Poet, Chorus, Character

I told them, “If you think it best, give me my pay; but if not, keep it.” So they paid me thirty pieces of silver.

And the Lord said to me, “Throw it to the potter”—the handsome price at which they valued me! So I took the thirty pieces of silver and threw them to the potter at the house of the Lord.
Zechariah 11:12-13 (NIV)

One of the things that I love about acting is the opportunity to bring a character to life. The first step in almost every rehearsal process is the “read through” in which all of the actors in a play sit down with the director and simply read the script out loud around a table. Then, over the process of a few weeks, those words are transformed as the actors embody the characters, are transformed by the costumers and make-up artists. Finally, they give action, expression, and relational interaction within a detailed setting on the stage.

One of the difficult parts of reading the ancient Hebrew prophets is that they often used different devices in their writing for different effects. In today’s, chapter, Zechariah begins with poetry just as he had in the previous chapter (vss 1-3). He then switches to prose and relates the message God gave him concerning a shepherd and a coming time of destruction (vss. 4-6). Zech then switches to writing in the voice of first-person. Much like an actor, he embodies the voice of the Shepherd.

Much like the prophet Isaiah whose prophesied the Messiah as a suffering servant (Is 53), the prophecy of Zechariah foreshadows a Messiah-King who is rejected by the flock. His payment is thirty pieces of silver. Historians say that this was the common price for a slave, and represents an insult.

Anyone familiar with the Jesus story will immediately recognize the foreshadowing of his final week in Jerusalem. The chief priests and leaders of the temple in Jerusalem were supposed to be shepherding God’s people but instead were running a religious racket that oppressed the people and made themselves rich. They reject Jesus (who, btw, claimed the mantel of “The Good Shepherd”) and they pay one of his disciples 30 pieces of silver to betray him. Judas later laments his decision and throws the silver back to the priests.

The description Zechariah gives of destruction, devastation, and even cannibalism is an accurate picture of the Roman siege of Jerusalem and subsequent destruction of the city and the temple in 70 A.D. The historian, Josephus, records that cannibalism did occur within the city as food supplies ran out during the siege.

At the end of the chapter, the “worthless shepherd” (a corrupt ruler over the people) is struck in the arm (arm is a symbol of strength) and his “right eye” (right is metaphorically associated with favor) is blinded. I can’t help but be reminded that in destroying Jerusalem, the Romans also torched all of the Hebrews’ genealogical records. Without being able to see and confirm direct descendence from Aaron or Levi, they are blind to who can offer sacrifices and run the sacrificial system. The sacrificial system of Moses was effectively ended. Without being able to see and confirm direct descendence from David, they are blind to know who can ascend to the monarchy of Judah. The earthly monarchy of David was effectively ended, as well.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself once again fascinated by the prophetic. It’s artistic the way Zechariah switches style three times within a chapter. He starts as a poet, then becomes the chorus, and then takes on character as he accurately envisions events that would occur some four hundred years later.

Once again, I’m reminded that there is a flow to the narrative of the Great Story God is authoring from Genesis to Revelation. There is a Level Four storyboard. I am endlessly fascinated by the mystery of it and repeatedly encouraged to know that the story is being played out, even in the crazy events I observe in the world news each day.

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A note to readers: You are always welcome to share all or part of my chapter-a-day posts if you believe it may be beneficial for others. I only ask that you link to the original post and/or provide attribution for whatever you might use. Thanks for reading!

Wander and Return

Ask the Lord for rain in the springtime;
    it is the Lord who sends the thunderstorms.
He gives showers of rain to all people,
    and plants of the field to everyone.
The idols speak deceitfully,
    diviners see visions that lie;
they tell dreams that are false,
    they give comfort in vain.
Therefore the people wander like sheep
    oppressed for lack of a shepherd.

Zechariah 10:1-2 (NIV)

Seventy years the Hebrews were in exile in Babylon. They were subject to the Babylonian and Persian Emporers and were immersed in a foreign culture complete with foreign idols and religious practices. When Cyrus sent the exiles back to rebuild, and to restore their temple and the religion of Yaweh. (Note: Yaweh is the name God gave to Moses when asked “Who are you?” It means, “I am.”)

In the opening of Zechariah’s prophetic poem in today’s chapter, there lies hidden from most modern readers an important message to the exilic Hebrew. During that period of time, fertility was often viewed by cultures as coming from a specific idol, and many families had “household gods” that they worshipped for comfort and fortune. Zechariah is subtly reminding his audience that it is Yaweh, not fertility gods, who brings rain to feed the crops. It is Yaweh who speaks truth, gives visions, and provides comfort.

