We come today to the fifth of the eight night visions which Zechariah the prophet received from the Lord. Zechariah was ministering in Jerusalem at the same time as Haggai which was after the Lord’s people had returned to Jerusalem from their exile in Babylon. And Zechariah received these eight night visions in order to encourage the people who had the task of rebuilding the temple. There were enemies who opposed them and the task before them often seemed to be too much for them. No doubt they were tempted to despair. And so, the Lord encouraged his despondent people through these visions. And because they’ve been written down and preserved in the pages of the Bible, then we know they were not just for God’s people living in those days, but they are for God’s people in every generation, because we often become discouraged and despondent and we need a word from the Lord to encourage us.
And Zechariah fifth night vision begins in verse 1 with the return of the interpreting angel. We’ve met this interpreting angel in the previous visions, though he didn’t appear at all in chapter 3. But he appeared in the other visions in order to explain to Zechariah some of the things he was seeing. Back in verse 3 of chapter 2, we were told that he left Zechariah and another angel — the Angel of the Lord — took over and began to reveal things to Zechariah. But now he’s back. And we’re told that he wakened Zechariah as a man is wakened from his sleep. In other words, he wasn’t really asleep, but it was as if he was asleep. Maybe he was deep in thought, thinking about what he had just seen in the previous vision. But now he has to pay attention as the fifth vision is revealed.
Verses 2 to 5
And so, the interpreting angel rouses Zechariah from his thoughts and asks him, ‘What do you see?’ What did he see in this vision? He saw a solid gold lampstand. And the solid gold lampstand had a bowl at the top. And there were seven lights on the bowl with seven channels to the lights. Some of the details of the lampstand are hard to work out and the commentators aren’t entirely sure how to translate some of the words which Zechariah uses. For instance, it’s not clear what he means by ‘channels’ and some translations refer to spouts and some to lips. And they’re not sure if there were only seven lights in total or whether each light was divided into seven more lights to give 49 lights in total. However, the details aren’t that important and the overall picture is fairly simple. The lampstand was a kind of a pedestal with a bowl on top which served as a reservoir for oil which would be used as fuel for the lights. It’s similar to the gold lampstand which we read about in Exodus 25 which was kept in Holy Place inside the tabernacle, although they’re not exactly the same.
But that’s not the only thing Zechariah saw in the vision. He also saw two olive trees standing by the lampstand, one on the right and one of the left.
There’s a lampstand with lights and there are two olive trees. That’s what he saw. If you’re wondering what they signify, then you’re not alone, because that’s exactly what Zechariah was thinking. He asked the interpreting angel in verse 4: ‘What are these, my lord?’ And he answered: ‘Do you not know what these are?’
You get the impression that the interpreting angel thinks Zechariah should have known. But Zechariah is not embarrassed to admit his ignorance and he replies that he doesn’t know what they are. And now we’re waiting for the interpreting angel to answer Zechariah’s question and to tell him what the lampstand and olive trees signify. They must signify something, because this is a vision and visions contain pictures and images which need to be interpreted. So, what does this picture mean? What’s the interpretation?
Verses 6 and 7
But instead of answering his question and explaining what the lampstand and trees signify, the angel revealed to Zechariah a word from the Lord to Zerubbabel. Who is Zerubbabel? He’s mentioned several times in the book of Ezra and in the book of Nehemiah and he also appeared in Haggai’s book. And he was the governor of Judah at that time. Since Judah was still part of the Persian Empire, presumably he was appointed by Darius the King to govern the land on his behalf. However, we also know that he was a descendant of King David. So, he’s from the old royal family and his name appears in the genealogy of the Lord Jesus in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. I’ve said before that if it weren’t for the exile, he would probably have been king over Judah, but now he’s only the governor. And as the governor, he was one of the ones who was to oversee the rebuilding of the temple.
And now the Lord has a message for him. And the message from the Lord to Zerubbabel is this:
Not my might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord Almighty.
The word translated ‘might’ can refer to military might. For instance, it’s used in Exodus 14 to refer to Pharaoh’s army which pursued the Israelites when they left Egypt. And the word translated ‘power’ can refer to human strength. It’s used in Nehemiah 4:10 to refer to the strength of the labourers who were working on the wall of the city. So, the message of the Lord to Zerubbabel was that it wasn’t by human might or human strength, but it would be by God’s Spirit. And what does that mean? Well, when we remember that Zerubbabel was the governor of Judah at that time and that he was responsible for overseeing the rebuilding of the temple, then it becomes clear that the Lord’s message to him was that the task of rebuilding the temple would not be accomplished by human might or strength, but by the Spirit of God.
