The last of the eight night visions matches the first, or at least is clearly parallel to it. There are four horses or groups of horses in each one, there is a military cast to each vision, and both visions forecast the triumph of the kingdom of God in the world.
v.2 In the first vision there were horses of four different colors and now we find four chariots pulled by horses of different colors. These horses pulling chariots come into view between two mountains of bronze. In the OT bronze typically is shiny and brilliant in appearance. This contrasts with the dark and the shadows of the first vision. Remember the horses were concealed among the myrtle trees in the first vision. Now everything is sunny and open to view. [Duguid, 121-122]
What is more, in the first vision the horses carried riders who were sent to scout the world and bring back a report. These horses pull chariots, the equivalent of tanks in the ANE world; chariots were a key indicator of military might. The more chariots an army had, the greater its power. There are four chariots. We have encountered the number four frequently in these visions. There were four groups of horseman in the first, four horns and four craftsmen in the second, four winds of heaven in the third. Four is a symbol of completeness. So these four chariots stand for a much larger force. What is more they are all pulled by strong horses. This is a picture of a mighty army on the move. [Webb, 103] The scouts from the first vision have done their work and the signal has been given to attack. “What is seen here is what is anticipated in 2:13: ‘Be still before the Lord, all mankind, because he has roused himself from his holy dwelling.” [Webb]
v.5 Once again Zechariah asked the angel to explain the vision that he saw. The reference to the “four winds of heaven” indicates that there is nothing that lies beyond their range. This army’s conquest will be complete and entire. But remember also that the Hebrew word for “wind” is the same as the word for “spirit.” So these winds also represent the agency by which the power of God will conquer the world. The Spirit of God was mentioned in 4:6 and will be mentioned again in 5:9. We had a similar image in 5:6 where the women with wind in their wings carry the basket with the evil woman in it away to Shinar. All of this would have been immediately obvious to Zechariah’s readers. The Spirit, the wind of God would sweep through the world and carry all before it. So the chariots are just an image of a more powerful, but unseen force, the Spirit of God and the conquest will take place not by military means, but by the influences of the Spirit upon the hearts of men.
v.6 We might have expected that the four chariots would be sent to the four points of the compass: north, east, south, and west, but, remember, Palestine is bordered by the Mediterranean Sea on the west and by the desert in the east. All travel in that part of the world was north and south and all of Judah’s enemies would be reached by roads heading north or south (Assyria, Babylon, and Persia to the north; Egypt to the South). Egypt was a lesser foe by this time so only one quarter of the army goes south while two go north. Most of Israel’s enemies arrived from the north, which explains the emphasis on the north country in v. 8. Why only three colors are mentioned is not explained. Does this army, like most armies, keep a portion in reserve for counter-attack or to guard the homeland? We are not told. [Duguid, 123]
v.8 Once again, to any Jew the land to the north was the place of Israel’s enemies. For the Spirit of the Lord to be at rest there meant that he will have conquered all their enemies; all those who are opposed to God will have been made subject to him. Put in the margin of your Bible next to v. 8, Deuteronomy 12:10, where the same idea is expressed the same way:
“But when you go over the Jordan and live in the land that the Lord your God is giving you to inherit, and when he gives you rest from all your enemies around…”
The previous vision, number 7, was concerned with the Lord purifying his people, with idolatry removed from among them to be put in another place: Shinar is the symbolism of the vision, Babylon, the City of Man. But the next vision addresses an obvious second question: will the enemies of God’s people endure as a power set over against God? Will there always be a Shinar in opposition to Jerusalem? Will there always be an enemy that might attack the people of God as enemies have in the past? And the answer is clear: the Spirit of God will eventually impose his rule on all the earth, all nations, all peoples, even in those places where idolatry now reigns supreme. Total victory lies in the future for the people of God, a victory that God himself will secure and so a victory that no one can prevent. The nations may not realize, they do not realize that they are doomed to eventual defeat and destruction, but they are.
v.10 The vision is followed by an oracle. The vision and its interpretation are complete, but now we read of some instructions that the Lord gave — how they came to Zechariah is not said — that have a similar point to that of the last vision, though they are more concerned with the people of God than the world as a whole. God’s victory can be described as the conquest of his enemies or by the complete and total spiritual and moral transformation of his people. Both things will happen at the end and each is fundamental to the divine plan for the world.
