Alfred Place Baptist Church

5:1-11 The Flying Scroll and The Measuring Basket

I looked again – and there before me was a flying scroll. He asked me, ‘What do you see?’ I answered, ‘I see a flying scroll, thirty feet long and fifteen feet wide.’ And he said to me, ‘This is the curse that is going out over the whole land; for according to what it says on one side, every thief will be banished, and according to what it says on the other, everyone who swears falsely will be banished. The LORD Almighty declares, “I will send it out, and it will enter the house of the thief and the house of him who swears falsely by my name. It will remain in his house and destroy it, both its timbers and its stones.”’ Then the angel who was speaking to me came forward and said to me, ‘Look up and see what this is that is appearing.’ I asked, ‘What is it?’ He replied, ‘It is a measuring basket.’ And he added, ‘This is the iniquity of the people throughout the land.’

Then the cover of lead was raised, and there in the basket sat a woman! He said, ‘This is wickedness,’ and he pushed her back into the basket and pushed the lead cover down over its mouth. Then I looked up – and there before me were two women, with the wind in their wings! They had wings like those of a stork, and they lifted up the basket between heaven and earth. ‘Where are they taking the basket?’ I asked the angel who was speaking to me. He replied, ‘To the country of Babylonia to build a house for it. When it is ready, the basket will be set there in its place.
Zechariah 5:1-11

One could say that it is much easier for 21st century man to see and grasp the meaning of these prophecies of Zechariah than it is for them to understand the letter to Romans. We live in a visual culture. The children play with electronic games and they watch cartoon movies. The pictures painted by this prophet are recognised quickly. We are told that one day Zechariah saw a gigantic flying scroll. You can imagine that quite easily; think of an object the size and shape of a rolled up carpet, fifteen feet wide and thirty feet long, but it also has great powerful wings, and it comes zooming down on the land. You see the emphasis on the land, in other words, the land of promise, the land God had covenanted to give to Abraham’s seed, the land that would flow with milk and honey if the people loved and obeyed God. You see it mentioned in verse three that the scroll was moving like a helicopter speedily over the whole land, and in verse six that it was moving throughout the land, that is the holy land, the covenant land!

So this flying scroll was moving everywhere casting its cursed shadow on one community after another, and upon one little white house after another. There is nowhere in the entire land where the scroll is unseen. Imagine it here in this room today, suddenly appearing, like a space monster dragon-fly five metres long with the wings of an eagle. It flies in through the door and starts to dive bomb us in the congregation. The children are howling with fear. We would be ducking below the pews looking for a place of safety, some near the exits could run out of the chapel to escape the flying scroll. But if you go home the scroll will meet you there. It was inescapable. What is this all about?

1. THE NATURE OF THIS SCROLL.

It is a “curse” (v.3). In other words this scroll is a covenant document on which are written down all the words of divine judgment on covenant breakers. Cursed are all the people who don’t obey the terms of the covenant, God had said. You read the great covenant document, the book of Deuteronomy and you see in particular in chapters 27 and 28 and 29 the sanctions God stipulated, condemning his people if they disregarded what he required when he brought them into covenant with himself. Jehovah had blessed them; he provided for them; he protected them; he saved them; he redeemed them. He promised that he would do great things for them, and they were to respond by keeping his commandments and doing his will, loving him with all their hearts and loving their neighbours. If they defied and rejected God then his judgment, his curse, would finally come down upon them. He would give power to their enemies. He would let them be captured and see them taken off into Babylonian exile, uninvolved in their fate, not saving them from slavery. This had happened, more than once in their history. The judgment that came upon these people of the land of promise was not through mere caprice, or the mere sovereignty of God. It was all to do with their rejection of his word; it was all because of their sin. Sin is always cursed because God is holy.

Moses wrote the book of Deuteronomy under the inspiration of God. But the people were getting bored with the religion of the Book. Nine hundred years had gone by since Deuteronomy was written; it was old, they judged, and out of date. It was a scroll gathering dust in the library adjacent to the Temple. Who paid any attention to what that old unread scroll said? They were thinking like that, but now the scroll shows that it is very much alive and powerful. Here it comes, and it’s in our midst. It’s flying all around us, this massive scroll with the sound of the beating of its mighty wings. It’s zooming down on us and you can feel the wind moving – you feel it particularly as the word of God is preached. It is a heat-seeking missile. Are you alive? Then be sure your sin will find you out. Now, suddenly, Deuteronomy’s curses on covenant defiance were fearfully relevant and up to date. “The curses of our covenant defiance have come upon us! That is why we were sent into exile in Babylon. That’s why our king was killed. That’s why God demolished the protecting wall that used to be around us.”

