This morning in our series of studies in the Old Testament book of Zechariah, we come to chapter 4. And after some words of introduction, my headings are first, A FUNDAMENTAL TRUTH; secondly, A FUNDAMENTAL PRINCIPLE; and, thirdly, A FUNDAMENTAL ATTITUDE
So a couple of things by way of introduction.
You may be just back in the city after the summer break, or you may be new to the city and this church. Can I say, if that’s you, all you need to know by way of background to our study is this.
Zechariah, whom we are studying, like his contemporary Haggai, began his prophetic ministry in 520 BC, the second year of King Darius of Persia. Darius’ predecessor but one, the Persian King Cyrus, having defeated the Babylonians, had allowed in 538 BC the exiled Jews¸ to return from captivity in Babylon to their homeland. And there they were to rebuild the temple that had been destroyed by the Babylonians.
But when the Jews returned to Judah and started to build, opposition from outside and discouragement from inside meant they soon stopped the rebuilding work. And then nothing happened for 17 or so years. When eventually they began again, under the influence of the prophets Zechariah and Haggai, there was still external political opposition. So life was not easy in the time of Zechariah.
The second thing to say about our passage is that Zechariah was a visionary prophet. And with such prophetic visions not all is crystal clear. But the gist is clear enough, and as I hope we shall see, very important. Certainly our chapter 4 highlights three fundamentals that are essential for all, and for all time. And it is on these three fundamentals I want to focus this morning.
First, there is A FUNDAMENTAL TRUTH.
Just imagine you’re in the countryside somewhere. The sun has gone down – there are no street lights or lights from houses. So all is dark apart from the light of a full moon. But you have to get something from a small shed and it is rather urgent. Last Saturday week that was my situation. I needed a can of oil to free the jammed ignition lock on my car before driving back to Newcastle. I first thought I could see by the moonlight. But inside the small shed was total darkness.
Providentially, with winter coming on, that very morning I had bought a new torch to go in my car. So back to the car and with a new torch I could find the oil and all was well.
That is a parable of what the Bible says is the situation everyone finds themselves in as they journey through this world, from birth to death. The world, as it now is, is a dark place.
Yes, like the moonlight, there is some light from God’s General Revelation through nature – hence the possibility of some science. And there is some light from God’s Common Grace in the human conscience. But all of these can be, and are, ignored or corrupted. Just open your newspaper to see the darkness internationally and in this nation. Think this morning of the terrible carnage in Nairobi yesterday afternoon. Of course, not everything is always pitch black, but much is.
That is why the world needs God’s “torch”, his written Word, the Bible, and his “searchlight” – his Special and Saving light in Jesus Christ - God the Son who came 2000 years ago in human form, as the Bible records, as the light of the world and life. Yes, the Bible says that “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1.5).
And Jesus reflected that light. As we say in the Nicene Creed, he was “light from light”. But he said we too are to reflect that light (Mat 5.14 and16):
“You are the light of the world … let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. (Mat 5.14 and16)
And that is the background message of this chapter 4 of Zechariah, that God’s people are, and are to be, like a great lampstand for the world.
Look at verses 1-3:
“And the angel who talked with me came again and woke me, like a man who is awakened out of his sleep. And he said to me, ‘What do you see?’ I said, ‘I see, and behold, a lampstand all of gold, with a bowl on the top of it, and seven lamps on it, with seven lips on each of the lamps that are on the top of it. And there are two olive trees by it, one on the right of the bowl and the other on its left.’” (Zech.4.1-3)
How exactly are we to understand this lampstand? It is not like the seven-branched Jewish Temple-type lampstand. Instead this is a tubular pedestal, made out of gold, with a bowl on top to contain the olive oil fuel. And the bowl had seven lamps on the edge, each with seven lips (or spouts) possibly with seven wicks in each. Archaeologists have found in Palestine what seem to be similar lamps dating from much earlier.
But whatever this lampstand was like, it’s fairly clear it represents the people of God. For the two olive trees on either side of this lampstand, as we learn later, are Joshua, the High Priest, and Zerubbabel, the Governor of Judah- They were somehow contributing to the fuel supply.
