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No. 67: A Flying Scroll

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 67
November, 1994
Copyright 1994, Biblical Horizons

Immediately following his vision of the outpouring of the Spirit upon the restoration community (4:1-14), Zechariah saw a flying scroll. The interpreting angel told him that the scroll was going throughout the land to purge thieves and perjurers (5:3-4). The sequence is significant: When the Spirit is poured out, not only blessings but curses intensify. A Spirit-filled church is not only one where faith, hope, and love reign, but also one in which "some are sick, and some are fallen asleep." (This same sequence is repeated in Zechariah 12:10-13:6: The Spirit is poured out, and the unclean spirits of false prophets are purged.)

While the overall meaning of the vision of the flying scroll is evident from the angel’s interpretation, Zechariah provides additional details that invite further reflection. First, the most unusual thing about the scroll is that it is in midair. This position immediately suggests several things. The scroll is between heaven and earth, indicating that the curses written on it are not of the earth, earthy. Yahweh Himself, not a human authority, will administer them. This is important for the vision, since the criminals the scroll seeks out – those who steal and then swear falsely that they are innocent – are such as commonly escape detection and punishment by human authorities.

Further, the scroll is mobile, not stationary. This too is important to the vision, since the angel says that the scroll seeks out thieves and perjurors in order to bring curses on them. Like the Hound of Heaven, the curses of the covenant seek out and overtake their object (cf. Zech 1:6). When the Spirit comes upon the church, the wicked find no place to hide. Finally, the scroll’s mobility, and its position between heaven and earth, suggest a relation to the cloud-chariot on which the Lord rides as He comes in judgment. This possibility will become more plausible as we proceed.

A flying scroll is unusual enough, but this scroll is flying to and fro unrolled, or at least partly so. This is evident from the facts that Zechariah can estimate its dimensions (5:2) and that he can see writing on both sides (5:3). Scrolls normally roll into a tube as soon as you let go of the ends; evidently, Someone has unrolled this scroll and is holding it open as it flies over the land. Breaking a scroll’s seals and unrolling it signify administering the things written in the scroll; as the Lamb unseals and unrolls the scroll, the words of the book become incarnate in history (Rev. 5:1ff.). The fact that the flying scroll is unrolled without human agency reinforces the message that the Lord Himself is unleashing the curses of the covenant.

One of the long-standing puzzles of this vision is the size and shape of the scroll. Zechariah says that the scroll is 20 cubits long and 10 cubits wide (30 feet by 15 feet). Ancient scrolls were sometimes as long as 30 feet, but they were usually only about a foot wide. What Zechariah saw looked less like a normal scroll than a flying billboard. Its monstrous size is undoubtedly part of the point: The curses of the covenant were publicly broadcast. No one could claim ignorance.

Most commentators agree that the specific dimensions are also significant. These dimensions occur several times in the Old Testament. According to 1 Kings 6:3, the porch of Solomon’s temple was 20 by 10 cubits. It has been suggested that this porch was the place where the priest or the king read the covenant law to the people, thus establishing an association with the administration of covenant curses that Zechariah exploits. While this is possible, there is no conclusive evidence that the law was in fact read from this porch.

Another possibility is that the scroll replicates the dimensions of the holy place of the tabernacle. (These dimensions are nowhere given explicitly, but must be inferred from the size and number of the wall boards and the size of the Most Holy Place; cf. James Strong, The Tabernacle of Israel [Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1987], pp. 28-38). It has been suggested that the curses on the scroll are going into effect now that the temple and priesthood are being restored. This interpretation fits well with the other visions of Zechariah, which focus on the establishment of the temple and restoring the priests’ access to the holy place.

More persuasive than either of these suggestions, in my judgment, is the proposal of Carol L. and Eric M. Meyers (Haggai, Zechariah 1-8 [The Anchor Bible; New York: Doubleday, 1987], p. 291), who point out that the two giant olive-wood cherubim of Solomon’s temple together form a 10 by 20 cubit area (each cherub was 10 by 10 cubits, 1 Ki. 6:23-28). The wings of these cherubim overshadowed the ark, which contained the tablets of the law, and they were thus associated with the administration of covenant sanctions. Meyers and Meyers write, "If the cherubim represent divine presence and transport . . . in association with God’s word on tablets, a twenty-by-ten flying scroll . . . would be a postexilic equivalent. The scroll itself has replaced the ark and its tablets, which have disappeared from Israel, as the source of God’s word; and its twenty-by-ten airborne size conjures up the winged guardians of the Mosaic tablets."

The most obvious advantage of this interpretation is that cherubim fly, like the scroll (but unlike Solomon’s porch or the holy place). Moreover, cherubim formed the Lord’s glory cloud-chariot, the cloud that the Lord rides when He appears to judge the earth. Zechariah’s flying scroll is the cherub-filled cloud, symbolically manifested as a text that enumerates the punishments Yahweh will carry out when He comes on clouds of glory.