This is the word of the LORD concerning Israel. The LORD, who stretches out the heavens, who lays the foundation of the earth, and who forms the spirit of man within him” [and on to verse 14] Zechariah 12:1
I am always telling you to read all the Bible, the Old Testament as well as the New, and I say that because the Son of God, our Saviour Jesus Christ, said in his prayer in the Upper Room the night before he died, that God’s word was truth. He further said that it couldn’t be broken, that heaven and earth would pass away before the word of God passed away, and that people made a horrible mess of their lives – they erred and strayed – because they didn’t know what the Old Testament taught. When he was tempted by Satan he overcame those temptations by quoting from the book of Deuteronomy. We worship an infallible Christ, but that Lord Jesus gives me an infallible Old Testament. I’m never going to be smarter than the Son of God. If he believed the Bible who am I to demote it to a mere human document replete with errors? I agree with Jesus Christ in everything because he is God. Paul, his apostle, does not oppose what his Master said. He told Timothy that all Scripture is God-breathed and that it is very profitable in helping us to live the Christian life. That is the reason why I tell you to read the Old Testament. The more you read it then the more you will understand it.
But when you read it then there are parts that are not easy to understand – at all sorts of levels. And so one reason for preaching on it is in order to help you to understand it. Last week we looked at chapter 11, and I think it is one of the most difficult sections of the book. I didn’t tell you that at the time because it would be like showing off when I took you through it – “See, I can preach on the toughest chapter in Zechariah.” Rather I struggled with that chapter and should have made it clearer. Thank you for sticking with me. This chapter is simpler and warmer. It is encouraging and warning and its climax is the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus Christ and the grief of his followers.
Let us say that you are a Christian boy or girl, and that you’ve not been following the Lord Jesus for long and one day you opened the Bible and the first words you read were Zechariah 12 and the first verse; “This is the word of the LORD concerning Israel. The LORD, who stretches out the heavens, who lays the foundation of the earth, and who forms the spirit of man within him.” That is not difficult to understand, is it? Let’s make it the first point today. Let’s call it…
- THE GREATNESS OF GOD THE CREATOR.
80 years earlier their town, Jerusalem, had been besieged for years and then the enemy army had entered. The town was laid waste, all the buildings were destroyed and all the inhabitants taken 500 miles away to Babylon into slavery. Imagine it had happened to our town – it’s around the same size – in the year 1934, and we had returned to the ruins just a decade ago and were rebuilding it. We too would have been traumatized by that event, and God sends Zechariah to preach to and pastor a deeply concerned and nervous people. What does he talk to them about? How does he deal with their trauma? He tells them first and constantly about Jehovah the living God, the God who spoke to them through him. He reminds them again that he is actually the Creator who thought up, and designed, and then formed this whole universe from the atom to the galaxies, from gravity to light. The beautiful sky and sea and mountains we caught glimpses of as we came to church were made by the Father of our Saviour Jesus Christ. When we speak to him and say, “Our Father which art in heaven,” then we are speaking to the God through whom everything was made, and we live and move and have our being in him. You see the words that Zechariah uses here?
God is the one who stretched out the heavens. Have you seen Mum drawing the curtains at the end of the afternoon in these winter days? There are French windows, panes of glass from the top to the bottom and then Mummy draws the big, blue curtains right across and then that is what you see, no longer just glass. So in the beginning God said let there be light, and he made the sun and the moon; he also made the stars and he made the firmament in which they are set, outer space, and he made all that as easily as Mummy changed a tall wall of glass into a deep rich blue by stretching out the curtains. You didn’t say, “Three cheers for Mummy for drawing the curtain! Oh Mummy you are so clever to pull the curtain across! How did you do it?” You didn’t say that because it’s easy for us to draw a curtain. It was just as easy for God to stretch out the heavens. He didn’t lose any sweat in making the universe. He didn’t have to spend a month in bed to recover after creating the heavens and the earth, not one minute. There is nothing God cannot do. He is only limited by his own decision. If he decides then he does it.