Zechariah then sums up the current climate of the Hebrew people’s faith. They’d lacked their own “shepherd” (a king) and therefore the people had, like sheep, wandered and mixed their faith in Yaweh with other local gods and idols.

What’s fascinating is that Zech goes on to encourage his readers that God was going to re-establish Jerusalem. He gives a vision of the Jewish people returning from all over the world, and of a strong leader, a “cornerstone” who would lead them. Security and strength, he assures them, would come from God.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself thinking of the repetitive cycle of wandering and returning that is present in the narrative of the Great Story. It wasn’t just the exilic Hebrews who needed this message. God’s people wandering and returning is present during the time of Moses, the time of the Judges, and the stories of the Kings. Peter denied Christ three times, as predicted, then returned and restored his faith after the resurrection. Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son is a story of wandering and returning. In Acts, John Mark leaves Paul and Silas and wanders back home, and Paul writes the young man off. Yet, in Paul’s final days John Mark had clearly returned and Paul speaks of all that the younger man had done for him.

There is something in this theme of wandering and returning that resonates in so many life stories, including my own. I love that Jesus’ story and example was that of welcoming back the wandering exile with open arms and joyful celebration.

And now, it’s time for me to wander into my day, but I will return 😉

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A note to readers: You are always welcome to share all or part of my chapter-a-day posts if you believe it may be beneficial for others. I only ask that you link to the original post and/or provide attribution for whatever you might use. Thanks for reading!

A Different Kind of Kingdom

Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion!
    Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!
See, your king comes to you,
    righteous and victorious,
lowly and riding on a donkey,
    on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Zechariah 9:9 (NIV)

Over the past few years, my local gathering of Jesus’ followers has been focused on the phrase Jesus taught his disciples to pray: “Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.” Over a three year cycle, we have contemplated the meaning of God’s kingdom within each of us, God’s kingdom in our community with others, and God’s Kingdom as we are sent to interact with the world around us.

In my own personal contemplation, I’ve found myself meditating on the fact that God’s kingdom operates opposite of the world I live in.

The world I live in encourages me to acquire more and more, while Jesus said that if I really want to be rich in God’s economy I should practice radical generosity.

The world I live in encourages me to hate my enemies, be suspicious of those who are not like me, and fight against those who have a different worldview than mine. Jesus said that in God’s kingdom I am not to repay evil for evil, but bless those who curse me.

The world I live in encourages equitable pay for equitable work. Jesus said that if I want to be part of God’s Kingdom, I have to be willing to walk further than what’s expected, to give more than has been asked, and to be content if and when I see others who seemingly have it better off than me.

The world I live in worships and rewards audacity, wealth, celebrity, and ego.

The prophet Zechariah lived and proclaimed his prophecies during the period known as the Babylonian exile. Babylon had destroyed Jerusalem and torn Solomon’s Temple into ruins. Seventy years later, Zech’s messages and prophecies concerned the rebuilding of Jerusalem and God’s promises of restoration.

In today’s chapter, Zechariah prophetically envisions the “coming king” arriving in a rebuilt Jerusalem, not with the pomp of a royal parade, but humbly riding on a donkey. And, that’s just what Jesus did. Jesus’ followers thought that Jesus was going to wipe out the Romans, give the corrupt religious leaders their just desserts, and set up an earthly kingdom in which they would have positions of worldly prominence. Instead, Jesus suffered cruelly and died violently at the hands of His enemies. After rising from the dead, Jesus reminded His followers of what He’d been telling them all along: They would experience the same fate.

In the quiet this morning I find myself meditating on the economics of God’s Kingdom, which is so opposite the way my world operates. It’s so different than the way I’ve been taught to operate in this world. The media has already trended a million different ways since two weeks ago, but I can’t help but think about Brandt Jean forgiving his brother’s killer in public, then going the extra mile to ask the judge if he can give her a hug.

At that moment Brandt Jean brought God’s kingdom to earth as it is in heaven. He gets it.

God, as I enter this new day, help me to do the same.

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Hope Needs a Description

This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Once again men and women of ripe old age will sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each of them with cane in hand because of their age. The city streets will be filled with boys and girls playing there.”
Zechariah 8:4-5 (NIV)

There are certain stretches of the life journey when, as U2 sang, “You’re stuck in a moment, and you can’t get out of it.” There are times when everything seems to crash in around you and if feels as if nothing will ever be right with the world again.

