The book of Zechariah, the lengthiest of the Minor Prophets, contains two parts: a series of apocalyptic visions, with associated oracles and sayings (Zech 1–8, often called “First Zechariah”), and an anthology of apocalyptic prophecies divided into two collections called “burdens” ( Zech 9–11; 12–14; “Second Zechariah”). The visionary section of the book dates from the early restoration era (520–518 B.C.E.). The prophet's disciples added the subsequent prophecies of chapters 9–14 at a later date, perhaps seventy years after Zechariah's time.
The Greek verb apokalyptein means “unveil,” “reveal,” “disclose”—fitting terms for characterizing Zechariah's perspective, which is immersed in the Absolute. From the start of the vision cycle its “apocalyptic” character is clear from how the prophet peers into “the Deep” (NJPS), into a transcendent realm outside the created order (Zech 1:8). From this startling vantage point, Zechariah's gaze penetrates farther than the perspective of traditional prophecy, piercing obscure darkness, even discerning colors “in the night.” Angelic interpreters are needed to explain the mysteries that he sees (Zech 1:9; 2:3–4; 4:1, 5; 5:5). He increasingly apprehends the world's immediate future on a collision course with the transcendent, which penetrates the world through gateways such as twin peaks on earth's horizon (Zech 6:1). The world will soon encounter God's fiery presence (Zech 2:5; 4:2), God's war chariots (Zech 6:1–8), and an ideal son of David, the “Branch” (Zech 3:8; 6:12).
“Zechariah” means “Yah(weh) has remembered.” The name is apt, for the book represents a fulfillment of God's promise to remember Zion (Lev 26:42, 45; Ezek 16:60). According to Zechariah, the Lord has now remembered the people and their excessive sufferings (Zech 1:15). The seventy years of divine anger and withdrawal prophesied by Jeremiah are now over (Zech 1:12; cf. Jer 25:11–12; 29:10), and God's reign is on the way.
Canonical Status and Location.
The book of Zechariah is the second of three postexilic works concluding the Minor Prophets, the “Book of the Twelve.” It is closely tied to the preceding book, Haggai, which also emphasizes Temple rebuilding and hope for new leadership. Haggai and Zechariah share related date formulas (see Zech 1:1, 7; 7:1; cf. Hag 1:1; 2:1, 10, 20) and the two books place a common emphasis on Zerubbabel, governor of Yehud (formerly “Judah”), and Joshua, the high priest.
The latter sections of Zechariah share the label “burden” with the book of Malachi (see Mal 1:1). On this basis, Zechariah 9–11, 12–14, and Malachi are often treated as three appendixes to Zechariah 1–8, but this is a mistake. Malachi does continue Yehud's story beyond Zechariah's time, but its language and theology diverge markedly from the earlier prophecy. The canon rightly presents it as a distinct biblical book, not an appendix.
Beyond the links to contiguous books, Zechariah also manifests literary and theological connections with Israel's broader prophetic heritage, which was emerging as a scriptural archive at the prophet's time. It has particular ties to the theological tradition of Ezekiel. Already in the prologue, the prophet insists that God's present work be understood in the context of former prophecy, which preexilic Israel ignored. God's words overtook the ancestors and they marched into exile for not listening (Zech 1:6; cf. 7:13–14; Lam 2:17).
Zechariah was a Zadokite priest, aligned with those responsible for the prophecies of Ezekiel and for portions of the Pentateuch known as the Holiness School (HS), especially for Leviticus 17–26. This literature prioritizes a sacral wholeness of people and land centered in God's indwelling presence. Zechariah was eventually priest-in-charge of an entire priestly household, the clan of his grandfather Iddo (Neh 12:16; cf. Zech 1:1, 7; Ezra 5:1; 6:14; 1 Esd 6:1), which he probably accompanied home from exile (cf. Neh 12:4).
Why does Zechariah never mention Haggai, even though Ezra 5:1 and 6:14 connect their efforts? Perhaps because Zechariah held an official position within the Temple staff of his time (as assumed in Zech 7:2–4), which lent a particular authority to his prophetic pronouncements. Speaking from within the sacral establishment, he may have found it natural to make general reference to prophets such as Haggai from outside his circle (Zech 8:9), but did not consider the actual names of these figures important enough to specify.