You think about that for a moment. How big is the sun? It is a million times bigger than our earth. If it were a hundred times bigger it would be immense but it is far greater than that. A million times larger than our earth, and it is 93 million miles away – that is why it looks so small. And our sun and those planets that go round it are one of the stars that make up a huge city of stars called a galaxy, and the name that’s been given to our galaxy is the Milky Way, and if you went from one side of the Milky Way to the other, and you could travel at the speed of light constantly day after day, year after year without slowing down at all then it would take you a hundred thousand years to reach the other side of our galaxy. But do you know this, that our galaxy is a tiny, tiny part of the whole universe. There are billions and billion of other galaxies with billions of other stars like our sun in each one and they have planets surrounding them, I guess. The stars and their planets are as innumerable as the grains of sand on Aber. beach. God said let there be light and there was light. God stretched out the heavens.
Then we are told by God that he also laid the foundation of the earth, so we have something that is firm, that we can stand on and jump on, something that lasts, something on which we can build telescopes and radio telescopes and look up and consider the heavens, the stars and galaxies that God made. We can be safe and strong, not tossed about all our lives like a little boat far out at sea in one long storm on a dark, dark night. God has laid a foundation where we can erect schools and printing presses and books and libraries and universities and especially churches where we can gather and hear the word of God. That is how God made the universe, the vastness of outer space with its billions of galaxies and billions of stars in so many of them, and then us here standing on a foundation which is kept and protected by God and we can respond to the word of the Lord about the sort of cosmos we live in. How wise and mighty is Almighty God.
But then he says one more thing about us, not just that we have a foundation on which to stand, but that God formed the spirit of man that’s within us (v.1). We aren’t just bodies are we? We also are souls or spirits. Animals don’t have that dimension at all, do they? When you drive down to Aberaeron and at one part the road goes up and up and you look down on Cardigan Bay and the sea right to the horizon with the sun going down, you also see the fields with the sheep and the cows then you can sigh and admire that scene in all its glory and beauty, but the animals can’t. They are just looking at grass and eating it, hour after hour. They can’t talk to one another and say, “Nice day today Doris.” They can’t think and love and sing and deny themselves for others, because God did not form them with a spirit like himself. Only us. Only men and women are made in the image and likeness of God. He formed the spirit of man so that we can create, and talk, and have a sense of beauty, and logic, and ask deep questions, and worship, and speak to God, and know our guilt and know that we have done wrong and that we need forgiveness and salvation. God formed the spirit in Mozart, and Aristotle, and Leonardo de Vinci, and Jane Austin, and Paul Macartney, and Churchill, and Tom Finney, and Albert Einstein, and Babe Ruth, and Charles Dickens, and Queen Victoria, and Johan Sebastian Bach, and George Washington, and Nelson Mandela, and Spurgeon, and Rembrandt, and Ronald Reagan, and Charlie Chaplain, and Gareth Edwards, and many more that have made our lives so fascinating. Chance didn’t make them, and luck didn’t make them and they didn’t make themselves. They were not who they were because of evolution, but because the God who stretched out the heavens and laid the foundation of the earth formed the spirit that’s within us, and so God made a kind and loving Mummy and Daddy and gave you electricity, and the worldwide web, and choirs, and games, and books, and brave men, and caring women, and your favourite writers – they all come from our wonderful God who is Father and Son and Holy Spirit, and he loves us and has sent his Son to become our Saviour. He tells us, when we do so many wrong things, that he will forgive us and give us new hearts should we turn and ask him for that. Then he will live in us and surround us with his loving care and keep us by his power. So that is what God does in this chapter. He speaks. He reveals himself to us through his prophets. He is not silent. So what is the word that he says to us in this chapter?
- THIS MIGHTY CREATOR WILL PROTECT US AND KEEP US.
I was born before the war, the great second world war, and my cousins Bobi Jones and his brother Keith, couldn’t live in Cardiff any longer because bombs were falling on Cardiff, and so they were evacuated from the city to our home 24 miles north of it in Merthyr Tudful for a couple of years, and of course I was delighted because I didn’t have any brothers and sisters and we all slept together in a big double bed and played cowboys on a stagecoach shooting Indians. Wars are terrible things and I remember how we celebrated when the war was over with a street tea in Penydarren.