The three men, all exiles who had returned from Babylon, are mentioned as those who would provide the resources for the expensive crown that would be placed on the head of Joshua the high priest. These people had been successful in Babylon and they had come back with some measure of wealth. This is not unlike the recognition of donors that we find in the publications of many non-profit groups, but, in this case, there is a more important point: the Lord’s plan has at its center those who “have returned from Babylon.” They stand, apparently, for all who love the kingdom and the house of God and are willing to take risks and make sacrifices on their behalf. Josiah, the son of Zephaniah, was perhaps the craftsman who would make the crown from the silver and gold provided, or if the three men have recently arrived from Babylon, perhaps they were staying with Josiah and could be found there.
v.11 As the following verses make clear, Joshua’s crown does not make him a king. It is rather a sign and seal of the reign of someone yet to come. To put a crown on a priest is unexpected. In fact there is no provision for it in the law of Moses. In 3:5, when Joshua was dressed in the uniform of his office as a high priest, a turban was placed on his head, not a crown. Of course, as we will read in v. 14, Joshua is not to wear this crown; it is taken off after he has put it on and to be placed in the temple. So to place the crown on his head is clearly a symbolic act. In the third vision Joshua and his fellow priests were described as men “symbolic of things to come.” And the particular thing that was to come was the Branch himself, the Messiah. So here we learn that the Branch will be both a priest and a king. That priest/king will build the temple of the Lord.
v.13 The “Branch” is still unnamed, in a paragraph full of names. [Duguid, 126] He is a figure of the future, a person who has not yet appeared and perhaps would not for some time. No one yet knew his name. They only have a title. This man, this royal figure whose coming was prophesied in Isaiah and Jeremiah, will build the temple of God. And in the NT, as we have already noted, that temple is built especially by the Gentile mission and the embrace of the gospel by people of every tongue, tribe, and nation, a point that is made with emphasis in Acts 15. There we read that David’s fallen tent is being rebuilt, as Amos prophesied it would be, by the evangelization of the nations of the world. In the third vision, in 2:11, we read that “many nations shall join themselves to the Lord in that day, and they shall be my people.” Zechariah’s contemporaries would have had only a general idea of this world conquest of the Spirit, though there is enough about it in the Old Testament, beginning in the very early chapters of the Bible where God promises Abraham that through him all nations of the earth shall be blessed. But this is the “mystery” of which the Apostle Paul speaks, that God was going to make a single people out of Jews and Gentiles and that his kingdom would be drawn from all the peoples of the world. In any case, the building of the temple in Zechariah’s day was clearly the anticipation of far greater things to come.
This Branch will be a priest but one who sits on a throne. There shall be harmony between the priesthood and the kingly rule for both shall be held by the same man. The ESV reads in a way that might suggest that there are two individuals in view here: a priest and a king. But the Hebrew text is read more naturally as a description of the Branch as both a priest and a king. [McComiskey, 1116]
v.14 Two of the four names are different this second time around than what we read in v. 10. It is too complicated to explain in detail but scholars are almost certain that the same men are being referred to as before in v. 10. It is a case of dual personal names, common enough in the OT, or nicknames, or somewhat predictable variations in spelling. [McComiskey, 1118-1119]
v.15 Those who help build the temple of God will not be only Zechariah’s contemporaries and their physical descendants. People from all over the world will build the temple of God in the power of the Spirit. The Branch must do his work — as we learned in vision #4 — but the work of building the temple will be assisted by many ordinary believers, like those who, in faith, returned from Babylon to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple. They too will, as these folk must, “diligently obey the voice of the Lord their God.”
The night visions are complete and their message is now clear in its totality. Jerusalem and the temple of God, rebuilt and renewed, are key to God’s ultimate plan for the world. God has great plans for this world and he will execute those plans by his Spirit working through his people. His plans include the defeat and judgment of the rebel world and the spiritual and moral perfection of his people. This is the great theme of Zechariah. In 14:9, near the end of the book, we read,
“…the Lord will be king over all the earth. On that day the Lord will be one and his name one.”
That is to say, in that day, there will be only one Lord. Everyone will confess him Lord and no one will imagine that there is any other name for God than his. The Lord is already present among his people to bless them and to use them to further his plan, but what they do, and what he does through them, in their present circumstances is a sign of far greater things yet to come. All of this depends upon the coming of the Messiah, twice introduced in these visions as “the Branch.” He will take away the sin of his people in a single day as their priest and will rule over them and the nations as their king. In other words, we are given in these eight visions a biblical philosophy of history and a glimpse of the final consummation of the kingdom of God. History is moving forward according to God’s purpose both to judge the wicked and to save his people through Jesus Christ
This double action is something we encounter a thousand times in the teaching of the Bible. The Lord will visit the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate him, we read in the second commandment, but he will show mercy to a thousand generations of those who love him. Or, as Paul puts it in Romans 9, God “has mercy on whomever he wills and he hardens whomever he wills.” Or, as we read in Psalm 1: “the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.”
