We began last time by introducing the book, a divinely sent message to a people dispirited by their circumstances, a tiny, seemingly insignificant people whom the world was passing by, but who had the Lord’s work to do and needed to repent of their spiritual nearsightedness and realize again that the Lord was still on his throne and still working out his purposes in the world. The kingdom of God would triumph in due time and they had a role to play meantime.
We begin with this next paragraph the examination of what are usually called Zechariah’s “night visions.” The first vision is said to have come to him in the night (1:8) and again in 4:1 the prophet is awakened in the night, so the impression is that all of them were given to them in a single night. There are eight of them and they take us to 6:8. The ESV entitles this first vision “A Vision of a Horseman,” though the man, as we will see, gets off his horse and stands among some trees in a hollow, so the same vision is often called “A vision of a man standing among the myrtle trees.”
I’m not going to swamp you with the details, but it does appear that these eight visions are arranged chiastically, a popular ANE and biblical literary device in which material is arranged in the form of an inverted parallelism. In such a case we would expect the first and the last visions to be parallel and we find, for example, that both of them involve four horses (1:8; 6:2). The point of a chiasmus is usually to focus our attention on the middle elements of the parallelism, in this case chapters 3 and 4. “Essentially, the visions move from outward to inward, from the universal to the particular (from the Lord’s universal reign over the whole world to his redeeming purposes in Jerusalem and Judah), focusing our gaze on the renewed temple in Jerusalem as the heart of God’s transforming plan for his people and the world.” [Duguid, 77] We’ll see the importance of that in due time.
So, approximately three months later than the revelation that came to the prophet of which we read in verse 1. More significantly, perhaps, it was five months to the day after the people had resumed work on the temple (Hag. 1:14-15).
As we will see there were men mounted on the other horses as well, perhaps many horses and riders in each of the various colors. The man called “the angel of the Lord” is their leader and the others report to him. [Webb, 66] Presumably the other riders are understood to be angels as well. [McComiskey, 1035] The word “glen” may be too mild. The word means “deep” and perhaps “ravine” or “hollow” is closer to the mark. More on that in a moment. [Webb, 67]
As you know the term “angel of the Lord” in general refers to a heavenly messenger. But sometimes in the OT the person so identified seems to be identified with the Lord himself (the person we know now as Jesus Christ in a pre-incarnate appearance). But in other contexts the Angel of the Lord is distinguished from the Lord. [McComiskey, 1038] We aren’t given much to go on here and context is the only way by which you would know whether this is a pre-incarnate appearance of the Lord Jesus or just of an angel. Jesus intercedes for us as this figure will do, but that is hardly proof.
Though many have tried, it does not seem possible to attach any particular significance to the colors of the horses. They are ordinary colors for horses (think of the red as a reddish brown, what is usually called “bay” or “chestnut” when describing the color of a horse). A bay is different from a sorrel only in what are called its “points,” such as the color of the mane and tail which are dark black in the case of a bay and lighter in the case of a sorrel. What is more, the horses and their riders stand back in the trees in a glen or a hollow. In other words, they were concealed. There seems to be a sense of secrecy here. They Lord had sent these men out to gather intelligence and they had returned (the nations unaware that they were being observed). [Cf. Boda, 195-196; McComiskey, 1035] In other words, they these persons were the Lord’s spies.
The nations were at rest. That is a faithful account of the world situation at that moment. The Persian empire had put down or was in the process of putting down all resistance within the realm, especially rebellions in Babylon and in Egypt. But, of course, that fact raises the obvious question: where is the kingdom of God in all of this. The world is at rest because the Persians have made it so. This peace seems to have nothing to do with the kingdom of God.
It is interesting, by the way, that the Persians were famous for the quality of their intelligence. They had informants placed everywhere and an efficient system of couriers (mounted horsemen) so that they knew very quickly what was happening or likely to happen anywhere in their vast domains. These horsemen were the Lord’s own CIA, if you will (though more reliable!).
