(Calvin. Commentaries on the Prophet Zechariah. Part 27)
Chapter 12. 
Lecture One Hundred and Sixtieth. 
Zechariah 12:1 
The burden of the word of the LORD for Israel, saith the LORD, which 
stretcheth forth the heavens, and layeth the foundation of the 
earth, and formeth the spirit of man within him. 
    The inscription seems not to agree with what follows, for he 
does not denounce any evil on the chosen people in this chapter, 
but, on the contrary, comforts the miserable, and promises that God 
would provide for the safety of his Church. Since then Zechariah 
speaks only of God's favour and aid, he seems to have mentioned 
"burden" here improperly or unreasonably; for "masa", we know, is 
rightly to be taken for a threatening prophecy. It might indeed be 
said, that he promises that God would so deliver his Church as to 
teach it at the same time that it would be subject to many evils and 
trials: but I rather think that the Prophet's design was different, 
even to show that the Israelites, who had preferred exile to God's 
favour, would be punished for their sloth and ingratitude, because 
it was through their own fault that they were not again united in 
one body, and that they did not rightly worship God in their own 
country. Interpreters have heedlessly passed over this, as though it 
had nothing to do with the subject: but except this be borne in 
mind, what is read in this chapter will be altogether without 
meaning. I therefore consider that the Prophet here reproves those 
Israelites who had rejected what they had long desired, when it was 
offered to them from above and beyond all hope: for nothing was so 
much wished for by them as a free return to their own country; and 
we also see how ardently all the Prophets had prayed for 
restoration. As then the Israelites, given to ease, and pleasures, 
and their worldly advantages, had counted as nothing the permission 
given them to return, that they might again be gathered under God's 
protection, it was a base ingratitude. Hence the Prophet here 
reproves them, and shows that their success would be far otherwise 
than they imagined. 
    We must also observe, that those who were dispersed in 
different parts, were retained by their torpidity, because they did 
not think that the state of the people would continue; for they saw, 
as they had before found, that Judea was surrounded by inveterate 
enemies, and also that they would not be a people sufficiently 
strong to repel the assaults of those around them; for they had 
already been accustomed to bear all things, and though they might 
have had some courage, they had completely lost it, having been 
oppressed by so long a servitude. Since then the ten tribes 
entertained these ideas, they did not avail themselves of the 
present kindness of God. Thus it was, that they wholly alienated 
themselves from the Church of God, and renounced as it were of their 
own accord that covenant, on which was founded the hope of eternal 
    What then does Zechariah teach us in this chapter? Even that 
God would be the guardian of Jerusalem, to defend it against all 
violence, and that though it might be surrounded by nations for the 
purpose of assailing it, he would not yet suffer it to be overcome: 
and we shall see that many other things are stated here; but it is 
enough to touch now on the main point, that God would not forsake 
that small company and the weak and feeble remnant; and that however 
inferior the Jews might be to their enemies, yet the power of God 
alone would be sufficient to defend and keep them. 
    If it be then now asked, why the Prophet calls the word he 
received a burden on Israel? The answer is plainly this, that the 
Israelites were now as it were rotting among foreign nations without 
any hope of deliverance, having refused to be gathered under God's 
protection, though he had kindly and graciously invited them all to 
return. Since then God had effected nothing, by stretching forth his 
hands, being ready to embrace them again, this was the reason for 
the burden of which Zechariah speaks; for they would be touched with 
grief and with envy when they saw their brethren protected by God's 
aid, and that they themselves were without any hope of deliverance. 
In short, there is an implied contrast between the ten tribes and 
the house of Judah; and this is evident from the context. Having now 
ascertained the Prophet's design, we shall proceed to the words. 