As I look back this morning, it’s the period of time around the divorce that stands out as one of those stuck moments. It was certainly not how I envisioned things to go, and a circumstance in which I never thought I’d find myself. There was the shame that I, myself, felt. There was the condemnation of others telling me I was going to hell. There was a constant reminder that everything was out of sorts. There were days when I was so discouraged that I couldn’t see beyond it.

I’ve been journeying through the writings of the prophet Zechariah. His visions coincided with a time when the city of Jerusalem lay in ruins. No one had been living in the rubble of the city. Everyone settled in nearby towns. Now, a remnant of exiles wants to return and rebuild. I can only imagine the discouragement of standing in front of the rubble heap and thinking, “How is this ever going to be a city again?”

In today’s chapter, Zechariah channels a stream of messages that God gave him for that remnant of exiles. What was fascinating to me was that it wasn’t just a pithy “Buck up, little campers. You can do it!” God gave specific word pictures of safety, security, and prosperity. He helped the exiles picture it in their heads: the old people sitting in front of their homes watching neighborhood children playing tag. He described times of plenty and times of peace.

It reminded me of particular friends who, during those dark days during the divorce, spoke to me specific things I had to look forward to. It wasn’t just a simple, It’s going to get better, but a “Tom, someday this is all going to be a distant memory. You’re going to walk alongside a brother who is going through it, and you’re going to be able to encourage him in his time of need.”

In the quiet this morning, I’m reminded that sometimes hope needs a description.

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A note to readers: You are always welcome to share all or part of my chapter-a-day posts if you believe it may be beneficial for others. I only ask that you link to the original post and/or provide attribution for whatever you might use. Thanks for reading!

Reflections on a Sneeze

“Ask all the people of the land and the priests, ‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months for the past seventy years, was it really for me that you fasted?'”

“This is what the Lord Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.'”
Zechariah 7:5, 9-10 (NIV)

I was thinking about sneezing the other day. On a plane, heading down the runway amid the thunderous roar of the jet engines, I sneezed. A couple of seats over, a man who was obviously from a different culture and who was embroiled in what he was doing stopped what he was doing, looked at me, and said, “Bless you.”

“Blessing” someone who sneezes can be traced at least to the first century AD. There are many legends as to the motivation of its invention. History records that Pope Gregory I issued a command amidst the plague of 590 that anyone sneezing be blessed, as it was a common, early symptom of the plague. I find it fascinating that no matter where I am in the United States if a person sneezes then complete strangers will proactively, verbally offer a blessing to them. It’s a fascinating cultural ritual.

Back in the days of Zechariah, it was a common ritual to observe disasters with a period of fasting that might include saying or singing certain prayers of lamentation. When Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple were destroyed and the Hebrew people were taken into exile, they began observing a ritual fast each year that corresponded with the month of their city’s destruction. This continued each year for 70 years.

In today’s chapter, exiles have returned and Jerusalem and the Temple are being rebuilt. The people come to the Temple and inquire whether or not they should continue their ritual fast.

God’s reply through the prophet Zechariah is first to question the motivation of those who are fasting. “Why are you doing this?” God asks. “Are you doing it for me, or has it become some personal religious pageant to show how “good” you are?” God then pointedly offers what His heart’s desire is:

“Treat one another justly.

Love your neighbors.

Be compassionate with each other.

Don’t take advantage of widows, orphans, visitors, and the poor.

Don’t plot and scheme against one another—that’s evil.”

Zechariah 7:10 (MSG)

In other words, it’s like saying to “Mr. Bless You” on the airplane, “Why did you just say ‘Bless you’ to a stranger from whom you just hoarded all the overhead bin space so he had to gate check his carry on? Do you really care about the person who sneezed, or is your ‘Bless you’ just a rote ritual that isn’t about being a blessing at all?” [Note: The nice dude on my plane didn’t steal my overhead bin space, I’m just using the example as a parable.]

This was the exact message that Jesus came to proclaim:

“The religion scholars and Pharisees are competent teachers in God’s Law. You won’t go wrong in following their teachings on Moses. But be careful about following them. They talk a good line, but they don’t live it. They don’t take it into their hearts and live it out in their behavior. It’s all spit-and-polish veneer.

