Darren L. Slider
Zechariah 3:1-5: An Exegesis
I have chosen to exegete Zechariah 3:1-5, a dramatic narrative (possibly a vision) involving Joshua the high priest, Yahweh, an angel (Angel?) of Yahweh, and Satan. The passage is clearly separate (as a narrative) from the declaration of Yahweh (2:10-13) immediately preceding it. The passage following, 3:6-10, in which the angel (Angel?) “admonishes” (NKJV) Joshua, will be excluded from my exegesis because it is an addendum to the narrative rather than a part of it.
In his first regnal year (537 B.C.), Cyrus the Mede issued a decree allowing the exiled Jews in Babylon to return to the land of Israel and rebuild the temple. Upon their arrival in 536 B.C., they began to build, but encountered fierce and unscrupulous opposition from the Samaritans. The Samaritans were descended from those who had been brought in by the Assyrians to repopulate the land after the remaining inhabitants of the northern kingdom were deported following the fall of that kingdom in 722 B.C., and their religious worship was a syncretistic mixture of true Yahwism and idolatry. For this reason, the Jews refused to allow them to have anything to do with the rebuilding of the temple, and so the Samaritans did their utmost to hinder work on it. During the reign of the false Smerdis, they so misrepresented the work of the Jews to the monarch that they succeeded in inducing him to issue a decree to stop the building. The Jews became discouraged and work on the temple slowed and all but ground to a halt. Yahweh, around 520 B.C., raised up two prophets, Haggai and Zechariah, who encouraged the people to resume work on the temple, rebuking them for letting it lie in ruins while they had built solid houses for themselves and promising that Yahweh would be with them in resuming the temple’s construction. Given this time-frame, it would be reasonable to conclude that, under the assumption that Zechariah wrote chapter 3 of the book attributed to him (see below), 3:1-5 was written between 520 and 518 B.C..
The fall and exile of Judah, and subsequent events as described above, give a specific context to Satan’s opposition of Yahweh’s people, as represented by their high priest Joshua. It is feasible to picture Satan as representing the sins of Judah’s past, which led to its fall and exile, and its recent failures to complete work on the temple, as giving him a claim on Judah which Yahweh cannot gainsay. In spite of this, even Judah may be forgiven by Yahweh (“a brand plucked out of the fire”) and given a clean start (“change of raiment”) in fulfilling Yahweh’s purpose for it.
The presence of Satan, the angel (Angel?) of Yahweh, and Yahweh Himself, reminds one of the heavenly council in the book of Job and suggests that the actual setting here (particularly if this is a vision rather than an actual occurrence) may be the Most Holy Place of the heavenly Temple, of which the earthly is a copy, rather than that of the temple in Jerusalem, which is apparently still being rebuilt. Satan assumes his role as accuser here, with Yahweh defending his people as represented by their high priest Joshua (the Hebrew equivalent of Jesus; I do not believe this could have been a mere coincidence).
Whether the incident in this passage is a symbolic vision or an actual occurrence, the immediate result of Yahweh’s vindication of His people is that the latter are given the opportunity to complete work on the temple in Jerusalem and to begin anew at fulfilling Yahweh’s purpose for them, rather than being given up to the sins of their past and thus to Satan’s jurisdiction.
As mentioned above, this incident occurs in the Most Holy Place of the temple, probably the heavenly but not impossibly the earthly in Jerusalem.
According to Edward Young, it is the authorship of chapters 9-14 of the book of Zechariah that are in dispute by “higher critics” who claim that these chapters are full of archaisms and the like and postulate a pre-exilic date for them. Chapters 1-8 do not seem to be similarly disputed, so that it is generally agreed that Zechariah ben-Berechiah, the author whose name appears in the superscription of the book, wrote chapter 3.
One of the obvious concerns of the book of Zechariah is the restoration of the struggling nation of Israel after the return from the exile. The three sources listed in the bibliography below (all of which begin from the premise that Zechariah ben-Berechiah wrote the entire book of Zechariah) outline the book in remarkably similar fashion, and what emerges is a sort of general chiasm based on the above-mentioned concern. In the first part, God’s desire and intention to restore Israel are powerfully presented in a series of visions; in the second part, the question of hypocritical fasting vs. justice and compassion for all the people is dealt with as a hindrance to this restoration; in the third part, the prophet speaks of Yahweh’s plan for the actual accomplishment of this restoration, with specific references to heathen nations and to the Messiah.
Introduction and Declaration of Yahweh (1:1-6)
The outline of the passage is my own:
The theme of the book is found in Yahweh’s introductory declaration: “Return to Me, . . . and I will return to you” (1:3). In other words, if Israel will listen to and obey what Yahweh commands, Yahweh will proceed to carry out His intention of restoring Israel.
The passage in question is in the midst of those nine visions which are an exposition of Yahweh’s purpose of restoration (see outline above). It is one of the strongest expressions of hope for the accomplishment of the latter, in that it shows Yahweh overcoming a great potential obstacle thereto: the opposition of Satan.
