God Removes Evil from the Land: Wickedness in a Basket
Passage: Zechariah 5:5–5:11
Sermon from Zechariah 5:5-11 by Bret Rogers, Pastor
Series: Zechariah: Return & Restoration (Part 8)
Delivered on October 18, 2015
Zechariah 5:5, a vision of a woman in a basket. If this is your first time visiting with us, or your first exposure to Christianity, please stay till the end of the sermon. I will attempt to explain what’s going on here—just didn’t want anybody running out of the building prematurely, thinking weird thoughts about how we view women or something
. So, verse 5, hear the word of the Lord
5Then the angel who talked with me came forward and said to me, “Lift your eyes and see what this is that is going out.” 6And I said, “What is it?” He said, “This is the basket that is going out.” And he said, “This is their iniquity in all the land.” 7And behold, the leaden cover was lifted, and there was a woman sitting in the basket! 8And he said, “This is Wickedness.” And he thrust her back into the basket, and thrust down the leaden weight on its opening. 9Then I lifted my eyes and saw, and behold, two women coming forward! The wind was in their wings. They had wings like the wings of a stork, and they lifted up the basket between earth and heaven. 10Then I said to the angel who talked with me, “Where are they taking the basket?” 11He said to me, “To the land of Shinar, to build a house for it. And when this is prepared, they will set the basket down there on its base.”
I have to admit, this vision is rather bizarre. If you had a cartoon contest between Zechariah’s eight visions, this one definitely takes first prize in the category of strange. But strange as it is, the overall meaning is pretty straightforward. Even if we can’t discern all the symbols fully, it’s clear that God is removing evil from the land. That’s the point: he’s getting wickedness away from his dwelling place and away from his people altogether.
Alright, now let’s move to application…just kidding. Let’s think through some of the details a bit further. Let’s search our Bibles and see what these various symbols represent and why they’re coming together the way they are. And I want to do this by answering three big questions: what’s the basket about; what’s inside the basket; and where’s it going?
1. What’s the basket about?
So, question number one, what’s the basket about? Zechariah sees a basket going out, and then the angel identifies the basket as “their iniquity in all the land.”
A few things to note here. The basket that’s in mind is what’s referred to elsewhere in the Old Testament as an ephah. An ephah was a basket normally used as a measuring device. It held just a bit more than our five gallon buckets would hold. And the people would use it to measure out flour and other grains, usually for one of two purposes—trade or worship. You measured out flour for others in trade—they get the flour, you get the money (Lev 19:36; Deut 25:14). And you sometimes measured out flour for various sin-offerings in worship (Lev 5:11; 6:20; Num 5:15; 28:5).
Which is why the Lord was so adamant that his people not cheat him in worship, or cheat their neighbor in trade with an unjust ephah. If your ephah was unjust—that is, you made it smaller than what it was supposed to be. So even though it looked full to the buyer, or it looked full to the priest, the Lord knew it was unjust, that it was a lie. It had less that what it was supposed to for trade or worship. If your ephah was unjust, you were an abomination to the Lord (Lev 19:36; Prov 20:10).
In fact, just before the Lord sent Israel into exile both Amos and Micah blast Israel for using unjust ephahs in their trade, because it exposed that their allegiance was to money instead of to the Lord (Amos 8:5; Mic 6:10). They trampled on the needy by making the ephah small, and the Lord promised to punish the land for it. He did so by sending them into a horrific exile.
But here the exile is over. The Lord has brought back his people, and now he’s holding before the people a vision of an ephah—basically saying, “Remember the way this was used against each other and against me. This is your iniquity in the land.” In other words, their iniquity affected every part of their life from their trade to their worship—from the way they treated their neighbor during their work week to the way they pretended to worship God on the weekends. Their sin—and the resulting guilt—was as common to their daily lives as the ephah.
