The picture given in Zech 4:11-14 of the two Olive trees which are in turn called the two anointed ones has to be one of the more complicated pieces of symbolism within scripture. The complexity exists primarily because there are two biblically sanctioned interpretations of the Olive trees. One of those is yet another picture that possibly has both a local and general physical interpretation. The other appears at first sight to come from an entirely different context. Not surprisingly, whilst there is some general consensus amongst the commentators, in the specifics there is a wide degree of variation.
What did surprise me is that none of the commentators I looked at attempted to follow the path of interpretation that Zechariah and the angel followed!This is strange as five of the fourteen verses of Zechariah 4 are devoted to laying the interpretation pattern out. Instead there appears to be a preoccupation with attempting to define the meaning of each of the components of the vision without following the narrative of the vision itself. Therefore for this essay my aim is not so much to reach a definitive conclusion for the meaning of these symbols; so much as to develop the framework in which these symbols can most reasonably be interpreted.
Starting at the beginning and with the vision itself we see a golden candlestick having seven lamps. This would be familiar to Zechariah as it follows the description of the candlestick in the tabernacle. However there are three additions to the standard candlestick that we learn of at this point: a bowl on top, seven pipes going to each lamp and two olive trees. The exact structure of the pipes is in dispute. JFB state that each lamp has seven pipes, going from the bowl to the lamp a total of 49 pipes. ACC, Poole and JWN have a total of seven pipes from the bowl to the lamps. I suspect the latter is the correct picture.
Notwithstanding the exact number of pipes this vision has an overwhelming functional meaning to anyone familiar with the tabernacle lamp. They have solved the 'oil problem'. Previously a morning and evening chore of the priest was to take pure beaten olive oil and feed the lamps. The lamp had to be kept burning continually and thus the work had to be done continually. If the scene before Zechariah is viewed as a technical blueprint then the work of keeping the lamp burning had been avoided. There was a reservoir of oil at the top with pipes that would then gravity feed the lamps themselves. We later find that the oil reservoir was itself automatically fed from the olive trees.
I believe verse 4 from to 6a now provide vital information about the interpretation of this vision. Firstly we find that Zechariah asks about 'these'. He is not only asking about the trees; I believe he is asking about all of the new elements in the vision. Then notice that the angel questions if Zechariah does not know. This tells us that what is being shown here is not something fundamentally new. It is not a mystery being revealed or even a substantially new declaration. It is at most a clarification. Then we find that the angel answers. This is important because many commentators take verse 6-11 to be an ellipsis. I believe this is a mistake. In Zech 4:11 we find that Zechariah asks a more specific question: surely this tells us that his first question has been answered.
The question therefore becomes: If the vision essentially shows a solution to the continual beating, storing and dispensing of oil then what does the interpretation in verse 6-10 show that to mean. The interpreting angel gives us that answer: "Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit". The lamp of Exodus is maintained by human endeavor and obedience to a God given plan. The lamp of Zechariah omits the need for human endeavor. The vision is all about the oil. The interpretation is all about the Spirit.
However the enigma of verses 6 to 10 is that whilst God clearly asserts it was going to be done through His Spirit they then emphasize that the Spirit will be working through the agency of the human hand. Specifically the work will be done through the agency of Zerubabbel. Further there appears to be a suggestion that the eyes of the Lord will take pleasure in seeing the measuring, probably suggesting government, done through Zerubabbel.
Verse 11 is then extremely interesting. Zechariah asks what the olive trees are but then immediately asks a second slightly different question asking what the two branches are that drip oil into the two golden pipes. Whilst this may suggest he lost interest in the question I suspect it means that the answer became clear to him as soon as he asked it. Given we know from Zec 4:13 that Zechariah could have even known the meaning of the branches I think we can assume that the olive trees had become clear to him.
We then reach the verses itself: Zech 4:14. Who are the two anointed ones or 'sons of oil' to use the literal Hebrew. Well we know from the overall interpretation of the vision that it is about the Spirit of the Lord being the silent driver in success that appears to come from Zerubabbel. We are also aware that the previous vision in Zechariah 3 had dealt with the cleansing and establishment of Joshua the high-priest. We also know that the third and fourth visions of Zechariah are connected via the seven eyes. We also know that priest and king were both anointed offices within Judaism. It strikes me that the two olive branches are therefore Zerubabbel and Joshua. This would suggest that the two olive trees being viewed are the governmental and priestly line of Israel.
Some of the commentators argue that the two olive trees cannot be humans as they are viewed as the sources of the oil that produce the light. However it should be borne in mind:
A much more serious objection to this interpretation is that it appears to flatly contradict Rev 11:4 which states that the two olive trees are the witnesses of the tribulation. Clearly any interpretation of mine, or any other human, has to yield in the face of Biblical contraction. However; I believe in this case the contradiction is less severe that it may appear. We should remember that Zechariah had been given a vision that appeared to keep the lamp burning continually through the power of God. At that time the two agents of God were Zerubabbel and Joshua. But looking further out they were just two branches on the trees. We know that people yield fruits in different seasons. I believe that as time goes on different branches take possession of the two golden pipes and that for a season they are the ones fuelling that lamp. For the time of the Revelation that will be the two witnesses described there. So at that point they will be the anointed ones. In another season it may be others.
To summarize: rather than focus upon the two anointed ones this essay has attempted to provide a framework in which the two can be interpreted. It has done this by following the narrowing in approach followed by Zechariah. En-route we assumed that the angel had answered Zechariah's first question and that the achievement of success through the Spirit of God was the meaning of the 'oil invention' that had been appended to the lamp of Exodus. We also noted that the interpretation of this vision was available to Zechariah already and was thus not revealing a mystery such as the church. Additionally the connection of the third and fourth vision was rehearsed. Then using the context we had constructed we considered that the two branches were probably Joshua and Zerubabbel and that the two trees thus represented the priestly and governmental lines of Judaism. Finally this interpretation was extended through time to represent whosoever the Lord had placed into those roles at that epoch.