Seventy years or so after Zechariah's time, his disciples added the apocalyptic prophecies of chapters 9–14. True to their founder, they remained Temple officers, wedded to the Holiness School. Times had changed, however. The Greco-Persian wars were turning the world upside down. Persia's defeats at Marathon in 490 B.C.E. and at Salamis in 480 B.C.E. were shaking the empire, throwing everything off balance. Egypt revolted in the 450s. What is more, Yehud's civil leaders, now unconnected to David's royal line, were failing their people (Zech 10:2–3). To those who knew the Scriptures, these jolting “pangs” felt as if God's new world was kicking in the womb.
Date of Composition and Historical Context.
The earliest period of restoration following exile was fraught with tensions for the first returnees from Babylonia, including disagreements both with the inhabitants of Samaria and with the nondeported “remainee” population of Judah (cf. Ezek 11:15; 33:24). Zechariah 8:10 pictures the times as full of enmity and strife (cf. Isa 58:4; 59:4). Nevertheless, the returnee group managed to rebuild the Temple altar, celebrate a resetting of the Temple foundations (Ezra 3:10–13; 5:16), and revive Jerusalem's sacrificial worship by 537 or 536 B.C.E.
Progress at rebuilding soon ground to a halt, however, and the Temple project stood on hold for sixteen years. The reasons are understandable. In this era (the Persian-I period) Yehud's population was small (ca. 10,000), Jerusalem's was tiny (ca. 500), and the community struggled with a reduced territory, insufficient resources, and poor economic conditions (cf. Hag 1:9–11; 2:17; Zech 7:7, 14). Temple rebuilding likely seemed an ill-advised luxury.
The visions of Zechariah 1–8, received in the second regnal year of the Persian monarch Darius I (Zech 1:1, 7), aimed to jumpstart reconstruction work. Rebuilding the Temple and reviving Judah's central religious institutions was to be an action plan preparing for God's reign. These efforts looked to the return of God's glory, the fostering of a holy land and a holy people, and the dawn of a new age.
Arising in a milieu of international calm and Persian benefaction, Zechariah's apocalyptic texts cannot be considered a means of coping with geopolitical disruptions or imperial restrictions. His apocalypticism actually arose out of the calm and stability brought by Darius. Interested in maximizing revenues from Yehud, Darius had slated the province for demographic and economic development. His policies allowed Zechariah to implement a Temple-oriented apocalyptic action plan. This was an opportunity to get sacral structures in place that could prefigure and launch God's radical epiphany on earth.
From an unspecified later period, chapters 9–14 of Zechariah prove hard to pin down historically. The prophet is “present” merely as a dramatic persona (see Zech 11:4–17) and clues about an historical setting are sparse amid archetypal and apocalyptic imagery. In place of transparent references to known figures such as Darius, Zerubbabel, and Joshua, there appears the sacred donkey of lore (Zech 9:9–10; cf. Gen 49:10–12; Judg 10:4; 12:14), a vista of human pride toppling like timber (Zech 11:1–4), and the prospect of a “worthless shepherd” arising as leader (Zech 11:15–17). There are repeated mythic-realistic descriptions of “that day” (Zech 9:16; 12:3, 9; 13:1; 14:4, 6, 8, 13, 20), the day of God's apocalyptic intervention on earth as the Divine Warrior (Zech 9:11–17; 14:3–5).
In mid-fifth-century times, when Zechariah 9–14 most likely emerged, Persia's tolerant patronage continued to be appreciated in Yehud, but the earth no longer remained “at peace” (cf. Zech 1:11). Greece was pursuing a course of military expansion that forced Persia to fortify its western front and turn Yehud into a “stronghold” (Zech 9:12; cf. 12:3). Zechariah's group found it natural to take Persia's side against Greece as the two superpowers clashed (Zech 9:13), but group members viewed the present warring as a mere harbinger of a greater, transcendent conflict. The Divine Warrior was about to appear over the sons of Zion and defeat all powers holding back the new age (Zech 9:14).
Overlooking the apocalyptic scope of Zechariah 1–8, Julius Wellhausen interpreted these chapters as a this-worldly program for creating a theocracy governed by priests. Subsequent editing, he argued, buttressed the apology of these chapters for hierocracy. The Davidic leader Zerubbabel is dropped from chapter 6, for example, and Judah's high priest receives his crown. But all this priest-centeredness is suddenly gone, Wellhausen opined, in the second half of the book. From a much later era, Zechariah 9–14 advocates a radical futurism in direct opposition to the priests!
Wellhausen's influential position cannot be correct. Chapters 1–8 of Zechariah are no mere carriers of a pragmatic program, but understand rebuilding Jerusalem as an apocalyptic action plan. The restorative work will usher in nothing less than God's reign on earth. Editing within Zechariah 1–8 extends the apocalyptic expectations of the vision cycle (see Zech 1:14–17; 2:6–13; 3:8–10; 4:6–10A; 6:9–15); it no more settles for attained institutional realities than the original prophecies do.
