The Flying Scroll and the Ephah of Wickedness (Zechariah 5) July 22-23
Chapter 5 presents us with what are commonly reckoned as Zechariah's sixth and seventh visions of the night. However, it seems more likely that they constitute one vision in two parts. In his book on Zechariah's visions, Dr. Meredith Kline introduces the chapter this way: "According to the pattern of the introductory formulae (cf. 1:7-8; 1:18...2:1...3:1; 4:1-2; 5:1; 6:1) there are seven visions in Zech. 1:7-6:8, not eight [as often reckoned], for Zechariah 5 is not to be divided into two visions but regarded as a unit, the sixth vision. The introductions to the two triads of visions bracketing the central hinge vision (Zechariah 3) all include the phrase, 'I saw and behold,' but that is absent from Zech. 5:5, where many commentators would begin a separate vision. The phrase we find instead at v. 5 is like one which marks the middle, not beginning, of a vision at Zech 2:3.
"The unity of the two parts of Zechariah 5 is also indicated by certain interdependencies of grammar and terminology. Thus, the suffix in 'their appearance' (v. 6) has as its antecedent the thieves and perjurers of v. 3. And the phrase 'in all the land' (v. 6) resumes 'all the land' in v. 3. [The NKJV has 'the whole earth' in both places.] Most compelling, however, are the clear thematic interrelationships of the two parts of the chapter and the remarkable intermeshing of their symbolism. The sixth vision portrays the judgment curse of exile, distinguishing its two distinct stages: destruction of the victims' holdings in their homeland (vv. 1-4) and deportation with relocation in a foreign land (vv. 5-11)" (Glory in Our Midst: A Biblical-Theological Reading of Zechariah's Night Visions, p. 177).
A major theme through Zechariah's visions is spiritual renewal. That includes restoring the repentant as well as disciplining those who are yet unrepentant—both elements of which were signified by the plumb line of the previous chapter (see 4:10). Now, in chapter 5, we see the disciplinary action actually taken.
The chapter opens with a flying scroll bearing a curse. The imagery of flying here is variously interpreted. Some say it represents the swiftness of coming punishment (see Feinberg, The Minor Prophets, p. 293). Others suggest that the flying shows the impossibility of escaping the judgment the scroll brings (Bible Reader's Companion, chaps. 5-6 summary). Still others maintain that the flying simply shows the scroll as unrolled—unfurled—for all to read (Expositor's Bible Commentary, note on 5:1-2). While it could signify all of these things, there is probably a more specific meaning, as we will see. Note that the scroll pursues violators of God's law (verse 4).
The size of the scroll is 10 by 20 cubits (verse 2). Using the smallest cubit of 18 inches, that would be 15 by 30 feet—yet it could be a little larger if a larger cubit is intended. In any case, this would be like a large billboard, and some maintain that this is the point—that it was very large for all to see. However others point out, as Feinberg does, "that the holy place in the tabernacle of Moses [based on the measurements in Exodus] and the porch of Solomon's Temple (where the Law was usually read) were of the same dimensions (1 Ki 6:3). The vision would teach us that the holiness of the sanctuary of the Lord is the measure of sin and that judgment must begin at the house of God. (See 1 Pe 4:17-18)" (p. 293). Notice also the possible parallel with Ezekiel 9:5-6, where Israel's punishment was to begin at God's sanctuary. The curse in Zechariah 5:3 then goes out over "all the land." "The whole earth" could also be correct if this is denoting the Israelites of the end time scattered all around the globe—as the people of Israel and Judah do seem to be the recipients of punishment in this prophecy.
Kline states: "By identifying the scroll Zechariah saw as a 'curse' (Zech 5:3), the angel tells us it is a covenant document, the Lord's treaty given through Moses.... A standard section of [ancient Lord-vassal] treaties was the sanctions, which...included blessings but were heavily weighted on the curse side [for disloyalty] (see Deut 8:1-68; 29:16-28; cf. 27:11-26; Lev 26:3-39). It is the execution of this curse sanction of...[God's covenant relationship with Israel] that is portrayed in Zechariah 5. The expression in Zech 5:3, 'on this side...on the other side' [referring to writing on both sides of the scroll], is possibly a specific allusion to the covenant tablets of Sinai [that is, the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments], since it is used in Exod 32:15 to describe those stone tablets as inscribed on both sides. But the idea might also be [to signify] that the curse strikes here and there, that is, everywhere throughout 'the whole land' (cf. Deut 28:16-19)" (p. 178).
