it never runs out of oil. The heavenly vision far surpasses the earthly lampstands that once adorned the now desolate temple. Zechariah and his community were faced with the rubble of a broken down temple in the midst of a ruined city. They were themselves a tiny remnant of a once large prosperous people. No longer an independent country they now existed at the whim of the pagan emperor, Darius. Their ancestral homeland reduced to the burned-over Babylonian province of Yehud [Judah]. They were not an impressive sight. In fact, they were a wretched, poor, embattled, beleaguered minority surrounded by people who wanted nothing so much as their utter failure and defeat.
The golden lampstands that once stood in the temple were long gone and it might have been tempting to think that just like those lampstands, the beauty of God’s covenant people has now been lost forever. All that was left was this burned out, ruined shell.
Beautified by God’s Own Presence
But Zechariah’s vision is designed to show us God’s people as they really are, not just as they appear in human estimation. If chapter 3 drew back the veil on the supernatural, Satanic opposition to the people of God here in chapter 4 the veil is drawn back once more only now to show us the divine perspective on those same struggling weak people, living and working amidst the ruins and rubble of Jerusalem. The temple lampstands were gone. The city was destroyed. The people were destitute and despised. But there is a lampstand still burning in heaven that has never been, can never be removed. The literal lamps of the Old Testament pale before the splendor of this lampstand. The people of God, as God Himself views them, are unassailably beautiful and precious, untouched by the vicissitudes of their outward circumstances and they shine. They shine with a radiance that is not their own.
Notice that the angel doesn’t actually answer Zechariah’s first request for an explanation until the second half of verse 10. Zechariah had asked, “What are these?” and eventually the interpreting angel explains, “These seven are the eyes of the Lord which range through the whole earth.” The seven lamps atop the rim of the central bowl in this lampstand, each of them burning with seven wicks, are symbolic, you see, of the presence of God burning by the oil of the Spirit of God in the midst of His people. Here we are being shown what Barry Webb has called, “a community, a light with the presence of the all-seeking, all-knowing God who dwells in their midst.” Isn’t that beautiful? Here’s the people of God. This is the covenant community. This is the truth about the church. This is God’s description of us, of you, believer in Jesus. You are a light with the presence of the all-seeing, all-knowing God beautified by His own presence.
We are so tempted to seek the outward beauty that the world prizes, aren’t we, personally, perhaps even congregationally? How easily we want to live up to the expectations and conform to the values of our culture to prize the outward and the obviously impressive, to privilege physical beauty and displays of power to think that bigger is better, to evaluate a person’s worth by their social connections, perhaps, or the peer group they move among. There is relentless pressure to conform to the pattern of this world. And when we don’t quite measure up, it’s hard not to embrace the world’s narrative about us – ugly, worthless, insignificant, unimportant. But Zechariah 4 calls us to recognize the true beauty of the people of God, a beauty that is not apparent to the naked eye. The golden lampstands that once stood in the temple may well be long gone and the temple torn down. The outward trappings of glory, displays of power, they may fade or be taken from us. But if we are Christians, our beauty stands untouched before God. There is a lampstand set before His throne that is a light and is beautified by His own presence. 1 Peter 3 that we read this morning speaks about the true beauty that God delights in, “not the external beauty of outward adornment but instead the beauty of the inner person, the imperishable beauty,” Peter says, “of a gentle, quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.” That is who He is making us to be by His grace – a beauty that He delights in and prizes. Recognize the beauty of the people of God.
II. Receive the Ministry of the Servants of God
Then secondly we are being called here to receive the ministry of the servants of God. The other feature of this mysterious vision has to do with the two olive trees standing on either side of the lampstand. If the lampstand is the community of God’s people, ablaze with the presence of God, what can these two trees mean? That’s the question Zechariah twice presses the angel to answer in verse 11 and again in verse 12. “What are these two olive trees? What are these two branches of the olive trees?” “These,” the angel finally says, “These are the two anointed ones who stand by the Lord of the whole earth” – verse 14. The two trees stand for two men who have a prominent role in sustaining the community. They are olive trees who supply oil to the lampstands. They support and sustain the lampstands.
The Call of the Two Anointed Ones
Now bear in mind the structure of these eight visions as a whole. When you do, the identify of these two anointed ones begins to become clear. The first and last of the eight visions paralleling one another deal with God’s judgment on the whole world, on the nations. The second and third and seventh and sixth visions deal with Judah and Jerusalem, God’s people, more narrowly. God will bless them; He will restore their fortunes. That’s the message. And then right in the center of the eight visions, in the fourth vision that we looked at last week and in this fifth vision tonight, God has a word not for the world, not for the community, but for two individuals – Joshua the high priest, anointed to serve in his role as the spiritual leader of the community – that was chapter 3. And Zerubbabel, grandson of Jehoiakim, King of Judah, heir of the throne of David here in chapter 4.