That there really is something wrong with this picture of world peace is indicated by the fact that it is the angel of the Lord, not Zechariah, who cries out to the Lord, “how long will you have no mercy on Jerusalem?” “Lord of Hosts” we might say is the Lord’s “military title.” [Duguid, 80]
As we noted last time, the seventy years are the time Jeremiah prophesied the Jews would be in exile, but it also happens to be approximately (just two or three years short) the time that had elapsed from the beginning of the exile in 586 B.C. to this moment. These were years of Judah’s humiliation and they have not yet ended. But they will. It is worth noting that seventy years in both the Bible and in the ANE was a typical life span and so a symbolic period. “Seventy” is no accident; the number is itself a message. That is, by the end of seventy years, the guilty generation would have perished and it would be time to turn the page as it were. [Boda, 199]
The Lord’s first reply is comforting and Zechariah is commissioned to spread this reassuring word. The Lord has not forgotten his people and has great things in store for them.
Empires such as Assyria, Babylon, and Persia were used by the Lord to punish his people for their sins, but that does not mean that they were granted immunity for their crimes against God’s people or for the spirit in which they wrecked vengeance against Jerusalem. They used excessive force, they relished the pain they were causing, they were unnecessarily brutal. They committed “war crimes,” as we would say today. God would judge them for that.
The people may well have wondered, “If Yahweh was angry just a little,” if we lost our homes and our country, many of our fellow citizens lost their lives, if we have returned to a shattered ghost of Israel’s former self, because Yahweh was just a little angry, what is he going to do when he is really angry. [McComiskey, 1042]
The “measuring line,” as in Ezekiel (40:1-3) is a symbol of builders at work and so the rebuilding of the city. Builders always measure first!
The great message of comfort and consolation is this: God will rebuild his city and his temple. He will return to his people with his blessing and they shall enjoy prosperity again. The ruins of Jerusalem would be raised up to glory once more.
You’ll notice that the word “again” occurs 4 times in v. 17. What is being promised is not something God’s people have never known before, but the renewal and the enlargement of what was once theirs. The old promises (to Abraham, Moses, and David) are still in force, the ancient history still a pattern for the people of God.
Now, to be sure, it is not necessary to believe that Zechariah’s original hearers understood how this prophecy that the Lord would renew the prosperity of his people would come to pass. They knew the Lord would return with his blessing but how he would do so is not said. That is very typical of Biblical prophecy. They were then, as we are now in the New Testament rarely given any details, and certainly never given dates and times. The future is sketched in pictures that are more like modern than classical art: they make an impression; they don’t show us a photograph of some future scene with the date stamped in the lower left hand corner. That is important because we learn in the New Testament that this renewal of fortunes, this rebuilding of the temple in the city of God, telescoped as so much of biblical prophecy is, would take place in two respects: first, through the world-wide missionary labors of the church, drawing in to her membership people from every tongue, tribe and nation, and second through the consummation of the kingdom of God, Jews and the nations together, at the end of history when Christ returns.
No one in the ancient epoch understood how God’s kingdom would come; no one knew the Messiah would come twice and not just once. Here, as in Ezekiel chapters 40-48, those chapters that go into such seemingly tiresome detail about the reconstruction of the temple and its worship, the future glory of the people of God is visualized in terms of a rebuilt and renewed Jerusalem and the temple within her rebuilt its glory. Such visionary depictions of the future are characteristic of apocalyptic literature. We find the same way of depicting the future in the New Testament in the book of Revelation. But such grand images of a city and a glorious temple are a picture of something greater, more wonderful still: a worldwide kingdom of worshippers of Yahweh finally enjoying triumph over all their enemies and the entire world, basking in God’s love, made happily subject to the law of God and bringing to him their love, their worship, their service as the world finally enters a permanent state of shalom. The transfer from image to reality is easily made because Jerusalem and the temple were always metaphors, symbols of the people of God. You can say “the people of God” or you can “Jerusalem” or “Zion” which was originally the name of the hill on which Jerusalem stood. You can say “the people of God” or you can say “the Temple of God” and OT writers often used those terms in that metaphorical way.
