One of the great promises of the Old Testament, and indeed the words to a classic praise song of the 80s, is found in the often neglected prophetic book of Zechariah: “Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit says the Lord” (Zechariah 4.6). Like so many other incredible verses of Scripture, the real depth of the Word can only be found by exploring the context in which the truth is found.
The context is an incredible series of visions that the prophet Zechariah had on one February night in 519 BC. The priest turned prophet had returned with a group of God’s people to the rubble that was Jerusalem, the capital city of Judah that was destroyed by Babylon in 586 BC. A city without walls was bad enough, but a city without a Temple was definitely not fitting for the people of God. The political leader of the day was Zerubbabel, the governor of the small province which contained Jerusalem. He led the people to lay the foundation for the Temple in 536 BC, but construction had stalled because of opposition from the surrounding people groups and from the lack of faithful obedience by the Jews.
The Lord used the prophets Haggai and Zechariah to encourage the people to complete the task of rebuilding God’s temple. Haggai was a more “kick in the pants” kind of prophet, whereas Zechariah offered more encouraging words, primarily as the overflow of the amazing visions given to him by God. On the night of February 15, 519 BC, Zechariah saw a series of eight visions by which God instructed and encouraged His people to finish rebuilding the Temple. But His encouragement was more than just “Because I said so.” Through the visions, the Lord told Zechariah how He had once again chosen Jerusalem (2.12) and how He would again establish the city as a village without walls (2.4). Joshua, as High Priest and symbolic of the whole nation, was rescued as a stick from the fire, cleansed of his filth, and given clean garments and access to the presence of a holy God (3.1-5).
But these visions, as marvelous as they were, might have rung empty to a people overwhelmed by the brokenness of Jerusalem. When the few Jews returned to Jerusalem, the scene was overwhelmingly depressing. Instead of the massive borders that Judah once knew, there were only a few square miles surrounding Jerusalem. Instead of prosperity and peace, there was economic depression and destruction and enemies at every side. And even after three years of hard labor, the fruit of their labors was a small foundation footprint, a foundation so small that those who were old enough to have remembered the former Temple could only look upon it and weep. Consider,
And all the people shouted with a great shout when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. 12But many of the priests and Levites and heads of fathers’ houses, old men who had seen the first house, wept with a loud voice when they saw the foundation of this house being laid, though many shouted aloud for joy, 13so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted with a great shout, and the sound was heard far away. (Ezra 3.11-13 ESV)
In the same vein, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Haggai, saying,
2“Speak now to Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and to all the remnant of the people, and say, 3‘Who is left among you who saw this house in its former glory? How do you see it now? Is it not as nothing in your eyes? (Haggai 2.2-3 ESV)
As nothing in their eyes. That is what the people of God thought of the three years of hard work, as nothing. In fact, they despised the day of small things (see Zechariah 4.10), and it was to those depressed and hopeless people that the vision of Zechariah 4 came to bring encouragement.
1And the angel who talked with me came again and woke me, like a man who is awakened out of his sleep. 2And he said to me, “What do you see?” I said, “I see, and behold, a lampstand all of gold, with a bowl on the top of it, and seven lamps on it, with seven lips on each of the lamps that are on the top of it. 3And there are two olive trees by it, one on the right of the bowl and the other on its left.” 4And I said to the angel who talked with me, “What are these, my lord?” 5Then the angel who talked with me answered and said to me, “Do you not know what these are?” I said, “No, my lord.” 6Then he said to me, “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts. 7Who are you, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel you shall become a plain. And he shall bring forward the top stone amid shouts of ‘Grace, grace to it!’”
8Then the word of the Lord came to me, saying, 9“The hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundation of this house; his hands shall also complete it. Then you will know that the Lord of hosts has sent me to you. 10For whoever has despised the day of small things shall rejoice, and shall see the plumb line in the hand of Zerubbabel.