Now it is obvious that in this dream-like vision, with a complicated type of lampstand, the details are not 100% clear. But the gist is. For at least the Angel was reminding Zechariah, and through Zechariah, down the centuries believers like you and me, that the people of God are to be shining like lamps. That means now shining and declaring the truth of God as it is in Jesus Christ in this darkworld. For the world desperately needs to hear about the light of Christ that gives meaning to time and eternity and that exposes sin and evil and offers forgiveness and a new start through Christ’s Cross and Resurrection. How we all need to be letting our light shine this Autumn!
So much then for the lampstand - the sign of a fundamental truth.
That brings us secondly, to A FUNDAMENTAL PRINCIPLE
Look at verses 4-7
““And I said to the angel who talked with me, ‘What are these, my lord?’ Then the angel who talked with me answered and said to me, ‘Do you not know what these are?’ I said, ‘No, my lord.’ Then he said to me, ‘This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD of hosts. Who are you, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel you shall become a plain. And he shall bring forward the top stone amid shouts of ‘Grace, grace to it!”’.” (Zech. 4.4-7)
Here is something so fundamental. It was fundamental for Zerubbabel, for he was in charge of the great project of rebuilding the temple that had been left in ruins by the Babylonians.
Some of you have been having building work done on your own homes. And you know that getting things right is not easy. Some of us recently saw the architect for initial discussions over the building work required for St Joseph’s church. And to get that right within budget and for as much flexibility as possible will not be easy. Well, Zerubbabel had those problems to the nth degree.
In addition there was discouragement from insiders. This particularly came from the old guard who remembered the “good old days”, when the old temple was much grander than this new one would be. Also there were people outside who wanted to stop the building project altogether. Some of the Persians felt threatened by what was going on. And as you can imagine, even with many pulling their weight and going in the same direction, managing a big building project before power tools and sophisticated lifting devices was a mammoth task.
So what was the message for Zerubbabel, the Governor, who possibly went to bed each night wondering how he would survive the following day? The answer is the same message as for everyone today who is engaged in any and every challenging activity, and particularly for those who are over confident.
And it is certainly the message for this church as we think about the future. Part of the message is in the title for this morning’s sermon. It is there in verse 6:
“This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD of hosts.”(4.6)
If Zerubbabel wants to be successful, if we as a church want to be successful, if you personally want to be successful, here is the secret of success. And by the way there is nothing wrong in wanting success. “Success” etymologically means “outcome” and then a “good” outcome.
But what is “good”? As a Christian you want an outcome in accordance with God’s will, which is always good and perfect. And that will is summed up in the Great Commandments to love God and your neighbour and Christ’s Great Commission to make disciples and teach them to obey him – hence our JPC desired outcomes and vision of “Godly Living, Church Growth and Changing Britain.” But what in practice does this principle mean?
Well, “might” and “power” are not necessarily the same thing. Might is the sum total of your resources. Power comes when you deploy those resources. So might and power, as has been well put, “represent the full extent of human resources” available for difficult situations.
Zerubbabel, of course, was a distinguished man and in effect the Prime Minister of Judah. But like any leader, including modern Presidents and Prime Ministers, he was just an ordinary human being and so needing this lesson. As Zerubbabel knew his Bible, he would have known of the vast resources David had left to Solomon for building the old temple. Listen to David (1 Chron 22.14):
“ With great pains I have provided for the house of the LORD 100,000 talents of gold, a million talents of silver, and bronze and iron beyond weighing, for there is so much of it; timber and stone, too, I have provided.” (1 Chron 22.14)
And he would have known the size of David’s and Solomon’s armies. He knew he had nothing like them to protect Judah against her enemies. But Zerubbabel had to learn, and you and I have to learn, that true success does not come through human resources but, and it is a big “but”, “by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts”.
You see, it is the God who is Lord of all the heavenly powers (whatever they are) and Sovereign over all earthly powers, who says that it is “by my Spirit”. And this means that the challenges that God’s people then faced and now have to face can only ultimately be overcome, with success for time and eternity, by the strength that God gives. This is such a fundamental principle. And it is a principle not just for God’s people and for individuals. No!
What is being spoken about here is not just, as the theologians put it, “the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit”. That is a vital work of the Holy Spirit that I trust we are all praying for at this time of year especially. It is for many people to turn from the darkness of the world to the light of Christ as the Holy Spirit works in their lives.