In the New Testament, for example, we read that the restoration of Israel, what we are hearing about in this first vision, the rebuilding of David’s fallen tent as Amos has it in his prophecy of the same renewal (9:15), actually takes place in the evangelization of the Gentiles and the building of Christ’s church throughout the world. At the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, this was James’ clinching argument for the fact that Gentiles as Gentiles could become members of the church and were not required to become Jews in order to be Christians. Israel was being renewed, the temple rebuilt through the Gentile mission. The temple was rising again being filled with Gentile believers. And so throughout the NT we are treated to one statement after another to the effect that the burgeoning Gentile church is the new Israel, the true circumcision, Israel after the Spirit, and so on. And in Romans 11 we read of the consummation of the kingdom of God, specifically of the fulfillment of the promises of the OT that God would renew his covenant with his people — to be fulfilled when a church of Jews and Gentiles together gain mastery of the whole world.
Now what’s so important about this first vision is that you and I are in much the same situation as the Jews in Zechariah’s day. We are waiting for something that has not yet happened. We are waiting for something that doesn’t seem likely to happen any time soon. We are waiting for something that it often seems will never happen. To be sure, we are more fortunate than they because some of what Zechariah prophesied has happened, so we have more reason to be confident of the rest. But still, as they had to wait, so do we. And if you think about it, this is virtually the whole of our problem as Christians in the world today. We have to wait for what is still to come. We have to believe it is coming and we have to live our lives in the prospect of it, which means we have to live waiting. And nobody likes to wait. I don’t like to wait for my wife. I have done a lot of it over the years, but I don’t enjoy it anymore now, no matter how much practice I have had. We don’t like to wait. But she, like the Lord, makes me wait!
Imagine this were not so. Imagine that in every affliction you faced you could see beforehand precisely how and precisely when all would be well. Imagine that in every setback faced by the church of God we all could see precisely how and precisely when the church would be delivered, the truth vindicated, and the unbelievers around us forced to reckon with the fact that the future is ours, not theirs. Our lives would be so different, would they not? This fact that believers and the church as a whole must wait for what God has promised to bring to pass is an extraordinarily important feature of the Bible’s doctrine of the life of faith. Indeed, it is most of what the Paul meant when he wrote that we must “live by faith and not by sight.”
The paradigmatic history of Abraham, as you remember, was a history of waiting for what had been promised but what had not arrived. The Lord promised him a son but the years passed and everyone seemed to be having a child except Abraham; but eventually the Lord was as good as his word. Moses waited forty years in Midian before being called to service in Egypt. We have a psalm such as Psalm 40: “I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry.” Believers must wait for what the Lord has promised them.
But it is also true on the larger scale of the life of the church and kingdom of God. We live as Christians, our witness as a community of faith depends upon the eventual coming to pass of what the Lord has promised but what he has not yet delivered. This is a very large part of the reason why the world feels free to dispense with our message. As Peter put it,
“…scoffers…will say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.” [2 Peter 3:3-4]
The Lord Jesus made the same point when he said that at his coming it would be as it was in the days of Noah “they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day came when Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.” [Matt. 24:37-39]
The fundamental difference between us — we who believe in Jesus Christ — and everybody else, is that we know what is going to happen in the future and they do not, and our lives, therefore, are shaped by this vision of things to come.
Why, so much is this waiting for what we long for but do not yet see an essential characteristic of the authentic believing life that we find it even in heaven! We read in Rev. 6:10 that the martyrs in heaven are crying out, much as the angel of the Lord did here, “How long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”
In the Christian life and in the history of the church everything looks forward to events that have not yet occurred. There is a real sense, of course, in which some of those events have already occurred — the appearance of the Messiah, his conquest of sin and death, his resurrection — but all of that was to guarantee still other events that have not yet occurred. And still we wait!
Zechariah is instruction for waiting saints on how to wait, how they are to think about the world and the events of human history, about the passing of days and years, while they wait for great events that have not yet come to pass but which the Lord has promised shall come to pass in due time. Zechariah teaches us how to think about the march of history, about the situation of the church in the world in our day, and about the sometimes seeming insignificance of the kingdom of God.