Wellhausen was wrong to interpret the appendix about crowning leaders in Zechariah 6:9–15 as evidencing a downfall of the Davidic line. The Davidic governor Zerubbabel remained in office for a decade, through 510 B.C.E. There are, in fact, two symbolic “crowns” in Zechariah 6:11 (see NRSV note), one of which awaits a coming Davidide. In God's time, harmony will reign between two leaders (v. 13; cf. the stress on diarchy in Zech 4:11–14). Redaction in Zechariah 6:12–13 cautions Joshua to hold vigil for the future king/“Branch” (v. 12; see 3:8), and sit as “a priest by his throne” (v. 13) when he is revealed. There is a kind of messianic vigilance here, not the rise of priestly hegemony.
Zechariah's second half (chapters 9–14) takes some new turns: it is more focused on communal testing and severe tribulation than Zechariah 1–8. None of this, however, involves a new opposition to priestly thinking. Retaining its dual character, the tradition remains firmly oriented on both apocalyptic and Holiness School theologies.
As in Zechariah 1–8, Temple symbols form the fabric of an apocalyptic imagination (Zech 9:15; 13:1; 14:8, 20–21). The rebuilt Temple still prefigures a new era marked by God's protection and prosperity (Zech 9:8; 14:16, 21). As God's glory indwells the Temple, the entire land and all its clans find empowerment and new life (Zech 12:5; 14:8). The Temple pours forth waters cleansing the land of sin and impurity (Zech 13:1, 2; cf. Ezek 36:17, 25; Num 19:12–13; 19:20–21; 31:23, all texts from the Holiness School [see Knohl 1994, pp. 104–106]). Holiness finds final victory.
Structure and Contents.
The book of Zechariah divides into two main sections. The first includes a call to repentance, a cycle of eight visions, and prophecies responding to an inquiry about fasting. The second section presents two collections of prophecies, each introduced by the superscription “burden” (see Zech 9:1; 12:1). The book's outline runs as follows:
I. First Zechariah (1–8)
A. A call to repentance (1:1–6)
B. The eight visions of Zechariah (1:7—6:15)
1:7–17. First vision: Horses and riders
1:18–21. Second vision: Four horns and four workers
2:1–5. Third vision: A surveyor's work aborted
2:6–13. A summons to the exiles
3:1–10. Fourth vision: The cleansing of high priest Joshua
4:1–14. Fifth vision: A lampstand and two olive trees
5:1–4. Sixth vision: A flying scroll
5:5–11. Seventh vision: A woman in an ephah
6:1–8. Eighth vision: Four chariots
6:9–15. The two crowns
C. An inquiry about fasting and prophetic responses (7:1—8:23)
7:1–6. An inquiry about fasting
7:7–14. The causes of the exile
8:1–17. Envisioning Jerusalem's future
8:18–23. Fasts will give way to feasts
II. Second Zechariah (9–14)
A. The first burden (9:1—11:17)
9:1–8. The Lord takes control from North to South
9:9–10. A humble ruler to come
9:11–17. God's victory of abundant life
10:1–12. Reviving lost Israel
11:1–3. Toppling all proud “trees”
11:4–17. Playing the part of Israel?s shepherds
B. The second burden (12:1—14:21)
12:1–9. The end-time assault on Jerusalem
12:10—13:1. The sacrifice of the pierced one
13:2–6. Holiness spreads through the land
13:7–9. The good shepherd stricken
14:1–21. The divine warrior?s triumph at Jerusalem
The cycle of visions in Zechariah 1–6 exhibits a logical flow and artistic symmetry that powerfully communicate the prophet's priestly and apocalyptic theology. At the center of the cycle stands the Temple as an axis of earth and conduit of God's presence (Zech 4). Both high priest and son of David give witness to God's power. Immediately framing the center are visions of God's holiness transforming high priest (Zech 3), Jerusalem (Zech 2:1–5), and Judah (Zech 5:1–4). Farther out are visions of God's apocalyptic defeat of all enemies of Judah (Zech 1:18–21) and all demonic worship (Zech 5:5–11). At the cycle's far edges, the entire globe falls under God's reign.
