Zechariah’s fourth vision

The angel of the LORD returns in the fourth of Zechariah’s eight visions. This time, however, the scene does not feature horses, a man, and myrtle trees. Rather, the prophet is granted access to a heavenly courtroom, where the high priest Joshua stands before the angel of the LORD (defender and judge), Satan (accuser), and attending angels. The setting here closely resembles that of the divine council before whom Satan accuses Job (Job 1-2). The key difference, however, is Joshua’s crushing guilt versus Job’s innocence. We pick up Zechariah’s fourth vision in verse 1 of chapter 3:

Then he showed me the high priest Joshua standing before the angel of the LORD, with Satan standing at his right side to accuse him. The LORD said to Satan: “The LORD rebuke you, Satan! May the LORD who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Isn’t this man a burning stick snatched from the fire?” 

Now Joshua was dressed with filthy clothes as he stood before the angel. So the angel of the LORDspoke to those standing before him, “Take off his filthy clothes!” Then he said to him, “See, I have removed your iniquity from you, and I will clothe you with festive robes.”  

Then I said, “Let them put a clean turban on his head.” So a clean turban was placed on his head, and they clothed him in garments while the angel of the LORD was standing nearby.

Then the angel of the LORD charged Joshua: “This is what the LORD of Armies says: If you walk in my ways and keep my mandates, you will both rule my house and take care of my courts; I will also grant you access among these who are standing here.

“Listen, High Priest Joshua, you and your colleagues sitting before you; indeed, these men are a sign that I am about to bring my servant, the Branch. Notice the stone I have set before Joshua; on that one stone are seven eyes. I will engrave an inscription on it” ​— ​this is the declaration of the LORD of Armies ​— ​“and I will take away the iniquity of this land in a single day. On that day, each of you will invite his neighbor to sit under his vine and fig tree.” This is the declaration of the LORD of Armies.

Zech. 3:1-10

It’s important to note, first of all, that this is not the same Joshua who succeeded Moses as leader of the Israelites. Many centuries divide these two figures. Rather, Joshua serves as high priest on behalf of the nearly fifty thousand exiles who have returned from Babylonian captivity. His role is to represent all of God’s people. As such, his filthy garments symbolize not only his sin, but the sins of the Israelites, which have prompted Yahweh to vomit them out of the Promised Land for violating terms of the Mosaic Covenant (Lev. 18:24-30). In fact, the word translated “filthy” is linked to the Hebrew term for human excrement. It is one of the strongest expressions in the Hebrew language for something vile. 

The accusation

Even so, Joshua stands before the angel of the LORD, seemingly ready to perform his priestly ministry as the Levites before him did (cf. Deut. 10:8; 2 Chron. 29:11; note them standing in service before the LORD). But there’s a problem. To Joshua’s right stands a prosecutor, identified in many English translations as Satan (“accuser,” “adversary”). The Hebrew word satan appears here with a definite article (“the”), which makes it clear this is not a personal name. The word satan describes an adversary and may be used of human beings (1 Kings 11:14) or supernatural ones (Job 1:6-12; 2:1-7). Even the angel of the LORD plays this role at least once (Num. 22:22).

Whether the satan in Zechariah’s vision is the same accuser Jesus calls “the father of lies” (John 8:44) and the apostle John depicts as “the great dragon … the ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the one who deceives the whole world” (Rev. 12:9) is a matter of debate. Yet there’s little doubt this accuser seeks to halt the return of the Israelites, the rebuilding of the temple, and the restoration of the priesthood. Zechariah places less emphasis on the identity of Joshua’s accuser than on the message of the vision.

Even though Zechariah records none of the satan’s words, there is little doubt the accuser points to the high priest in his soiled garments and charges him unworthy. This is not an isolated incident, for even today our ultimate adversary, Satan, levels accusations against followers of Jesus before God’s holy bench (Rev. 12:10). 

As with the accuser’s charges against Joshua, Satan’s claims against us bear some truth. We are, indeed, unworthy. We sin with impunity because it is our nature to do so, and because we choose to sin. We run from God rather than toward him. Left to our own devices, we would live out our days independently of God and pass, deservedly, into outer darkness. There is no hope for us, and there is no answer to Satan’s biting accusations, except for the merciful call of God to salvation and the cleansing blood of Jesus Christ, who rebukes Satan on our behalf.