But you must not ignore, for your believing and praying, the creative and public work of the Holy Spirit in the public world. The Bible tells you that the Holy Spirit was at work in the creation of this universe (Gen 1.2). He was at work in the miraculous Exodus from Egypt (Is 63.11). And Haggai, Zechariah’s contemporary and similar to Zechariah, said God’s word to Zerubbabel was (Hag 2.4-5): “be strong … My Spirit remains in your midst.”
And how much more since Pentecost is God’s Spirit in our midst. So believing that, you should pray and work to see change for God in our public world and life today.
So what does Zerubbabel need to do for the Holy Spirit to work? And what do you need to do? Seek some new experience? No! God may give one, if he chooses. But Zerubbabel has simply to trust God and to believe that when he obeys God, his Holy Spirit will strengthen him and the people.
And the good news? - mountainous problems will be resolved. Look at verse 7:
“Who are you, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel you shall become a plain. And he shall bring forward the top stone amid shouts of ‘Grace, grace to it!’” (4.7)
And that is so often Christian experience today when people trust and obey God. For God’s work is often “first impossible, then difficult and then done” (to quote Hudson Taylor, the missionary to China). Now, all this did not mean Zerubbabel was not to work, but just sit back and wait for a miracle.
No! Zerubbabel was to put in such money, effort, intelligence and human gifts as God had given him, but realizing that apart from God’s Holy Spirit there would not be lasting results for time and eternity. And that is true for today. It is the principle Jesus taught, when teaching about the Holy Spirit in John’s Gospel: “apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15.5).
And because the Holy Spirit is not just the Spirit of regeneration but of the whole of life, realise that is true and pray accordingly for your daily work in your school, college, hospital, office, local or central government department, home looking after children, or wherever.
So – the fundamental principle: “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD of hosts.” And that brings us …
… thirdly, to A FUNDAMENTAL ATTITUDE
Look now at verses 8-10a:
“ Then the word of the LORD came to me, saying, ‘The hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundation of this house; his hands shall also complete it. Then you will know that the LORD of hosts has sent me to you. For whoever has despised the day of small things shall rejoice, and shall see the plumb line in the hand of Zerubbabel.’” (4.8-10a)
One problem facing Zerubbabel was caused by some people who “despised the day of small things.” These people were having a negative rather than a positive attitude. They were probably claiming to be realists. The trouble was they were pessimistic, not optimistic, realists. They just didn’t see how the building project of the temple and the new plans could succeed.
They probably thought that Zerubbabel hadn’t all the management gifts they thought necessary; or he lacked the material resources they thought necessary; or he wasn’t tactful enough in dealing with his Persian overlords as they thought necessary. They thought his human and material resources were not up to it. Yes, they were believers. But they did not believe that God could supply all these needs. So what is Zerubbabel to do?
He is to carry on with the work and try to help these people become optimistic realists, not being unrealistic but optimistic, when they see that God can supply all their needs. They will then rejoice instead of grumble. They will rejoice when they see the completed walls are straight (and there is no crooked spire or the equivalent) against Zerubbabel’s plumbline. And they then will know it must be due to God. For they were correct about Zerubbabel failings and short supplies. It had to be that God’s Spirit had been working through other people and in ways beyond human imagination.
So Zechariah is stressing the fundamental need of an attitude of optimism rather than pessimism because the Lord of Hosts is with his people. For in God’s way and in his time they will be winners as they trust and obey.
Who here this morning needs to change from being pessimistic to having that fundamental faith attitude of optimistic realism, not pessimistic realism?
I must conclude and with just a three sentence comment about verses 10b to 14. Look at verses 10b-14:
“‘These seven are the eyes of the LORD, which range through the whole earth.’ Then I said to him, ‘What are these two olive trees on the right and the left of the lampstand?’ And a second time I answered and said to him, ‘What are these two branches of the olive trees, which are beside the two golden pipes from which the golden oil is poured out?’ He said to me, ‘Do you not know what these are?’ I said, ‘No, my lord.’ Then he said, ‘These are the two anointed ones who stand by the Lord of the whole earth.’” (4.10b-14)
Scholars find it hard to agree about these verses.
But when you realise that in the Bible oil represents and is associated with the Holy Spirit’s work, and both priests and kings (God’s agents like Joshua and Zerubbabel) in Old Testament times were anointed with oil, these verses at least underline the fundamental principle in verse 6 for the people of God and for the wider world, namely that it is “not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts.”
So the question this morning is: “do you believe that?”