My father gave me an ice cream scoop to give my mother for Christmas when I was five. He’d gotten it as a free gift for opening a checking account. I didn’t know what the letters on it meant, but I knew how delighted mama looked when she opened it. She never mentioned the “CB&T” or the numbers on the handle.
It wasn’t until years later that I realized I hadn’t really given her anything. I’d only given her a gift I’d been given, and a free one at that. When we packed up her house in October, I found that scoop. She’d used it until she died.
The visions in today’s reading include something of this kind of giving.
God wanted the newly returned Jewish exiles from Babylon to respond to him as their forefather’s had not, giving attention to his words and repenting for their failure to keep them. Zechariah was given eight visions from God, all in one night. They’re illustrations of what God had in mind when he said, “‘Return to me, and I will return to you,'” Zec 1:3. I like to think of them as being behind-the-scenes peeks into what living in relationship with God means, (NIV Study Bible, intro). We covered the first two visions in yesterday’s post; here it is if you want to take a look, December 21.
In Zechariah’s third vision, he sees an angel with a measuring line in his hand, who’s going to measure the size of Jerusalem. Before any measuring takes place, however, this angel is interrupted by another, who tells him to “run tell that young man,” presumably Zechariah, what the measuring vision will mean. The angel says, “Jerusalem will be a city without walls because of the great number of men and livestock in it. And I myself will be a wall of fire around it,’ declares the Lord, ‘and I will be its glory within,'” Zec 2:1-5.
The message is that the literal city of Jerusalem is too small for all of God’s people, who will be brought into his family. But no matter. Spiritual Jerusalem is not too small. It will be enormous, unmeasurable, and beyond the bounds of literal city walls. It will be a city without walls because of its size, but also without the need for walls, because the God who protects it is the “wall of fire around it.”
This would have been marvelous news to a nation who had been whittled down from more than a *million people in King David’s day to the 50,000 who have returned from Babylon in Zechariah’s. While many more Jews than these were still dispersed in all the nations north, south, east, and west of Jerusalem, God has brought back these few as his remnant to rebuild his temple and start over.
I’m guessing that it was a grief to see so few folks in the burned out city before them compared to how many there had been. It was another grief that the new temple wouldn’t be as grand as the one Solomon built. The young people celebrated when the foundation was finished, but the old timers wept. They knew what had been lost. The nation doesn’t have the resources and contacts Solomon had to build it as he did. While Darius of Persia is footing the bill, this temple would be built during Judah’s humiliation as a nation, not at its glory and height like in Solomon’s day, Ez 3:12-13, (NIV Study Bible note).
In the midst of their disappointment, God mercifully gives them a peek into the future when God’s city and its temple and its people are too big to fit inside Jerusalem . Elsewhere we’re told that it will cover the whole planet. And God’s glory will live in it.
We know that this prophecy is already being fulfilled, with the church that Jesus’ fishermen-apostles started, who carried the message of his life and death and rising to the rest of the world. Rather than a building, God’s temple is now in every believer’s heart, sanctified by Jesus’ blood, filled by his Spirit, and protected by the Father’s fiery, jealous love.
“The angel of the Lord,” who is Jesus before his incarnation, tells Zechariah that God will honor him and send him to punish the nations that have plundered Judah and Israel, “for whoever touches you touches the apple of his eye.” He will raise his hand against the nations and plunder them, and his people will know that God has sent him, Zec 2:8-9 (NIV Study Bible note says that an alternate translation of “so that their slaves will plunder them” is “I will plunder them.”)
I’m loving God’s description of his people as “the apple of his eye.” God could just as easily, and more honestly, it seems to me, have called them “the burr under my saddle” or “the thorn in my flesh” or “the pain in my….” You get the picture.
That God calls anyone “the apple of his eye” is such a grace, such a gift of love and good news, I’m kind of undone just by this much. Because when I look at the history of his people since the garden until the days of Zechariah, I’m not overwhelmed by any notions of precious apples or rightly seeing eyes. I see a lot of rotten apples and blindness.
Does God turn a blind eye to call us the apple of his? Or is he seeing us as he will make us to be–pure and holy, gentle and kind, humbly full of his glory–one day? He doesn’t say. I’m left with the unsettling feeling that God is so generous with his praise that I can never measure up. I can never be good enough to deserve it.