The rebuke

We see a similar rebuke in Zechariah 3:2: “The LORD said to Satan: ‘The LORD rebuke you, Satan! May the LORD who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Isn’t this man a burning stick snatched from the fire?’”

It’s likely the angel of the LORD is the one speaking here. As we’ve seen in previous passages, the angel of the LORD and Yahweh both are called LORD; both share the divine nature of the eternal, transcendent God of the universe, yet they are distinguishable persons. So, the angel of the LORD comes to Joshua’s defense with a brief but compelling argument.

First, the angel of the LORD says to Satan, “The LORD rebuke you.” This sounds similar to Michael the archangel’s words to the Devil in Jude 9, when the two disputed over the body of Moses. Jude records that Michael dared not utter a slanderous condemnation against Satan, but said, “The Lord rebuke you!” 

We might be tempted to think the angel of the LORD is equally cautious in confronting the evil one, perhaps even fearing him. Or worse, we might fall victim to the errant Watchtower teaching that Michael and Jesus are the same person. According to this view – a modern-day form of the ancient Arian heresy – Michael is the first of Jehovah’s created beings, who then creates all other things. Later, he is transformed from an angel into a human being – Jesus of Nazareth. Then, with his death, Jesus the man ceases to exist. However, Jehovah raises him spiritually from the dead so he may resume his identity as an exalted Michael the archangel. If all of this sounds wildly unbiblical, you get the point.

For our purposes – an examination of the angel of the LORD’s rebuke of the accuser – we should understand that similar statements from Michael (Jude 9) and the angel of the LORD (Zech. 3:2) do not prove the two figures are the same being. In fact, the characters and contexts are completely different.

In Jude, the writer uses the confrontation between Michael and Satan – taken from an apocryphal writing called The Assumption of Moses – to demonstrate the audacity of false teachers. Jude refers to the flippant manner in which they speak against angels, and he contrasts their behavior with that of Michael, who shows remarkable restraint when disputing with Satan over the body of Moses. In other words, if an archangel parses his words when speaking to Satan, self-proclaimed prophets ought to be doubly cautious when dealing with those of higher intelligence and power in the unseen realm.

In Zechariah 3, however, the angel of the LORD clearly is identified, not as a created being, but as deity. He takes away Joshua’s iniquity and adorns the high priest in righteousness, something only God can do. So why, then, does the angel of the LORD seem to defer Satan’s rebuke to the LORD? Because the angel of the LORD is the LORD. He speaks under the title of “LORD” and yet distinguishes Himself from the LORD in addressing Satan. This identification is further supported in 3:4 where His action is virtually that of forgiving sins.

Michael Butterworth explains it this way: “It seems strange for the Lord himself to say ‘the Lord rebuke you,’ but its meaning is ‘I, who am the Lord, rebuke you,’ and it assures the reader that the Satan’s accusations are completely set aside (cf. Ps. 9:5; Is. 17:13).”

The angel of the LORD not only rebukes Satan; he depicts Joshua as “a burning stick snatched from the fire” (3:2). Just as the LORD plucks Lot from the brimstone falling on Sodom and Gomorrah, he delivers Joshua and the Israelites from the burning judgment of exile in Babylon. It’s possible the angel of the LORD also has the Israelites’ captivity in Egypt in mind, for Deuteronomy 4:20 and Jeremiah 11:4 use the metaphor of Egypt as an iron-smelting furnace from which God’s people are delivered. 

The removal of sin

Next, the angel of the LORD commands that Joshua’s excrement-soaked clothes be removed and exchanged for “festive robes” (3:4). Zechariah requests a clean turban for Joshua as well, a plea that is granted. “See,” the angel of the LORD says to Joshua, “I have removed your iniquity from you.” The word translated “iniquity” (Heb. awon) is particularly strong and may be defined as “perversion or deliberate sin against the Lord.” 