“These seven are the eyes of the Lord, which range through the whole earth.” 11Then I said to him, “What are these two olive trees on the right and the left of the lampstand?” 12And a second time I answered and said to him, “What are these two branches of the olive trees, which are beside the two golden pipes from which the golden oil£ is poured out?” 13He said to me, “Do you not know what these are?” I said, “No, my lord.” 14Then he said, “These are the two anointed ones£ who stand by the Lord of the whole earth.” (Zechariah 4.1-14 ESV)
I think two temptations lie before the student of the Bible that might prevent us from hearing the full Word of the Lord in this vision. The first is to ignore the context and rip the powerful words of verse 6 out of its context. The second is to ignore the context and try to relocate this prophetic word into the prophetic future. The parallels between this vision and other prophetic texts are hard to miss. Who can read this vision and not think of the two witnesses in Revelation 11 or of the visions of the seven lamp stands (which are the seven churches) of Revelation 2-3? But if we try to force this vision into compliance with those two visions, I fear we miss the word of the Lord given to Zechariah, and also given to us.
The vision of the lamp stand with seven lights and with a bowl on top with seven lights on it and with seven pipes to those seven lights is quite difficult to diagram. Undoubtedly, there is some connection with the golden lamp stand that was originally meant to light the Temple, but the bowl and seven pipes (or channels, or lips, or sprouts) are definitely new. Many spend their time trying to identify what each of these elements may mean, but I think that misses the meaning of the vision. The meaning of the vision was given in verse 6: the vision was a word to Zerubbabel that the Temple would be rebuilt by the Spirit of God and not by the might or strength or wealth of the people. Just like the oil that fuels the lamp stand is provided directly from the source (the olive trees on each side), so shall the fuel that provides the accomplishment of the Temple shall be provided directly from the source, the very Spirit of God. Whatever obstacle may stand as a mountain in the way will be made flat, and Zerubbabel will place the final capstone on the Temple while shouts of “Grace, grace to it” abounds from the people. The vision was to encourage Zerubbabel that his hands would finish the Temple, and that it would be the Spirit of God that brought this remarkable feat to pass.
Then who are the two anointed ones what stand by the Lord as represented by the two olive trees? I think attempts to identify these two with the two witnesses in Revelation 11 are amiss. These two “sons of oil,” or anointed ones are two branches (not trees as in verse 3) in the olive trees. Taken on the heels of the fourth vision, these two anointed and chosen ones seem most likely to be Joshua and Zerubbabel, the ones anointed and chosen by God and vested with His Spirit to accomplish great things in Jerusalem in the sixth century BC.
If the import of this vision was for Joshua and Zerubbabel, then what is the value to us today? What if we saw this vision through the lens of the New Testament?
For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2.10 ESV)
For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me. (Colossians 1.29 ESV)
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; 6and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. 7To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. (1 Corinthians 12.4-7 ESV)
Joshua and Zerubbabel are really no different from you and I. If you doubt that, consider that the apostle James said as much about the prophet Elijah, describing him as “a man with a nature like ours” (see James 5.17). Joshua and Zerubbabel were men chosen by God to carry out great and mighty things, and yet it really was not about them. The good work God prepared for them to do could only be carried out by the power of His Spirit. And yet the great hope of the calling was that because that good work could only be carried out by the power of His Spirit, they could be confident that the good work would be done.
Remember, this vision came to a two men who were standing in the midst of rubble, listening to the cries of doubt and despair. What they could see and hear was the mocking of the enemy, the silent construction site, and the despising of small things by their own people. But what they were called to hear was the Spirit of God saying, “This shall be done.” These two men were branches in God’s olive tree, vessels of His oil (Spirit) flowing through them. The Hebrew word translated “branches” in verse 12 is literally “flowing stream” and is also used in Psalm 69:
I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood (“flowing stream”) sweeps over me. (Psalm 69.2 ESV)
Why is this word used in a vision of a tree? Remember, visions are meant to declare the Word of the Lord more than they are meant to be diagramed. The two anointed ones were “flowing streams” of the Spirit of God, anointed men by which the Lord would accomplish the task of building the Temple (Zerubbabel) and staffing the Temple (Joshua).
Just like the two anointed ones, those who are indwelled by the Spirit of God are vessels of His Spirit, created for good works, works that God will powerfully work through them. What are the good works God has created you to do? What good works seem impossible by human standards? What good works seem pointless and worthy to be despised?
“Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit says the Lord.”