Zechariah was preaching to his congregation one day this sermon – this oracle – that if ever they had to endure another war, and another invasion, and armies gathered around the city of Jerusalem as in the unforgettable war that their grandparents had suffered 80 years earlier, then the God who stretched out the heavens and laid the foundation of the earth and made the spirit within us would protect them. That is what he told them.
Should all of the country of Judah be besieged, not just the city of Jerusalem, (v.2) and all the nations of the world from Asia and African and Europe sent in their crack troops against the people of God (v.3), then we needn’t be afraid. Jerusalem would be like Mount Everest, an “immovable rock” – and the armies that attacked her would themselves be injured (v.3). The mighty war horses preparing for battle would panic and their riders would go mad. Jerusalem would be like a huge cup of potent liquid one drop of which would be enough to make the soldiers of the national armies go reeling and staggering all over the battle field like drunken men incapable of fighting (v.2). God would watch every brick and every tile on your roofs, every wall and window in all of Judah (v.4). God would be watching over us moment by moment, but at the same time he would blind the warhorses of the nations. They would be hopeless for battle not knowing whether to charge to the north, south, east or west.
This is what the people of Judah would experience. They would look and see the extraordinary ways that God is caring for them, and they would know in their hearts, “The people of Jerusalem are strong because the Lord Almighty is their God” (v.5). When the world and the flesh and devil attack us and we resist them we don’t gain the victory because we are particularly smart and spiritually strong, but because the Lord of hosts is with us and the God of Jacob is our refuge.
In fact God would first turn to the country folk, in their little white farms — the houses on the hills, so unprotected and vulnerable. “The Lord will save the dwellings of Judah first” (v.7). That’s grace. The people of Jerusalem wouldn’t be able to boast – “It’s because we are the people of mighty Jerusalem that we were saved.” No. The little hamlets and villages in the distant valleys and mountainsides of Judah get the priority, they would be safe in the hands of Jehovah. But the city slickers of Jerusalem would not be neglected. He would shield them (v.8). And that is even more a display of his grace. However, God wouldn’t simply protect them but he would make them a terrible army with banners. Like a fire begins in one place in a building or in a cornfield and out it spreads consuming all around it, so Jerusalem would be a consuming centrifugal fire going out and out, destroying all the armies that surrounded it. See verse six, “On that day I will make the leaders of Judah like a brazier in a woodpile, like a flaming torch among sheaves. They will consume right and left all the surrounding peoples, but Jerusalem will remain intact in her place.” And every inhabitant of Jerusalem would become a mighty warrior, the boys and girls and the elderly and sick; Dad’s Army would destroy the battle-hardened men of the strongest nations in the world “the feeblest among [Judah] will be like David, and the house of David will be like God, like the Angel of the LORD going before them” (v.8). God can make men super human, as undefeatable as the archangel Michael – one angel could defeat the whole Assyrian army, and the feeblest among them would be as strong as the Angel of the Lord. We three little boys in our double bed in number 1 Pembroke Place in Penydarren would sing rude songs about the Nazis, and how we would wipe them out if they came to Wales – Bang! Bang! Bang! It was all fantasy, but here is the reality, that God makes his people strong, more than conquerors, so that nothing can separate them from his loving care. The Lord of hosts is with us and the God of Jacob is our refuge. And so with these grand promises of God’s protection and enabling power Zechariah preached to the people and told them not to fear, that nothing could harm a hair on their heads without the permission of the God of hosts, the one who “stretches out the heavens, who lays the foundation of the earth, and who forms the spirit of man within him” (v.1). He would destroy their enemies (v.9). Then finally he turns to the cost of victory, and that was paid by the life and death of the Son of God.
- THE DEATH OF THE MESSIAH WOULD BREAK THE HEARTS OF ALL TRUE ISRAELITES.
The prophets preached about the coming Messiah. Isaiah in chapter 53 of his prophecy opened up the meaning of Christ’s death in almost a photographic way: “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth” (Isa. 53:3-7). That is Jesus on Golgotha, and Isaiah was writing those things seven centuries before it happened. It is like you discovering in the attic a photograph album that was your grandmother’s, a hundred years old, and as you turn the pages you see picture after picture of your own sister’s wedding six months earlier. There are the bridesmaids in their dresses, and the outfits your parents wore, and the car which took you to the reception, and the guests – they are all exactly like you remember on that happy occasion a few months earlier, though here it is in black and white and taken a century ago. That is what we feel when we read Isaiah 53; we are seeing the suffering servant of God as he was making atonement for our sins. Isaiah concludes that Christ “will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand” (Isa. 53:10).