And it begins here, in the first vision, by reminding us of the much larger picture that we are wont to forget. I remember some years ago preaching in a PCA church in Huntsville, Alabama. On one of the days of my visit I was taken to see the large NASA installation there, where the immense rockets were designed and then manufactured that carried first satellites and then men into space. Part of the tour included an IMAX theater and I watched a fascinating film on the nature of the universe. I remember that film especially for the stunning visual effects in which we descended through a drop of water on a leaf into the cells that it contained, then with fascinating and beautiful special effects down further into the innermost recesses of the molecules that make up a cell and then, from that point, as infinitesimally small as it was, we began moving upward and outward, back again to the entire cell, to the drop of water, to the leaf, then up and away from the plant until we could see the whole sea of plants in which that one plant was found, then up higher as the camera lens moved our vantage point further and further way until we could see the land around the sea of plants, then the larger area in which that land was found, up still higher until we could see that land as part of the whole earth, then up and up we went into the stratosphere and into outer space until the world was growing smaller and smaller, until it was just a dot in the distance as we traveled up into the limitless reaches of outer space, through our galaxy and out beyond, passing through galaxy after galaxy until we had reached the limit of the camera’s eye. Remarkable! Perhaps some of you saw the same film. Astonishingly beautiful and full of profound perspective. Not only the wonder of reality but of our place in it.
Well it is something like that we are given in Zechariah’s first night vision. Here the camera in Zechariah’s vision moves up from the obstructed, littered streets and broken walls of the shattered buildings in Jerusalem, from the jumble of fallen stones that used to be the walls of the city, from the ruin of the temple just now being cleaned up so that re-building might begin, up higher until we can see Jerusalem as a whole from above — still a mound of rubble in most respects — but then higher still until we can barely make out the city far below amid the entire sub-province of Yehud. Then the camera moves back still further until we can see the entire province that the Persians called “Beyond the River” and the little bit of it that the Jews inhabited; higher still we can see the ruins of Babylon as well, and the capital of Persia, Persepolis, and soon the whole world below us. It looks very different from so high up. And so it looks very different from heaven than it does on earth. It is this larger, heavenly vision of reality that Zechariah is told to give us. This perspective is utterly different than what comes naturally to unbelievers, but is different enough even from what believers often think. The Jews naturally considered their circumstances from their very limited perspective. It was depressing. Their circumstances seemed to offer virtually no encouragement. But the heavenly perspective is very different.
That perspective has these features, each as necessary for our outlook today as it was for that of Zechariah’s contemporaries.
- First, while it may seem that events suggest God’s people are forgotten, God knows precisely what is going on in the world. This is the point of the entire vision, but in particular the horsemen who have returned from patrolling the earth. Their purpose was to supply the Lord with intelligence. It is an image, a metaphor of course. But the point is obvious. The Lord is never unaware of what is happening in the world or to his own people. All the riders come back to Jerusalem to make their report.
- God is not uncaring of his people’s troubles. He loves his people, which is the sense of “I am exceedingly jealous for Jerusalem and for Zion.” They are dear to him. Much as they might doubt that from time to time, it is a fact and in heaven the world below is marked especially by those places where his people are to be found. Jerusalem and the temple stand for his people.
- The promises he made to his people are still in force and will be kept. That is the sense of “again” four times in v. 17. The Jews went into exile precisely because the Lord promised they would be exiled if they betrayed him. But they will be returned to prosperity for the same reason: because the Lord made an everlasting covenant with them, a covenant that cannot be broken on God’s side, because he cannot lie.
- The seventy years, a mere life span, is but a day or an hour to God. They seem a long time to Zechariah and the angel of the Lord, but the Lord does not seem in a hurry. He has plans that take time to develop and time to mature and time to fulfill. It may seem an eternity to us — indeed, the whole of our life in this world — but it is nothing to God. Peter will make the same point more famously when he says that a thousand years are but a day to God.