In this statement, the angel of the LORD asserts his authority as Yahweh to forgive sins, something Jesus claims authority to do in a crowded house in Capernaum (Mark 2:10; cf. Exod. 34:6-7; Isa. 43:25; 44:2). Joshua cannot cleanse himself. Someone greater, someone holier, someone sinless, must apply the purifying balm of forgiveness. No angelic being may usurp Yahweh’s prerogative to wash away the stain of sinners’ willful rebellion. But the angel of the LORD – Yahweh himself – may do so. And when the second person of the triune Godhead steps into time and space some five hundred years later, the God-Man brings the full authority of deity to extend grace and grant forgiveness to believing sinners.  

Joshua is decked out in festive clothing, specifically fine, white garments. This illustrates the cleansing from sin and Joshua’s readiness now to serve the LORD. Scripture at times uses the metaphor of clothing to capture Yahweh’s work of spiritual transformation and imputed righteousness. Consider Isaiah 61:10: “I rejoice greatly in the LORD, I exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation and wrapped me in a robe of righteousness, as a groom wears a turban and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.” One day, followers of Jesus, known as his bride, are summoned to the marriage supper of the Lamb, where we are given “fine linen to wear, bright and pure” (Rev. 19:8).

The recommissioning

The angel of the LORD then recommissions Joshua as high priest, making promises contingent upon Joshua’s faithfulness. If Joshua walks in the LORD’s ways – that is, abides by Yahweh’s decrees and lives an impeccable life – and if he faithfully carries out his high priestly duties, the LORD of Armies will invite Joshua to rule his house and take care of his courts. In other words, the high priest in postexilic Israel will be granted greater influence and wider authority in Jerusalem than ever before witnessed. This comes to pass as “changing political and religious circumstances attributed greater authority to the high priest, which became an elevated position also reflected in the Gospels,” according to George Klein.

Further, the angel of the LORD assures Joshua he will be granted “access among these who are standing here” (3:7). This is a remarkable promise. The high priest is the only Israelite who may enter the Holy of Holies in the temple, and then only once a year. But the angel of the LORD seems to be telling Joshua that if he remains faithful, he will be granted access to the throne room in heaven where the angelic host abides. 

The promised Branch

Finally, the angel of the LORD, continuing to speak on behalf of the LORD of Armies, tells the high priest, “I am about to bring my servant, the Branch” (3:8). Branch is one of the Old Testament’s most prominent messianic titles, found in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Zechariah. Jeremiah writes:

“Look, the days are coming” ​— ​this is the LORD’s declaration — “when I will raise up a Righteous Branch for David. He will reign wisely as king and administer justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. This is the name he will be called: The LORD Is Our Righteousness.”

Jer. 23:5-6; cf. Jer. 33:15-16

Zechariah has witnessed an extended period of decline in the Davidic dynasty. But the LORD of Armies uses imagery of a shoot coming up out of a stump to picture new life and hope. The Davidic line of kings rises again, reaching its apogee in the coming Messiah. 

In addition to Branch, the LORD of Armies describes the coming one as a servant. Isaiah in particular, projects this view of the Messiah in Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12, in which the suffering servant is pierced because of our transgressions and crushed because of our iniquities. The LORD punishes his servant for the iniquity of us all. Jesus beautifully fulfills this role, coming as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Jesus fully understands his role in the Incarnation. He comes, not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matt. 20:28). 

The angel of the LORD, who comes in visions to Zechariah to comfort, encourage, forgive, and restore, also rebukes the accuser of the brethren. Five centuries later, he shares humanity with us so that through his death he might destroy the one holding the power of death – that is, the devil (Heb. 2:14). One day, as judge, he sentences the evil one to eternity in a place created just for him and his angels: hell, or the eternal fire  (Matt. 25:41; Rev. 20:10).

The angel of the LORD’s acquittal of Joshua, who is a type of Christ as high priest, prefigures our vindication because of Jesus’ finished work on the cross: 

Who can bring an accusation against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies. Who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is the one who died, but even more, has been raised; he also is at the right hand of God and intercedes for us (Rom. 8:33-34).

Next: “Like the angel of the LORD” (Zechariah. 12:8)

This post is excerpted from Jesus Before Bethlehem: What Every Christian Should Know About the Angel of the Lord, available from Amazon and other retailers.