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Bible Commentaries
Zechariah 4

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


This is the fourth of Zechariah’s eight visions, the central features of which are the seven branched golden candlestick and the two olive trees, one on each side of it. Fortunately, we do not need to rely upon the subjective guesses of liberal commentators for the interpretation of this vision, which in the light of related passages of the Bible appears simple and easily understood. The golden candlestick from the very first appearance of it in the ancient tabernacle typified the word of God by virtue of its being the only light in the sanctuary representing both Israels of God.

Zechariah’s vision adds a significant detail to the metaphorical candlestick of the tabernacle, namely, the two olive trees; but that merely changed the symbolism to show the source of the Word of God, i.e., the olive trees, which undoubtedly stand for the Old and the New Testaments.

We reject the near-unanimous opinion of present-day exegetes who boldly claim that Joshua and Zerubbabel are the two olive trees; for such an interpretation makes Joshua and Zerubbabel the source of God’s Word, involving us in an interpretation that makes Zerubbabel speak to himself in the vision, which we cannot accept. There is another significant difference. The tabernacle candlestick was in the sanctuary, symbolizing it as the source of light to God’s people; but the absence of any enclosure in this vision emphasizes that the light is provided for all the world, the only true light the world has ever had. Since that light is diffused for the benefit of mankind by God’s people only, the candlestick in this wonderful vision becomes thereby a symbol of Israel, the Theocracy, or the Jewish church (as called by some), particularly in this vision a symbol of the returnees from Babylon. in keeping with this expanded meaning of the candlestick, the apostle John’s vision represents the seven-branched golden candlestick as a symbol of the whole church of Jesus Christ in the present dispensation, fulfilling the type as indicated in its application to the old Israel. (See Revelation 1 and Revelation 11).

The Messianic thrust of all of these visions is demonstrated and confirmed by the appearance of two olive trees, undoubtedly symbolizing the Word of God as supplied to the whole world throughout both the Mosaic and Christian dispensations, that is, the Old Testament and the New Testament. The specific reasons for these interpretations will appear in the following notes on the chapter.

Verse 1

“And the angel that talked with me came again, and waked me, as a man that is wakened out of his sleep.”

Apparently all eight of these visions came in a single night; and it appears that Zechariah, wearied by the excessive excitement, had fallen asleep; and the angel came “again,” i.e. a second time, to arouse him from his slumber. This was not the first time he had fallen asleep during that momentous chain of events.

Verse 2

“And he said unto me, What seest thou? And I said, I have seen, and, behold, a candlestick all of gold, with its bowl upon the top of it, and its seven lamps thereon; and there are seven pipes to each of the lamps, which are upon the top thereof.”

This does not conclude Zechariah’s description of the vision, because it also included the two olive trees mentioned in the same breath in the next verse. We may consider the bowl and the pipes, whether seven, or seven and seven, or seven times seven, as various versions describe them, due to uncertainties in the text, as more or less inert ingredients of the vision, designed to call attention to the source of energy making the light possible, a source identified in the next verse as the two olive trees.

“A candlestick all of gold” Although this candlestick varies in some particulars from that in the ancient tabernacle, it must nevertheless be identified with it; because. “The same word, [~menorath], is used in both cases (Exodus 25:31; Exodus 37:17, etc.).”(F1)

There is also mention of the golden candlestick of Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 7:49), which was looted and taken to Babylon (Jeremiah 52:19). This also should be identified with the candlestick here, the ten branches probably being produced by the elevation and division of the central branch into four arms. Such a supposition, however, is dependent upon understanding the candlestick as being similar to the one in Herod’s temple, a replica of which is on the Arch of Titus in Rome. We are not at all discouraged in this opinion by the fact that, “The seven-branched candlestick pictured on Titus’ arch in Rome, and still used by the Jews, the menorah, is not known earlier than the first century B.C.”(F2) That only means, of course, that it is not known by archeologists to have existed prior to the first century B.C. Everything in the Bible points to the fact that God himself gave the design of this candlestick, that it was unique; and the expectation of archeologists to the effect that they ought to be able to dig up replicas of it is ill-founded. The fact that what they have dug up is unlike the menorah is not, after all, a very significant fact. The traditional Jewish impression of what that candlestick was like has more weight than all the diggings of the last century.