Can you imagine returning from seventy years in exile—seventy years under the worst weight of what your sin caused, seventy years in oppression, seventy years of forsakenness and desolation all because of sin—and then you return home to have the Lord hold your sin out in front of you once again? “This is your iniquity.” It’d be like having all your sins scrolling down this screen behind me—one by one—with all the hurt they caused others and all the grief they caused God.
2. What’s inside the basket?
And it gets even worse, because now God even gives it a face with what’s inside the basket. That’s the next big question: what’s inside the basket? Verse 7, “And behold, the leaden cover was lifted, and there was a woman sitting in the basket! And he said, ‘This is Wickedness.’ And he thrust her back into the basket, and thrust down the leaden weight on its opening.” What’s with a woman sitting inside the ephah?
We know he’s not making a statement about women, because the Bible elsewhere uses a woman to depict a really good thing—like Lady Wisdom in the book of Proverbs for instance. Something similar could be going on here: just as the noun, “wisdom,” in Proverbs is feminine, so also the noun, “wickedness,” in Zechariah is feminine. So it makes sense to use a woman to illustrate the feminine word.
But we can say more than that, I think. Zechariah has a habit of building on the imagery of the prophets before him. And these prophets regularly talk about idolatry using the metaphor of prostitution or the metaphor of an unfaithful woman. For example, “playing the whore” was a repulsive way for the prophets to talk about Israel worshiping idols, being unfaithful to the covenant with idols (Jer 3:1; Ezek 16:15; 23:3; Hos 2:5). There’s even one woman in the Old Testament, who eventually becomes a code-word for idolatry, and that’s Jezebel (Rev 2:20).
So with this background in mind, the woman in the ephah seems to represent idolatry. I might also point out that the woman here is apparently small enough to fit inside an ephah. The prophet even describes her as “a woman sitting in the basket.” She’s sitting much like a little figurine might sit; she’s enthroned like a queen. Jeremiah 7:18 speaks about the people bowing to the “queen of heaven,” the goddess Asherah (Judg 10:6; 1 Sam 7:4). And she seems to be some kind of idol, because later on in verse 11 she even gets her own temple.
So what is this face behind their iniquity in all the land? It’s fundamentally idolatry. And idolatry’s name is Wickedness. This is the wickedness the Lord warned the people against from the very beginning. He gets them out of Egypt, he’s taking them into the Promised Land, and over and over again he warns them about the wickedness of the nations and their idols (Lev 26:30; Deut 9:5-12). They didn’t listen; and so God judged them by sending them into exile.
But now the exile is over, and God holds their iniquity before them in the ephah. Even worse, he gives it a face, a woman symbolizing their idolatry and their covenant unfaithfulness, and her name is Wickedness. This is what underlies their guilt—idolatry, the exchange of God’s glory for what he created. He holds it all before them. But get this: it’s not to throw it in their face. It’s to show them what he’s about to do to it.
The angel shoves her back down into the basket and throws a lead weight on top. In other words, idolatry has long been a stronghold for God’s people, but it’s not more powerful than God. God puts wickedness in its place. O, he gives them a good look at Wickedness, but it’s so they can wave “Goodbye,” as he sends it away.
3. Where’s the basket going?
And that leads us to answer one last question, where’s the basket going? The answer comes in verses 9-11. Let’s walk it through. “Then I lifted my eyes and saw, and behold, two women coming forward! The wind was in their wings. They had wings like the wings of a stork, and they lifted up the basket between earth and heaven.”
Obviously, these are no ordinary women. They’re some kind of heavenly agents. The wind was in their wings—that’s used elsewhere in Scripture to speak of heavenly agents (2 Sam 22:11; Pss 18:10; 104:3). They’ve got wings like the wings of a stork—elsewhere in Scripture heavenly agents have a mixture of human and animal-like features (Ezek 1:10-11; Rev 4:7-8). But the focus lies not so much on what they are, but on where they’re going. They lift the ephah between earth and heaven, in order to carry it somewhere. Let’s see where they’re taking it.