So here’s what’s going on in the vision. On either side of the lampstand there is the covenant community stands a priest and a king supplying the oil of the Spirit sustaining the community. They are the instruments by which God the Holy Spirit is working in the life of His people to sustain them – Joshua as the priest, serving at the altar making atonement for sin, interceding for the people and Zerubbabel, David’s heir, the kingly figure governing amidst all their trials, defending them from their enemies. These two men are God’s anointed means for the welfare of the flock. He has not deserted them to their own resources Zechariah wants them to know. Instead He has provided His servants that by them the community might continue to shine a light with God’s gracious presence as a lamp on a stand, the light of the world.
The Great Priest and The Great King
But these two figures – remember chapter 3 verse 9 – these two figures have a deeper significance still. There we’re told, chapter 3 verse 9, that Joshua and his cohorts are a sign. That is, they point beyond themselves, as wonderfully comforting as it must have been to the people of Jerusalem in those days to know that God had given them Joshua and Zerubbabel for their good to keep them and sustain them and bless them, these two men had a deeper purpose. They serve as pointers to a great, fuller, more glorious reality than any in that generation could have perceived. Joshua points, do you see, to another priest who was to come, to Jesus who is our great Priest over the house of God – Hebrews 10:21. The One who opens for us a new and living way through the curtain, through the veil that is His flesh, into the very holy of holies, there to commune with Almighty God upon His throne calling Him Abba Father. And Zerubbabel points to great David’s greater Son, the Son of David. He is, Revelation 1:5, “the ruler of the kings on earth who loves us and has freed us by His blood.” As our catechism reminds us, “As our King, the Lord Jesus subdues us to Himself, He rules us and defends us, He restrains and conquers all His and our enemies.” It’s Jesus in the end, Zechariah is saying. It’s Jesus who sustains the church with a never-ceasing supply of the Spirit of God. It’s beauty shines forth. The church is filled with a beauty that is untouched by the rubble of its earthly trials because Christ sustains it. Just as the lampstand depended upon the oil that the two trees supplied, so too we depend on the Spirit of God that Jesus Christ alone can give us.
III. Rest on the Supply of the Spirit of God
And that brings me to the last thing to see in this vision. We are to recognize the church’s true beauty, we are to receive the ministry of the servants – actually, ultimately the servant of God – and thirdly we are to rest on the supply of the Spirit of God. Rest on the supply of the Spirit of God. The beautiful picture of oil flowing unceasingly to the lampstand is supposed to teach Zerubbabel an important lesson. Look at verses 6 to 10 with me please. “‘This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD of hosts. Who are you, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel you shall become a plain. And he shall bring forward the top stone amid shouts of ‘Grace, grace to it!’’” Ezra, which gives us if you like the historical narrative that serves as the counterpart to the prophecies of Haggai and Zechariah, Ezra chapter 3 verse 8 and Haggai 1:14 tell us Zerubbabel himself led the people to lay the foundation stone in the temple, those seventeen or eighteen years before his own hands worked on it. But in Ezra chapter 4 we learn pretty soon after the work began the enemies of God’s people sought to discourage them, made them afraid to continue, they bribed their leaders, they even wrote petitions to the emperor to cause the work to stop. And for those seventeen, eighteen years that campaign has been extremely effective. It must have looked like the work would never be completed. But it would, but not by might and not by power but by the supply of the Spirit of God and by no other means. The mountain of opposition that confronted Zerubbabel, verse 7, the mountain of worldly hatred and animus that mountain will be laid low. And Zerubbabel himself will place the final stone on the pinnacle of the temple while all the people celebrate shouting significantly, “Grace! Grace!”
Grace lays the stone, grace finishes the work. The hands that laid the foundation will complete the rebuilding work, verse 9, but they will do so by grace, by the Spirit’s enabling and by no other means. Thus, you see, is really God who is building a temple for Himself in the world. Throughout the Scriptures He’s done that by two great means. He’s done it by His Spirit and He’s done it by His King. There was the very first temple, the temple of creation itself which God made by His Spirit, and there He set our first father, Adam, in the sanctuary of the garden. Remember the Genesis account? They are to meet with Him and commune with Him. Then in Exodus 31, when it came time for the construction of the tabernacle according to the regulations given to Moses, God filled Bezalel, the son of Uri, with the Holy Spirit, endowing him with the ability and intelligence and knowledge and craftsmanship to complete the work to build the tent that would be the site for God’s communion with His people. And when the Jerusalem temple was built, God’s king, David, filled with the Spirit developed the plan. His son, King Solomon, carried out the work. And so now here, also Zerubbabel, is to rebuild the temple according to that same pattern established by his forefathers, in the power of the Spirit as God’s king. And as he does so, Zerubbabel, like Adam and Bezalel and David and Solomon before him, is a type, a foreshadowing of the final great King endowed with the Spirit without measure who would build for Himself the true temple, the final temple in which God will dwell forever. Not a temple of bricks and mortar but the ultimate dwelling place of God by His Spirit. Sinners, saved by grace through faith in Christ alone, built as living stones into fellowship with Jesus, the living stone, the chief cornerstone.
