Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Beha-alotkha (Numbers 8:1-12:16) and the haftarah is Zechariah 2:14-4:7.
“Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit, saith the LORD of hosts.” (Zechariah 4:6—King James translation)
This line from the haftarah in the book of Zechariah is famous in both Jewish and Christian circles. But what does it actually mean?
Zechariah was probably born in Babylon. The upper classes of the kingdom of Judah, including Zechariah’s grandfather Iddo, were deported to Babylon after King Nebuchadnezzar’s army razed Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E.
Only 46 years later, the Persian king Cyrus marched into Babylon and quickly seized the whole Neo-Babylonian Empire. Cyrus declared an empire-wide policy of religious tolerance, and authorized the exiles from Judah to return to Jerusalem and build another temple to their own god.
According to the book of Ezra, the first large group of Judahites to return to Jerusalem was led by Zerubavel, a grandson of Judah’s next-to-last king, Yehoyakhin. This group included Zechariah, grandson of the priest Iddo.
The famous line in the book of Zechariah is preceded by a vision:
And the angel who was speaking to me returned, and it roused me as a man is roused from sleep. And it said to me: What do you see? And I said: I see—hey!—a lampstand of gold, and a bowl above its head. And seven lamps are on it, seven, and seven pipes to the lamps …And two olive trees are over it, one on the right of the bowl and one on its left. (Zechariah 4:1-3)
A gold lampstand with seven lamps is the menorah described in the book of Exodus, mentioned at the start of this week’s Torah portion, and reproduced for Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. The rest of Zechariah’s vision is more mysterious, so he asks the angel: What are these? (Zechariah 4:4)
Instead of explaining the vision, the angel replies:
This is the word of God to Zerubavel, saying: Not by chayil and not by koach, but rather by My ruach, said the God of Tzevaot. (Zechariah 4:6)
chayil (חַיִל) = troop, small army, or military escort; courage in the face of a military threat; wealth; ability. (King James translation: “might”.)
This word refers to a military force about 100 times out of about 230 times it appears in the Hebrew Bible.
koach (כֹּחַ) = power, physical strength, energy, physical force. (King James translation: “power”.)
When the subject is God, koach = power to transform. When the subject is human, koach = physical strength or energy.
ruach (רוּחַ) = wind; life-breath; prophetic inspiration; insight; mood. (King James translation: “spirit”.)
Winds, life-breath, human prophetic inspiration, and exceptional human insight are all caused by God in the Hebrew Bible. Human moods can either arise naturally or be sent by God.
tzevaot (צְבָאוֹת) = large armies: hosts of stars or angels (metaphorically, as God’s heavenly army). (King James translation: “hosts”.)
What does God’s message to Zerubavel, the leader of the Judahites returning from Babylon, have to do with Zechariah’s vision of the menorah and the two olive trees?
The ex-exiles laid the foundations for the Second Temple during their second year in Jerusalem. Then some of their neighbors who had stayed in the area during the Babylonian exile came to Zerubavel and said:
Let us build with you, since like you we worship your God, and we have slaughtered animals for Him since the days of Eisar-Haddon, King of Assyria, who brought us here. (Ezra 4:2)
Zerubavel rejected them, and the local people retaliated by threatening the newcomers, bribing Persian ministers to oppose the building project, and sending a damning letter to the next king after Cyrus. Their plan worked, according to the book of Ezra; construction of the temple was halted for 17 years.
In 522 B.C.E. Darius I took the throne of the Persian Empire. King Darius simplified the administration of the empire by dividing it into provinces and appointing a native of high rank to rule each district. By 520 B.C.E. he had appointed Zerubavel as governor of Yehud Medinata, a province including the core of the old kingdom of Judah.
And in 520 B.C.E. Zechariah began prophesying.
After the angel gives Zechariah the message for Zerubavel, it explains:
The hands of Zerubavel laid the foundation of this house, and his hands shall bring it to an end. Then you shall know that God of Tzevaot sent me to you. (Zechariah 4:9)
Then Zechariah asks the angel to interpret the two olive trees in his vision, the ones with pipes pouring olive oil above the menorah.
And it said: These are the two sons of the olive oil, the ones who stand with the lord of all the earth. (Zechariah 4:14)
“Son of the olive oil” is an idiom in Biblical Hebrew for “anointed”. Traditionally, a new king or high priest was consecrated by being anointed with olive oil. In Zechariah’s vision, Governor Zerubavel and High Priest Yehoshua are the two consecrated leaders who serve God, the lord of all the earth.
Zechariah does not ask the angel for further clarification about that particular vision, but we can infer that it foretells a time when Zerubavel and Yehoshua relight the old religion by ensuring there is a new menorah in a new temple.
This message from God (as well as a prophesy by Zechariah’s fellow prophet Haggai, according to the book of Ezra) apparently encouraged Governor Zerubavel to resume construction of the temple.
This time the local population did not protest; neither troops (chayil) nor physical force (koach) were necessary.
The Second Temple was completed in only four years and dedicated in 516 B.C.E.—perhaps because God filled the master craftsmen with ruach, the same exceptional insight God granted Betzaleil, the master craftsman of the first sanctuary, in the book of Exodus.
As a message to Zerubavel, the line from this week’s haftarah is best translated as:
(You shall build the temple) not by troops (chayil) and not by physical force (koach), but rather by My divine insight (ruach), said the God of Armies (Tzevaot). (Zechariah 4:6)
Can we rescue the famous line and apply it today?
The “temple” we need now is not a building where priests sacrifice animals; it is a world-wide devotion to peaceful cooperation in order to save human lives and our planet. Like Governor Zerubavel, we all need to shun the use of troops or any other kind of physical force—between nations and between individuals. And when our neighbors come and say “Let us build with you,” we need to work out safe ways for everyone to contribute.
So may we all be filled with the chayil of ability, the koach of energy, and the ruach of inspiration to light our own menorah for a new way of life on earth.