Selections From the Prophets Week 11

A City Without Walls: Zechariah 2:1–13

Jeffrey Keuss

By Jeffrey Keuss
Professor of Christian Ministry, Theology, and Culture

Read this week’s Scripture: Zechariah 2:1–13


Week 11
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As we discussed last week in our Lectio reflections on Jonah, places are important to the prophets. The prophetic call puts prophets in the midst of a particular people, in a particular time, and in a particular place, speaking words of universal prophecy for a God who is both specific and universal in his concern and care for his creation. As we turn now to the prophecy of Zechariah, we hear once again the concerns of life after the Babylonian exile and the destruction of the holy city of Jerusalem.

As we saw in Jeremiah, the disappointment over the state of Jerusalem in the hands of other nations provokes deep sorrow. Jeremiah as “the weeping prophet” was in anguish after prophesying the destruction of Judah by the Babylonians, and wails at the thought of the holy city left in ruin as the faithful people of God are taken away and imprisoned. In the first five verses of the book of Lamentations, we hear anguish and loss similar to Jeremiah’s prophecy [Author’s Note 1] reaching a fever pitch:

How lonely sits the city
that once was full of people!
How like a widow she has become,
she that was great among the nations!
She that was a princess among the provinces
has become a vassal.

She weeps bitterly in the night,
with tears on her cheeks;
among all her lovers
she has no one to comfort her;
all her friends have dealt treacherously with her,
they have become her enemies.

Judah has gone into exile with suffering
and hard servitude;
she lives now among the nations,
and finds no resting place;
her pursuers have all overtaken her
in the midst of her distress.

The roads to Zion mourn,
for no one comes to the festivals;
all her gates are desolate,
her priests groan;
her young girls grieve,
and her lot is bitter.

Her foes have become the masters,
her enemies prosper,
because the LORD has made her suffer
for the multitude of her transgressions;
her children have gone away,
captives before the foe. (Lamentation 1:1–5)

Of Little Faith — Waiting for Light Yet Walking in Gloom

In the prophecies of Zechariah and Haggai, a different tone is found from the promises of hope that end Amos and Hosea — not the major chord of strength in difficulty but the minor chord of discouragement. As stated by Gerhard von Rad: “Unlike the pre-exilic prophets, however, the people with whom [the postexilic prophets were] concerned were not outwardly arrogant: rather, they were men of little faith.” [Author’s Note 2] This is the period Isaiah 59 speaks of, when there is concern that perhaps the Lord’s hand is “too short to save,” his ear is “too dull to hear” (Isaiah 59:1):

[J]ustice is far from us,
and righteousness does not reach us;
we wait for light, and lo! there is darkness;
and for brightness, but we walk in gloom. (Isaiah 59:9)

With these postexilic prophets, such as Zechariah and Haggai, the message is one of restoration, as demonstrated by the call to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. As we heard in Jeremiah, some are indeed called to plant vineyards and build homes in places of exile. As we shall see in Zechariah, though, the call to restore is even more dynamic than many would have imagined.

Knowledge of Motion, but Not of Stillness

Heading back to Jerusalem after exile surely stirred memories in the returning exiles of both homesickness and deep sorrow, as heard in the words of Psalm 137:

By the rivers of Babylon —
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How could we sing the LORD’s song
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy. (Psalm 137:1–6)

The search for a new song to sing after a generation of oppression and separation from their spiritual home comes to a crescendo once they reach their holy city, only to find it destroyed with no organized inhabitants within — just vagrants and wanderers in a post-urban wasteland. And what is at the center of this once grand city where the temple stood? Merely a pile of rubble.

In this setting, the returned exiles lose their vision and their spiritual purpose. Turning away from that which would bring restoration to the city, they choose instead to concentrate on their own comfort, their own homes, and the certainty of their immediate families. Into this move toward privatization over and against community, Haggai and Zechariah come forth to prophesy to the people from two different perspectives: Haggai calls the people to get their priorities right and rebuild God’s temple, and Zechariah calls the people to sincere repentance and a message of hope. [Author’s Note 3]

Yet what is shared between them is a central question: How does one approach the daunting task of restoration after generations of enslavement?

The poet T.S. Eliot, in one of the choruses from his work “The Rock,” phrased what it feels like to be stuck in a place without direction:

Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.

Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information? [Author’s Note 4]

It is in this context that Zechariah addresses the discouraged and distracted people. As one who is charged with bringing stillness into the constant yet purposeless motion of people who want to retreat into their own private affairs rather than into the call of the community, Zechariah is given a series of visions that offer wisdom and life to those who become lost.

The Night Visions and a Man With a Measuring Line

The beginning of Zechariah (1:7–6:15) constitutes a series of what have been called the “night visions.” This series of eight visions is the most striking aspect of Zechariah’s particular call in relation to Jerusalem. Each of the visions exists in a liminal space between heaven and earth that pulls the mundane matters of earth heavenward while, simultaneously, God reaches down to bless and anoint the ancient future, the “now and not yet” reality of the holy city and its people.