If the reference is meant to parallel the writing on the Ten Commandments, it is interesting to consider the two sins that are mentioned in verses 3-4—stealing and swearing falsely by God's name. The first is a violation of the Eighth Commandment, which would probably have appeared on the back of the commandments tablets. As for the second sin, while some see it as simply bearing false witness (breaking the Ninth Commandment), the more serious aspect of perjury here is breaking an oath made in God's name and thus taking God's name in vain—thereby violating the Third Commandment, which would have appeared on the front of the commandments tablets. The first four commandments summarize man's duty toward God and the last six summarize man's duty toward fellow man. Some see the violations of the Third and Eighth Commandments as representing the violations of both aspects of the law in general, though more specific violations could be intended.
Notice that the penalty for the covenant breakers is expulsion (verse 3) along with destruction of dwelling places (verse 4). While expulsion could signify death, it seems to tie in with the later part of Zechariah 5, where wickedness is bound away and carried off to another land (verses 5-11).
Consider that Zechariah sees something "going forth" from the land (verses 5-6). It is said in the New King James Version to be a "basket," yet the actual Hebrew, as it is rendered in the King James Version, is ephah, the largest ancient Hebrew unit of dry measure, about a half a bushel. Of course, there evidently is some kind of basket, barrel or other container since it has a heavy lid on it (see verses 7-8). Inside the basket sits a woman referred to as "Wickedness"—a personification of the sin and spiritual harlotry of the people and likely a representation of the wicked people themselves. They have been gathered up, as it were, in full measure—that is, all of them—and then forced down and confined. We then see the imagery of winged women coming to carry them away to Shinar—that is, to the land of Babylon (verses 9-11).
Kline explains the vision this way, tying both parts together: "When calling upon Israel to swear their covenant loyalty Moses forewarned: 'It shall come to pass, if you do not obey Yahweh your God,...that all these curses will come upon you...They [the curses] will pursue you and overtake you until you are destroyed' (Deut 28:15, 45)" (p. 178). This seems the most likely meaning of the flying scroll. Kline continues: "Ultimate among the threatened curses would be the siege and destruction of their dwellings in the holy land and banishment to an alien land. 'Yahweh will bring a nation against you from afar...swooping down like an eagle' (Deut 28:49). 'They will besiege you in all your cities until your high and fortified walls come down throughout all your land' (Deut 28:52). 'You will be plucked off the land...and Yahweh will scatter you among all peoples' (Deut 28:63-4). By Zechariah's day such an exile judgment had befallen Israel and Judah alike [Israel at the hands of the Assyrians and Judah at the hands of the Babylonians], and now those recently restored from that Babylonian captivity are warned by Zechariah that again in the future such a curse would descend on the covenant community. The houses of the covenant breakers in the promised land would be consumed (Zech 5:1-4) and they would themselves be removed to the land of Shinar (Zech 5:5-11)" (p. 178). Notice that the "house" in the homeland is destroyed (verse 4) and a new "house" awaits them in the land of Babylon (verse 11).
The Jews of Judea experienced such devastation and deportation nearly six centuries later at the hands of the Roman Empire, a successor to the Babylonian Empire and essentially a continuation of the Babylonian system. In anticipation of this disaster, Jesus had even warned them: "See! Your house is left to you desolate" (Matthew 23:38)—paralleling Zechariah 5:4. Yet this was only a forerunner of destruction that will befall both Israel and Judah in the last days at the hands of a revived Roman Empire designated in Scripture as end-time Babylon.
The two winged women represent the forces carrying the Israelites away (see verse 9). They are pictured with wings like those of a stork. "The stork is a migratory bird frequently seen traveling north along the Jordan valley in the spring of the year" (Nelson Study Bible, note on verse 9). "Those acquainted with the habits of this bird inform us that in its annual migration, the stork actually traverses a longer distance than that from Judea to Shinar" (Feinberg, p. 296). "Specification of the wings as those of a stork might be due simply to the suitability of the strong wings of the stork for this assignment, but...the stork's unclean status must be relevant (cf. Lev 11:19; Deut. 14:18). Unclean agents are used by the Judge of Israel to remove the defilement from his holy land to unclean Babylon, habitation of demons and a hold of every unclean spirit and unclean bird (Rev 18:2)" (Kline, p. 186).
While it seems that the two winged women carry the ephah together, it could be that one takes it and then the other—perhaps signifying the Roman deportation of the Jews in apostolic times and then the end-time Babylonian captivity. If the women are carrying the basket together, they could represent Israel and Judah's ancient captors, Assyria and Babylon, combined in the end-time in the same power bloc. Alternatively, they could represent the two aspects of end-time Babylon, as both a religious power (Revelation 17) and a commercial empire (Revelation 18).
God's main point in Zechariah 5 seems to be that wickedness has no place in His covenant community. Rather, it will be purged and sent to where it belongs, to Babylon—the focal point of all opposition to God—which, as the next chapter shows, will meet with His judgment. Yet as we will also see, hope remains for future repentance.