Verse 10, “Then I said to the angel who talked with me, ‘Where are they taking the basket?’ He said to me, ‘To the land of Shinar, to build a house for it. And when this is prepared, they will set the basket down there on its base [literally, she will be set down there on her base].’” They’re taking the woman to the land of Shinar. This is the north-land, Babylon. The land of Shinar first appears in Genesis 10:10, where Nimrod starts building his kingdom, part of which eventually becomes Babel or Babylon.
Then in Genesis 11:2, we get the land of Shinar again, but this time it shows us where Babel got its name. And you may remember the story. Instead of living to make a name for God, the people form an alliance to build a gigantic tower to make a name for themselves. But God confuses their language and therefore the city becomes known as Babel or Babylon. From that point on, the land of Shinar symbolizes organized human rebellion against God. And that’s precisely the way Babylon is portrayed as well throughout the Scripture—it’s just the capital city of rebellion against God.
So the land of Shinar or Babylon is a code-word for organized rebellion against God. Why are these stork-like women carrying the basket to Shinar? Because they’re putting Wickedness where she belongs. She doesn’t belong in God’s holy land—which is what he calls it back in 2:12. When the Lord’s glory-presence fills the land, the land itself becomes holy. Wickedness doesn’t have a home in God’s holy land.
So, these heavenly creatures take the ephah with the idol named Wickedness to the land of Shinar, and basically build a temple for it. That’s what’s meant by “building a house for her.” A house means a temple. And the woman even gets a base—it’s a stand of some sort on which to set a religious object (e.g., 1 Kgs 7:27; Jer 27:19; Ezra 3:3).
But, let’s note this right now—just because Wickedness gets her own temple in Shinar, doesn’t mean she lasts forever. We’ll get to this next week in the eighth vision. But suffice it say for now that God puts wickedness where it belongs, in order to punish it. He drives wickedness from his presence, for the purpose of destroying it. Even if he permits the evil to last a while longer, it’s not so that it’ll succeed the end. He’s in control, and he’ll eventually destroy it.
That’s what Revelation 18 is all about—God eventually destroys Babylon altogether. She has her influence right now—she subtly spreads her idolatry far and wide; and the full manifestation of her evil is still yet to come. But it’s nothing compared to God. God will cast her down like tossing a great millstone into the sea, Revelation 18:21 says. And all her wickedness will be cast into hell forever, and her smoke will rise forever and ever (Rev 19:3). That’s what’s coming for Wickedness.
The focus of this vision, though, is what God is doing for his own elect people, the remnant. You see, what’s happening here is basically a reversal of what happened in Ezekiel. In Ezekiel 1-11, the Lord departs from his temple-city on a kind of throne-chariot that’s carried by some heavenly agents. And the reason the Lord leaves the temple is for the people’s wickedness and their idolatry (Ezek 3:18-19; 8).
But now the exile is now over and the Lord gives them a new vision—a vision of him returning in mercy to his temple-city. And when his presence fills the temple-city, he forces wickedness and idolatry to leave.
But here’s the amazing thing, he still keeps his people. He doesn’t force his people to leave with their wickedness and their idolatry. He sends the wickedness and idolatry away, while keeping his people near to his presence. In other words, he doesn’t just get his people out of Babylon; he also gets Babylon out of his people. And he sends that wickedness away from them, so that all they have to enjoy is his glory. There won’t be any more idolatry blocking their vision of his glory (Ezek 14).
God Banishes Sin through Jesus Christ & the Spirit
That’s the work he promises with this vision; and that’s the work he has begun in all of us who know Jesus Christ. Not a single one of us is without fault when it comes to idolatry. As others have said, our hearts idol factories. We don’t need a little statue, in order to count ourselves idolaters. We just need to be born.
We were born in sin, and our hearts—when they’re enslaved to sin—they’re really good at turning just about anything into an idol. Anything besides God that we must have, in order to be happy or satisfied or secure is an idol. Just think of the times that you may have used people to get what you want, or got angry at people for getting in the way of what you want. It’s all idolatry. We have all worn the face of Wickedness, and deserve banishment from the presence of God.