- Appearances in this world are usually an illusion. It seemed as if the world was at peace, but it was peace soon to be shattered. It wasn’t shalom; it was a temporary lull in God’s work of human judgment. Haggai had already predicted a shaking of the world and it would come again and again before it comes finally and decisively. The Jews were tempted to think that the prosperity of the nations, the stability of the Persian empire meant that God was looking favorably on it, instead of on them. But peace and prosperity as the world knows such things are always temporary, fleeting, and illusory. People at ease in this world are so because they have no idea what awaits them soon. The Persians imagined that they had conquered the world. In fact God had given it to them for reasons of his own and for their sins was soon to take it from them. God was in control even at that time when things seemed so unpromising in Jerusalem.
- Finally, while it was necessary for God to judge his sinful and impenitent people, his anger lasts only for a moment; his love endures forever. So, however long we must wait, it will be worth it; more than worth it when finally God’s promises are fulfilled.
The urgent question that was asked on Zechariah’s behalf by the angel of the Lord was: “O Lord of hosts, how long will you have no mercy on Jerusalem?” Those sorts of questions in the Bible are never answered in the way we think we want them answered and the way a good many Biblical interpreters have thought they must have been answered: “The great change will come in two weeks.” Or, “This will happen March 25th next year.” Or even, “Well it will be one thousand thirty six years, but when it comes Jerusalem will dance with joy.” No, the answer to the question “How long?” is always what Zechariah was told, what I have summarized in those six points. It is not given us to know the times and the seasons, but we are given to know how to think about the world and our circumstances in prospect of the dawning of the Day of the Lord.
Imagine if Zechariah was given the details and told to tell his fellows in Jerusalem.
“Some 490 years from now God himself will enter the world as a man. He will perform great wonders that will excite the enthusiasm of many but provoke the jealousy of others. He will eventually be executed precisely because only in this way can all men be freed from the guilt and power of their sin. He will rise from the dead and ascend back to heaven. From there he will send his Holy Spirit and, in the power of the Spirit, his disciples will begin proclaiming salvation in the name of the Son of God throughout the world. This will take many years, but at the end of this time, the people of God will be a great, worldwide multitude. The Lord will come a second time and all the nations will bow before him and confess him Lord and the kingdom of God will come in power and control the world forever.”
They would struggle to understand, to be sure, knowing nothing of the triune nature of God. But it would thrill them no doubt to know even that much, as we do now. But that message isn’t substantially different from what we will read in Zechariah. And it is enough; all we need to know to understand that there is work for us to do and reason to do it.
That we must wait and how we are to wait, in what state of mind and heart, is what we are taught here. Much of this remains a mystery, as much a mystery to us as it must have seemed to the Jews in Zechariah’s day. We are told that we must wait until the last of the elect have been brought in. That makes sense to us. We would not wish the end to come if it were to mean that some would miss out on heaven who otherwise would be there. And we can certainly understand that it takes time and suffering over time to produce in our hearts the graces and virtues the Lord loves. As Alexander Whyte once beautifully observed in explaining why our sanctification takes so much time:
“If you had been both called and justified and adopted and sanctified wholly and all at once you would never have known, you would never have believed, what an inveterate and hopeless and unparalleled sinner you are, nor what a glorious Savior you have got in the Son of God. No; it is not your first pardon that gives God his great name in you. It is his every day and every hour pardon of your sins, sins that are past all name and past all belief.” [Thomas Shepard, 98-99]
But as to why any particular situation or period of history lasts as long as it does, why the fortunes of the church wax and wane as they do, we cannot say. But the Lord has his reasons and that must be enough for us. And that means we must wait. All our lives we must wait. Wait for that blessing we seek as individuals, but more important still, wait for the vindication of God’s truth, of his people, of their faith in him, and for the triumph of his kingdom in the world. It is coming, but it is not yet here.
But with the perspective of faith, we ought to wait in a very distinct way, and that way of waiting is what Zechariah has to teach us. There ought to be a great deal of faith, of hope, of confidence, of joyful expectation, and of firm conviction in our waiting. We ought to live in view of this certain future, made certain by the promise of God and still more certain by the victory of Jesus Christ.
