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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Living into the Visions

As the stars flicker into the purpled dusky sky, the prophet Zechariah extinguishes the flame from his lamp. He says a prayer before he sleeps – ‘Lord of the Universe, it is true, that before You there is no night, and the light of the world is with You. You make the whole world shine with Your light. Keep me as I sleep.’

Zechariah sleeps as the moon climbs into the dark skies over the city of Jerusalem. And in his sleep he looks up into the darkness at the intersection of heaven and earth and sees a grove of aromatic myrtle trees. The trees are rooted in the depths of the abyss, “the extremity of the world …at the extreme limits of life (Ollenburger, 750).” The dark seas are filled with danger and mystery.

A wind whispers in the branches of the myrtles carrying the fragrance of Eden into the night. The whole world is quiet, but the air is charged, tense, expectant.

In the shadows of the myrtle trees he sees a man riding a red horse, and behind him more horses – red, chestnut, and white – pawing at the ground and snorting. They are powerful creatures.

Zechariah turns to the angel that is now suddenly standing next to him and asks, ‘Sir, what are these horses doing here? What’s the meaning of this?’

The angel-messenger answers ‘Let me show you.’

Then the rider of the red horse speaks up, ‘These are those whom YHWH has sent to patrol the earth.’ And now the horses deliver their report to Angel of YHWH, the rider of the red horse,’ We have patrolled the earth, and lo, the whole earth remains at peace.’ They are Yahweh’s agents sent to patrol the earth. They are God’s dominion over all of creation and have unlimited, universal range (Ollenburger, 751). They are the hosts of heaven, the angel armies of God returned from a reconnaissance mission.

Hearing their report, the Angel of YHWH cries out to YHWH, ‘Oh, God-of-the-Angel-Armies, how long are You going to stay angry with Jerusalem? How long will You withhold mercy from the cities of Judah on which You have inflicted Your anger for the past seventy years?’

And from the darkness of the grove YHWH speaks words of grace and comfort to the Angel of YHWH, who then addresses Zechariah: ‘Proclaim this message, it is Yahweh’s message – I am jealous for Jerusalem and Zion. And I am extremely angry with the nations that are comfortable and at ease.

‘I’ve come back to Jerusalem, but with compassion this time. I’ll see to it that my Temple is rebuilt. My cities will prosper again. I will comfort Zion again. Jerusalem will be back in my favor again.’

Zechariah is commissioned to preach the return of YHWH to Jerusalem and his compassion and consolation for the people. But his message isn’t just a “there, there” type of consolation. Zechariah is to alert Israel and the world that Yahweh’s determination is to change the world – to rearrange the present order. YHWH is remaking, recreating the world, and restoring the world to its proper order. Governments are going to be cut off and cast down, while Zion is going to be lifted up and exalted.

“For YHWH has chosen Zion, He has desired it as home. ‘Here shall I rest for evermore, here shall I make my home as I have wished.'" (Psalm 132: 13 – 14)

Through the night Zechariah receives a series of eight visions – at one point the interpreting angel awakens him “as one is awakened from sleep.” Using a variety of both familiar and, at times, bizarre, Zechariah is given a vision of the world as it is, and as it will be. The visions move from a focus on the whole world to a focus on Judah, then Jerusalem, and then at the heart of the visions, of the Temple itself. The visions then move back outward again through Jerusalem, and Judah, to the whole world.

Zechariah sees horns that represent nations being cut off by blacksmiths that serve the God-of-the-Angel-Armies, an un-measurable Jerusalem being measured and surrounded by YHWH as a wall of fire. He sees Joshua the high priest standing before a heavenly tribunal accused by the Satan. He sees a vision of the seven-branched Menorah within the Temple flanked by two olive trees. He sees a flying scroll that condemns thieves and perjurers. He sees a basket that contains a woman who is wickedness, and he watches as the basket is carried off by two women with wings like storks, to Babylon where it will be set up and worshipped. And in the final vision he sees horses, again as the servants of YHWH Sabaoth (the LORD of Hosts), sent out to patrol the ends of the world.

And because Zechariah is unable to understand what he is seeing in these visions they are interpreted for him by an interpreting Angel. The visions are devoted to a number of related themes:

The rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem.

