Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Zechariah

A contemporary of Haggai, prophesying during the reign of Persian king Darius over Israel, Zechariah ministered after the exile as the national life was being restored. His book falls into two halves. In chapters 1-8 he is urging the people to complete the rebuilding of the Temple, but while Haggai uses logic to persuade the people that it will be good for them if they get on with it and receive God’s blessing once again, Zechariah uses a series of somewhat strange visions to the same end. This is much more right-brain stuff than the cold logic of Haggai, but what shines through it is God’s desire to bless his people.

The nature of the second half of the book is much more like your trad prophetic oracle, predicting the downfall and judgement of Israel’s enemies and the coming of God to be among the people.

The Vision of Zechariah - Google Art Project.jpg

The language, certainly of the first half of the book, is apocalyptic, which we first discovered in the book of Daniel. The weird visions, the angelic guides who interpret for him, the number symbolism: all this set this book firmly in the apocalyptic tradition. It is therefore uncertain as to the exact chronology of the fulfilment of these oracles, but has been interpreted as a messianic text. Certainly there is much which could be seen to link to the life of Jesus: the passage about mourning in 12:10ff, the thirty pieces of silver and the potter in 11:12ff, the striking of the shepherd and the scattering of the flock in 13:7ff. Those writing up the events of Jesus’ life and death had plenty of language here with which to tell their story.

The key point here is the universal reign of God and his final victory. The foreign nations will either be destroyed or will come to worship the one true God. Whilst the book bristles with interpretational problems, which we simply can’t do justice to here, the message is clear: God will reign, so live in ways which will honour and obey him. But these images of a conquering king are interspersed with the imagery of shepherding a vulnerable flock with care and compassion. As such the book reveals the paradox of our God as a caring pastor and a fearless leader.

It raises the question of which version of God we prefer. Currently the fashion seems to be for a ‘nice’ God who is politically correct, who loves us ‘unconditionally’ (where can you find that in the Bible?), and above all who, like all good postmodern people, is tolerant. In past ages God was much more of a warrior, but that idea is well out of fashion now. Zechariah holds out to us a vision of both, and calls us to hold the two in tension. But one thing is certain: his ultimate victory for those who are his people.

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Daniel

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Daniel

Once again, apologies for the sudden disappearance of this blog, but today we continue our jaunt right through the Bible in even more over a year with the somewhat strange book of Daniel. It’s a game of two halves really, and most of us seldom get past half-time.

In the first half is the well-known story of a young man and his friends who are exiled to Babylon with the other Israelites, but rather than being set to work with the navvies they are welcomed into the royal court and trained as civil servants. However jealousy causes some of the Babylonian courtiers to manipulate the king such that their continued devotion to their God will get them put to death. Twice there are miraculous escapes, once from lions and also from a furnace, and eventually king Nebuchadnezzar is humbled and broken by God until he comes to be a faithful believer. It’s a great story of the ultimate victory of God in the lives of those who stand firm for him, a story which is challenged in today’s world where we see Christians being killed for their faith in ever-increasing numbers.

Peter Paul Rubens. Daniel in the Lions' Den.

But then it all goes funny, as we get our first taste of a new biblical genre: apocalyptic. The word refers to the drawing back of a curtain so that what is hidden may now be seen, hence the name of the book of Revelation, the most famous piece of apocalyptic literature, to which we shall come eventually. So what is apocalyptic, and how should we read it?

It is generally considered to be the next step on from the prophetic literature. The prophets believed in a day when God would come and right all the wrongs in the world, but when things got even worse a new belief arose, that things were past the pint of a mere tweaking, and that God was going to sweep everything away and start again. So apocalyptic literature talks about cosmic upheaval with stars and planets being destroyed, the moon turning to blood, earthquakes, floods and the like, before God recreated the world, hoping that things would be better at the second attempt. And because apocalyptic usually comes out of a period of persecution, it is written in a kind of code, with symbolic images, numbers and so on meant only to be accessible to those in the know.

Now obviously if I, John of Upminster, wrote such a book, people would quite rightly ask who the heck I was and why on earth anyone should listen to me. So if I wanted to get my work out there I would choose a nom-de-plume with a bit more credibility, Hugh of Lincoln, for example. And then, writing in St Hugh’s name, I would ‘predict’ all sorts of stuff yet to come, like two world wars, Margaret Thatcher, the banking crisis and Caroline Flack’s victory in Strictly Come Dancing. By now people are hooked by ‘Hugh’s’ tremendous prophetic gifting, and so they would believe anything he said about the real future without a second thought. Apocalyptic literature is therefore pretty easy to date, because it suddenly becomes vague. Look at the change between chapters 11 and 12: there are very detailed accounts of exactly what the ‘king who exalts himself’ is up to, but suddenly in the next chapter there will merely be ‘a time of distress’. Historians can work out with come certainty (although always with scholarly debate) who this king was, and so date the work at the point at which the detail disappears.

So my view is that Daniel was a real guy, from the exile, to whose wonderful story some apocalyptic was attached to give it credibility. We’ll be looking at more apocalyptic material as we go on, so I won’t say more here, but the fundamental message is that God is ultimately in control, no matter how much the evil rulers try to thwart his purposes. So stand firm, hang on in there, as Daniel did, refuse to compromise, and wait for the salvation of the Lord.