Hear Deuteronomy 28 and verses 15 through 20: “If you do not obey the LORD your God and do not carefully follow all his commands and decrees I am giving you today, all these curses will come upon you and overtake you: You will be cursed in the city and cursed in the country. Your basket and your kneading trough will be cursed. The fruit of your womb will be cursed, and the crops of your land, and the calves of your herds and the lambs of your flocks. You will be cursed when you come in and cursed when you go out. The LORD will send on you curses, confusion and rebuke in everything you put your hand to, until you are destroyed and come to sudden ruin because of the evil you have done in forsaking him.” You see that curse from the word of God coming on them here. Or again later in that same chapter, Deuteronomy 28 and verse 49; “The LORD will bring a nation against you from far away, from the ends of the earth, like an eagle swooping down.” That is exactly what happened when the people rejected the teaching of the scroll of God and lived life their way, the word of God came to them, not in gospel promise but in judgment, cursing them for their explicit wickedness. The houses of covenant breakers would be consumed.

Think of it! One day God gave orders to all the angels in heaven concerning their duties for the day, and then he turned to his word and he said to his God-breathed book, “Go forth! Declare my condemnations to the people I have loved, whom I have chosen. I have watched over them with measureless patience, but now they have filled their iniquities to the brim. The people have rejected me and my word. Word rise! Go to them! Visit them in warning!” So Zechariah and the people get a fresh look at the scroll inspired by God, not as a historic document, and not as a distant speck on the horizon, but above them and before them and coming to them and humbling them. The word of God comes upon them as something threatening, as an enemy helicopter gunship suddenly thundering above you, armed and fearfully dangerous, and you have nowhere to hide.

2. THE DIMENSIONS OF THIS SCROLL.

The N.I.V. has helped us by giving the dimensions in feet. They were in fact twenty cubits by ten cubits, and the first thing we have to say about that is that those were the exact dimensions of the forecourt of the Holy Temple of God. That is the link; that is the origin of this flying scroll. This was the source of its mission. It originated in the house of God. The people were neglecting God. They were not going to the Temple with their sacrifices in repentance, and so Jehovah came from his throne room in the Temple to them. But secondly, these dimensions reflected the Holy of Holies, the area spanned by the cherubim who were ten cubits high, and each wing was five cubits stretching out to the walls of the Holy of Holies. This scroll came from the very throne room of God and these wings, with which the Word of God was flying above them and to them, were the wings of the holy cherubim, the angels who flew at God’s bidding, his attendants and his guardians – armed with the flaming sword. They had kept the way to the tree of life in Eden, ensuring that our first parents would not return. They were no longer in the Holy of Holies to be seen once a year by the High Priest on the Day of Atonement. They were dynamic; they had had come out bearing the word of the Lord to the people, not to save them but to express God’s judgment on these covenant breakers.

3. THE PARTICULAR SINS THAT THE SCROLL CONDEMNS.

The scroll wasn’t blank, in fact it was covered in writing on both sides. God fully and exhaustively had spelled out how his covenant people were to live. It was no mystery. He didn’t leave any space for us to decide what we would write defining what was right and wrong. It was not that everyone had to make up their own minds how they should live, and that some people were constitutionally more religious and more moral than others, but everyone had to decide and no one was to judge any other. It was not like that at all. God’s laws are amongst the most lucid of all the Scroll of God. The Ten Commandments are most clear in what they commend and forbid. The law of God has three functions:

i] The law of God functions as a safeguard. It protects a man against himself.

ii] The law of God functions as a mirror. By it a man recognizes his own miserable state.

iii] The law of God functions as a standard or norm by which a man knows how he is to live.

Now there are some sins that are more common than others to different people, and to different cultures. I am sure that you would judge that sins of the flesh are all too prevalent in our day. That was not the case at the time of the Babylonian exile and during the life of Zechariah. Two sins were rife that would particularly banish the people to exile. You see them referred to in verses 3 and 4: “This is the curse that is going out over the whole land; for according to what it says on one side, every thief will be banished, and according to what it says on the other, everyone who swears falsely will be banished. The LORD Almighty declares, ‘I will send it out, and it will enter the house of the thief and the house of him who swears falsely by my name. It will remain in his house and destroy it, both its timbers and its stones”. So these two sins were particularly prevalent amongst rich and poor, amongst the governing classes and the governed, men and women, young and old were all alike thieves and liars. Is there any difference in our day? Are not these the most common sins of our own community? What is the first sin?

