I am drawn to statements which turn our perspective from the obvious to what we often regard as being counterintuitive. It intrigues me that someone has the gift to see below the surface of our conditions and experiences to recognize an opportunity we would otherwise miss as the result of being mesmerized by the reflection of a glistening facade. We bestow on such people a mystic quality denied the rest of us held captive by the ordinary vistas of plain sight. We even revere them or sometimes fear them based upon our own emotional strengths and weaknesses.
One such person was an Old Testament prophet by the name of Zechariah. He appeared among the Hebrew people at a time when they were attempting to rebuild their culture following their return from an forced exile imposed on them by the Babylonian King, Nebuchadnezzar. The duration of their captivity was approximately seventy years, a type of statute of limitations foretold by another prophet named Jeremiah. He also advised them to pursue an industrious life while in exile. His rationale was that while their labor would benefit their captors, they would also be benefitting themselves, acquiring skills and wealth in preparation for their ultimate return to the land of promise.
Upon their arrival they did start to construct the foundation for a new temple, the central component of their national identity. They also built an altar on which to resume their practice of animal sacrifices to symbolically bring cleansing to the people. But then a form of apathy set in and all progress stopped. They regressed into a form of self-aggrandizement, which produced a negative return. Their resources were dwindling and all the promises inherent in a sense of restoration became seemingly ethereal. This denouement in their return was the cue for Zechariah to take center stage and convince them otherwise.
Bible scholars debate the credibility of his message. But what else is new? All the books contained within the cover of the Bible, especially those which claim prophetic privilege, are critiqued for time, place, and authorship based on the internal evidence of the writer’s syntax and historic references. Regardless of the efficacy of these critiques, students committed to puzzling through Zechariah’s sequence of visions have identified eight key pieces in the peoples’ spiritual heritage, which he used as the means for inspiring them to resume their labors in constructing the temple and abiding by the rules of sacrifice to and worship of the Maker of heaven and earth.
What certain scholars claim to see in his eschatology is: 1) the people of Israel were God’s chosen for whom he cared deeply; 2) their foes had been completely destroyed; 3) God’s blessings would follow the completion of the temple; 4) Joshua, the high priest, was symbolic of the coming messiah; 5) the work would be done “not by might” but by the invigorating power of God’s spirit; 6) the land would be purified of all wickedness with the teaching of the law; 7) wickedness, itself, would be banished to the land of Israel’s former captors; and 8) the end result would be the kingdom’s perpetual security.
I must acknowledge that the preceding paragraph is simply a theological freebie. Such conclusions are beyond by capabilities to discern from my casual reading of the text and is offered here as a surrender to substance before getting to my own point for this message. By comparison to what Biblical scholars may offer, my own dalliance with a single phrase lifted from Zechariah’s writing might best be viewed in keeping with the proverbial phrase plucked from the pages of the New Testament in which the Apostle Paul admitted to looking through a glass darkly. I am not of the time or culture in which Zechariah made his prophetic statements. Yet echoing down through the long ages (another borrowed sentiment) Z’s words do have a pleasant, perhaps even pertinent, implication for our own particular time and place.
Zechariah said of these returnees from seventy years of captivity in Babylonia that they were prisoners of hope. Here, then, is that counter-intuitive insight of which I am enamored. The young prophet turned the political aspects of their enslavement into a moral and emotional one. Building on the foundation laid by his revered predecessor, Jeremiah, he was able to upend the peoples’ popular concept of their troubles by interpreting their captivity as a time of hope. During their years in exile they had anticipated their own return to the land of their origin due to Jeremiah’s promise of a time limit to their exile, which would also prove to be a time of spiritual and temporal growth. The people had lived with hope despite the restraints on their movements and what we term their civil liberties.
Given the malaise in which Zechariah found them, this was like a splash of cold water tossed in the face of their despair. His wakeup call to their true status may have damaged his credibility given the all too apparent harsh reality of the circumstances, which kept the people focused solely on their subsistence. So Zechariah urged them on to something greater than themselves by changing their perspective about those circumstances supported by a vision for Israel’s future. He was vindicated in his strategy when the people renewed their avowed purpose and finished the temple’s construction.
If we are to be captives, what better jailer could we have than the positive outlook that overrides every situation in the anticipation that something good will happen? This is not in spite of the circumstances, but because of them; good emerging in the midst of oppressive conditions because of what we make of them. Otherwise we let circumstances define us and yield to the chorus of woes, which reinforce the tendency to do little or nothing at all.
Prisoners are people, who are denied the liberty of movement by a force more powerful than themselves. Hope is an attitude, which seeks the perfect expression of liberty. To be a prisoner of hope, therefore, is to be controlled by an overwhelming force, which empowers us without deviation to pursue the goals which give life meaning. Let us choose in this day and age to heed Zechariah’s words and be prisoners of hope rather than prisoners of an all-consuming hopelessness.