    The burden, he says, of the word of Jehovah on Israel: Say does 
Jehovah who expanded the heavens, &c. Zechariah thus exalts God in 
order to confirm the authority of this prophecy; for no doubt the 
creation of heaven and earth and of man is here mentioned on account 
of what is here announced. We have elsewhere seen similar 
declarations; for when anything is said difficult to be believed, 
what is promised will have no effect on us, except the infinite 
power of God be brought to our minds. God then, that he may gain 
credit to his promises, bids us to raise up our eyes to the heavens 
and carefully to consider his wonderful workmanship, and also to 
turn our eyes down to the earth, where also his ineffable power is 
apparent; and, in the third place, he calls our attention to the 
consideration of our own nature. Since then what Zechariah says 
could hardly be believed, he prescribes to the Jews the best remedy 
- they were to raise upwards their eyes, and then to turn them to 
the earth. The expanse of the heavens constrains us to admire him; 
for however stupid we may be, we cannot look on the sun, and the 
moon and stars, and on the whole bright expanse above, without some 
and even strong emotions of fear and of reverence. Since then God 
exceeds all that men can comprehend in the very creation of the 
world, what should hinder us from believing even that which seems to 
us in no way probable? for it is not meet for us to measure God's 
works by what we can understand, for we cannot comprehend, no, not 
even the hundredth part of them, however attentively we may apply 
all the powers of our minds. 
    Nor is it yet a small matter when he adds, that God had formed 
the spirit of man; for we know that we live; the body of itself 
would be without any strength or motion, were it not endued with 
life; and the soul which animates the body is invisible. Since then 
experience proves to us the power of God, which is not yet seen by 
our eyes, why should we not expect what he promises, though the 
event may appear incredible to us, and exceed all that we can 
comprehend. We now then understand why the Prophet declares, that 
God expanded thee heavens, and founded the earth, and formed the 
spirit of man. By saying "in the midst of him", he means, that the 
spirit dwells within; for the body, we allow, is as it were its 
tabernacle. Let us proceed - 
Zechariah 12:2 
Behold, I will make Jerusalem a cup of trembling unto all the people 
round about, when they shall be in the siege both against Judah and 
against Jerusalem. 
    Zechariah begins here to teach us what I have briefly 
explained, that Jerusalem would be under the protection of God, who 
would render it safe and secure against all enemies. But he uses 
here figurative terms, which make the point more evident. He says, 
that Jerusalem would be a threshold of bruising, or breaking. The 
word "saf" means a threshold almost everywhere in Scripture. But 
some think that it means here a cup, and then they translate "ra'al" 
rot, drunkenness, or fury. But as this word also means breaking, it 
is not unsuitable to say that Jerusalem is here called a threshold 
at which people stumble, so that he who comes against this threshold 
either breaks a bone or receives some other injury. At the same time 
the Prophet seems to express something more, that whosoever ascended 
to attack Jerusalem would meet with a stumbling block, by which he 
might have his legs broken or bruised. The meaning then is, that 
access to Jerusalem would be closed up, so that enemies would not 
overcome it, though they reached the walls and the gates, for they 
would stumble, as it is said, at the threshold. 
    If the other rendering be approved, the sense would be 
suitable, - that all the ungodly, while devising schemes against 
God's Church, would be inebriated by their own counsels; yea, that 
their drink would be deadly to them: for the passions of men produce 
effects like drunkenness. When therefore the ungodly gather their 
forces against the Church, it is the same as though they were 
greedily swallowing down wine; for the drunken meet together to 
indulge in excesses. The meaning then would be, - that this 
immoderate drinking would be fatal to the nations. But I prefer the 
former view, - that though the gates of the holy city were open, or 
even an easy access were made through the walls, yet God would on 
every side be a defence, so that enemies would stumble, as we have 
said, at the very threshold and bruise themselves. And this promise 
was very necessary then, for Jerusalem was exposed to the assaults 
of all, as it could not have defended itself by moats or walls or 
mounds: but the Lord here promises that it would be a threshold of 
    He then adds, Also against Judah, or over Judah, it shall be 
during the siege against Jerusalem. The Prophet, as I think, extends 
the promise to the whole land, as though he had said, "Though the 
compass of Jerusalem should not contain all the inhabitants, yet 
they shall be everywhere safe; for God will take them under his 
protection." I wonder why some interpreters have omitted the 
preposition "'al" and have translated thus, "Judah also shall be in 
the siege against Jerusalem:" and they elicit a meaning wholly 
different, even that some of the Jews themselves would become 
perfidious, who would not spare their brethren and friends, but 
become hostile to them, and unite their forces to those of heathen 
nations. But I consider the meaning to be the reverse of this, - 
that when Jerusalem shall be besieged, the Lord will put impediments 
everywhere, which will hinder and prevent the assaults of enemies. 