Perhaps Zerubbabel was wondering how they would ever succeed in rebuilding the temple. Surely they would need an army of workers and lots of lots of strong labourers? Where will he find them all? And how can they possibly succeed, because the task seems enormous and their resources are small? But here’s a message from the Lord to comfort and encourage him. You’ll succeed in rebuilding the temple, but it’s got nothing to do with human might and strength, it’s got nothing to do with the size of your workforce or their strength. It’s got nothing to do with those things, but it’s got everything to do with my Spirit.
And do you know what the Spirit can do? The Spirit can do everything God can do, because the Spirit is God. He’s the third Person of the Trinity and he’s equal to the Father and the Son in glory and honour and power. And as we were hearing on Wednesday evening, our God is infinitely and eternally and unchangeably powerful. He is all-powerful so that he’s able to do all that he pleases and no one can thwart his plans. By his mighty power he made all things in the beginning and he sustains all things day by day and he directs all things: all of his creatures and all of the actions. And that’s the power which was available to Zerubbabel while he oversaw the work to rebuild the temple. Whatever he needed, God could provide. Did he need the king’s permission? The Lord, by his Spirit, could move the heart of the king to give them permission. And he did. You can read about it in Ezra 6. Did he need money? Again, the Lord, by his Spirit, could move the heart of the king to give him all the money he needed. And he did. You can read about that in Ezra 6. What about his enemies? The Lord, by his Spirit, could deal with them. And he did. You can read about that in Ezra 6 as well, because King Darius gave the order that no one was to interfere with their work. Did he need workers? The Lord, by his Spirit, could stir the hearts of the people to do all the work that needed to be done. And he did, because we read in Ezra 6 how the temple was completed in the sixth year of King Darius. Haggai and Zechariah began their ministry in the second year of his reign; and the work was completed in the sixth year. And it was accomplished, not because of human might and human strength — though the Lord was able to use human might and human strength — but it was accomplished ultimately because of the Lord, who by his Spirit, moved the heart of the king and the people to do what was necessary.
And the Lord’s message to Zerubbabel continues in verse 7:
What are you, O mighty mountain? Before Zerubbabel you will become level ground.
Some commentators suggest that the reference to a mighty mountain in this verse refers to a mountain of rubble which Zerubbabel might have faced. And so, we can imagine Zerubbabel looking at this mountain of rubble, the remains of the old temple which had been destroyed, and then he thinks about the daunting task before him. They have to remove all the rubble. They have to clear the site. Then they have to start to build. What a job! Will they ever manage it?
But the reference to a mighty mountain may simply refer to all the obstacles standing in his way, including all the practical problems of how to rebuild the temple as well as all the problems caused by their enemies; and then he had to deal with the discouragement of the people. How could he overcome their despair? So, there was a mighty mountain in his way: all these obstacles and problems and frustrations and difficulties. But, here’s a message from the Lord. That mighty mountain? It will become level ground. I will flatten it out. I will remove it. I will deal with it. You don’t have to worry about it, because I, the Lord, will take care of it.
And then, said the Lord, Zerubbabel will bring out the capstone to shouts of ‘God bless it! God bless it!’ It’s not entirely clear, but it’s likely that the stone referred to in this verse is a kind of completion stone. It’s the final stone to be added when everything else is done. And so, here’s the Lord and he’s promising Zerubbabel that, with the help of the Lord’s Spirit, he will complete the work on the temple. Though there are mountains of obstacles in your way, I will remove those obstacles and the day will come when you will finish the work. And when that day comes, the people will rejoice. And they will rejoice, because it will be clear that the reason they were able to finish the work is because of the Lord who helped them by his Spirit. And sure enough, in Ezra 6 we’re told that when they completed the temple, the people gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate.
Verses 8 to 10
Verses 8 to 10 repeat the substance of verses 6 and 7 but in plainer language. Some people like pictures. They like images. And other people like plain language. And so, for those who like plain language, the Lord went on to say that Zerubbabel — who laid the foundation stone of the temple — will also complete the work on the temple. He who began a good work will bring it to completion. Though the task is daunting and seems impossible, nothing is too hard for the Lord and he will ensure that Zerubbabel completes the work.
And though there were some — perhaps there were even many — who despised the day of small things, they will rejoice when the see the plumb-line in Zerubbabel’s hand. No one is entirely clear how to translate the Hebrew word which the NIV renders as ‘plumb-line’, but it refers to some kind of stone. And it seems to me that it’s referring to the same stone as in verse 7. That is, it’s a reference to the capstone or to the completion stone.