There are those other prophecies about his death also just as vivid and accurate. In psalm 22 we read of him saying, “My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me?” Others give extraordinary details such as the 30 pieces of silver that would be the price given to the one who betrayed him, and that the money would be used to buy a potter’s field, that the Messiah would be wrongly accused, tortured and humiliated and would not retaliate. They prophesied that he would be executed alongside common criminals, that he would be put to death by crucifixion – a form of execution never carried out by the Jews. They prophesied that at the time of his death he would pray for his executioners, none of his bones would be broken, his body would be pierced and people would gamble to get his clothing.
But again, in the next chapter in Zechariah, it begins by describing a fountain that is going to be opened up to cleanse people from sin and impurity, and we flood it with Cowper’s words,
There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Immanuel’s veins,
And sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains.
And later on in that chapter we are told of the Lord calling his sword of judgment to awake and smite the man who was his close to God (v.7), and what man was closer to him than Jesus of Nazareth? Isaiah expressed the same truth, “It pleased the Lord to bruise him,” and Zechariah says “Strike the shepherd and the sheep will be scattered” (Zech. 13:7). I am saying that prophecies concerning the sufferings of the coming Messiah are found abundantly in the Old Testament, and here is one in verses ten through thirteen that describes the grief of the elect of Jerusalem when they see how Jesus died in such painful, shameful agony, mocked by his enemies, and forsaken by God.
Zechariah wants to make it as vivid as he can. “Do you know how a couple are utterly broken when their only child dies? The grief at the death of the Messiah was like that” (v.10). Or, “Do you know when a firstborn son dies how his parents mourn deeply at their loss? The decease of Christ was like that”; they looked at him hanging on the tree, the one whom soldiers had pierced with nails and a spear, and they mourned with a bitter grief. There were 500 followers of Jesus, his flock, the people that he had saved and taught, to whom he later appeared, and every one of them thought that this death meant their world had come to an end, and life was no longer worth living. The purpose of their existence had been annihilated and it lay buried in the grave with Jesus. Their weeping was great, quite inconsolable (v.11). The very land on which his blood fell was in mourning (v.12). The 500 were from every clan of the house of David, and of the houses of Nathan and Levi and Shimei and all the other clans too (v.13), and both men and women who had followed him wept. You see it on the road to Emmaus when some of his disciples, Cleopas and his companion, are described to us walking the long journey home “their faces downcast” on the verge of tears.
This was not a merely natural human grief that all people have at the death of loved ones, or at the murder of an innocent man. This grief was heavenly in its origin. God decreed that many tears and great mourning were the only fitting response to the death of his Son. This grief poured forth on favoured men and women – on some of the population of the city, not all. The Roman soldiers who nailed him to the cross were not weeping. Annas and Caiaphas the chief priests who bribed men to lie and mocked him as he hung there were delighted that they had dealt with the Jesus problem. This grief fell upon only those who had loved him, and would have laid down their lives for him, the grief of Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus, the grief of his mother, the grief of Peter whose anguish was compounded by his guilt in denying him. Theirs and hundreds like him was a pain like no pain they’d known before. This was grief that they’d not been aware that they were capable of, a vast weight pressing them down, a tremendous heaviness of spirit, such huge sobs of pain that really hurt them badly. That grief came from the Son of God himself. The one they were grieving about was himself giving them this heart ache. He is the one who says the words of our text, “I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication. They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him . . .” (v.10). Their grief will be commensurate with the awfulness of the event. God loved the world, and God sent his Son to be its Saviour. He went about doing good; he didn’t break the bruised reed and he did not extinguish the smoking flax.
When mothers of Salem their children brought to Jesus
The stern disciples turned them back and bid them depart.
But Jesus saw them e’er they fled,
And sweetly smiled and kindly said
‘Suffer the children to come unto me.’