When God, he says, shall defend the holy city, even this very thing, 
(for I apply this phrase to God's protection,) even this very thing 
shall be through the whole land; as though he had said, "God will 
not only be the guardian of the city alone, but also of the whole of 
the holy land." Now this must have sharply goaded the Israelites, 
seeing that they were excluded from having God's aid, inasmuch as 
they had not thought proper to return to their own country when 
liberty was freely given them. It follows - 
Zechariah 12:3 
And in that day will I make Jerusalem a burdensome stone for all 
people: all that burden themselves with it shall be cut in pieces, 
though all the people of the earth be gathered together against it. 
    Zechariah adds here another metaphor, which is very apposite; 
for when the ungodly made war against the holy city, the object was 
not to reduce it only to subjection, or to impose a tribute or a 
tax, or simply to rule over it, - what then? to cut it off entirely 
and obliterate its name. Since then such a cruelty would instigate 
enemies to assail the holy city, the Prophet here interposes and 
declares that it would be to them a most burdensome stone. He thus 
compares the enemies of Jerusalem to a man who attempts to take up a 
stone when he is too weak to do so. He then injures his own 
strength; for when a man tries to do what is too much for him, he 
loosens some of his joints, or breaks his sinews. The Prophet then 
means, that though many nations conspired against Jerusalem, and 
made every effort to overthrow it, they should yet at length find it 
to be a weight far too heavy for them: they should therefore break 
or lacerate their own arms, for their sinews would be broken by 
over-exertion. Some explain the last clause more frigidly, "In 
tearing he will be torn," as when any one takes up a rough stone, he 
tears his own hands. But the Prophet, I have no doubt, meant to set 
forth something more serious; and each clause would thus correspond 
much better; for as we have said, the object of the ungodly was to 
remove Jerusalem, so as not to leave a stone upon a stone: but God 
declares here that it would be too heavy a burden, so that they 
would find their own strength broken in attempting inconsiderately 
to remove what could not be transferred from its own place. 
    Now the reason for this prophecy is, because God was the 
founder of Jerusalem, as it is said, "Its foundations are in the 
holy mountains, love does the Lord the gates of Sion," (Ps. 87: 1, 
2;) and again it is said, "Jehovah in the midst of her, she shall 
not be moved." (Ps. 46: 5.) We must also remember what we have 
observed in the last verse: for though the heavens are in continual 
motion, they yet retain their positions, and do not fall into 
disorder; but were the heavens and the earth blended together, still 
Jerusalem, founded by God's hand and exempt from the common lot of 
men, and whose condition was peculiar, would remain firm and 
unchangeable. We hence see why the Prophet says, that there would be 
no other issue to the ungodly, while attempting to overthrow 
Jerusalem, than to wound and tear themselves. 
    He then adds, And assemble against them shall all nations. 
This, as we have said, was added in order to show, that though 
enemies flocked together from every quarter, God would yet be 
superior to them. This clause then contains an amplification, to 
encourage the faithful to continue in their hope with invincible 
constancy, though they saw themselves surrounded by hosts of 
enemies. It afterwards follows - 
Zechariah 12:4 
In that day, saith the LORD, I will smite every horse with 
astonishment, and his rider with madness: and I will open mine eyes 
upon the house of Judah, and will smite every horse of the people 
with blindness. 
    He pursues here the same subject, but in other words, - that 
multiplicity of means is in God's hand, by which he can drive away 
and break down the fury of enemies. By the words horse and its 
rider, the Prophet, stating a part for the whole, means whatever is 
strong, and intimates that it can be easily overcome by divine power 
    He says first, I will smite every horse with stupor. Military 
strength, we know, is in horses and horsemen; but he says that the 
horses would be stunned, and the horsemen seized as it were with 
madness, so that they would destroy themselves, and could do no harm 
to the Church. He then confirms what he said before - that though 
the whole world conspired against the Church, there would yet be 
sufficient power in God to repel and check all their assaults and he 
mentions stupor, madness, and blindness, that the faithful might 
know that God can by hidden means either destroy or put to flight 
all their enemies. Though then God fights not with drawn swords, nor 
uses the common mode of warfare, yet the Prophet says, that he is 
prepared with other means to lay prostrate their enemies; for even 
the most powerful in the world cannot proceed so far as to confound 
their enemies by blindness and madness; but the Prophet here shows, 
that though no way appears to us by which God may deliver us, we are 
yet to entertain firm hope, for he can by his breath destroy all 
enemies, as he can render then blind, and take from them 
understanding, and wisdom, and strength. 
