This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the LORD of hosts. (Zechariah 4.6)
Pinnacle of Hope
An extraordinary passage of Scripture surfaces in today’s lectionary readings—no doubt chosen for its relevance in the run-up to this weekend’s Feast of Pentecost. It comes from Zechariah, a complex record of divine messages and visions given to the prophet as the Jews come home after 70 years in Babylonian exile. Much of Zechariah finds scholars scratching their heads, trying to sort out the historical, political, and theological layers tightly compressed in God’s promise to resurrect the nation after its long night of sorrow and loss. Yet ever so often a thrilling shaft of light breaks through, the most famous in Zechariah 4.6: “Not by might, nor by power, but my spirit, says the LORD of hosts.” The allusion to God’s Spirit—which operates in a way that transcends might and power—makes the text a timely precursor to Pentecost’s outpouring of the Holy Spirit. “Don’t look for this thing to happen like anything you’ve known or seen,” it says. Then, when we take a moment or two to discover what “this thing” is, it knocks our socks off.
The message is forwarded through Zechariah to Zerubbabel, a prince appointed to reestablish the Jewish nation and, most important, rebuild the Temple the Babylonians destroyed while sacking Jerusalem. The original Temple sat atop Mt. Zion, the city’s highest peak. Prior to the Babylonian conquest, it shone as the Jews’ pinnacle of hope—hard proof of God’s faithfulness to them. After centuries of looking to the Temple to inspire future hope, all that remains on Mt. Zion is the rubble of dashed dreams. So great is the people’s attachment to the Temple that Psalm 137 says the Babylonian exiles wept when they remembered Zion. Now that the Jews are returning home, reconstructing the Temple is the first order of business. More than that, refuting lost hope is of vital importance.
Ten Soft-Spoken Words
Perhaps the best way to tap into the epic emotions riding on this enormous project is comparing it to the devastation we felt on 9/11, as well as our urgency to replace the World Trade Center with something more magnificent and richer in meaning. Anything less would mean the terrorists won, we said. The same drive to surpass the glory of Solomon’s Temple weighs heavily on Zerubabbel and the Jews. And given their primitive circumstances, I don’t believe we can begin to comprehend how overwhelmed Zerubabbel and the people must feel. Their entire land has been decimated. Their financial means and skill sets are woefully inadequate. What’s more, the young people Zerubabbel must rely on to do the hard labor never saw the first Temple. To a one, they were born after its destruction and it’s very possible that the will to see its resurrection through isn’t there.
To give us an idea of how long 70 years is, consider this: seven decades ago we were in the throes of World War Two. Now imagine we’d lost that war and spent 70 years under Nazi oppression. Could we possibly marshal our energy to restore our former glory? That’s what Zerubbabel is up against—with the added challenge of rebuilding the demolished Temple by hand. He feels powerless, totally incapable of the job he’s been given. And God’s answer to his long list of questions comes in ten soft-spoken words: “Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit.” If we were in Zerubabbel’s position, how would we respond? My best would be, “Okay… if You say so…”
Zechariah doesn’t chronicle Zerubabbel’s direct response to God’s message. But this we know. He and those working with him make astonishing progress in the Temple project. Although it takes many generations, glory returns to Mt. Zion. The second Temple becomes something far greater than the first: it’s a testament to God’s Spirit—not political might or human power. And it is this Temple where Jesus preaches, heals, and declares the New Order of God’s grace for all of humanity.
Our Life’s Work
To source timeless truth in biblical prophecy, we first liberate the text from its historical import so we can apply its principles to our lives and times. So we read Zechariah with eyes wide open for a word God would have us know today. To be sure, this text speaks broadly to all believers, promising eternal sustenance and restoration through God’s Spirit. But I would also encourage us to ponder it in the context of spiritual exile and reconstructing a Temple worthy of Isaiah 56—another post-Babylonian prophecy, which promises a place of welcome for outcasts and foreigners: “These I will bring to My holy mountain, and make them joyful in My house of prayer… for My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” (v7; emphasis added) Thus, this prophecy comes to everyone who’s been forced into exile by exclusionary doctrine, to those alienated by false doctrines of fear and condemnation, to every child of God who’s lost hope and weeps when recalling the towering promise of grace that once secured their trust in God’s Word. And it’s especially relevant to all of us who’ve heard God’s voice convene a great homecoming for every faith exile. The task of rebuilding a Church in ruins, a people ravaged by the deceit of sexism and homophobia and legalistic bullying, seems too enormous to undertake. Our first impulse leads us to assert power and amass force to complete the task. But God would say to us, “Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit.”
Reconstructing a Church that shines forth as hard proof of God’s faithfulness and the Spirit’s renewal will take a long, long time—in all probability, longer than any of us will live. Many of the returning exiles know nothing of the Church’s true significance as a homeland for their souls. To them, it’s just a fabled institution that’s fallen to corrupt powers. They look to Zion and all they see are crumbling reminders of broken ideals. We must speak this word to them—telling them that God’s Spirit transcends might and power, and God’s promises are eternally true. We are in the first stages of an historic homecoming that will triumph in the building of a House of Prayer for All Peoples. Every gender, orientation, ethnicity, class, and personal circumstance will be welcome. We who hear God’s voice and trust God’s Word must make this effort our life’s work. Progress will be slow, but providence will prevail. This is God’s promise to us. And it is true.
Though the task of rebuilding the Church into a House of Prayer for All Peoples is enormous, God promises we will succeed—not by might nor power, but by God’s Spirit.