Our confidence in seeing the seven branched candlestick and the ten branched candlestick as one is derived partially from the amazing fact that in both there is an amazing representation of the Bible itself. (See a full description of this in my commentary on Hebrews, pp. 181-183.) The use made by the apostle John of this same type of seven branched candlestick (Revelation 1) shows it to be one with what is in view here; and there is no doubt that it was like the replica on Titus’ arch.

Aside from all this, what Zechariah saw in this vision, a vision provided by God Himself, would in no sense have been limited by any conformity to the type of lamps in common usage in his day.

As for the meaning of this candlestick: “It symbolizes the Jewish Theocracy, and ultimately the Church.”(F3) It also undoubtedly symbolizes “the Word of God,” as revealed in verse 6. The whole figure is that of the Jewish theocracy holding forth the Word of God for all the world in the pre-Christian centuries. This vision placed the candlestick, not in a sanctuary, but in the world, hence the necessary application to the true Israel of God among the Jews. This also represents the Church, because the first Israel was a type of the second Israel. Moreover, the function of the Church today is the same as God’s intended use of the old Israel to spread his truth and that through them and by such means, “All the families of the earth should be blessed” (Genesis 12:3).

Gill also understood the candlestick here to “represent the Word of God to Zerubbabel, and through him, to the people”;(F4) and we understand this to be in full harmony with the view of Jamieson, above.

Verse 3

“And two olive trees by it, one upon the right side of the bowl, and the other upon the left side thereof.”

Even without the mention of any pipes, it would be apparent that these olive trees were intended to represent the source of the oil necessary to the light coming from the candlestick. It appears to us that the opinion which would identify these olive trees with Joshua and Zerubbabel should be rejected. They are not, “an unmistakable reference to Joshua and Zerubbabel,”(F5) an opinion that necessitates the removal of verses 6-10 from this passage and the rejection of verse 11 as an interpolation.(F6) Neither can it be true that the offices of “the High Priest and the king are typified.”;(F7) because the monarchy was from its inception a rebellion against God (1 Samuel 8). Therefore, it is impossible to believe that the wicked monarchy, which was actually the cause of Israel’s apostasy could be viewed as a supplier of the golden oil that fed the lamp of truth. Other unacceptable notions about what is signified by the two olive trees will be noted in further notes on the chapter.

Verses 4-5

“And I answered and spake to the angel that talked with me, saying, What are these, my lord? Then the angel that talked with me answered and said unto me, Knowest thou not what these are? And I said, No, my lord.”

The purpose of these two verses is clearly that of forming a bridge between the description of the vision and the angelic revelation of what it meant. This leads to the expectation that the meaning will appear next, and that is what occurred. The unwillingness of critics to accept the explanation of Zechariah 4:6 ff is due solely to one of the false canons of criticism, namely, “That all visions should be cast into the same mould.”(F8) As Leupold noted, the canons followed by the critics are not broad enough. “Bible students who are willing to accept the text as it stands readily discern how aptly Zechariah 4:6 ff is the interpretation promised.”(F9)

Verse 6

“Then he answered and spake unto me saying, This is the word of Jehovah unto Zerubbabel, saying, Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit saith Jehovah of hosts.”

The first six words of the angel’s explanation contain the whole explanation: THIS IS THE WORD OF JEHOVAH! As Unger observed:

“Zechariah’s vision was THE WORD OF THE LORD, vitally real and effective for the pressing problems of the hour in which it was initially revealed.”(F10)

Nor should the meaning of it be restricted to that immediate portion of the word of the Lord addressed to Zerubbabel. (See a full discussion of this candlestick as the word of God in my commentary on Hebrews, pp. 181-183.)

Watts thought that this candlestick represents “The Lord’s presence and blessing in the holy offices of the Temple.”(F11) However, this vision does not show the candlestick as being in any kind of building or enclosure whatever. Besides that, God’s presence never pertained to the second temple at all, and only typically in the first.

Gill properly discerned the meaning thus: “The multiple menorah of the vision represents the Word of God to Zerubbabel and through him to the people,”(F12) a most excellent demonstration that it is the candlestick of God’s Word that provided guidance for Israel.