Why do I feel like I have to?
This may be exactly his point. I don’t have to be good enough. No one does. No one can be. All of the goodness and glory we will ever have comes as a gift from him, like mama’s ice cream scoop, not from any earning we do. Every good thing is what he brings us. If there’s one clear lesson from the Old Testament about people, it’s that left to ourselves, we’re pretty rotten. No matter how many times God blesses his people, eventually they wander off, and God is forgotten.
But this is why the gospel is such good news. It’s not for the good guys. It’s for everyone who despairs of ever being good enough for God and who cries out for mercy instead. God delights to turn his enemies into his beloved children, the bad guys into redeemed guys by sheer grace. It was the Pharisees, after all, that Jesus cursed, those who thought they could be good enough without him.
“The Lord,” (another name for Jesus in this passage) is so pumped about what he says next, that he wants his people to celebrate with him. He says, “‘Shout and be glad, O Daughter of Zion. For I am coming, and I will live among you,’ declares the Lord. ‘Many nations will be joined with the Lord in that day and will become my people. I will live among you and you will know that the Lord Almighty has sent me to you. The Lord will inherit Judah as his portion in the holy land and will again choose Jerusalem,'” Zec 2:10-12.
In case we’ve missed the scoop about God’s plan for mankind in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, and Haggai (whew), he gives us these highlights in Zechariah:
–Jesus is coming and will live among human beings, “For I am coming, and I will live among you,” Zec 2:10.
–God will invite all nations to be saved and become his people, “Many nations will be joined with the Lord in that day and will become his people,” Zec 2:11.
–Jesus will live among God’s people, and they will know that God has sent him, “I will live among you and you will know that the Lord Almighty has sent me to you,” Zec 2:11.
–God will receive Judah as his own special, chosen, and favored people and the city of Jerusalem as his home, “The Lord will inherit Judah as his portion and will again choose Jerusalem,” Zec 2:12.
It’s a wonderful plan, some of which has already happened (Jesus has come and lived “among us,” and people have believed that God sent him), and some of it is happening now (all nations are invited to turn to him in faith and are becoming his people), and some of it seems to be meant for a future fulfillment. (I’m not sure if the part about Judah and Jerusalem is meant literally or spiritually or both.)
But this is when Jesus says, “Let’s worship!” because carrying out a plan this grand will require God’s doing and will be an awe-inspiring, worshipful thing, “Be still before the Lord, all mankind, because he has roused himself from his holy dwelling.'” Zec 2:13. Only God can bring about what must happen for all these events to take place. He must “rouse himself” from heaven because no one else has the power to save.
In Zechariah’s fourth vision, Joshua, the high priest of Zechariah’s day, stands before Jesus “the Lord,” with Satan on Joshua’s right side accusing him. Jesus rebukes him, “The Lord rebuke you, Satan!” And he asks, “Is not this man a burning stick snatched from the fire?” Zec 3:1-2.
Joshua is standing before the Lord in filthy clothes, which is why Satan is accusing him, saying basically, “Look at him, he’s not holy! He’s got so much sin, it hangs all over him like dirty clothes. He’s not worthy to be the high priest of your people. Is this the best you’ve got?” Zec 3:3.
But the Lord doesn’t listen to Satan. He silences him and says that Joshua has been rescued from the fire. Maybe he’s referring to the fire of exile he’s lived through in Babylon. Maybe he means the fire of temptation he’s undergone since returning to Jerusalem. Or maybe it’s just the fire we all face in living life. Whatever the fire has been, what warms my heart is that Jesus defends him.
Because Joshua is accusable. He’s not just a priest, he’s the high priest. Wearing clean, white linen clothes was part of God’s law for all priests, but it would have been inexcusable for a high priest to be dirty. The high priest was the one who came into the Holy of Holies, the place of God’s very presence in the temple, bringing the blood of a lamb once a year. He would pour it on the “mercy seat,” the covering of the ark, as a blood sacrifice for the sin of all the people.
His clothing, as well as his character, had to be impeccable. Clean clothing didn’t make the priests holy, but it was a sign of the holiness they must have when approaching God. But Joshua’s clothing is filthy in the vision. He hasn’t brought anything good with him to come to God, not even clean clothes. All he’s brought is his filthy sin.
