May 19: Zechariah 4:6; 12:10

Zechariah 4:6; 12:10

In these notes we have been studying the references to the Spirit (j^Wr) of God in the Old Testament, from the earliest historical traditions in the Pentateuch to the Exilic and Post-exilic periods. The most recent notes have examined, in particular, the role of the Spirit in the restoration-message of the 6th century Prophets (Joel, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Deutero-Isaiah[?]), and how this began to be realized in the Judean Community of the early (5th century) post-exilic period. The focus in Ezra-Nehemiah is very much upon the Torah as the foundation of this new (restored) Israelite/Jewish identity, and the recognition of the spirit-inspired character of the Torah (Neh 9:20ff, discussed in the previous note) confirms the close connection between the Spirit and the Torah in passages such as Jer 31:31-34 and Ezek 36:26-27. Preserving the covenant-bond with YHWH, demonstrated specifically by faithful observance of the Torah, is part of the “new heart” and “new spirit” given to the people, referenced in these restoration-oracles.

In a different way, the message of the earlier Prophets was continued in the post-exilic Prophetic writings of Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi, and this can be illustrated by the references to the spirit (j^Wr) of God in these texts. The situation surrounding the book of Zechariah is the most complex, due the composite nature of the work as it has come down to us. Most critical commentators would date chapters 9-14 considerably later than chaps. 1-8 (the visions and oracles of which are indicated as occurring 520-518 B.C.); the second half of the book would be dated after 515 B.C., and perhaps well into the 5th century (before 445?).

Zechariah 4:6 (Hag 2:4-5)

The oracle-vision in chapter 4 represents one of the earliest Messianic passages in the Old Testament—that is to say, it identifies present/future persons, according to a certain set of Prophetic traditions (regarding a coming king from the line of David, etc), as Anointed figures, in a manner that begins to approach the Jewish Messianism of the first centuries B.C./A.D. This foundational line of Messianic tradition (drawn from numerous passages in Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, etc) was applied specifically to the ruler Zerubbabel and the priest Joshua. The Davidic lineage of Zerubbabel (whose name means something like “seed of Babylon”) is far from clear, a royal genealogy being indicated only in one late source (1 Chron 3:16-19). He is referred to as a hj*P# (i.e., governor of a city or small territory) in Haggai 1:1; 2:21, but his exact status in relation to the Persian Empire is not entirely clear. Certainly, however, he was a leader (along with the priest Joshua) of the Judean/Jerusalem Community in the early post-exilic period, being among a group of men who return to Judah, with permission from the Persian government, in order to rebuild the Temple (cf. Ezra 2:2; 3:2, 8; 4:2-3; 5:2). He is specifically paired with the priest Joshua in a dual-leadership role, in Haggai 1:12, a detail well-established enough to be preserved in later Jewish tradition (cf. Sirach 49:11-12).

In Zech 4, an oracle regarding Zerubbabel (vv. 6-10) is presented within a visionary framework—the vision of a golden lampstand flanked by two olive trees. The lampstand represents the presence of YHWH, in a symbolic/spiritual sense, while the two olive trees signify two anointed figures (v. 14)—that is, the anointed ruler Zerubbabel and priest Joshua. Not surprisingly, the message of the oracle relates to the rebuilding of the Temple, providing assurance that, the work having been begun (by Zerubbabel), it will be brought to completion (vv. 8-9). This is part a wider declaration regarding the divine presence that enables (and protects) Zerubbabel’s work, stated memorably in verse 6:

“This is the word of YHWH to Seed-of-Babel {Zerubbabel}, saying: ‘Not by strength, and not by power, but by my spirit [j^Wr], says YHWH of (the heavenly) armies’!”

It is by God’s spirit that this (the rebuilding of the Temple) will be accomplished, in spite of any difficulties or opposition that may be faced. Here we have a different side to the same basic restoration-message found in Ezra-Nehemiah (cf. the previous note). There it was the spirit-inspired Torah that was being emphasized, here it is the association of the spirit of God with the Temple—both represent fundamental aspects of the Israelite/Jewish religious identity that is being renewed and restored in the post-exilic period.

Since the Temple represents the presence of God as he dwells with His people, the association with His spirit is clear and natural enough. This aspect is brought out even more fully in Haggai 2:1-9, in which a similar message of exhortation is given to Zerubbabel (along with Joshua, and all the people) from YHWH, promising divine providence and supervision over the rebuilding:

“‘You must be strong…and do (the work), for I (am) with you’ —utterance of YHWH of (the heavenly) armies— ‘(by) the word (of the agreement) that I cut with you in your going forth from Egypt, and my spirit [j^Wr] is standing with you, (so) you must not fear!'” (vv. 4-5)

As a side note, the idea of the “(heavenly) armies” reflects an ancient image, the origins of which had long been lost by the time the book of Zechariah was composed. It essentially refers to El-Yahweh’s control over the powers of the sky/heaven, to the point that they will fight (as an organized army) on His behalf, and at His command. We see vestiges of it in the theophany-image of God (YHWH) residing in a chariot (cf. the chariot throne vision of Ezekiel 1). The vision in Zech 6:1-8 likewise preserves this symbolism, together with the specific idea that these heavenly chariots transport the spirit (j^Wr) of God (v. 8).