    Then he adds, I will open mine eyes on the house of Judah. A 
reason is here given why all enemies would be smitten with stupor 
and madness, because the Lord would have a regard for his Church; 
for to open the eyes means the same thing as to have a care for a 
thing. It had seemed good to God to neglect his people for a time, 
and this neglect was as it were an oblivion. Hence the saints often 
complain "How longs wilt thou sleep! how long wilt thou close thine 
eyes! Look down, O Lord, and see." So in this place Zechariah means 
that God would yet care for his people, so as to subdue their 
    We may hence learn a useful doctrine - that, in the first 
place, there is nothing better for us than to be gathered under the 
shadow of God's protection, however destitute of any fortress the 
Church may be, yea, were she to have innumerable enemies hostile to 
her, and to be without any strength to resist them. Though then the 
Church were thus grievously tried, and be in the midst of many 
dangers, and exposed even to death, let us learn from this passage 
that those are miserable indeed who through fear or cowardice 
separate themselves from her, and that they who call on God, and 
cast on him the care of their safety, shall be made blessed, though 
the whole world were mad against them, though the weapons of all 
nations were prepared for their ruin, and horses and horsemen were 
assembled to overwhelm them; for the defence of God is a sufficient 
protection to his Church. This is one thing. Then let us learn to 
exercise our faith, when God seems to cast us as it were between the 
teeth of wolves; for though he may not afford any visible aid, yet 
he knows how to deliver us, and possesses hidden means of help, 
which we may not perceive, because his purpose is to try our faith 
and our patience. And lastly, let us learn, that when God connives 
at our miseries, as though he had forgotten us, yet our hope, 
founded on him, can never be disappointed; for if we abide among his 
flock, he will at length open his eyes upon us, he will really show 
that he cares for our safety. It now follows - 
Zechariah 12:5 
And the governors of Judah shall say in their heart, The inhabitants 
of Jerusalem shall be my strength in the LORD of hosts their God. 
    He still continues the same subject - that however small and 
feeble the flock of God would be, it would yet have sufficient 
strength; for the Lord would stand on the side of those who fled to 
him. Though then Jerusalem was not as yet filled with citizens, and 
though there was but one city, yet Zechariah testifies that its 
strength would be invincible; but he speaks of the chiefs of Judah 
comparatively. Formerly, we know, it had a great number of men, and 
great armies were raised from that one tribe and the half tribe of 
Benjamin. Though then there were formerly many provinces, though the 
country was full of populous towns, yet almost Jerusalem alone had 
then begun to be inhabited: but the Prophet says here, that though 
the whole Church was gathered within the narrow bounds of one city, 
it would yet have sufficient strength to resist all the attacks of 
    Say then shall the chiefs of Judah; that is, though formerly 
the governors or commanders of thousands had forces in their several 
towns, yet now all would look to one city; for the land was nearly 
forsaken and without inhabitants; at the same time they were to 
entertain hope, for their strength was to be in the Lord. Some 
insert a conjunction, "Strength will be to me and to the citizens of 
Jerusalem;" but they pervert the meaning; for the Prophet meant to 
say in one sentence what I have stated - that the eyes of all would 
be directed to one city only, and that yet there would be sufficient 
ground for hope and confidence, for they would become strong, not in 
themselves, but in their God. 
    There is a change of number, when he says, a strength to me, 
for he had spoken of chiefs; it ought then to have been "lanu", to 
us. But he now introduces each of them as speaking, as though he had 
said, "No one of the chiefs shall look to his own land, but, on the 
contrary, direct his eyes to the holy city, and be content with the 
defence of a few men." Hence he says, In Jehovah of hosts, their 
God; for he means that God would be then the protector of that 
people whom he had for a time forsaken. And he calls him again the 
Jehovah of hosts, in order to set forth his invincible power, lest 
the minds of the godly should fail through fear, on seeing 
themselves far unequal to their enemies. It follows - 
Zechariah 12:6 
In that day will I make the governors of Judah like an hearth of 
fire among the wood, and like a torch of fire in a sheaf; and they 
shall devour all the people round about, on the right hand and on 
the left: and Jerusalem shall be inhabited again in her own place, 
even in Jerusalem. 