The passage is cast in narrative prose rather than poetry, and does not contain any obvious chiasm.
It is merely said that the prophet is “shown” the scene that takes place, and we are not told whether it is a vision or an actual occurrence. All of the sources examined take it as a vision, including 4SDABC. The only evidence of context is the fact that it lies in the midst of a series of occurrences, most of which are clearly visions; recognizing that this is not necessarily conclusive, I will nevertheless adopt the view that it is a vision.
With respect to the versions perused for this study (i.e., KJV, NKJV, NIV, NASB, Moffett, Interlinear, Peshitta, Septuagint), there are only two apparent grammatical items in dispute in the present passage (Zechariah 3:1-5). The first of these occurs in verse 2, in which Moffatt and the Peshitta have “the Angel of the LORD/the Eternal said” rather than “the LORD said.” The other disputed item is in verse 4: the first subject is alternately rendered as “he” (KJV, NKJV, NASB, Interlinear), “the angel” (NIV, Moffatt, Peshitta), “the LORD” (Septuagint).
In verse 2, the Hebrew (Interlinear) clearly identifies Yahweh as the one who rebukes Satan; in verse 4, however, the Hebrew merely says “he,” which would seem to indicate that the angel (Angel?), mentioned immediately beforehand in verse 3, is the one who commands the removal of Joshua’s filthy garments.
Neither instance, no matter which way interpreted, seems to have a significant effect on the interpretation of the passage, particularly if it is accepted (as by some commentators) that the “angel of Yahweh” refers to Christ in His pre-Advent form. In the latter case, it is Yahweh who speaks no matter what the translation; otherwise, it is still the angel that is the agent of Yahweh, and thus Yahweh that speaks.
Parenthetically, a case can be made for the identification of the angel as Christ under the following argument: if Satan is viewed as the adversary (prosecutor) in a court scene (cf. Revelation 12:10), and Yahweh as the judge, the One who ultimately decides, then the angel fits the position of Joshua’s (symbolically, of Israel’s) advocate. This advocate, according to I John 2:1, may then be considered to be Jesus Christ.
Since the sources cited in the bibliography are tied in to the King James Version, the latter is meant whenever a reference is made in this section to an English rendering.
Key words in order of occurrence:
From an interpretative standpoint, the most significant of the above words is “Satan,” on which I have therefore decided to do an Old Testament word study.
The Hebrew source word for “Satan,” satan, occurs, in its various forms, Thirty-five times in the Old Testament. Nineteen times, it is translated as the proper noun “Satan,” fourteen of which occur in the first two chapters of the book of Job. Here, “Satan” is understood to be the adversary of Yahweh on the cosmic level, the one who is indirectly addressed in Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28 as the covering cherub who aspired to take the place of Yahweh and fell from his position. In I Chronicles 21:1, “Satan” is said to be the one who opposed Israel by tempting David to take a census of Israel; without any difficulty, the word may be understood here also in the same sense as in Job. In Psalm 109, in which David utters a series of withering curses on his adversaries, he prays that “Satan” may stand at their right hand to oppose them in verse six; given the extreme tone of the passage, he may very well mean the cosmic “Satan.” The other three renderings of satan as “Satan” are in the present passage.
Twelve times, satan is translated as “adversary,” “adversaries” or “to be an adversary.” Six of these instances refer to either general or specific enemies of David (general in Psalms 38:20, 71:13, 109:4,20,29; David’s rebuke of Abishai in 2 Samuel 19:22). Three times it refers to specific enemies that Yahweh is said to have raised up against Solomon following the apostasy of the latter (1 Kings 11:14,23,25). Previously, Solomon had stated that Yahweh had given him freedom from any “adversary” (satan), which accounts for one other occurrence. The remaining two are: a) when David and his men were lined up to fight for the Philistines against Saul in 1 Samuel 29, they are sent home lest, in the heat of battle, they should change sides and become a satan to the Philistines (verse four); b) when the angel of Yahweh (very possibly Jesus) stood in Balaam’s path, the former declared, ironically, that he had come to oppose (satan) Balaam.
The word satan occurs once more as a verb, in verse 1 of the present passage (“Satan stood at his right hand to satan him”), and twice as the noun sitnah (“accusation”): a) the name given to a well over which Isaac’s herdsmen and the herdsmen of Gerar quarrelled (Genesis 26:21); b) the written accusation of the Samaritans to the Persian king, in Ezra 6:4, opposing the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem following the return from the Babylonian exile.
Given all this, the strongest connotation of the word appears to be that of opposition, with a considerable number of references to the cosmic level. I would tie the present passage in with 1 Chronicles 21:1, where “Satan” opposes Israel, where the latter is the representative of Yahweh, as was Job in the book bearing his name. In other words, the events in this passage are of cosmic significance, although dealing with a local plane, and satan should be rendered “Satan.”