i] Every thief will be banished from the blessing and presence of God. Let us start at the most mundane and common level. Theft is so common in Aberystwyth that for most of us we don’t even bother reporting it to the police – when garden tools and objects from our cars are stolen. If something is put down for a moment then it can be picked up (‘nicked’) and slipped into a bag or a pocket – phones and purses and money and collection boxes and credit cards and pens. All of us can grieve today because of the wickedness of thieves. Precious things have been stolen from us, objects that belonged to our mothers and grandmothers. Shop-keepers suffer with shop-lifting. The government suffers through tax evasion. Men ask a tradesman to do a job but then they have excuses for not paying those workmen. People live in apartments, and so have to sign agreements to pay for the maintenance of their flats – as do all the tenants – but some never pay a penny. But let’s go a little deeper. What is your most valuable possession? A husband would say, “My wife” and a wife would say, “My husband,” and children would say, “Daddy and Mummy.” What would you think of a person in the office who sought to steal your spouse or your parent? Wouldn’t that be a terrible theft? Or again, what would you think of kidnapping? Stealing a child. We have all thought of a little girl living not far from Aberystwyth, stolen from her parents. We think of girls stolen to become slaves. We think of people who phone you and offer you a great deal in stocks and shares and it is all lies. Your money is taken. We think of carers who betray trust and steal from old people all their savings. We think of hundreds of members of parliament who filled in expense accounts. They bought luxuries and claimed falsely for rent and possessions, charging the tax-payer for their own purchases. God knows all this.

The flying scroll hangs over your life and it declares the eighth commandment, “You shall not steal.” God cares about physical things, what people have worked and earned money and saved money to purchase. God endorses our right for private property that does not belong to anyone else – not to Caesar – but to the person who worked for it. It is his. You shall not steal. There is no excuse. If you are ever converted and pardoned by the grace of God for your past life then you have to consider returning whatever you have stolen. Paul speaks to converted thieves in Ephesians chapter 4 and verse 28; “He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need.”  In Israel at the time of Zechariah and at our time theft was only too common. God knew everything and God was weary of incessant stealing and he sent his word over the land to warn men and women that there was no way that the thief could enter the kingdom of heaven. The thief was doomed to exile and banishment. The scroll will enter the house of the thief and it will remain in his house and destroy it, both its timbers and its stones (v.4). I am preaching God’s law to you. I am not preaching about it. I am laying it on your consciences so that you will feel your guilt and seek forgiveness in a Saviour who is Christ the Lord. He came not to call the righteous but sinners. If you do not see your sin then you will not see your need of a Saviour.

ii] Everyone who swears falsely by God’s name will be banished from God’s presence.

Christians are particularly bothered – and rightly so – by the careless and needless use of the name of God or Jesus Christ. People use it say, “O horror!” or “I am really amazed” or “Isn’t that stupid?” or “Wow!” Or they use it in their jokes to make something pathetic seem amusing. They can spit it out in anger or spite; they can draw out the name of God so that it sounds like “Gawd!” let me tell you this this, that God’s presence is in his name. All that God has done in creation and in salvation reveals his great and glorious name. God created you. God keeps you alive. God blesses you each day. God will judge you. God can save you. Then God will take you to heaven – the true God, the living God, the real God, the only God there is, whose name you use to lace your speech.

In Zechariah’s day the people knew all this about Jehovah, and in their law courts and trials they would take the name of the Lord to swear a holy oath that the evidence they gave was the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth in the name of God. But often the people who spoke those words were lying. They wanted land and money and an inheritance and vengeance on their neighbours and they would use the name of the true God simply to get more stuff. They would bear false witness and lie and attempt to give their deceit a measure of credibility by calling on the name of the Lord. It was done everywhere in the land from Dan to Beersheba from Ahab and Jezebel stealing the vineyard of Naboth and bribing men to testify in the name of the Lord that they had heard him blaspheme, right through to little family disputes about a will. Deceit was widespread. Everyone in the land was telling lies. They were swearing falsely by God’s name. I say I am preaching God’s law to you that you may know your guilt and go to God to plead for pardon.

