After the decree of Cyrus in 539 BC that released the Jews from captivity, a number returned to their homeland.
They settled in Jerusalem under the leadership of the governor Zerubbabel and the high priest Joshua, and set about rebuilding the city and the temple (Ezra 1:1-4; 2:1-2). Soon they had set up the altar and laid the foundation of the temple, but when local people began persecuting them, they became discouraged and stopped work (Ezra 4:1-5,24). For sixteen years no work was done on the temple. Then, in 520 BC, God raised up two prophets, Haggai and Zechariah, to stir up the people to get to work again and finish the temple (Ezra 5:1-2; Hag 1:1; Zech 1:1).
Characteristics of the book The prophets’ preaching for the first six months was largely concerned with encouraging the people through the early difficulties. Haggai began the preaching with two stirring messages (Hag 1:1-15 and 2:1-9), after which Zechariah delivered his first message (Zech 1:1-6). Haggai followed this with two more messages (Hag 2:10-19 and 2:20-23), after which Zechariah delivered his second message (Zech 1:7-6:15). Zechariah’s next recorded message was preached when the construction had reached the halfway point (Zech 7:1-8:23). The temple was finished in 516 BC, after four and a half years work (Ezra 6:14-15). Haggai and Zechariah were both concerned with rousing the people from their spiritual laziness and getting them to work on the temple, but the preaching of Zechariah went further. Through him God was preparing his people for the task for which he had chosen them, namely, the coming of the Messiah, the establishment of his kingdom and the salvation of people worldwide. Zechariah was therefore concerned to bring about a lasting spiritual change in the lives of the people. The latter half of Zechariah’s book, which consists of two messages delivered probably late in his life, shows that the task the people faced was not an easy one.
There would be bitter conflicts with the forces of evil, but in the end God’s kingdom would triumph. In contrast to the straightforward preaching of Haggai, Zechariah’s preaching was often mysterious and colourful. His book shows characteristics of the apocalyptic literature that developed in Israel over the next few centuries. Apocalyptic writers presented their messages in the form of visions in which symbolic figures and numbers usually featured (see APOCALYPTIC LITERATURE). Contents of the book After an initial call to repentance (1:1-6), Zechariah recounts eight visions, all of which concern the rebuilding of the temple and God’s purposes for his people. The first three visions give encouragement to the workmen (1:7-2:13), the central pair give encouragement to the leaders, Joshua and Zerubbabel (3:1- 4:14), and the last three give assurance of final victory (5:1-6:8). A short narrative recounts the crowning of the high priest (6:9-15). At the half-way point in the building program, some representatives of the people asked Zechariah if they should still keep certain fasts to mourn the destruction of the former temple.
In response Zechariah warns not to mourn over the past, but to have confidence for the future (7:1-8:23). In the first of the two longer messages given later in life, Zechariah speaks of the punishment of enemies and the restoration of freedom. He draws a striking contrast between the worthless leadership of unspiritual people and the kind of leadership God wants (9:1-11:17). In the second message he warns that the victory Israel looked for will be achieved only at great cost and with much sorrow. He again notes the difference between the false shepherds and the true shepherd, and looks forward to the final triumph of the Messiah’s kingdom (12:1-14:21).
The Bible mentions about thirty people who had the name Zechariah. Many of these were priests, prophets or rulers. Of the rulers named Zechariah, one was a king of Israel. He was the fifth king of the dynasty of Jehu, and with his murder in 752 BC, Jehu’s dynasty ended as bloodily as it had begun (2 Kings 15:8-12). The most important of the prophets named Zechariah was the man whose book is part of the Old Testament. He lived in Jerusalem during the period after the Jews’ return from captivity and, with Haggai, he roused the people to get on with the job of rebuilding the temple (Ezra 5:1-2; 6:14-15; Zech 1:1; see ZECHARIAH, BOOK OF). Of the priests named Zechariah, the best known in Old Testament times was the man who rebuked King Joash and the people of Jerusalem for their idolatry.
By command of the king, the leaders of Jerusalem murdered him. In a divine judgment on the murderers, the leaders of Jerusalem were killed in an enemy invasion and the king was assassinated by two of his palace officials (in 796 BC; 2 Chron 24:17-26; Luke 11:49-51). Another priest named Zechariah lived in New Testament times. This man was the father of John the Baptist. For many years he and his wife had not been able to have children, even though they had prayed earnestly and lived righteously before God. One day, while Zechariah was on duty in the temple, an angel from God told him that in answer to their prayers, God was about to give them a son. This son, whom they were to name John, was to be the forerunner of the Messiah (Luke 1:5-17). Zechariah could hardly believe the good news and wanted a sign to confirm it. The sign he received was also a penalty for his unbelief: he was made dumb till the baby was born (Luke 1:18-23,57-66). Upon regaining his speech, Zechariah immediately began to praise God. His first words of praise were for the promised Messiah (Luke 1:67-75). He then offered praise for his son John, who would prepare the people for the Messiah’s arrival by calling them to repentance (Luke 1:76-79).