Our reading for this Lectio is taken from the third night vision, where Zechariah sees a man attempting to measure the dimensions of Jerusalem in order to build the walls that surround it:

I looked up and saw a man with a measuring line in his hand. Then I asked, “Where are you going?” He answered me, “To measure Jerusalem, to see what is its width and what is its length.” Then the angel who talked with me came forward, and another angel came forward to meet him, and said to him, “Run, say to that young man: Jerusalem shall be inhabited like villages without walls, because of the multitude of people and animals in it. For I will be a wall of fire all around it, says the LORD, and I will be the glory within it.” (2:1–5)

What Are Some Observations We Can Draw From Zechariah’s Vision of a City Without Walls?

1. It is God who is the architect of the kingdom of God.

Often through the history of Israel in the Old Testament, and continuing long after the dawn of the church in Acts 2, the followers of God choose to lean on their own understanding and structures rather than on the breadth and depth of God’s mercy and grace. The runner in Zechariah 2 is the embodiment of our need to have structure during times of uncertainty. What “measuring line” are we using to “measure” the size and shape of the community of faith? What walls will come up as a result of our thoughts and prayers? How will the doors swing — in or out? Who is walled in and who is walled out?The full shape of the kingdom of God is beyond our ability to limit — our measuring line of reason, of dogma, of traditions will never be adequate to encircle the expansive nature of God’s work in the world. The temptation to take matters into our own hands is always there: to rebuild quickly and push aside the need to wait on the Lord. Yet we are called to wait, be still, and seek the face of God, who is our centering point. Also, we are called to remember that healing takes time. The tendency to “get to OK” as fast as possible can stifle and crowd out God’s plan.  In the Hebrew of the passage, a participle conveys both a present and an imminent future tense — the now and the not yet. This means there is no space of time in which God is not working out his plan.

2. The kingdom of God is known by its center point, not by its walls.

God is at work in the world. His truth is moving throughout the land so that no one can ever doubt it. Yet we need the faith to trust in his will and his timing, and not be so quick to create structures merely for our own security. As God reminds us through Zechariah in 4:6, it is “not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit” that all good things will be found and forged into wholeness.

3. The character of the Christian life is formed by the One who calls us together, not by what we oppose.

A portrait by Vincent Van Gogh demonstrates that quality of our deepest longing — to know that we are indeed cared for; that, though we are not long in this life, we are still held in the arms of love. In this portrait, titled “Sein with child on her lap,” there is a wide-eyed wonder in the child as it turns toward the caring presence and embrace found in the giver of care and comfort. It is a wonder filled with trust and contentment. At such a time as this, the people of God have a duty to remind a worried and hopeless world that they are indeed held in the arms of love.

4. We are called to a city without walls or borders that close off the possibility of new relationships and new communities.

Where the question raised by the Psalmist in Psalm 137 is, “How could we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?,” in Zechariah the response of the Lord seems to be, “You will invite the foreigner into your land with the open and embracing song of hospitality and grace.” In times of stress and discouragement, the tendency may indeed be to close off our lives, focus only on those around us, and fear anyone and anything that is not “us.” Yet this is not the life God is calling forth in the New Jerusalem.

There is a center point to our lives that draws all manner of people together. It is not merely a pile of rubble, and it is more expansive than even the temple of our rebuilding. As Zechariah tells us, the center is to be occupied by the Lord God in person. In this personal, intimate dwelling with Emmanuel — God with us — at the center, there will be provision and promise for all. For the caring, providential, living God is ready for those of us who put down the measuring lines to learn to use our arms not for measuring, but for embracing.

Questions for Further Reflection

  1. One of the metaphors at work in our reading of Zechariah is that of building walls in order to define our sense of identity. These endeavors have the tendency to detract from the work God is doing. What are some “walls” that you have seen in the church that let people know they are either “in” or “out”? Clothing styles? Music preferences? Translations of the Bible? Political views? What happens to the church when these walls are erected? What motivates us to erect them?
  2. When the Lord speaks of being a wall of fire around the city, it is a call to holiness and purity for all who seek relationship with the living God. What are ways in which the call to purity needs to be addressed in your community?
  3. Look at the painting by Vincent Van Gogh titled “Sein with child on her lap,” and spend some time reflecting on it as a picture of being embraced by God without need of walls to define the relationship. Does this picture describe your relationship with God at present? Why or why not?

Author’s Notes

Author’s Note 1

Lamentations takes its name from the first word in Hebrew — ěkâ — which means “How!” It is a list of disasters that befell Jerusalem in the period that Jeremiah is a prophet, with the fall of Jerusalem occurring in 587 B.C. Some scholars argue that the book of Lamentations was written as the “Confessions of Jeremiah” noted in 2 Chronicles 35:25 (“Jeremiah also uttered a lament for Josiah, and all the singing men and singing women have spoken of Josiah in their laments to this day. They made these a custom in Israel; they are recorded in the Laments.”) (P.M. Joyce, “Lamentations” in the Oxford Bible Commentary, ed. John Barton and John Muddiman (Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 528.)


Author’s Note 2

Gerhard von Rad, The Message of the Prophets (Harper and Row, 1965), p. 246.


Author’s Note 3

There are two other Zechariahs in the Old Testament, referenced, respectively, in Isaiah 8:2 and 2 Chronicles 24:20–22, and this can cause some confusion in relation to the prophet ascribed to this book.


Author’s Note 4

T.S. Eliot, “Choruses From ‘The Rock,’” from Collected Poems 1909–1962 (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1991), p. 147.


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