God know what we have done and he has sent the scroll with these words written on it, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord in vain . . . Thou shalt not bear false witness.” You could not hide from the flying scroll. If you went into the house and bolted the door and closed all the windows, it didn’t prevent the scroll coming into your living room and into your bedroom at 3 in the morning, hovering over the place where you were trying to sleep and convicting you of the sin of blasphemy and deceit. You couldn’t avoid the word of God, and your conscience would tell you what it said was true about you. Each time you closed the door and listened to music and played with your children and refused to deal with what you had done wrong then you were kicking against the goads that said to you day and night, “You’ve done wrong . . . God knows . . . you must answer to him.” King Jehoiakim took the scroll of God when it had been read to him and he held a knife in his hand and he cut off pieces of the scroll and threw them into the firepot to be consumed, but now the unconsumed scroll lives on, and it comes to every sinner, into their homes and it consumes them! It comes like the fire from heaven on Mount Carmel fell upon the sacrifice, consuming it and the altar too and the water in the trench around the altar. And who may abide the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appeareth? For he is like a refiner’s fire.

So you see that those were the two sins in particular that were very common in the land, blasphemous perjury and theft. You will see that the first sin is a sin against the first and great commandment to love God with all your heart, and the second is sin against the other great commandment to love your neighbour. You dishonour God’s name and by stealing from your neighbour you fail to love your neighbour as yourself. There’s a robbery, and then in your defence you falsely swear an oath in the name of Jehovah that that object was all along yours and not your neighbours. The land was full of haters of God and haters of man, a godless and lawless nation, breakers of the covenant and apostates. That is our land today; a land under judgment.

But also notice that both these sins had to do with the market-place, where the people gathered each day, where they brought their crops and produce and the animals they had reared, and where they bargained and bartered, both buying and selling, and where the poor people and the widows and orphans stood around waiting for acts of kindness to be shown to them, but where much harm was done by false measures, and lies under oath, and greed, and theft. The people were repudiating Jehovah the king of glory, and were worshiping the god of mammon. This holy community of God’s chosen people had become indistinguishable from any market day in Babylon, or Moab, or Syria, or Egypt. Where was the integrity and compassion and truthfulness that makes any society a happy place, and also a safe place for the weak and vulnerable? The flying scroll was needed to come and point out to the people how grieved God was with his land and his covenant people. It is a culture that is on its way to destruction, and it will be a comprehensive destruction of banishment into exile and the destruction of houses, timbers and stones. Nothing is saved. It’s all gone. Jesus said, “Your house is left to you desolate,” (Matt. 23:38).

4. THE APPEARANCE OF A MEASURING BASKET.

Now another great object appears in the sky alongside the flying scroll, and it seems to be a basket. Well, we are all familiar with hot air balloons and large baskets hanging from them. Here, by its shape Zechariah could tell that it was a special kind of measuring basket, not one that a person shopping would take to the market, but one that market traders used that gave an accurate amount of cereals such as wheat or produce like olives and grapes. There were various measuring baskets. There would be the homer, the cor, the half-homer, the ephah, the omer and the measure. What Zechariah saw was a magnified measure – just like the flying scroll had been magnified ten fold, so this ephah basket was magnified so that it could contain a human being. The people are being reminded of the greed and theft and deceit that characterized too much of their trading. They were selling their own souls as they lied and cheated. Their society was being destroyed by mammon. That is what they were seeking first, not God’s kingdom, and so the measuring basket hovered over them in tandem with the hovering word of God. They were people literally under judgment.

But worse was to come. The basket was going away; it was on a mission and then the cover of the basket was removed and coming up out of it was the face of a woman, looking down and around, blinking as she emerged from the darkness. She was being taken away to judgment, to Babylon (v.11) to a place being prepared for her. Who was this woman? She personified the wickedness of the land. That is not my interpretation. The angel speaks; “This is the iniquity of the people throughout the land” (v.6) and then in the next verse, “This is wickedness” the angel says (v.7). So the people looked up and saw the word of God that they were defying, flying over them in the scroll, and then they looked up and there was a measuring basket. It said, “You cheats! You thieves! God knows all about your stealing and lying. You know you are on your way to judgment?” And the lid of the basket is opened and a representative market woman pops out her head. She is caught. She looks around guiltily for a moment and the lid is slammed down on her again. There is no escape. She has been a cheat and a thief all her life and now away she goes to judgment. What she sowed by her thieving she is going to reap.

Israel is often portrayed as a woman who has been unfaithful in her marriage covenant to Jehovah. She has forsaken the Lord and taken many idol-lovers. This is the same woman we meet in the book of Revelation, the great harlot, unfaithful to the Lamb, and prostituting herself to the Beast and the world.