But Jesus doesn’t turn him away. He defends him before the accuser. And then he tells someone to take off Joshua’s dirty clothes, and he turns to Joshua and says, “See I have taken away your sin, and I will put rich garments on you.” Zechariah speaks up and suggests they give him a clean turban, too, like the high priest normally wears, so they do, Zec 3:4-5. The turban would have had the words “Holy to the Lord” written on it.
I love this scene. How often do we come to God with nothing except our sin? It’s really all we ever bring to God–our weakness, our emptiness, our need of him. It’s Satan who tells us we’re not good enough to come, we don’t belong here, we should have at least gotten a shower and changed clothes first. Isn’t that how we feel, like we need to do something good before we can get right with God? And the days drag on, and we don’t come. Before we know it, weeks can become years.
But Jesus says in effect, “You’ve had a hard time and been in the fire. Of course you’re charred and burned. Give me your impoverished self. Put on my abundant self instead.” Jesus doesn’t just suggest clean clothes, he gives him lavishly extravagant ones, perfect ones. The implication is that he trades his own clothing for Joshua’s filthy rags. Jesus served as God’s high priest when he came and offered his blood for the sins of the world. He had the “clean clothes” God required, the perfect life that was appropriate for a high priest. It’s these “clothes” that he gives to Joshua.
Joshua would have felt shame to stand before the Lord in his filthy sin. He would have felt unqualified for service as high priest to be there, stripped and bare of anything he might have to offer. All he really has with him is nothing. But Jesus provides what he needs.
I love how God has this elaborate system set up in the Old Testament of laws for every little and big thing and every now and then, like here, he cuts to the chase and shows us what he’s really after: giving us a Savior and his undeserved grace. And he lets us feel the utter relief Joshua would have felt. Here’s a high priest before God who is absolutely filthy, and what does God do? Smite him? Rebuke him? No! Satan gets the rebuke, and Joshua gets Jesus’ perfection. Jesus covers him, and Joshua gets grace.
Coming to God isn’t about keeping laws. Not really. Not mainly. It’s about admitting you can’t keep his laws. The laws were designed to show us we can’t keep them, and that we need a Savior to keep them for us. Thank goodness God already gets it about our need of grace, Ga 3:24-25.
Besides his “rich garments,” Jesus gives Joshua something else.
Jesus charges him, saying that if he’s faithful to live God’s way, then he’ll be allowed to do his job as high priest in God’s temple, going in and out of God’s very presence, “This is what the Lord Almighty says: If you will walk in my ways and keep my requirements, then you will govern my house and have charge of my courts, and I will give you a place among these standing here,” Ze 3:6-7.
I feel the healing of Joshua’s shame in those words. The humiliated high priest is not only defended and forgiven, he’s given exactly what he needs to stand in God’s presence. He had to feel he wasn’t worthy to serve God any longer, but he’s told that God still wants him to do his job. Why? Not because he’s good, but because he’s wearing the clean clothes of the Son. He’s been restored. He gets the Son’s goodness, and the free pass into God’s presence.
Then Jesus tells Joshua what God says about some mysterious things that are shadowy references to himself, the Messiah who will one day come and “remove the sin of this land in a single day.” Jesus does this by his death on the cross on one real day in time. God says that on that day, or maybe because of that day, “each of you will invite his neighbor to sit under his vine and fig tree,” a reference to a proverb that meant all would be at peace, secure and contented, (NIV Study Bible note).
Of course, we are not all at peace, secure and contented yet. We’ve still got sin and death to get through before this day comes of sitting around eating figs and drinking wine. But Jesus’ one-day-and-done payment for sin has put that future day on God’s calendar, when he returns and sin and death are ended, and the good life forever with our friends and family begins, when even that neighbor we don’t like will fit in.
Isaiah had already prophesied about this “day” of chillin’ under the arbor in the backyard. He adds his own details and says that everyone in Zion will be holy then, enjoying God’s uninterrupted presence like shade in the sun, like a shelter in the rain. He will be “a refuge and hiding place from the storm and rain,” Is 4:2-6.