This is the pattern in Scripture. We see it in the Garden when Adam and Eve sin, and he banishes them from his presence. The world eventually grows corrupt, and God banishes them with a flood. God enters the land of Canaan with Israel, and he banishes the nations and their idols. Israel refuses to let go of their idols, and so God banishes them to exile in Babylon. Jesus comes into his Father’s temple as God in the flesh, and he banishes the money changers with a whip. We too deserve banishment for our wickedness.
But here’s the amazing news of what God has done in Jesus Christ. Instead of banishing us from his presence—which we deserved for our idolatry. Instead of banishing us from his presence, God found a way to bring us into his presence while banishing sin on his Son. When Jesus Christ died on the cross, God put all our sins on Jesus and banished them to the grave forever. He was like the scapegoat in the Old Testament. All our sins were transferred to him, and he was banished outside the camp under the wrath of God. All our sins were taken away—as far as the east is from the west—and all of his righteousness was given to us, so that we could come into God’s presence without banishment.
And you know what else that means for those who believe in Jesus? God comes to dwell in you by the Holy Spirit. And when he takes up residence in you, he starts cleaning house, doesn’t he? He starts that work of sanctification, so that day by day more idolatry and more wickedness is driven away from where he has chosen to dwell.
The same reversal we see here in Zechariah, is the same reversal that takes place for everybody who trusts in Jesus. God comes in through Christ, and where he dwells, he sends out the wickedness. And he does that to prepare us for the day when we dwell with him in the New Jerusalem with all wickedness banished forever from his city, never to enter that city again. Revelation 21:27, “nothing unclean will ever enter [the city], nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.”
Wickedness is not more powerful than God
Let me leave you with three ways the theology of vision eight impacted me this week. First of all, I was encouraged by this truth: wickedness is not more powerful than God. We don’t live in a dualistic world, where evil exists as God’s equally powerful opponent. Evil is not more powerful than God, or even an equal opposite to God. He’s more powerful in this vision. Wickedness isn’t just contained—the woman gets shoved into the basket—it’s altogether driven out—God forces her out.
That should encourage the Christian on at least two levels. At a very high level, that means wickedness will not ultimately prevail in the world. It will remain for a while longer—and it will even get worse as the Day of the Lord draws nearer—but it’s time is growing shorter with every day that passes. God will banish evil once and for all.
At a much closer level, though, this also means God can help us overcome evil. I mean, we can’t get sin out of our lives on our own. We can’t overcome idolatry on our own. We’re powerless against sin on our own. We need God. We need new affections for what’s holy. We need his power to expel what we can’t expel. We need him to put evil in its place. And here we get a picture of him doing just that for his people.
How much wickedness do you see in your life? O gosh! All I have to do is wake up in the morning: “Why isn’t everybody serving me? Why’s he so happy in the morning? Why are the dishes still dirty? How come I only get turkey bacon? Why’s Andy making us run so far? This red light is taking too long. Why won’t he quit complaining?”—do you feel these impulses of the old man creeping in?
How much idolatry is there in that? “Everything would be perfect if…you fill in the blank?” Fill in the blank and you’ve got your idol. How much sin—and then the guilt after you sin—how much of it discourages you and drags you down?
Christian, take heart: your God can overcome wickedness in you! He already overcame it for you at the cross. Jesus said, “Now is the judgment of this world. Now will the ruler of this world be cast out” (John 12:31-32). He won the victory over sin in his cross and resurrection. Now he’s just sweeping up the remnants of what he destroyed. His Spirit lives in us to make us holy, and he is able to finish the job. He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion for the day of Christ Jesus.
And that ought to encourage you to lay hold of his grace all the more. You can’t drive out sin. You don’t have the power. But God can, and he’s doing it in every person he saves. So hope in God to deliver you. Pray for him to do more in you, so that more of his presence can be enjoyed as evil goes out. Wickedness is not more powerful than God. Don’t spiral into the self-deception that your sin must be more than God can handle. Baloney! God is able to rid his people of all wickedness. How do I know that? Because he already revealed the future to us, and there’s a picture of multitudes worshiping him without sin in the new heaven and new earth.