So, there were some people who despised the day of small things. This describes the despondency of the people in those days who couldn’t see past all the problems and obstacles in their way and it seemed to them that the glory days were past and gone and would never return. In the past, everything was great. Everything was glorious. Everything was big. But now it’s all so small and pathetic.
But, according to the word of the Lord, those despondent people will one day rejoice when they see the capstone in Zerubbabel’s hand as he completes the work. They think it can’t be done, but it will be done.
So, the message of the Lord to Zerubbabel has been a message of encouragement. You don’t need to rely on human might or strength, because I’ll help you by my Spirit. Whatever mountains are in your way, whatever obstacles you may face, I will remove them. And though it might not seem like it, the day will arrive when Zerubbabel will lay the capstone and the building will be complete. That’s the Lord’s message to Zerubbabel.
But then, at the end of verse 10, the Lord says:
These seven are the eyes of the Lord, which range throughout the earth.
It’s not entirely clear what ‘these seven’ are, but some commentators think he’s referring back to something we read in chapter 3. Look back to verse 9 of chapter 3 where it says:
See, the stone I have set in front of Joshua! There are seven eyes on that one stone….
And you might recall last week that I said it wasn’t clear whether the Angel of the Lord was referring to a precious stone which the High Priest was to wear, or to the capstone of the building. It now becomes clear that the stone from chapter 3 is the capstone which Zerubbabel will lay when the temple was completed. And the capstone has seven eyes on it. And according to verse 10 of chapter 4, those seven eyes represent how God’s eyes range throughout the earth. In other words, he sees and watches over everything. And he doesn’t just see and watch over everything as a passive and indifferent observer, who doesn’t really care what’s happening. No, he sees and watches everything to ensure that his plans are fulfilled. And in that case, the message about the seven eyes fits in with everything else we’ve read. The Lord is writing to encourage his despondent people and he reassures him that he sees and knows everything. Nothing is hidden from his sight. And he’s watching over everything to ensure that his plan for his people and his plan for the temple is fulfilled.
Before we move on to the final part of the vision in verses 11 to 14, let me try to apply what we’ve read already. The people were despondent, because it seemed to them that they were stuck in the day of small things. Everything was small and weak and insignificant. There was a mountain of obstacles in their way. Their situation seemed hopeless. But the Lord promised to help them by his Spirit so that the day would come when the work to rebuild the temple was finished.
This relates to God’s work to build Christ’s church, because the city of Jerusalem and the temple within it symbolise the church of Jesus Christ, where God dwells by his Spirit. And when we read about the church in glory, in the life to come. we’re told that it will comprise a great multitude of people from every nation which cannot be counted. The total number of people who make up that multitude cannot be counted because there are so many of them. They’re like the stars in the sky and they’re like the sand on the seashore. They’re too many to count.
That’s what the church will be like in the life to come. It will be this enormous multitude of people, gathered together in the presence of God to worship him. And yet, right now, the church seems so small and weak and insignificant. It seems to us that we’re living in the day of small things and we’re reminded of the words of the Lord Jesus in Luke 12 where he refers to his people as his ‘little flock’. And his little flock has always been little. It’s always been little compared to the rest of the world. And the number of those who believe has always been small compared to the number who do not believe. And even in those days in the past when many more people used to attend church, we know that not everyone who attended was a true believer. Christ’s little flock has always been little.
And so, it seems that we’re living in the day of small things. And though we want to see the church around the world grow, there seem to be so many obstacles in our way, because our resources are scarce; and the people we’re trying to reach won’t listen; and they seem so hardened to the gospel; and their hearts seem to be impenetrable so that nothing we say gets through to them or makes any impression on them. It seems so hard. And so, we’re tempted to despair and to become despondent.
But here’s a message to encourage us. In the days of Zechariah, the temple seemed so small and the work to rebuild it seemed so hard. And yet the Lord promised that in the end the work will be finished, because God will do it by his Spirit and every obstacle will be removed. And the church often seems so small and weak and insignificant. It’s despised by the world. It’s regarded as nothing. And yet the Lord has promised that in the end it will become a great multitude which no one can number. And it will become glorious.
And how it gets from what it is today to what it will be in the future is beyond our understanding, but we know that he will do it, not by human might or strength, but by his almighty Spirit. And so, in the end the church will praise the Lord for ever and for ever, because it will be clear to everyone that he was the one who did it. Little by little, bit by bit, one by one, he adds to his church and he will keep adding to his church until it becomes this great multitude that cannot be counted. Whatever obstacles are in the way of its growth, he will remove, because he’s watching over all things to ensure that his plan for the church is completed. And the Lord Jesus Christ — who is our Zerubbabel, our King — will complete what he started. He laid the foundation of the church when he laid down his life for our salvation. And the day is coming when Christ our King will come again to complete his church and to bring it into glory. And he will complete it, not by human might or human strength, but by his Spirit who moves in the hearts of sinners to enable them to turn to Christ for salvation.