5. THE APPEARANCE OF THE FLYING WOMEN.

Now there is something else in heaven. There are two flying women who are servants of  God and he has commissioned them to lift up the basket containing the woman and take it away. Off they go! “Where are they going?” Zechariah asks. To Babylon, to Shinar, the old name for Babylon and its surrounding area. We sing a harvest hymn, “Come ye thankful people come.” And we sing to one another that God will do this…

“Give his angels charge at last in the fires the tares to cast,
But the fruitful yield to store in God’s garner evermore.”

In the time of Zechariah God charged these two servants of his to deal with this particular expression of wickedness in the land. Unrighteousness could not dwell with righteousness. There is a city bright, closed are its gates to sin; naught that defileth can ever enter in. “Remove wickedness from my people,” said the Lord, and immediately the women did what God told them and that woman (however wealthy and powerful she had become through her dishonesty and lies) could not resist when the servants of God set their hands on her. Away she went! Come out from her and be separate, said the Lord.

There is a place that God has prepared for them that despise him, and Jesus spoke of it often with tears. He has built an eternal house for the unrepentant and God-despiers, and all the baskets of wickedness will be poured into it, and in that place Jesus said there would be wailing and gnashing of teeth. What are we seeing here? Disregard of the law of God was widespread in the land, but God was still in control. His word was alive and powerful. He knew and defined wickedness and it was in his power. He could take it away from the people of God and destroy it there, and they would be delivered. We would say that these were the basic warnings of this prophecy, and that we are reminded that our sin will find us out. The wages of sin is death. How shall we escape? Maybe we think that that is the overwhelming lesson addressed to the careless to awaken and sound an alarm.

But there is a more glorious message in the Bible is there not? Yes, God can deal with the guilt of sin and he can punish it and he certainly will. The soul that sinneth shall surely die. But God can do far more glorious things with our guilt. He can remove the shame and blame of repentant sinners absolutely from them in his mercy, and where does he take it? He has taken it long ago to the Lamb of God on Calvary. He has made him to be wickedness for us – him who knew no wickedness. God imputed our sin to Christ. He bore our sins in his own body on the tree. Jesus died for our sins according to the Scripture. He told his disciples that that was his mission. The Son of Man came to seek and to save that which was lost. He came not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many.  Can you imagine a great basket that is the size of Snowdon and it is full of guilt, the guilt of having other gods, and worshipping idols, and taking God’s name in vain, and breaking the Sabbath, and dishonouring your Dad and Mum, and your violence, and sexual sins, and deceit, and theft, and greed. See the basket heavy with all that iniquity, and then can you imagine Michael and Gabriel conveying it to Golgotha and putting it all on Christ on the cross, laying the punishment for it all on the Son of God, and Jesus Christ dealing with it totally competently, annihilating it, absorbing all its shame, from the smallest sin to the greatest of it until all was gone.

It seems to me that there is just one of two places where your sin can be. It can be stuck to you for ever and ever, with no power in the world able ever to disconnect you from your sin, and thus it will be world without end, Amen. Or God can intervene in your life and he can lay on his Son the iniquity of us all. While all we like sheep have gone astray and have gone every one to his own way that the Lord can condemn our sin wholly and completely and eternally in Christ so that there is for all of us who are in him now no condemnation. It has been condemned already, and payment God cannot twice demand, first at our bleeding Surety’s hand and then, again, at ours. It is vanished, gone for ever, buried in the sea of God’s forgetfulness. But if not that, then you must answer. You must give account. You must stand before the judgment seat of Christ. You must receive for the deeds you have done. All the undiscovered thieves and unrepentant murderers and rapists and torturers and kidnappers and abusers and liars must answer for all the pain that they’ve caused. I speak in his name and I can tell you that Jesus offers you today this extraordinary privilege, “I will take away all your sin, all the past sin, and present sin and the future, sin so that it will be as if it never existed, and you can dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.” Wouldn’t you long for that? Wouldn’t you say to Jesus, “Do that for me! Show mercy to me, please!”? But the Lord Jesus is with us today, and by his Spirit he has been applying this great picture of Zechariah and the word of God in its scroll convicting us, and the basket of man’s guilt being taken away, far from the people of God. Then cry, “Take this guilt from me. Free me from my shame.” Make that your plea and cry until you know that God has heard and answered you and you are free from every stain and spot, free to look into God’s lovely face and say to him, “Thank you Father. Thank you for Jesus Christ, my Lord and Saviour.”

5th January 2014   GEOFF THOMAS