Zechariah 12:10

The oracles in Zechariah 12-14 continue the restoration-message of the exilic Prophets, but in a more developed form, drawing upon early apocalyptic and eschatological traditions, similar to those found in the books of Joel, Ezekiel and Deutero-Isaiah. In other words, the restoration of Israel is presented as part of a larger set of future/end-time events which encompass the judgment of the nations, the establishment of a ‘golden age’ of peace and prosperity, and so forth. The second half of Zechariah (chaps. 9-14) also shows signs of the development of an incipient Messianism—i.e., the expectation for the coming of a future Davidic ruler who will oversee the judgment/defeat of the nations and a New Age for Israel.

The multi-part oracle in chapters 12-13 refers to “that day” (vv. 3ff)—i.e., the “day of YHWH” from the nation-oracle tradition of the Prophets, but now expanded to become the moment when all the nations are judged together (cf. Joel 3). The nations will gather to attack Jerusalem (cp. 14:1ff; Ezek 38-39), but YHWH will bring salvation for Judah, as He Himself protects His people and will destroy their enemies (vv. 8-9). The eschatological nature, and cosmic dimensions, of this conflict are indicated by the allusions to the Creation account in verse 1. The end is a reflection of the beginning, and the New Age will entail a kind of New Creation (cf. Isa 65:17; 66:22; Rev 21:1). Even as God, by his own Spirit/Breath, gave the spirit/breath (j^Wr) of life to humankind (cf. the earlier note on Gen 2:7; Job 33:4), so in the New Age will He “pour out” His Spirit on His people (v. 10).

This is a well-established prophetic image, as we have seen in the prior studies on Isa 44:3; Joel 2:28-29, etc, and the oracle alludes to it here, by the expression “a spirit of favor” (/j@ j^Wr)—that is, of God’s favor toward His people. The water-imagery associated with pouring is made explicit: God will provide a fountain (roqm*) of water, flowing from the ground, for the people (and rulers) of Jerusalem (13:1). The primary purpose of this water is to cleanse God’s people from sin and impurity; as a result, the “spirit of uncleanness” (ha*m=F%h^ j^Wr) will be taken away from the land (v. 2). The association of the Spirit with water and cleansing is part of a longstanding tradition, and would become an important aspect of the imagery surrounding the idea of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament.

These references only confirm the increasing tendency, throughout the writings of the exilic and post-exilic periods, to connect religious reform with the presence and activity of God’s spirit. One final passage in this regard, from the book of Malachi, may be cited in closing. As part of an exhortation for a return to covenant faithfulness and loyalty, the prophet introduces the traditional metaphor of fidelity in marriage (2:14). The covenant is compared to a marriage-union, where two people become united in spirit; and, as the bond here is between humankind and God, the union entails a joining with the spirit of God (v. 15, cp. 1 Cor 6:17). Since a breaking of the covenant-bond involves a failure by human beings, not by God, the restoration must occur with the human spirit. Therefore the exhortation in verse 16 calls on the people to “be on guard with your spirit” (i.e. guard your spirit). The word j^Wr is used in both instances in vv. 15-16, for the spirit of God and His people alike.

May 18: Nehemiah 9:20, 30

Nehemiah 9:20, 30

In the previous note, we examined the emphasis on the spirit (j^Wr) of God in passages of the exilic Prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel, dealing with the future restoration of Israel/Judah. This restoration was defined in terms of a return from exile, and a re-establishment of the covenant bond between YHWH and His people. Faithfulness to the covenant would now be ensured by the action of God Himself, giving the people a “new heart” and a “new spirit” through the presence of His own Spirit (“my spirit” [yj!Wr]). As the Torah (hr*oT, the instruction of YHWH) represented the terms of the covenant, it would be of central importance to any faithful Community of God’s people in this ideal/future time of restoration. And, indeed, we can see the ideal acted out in the Judean Community of the early post-exilic period, as recorded in the books of Ezra-Nehemiah.

Ezra and Nehemiah were important leaders of the post-exilic Community in Jerusalem, each, in his own way, working toward the restoration-ideal of the Prophets. The customary chronology dates Ezra’s arrival in Jerusalem to 458 B.C., with Nehemiah arriving some 13 years later (445 B.C.). As governor of Judah, Nehemiah had greater authority, and appears to have sought to carry through the religious and cultural reforms introduced by Ezra (cf. the references to Ezra in Neh 8-10).