Verses 11 to 14
And so, this vision, like the previous ones, is given to encourage believers in every generation. But we haven’t reached the end of the vision yet. There’s still the final part which is in verses 11 to 14. Zechariah still wants to know about the lampstand with the two olives trees beside it. So, he asked the interpreting angel what the olive trees are. In fact, he asked the angel twice: once in verse 11 and again in verse 12. And in verse 12 he adds a detail which we didn’t know before about two gold pipes that pour out golden oil. Again it’s not clear, but it seems that there were pipes coming out of the two olives trees. And presumably these pipes from the trees were connected to the lampstand. And golden oil, or olive oil, flowed through the pipes. And so, if you put all of that together, it seems oil from the trees flowed along the pipes to the lampstand so that the lights would be kept burning brightly.
And Zechariah wants to know what it all means. So, come on! Tell me! And the angel asks: Don’t you know? He’s again giving the impression that Zechariah ought to know. And once again Zechariah is not afraid to admit his ignorance and he tells the angel he doesn’t know what they are. And the angel answers him and says:
These are the two who are anointed to serve the Lord of all the earth.
And with that, the chapter ends.
But what does it mean? What does the angel mean by ‘the two who are anointed to serve the Lord’? Who are they?
The NIV’s translation isn’t the best, because what the angel really said is that the olive trees are ‘the two sons of oil’. And the angel doesn’t say they serve the Lord, but that they stand by the Lord. So what are these ‘sons of oil’ who stand by the Lord? The expression ‘son of oil’ is used in Isaiah 5 to refer to a fertile vineyard which produces lots and lots of olive oil. And so, the two olive trees in Zechariah’s vision are fertile trees and they’re able to produce lots and lots and lots of olive oil, an endless supply of olive oil. And the endless supply of olive oil from the trees presumably flows across to the gold lampstand to provide fuel to keep the lights burning brightly. The gold lampstand in the tabernacle in the days of Moses had to be topped up continually by the priests to keep it burning. But the lampstand in Zechariah’s vision will never go out, because it receives an endless supply of oil from these two trees.
The commentators discuss who these two trees symbolise. Some think the two trees symbolise Joshua the High Priest and Zerubbabel the governor who were serving the Lord in Jerusalem. Others thinks the two trees symbolise the two prophets, Haggai and Zechariah, who were also serving the Lord in Jerusalem. But I prefer what John Calvin says. He doesn’t think they symbolise anyone, but they represent the fullness of God’s grace which is like an inexhaustible stream of kindness towards his people.
Have you ever heard the saying ‘one is none’. If you’ve only got one tube of toothpaste in your house, then it’s as if you’ve gone none, because soon the toothpaste will run out and you’ll really have none. So, one is none. You always need two: the one you’re using and a spare. Well, one tree is not enough to signify for us the fullness of God’s grace and the inexhaustible stream of his kindness to us. And so, there is not one tree, but two.
And the two olive trees are connected to the lampstand. And what does the lampstand symbolise? The commentators are divided, but it seems to me that the lampstand represents the church. In Revelation 1, John had a vision of heaven in which he saw the Risen and Exalted Lord Jesus, walking among the lampstands. And the lampstands in John’s vision represent the church. And so, I think the lampstand in Zechariah’s vision represents the church. And by this vision, the Lord has revealed to us how the church receives an endless supply of grace from the Lord to enable us to shine brightly into a dark world and to bear witness to everyone of the glory of God and of his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.
The church, with its message of Jesus Christ who died for sinners to bring them to God, is a light shining in the darkness. And though Christ’s little flock is always little, and though we are so small and weak and insignificant, and though there are many obstacles in our way, and though there are many who despise us, nevertheless the Lord will continue to supply his church with his gracious help so that we will be able to bear witness in a dark world to Christ’s life and death and resurrection for sinners. He will keep and preserve the church in every generation so that we can keep shining in this dark world as a witness for the truth.
And we know this is true, because whereas nations come and go, the church continues to exist in the world. In the days of Zechariah, the Persians were a mighty nation. Darius’s kingdom spread across the world. But Darius is dead; and his nation is no more. But the church of Jesus Christ still exists and it still shines forth in a dark world pointing sinners to the truth about Jesus Christ, who is the only Saviour of the world and who is the one we’re to believe in for eternal life.