Read Zechariah 5.
Zechariah began with God’s promise that he would return to reign over his people if they returned to him from Babylon (1:3). Like a married couple getting together after a separation, it’s important that they don’t just repeat the mistakes of the past. They need to learn from their ancestors’ mistakes (1:2-6).
God promised he would restore his leaders for the community, the high priest and the Davidic king. They would lead God’s people to rebuild the temple where God would be present among them and lead his people (Zechariah 2–4).
But why did God send them into exile in the first place? That’s what the two visions of Zechariah 5 address.
Edict for exile (5:1-4)
Zechariah sees a scroll flying overhead. It’s a completely unwieldy scroll: at 4.5 metres tall it’s nearly double the ceiling height of your house, and unrolls to 9 metres long (10 x 20 cubits). There’s a lot of writing (both sides), and it reads like a court document explaining the exile:
Zechariah 5:1–4 (NIV)
1 I looked again, and there before me was a flying scroll.
2 He asked me, “What do you see?”
I answered, “I see a flying scroll, twenty cubits long and ten cubits wide.”
3 And he said to me, “This is the curse that is going out over the whole land; for according to what it says on one side, every thief will be banished, and according to what it says on the other, everyone who swears falsely will be banished. 4 The Lord Almighty declares, ‘I will send it out, and it will enter the house of the thief and the house of anyone who swears falsely by my name. It will remain in that house and destroy it completely, both its timbers and its stones.’ ”
This document did not originate from an earthly court. Its declarations are from a higher court, the decrees of the ultimate sovereign over everything and everyone in heaven and on earth (YHWH of hosts). It addresses covenant violations.
The foundational Ten Words of the covenant Israel accepted when they became a nation under God’s rule included, You shall not steal (Exodus 20:15), but there are thieves among God’s people. They deserve to be sent into exile in accordance with the terms of the covenant that obedience would bring blessings while disobedience would bring curses such as banishment from God’s kingdom to live under human rulers (Deuteronomy 28:36).
But there’s more. The other side of the scroll alleges that Israel’s courts were not dealing with these injustices. Others in the community were complicit in blocking justice by supporting the thief when his case came to court — bearing false witness. That’s why God sent everyone in exile: the wider community supported the injustice.
The rot had spread through the whole house of Israel. For a house decaying like that, God’s Law declared: It must be torn down — its stones, timbers and all the plaster — and taken out of the town to an unclean place (Leviticus 14:45). What a metaphor for exile to Babylon!
Hidden unfaithfulness (5:5-11)
Zechariah sees a basket hanging over his head. Hidden in the measuring basket is something the people see but don’t own up to. They pretend to be good upright citizens, but they have a hidden mistress, pushed down out of view, under a lead weight. The vision reveals another covenant violation: You shall not commit adultery (Exodus 20:14).
The hidden mistress represents the whole community: that’s who was carted into exile. Instead of remaining devoted to the one Lord, the only sovereign ruler of the covenant people, they have been engaging with other rulers such as Egypt (Jeremiah 2; Isaiah 30–31, 36) and Babylon (Isaiah 39; Ezekiel 16:33-39), hoping God would not see how they’d gone behind his back. The most shocking descriptor for God’s holy people is: This is wickedness (5:8).
Since they gave themselves as lovers of other rulers, there’s no surprise that God sent them away in exile to the nations they gave themselves to. That’s the reason for the exile.
What is surprising is that God provides a house for them as they join his rival:
10 “Where are they taking the basket?” I asked the angel who was speaking to me.
11 He replied, “To the country of Babylonia to build a house for it. When the house is ready, the basket will be set there in its place.”
Why would God do such a thing? The house they built for him in Jerusalem is demolished because of their unfaithfulness, but he still builds a house for his unfaithful people in Babylon? That is beyond generous. Do you think he still hopes she will come back one day? Like, Return to me, and I will return to you (Zechariah 1:3)?
Divine justice demanded God deal with his decaying house, the uncleanness of the nation that was supposed to be his Holy Place on earth — the flying-scroll vision.
Divine love demanded God face the hidden unfaithfulness of his partner — the hidden-mistress vision.
When he sent her away, it probably felt like a divorce. But as Isaiah put it, God never filled out the paperwork (Isaiah 50:1). He always hoped they would come back home, rebuild the house, restore the covenant with their sovereign, be the kingdom of God.
Footnote: size of the flying scroll
People argue over what the 20 x 10 cubit dimensions of the scroll could have meant to Zechariah. For example, Carol and Eric Meyers identify some options from Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 6): “the meeting place between priest and populace,” or the combined “size of the two cherubim” (Haggai, Zechariah 1–8, Anchor Yale Bible, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008, 280–281).
But if the prophet was calling the people back to the Torah rather than the fallen temple, there’s another possibility. It’s the size of the Holy Place in the Tabernacle.
The covenant had two sides (the heavenly sovereign, and his earthly people), so his house had two rooms: the Most Holy throne room reserved for God alone, and the Holy Place where his dedicated servants (priests) served God and mediated the covenant to the people. From God’s perspective, he expects to see the Holy Place. But what he sees between himself and his people is a document of covenant violations, accusations against the people in the same vein as Satan’s accusations against Joshua (3:1). The people’s side of the covenant is no longer a Holy Place in union with their sovereign’s side, the Most Holy Place. That’s why they went into exile.