“Instead of giving you God’s Law as food and drink by which you can banquet on God, they package it in bundles of rules, loading you down like pack animals. They seem to take pleasure in watching you stagger under these loads, and wouldn’t think of lifting a finger to help. Their lives are perpetual fashion shows, embroidered prayer shawls one day and flowery prayers the next.

Matthew 23:2-6 (MSG)

One of the reasons that Christendom has been criticized, and rightly so, is that for centuries we’ve been great at making religious, ritual displays while flatly refusing to do the right thing by others. I can’t think of a better example than the Roman Catholic church’s gross mismanagement of the sex abuse scandals and refusal to deal with it as it was happening for decades.

But, that’s an easy target. In the quiet this morning, I confess that what is hard is for me to honestly examine my own heart, my own life, and my own religious rituals. I write blog posts. I stand up and teach others. I put my faith on public display. So what? Why do I do it? And, will I write nice words this morning only to go out into my day and take advantage of a client, treat an employee contemptuously, refuse to help a stranger in need? Do I worry so much about income, status, and possessions that I offer nothing of tangible value to others in need of real love, kindness, mercy, justice, and compassion?

Important questions for me to ponder as I walk out of my hotel room this morning.

Bless you, my friend. Seriously. Bless you. Thanks for reading.

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Zechariah (Oct/nov 2019)

Each photo below corresponds to the chapter-a-day post for the book of Zechariah published by Tom Vander Well in October 2019. Click on the photo linked to each chapter to read the post.

Chapter 1: The Pessimist
Chapter 2: Measuring Up for a Move
Chapter 3: No Apology Necessary
Chapter 4: Weathering the Storms
Chapter 5: A Tale of Two Building Projects
Chapter 6: Mystery and Knowledge
Chapter 7: Reflections on a Sneeze
Chapter 8: Hope Needs a Description
Chapter 9: A Different Kind of Kingdom
Chapter 10: Wander and Return
Chapter 11: Poet, Chorus, Character
Chapter 12: Pierced
Chapter 13: God in my Suffering
Chapter 14: The Important Thing
Click Here for easy access to recent chapter-a-day posts indexed by book!

Mystery and Knowledge

Tell him this is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Here is the man whose name is the Branch, and he will branch out from his place and build the temple of the Lord. It is he who will build the temple of the Lord, and he will be clothed with majesty and will sit and rule on his throne. And he will be a priest on his throne. And there will be harmony between the two.
Zechariah 6:12-13 (NIV)

One of my geeky interests in this life is art history. In college, I had an art professor who taught Art History from a Western Civilization textbook. His reasoning was that you can’t separate the art from everything that was going on in the culture around it. Politics, religion, commerce, and other popular art forms of the day were both influencing what the artist was expressing and being influenced by it at the same time. Ever since that class, my love of history and my love of art have overlapped.

One of the things I find fascinating in art history is that modern scholars can have vastly different interpretations of what an artist was trying to communicate. And, they might both be partially right, or completely wrong. That’s the way it is with no historical record from that artist explaining the piece.

When it comes to the prophetic writings of the ancient Hebrew prophets, I encounter much of the same kind of struggle. Very intelligent and educated scholars can interpret certain visions and metaphors differently. There are ancient words the prophets used for which we have no clear definition. Like a mysterious old painting, we are sometimes left trying to piece together contextual clues to figure it out.

In today’s chapter, Zechariah describes his eighth and final vision about the rebuilding of God’s temple in Jerusalem. Four Spirits in chariots with different colored horses are dispatched across the world. The exact meaning of the bronze mountains and the colors of the horses is speculative. The angel tells Zech that the Spirit that went north gave God’s Spirit “rest in the land of the north.” We do know that the north was considered the land of Babylon and the direction from which Jerusalem’s enemies came. This gist of this final vision indicates a time of peace.

Then Zech switches gears and receives a word from God to make a crown and put it on the head of Joshua the priest. What’s fascinating about this is that since the days of Moses when the religious system of the Hebrews was established (see the books of Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) the priesthood and the crown were two distinct offices. The king ruled politically, and the priest was the intercessor between God and the people. Only direct descendants of Aaron could be priests and only direct descendants of David could be king. Zechariah’s prophetic word describes a “Branch” who will unite the two.

