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Small Things

Guest Contributor

Zechariah 4 challenges our estimation of God and His handiwork.

It’s just a small thing, but sometimes one word can trip me up. Have you noticed that too? Maybe you’re texting with a friend or listening to a podcast. Something said takes hold in your mind and you can’t shake it: What did he just say? What did she mean?

Recently a colleague encouraged our team with familiar lines from the book of Zechariah: “Do not despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin” (Zechariah 4:10 NLT). That verse usually lifts my spirit, reminding me that God is in the small beginnings or “small things” (ESV and NIV) even when we can’t see His hand.

But one word caught my attention and set me wondering why God chose to use it.

Visions of Things to Come

The book of Zechariah is known as apocalyptic literature, which is full of symbolic visions of things to come, of promises to be fulfilled both soon and not yet. Its narrative poetry is also rooted in ancient history and confirmed by recent archaeological finds: “In the eighth month, in the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Zechariah” (Zechariah 1:1).[1] It’s 520 BC. King Cyrus has allowed a small remnant of God’s people to return to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon to rebuild the temple. In addition, Zechariah (and his contemporary Haggai) has been called to exhort and encourage these returning exiles to resume its reconstruction, which had been started sixteen years prior. The first temple built by King Solomon had been destroyed in 586 BC. God graciously instituted the temple to be a visible reminder of His presence among His people—and yet they had left it in disrepair. They are discouraged and pursuing their own way apart from God.

The book opens with one of eight arresting visions; both the first (Zechariah 1:8-11) and eighth (6:1-8) involve horses that God has sent out. (As an aside, four horses will appear more ominously at the end of times in the book of Revelation.)[2] They return declaring, “We have gone throughout the earth and found the whole world at rest and in peace” (1:11). Though they have simply “walked to and fro throughout the earth,” as it literally reads in the Hebrew, “their scope symbolizes the speed and distance of God walking.”[3] What would seem like a really “small thing” to us in this age of air and space travel—sending out horses to cover nearly 25,000 miles—is so much more in the hands of God.

A Thundering Question

Now back to chapter 4, where Zechariah is given a vision of Zerubbabel, the governor of Judah, helping to reconstruct the temple. Into this vision come the familiar lines, “Do not despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin.”

Wait—what did God just say? Despise? That’s an awfully strong injunction. Did He mean, “Do not overlook” or “Do not miss”? As in, “Take heart. God is at work even when you can’t see it.” That’s the way I’ve always thought of it.

One could easily miss “despise” in a study of Zechariah. The Hebrew word bwz (pronounced “booz”) is only found in the book here. Among the handful of commentators I consulted, just one scholar, Merrill Unger, addresses it. Perhaps this is understandable given its singular use in this verse; however, the word occurs eleven other times in the Old Testament and its nearly identical companion word (bzh) almost fifty times.

Various translations capture the emotion of this verse by rendering it as a thundering rhetorical question from God. Read it out loud and loudly for effect: “Who dares despise the day of small things?” (NIV). “For who has shown contempt for the day of small things?” (NASB). Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance defines“booz” in its verb and noun forms as “contempt, despised, shamed, disrespect, and laughingstock.” The Old Testament Hebrew Lexical Dictionary says it is, “To treat something as spoiled, no longer of value.” The word is used in the well-known aphorism “Fools despise wisdom” (Proverbs 1:7). The Psalms speak of contempt following wickedness and pride, and Job, following ease and success. And strikingly, Isaiah uses the companion word twice in one verse when he prophesies that the coming Redeemer would be “despised and rejected” (Isaiah 53:3).

A Glimpse of More

According to the influential psychologist John Gottman, contempt often involves sarcasm, ridicule, and “a position of moral superiority.”[4] It is one of four negative ways of communicating that can destroy a relationship, which he calls “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”[5] The others are defensiveness, criticism, and stonewalling, with contempt being the most significant predictor of a failed relationship. In fact, what may seem like a small thing—eye-rolling—can end a marriage.[6]

So once more back to Zechariah 4:10: “For whoever has despised the day of small things shall rejoice, and shall see the plumb line in the hand of Zerubbabel” (ESV). Zerubbabel is faced with opposition by both a “mighty mountain” that must be leveled (verse 7) and a people who remembered the majesty of the original temple and in comparison, looked with contempt on the meager beginnings of this second one.[7] How easily comparison can diminish gratitude, lead us astray, and expose a true posture of scorn and complacency. How easily I can say something in jest when an examination of my heart would reveal conceit or covetousness. How easily we look with little regard upon what God sees as of inestimable value.

Zechariah is given a glimpse that this tedious reconstruction would be so much more in the hands of God. As inadequate as the second temple might seem in comparison to the first, the Redeemer Himself would come and fill it with God’s glory and healing presence, teaching and preaching inside its walls.[8] As the apostle John tells us, “Jesus went up into the temple and began teaching. The Jews therefore marveled, saying, ‘How is it that this man has learning, when he has never studied?’ So Jesus answered them, ‘My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me’” (John 7:14-16).

Perhaps you unintentionally treated a loved one with derision and now the relationship is fractured. Perhaps you have been met with contempt and now question your significance and value. Perhaps constant comparison has diminished your gratitude and left you complacent. The marvelous vision of God unfolded reveals a despised and rejected Redeemer who stepped into our world to renew our hearts and fill us with the very Spirit of God. The Maker of particles and mighty mountains says that everything in creation is worthy of attention and care. For in God’s economy, there are no small things.

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[1]More evidence of the historic accuracy of the book of Zechariah’s comes from the recent discovery of a massive earthquake dated to King Uzziah’s reign that both Zechariah 14:5 and Amos 1:1 reference. “Given that Zechariah lived two centuries after Amos, the earthquake must have been extreme enough to leave a lasting impression on the Judean consciousness,” writes Nathan Steinmeyer at Biblical Archaeology Review. See Steinmeyer, “Evidence of Biblical Earthquake Discovered in Jerusalem Sites Across Israel Damaged by Eighth-Century B.C.E. Quake,” (August 10, 2021), https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/ancient-cultures/ancient-israel/evidence-of-biblical-earthquake-discovered-in-jerusalem/.  

[2]See Revelation 6:1-8.

[3]I found these handwritten words in an old Bible and believe it came from a sermon given by my Old Testament professor Douglas Stuart, coauthor of How To Read the Bible for All Its Worth, Fourth Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014).

[4]See Ellie Lisitsa, “The Four Horsemen: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling,” The Gottman Institute (April 23, 2013), https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-four-horsemen-recognizing-criticism-contempt-defensiveness-and-stonewalling/.


[6]Tara Parker-Pope, “Can Eye-Rolling Ruin a Marriage? Researchers Study Divorce Risk,” The Wall Street Journal (August 6, 2002), https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB1028578553586958760.

[7]Ezra 3:12 adds that the rebuilding was met with mixed emotions: “But many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid, while many others shouted for joy.”

[8]Indeed, God reveals to the prophet Haggai, “‘The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house,’ says the Lord Almighty. ‘And in this place I will grant peace,’ declares the Lord Almighty” (Haggai 2:9).

Danielle Durant invites others to join her in unearthing the perpetual wonders of beauty and truth found in the ageless drama of Scripture. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from the College of Charleston (Charleston, SC) and a Master of Divinity from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (South Hamilton, MA). Danielle is passionate about all things running, nature, and her expressive Maine Coon cat, Simeon.