Coming to God means we can’t bring our idols with us
Another way the theology of this vision helped me this week: coming to God means we can’t bring our idols with us. We must let go of our idols. That’s nearly a quotation from 1 John 5:21—“little children, keep yourselves from idols.” Why does the Bible encourage us in this way? Because idolatry can’t live in God’s presence, and God wants you to be in his presence. He wants you to enjoy his glory.
And yes, he lives inside the believer to drive out the wickedness—as we just talked about. But his Spirit works through our working, not apart from it. The Bible says, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for God is at work in you both to will and to do according to his good pleasure.” So, yes, God is in here doing the work to expel wickedness, but we still work. And part of that work involves keeping ourselves from idols, guarding our hearts from every allegiance that competes with our allegiance to Jesus Christ. How do we do that?
Let me outline very briefly just five ways to cultivate a heart that forsakes idolatry. Number one,
study God’s glory through the word
. In our passage, the idols go out when God’s glory comes in. You can’t just determine to get rid of idols, if you’ve never beheld God’s glory in Christ. You have to see God rightly before you even know what an idol is. At the root of all idolatry is exchanging the glory of God for something lesser. And there are times when we our view of God is so distorted that we end up worshiping a false god. We need the Bible to open our eyes to see God’s glory for what it really is. And when that happens, the idols become ludicrous, distasteful, and foolish. So read and memorize and meditate on the Scriptures, in order to see God’s glory.
enjoy God’s presence through prayer
. One thing I’ve been so struck by in Zechariah is how much emphasis he places on God’s presence. All of these visions are bound up with God’s presence somehow. In today’s vision, he keeps his people in his presence while sending their wickedness away from his presence. So if he’s given you access to his presence, it makes sense to enjoy his presence through prayer. One day, we’ll see him face to face. Now we enjoy his presence through prayer. Some have even referred to prayer as “practicing the presence of God.” The more you enjoy God’s presence, the less you’re drawn away by idols. And even when you’re tempted by them, God is present to protect you and help you. Ask him for it. You have access.
Number three, using the word and prayer,
identify and then confess your idols to others
. Now, I say this not to encourage a kind of unhealthy introspection, a kind of obsessive self-analysis where you’re never looking to Christ—that’s why I began with God’s glory in the word and prayer. Rather, I mean this in the sense of gaining a true self-knowledge in accordance with the Scripture. Take the Bible and identify where your trust really is when you want something too badly, or fear something less than God, or get frustrated when a certain expectation isn’t met.
Identify that idol, and then bring your idols into the light through confession. Learn from the sin of Achan in Joshua 7 that keeping your idols hidden is dangerous both for the individual and the community? We must bring them into the light, in order to deal with them rightly. It’s only when we walk in the light that we have fellowship with one another and the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin.
invite others to help you discern the idols
. God has given you a church family as partners in the grace of sanctification and perseverance. We need each other. I need you, because you see things about me that I often cannot see about myself. You may see patterns of anger when something doesn’t go right. You may see patterns in the way I use my words that shows I’m not trusting Christ in some way. You may see patterns of anxiety that expose that my contentment is in something other than God. You may see ways I neglect my family that shows ministry is climbing up the idolatry scale. And I need you to say, “Hey, bro, Christ is better than that. God provides more security than that money. Fear God not man.” I mean, I need this kind of help and discernment and prayer; and so do you.
Finally, number five in cultivating a heart that forsakes idolatry,
give thanks for the hope you have in Christ
. Hear this from Colossians 3:1-10,
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory [That’s the hope]. Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.
Hear those two things again as we close. “When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory…[and then this] seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.” Your new self is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. That’s the Holy Spirit getting wickedness out, so that you look more and more like Jesus. Give thanks to him as he continues to work.