The second part of Zechariah, in chapters 9–14, has two sections, each with the heading “burden.” The first “burden” in Zechariah 9–11 begins with the decisive establishment of God's reign, including the advent of God's ideal, humble ruler (Zech 9:9–10). Chapter 10 pictures God's revival of lost Israel, conquering all threats of dispersion and oblivion. Chapter 11 ends the section on an ominous note, with a symbolic portrayal of past wicked kings and an end-time prophecy of an evil shepherd/king.
The second “burden” in Zechariah 12–14 has a chiastic structure, with paired passages arrayed in balance. At the outer ends, Zechariah 12:1–9 and Zechariah 14 portray the overthrow of an end-time horde swarming against Zion (see Ezek 38:9, 16; Joel 3:11–13). Moving in toward the center, Zechariah 12:10–13:1 and Zechariah 13:7–9 picture the sacrificial death of a coming godly ruler of Israel. At the heart of the chiasm in Zechariah 13:2–6, idolatry, false prophecy, and the “unclean spirit” are all banished, fulfilling the dreams of the Holiness School for a pure land (Num 5:3; 35:34).
Zechariah's core message is at once both priestly and apocalyptic. The prophet's priestly world of rites and icons, always understood as windows into heavenly reality, formed the fabric of a radical (“apocalyptic”) vision unveiling Heaven's absolute perspective on earth and its coming fate. Zechariah announced that God, consumed with passion for Jerusalem (Zech 1:14; 8:2), is now planning a return of the divine glory to the Temple (Zech 1:16–17; 2:5, 10; 8:3). “The LORD will again comfort Zion and again choose Jerusalem” (Zech 1:17; cf. 2:12; 8:11–13), ushering in the reign of God. In the book's second half, readers are cautioned that the coming of this reign will entail tribulation, sacrifice, and testing (Zech 11:15–17; 12:10; 13:9; 14:1–2). All this betrays a thought-complex (a “symbolic universe”) that will blossom later in the full-blown Hellenistic apocalypses such as Daniel.
The prophet is best understood as a bearer of Ezekiel's traditions, extending the theology of the Holiness School beyond exilic times into restoration-era Yehud. The same divine glory commissions both Ezekiel and Zechariah (Ezek 1:28; Zech 2:8) and reveals to each the ultimate goal of a divine indwelling of the Jerusalem Temple. God's concrete, tangible indwelling will create a “holy land” arrayed about a holy center, so that the land's inhabitants will find sanctification and blessing (Ezek 37:27–28; Zech 2:10–12; see Holiness School texts at Lev 22:32; Num 5:3; 35:34). For both prophets, God plans an apocalyptic defeat of evil in the north, the fabled terrain of evil (Zech 2:6; 6:8; Ezek 39:2–7). In the new era of salvation, God's people of Judah and Israel will renew their broken ties (Zech 11:14; Ezek 37:15–23) and “living waters” will restore paradise to earth (Zech 14:8; cf. 13:1; Ezek 47:1–12).
Zechariah appears to reach out beyond the returnees from Babylonia in his understanding of God's future with Israel. He insists, for example, that what is left of the northern kingdom is still a part of God's saving plans (Zech 8:13; cf. 1:19). He accepts without challenge an assumption of those who remained in the land that they are integral within God's people (Zech 7:5; 8:18–19). Embracing inclusivity, Zechariah's prophecies even envision God's embrace of foreign peoples (Zech 2:11; 8:23; 9:1; 14:9, 16).
Zechariah called for repentance in preparation for God's radical presence, God's “return” (Zech 1:3) to “dwell in the midst of Jerusalem” (Zech 8:3; cf. the Holiness School texts of Exod 25:8; 29:45; Num 35:34). Zechariah also shared the zeal of Haggai for getting the Temple ready for the Lord's coming epiphany (1:16; 4:9–10; cf. Hag 2:7, 9). As the new Temple rose, the way was paved for an apocalyptic encounter with the otherworldly realities to which the shrine's symbols and icons had always pointed.
In priestly understanding, the sacred precincts and icons of the Temple were portals into transcendence. Zadokites such as Ezekiel and Zechariah held Zion to be a microcosm of God's otherworldly realm, where ritual and ethical holiness reign supreme. In his night visions, Zechariah experienced Zion's symbols transmuting into the archetypal realities underlying them. The visions anticipate the world's imminent upending as transcendence invades earthly history.
To ward off any tendencies toward clericalism and complacency that a Temple-centered theology might evoke, editing within Zechariah 1–8 repeatedly encourages watchfulness. Temple construction is but a prelude, a “day of small things,” Zechariah 4:10 insists (cf. Hag 2:3). God's radical plans include David's royal line, not just the priests. The Temple's inner cabinet must keep focused on the royal leader to come, the “Branch” (Zech 3:8; 6:12; cf. Jer 23:5; 33:15; Ezek 29:21). They should remain ever mindful of such symbols as the Branch's unclaimed crown (Zech 6:14) and God's royal engraving on the Temple's foundation stone (Zech 3:9; cf. 4:7).
The book expands and develops its view of future leadership in chapters 9–14. The humble king of Zechariah 9 knows that salvation comes to earth only through deflating the self, not through horse power (cf. v. 10; 10:5; 1 Kgs 1:5; Ps 33:16–17). His humility bears the potential to allow others the space to develop their humanity and the bonds of community. In both Zechariah 12:10—13:1 and in Zechariah 13:7–9, its twin within the book's chiastic structure, the coming ruler of Israel dies sacrificially. Such sacrifice symbolizes a profound humility, a pronounced self-deflation that opens up room for communal renewal. It gives rise to intense mourning rites, always the occasion of communal bonding in traditional societies (Zech 12:10); it provokes the labor pains that apocalyptic texts associate with the trauma of new creation (Zech 13:7). Simultaneously, the mounting fervor over the humble figure lures a darker lord into view. In Zechariah 11:15–17, an archetypal shadow of the future ruler comes to consciousness, a “worthless shepherd” who brings on death and transformation.
The apocalyptic prophecies of Zechariah had a significant impact on the Qumran community, the Jesus group, and the New Testament. At Qumran, the vision of diarchic rule at the heart of Zechariah 1–8 caused some community members to envision a double messianism—that is, a priestly and a Davidic Messiah. The pronounced theme of Zechariah 9–14 that God's ideal ruler must suffer was also influential within the community. In the “Vision of Gabriel” (first century B.C.E.), the expectation of a coming worthless ruler who tears and devours flesh (Zech 11:15–17) finds expression in a figure called the “wicked Branch” (cf. the term “Branch” at Zech 3:8 and 6:12 as well as the “tree of evil” in the Qumran document 4Q Narrative A [4Q458]).
According to the Gospels, Jesus of Nazareth habitually spoke of himself as a shepherd (e.g., Matt 10:16; 15:24; 18:12–14; John 10:2, 11), perhaps relying in part on Zechariah 13:7 (cf. Ezek 34:23). More strikingly, Jesus used Zechariah 9–14 to interpret his death. Zechariah 13:7–9 accounts for his coming passion and its aftermath (Mark 14:27). Language and images from across Zechariah 9–14 lie behind the broader course of his last days. Mark 11:1–10 links to Zechariah 9:9–10; Mark 11:15–17 draws on Zechariah 14:20–21; and Mark 11:23 alludes to Zechariah 14:4 (cf. Matt 17:20).
The book of Revelation, too, draws heavily on Zechariah and its images. In fact, it includes at least twenty-three allusions to the prophecy. Among them are the symbol of the lampstand and the two olive trees (Rev 11:3–6), the crown of Zechariah 6:14 (Rev 14:14), and the theme of mourning over a pierced savior (Rev 1:7).
Because Zechariah makes such a strong showing in the New Testament, premodern Christian interpreters show heavy interest in the book. They could hardly resist commenting on the humble king, riding a donkey (Zech 9:9–10). Theodore of Mopsuestia (ca. 350–428 C.E.) applauds such a king, who assumes great power through divine grace (Commentary on Zechariah 9.8–10). Justin Martyr (110–165 C.E.) (First Apology 52), Hippolytus (fl. 222–245 C.E.) (On the End of the World 40), and Augustine (354–430 C.E.) (Expositions on the Book of Psalms 102.17) identify the pierced one of Zechariah 12:10 as Christ and see the verse as a description of widespread mourning at his second advent. Along the same lines, Justin Martyr (Dialogue with Trypho 53), John Chrysostom (347–407 C.E.) (Against the Anomoeans, Homily 7.38), and Maximus of Turin (ca. 380–465 C.E.) interpret the stricken shepherd of Zechariah 13:7 as a prophecy of Christ's crucifixion and the disciples' scattering. As Maximus puts it, “It happened as it was written” (Sermon 75.2).
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- Justin Martyr. The First Apology; The Second Apology; Dialogue with Trypho; Exhortation to the Greeks; Discourse to the Greeks; The Monarchy, or the Rule of God. Translated by Thomas B. Falls. Fathers of the Church: A New Translation, vol. 6. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1948.
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Stephen L. Cook