A Lesson: Begging for the Spirit’s Power
Certainly we can and should take up the motto of verse 6, “’Not by might, not by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord.” We can and should take up that motto and use it to remind ourselves of God’s ways of advancing His kingdom. It is never by human power, human sheer brute strength that His cause makes progress in the world. It is never by our ingenuity or skill, by our brawn or brains that sinners are saved, that believers are sustained. It is always and only by His Spirit. And if there is one desperate and urgent need for the church of Jesus Christ in these days it is surely a fresh outpouring of the Spirit of God upon His people. How we need the reviving ministry of the Holy Spirit if the Gospel is to see days of power and influence in our land. That ought to be the great burden of our prayers as we continue particularly in this season of transition in the church’s life. “Oh Lord, pour out Your Spirit on the preaching of the Word and the witness, the faithful witness of Your people. Rend the heavens and come down in a new torrent, a fresh effusion of the Spirit of holiness and grace.”
The Great Lesson: The Fullness of the Spirit in Christ the King
That should be one of the great lessons of this text but it is not the main lesson. The main lesson is that the greater than Zerubbabel has come in the fullness of the Spirit and the mountain of this world’s hostility that seemed to engulf Him, even to snuff Him out at Calvary, was in fact utterly laid low by Him. And now by the Spirit He is building for Himself a temple as He gathers from every nation a people to Himself. Jesus is building His Church and the gates of hell are not and will not and cannot prevail against it.
A Temptation: Yearning for the “Glory Days”
And so as we close we need to hear the challenge and the promise of verse 10. “Whoever has despised the day of small things shall rejoice and shall see the plumb line in the hand of Zerubbabel.” It was a day of small things in Zechariah’s time. Zechariah’s colleague, Haggai, in Haggai 2:3 delivers God’s message to the people. “Who is left among you who saw this house, this temple in its former glory? How do you see it now?” the prophet asks. “Is it not as nothing in your eyes?” Ezra 3:12 even tells us that the old men who had come back with the returning exiles to Jerusalem who had seen the first temple in all its glory before it was destroyed, they burst into tears, they wept openly when they saw the foundation of the new temple being laid because the former was so wonderful and this but a poor imitation. It was a day of small things.
And you might be tempted to think the same of the days in which we live. You older saints, I shan’t point you out for fear of giving offense, you older saints, I wonder if you’re always thinking about the glory days. Do you remember seasons of remarkable spiritual power, particular sermons where God Himself seemed to stand forth in might and grace to do a mighty work among us? Perhaps you feel those days are long gone. These are the days of small things. How easy to despise the days in which we live, to dismiss them as nothing compared to the way things used to be, and even to be tempted to live in the past. “Oh but not so fast” Zechariah would say to us. Not so fast. Do you see the promise in verse 10? Zerubbabel is going to stand forth with the plumb line, or perhaps a better translation would be the stone of separation – the chosen stone in his hand and the work will finally be done, the project will be complete at last. And your joy at the glory of the consummated work will obliterate your sorrow at the memory of glory days long gone.
The Best is Yet to Come
The point is this – the best is yet to come. The best is yet to come. Do you believe that? Don’t let the way things are kill your faith or cripple your labors. The way things are is not the way things shall be. The best is yet to come. The One to whom Zerubbabel points us is going to step forward one day and every eye will see Him and the work will be done. He will finish what He started in your heart and in His world and you will say with John in Revelation 21, “Then I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And the voice will say, ‘Behold, the dwelling of God is with men!’ and He will dwell with them and they will be His people. Here’s the finished work, the completed temple. God Himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes and death shall be no more. Neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” Jesus is building His temple and He will finish the work. The glory days have not passed. The best is yet to come. Press on. Believe. Trust. Do not grow weary in well doing but press on. The best is yet to come.
Let’s pray together.
O Lord, our God, how we adore You for Your precious promises. Forgive us for always looking over our shoulder at the days that have gone by and even for despising the day of small things in which we live. How easily discouraged we are! Teach us instead not to lose sight of the Christian hope when the trumpet shall sound and the skies will split and the King of Kings shall step forth in glory and the work at last will be finished and our joy will be everlasting and complete. With our eyes filled with that vision help us to press on, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
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