Divine Pardon: Joshua the High Priest (3:1-10)
Visions four and five (4:1-14) are the central focus of the eight night visions. The spotlight falls on two prominent individuals: Joshua, the High Priest, and Zerubbabel, the Prince. Both represent the nation and foreshadow a greater Priest-King who will remove iniquity in Israel (3:9) and reign over all the earth.
The previous vision (2:1-13) has revealed God’s gracious purpose to restore both His people and the city of Jerusalem. This vision explains that such a purpose will be fulfilled in consistency with divine righteousness. If Israel would enjoy the blessing of God’s presence, they must be cleansed from the filth of their sin – represented in the person of Joshua, their High Priest. The vision also implies the restoration of the nation as a kingdom of priests (cf. Exo 19:5-6). In the past, Israel had failed as a channel to proclaim the name and word of Jehovah to the nations. Yet, she shall be restored as a priestly nation in the millennial reign of Christ, serving under a new covenant (Isa 61:6). Today, every believer is designated as a holy and royal priest. How well do we witness to the glories of Christ?
The Choice of Jerusalem (vv1-2)
This vision depicts Joshua attempting to minister before the Lord in his priestly function, likely on the Day of Atonement. The scene appears to be judicial; a courtroom with Joshua, the defendant, standing before God, the Judge. Satan acts as counsel for the prosecution and the Angel of the Lord as counsel for the defence. As High Priest, and representative of the nation, it was Joshua’s responsibility to make atonement for the people. The acceptability of the people therefore depended on the acceptability of the high priest. But Joshua is dressed in filthy garments! Thus Satan (the adversary) stands in the place of accusation. Although silent, he is clearly ready to make the case that Joshua and the people he represents are in a guilty, sinful state and must be condemned and disqualified from functioning as a nation of priests.
This is a critical scene. Either Joshua (and therefore Israel) is convicted, judged and permanently set aside, or he is forgiven and restored. Before Satan can open his mouth, he is rebuked by the Angel of the Lord. Satan did not account for divine love and grace! God will therefore not hear the accusation but vindicates His people on the basis that they have been chosen (cf. Deu 7:6-9). The matter did not depend on Israel’s faithfulness, or they would have been cast off long ago. He might have left them to be consumed in the fire of Babylonian captivity, but the restored remnant is like a piece of wood, hastily and eagerly snatched from the fire.
The Cleansing of Joshua (vv3-5)
The word “filthy” fitly describes the condition of the nation. The word is the strongest expression in the Hebrew language for filth of the most vile and loathsome character (two associated nouns refer to “vomit” and “human excrement”). It is not just sinful acts in view, but the underlying condition and state of sin in which the nation resides (“iniquity” is singular, v4). The whole picture represents the full gamut of Israel’s apostasy and infidelity. But God’s grace was greater than Israel’s guilt. The Angel commands the attending angelic servants to “take away” the filthy garments, literally, “from upon him,” as if they were a pressing burden. The iniquity of the nation is entirely removed through the agency of the Angel. This would have been a great encouragement to the remnant in Zechariah’s day that despite the sin of a past generation and the defilement of Babylonian captivity, they were fit to serve God in a rebuilt temple.
Ultimately, the vision looks ahead to the salvation and cleansing of the entire nation, the fulfilment of the Day of Atonement (cf. Isa 4:3-4; 61:10; Eze 36:16-32). Not only is Joshua judicially cleansed but also clothed in rich garments of state, symbolic of righteousness. The “fair [pure] mitre” probably refers to the turban of the high priest which was emblazoned with “holiness to the LORD” and signified the dignity of his office and qualification to make atonement for the people. All this implies Israel’s future glory and reinstatement to the priestly office at the direction of the Angel of the Lord. We might summarise these beautiful verses with the words of Whitlock Gandy, “I hear the accuser roar, Of ills that I have done; I know them well, and thousands more; Jehovah findeth none.”
The Charge of the Angel (vv6-7)
The vision closes with a solemn declaration of the Angel. In summary, Israel was to live and serve in a way which befitted their dignified position before God. By application, believers today are clothed in the righteousness of God, and therefore fit to serve Him as priests. But we must show ourselves worthy of the calling; otherwise God cannot entrust us with the service of His sanctuary. The forgiven saint must prove to be the faithful saint.
There were two conditions of service. First, they were to walk in God’s ways by obeying His word. Second, they were to faithfully fulfil official priestly duties. Then there was a threefold reciprocal blessing for such service, involving responsibility in administering the affairs of the temple, maintaining the proper testimony of the house of God, and free, uninhibited access to the presence of God. As the priesthood today, believers enjoy all these blessings and more (cf. Heb 10:19-22), but are we faithful to our duties as holy priests (entering in to the sanctuary to worship) and royal priests (going out to the world in service)?
The Character of Messiah (vv8-10)
Space does not allow the development of these verses. Joshua and his “fellows” (the priesthood) were to be observed as prophetic signs, or types of future events. Their very persons anticipated Israel delivered, forgiven and restored as a nation of priests. All this would be effected by One who is a Servant (v8), Shoot (Branch, v8) and Stone (v9).
The Servant recalls the songs of Isaiah concerning One who came to do His Father’s will. Having made full atonement for sin (Isa 53), He will destroy His enemies (ch50), restore the nation of Israel (ch49), and set justice in the earth (ch42).
The Branch refers to a tender shoot springing from the root (lineage) of David, to become the future Messianic ruler (cf. Isa 4:2; Jer 23:5; 33:15).
The Stone laid in the presence of Joshua could be a reference to the foundation stone of the second temple. Even so, it clearly points forward to Christ as the firm foundation of the nation’s blessing (cf. Isa 8:13-15; 28:16; Psa 118:22-23). All that is built upon Him shall stand unshaken!