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The first oracle the prophet Zechariah receives is this:

2"The Lord was very angry with your fathers. 3Therefore say to them, Thus declares Yahweh of hosts: Return to me, says Yahweh of hosts, and I will return to you, says Yahweh of hosts. 4Do not be like your fathers, to whom the former prophets cried out, 'Thus says Yahweh of hosts, Return from your evil ways and from your evil deeds.' But they did not hear or pay attention to me, declares Yahweh. 5Your fathers, where are they? And the prophets, do they live forever? 6But my words and my statutes, which I commanded my servants the prophets, did they not overtake your fathers? So they repented and said, As Yahweh of hosts purposed to deal with us for our ways and deeds, so has he dealt with us."

I haven't found any version that ends the quote after "overtake your fathers?" As it is currently punctuated, it would seem that he is saying that there father repented. But if so, why so much emphasis on not being like their fathers? If his words overtook them, doesn't that mean that they were struck down under his judgment? Would it be reasonable to understand the repentance as the repentance of Zechariah's contemporaries—i.e. to take verse 6b as narrative rather than prophecy?

In the chapters that follow, Zechariah has a positive message for Yeshua and Zerubbabel. Moreover, his contemporary Haggai was received positively by these two men and those who listened to them:

Then Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, and Yehoshua son of Yehozadak, the high priest, and the whole remnant of God's people began to obey the message from Yahweh their God. When they heard the words of the prophet Haggai, whom Yahweh their God had sent, the people feared Yahweh. —Haggai 1:12

So is the repentance spoken of in Zechariah 1:6 the repentance of their fathers, or the repentance of the prophet's contemporaries?

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Zechariah 1:6 reads:

אַךְ דְּבָרַי וְחֻקַּי אֲשֶׁר צִוִּיתִי אֶת-עֲבָדַי הַנְּבִיאִים הֲלוֹא הִשִּׂיגוּ אֲבֹתֵיכֶם

But my words and my statutes, which I commanded my servants the prophets, did they not overtake your fathers?

So far the translation is without special problems. The language of "laws overtaking" someone is used in Deuteronomy 28:15. It means the unfortunate consequences of not following the laws.

וַיָּשׁוּבוּ וַיֹּאמְרוּ

This can be translated as either:

"And they replied saying..."

"And they repented and said..."

"They" could be either "your fathers", or the people who the prophet is addressing. The translation in the OP preserves this ambiguity faithfully.

The commentators differ on the what the correct reading is. The classical commentators read:

"And your fathers repented and said 'As the Lord of hosts said he would deal with us for our ways and deeds, so has he dealt with us'"

According to this reading, the rhetorical questions in verse 5 are answered in verse 6 - Your fathers and former prophets are dead, but through my current prophet I will bring you their witness: "As the Lord of hosts said he would deal..." [Cassutto]

The intent of the prophet is apparently to say to his interlocutors that our fathers repented only after the divine retribution overtook them, so why should you wait to repent? If the fathers had repented before the start of the retribution, then they would have been spared. The prophet is likely answering a theological doubt that arose among the returnees as to why the destruction occurred at a time when the king appeared to be a righteous king. The prophet's answer is that they waited too long, based on the concept of "overtaking" referenced in Deuteronomy above. That is, repentance loses its efficacy when it is delayed.

Another possible reading is:

"And [the people whom the prophet was addressing] repented and said...

This would indicate that the people did repent and admitted the justice of the destruction and the exile.

The problem with this reading is that if the prophet called for repentance and the people repented, why did the prophecy need to be recorded? This isn't a situation like the book of Jonah where the repentance itself presents a difficulty for the prophet.

Both of these reading hinge on reading "v'yashuvu" (and they repented) at the start of this verse as being a reply to the imperative "shuvu" (repent) at the start of verse 3 and the "v'ashuv" (I will return) at the start of the second clause of verse 3.

The alternative reading is to read "v'yashuvu" as simply "replied",

"And [the people whom the prophet was addressing] replied and said...

According to this reading, the intent of the clause is to indicate that the prophet's audience received his message with a fatalistic despondency albeit with acknowledgement of the divine justice.

Taiku - the Tishbi will give us the true reading.

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Zechariah was a prophet to those who had begun to return from their exile in Babylon, which was the ‘judgment that overtook their fathers’, to whom the former prophets cried out. Prophets like Isaiah, Micah and Jeremiah specifically cried out against them before the exile, but all other post exilic prophets did as well. These prophets prophesied that Israel would be taken into captivity for unrepentant sins and did not just spew empty words! Their fathers experienced those judgments in full! God’s word never fails; it either softens or hardens the heart, with unavoidable consequences. Naturally, as they fell into exile and as some were killed during the siege itself, many would have repented of their sins when it was unfortunately too late! Like a man finding out he has obtained HIV after years of cheating on several wives with hundreds of prostitutes, there was a dreadful repentance that would be better avoided beforehand through timely repentance. They would have admitted that what was happening to them was fully deserved and what horrible revelation and repentance that would be. The same repentance will take place by all mankind in the final judgment. With such a horrible example, and its ultimate effects, Zechariah appeals to them not to be like them. This is a typical stern warning of every prophet. On the other hand, their contemporaries recently responded well to Haggai, this good response was not from their fathers, but themselves. Possible as a reward for that they had an additional prophet sent to them.

This same sort of warning, appealing to the example of past generations, is common to the Bible. For example it is used in Hebrews Chapter 4. In a plea to the Hebrew church that was tempted to decide Jesus was not the Messiah. The writer appeals to a previous generation of the fathers who were unbelievers and complainers upon the founding of a different covenant. They left Egypt under ‘great displays of God’s power’ but their ‘carcasses fell’ in the desert under God’s judgment who ‘swore’ ‘they shall not enter’ the rest of Canaan. In the same way, the Hebrews at the time of Christ had received many ‘convincing proofs’ of Jesus being the Messiah and were by that conviction released from the spiritual Pharaoh of their minds, and were now being tested in a kind of wilderness. Only if that conviction turned into actual faith would they persevere and enter by ‘new birth’ into a spiritual rests that was only symbolized by Canaan. The argument is strong and was part of a prophetic warning in Psalms 95:10. Apparently, at both the creation of the seventh day, and upon entering into Canaan and by David at ‘a future day’ called ‘Today’, which the Hebrew writer applies to that day, ‘great Sabbath rests’ were established and covenants formed. So the writer uses the argument of the sin of a previous generation to warn the current. It proves a very effective warning for it forces one to struggle with the same warnings and potentially same result as close kinsmen who think just like them. Can a nation be warned more intimately?


In conclusion, it seems clear that the repentance of their fathers was that repentance one makes when external judgment closes in and is too late to avoid. The result of the longstanding national sins of ‘their fathers’, that resulted in their exile into Babylon, was now to be avoided as they were returning to start a new life under God.


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+1 Excellent answer. –  Kazark Jul 4 '12 at 16:36

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