    He adds another metaphor for the sake of a further 
confirmation; for he says, that the chiefs of Judah would be like a 
melting pot: some render it a hearth, but improperly and without 
meaning. He afterwards compares them to a flaming torch, and heathen 
nations to wood and stubble or chaff. The Spirit speaks thus also in 
other places; and the reason is to be noticed; for when the ungodly 
assail the Church of God, all things seem to threaten its ruin; but 
God declares that they shall be like chaff or wood. "The house of 
Israel," says Isaiah, "shall be a flaming fire, and shall consume 
all the wood of the forest:" so also in this place, "There shall be 
indeed a great host of enemies, assembled against Israel; but the 
Lord will consume them, for he will be like fire in the midst of his 
people, and his people also shall be through the secret power of the 
Spirit like a burning pot or a torch, which shall consume the chaff, 
in which there is nothing substantial." 
    But the Prophet shows again that the deliverance of the Church 
is ever wonderful: and hence foolishly do they act who rely on human 
and earthly instrumentality, and wilfully bind God to their own 
ways; for whenever God promises to be their deliverer, their inquiry 
is, "But how can this be? whence will come this aid to us? how will 
the hand of the Lord be stretched forth to us? whence will he gather 
his army?" Inasmuch then as we are wont thus anxiously to inquire, 
and thus drive away from us the aid of God, let this truth, taught 
by the Prophet, be borne in mind, - that though enemies in great 
numbers may come upon us, they shall yet be like a heap of wood, and 
we like fire; for though we have no strength, yet the Lord by his 
hidden favour will cause that our enemies shall even, by coming nigh 
us, be consumed. 
    To the same purpose is the next similitude, - that they would 
be a torch in handfuls of chaff; for here also the singular number 
is used for the plural. Then follows an explanation, Consume shall 
they on the right hand, and on the left, all nations around. 
Zechariah seems here to ascribe an insatiable cruelty, and a 
revengeful passion to the faithful, who yet are to be influenced by 
a meek spirit, so that they may imitate their heavenly Father. But 
here he speaks not of their disposition and feeling, but only shows, 
that all the ungodly shall be frustrated in their expectation of 
success, and not only so, but that they shall also be destroyed. The 
more furiously then they assail the Church, the more sudden shall be 
their destruction; for though the faithful may wish to spare them, 
yet God, the righteous judge, will not spare them. In short, the 
work of God himself, as in other places, is ascribed to the Church. 
    In the last place he declares, that Jerusalem shall stand in 
its own place, where it was. There is here a sort of repetition; and 
it was made, because enemies thought, as we have already stated, 
that they could destroy Jerusalem so as wholly to obliterate it: but 
the Prophet on the other hand says, that it would be established in 
its own place, because God had chosen it as the place where he 
purposed to be worshipped, and he had chosen it, as it is often said 
by Moses, to commemorate his own name. In a word, he intimates, that 
the Church would be perpetually established: though all mortals 
conspired for its ruin and assailed it on every side, yet the 
sanctuary of God, as he had promised, would continue there still, 
even to the advent of Christ; for then, we know, Jerusalem was to be 
wholly destroyed, together with the temple, as an end was to come on 
all these things, and the world was to be renewed. 
    Grant, Almighty God, that inasmuch as the condition of all 
those who fight under the banner of the cross of Christ seems at 
this day hard and even miserable, - O grant, that relying on thy 
promises, by which thou encourages us, we may continually persevere, 
and not hesitate to remain in thy fold, though wolves lie in wait 
for us on every side, and robbers also and thieves furiously assail 
us, so that we may ever remain under the protection of thy hand, and 
never envy the children of this world on account of their pleasures, 
ease, and worldly advantages, but patiently bear to be agitated by 
constant fear, so that we may with quiet minds wait until thou 
showest to us, when we come to die, that our salvation is safe and 
secure in thy hand; and having thus at length passed through all 
troubles, we may come to that blessed rest, which thine 
only-begotten Son has procured for us by his own blood. - Amen. 

(Calvin... on Zechariah)

Continued in Part 28...

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