Still another viewpoint of what the candlestick meant was given by Ellis: “It does not represent the Lord, but the testimony of the Temple and its people to him.”(F13) We believe that the thing represented is the witness of the Word of God to all mankind as intended to be accomplished by the faithfulness of Israel, or the Jewish Theocracy, alas, an event that did not take place, except in the instance of the righteous remnant actually bringing in the Messiah through their flesh and hailing him as “The Son of God” through the testimony of the holy apostles.

“The word of Jehovah unto Zerubbabel” Dummelow has an excellent thumbnail summary concerning Zerubbabel:

“Zerubbabel, son of Shealtiel, but called in 1 Chronicles 3:19, son of Pedaiah, was governor of Judah at the time of Haggai and Zechariah. Shealtiel was the son of Jehoiachin, king of Judah, so that Zerubbabel was of royal blood. He returned from exile, probably in 528 B.C., along with his uncle Sheshbazzar, who was the first governor of Judah after the return: He probably succeeded his uncle as governor some time in 522-520 B.C. He is recognized by Zechariah as the civil head of Jerusalem, and as such, is encouraged to proceed with the work of rebuilding the Temple. Of his ultimate fate, nothing is known.”(F14)

“Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, saith Jehovah of hosts” Hailed by many as one of the great texts of the Old Testament, this admonition conveyed the warning of Zerubbabel that the political and secular assets which he possessed were not in any sense the key to his success. Just as God had, by providential over-rulings, far beyond anything that could have been maneuvered by the captives, and for that matter totally unpredictable and unthinkable, brought the captives back to their city, God’s power was to be understood as more than sufficient to accomplish his holy designs, with or without the aid of prevailing powers upon which men were accustomed to rely.

“Not by might” The Douay version renders this phrase, “Not with an army.”(F15) It was most appropriate that Zerubbabel should have received this solemn reminder from the Word of God. Israel’s long mistake had been their reliance upon their own fortifications, military prowess, and political alliances; and, even at the time of this prophecy, there were apparently many who believed that the first order of business should have been that of rebuilding the walls of the city, rather than pressing forward with the design of reconstructing the temple. As we noted in the discussion of Haggai, God had elected to commission the rebuilding of the temple as a unifying and encouraging device for Israel, despite the fact of the very conception of an earthly temple having been not at all God’s plans from the beginning (2 Samuel 7). In this instance, God accommodated himself to the desires of his people, as he had done much earlier in the matter of the monarchy. In neither case did it achieve what would have been most desirable; because the temple fell into the hands of the unbelieving Sadducees who used it as a power base for crucifying the Messiah when he appeared, and for attempting to exterminate the Gospel of Christ. God eventually ordered its total destruction.

Verse 7

“Who art thou, O great mountain? before Zerubbabel thou shalt become a pain; and he shall bring forth the top stone with shoutings of Grace, grace, unto it.”

Before Zerubbabel and the feeble remnant in the land, Gentile authority might seem like a great mountain, hindering all progress in the work committed to them.(F16)

Other views of what was meant by “the great mountain” allege that, “It may mean the tremendous pile of rubble which was all that was left of the old Temple”;(F17) or, “The great mountain was the power of the world, or the imperial power.”(F18) Perhaps Ellis was correct in the discernment that, “Interesting examples can be cited from Rabbinic literature in which a man that shows spiritual discernment is called a `mountain remover.’“(F19) Certainly, Jesus appears to have used a related statement in the sense of overcoming any great difficulty. “Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall say unto this mountain, Be thou taken up and cast into the sea; and shall not doubt in his heart, but shall believe that what he said cometh to pass; he shall have it” (Mark 11:23). No one has ever thought that this promise of Jesus meant that his apostles would be empowered to perform monstrous and unreasonable miracles such as might be dreamed up by some conjurer. This passage probably has a similar meaning.

“He shall bring forth the top stone” The Hebrew text does not make it clear, exactly, what is meant by the top stone; and perhaps Dean is correct:

“It is better to take it as the corner stone, to which we know great importance was attached (Job 38:6; Psalms 118:22). There is no Biblical instance of any top stone or of its erection being celebrated. It may be a mere metaphor for the completion of the work.”(F20)

The good and encouraging news to Israel contained in this word from God to Zerubbabel was that he would live and be blessed of the Father to see the completion of the temple under his sponsorship and direction. It was precisely the kind of good news that discouraged returnees needed.

