By George C. Mayes, M.Div.
In accordance with the word of the LORD, Israel experienced exile in the land of Babylon for 70 years (Jer 25:11; cf. Zech 1:12). In the first year of the Persian king, Cyrus (539-538 BC), a decree was issued allowing the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple (Ezra 1:1-4). In 536 B.C., under the supervision of Zerubbabel the governor and Joshua the high priest, construction of the temple began with the laying of the foundation. Opposition arising from the inhabitants of the land soon caused construction to cease and “discouraged the people of Judah and made them afraid to build and [they] bribed counselors against them to frustrate their purpose” (Ezra 4:4-5; cf. 4:1-24). It was in this context that Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, son of Iddo (Zech 1:1) began to prophecy, encouraging the people to continue building the temple (c. 520 B.C.). The vision of Zechariah 3 encouraged the people that purification and temple construction would be accomplished in the near future, but that these were only foreshadowing a greater purification and temple building project when God brought his servant, the Branch in the eschatological future.
The structure of the passage can be divided into two major sections: the near-future cleansing of Israel graphically illustrated by the rebuke of Joshua’s accuser and the removal of his filthy clothes, and the eschatological future of which Joshua and the rebuilt temple were but types. Joshua, as mediator between God and Israel, represented the national guilt caused by covenant unfaithfulness. The LORD, in his grace removes the impurity from Joshua, and subsequently the nation, allowing temple sacrifices to be reinstituted. In the LORD’s charge to Joshua, the success of the temple rebuilding is implied as God promises him continued service as high priest if he remains faithful. His presence, as well as that of the priesthood, foreshadows the coming of the Branch who would usher in the ultimate removal of sin from the land in one day, the eschatological temple, and a Solomonic era of peace. This vision had both near and far implications as it offered encouragement to the Jews to start construction of the temple again, but also hope that God would fulfill his final purpose in bringing in the Messiah. It is to the vision proper that we now turn.
Haggai, a prophet contemporaneous with Zechariah summarized the national crisis this way at the closing of his book:
“Thus says the LORD of hosts: Ask the priests about the law: ‘If someone carries holy meat in the fold of his garment and touches with his fold bread or stew or wine or oil or any kind of food, does it become holy?’ The priests answered and said, ‘No.’ Then Haggai said, ‘If someone who is unclean by contact with a dead body touches any of these, does it become unclean?’ The priests answered and said, ‘It does become unclean.’ Then Haggai answered and said, ‘So it is with this people, and with this nation before me, declares the LORD, and so with every work of their hands. And what they offer here is unclean.’” (Hag 2:11-14)
Despite returning to the land, the problem persisted—the people were unclean. Return from exile did not imply a change in their hearts, which was required by the Law of Moses (Deut 10:16). The altar had been rebuilt (Ezra 3:1-7), and sacrifices had been reinstituted, but the altar did not make the people clean, rather, the people made both the altar and sacrifices unclean. This is the issue addressed by the first section of Zechariah’s vision: how could this people be restored to God and how could they hope to rebuild the temple if they were perpetually unclean?