They murdered him whom mothers loved! They made fun of him dying there, God’s only Son, the long promised Messiah, the Saviour of the world. What a world we live in! What wickedness we hear of and read about each day of our lives. Jesus is still being despised and rejected, and one of the proper responses from his people is to mourn. Jesus told us that it should be thus: “Blessed are they that mourn for they shall be comforted.” Do you see the wonder of this chapter? It begins by telling us that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is the mighty Creator of the universe, the firmament above and the earth beneath us, and that he also made our spirits that feel and grieve and rejoice and create and love. This same God is covenanted to protecting us and saving us from destruction. This same God will make us more than conquerors. Then it tells us that this same mighty Creator gives us a spirit of mourning. He is the one who fills our eyes with tears, that there are times and occasions in our life when all we need to do and are able to do is weep – the grief of repentance, or the grief of sympathy, or the grief of loss. Grief is part of the Christian life, not celebration all the time; not artificial rejoicing with some ersatz kind of joy all the time. Christians grieve too. Jesus wept over defiant, recalcitrant Jerusalem; “If you, even you, had known what would bring you peace – but now it is hidden from your eyes” (Lk. 19:42). What then are the lessons to learn from Christian grief?
i] Times of mourning are dangerous times, and so be sure at such times you keep good thoughts of God. Whatever the combination of trouble and sadness that have come into your life put to death hard thoughts of God. The devil will want to pull you down at such times. Remember David addressing his own inner life and saying, “Why are you cast down O my soul?” Maybe there’s a good reason, and maybe not. Go to God who is always our exceeding joy. God is good though we are cast down. God is good all the time. The psalmist says, “Blessed be the Lord for ever.” and then he says, “Amen and Amen.” Job was prevented from saying hard things against the Lord and you can be too.
ii] Be sure to see the mercies from God that you’re getting during times of mourning. Remember that the Christian life is just how Billy Bray described it, trials by the spoonful and blessings by the bucketful. There will always be mercies to thank God for in the darkest of times. There are new mercies each morning. Don’t let the griefs of a fallen groaning world hide God’s goodness from you. The Puritans would say that if you took a coin the size of a 50pence piece and put it over your eye then your sight would be severely restrained. How limited would be your vision! So too a little affliction can hide a multitude of mercies. Remember the psalmist’s words, “Praise the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits!” There will always be many things for which to praise the Lord. At least you can always praise God for delivering you from where you might have been today.
iii] Beware of a dogged, depressed disposition. As a Christian it has nothing to do with your upbringing or your personality. It is a choice you are making to cleave to past and present sadnesses instead of to the promises of God, that he will never leave you, and that he is working all things together for your good, and will supply all your need and make all grace always abound. As those things are true then how can you justify a painful heavy spirit. Why is it that people find it so difficult to talk to some of you because you are so touchy and dogged. It is a sin to be like that. It is a very ill disposition. Rejoice in the Lord always. Always!
iv] Take care that you do not show contempt for every promise of blessing and providence that is offered to you in mourning times. The Lord who met with his disciples on the first day of the week in the power of his resurrection after conquering death is meeting with us today and his words are the same, “Peace be unto you.” Don’t consider the words of the devil as he whispers in your ear that those words of hope are, “Too good to be true.” Receive the rest of Jesus! Didn’t he promise this when you and every Christian came to faith in him? “Come unto me all ye who labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” Labour for a meek and quiet spirit. Remember Rachel who refused to be comforted. Remember the great question that Job was once asked by Eliphaz; “Aren’t God’s consolations enough for you, words spoken gently to you?” (Job 15:11). What more can he say than to you he has said? Are you looking for more than the promises of God and the ministry of the Holy Spirit the Comforter? Isn’t a crumb of mercy given you by God worth more than all the steaks and the cordon bleu that men can cook up? You have forfeited your right to comfort by the sin of your father Adam and your own sin and yet God comes to you again and again and he says in grace, “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God! Believe also in Jesus Christ!” Be thankful for the joy that seeks you through your pains. Be ready for more, and God in his time will grant you more.
30th March 2014 GEOFF THOMAS