“Grace, grace, unto it” This indicates the popular acclaim and approval that would hail the completion of the second temple.

Verses 8-9

“Moreover the word of Jehovah came unto me, saying, The hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundation of this house; His hands shall also finish it; and thou shalt know that Jehovah of hosts hath sent me unto you.”

“Ye shall know that Jehovah of hosts hath sent me unto you” Homer Hailey pointed out that:

“From Zechariah 2:9 and Zechariah 4:9, along with this passage, one may conclude that the speaker is the angel of Jehovah (that is, the Messiah in an Old Testament appearance). However, even if it cannot be certainly determined, it will matter little, for both angels were from God and either one spoke from God.(F21)

These verses confirm the suggestion made above under Zechariah 4:7 that the top stone was merely a reference to Zechariah’s finishing the temple, even as he had begun it.

Verse 10

“For who hath despised the day of small things? for these seven shall rejoice, and shall see the plummet in the hand of Zerubbabel, these are the eyes of Jehovah, which run to and fro through the whole earth.”

“For who hath despised the day of small things…?” “The meaning of this is, `Do not despise the day of small things.’ It is a plea not to run with the crowd and become guilty of its foolish judgments.”(F22) There were many in Israel who needed that warning. Being long accustomed to the traditional opulence and glory of their kings and the grandeur of the first temple, many of them wept when they first beheld the foundations of Zerubbabel’s temple. “To the unenlightened mind the greatest achievement both in the making and in its completion seems trivial”(F23) (Ezra 3:12-13).

“The eyes of Jehovah” also referred to as “these seven” must be understood as a figure for God Himself who will be pleased with the further establishment of his people in their former dwelling place; but more is meant. The completion of the temple under Zerubbabel would serve as a pledge that, in time, the true temple, the Church of Jesus Christ, would be built by that greater Son of David, of whom God said, “He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever” (2 Samuel 7:13). In all of these references to Zerubbabel, it is explicit that he is a type of the Messiah.

“Zerubbabel was made as a “signet,” chosen by Jehovah (Haggai 2:23), a symbol of Him who was to come. His work was a foreshadowing of what the Messiah would accomplish.”(F24)

Even the Jewish Targum recognized this chapter as Messianic:

“The Targum recognizes here (v. 7) a Messianic prophecy: He will reveal the Messiah whose name is spoken of from all eternity, and he shall rule over all the kingdoms.”(F25)

Verses 11-12

“Then answered I and said unto him, What are these two olive trees upon the right side of the candlestick and upon the left side thereof? And I answered the second time, What are these two olive branches, which are beside the two golden spouts, that empty the golden oil out of themselves?”

The fact of the question here being repeated emphasizes the importance of this feature of the vision. We reject as without authority and without any reasonable basis whatever the inclination of critics to eliminate Zechariah 4:12 as an interpolation. No textual evidence whatever sustains such a subjective perversion of the word of the Lord. One thing evidently clearly understood by Zechariah was that the function of the olive trees was that of supplying the vital oil to the candlestick, a fact which, to judge from erroneous interpretations, many of the exegetes failed to catch, Verse 12 stresses that function by calling attention to the movement of the golden oil. That is why the question was repeated.

Verses 13-14

“And he answered me and said, Knowest thou not what these are? And I said, No, my lord. Then said he, These are the two anointed ones, that stand by the Lord of the whole earth.”

Well, what do the olive trees mean? Certainly, they are not “the royal and priestly office in Israel.”(F26) Why not? Because neither the priesthood nor the monarchy ever had anything whatever to do with supplying the oil for God’s candlestick (his Word, or his people) to shine forth i the world. In fact both the priesthood and the monarchy, more often than not, were hindrances, not suppliers of the oil.

We have already cited the near-unanimous opinion among present-day scholars to the effect that Joshua and Zerubbabel are the olive trees, an interpretation forbidden by the truth that those men did not supply the golden oil that illuminates God’s Israel throughout two dispensations.

The two olive trees must be understood in the additional light afforded by John’s vision in Revelation 11:3-4:

“And I will give unto my two witnesses, and they shall prophesy a thousand two hundred and threescore days, clothed in sackcloth. These are the two olive trees and the two candlesticks standing before the Lord of the earth.”