What do these two visions show us about living in relationship with God–what God meant when he said, “I will return to you”?
God’s greatest joy is sharing his love with us. It’s why he’s got a kingdom that can’t be measured and a plan to save the whole world. He gets so excited talking about it, that he hollers for everybody to come so he can tell them, and then he says, shut up and listen, and just marvel with me about it awhile, Zec 2:13.
God’s plan is to live with us, to live within us, to have union and communion with us. That’s how close he wants to be with us. We can’t see what’s ahead like he can, though he gives us lots of peeks into it, but he’s clearly pumped about it. We should be, too. We don’t have to wait for “one day” to experience the love connection he offers. We can have it every day between now and then, Zec 2:10-12; Ps 125:1-2; Deut 33:12; Je 29:12-14; Jn 15:1-17.
God sees us with the eyes of mercy and love. He calls us “the apple of his eye,” not “the bad apple that spoils the whole bunch.” God is for us. He doesn’t treat us as we deserve. He treats us as if we’re already the people he’s making us to be–already apples of his eye, his delight, Zec 2:8.
God surrounds us with his fiery wall of love that protects us. He punishes those who harm us. He silences the accuser who hopes to distract us and make us look at our filth rather than at him. God says, “Of course they’re filthy. Look where they have to live! They’re charred sticks I’ve rescued from the fire!” Zec 2:5, 8-9; 3:2.
God gives us everything we need to come to him. He removes our filth. He trades his goodness for our sin. He says, “I’ve got them covered. Here’s my clean, white Prada and Versace!” He lets us come into his presence as his friend. He lets us work alongside him, even when all we have to offer him is nothing. He gives us the goodness we need to please him, Zec 3:4-7; Jn 15:1-17.
I keep wanting to find something here that I can do. I don’t really like being left with only grace. It’s so darn humbling. It says that all I have to give to God is my need of him. Not my good deeds. Not my strengths. Not even my words. None of those get me anywhere close to him. If anything, they keep me away from him. All that qualifies me to have a relationship with him is my emptiness, my need of his filling.
Lord, God. I’ve got a lot of pride. Sometimes I’d rather sulk than humble myself and join your party. It makes me a little mad that I have nothing to give you but my need of you. I’m glad you already know this about me. And thank you that I can tell you–that takes some of the pressure off. Thank you for all these wonderful words in Zechariah today. Help me to believe them where I need them. Please fill me with your Spirit, so the celebrating can begin.
*I can’t find the source today, but yesterday I read that David’s census in 1000 BC counted 120,000 fighting men, not including the women, children, and seniors. A conservative estimate of total population would be around a million people in Judah, and this was 500 years before the time of Zechariah. 500 years later, the total number of people would have easily multiplied, maybe by as much as x 5 to 10.
This psalm reminds me of the one before it. David cries out to God about evildoers who set traps for him. He asks God to keep him from being drawn into the evil others do, so that he won’t take part in their wickedness.
It’s tempting to retaliate when you’re being mistreated, to want to get back at your abuser and turn the tables. A victim can become empowered and become abusive themselves. I’ve seen it happen to others. I’ve felt the tug myself.
This is what David prays against. He feels the temptation to do to them what’s been done to him. He asks, “Let not my heart be drawn to what is evil.” It’s in the heart where hatred hides.
David confesses his temptation and asks God to intervene. He sees that the only road to freedom is by taking refuge in God. Only then can he avoid their traps and his own temptations and pass them safely by.
He asks that the recoil effect of sin would figure in–that the thing they’ve done to him would come back on their own heads–so he can be free from becoming like them in revenge.
“But my eyes are fixed on you, O Sovereign Lord;
in you I take refuge–do not give me over to death.
Keep me from the snares they have laid for me,
from the traps set by evildoers.
Let the wicked fall into their own nets,
while I pass by in safety,”
My take away today is my need to trade clothes with you, Jesus.
I think this little funk I’m feeling is because it’s late and I’m tired, but maybe also because I’m letting the accuser in with “You can’t feel the love? Are you sure it’s there?”
Thank you that regardless of how I feel, you say I’m your eye-apple.
You see me shiny.
And that makes me smile
while I’m a little whiny.
Thanks, God, for meeting me here: