Rulers of the restored kingdom (Zechariah 4)

Two olive trees supporting the menorah? How does this relate to Jesus?

Read Zechariah 4.

Matthew promotes Jesus’ agenda — the kingdom of God — as the fulfilment of the promises God gave through the prophets, with numerous allusions to Zechariah. We’re looking at how Zechariah’s visions informed Jesus’ agenda.

When the kingdom fell apart and the people were exiled to Babylon, Zechariah delivered God’s call for the exiles to return (1:3), declaring that God would lead them home like a new exodus (2:6-12). He said they would see the twin signs of God’s leadership over them: Joshua the cleansed high priest in God’s house, and “the Branch” of David’s house who would reign as God’s anointed (3:8).

The first thing God asked his nation to do when he established the covenant was to build a house for their sovereign to live among them and lead them. The central furniture of this house was the ark, a throne set for God in the most holy chamber where he sat enthroned between the cherubim (1 Samuel 4:4 etc). But after the exile, they no longer had the ark (Jeremiah 3:16), so Zechariah’s vision centres on another furnishing: the menôrāh, the seven-branched lampstand bringing light in God’s house (4:2).

Zechariah saw the light of God’s presence powered by two living olive trees, two people who embody God’s leadership for his people:

  • Joshua the high priest, whom God restored for this role (3:1-7).
  • Zerubbabel, governor of Judah (Haggai 1:14), descendant of Jehoiachin the captive king (1 Chronicles 3:17-19; 2 Kings 25:27-30).

The regal promise

If the kingdom was restored, Zerubbabel might be king, so he has a role to play in the restoration. But Zerubbabel is not king. He has no chance of overpowering the Persian Empire that rules God’s people. He has no army, no weapons, just some returning exiles rebuilding their homes among the rubble. How can he restore the kingdom of God?

Zechariah 4:6 (NIV)
This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: ‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty.

The kingdom was not restored in Zerubbabel’s lifetime, nor in his son’s or his grandson’s time. Eleven generations later when Jesus was born into Zerubbabel’s family, the kingdom had still not been restored (Matthew 1:13-17). Jesus believed that the time had come, that the kingdom of God was close (Mark 1:15). This was his calling.

So, why didn’t Jesus do what the heroes of old had done, driving their enemies from the land like Joshua, fighting those who opposed him like his father David? Where on earth did Jesus get the idea he was to train his followers to love their enemies rather than kill them?

This is how Jesus understood the Prophets. The word passed down to him through the generations of Zerubbabel said, Not by military might, nor by a leader enforcing his power. God would restore his kingdom by my Spirit. And what would the Spirit lead God’s anointed messiah to do? Jesus knew from the Prophets, from passages like Isaiah 61 (quoted in Luke 4:17-21).

The regal task

So, what specifically was Zerubbabel being asked to do in his time? To cooperate with Joshua in building the temple, a house for their heavenly sovereign to live among them and lead his people, since the restoration comes from his Spirit and not human strength.

But, oh what a mess it was! The temple mount was a hill of heart-breaking ruins, burnt timber, and smashed stones. For the returning exiles, even levelling the site felt like an insurmountable task. The Spirit of the Lord continued with this word for Zerubbabel:

Zechariah 4:7–9
“What are you, mighty mountain? Before Zerubbabel you will become level ground. Then he will bring out the capstone to shouts of ‘God bless it! God bless it!’”
Then the word of the Lord came to me: “The hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundation of this temple; his hands will also complete it.”

And that’s what happened in 515 BC. Joshua the cleansed high priest and Zerubbabel the Spirit-anointed son of David completed the second temple, inviting God to return to his returning people and reign over them as his kingdom. They cooperated like two olive trees supplying the menorah, the light of God’s presence among his people in the house they built for him.

As the centuries ticked by, God’s people waited for the kingship to be restored as the temple had been. Some at Qumran even hoped for two messiahs: an anointed king and an anointed priest, like the two olive trees supporting the light of God in Zechariah’s vision (1QS ix:11).

The regal conflict

But two leaders as God’s anointed? Doesn’t that have the potential for conflict? Couldn’t that damage the temple rather than build it? That is what happened when God’s Anointed king finally arrived.

The high priest (Caiaphas) refused to recognize Jesus’ authority, accusing him of threatening the temple (Matthew 21:12-16; 26:55, 61; 27:40). The kingly Messiah said the temple had ceased to be God’s house and become a gangster’s den (21:13). The evidence that they were play-actors and not God’s servants was that they planned to kill God’s anointed king (21:38; 23:29-36). Jesus said that God had moved out of the temple (23:38), so the beautiful buildings on Mount Zion were no more than a pile of rubble interfering with God’s reign, and that’s what it would become (24:2).

Observe carefully how Jesus conducted that conflict. He confronted the temple and warned its leaders, but he made no attempt to overthrow it with his power. Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit — that was the word God had given the Davidic kingship.

But doesn’t that leave him vulnerable if he doesn’t kill his enemies, even in self-defence? Couldn’t his enemies kill him, the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the Law (Matthew 16:16)? Won’t it all end as one more disaster in the injustice of history, one more failure to restore God’s reign?

That’s not what Jesus believes. Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit. Jesus believes that the life-giving Spirit of God will raise him from the dead if they kill him. The rubble on the temple mount was no obstacle to his kingship.

He asked his disciples to believe it too:

Mark 11:22–23
22 “Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. 23 “Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them.”

In the context of the short walk from Bethany to Jerusalem, there’s only one significant candidate for this mountain.

Not even death — not even death originating from the temple mount — can stand as obstacle to the authority of God’s anointed.

The promises God gave Zerubbabel are ultimately fulfilled in his descendant, eleven generations later:

Zechariah 4:6–7
6 This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: ‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty.
“What are you, mighty mountain? Before Zerubbabel you will become level ground. Then he will bring out the capstone to shouts of ‘God bless it! God bless it!’”

Capstone? Jesus is building a different temple for God to live among his people? Yep! That’s what he believes to be his role (Matthew 21:42 quoting Psalm 118), just as God commanded his ancestor.

Conclusion

Temple. Priesthood. Kingship. Promised kingdom. All the promises of the prophets find fulfilment in God’s anointed (the Christ) who fulfils both roles in God’s kingdom: priestly mediator, and anointed king.

We see the son of man walking among the lampstands of God’s house. He’s the beginning and the end of the story, the Living One who was dead and is now alive for ever and ever, leading and empowering the assemblies that embody his reign on earth (Revelation 1:12-20).

What others are saying

Craig A. Evans, From Jesus to the Church: The First Christian Generation. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 50:

Jesus uses traditions from Daniel, Zechariah, and the second half of Isaiah. All three of these books play a major role in Jesus’ theology; and all three reflect periods of exile in the life and history of Israel. Daniel reflects an exilic perspective, ostensibly the Babylonian exile (sixth century BCE), but in reality the Seleucid period of oppression and terror (second century BCE). Zechariah stems from the exilic period and entertains hopes that Israel’s kingdom will be restored under the leadership of the “two sons of oil” (4:14, lit.), Zerubbabel of Davidic descent and Joshua the high priest. Second Isaiah calls for a new exodus and a new Israel, which he dubs the Servant of the Lord. Jesus’ utilization of these books, indeed his being informed and shaped by them, is very revealing. It strongly suggests that Jesus identifies himself and his mission with an oppressed Israel in need of redemption, and that he himself is the agent of redemption. He is the Danielic “Son of man” to whom kingdom and authority are entrusted. He is the humble Davidic king of Zechariah’s vision who enters the temple precincts, offers himself to the high priest, and takes umbrage at temple polity. And he is the eschatological herald of Isaiah who proclaims the “gospel” of God’s reign and the new exodus. All of this suggests that, among other things, Jesus understands his message and ministry as the beginning of the end of Israel’s exile.

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Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview College Dean

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