Have you ever noticed that it seems that God asks us to do some of the biggest things whenever we feel the most depleted?
That is what the disciples faced when Jesus said to them, “You feed them.” It was at the end of the day, and thousands of people remained after hearing Jesus’ teaching. The disciples were hungry and exhausted; at the end of their own resources.
They had a perfect solution for what to do with the crowd — send them away, come back again tomorrow. But Jesus had the audacity to drop this monumental assignment in the lap of the disciples. “You feed them.”
That was a similar situation to what the Israelites under Zerubbabel faced after returning from the Babylonian exile. God had given them the task of rebuilding the city, the walls, and the temple.
But it wasn’t easy. They faced serious opposition from their neighbors. They wanted to give up. And it was in this situation that God spoke through Zechariah to the returning exiles.
Tucked away in Zechariah’s fifth vision is a Bible verse that has been an encouragement to believers for years after. And it was even the lesson that the disciples would have to learn through the ministry of Jesus.
“‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty” (Zechariah 4:6).
What does that verse mean, and how do we apply it today?
What Is the Context of Zechariah 4:6?
Before looking at the immediate biblical context of Zechariah 4, it might be helpful to understand a little about the historical context. The setting of Zechariah begins around 520 B.C., after the Jews had returned to the region of Judah after the Babylonian exile.
By the time Zechariah and Haggai begin to prophesy, a majority of the people had already been back for a few years. But they had stopped building. These two prophets were sent by God to encourage the people to rebuild.
Zerubbabel was a descendant of David but was born in Babylon during exile. He was the grandson of King Jehoiachin and became the governor of Judah after the exile. But he had his work cut out for him.
God was calling the people to a massive project (rebuilding beauty from ashes in rebuilding the temple), but with low morale and little to no resources, they needed encouragement. That is the historical context.
Zechariah 4 is the fifth of eight-night visions given to Zechariah. This fifth vision provides a bit of a break from the first four visions. It seems that this vision came at a different time than the first four and begins a new cycle of visions.
This vision is one where Zechariah sees a beautiful golden lampstand with a bowl and two olive trees by it. This is likely the golden lampstand described in Exodus 25:31-40.
But what does this image mean? Zechariah is confused by the image and asks the angel what it means. Zechariah 4:6 is the answer to that question.
The golden lampstand with a bowl and pipes and olive trees is meant to communicate that this project will be completed “not by might nor by power,” but it will be completed “by my Spirit.”
What does that mean, though? What is the relationship between this lampstand and the angel’s interpretation in verse 6?
What Is the Meaning?
Specifically for Zerubbabel and the Israelites, this word meant that this great task would not be accomplished through their own strength and effort — but through God’s Spirit.
The words used there for “might” and “power” often point to military strength and human strength and ingenuity. That is good news because those are two things, which the Israelites greatly lacked.
But isn’t that where we often find ourselves? We lack resources, and so we assume that we either need to surrender this battle or labor to fill in what we lack.
This is what the disciples did when they saw a massive crowd and came up with the grand idea to send the people away.
They didn’t have “might” or “power” to feed them, and so the only recourse was to send them away. It was this same discouraging solution, which the Israelites were coming to in the days of Zechariah, and it caused them to stop building.
But God reminds them that it is not through their resources that this project would be complete. It will be through His resources. When the LORD Almighty tells Zechariah, “But by my Spirit,” this should have evoked memories of both creation and Exodus.
The Hebrew word translated “Spirit” is the word rûaħ. It was rûaħ, which was present in creation (Genesis 1:2), and it was this same rûaħ, which opened and closed the waters of the Red Sea during the Exodus.
So, it is not surprising that trusting in the Lord’s rûaħ would be a necessity in rebuilding the temple.
But let’s think specifically about this lampstand and what the temple is to represent. The temple is indicative of God’s presence. And the lampstand is a picture of God’s light shining.
To combine these, the goal is that God’s presence would be manifest and serve as a light to both the Israelites and to the nations.
This, Zerubbabel is reminded, does not come through our own strength and efforts but by God’s own work and initiative. God makes himself known.
That’s the meaning of this passage. It’s a message, which the people of God have been learning from creation forward.
Will Adam and Eve trust in God’s provision or pursue provision by partaking of the forbidden fruit? Will Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob trust in God’s promise or in their own strength?
Will Moses trust in God’s leadership or slowly transfer his trust into the staff he holds in his own hands?
Will the Israelites trust God to lead them into the Promised Land or their own military prowess and strength? Gideon, Samson, Saul, David, Solomon, etc., etc., had to learn this lesson.
And it is a lesson we still need to learn today.
How Do We Apply This Today?
To consider how to apply this today, let’s go back to the disciples tasked with feeding thousands of hungry people. Is their task really any different than the “task” of the temple and the lampstand?
They, too, are to be conduits of God’s presence, a light to the nations. All those hungry people are present because the light of the world is in their midst.
Everything to which the temple and the lampstand pointed is found on that hill, in Jesus proclaiming the gospel.
But people still get hungry.
Just as Zerubbabel and the Israelites did not have the resources to build the temple, to properly image God, to be an accurate light to the nations, and fend off invaders, so also the disciples do not have the resources to feed the masses.
But just as God asked Zerubbabel to lead in the building so now Jesus commands the disciples to feed the masses.
The compassion of Jesus is always greater than our strength. And the need of the people is always greater than our resources. You combine these two things, and it’ll wear you out.
This is why we must also remember the words of Zechariah 4:6. It’s not through our own strength or might that God’s presence will be given, and the light of the gospel will shine. Rather this happens through His Spirit.
What a tremendous comfort this is to those of us who would run ourselves ragged in what we think is obedience to the Lord. God isn’t asking us to shine our strength, he’s calling us to shine His.
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Mike Leake is husband to Nikki and father to Isaiah and Hannah. He is also the lead pastor at Calvary of Neosho, MO. Mike is the author of Torn to Heal and Jesus Is All You Need. His writing home is http://mikeleake.net and you can connect with him on Twitter @mikeleake. Mike has a new writing project at Proverbs4Today.
The views and opinions expressed in this podcast are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of Salem Web Network and Salem Media Group.
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