The return of Yahweh’s presence to Zion.

The reformation of the moral and social character of the world.

And the inclusion of all nations within the glorious future of Zion.

The world, according to the visions of Zechariah and the rest of Scripture, is a sanctuary in which the reign of God is visible and unchallenged. God’s holiness is all-pervasive in the temple that is the world.(Levenson, 86) “YHWH is in His holy Temple, let all the earth keep silent before him."(Habakkuk 2: 20)

What Zechariah sees in his series of visions is not just the restoration of the temple, not just the restoration of Jerusalem, not even just the restoration of the nation of Israel – but the restoration of the whole of the created order within the heavenly city of Zion, wherein all nations are gathered and restored.

In his final vision Zechariah lifts his eyes and sees four chariots coming out between two mountains of bronze. Drawing from a variety of ancient near eastern mythical ideas Zechariah envisions these horse drawn chariots as coming with the dawn and the rising sun. The two mountains of bronze are ablaze with the light of the rising sun.

“Arise, shine out, for your light has come, and the glory of YHWH has risen on you. Look! though night still covers the earth and darkness the peoples, on you YHWH is rising and over you his glory can be seen. The nations will come to you light and kings to your dawning brightness." (Isaiah 60: 1 – 3)

This solar imagery is appropriate for the final of his eight visions. The fist image came to him in the night. And now, at the break of dawn, he is receiving the eighth and final vision. The number eight is often used in scripture to represent a new beginning, a new day. Eight were spared in the flood (Genesis 7:13, 23) when God gave the earth a new start. Circumcision was performed on the eighth day (Genesis 17: 12). Thomas saw the risen Christ on the eighth day (John 20:26). The Eighth vision of Zechariah describes the beginning of a new world order, a new creation.

He sees four chariots pulled by horses of varying colors heading out in all directions. The horses burst like the sun from between the mountains. They are vigorous and strong and impatient to be about their work. They are about the work of a new creation. They are the winds or the spirits of God and they are taking God’s Spirit to bring peace to the world and to the north country in particular. The north country being the land of exile, Babylon. They are the divine winds of (re)creation sweeping over the land (Genesis 1:2)

The final vision ends with the Spirit of God at rest. The first vision began with the world being at rest – but the rest is different now. Things have changed during night. Thing have changed during the course of the evening’s visions. “The world is at peace when Zechariah first sees in the night, and it is at peace when the visions conclude. But the word has changed. International, internal, and cosmic order have been recreated. Sacred space has been restored. (Ollenburger, 784)”

Within Zechariah’s visions, oppressors have been brought down, exiles have been brought home, and Zion has become the gathering place for all the peoples of the world as they all come to worship God. Zion becomes a place without walls – for no walls of stone and mortar could ever contain the multitudes that are gathered within YHWH’s protective walls of fire.

But was it just a dream. What happens to the visions when Zechariah awakens in the morning? Do they disappear into fleeting and vague memories as dreams often do – or will they become a reality?

Zechariah invites us to imagine with him the things that he has seen. We are to envision these signs along with the prophet. When we read what he has written about his visions we see them in our minds along with him. But we are also called to inhabit those visions – to inhabit the world according to what we have see – to inhabit the world according to what it will become on YHWH Sabaoth’s initiative.

People often make the statement, “well, it’s not a perfect world…” but that’s a cop-out. It’s an excuse, and a miserable excuse. The author of the letter to the Hebrews makes it clear that “what you have come to is Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem where millions of angels have gathered for the festival, with the whole Church of first-born sons enrolled as citizens of heaven. You have come to God himself, the supreme Judge, and to the spirits of the upright who have been made perfect; and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant… (Hebrews 12: 22 – 24)”

We have come to Mount Zion. We are gathered within those protective walls of fire. The kingdom we inhabit cannot be shaken. To say, 'oh well, it's not a perfect world' is to awaken from Zechariah's visions and forget what we have been shown.  We need to inhabit those visions, and to make them real in the world around us.  We need to live into those visions.

Jon D. Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988)

Ben C. Ollenburger, The Book of Zechariah: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections – The New Interpreter’s Bible Volume 7 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996)

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