The hr*oT (tôrâ, Instruction, or “Law”) of God features prominently in Ezra-Nehemiah, central to the re-establishment of the Israelite/Jewish religious identity (see esp. Ezra 10:3). In Ezr 3:2; 7:6 and Neh 8:1 it is specifically called the “hr*oT of Moses” (i.e. ‘Law of Moses’), and clearly refers to a written work, since Ezra is said to be a literary expert (scribe) regarding this Torah (7:6, 21, etc); cf. also Neh 10:34, 36. Moreover, in Neh 8:1 we read of a “book of the Torah” (lit. “account of the Instruction”, hr*oT rp#s@), also occurring in vv. 3, 18, and 9:3 (cf. below). This expression is relatively rare in the Old Testament, occurring not once in the Psalms, Prophets, or Wisdom literature, etc, but only in Deuteronomy, and the historical books of Joshua, Kings, Chronicles, and Nehemiah. It is difficult to know for certain was is being referred to by the expression. Many commentators feel that it refers to some version of the book of Deuteronomy itself. However the Pentateuch contains other “law codes”, in written form—most notably those in Exodus 20:23-23:19, the “Holiness code” of Lev 17-26, as well as the other collection of laws and priestly regulations in Exod 25-31, 35-40, Numbers 1-10, and throughout the remainder of Leviticus.

In Neh 8:1ff, Ezra is asked to bring out this “account of the Torah”, so that it can be read before all the people. The words in v. 3 indicate a glimmer of fulfillment to the prophecies of restoration in Jer 31:31-34, etc: “…and the ears of all the people (were) to the account of the Instruction” (i.e., they were paying attention to it). Religious life was re-established through celebration of the festival of Sukkot (Booths/Tabernacles), and Ezra read from the Torah every day during the festival (vv. 13-18). Again, this written account of the Torah was read publicly, for several hours, on a day later in the same month, during a time of fasting and repentance (9:1-3ff). In this context, a great prayer is recorded (vv. 6-37), and through which is woven a history of Israel, from the call of Abraham to the present. The emphasis is on the repeated sins and failure of the people to live up to their covenant-bond with YHWH. As we have seen, this was very much part of the Prophetic message, related to the Exile and also the future restoration of Israel.

In this penitential survey of history, the Torah is alluded to in verse 20, in terms of the presence and activity of God’s spirit (j^Wr):

“And you gave your good spirit [j^Wr] to give them understanding [i.e. to instruct them]”

This arguably is the earliest reference to what we might call the inspiration of Scripture—that is, the spirit-inspired character of the written account of the Torah. To be sure, from the standpoint of the historical survey, it more properly refers to the inspiration of Moses as ayb!n`, or spokesperson of YHWH for the people. Just as God gave the people food to eat from heaven (the manna), so He gave them the Instruction (Torah) through Moses as a divinely-inspired intermediary (cf. the prior note on Numbers 11:10-30). Now, centuries after Moses, it is the written record of this Torah that serves to give guidance for the people.

Equally important, however, is the people’s response to that Instruction, during their history, after the settlement in their land. It is characterized ultimately as one of failure and disobedience (vv. 26-28). In verses 29-30, we can see how the role of the Prophets (<ya!yb!n+) is understood primarily in terms of exhorting Israel to restore them to faithfulness to the Torah. Just as Moses was a spirit-inspired spokesperson (ayb!n`), so too were the other chosen Prophets throughout Israel’s history:

“and you drew (out) upon them [i.e. remained patient with them] many years, and repeatedly gave (witness) among them by your spirit [j^Wr], by the hand of your <ya!yb!n+ [i.e. Prophets], and they [i.e. the people] would not give ear [i.e. listen] (to it)” (v. 30)

There are thus here allusions to the spirit-inspired character of both the Torah and the Prophets—representing the beginnings of the traditional pairing of “the Law and the Prophets”, as authoritative Scripture. The centrality of the Torah, however, is clear; the Prophets main role is to bring people back to the Torah when they have turned away from it (v. 29). It is an emphasis that is distinctly Jewish, and remains absolutely fundamental to the Jewish religious (and cultural) identity to the present day. Christians, of course, have always maintained the unique divine inspiration of the Torah as well, according to varying definitions. However, the place of the Torah in Christianity is not at all the same as it is in Judaism, and, sadly, many Christians have a poor understanding of the New Testament teaching (by Jesus, Paul, and others) in this regard. I discuss the matter at great length in the series “The Law and the New Testament”.

In the next daily note, we will turn to the book of Zechariah, for a different post-exilic treatment of the restoration-theme of God’s spirit at work among His people.