A wall of fire

I’ve reached Zechariah in my read through of the minor prophets.   Haggai and Zechariah fit together in terms of chronology – both come after the return from exile at the time of the rebuilding of the temple.  At one level this is a positive time for Israel, on another it is disappointing.  The disappointment comes out in the first verse of both books:

Hag. 1:1  In the second year of Darius the king, in the sixth month, on the first day of the month…

Zech. 1:1  In the eighth month, in the second year of Darius…

The contrast with previous prophets is striking.  Most of the prophetic books open with a similar statement, but the reference is always to a king or kings of Israel or Judah.  Here the time when the word of the LORD comes to the prophet is given with reference to Darius, King of Persia at that point.  Judah may be back in the land, but only as a minor province in the vastest empire yet known in that part of the world.  When the people do rebuild the temple Haggai notes that those who remember the previous temple know that the rebuilt temple is nothing compared to the temple built by Solomon.

Zechariah’s prophecies begin to address the situation of a people who have lost hope, assuring them that if they turn to God he will indeed turn back to them, and that there will come a point when Jerusalem will be fully restored.  There are some slightly strange visions which make this point in different ways.  At the start of chapter 2 Zechariah sees a man with a measuring line over Jerusalem. From a measuring line itself we don’t know if this will be good or bad.  Amos talks about Israel being divided up with a measuring line in judgement, but Ezekiel has an angelic figure measuring the new temple.  In Zechariah this is how it goes:

Zech. 2:1-5 And I lifted my eyes and saw, and behold, a man with a measuring line in his hand!  Then I said, “Where are you going?” And he said to me, “To measure Jerusalem, to see what is its width and what is its length.”  And behold, the angel who talked with me came forward, and another angel came forward to meet him and said to him, “Run, say to that young man, ‘Jerusalem shall be inhabited as villages without walls, because of the multitude of people and livestock in it.  And I will be to her a wall of fire all around, declares the LORD, and I will be the glory in her midst.’”

Here it becomes apparent it is good.  An angel has to go and tell the man with the measuring rod not to bother, Jerusalem cannot be measured because there are too many people for her to be contained by walls.  Instead the LORD is her wall of fire.  The “I will be” is significant.  If you were to translate it super literally it would be “I, I will be for her a wall of fire”.  Technically just “I for her a wall of fire” would be enough, as would “I will be”.  The use of both “I”, and “I will be” is emphatic, and it doesn’t happen very often.

In the Old Testament it is only the LORD who uses the phrase.  He uses it talking to David, about David’s son when he promises that he will be as a father to David’s son.  He uses it in Jeremiah and Ezekiel talking about the new covenant, where God says “I, I will be their God and they will be my people”, and later in Zechariah 8:8 where he says the same thing – “they will be my people, and I, I will be their God”.  The phrase carries certainty, and reminds the reader of God’s promises to his people.  Ultimately it goes right back to the promise of the LORD to Moses at the burning bush: “I will be with you”, “I will be what I will be”, “you shall say to the elders of Israel  ‘I will be’ has sent me to you”.  What God “will be” is determined by God alone – and no one and nothing can stop him.

Here in Zechariah the LORD is promising that he will be a wall of fire for the people, and that he will be in their midst for glory.  He will both protect them, and be with them.  Not only will he be with them, he will be with them for glory or as glory.  His presence will be what gives the city solidity and weight.

When do we see this promise fulfilled?  In Zechariah’s day Jerusalem remained an occupied city.  In Jesus day it was still an occupied city, and in AD70, as Jesus had predicted, Jerusalem was overrun – and only those who acted as Jesus warnings suggested and got out were saved.  It is beyond the physical city of Jerusalem that a fulfilment must be found.

Zechariah later goes on to speak of a time when the LORD will deal with the iniquity of the land in a single day.  On that day the Son of David who was faithful to the end took on himself the iniquity of us all.  The one who encapsulated faithful Israel suffered and died in our place, and then rose again.  He defeated death, and won the victory.  All who trust in him are in him, and in him are part of Israel. Not replacing Israel, but completing Israel.  This renewed Israel, incorporating Jew and Gentile is God’s people. The temple is Jesus. By his Spirit we are built on him.  Those who trust in Jesus are citizens of Jerusalem.

It is for us that the LORD is a wall of fire, and glory in our midst.  He protects us in the midst of all dangers and fears.  And yet we still suffer, we still await the final completion of this promise. The day when the new Jerusalem comes down out of heaven as a bride dressed for her husband.  The day when the LORD will make all things new.  When all tears will be wiped away, and death will be no more.  On that day the Lamb will sit on the throne, and we will see his face.

Until that day we live in the confused, confusing world of Zechariah’s day. As God’s people doing God’s will, but feeling tiny, despised and small perhaps, as if our obedience is hollow and pointless. But Zechariah reminds us that it might look like the time of small things, but that small obedience is not to be despised. We may find that actually our small obedience is a seed for something unimaginable to come.  Zechariah reminds that God brings about his rule “not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit”, by the Spirit of the LORD God of hosts. “God of angel armies”, “God all powerful”.  What he has said, he will do.

I think this wonderful hymn by John Newton encapsulates the heart of this promise of God to be a wall of fire protecting his people.  I can’t help wondering if a wall of fire is what happens when a fiery pillar stops (see verse 3 of the hymn or the book of Exodus) and the destination is reached.  And of course the fiery pillar became a wall of fire stopping the Egyptian army reaching the people.  Read the hymn and rejoice in the unseen reality in the midst of a world in turmoil.

Glorious things of thee are spoken,
Zion, city of our God;
he whose word cannot be broken
formed thee for his own abode;
on the Rock of Ages founded,
what can shake thy sure repose?
With salvation’s walls surrounded,
thou may’st smile at all thy foes.

See! the streams of living waters,
spring form eternal love,
well supply thy sons and daughters
and all fear of want remove.
Who can faint, when such a river
ever flows their thirst to assuage?
Grace which, like the Lord, the Giver,
never fails from age to age.

Round each habitation hovering,
see the cloud and fire appear
for a glory and a covering,
showing that the Lord is near.
Thus they march, their pillar leading,
light by night, and shade by day;
daily on the manna feeding
which he gives them when they pray.

Blest inhabitants of Zion,
washed in the Redeemer’s blood!
Jesus, whom their souls rely on,
makes them kings and priests to God.
‘Tis his love his people raises
over self to reign as kings:
and as priests, his solemn praises
each for a thank-offering brings.

Savior, if of Zion’s city,
I through grace a member am,
let the world deride or pity,
I will glory in thy Name.
Fading is the worldling’s pleasure,
all his boasted pomp and show;
solid joys and lasting treasure
none but Zion’s children know.

 

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