The same terminology being used in both passages makes it mandatory to find the articulation between them, for it can hardly be questioned that the olive trees in Revelation are the same as those in Zechariah. It will be helpful at this point to read a full discussion of these in my commentary on Revelation, pp. 239-242. The tendency of many scholars to identify the witnesses in Revelation as Joshua and Zerubbabel requires a conclusion that they will prophesy during the present dispensation for “a thousand two hundred and three score days” (a code expression standing for the whole Christian dispensation, i.e., the entire time between the two Advents of Christ), or that Joshua and Zerubbabel will personally rise from the dead, “torment” the people with their preaching for literally 3 1/2 years, be murdered, left lying in the street three days, and then rise from the dead and go on preaching! Impossible as such conclusions are, the identification of the olive trees as Joshua and Zerubbabel requires those same ridiculous conclusions, which is why we reject such identifications here.

The olive trees are the Old Testament and the New Testament; they are the Law and the Gospel; they are the Word of God to the old Israel and the Word of God to the New Israel. It should be allowed, of course, that if Joshua be recognized as a representative of the Law (being a priest of God), and if Zerubbabel be understood primarily as a type of the Messiah; then, and only then, could the olive trees be said to represent these men. However, the olive trees cannot refer to them personally, nor to them as mere ministers in the development of ancient Israel, nor to their respective offices of the priesthood and the monarchy.

In conjunction with the golden candlesticks, both here and in Revelation, the entire vision presents “God’s Two Witnesses” that prophesy continually throughout both the Mosaic and Christian dispensations. John’s use of just “two” candlesticks instead of seven was for the purpose of limiting the “witness” to the faithful portion of God’s Church instead of including all of it and does not contradict this view of the vision. In BOTH presentations (in Zechariah and in Revelation), the two witnesses are: (1) The word of Almighty God, by which we mean the BIBLE, and (2) His Spirit-filled people, in Zechariah’s day, the righteous remnant, and today, the Spirit-filled portion of God’s Church. We might add that the Word of God and the obedient people of God are the only “witnesses” God commissioned.

“The two anointed ones” This is the basis of so many conclusions that Zerubbabel and Joshua are meant; but there is no evidence at all that Zerubbabel was “anointed”; and furthermore, the cleansing of Joshua (Joshua 4) including no anointing. It is probably a synonym for “holy” in its use here.

This vision is not two separate visions of olive trees and a golden candlestick, but a single vision of BOTH. Plummer has a very perceptive summary of the vision’s meaning, thus:

“The two olive trees which supply the material for the candlesticks, are fit emblems of the Old and New Testaments; the candlesticks typify the Jewish and Christian Churches. These are identical as far as being God’s witnesses; the Church derives her stores from the Word of God, the light of the Word of God is manifested through the Church.”(F27)

Several other great scholars besides Plummer have discerned this basic understanding of the vision, including Wordsworth.(F28) Jamieson objected to this, insisting that Zechariah intended to apply the vision to Joshua and Zerubbabel. It could quite easily be, of course, that Zechariah himself probably thought the vision meant Joshua and Zerubbabel; but we are not in any manner limited by what it may be supposed that Zechariah thought he said. The words are the words of God, and the Word of God through other prophets makes it crystal clear what was meant. Moses and Elijah qualify just as well as Joshua and Zerubbal for identification with the olive trees; and so Leon Morris identified them(F29) but in both cases (Moses and Elijah, and Joshua and Zerubbabel) it is the Law and the Gospel which is meant. Elijah typified the Law; Moses was a type of Christ. Here Joshua typifies the Law; Zerubbabel is a type of Christ.

An unusually discerning scholar is Leupold who pointed out the fundamental weakness in making Joshua and Zerubbabel the olive trees, saying, “If it appears to any reader that we seem to be attributing too much to human agencies, let it be borne in mind that God gave these offices to His people.”(F30) However, such an accommodation does not remove the inconsistency of allowing mere men, weak and fallible men, to stand in the vision as suppliers of the light of all nations as seen in the candlestick. It is undeniably the Word of God which accomplishes that.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Zechariah 4". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/zechariah-4.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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