I want you to imagine for a moment that in the corner of your mind’s eye, as in one of these modern computer screens, you could see the events of the Great Day unfolding on the inset in the screen. You could see the Lord descending, the great hosts in his train; you could see the unbelieving multitudes starting in fear; you could see the unalloyed joy on the faces of the saints; you could hear the shouting and the screaming in rage and fear; the screen bright with the glory of God, it would catch your eye again and again because it was brighter than the rest of that screen, the armies of angels and the church triumphant returning behind the Lord. Would you not live your life very differently? Wouldn’t you find a spring in your step, a sense of high purpose in life, a sturdy backbone in the face of the difficulties of life? Everything that happened in your life would be experienced while glancing from time to time at the breathtaking scene in the corner of your mind’s eye. Well that is the idea of that first vision. No computer screen in our mind’s eye, alas, but the same future known by faith and needing to be taken to heart moment by moment through our lives. Fundamental biblical truth: taking the promise of the future as we find it in the Word of God and making it a power in our lives; living in its certainty.
Faithful waiting, you see, is not the same thing as apathetic acquiescing to whatever happens and going on with life the best one can under the circumstances, thinking primarily of ourselves. The Lord himself taught his disciples to mourn and to weep over what was wrong in the world and in the church. He himself was a man of sorrows in some large part because in his goodness he could not help but feel the sorrows and the lostness of others. Even in this first of Zechariah’s visions we can hear the pent up emotion of the angel of the Lord as he prays for what he knows will come and must come in due time. Such emotion, even such heartbreak is the price of love and of holy desire. One cannot be apathetic who knows what awaits the unbelieving world or who knows what awaits the saints at the end of the day. Tears of sorrow and tears of joy are the waiting believer’s lot because the future will be as it has been here described. But as Zechariah will make clear, the Christian kind of waiting is also a very busy waiting, an up-and-about kind of waiting. The Lord told the Jews in Zechariah’s day that the temple had to be rebuilt to get the kingdom of God on track again; Jesus said that the gospel had to be preached through the world before the end could come. There is work to be done while waiting. Indeed, a certain kind of kingdom working is part of what the Bible means by waiting for the Lord.
Some of you will remember John Milton’s Sonnet XIX, often referred to as the sonnet on his blindness. It was written either just as he was going blind or shortly after he had become completely blind. It begins with Milton considering that one of the talents the Lord had entrusted to him, with which to serve him, had now been lost to him. He wonders if God will “exact day labour, light denied.” That is, will God expect as much of him now that he cannot see; will he have to make the same number of bricks but now gather the straw himself as it were? But he corrects himself.
“God doth not need either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best…”
Others may speed to do his bidding in other ways, but, says Milton, with the poems famous last line:
“They also serve who only stand and wait.”
There wasn’t much that Zechariah’s contemporaries could do about the world situation. They could work at rebuilding the temple and the city, though with the resources available to them it would be a somewhat makeshift job; nothing like Solomon’s temple or David’s city in its heyday. Nor could they see how they would be laying a foundation for the next generations upon whom, in time, would descend the Lord himself in human nature. Nor did they understand precisely how the kingdom of God would move outward from them to the far corners of the earth. Nor did they understand that all would come to its appointed and glorious end when the Angel of the Lord came not the first, but the second time to make the nations a footstool for his feet and to bring salvation to all who would be waiting for him. But that was in fact what they were to do and to do it they had to learn to wait the right way: in that energetic way that understands that God knows precisely what he is doing, that he will never forsake his people, that the prosperity of unbelief and its arrogance are supreme illusions, that every one of God’s exceedingly great and precious promises will be kept to the letter, and that meantime there is work to be done that in the mystery of God’s ways, will contribute to the final consummation of his kingdom.
“They also serve who only stand and wait.”
True enough, but only if the waiting is that kind of waiting: the waiting of faith, of hope, and of love. Our circumstances as Christians in America today are becoming rapidly more and more like those in Zechariah’s day. What we need to hear is what they needed to hear. Hear it and remember it and live accordingly.