If I may be permitted an intuitive observation of my own: it seems that the concept of the prosecutor in the modern legal system had its origin in ancient times, when it was decided that an adversary (who apparently stood at the right hand of the accused) was necessary, along with an advocate, to allow for a fair hearing of a given criminal case. In the Christian era, this idea was adopted by the Roman Catholic Church, which appointed an advocatus diaboli (devil’s advocate) in every case in which the canonization of a particular individual as a saint was being considered. On the cosmic level, the existence of an adversary, who is allowed his say, becomes a means by which the justice of Yahweh (in all the legal decisions which He makes) is vindicated, when the adversary is ultimately seen not to have any case whatsoever.
The message of Zechariah 3:1-5 may be roughly summarised as follows: in spite of the persistent and apparently justified accusations of Satan against Yahweh’s people, Yahweh will refuse to give them into Satan’s hand and will vindicate them, saving them, if they will, as a “brand plucked out of the fire.”
This passage is never directly quoted elsewhere in the Bible, but the book of Jude does make use of Yahweh’s answer to Satan (“Yahweh rebuke you, O Satan!”): in Jude 8, the apostle quotes Michael the Archangel (who, upon good evidence, may be equated with Christ) as making this answer to Satan in the course of a dispute over the resurrection of Moses’ body. The apostle is attempting to contrast the audacity of those in the church who “speak evil of dignitaries” with Christ, who did not even bring railing accusations against Satan.
Perhaps the unique contribution of Zechariah 3:1-5 to the entire Bible is its (albeit symbolic) vision of Yahweh’s plan of salvation carried out in legal action. We see that, in spite of the accuracy of Satan’s accusations, Yahweh’s people are declared not guilty and covered with His righteousness.
The passage in question adds, as mentioned in previous assignments, to our picture of Satan in the Old Testament. The enemy is here seen as one who accuses Yahweh’s people, demanding that they be given over to him as those who have sinned (note the filthy garments) and who thus belong under his control. This agrees both with the picture of the heavenly council in the book of Job and with Revelation, where Satan is called “the accuser of our brethren, who accused them before our God day and night” (12:10).
Arguably the most important theological contribution of this passage is with regard to the plan of salvation. The angel of Yahweh in this passage, who speaks on Yahweh’s behalf and acts as Joshua’s advocate, may plausibly be regarded as a pre-Incarnation characterization of God the Son. Also, Yahweh Himself, in the fact that He rebukes Satan, is seen as actively interested in the salvation and welfare of His people.
Specifically, the prophet’s use in this passage of the figure of the dirty and clean garments may well have been a source (used for familiarity) of Jesus’ parable of the wedding feast in the New Testament (Matthew 22:1-14). Joshua’s filthy garments (cf. the “filthy rags” of one’s own righteousness, Isaiah 64:6) are removed, and replaced with rich garments and a clean turban, given by Yahweh as a free gift, representing the spotlessness of His righteousness and guaranteeing salvation. The latter is given in spite of Joshua’s condition as a flimsy stick of wood already being consumed by the fires of the destruction which sin brings upon its victims.
All commentators (and I) agree that the primary historical application of this passage revolves around the Israelites, recently returned from the Babylonian exile at the time of the writing of the passage in question (Zechariah 3:1-5). Joshua the high priest, as with the high priest in the levitical writings and on the Day of Atonement in particular, may be understood to represent the entire returned body of exiles. Satan, literally understood as the epitome of opposition against the physical (rebuilding of the temple) and spiritual progress of the Israelites, is also a symbol of this opposition in general. And, of course, Yahweh’s definitive rebuke of this opposition and vindication of Israel by forgiving the great sins (seen in the filthy garments Joshua wears) against them, on the cosmological level, is one of the strongest statements possible of Yahweh’s grand intentions for His people.
According to Ellen White (PK 587), “Zechariah’s vision of Joshua and the Angel applies with peculiar force to the experience of God’s people in the closing scenes of the great day of atonement.” In other words, this passage may be viewed in the light of the general Seventh-day Adventist eschatological scenario: the saints, faced with the opposition of Satan and his agents on every side and struggling with inner anguish, nonetheless cling to Yahweh’s promise of forgiveness and purity of heart with the ardour of Jacob when he wrestled with the Angel. Because Yahweh’s promises are true and His saints are thus clothed with Christ’s robe of righteousness (drawn in parallel with the passage’s “festal robes”; Keil disagrees, preferring a symbol of glory), Yahweh vindicates His people and overcomes Satan.
I should also like to include a soteriological application which would be considered valid at any appropriate point in any given Christian’s experience: a child of Yahweh is vindicated whenever (in the context of both justification and sanctification) he/she allows Yahweh to clothe him/her with the “robe of Christ’s righteousness,” and to remove his/her “filthy rags” (see Isaiah 64:6 his/her own righteousness). Satan, though he “has an accurate knowledge of the sins that he has tempted God’s people to commit” and presses his case for the ruin of a child of Yahweh on that basis, is rebuked, for Yahweh Himself has accepted the full consequence of that ruin. Alleluia!
Author’s Note: This exegesis was a major project for a religion course entitled “The Later Prophets of Israel” which I took as a senior at Andrews University in the spring quarter of 1989.