Fast forward to Jesus. The family histories given by both Matthew and Luke establish that Jesus was a descendant of David. John the Baptist’s parents were both descendants of Aaron. In the baptism of Jesus by his cousin John there is a symbolic joining of the two. After the death and resurrection of Jesus, the word pictures and descriptions of Christ and the metaphors are of both king and priest. In Revelation 5, for example, Jesus is “the lamb” (the priestly sacrifice) who sits on the throne (the king of kings). The book of Hebrews was written to establish how Jesus is both King and High Priest (see Hebrews chapters 1 and 7).

In the quiet this morning I find myself pondering on all the mysterious artwork of visions and dreams that come down to us from the ancient prophets. Some prophetic visions and word pictures, like what the two bronze mountains in Zech’s vision are supposed to mean, are as mysterious to me as they are to wisest of scholars. But that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy the artwork of the word pictures and find meaning in them for myself. They make great fodder for speculative conversations over a pint. Others, like the joining of the priesthood and the crown weave together the Great Story that God is authoring across time. They thread together the tapestry of history and provide me a greater depth of meaning and understanding of my faith.

As I head out into my day I’m reminded that my life journey is like that. Some things are clear to me, while other things are mysteries to be endlessly understood. Another reason why this life is a faith journey and not a commuter ride.

Have a great day, my friend. Trek well.

Click on this image to go to an index of all posts in this series on the writings of the prophet Zechariah!
A note to readers: You are always welcome to share all or part of my chapter-a-day posts if you believe it may be beneficial for others. I only ask that you link to the original post and/or provide attribution for whatever you might use. Thanks for reading!

A Tale of Two Building Projects

And he said to me, “This is the curse that is going out over the whole land; for according to what it says on one side, every thief will be banished, and according to what it says on the other, everyone who swears falsely will be banished.
Zechariah 5:3 (NIV)

Along my life journey, I’ve had the experience of being part of several different churches both large and small. One of the large churches I was a part of for a time announced that they were going to build a giant, new auditorium filled with extravagant features and opulent appointments. I observed over the course of the building campaign that there were multiple red flags hinting that this was not a wise choice. Nevertheless, the hubris of the leader pushed the project through. Within a few years, I watched as that church imploded from within, and the giant new auditorium became an albatross, and then an empty shell.

I contrast this with another church of which I was a part. It also decided to launch a building campaign. Given the story I related to you in the previous paragraph, I was admittedly skeptical. This time, however, I observed a different heart in the leadership of the congregation. The project was not driven by the ego of a leader, but was the culmination of years of corporate prayer and seeking what should be done. The project was completed, and I watched as it resulted in an abundance of blessings for the church, its people, and the community.

What a contrast.

In today’s chapter, the prophet Zechariah continues to have strange visions that, at first, may sound like he’s having an LSD trip. But God’s language is metaphor and the word pictures have specific meanings. that connect to the building project that Zech and several other key leaders have undertaken: to rebuild God’s Temple in Jerusalem. In previous chapters, the visions have been about the key players in the rebuilding project. Today’s vision is about key roadblocks in finishing it.

The first vision concerns those who would swear to pledge money to the project and then pull out (swearing falsely) and take money pledged to the project for use in other things (stealing). The second vision concerns the iniquities of those who might become a spiritual stumbling block for the project. In both of these cases, God is taking responsibility for removing the potential roadblocks and sending them packing through the friendly skies.

In the quiet this morning, I’m reminded of a familiar verse from Solomon, the leader of God’s initial Temple project:

Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain.

Psalm 127:1 (NIV)

The underlying theme of Zechariah’s prophetic writings thus far has been God’s divine leading in the rebuilding project, and God’s provision for the leadership needed, and the protection needed, to get the job done.

These lessons are not just about church projects and men with edifice complexes. Along my journey, I’ve come to realize that there are many projects, endeavors, and campaigns we personally embark upon in our own lives. The principle is the same. If my endeavors are about me, my self-centered desires, and/or my personal pride, then the results will ultimately be at best unsatisfying and at worst, disastrous. When I seek after God’s leading in my personal endeavors and follow where I am led, God has a way of blessing and expanding things in unexpected ways.

I’m reminded this morning that I don’t want to push into self-centric personal endeavors and then ask God to bless them. I want to be a part of what God endeavors for me on this journey.

Speaking of which, I’ve got a job to do today. Have a great day, my friend!

Click on this image to go to an index of all posts in this series on the writings of the prophet Zechariah!
A note to readers: You are always welcome to share all or part of my chapter-a-day posts if you believe it may be beneficial for others. I only ask that you link to the original post and/or provide attribution for whatever you might use. Thanks for reading!