We read in Philippians 2:10-11 of the day when “at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” That statement is taken from Isaiah 45:23 where it depicts both the day of salvation and the day of judgment. In other words, at the end some will rejoice to confess Jesus as Lord and others will be compelled against their will to do so. But all the false gods of mankind, all of their idols will have shriveled away to nothing and only the Lord Christ will remain, the Savior, the King of Kings, and the judge of all the earth.
But in bringing that eventual consummation to pass, the work of the Branch and the work of the Spirit are essential as, in a lesser way, is the work of God’s people, who become instruments in their hands. In the language of the New Testament, the Lord will accomplish his will through the church; it is the church that will become the means of God’s grace to the world and the sign of his coming judgment as well.
The ending of this entire section can seem disappointing, deflating, even discouraging to us.
“…this shall come to pass, if you will diligently obey the voice of the Lord your God.”
Can that possibly be true? That the Branch will come and the Spirit will defeat the enemies of God and the temple of God will be rebuilt by the nations of the world only if Zechariah’s contemporaries diligently obey the voice of the Lord? Well, to be sure, yes and no. The promises of God are sure. Christ will return. The people of God will be saved. The wicked will face judgment. None of that is in doubt anywhere in the Bible.
But neither can it be doubted that God’s large purposes for the future of mankind and the world have massive implications for how we live our lives in the present. [Webb, 106] It was Jesus himself who would later say that his gospel would be preached through all the world; only then would the end come. It was Paul who said that whoever called on the name of the Lord would be saved, but that for them to do so they needed to hear the gospel and for that to happen the church would have to send evangelists and missionaries to the four corners of the earth.
Now, what we must not fail to appreciate is how dramatically this prophesy — of the building of the temple by people from all over the world, of the Spirit moving in every direction to build the kingdom of God, of the Branch being the central figure in the salvation of the world and the king who would execute judgment over it as well — has already been confirmed and fulfilled. I say, we today have so much more reason to be sure of this prophesy of the eventual consummation of the kingdom of God than did Zechariah’s contemporaries.
Think of what has happened since. The rebuilding of the temple in Joshua and Zerubbabel’s time, smaller and less impressive as that temple was, kept the light of truth and the experience of God’s grace and salvation alive in the world until the time that the Branch arrived, Jesus Christ. He removed the sin of his people in a single day, dying for them on the cross. He rose in triumph over their greatest enemies: sin and death, and so made a way forward for them to eternal life and the heavenly country. The Assyrians, the Babylonians, and the Persians were fleabites compared to sin, death, and the judgment of God. But he conquered our enemies on our behalf. Then he set the Spirit loose upon the world at Pentecost, what Herman Bavinck calls the third great work of God, after Creation and the Incarnation. In a development utterly unexpected, utterly unlikely by any human calculation, the tiny community of Jews, a despised people in the word of that day, suddenly exploded into a world-wide kingdom of Christians. We take this development for granted because it has been true of our world for such a long time — I mean that there are Christians everywhere — but nothing more unlikely ever happened in the world. Only the work of the Almighty Holy Spirit can account for it. Jesus said that he would build his church and the gates of hell would not prevail against it, a neat summary of what we have seen and heard in the eight night visions of Zechariah and their concluding oracle.
It’s all here: the appearance of the Christ, his defeat of sin, his sending of the Holy Spirit, the ingathering of the nations, and all of that leading to the final consummation of God’s kingdom in the world and his victory over all his and our enemies: all here in visions given to Zechariah more than five centuries before these events began to unfold. But, crucial to those later, world-transforming events, was the simple faithfulness of the few Jews in Jerusalem in the later years of the sixth century B.C. It is, perhaps, interesting to ask what would have happened to the unfolding plan of God had the Jews not rebuilt the temple, had they not kept the flame of faith burning in that dark and unpromising time, but the fact is, by God’s grace they did and look what eventually came to pass. And all of that proof that what is yet to come will also certainly come to pass in due time.
Do you realize how remarkable it is that there are so many Christians, hundreds of millions of us, all over the world; that the work of building the temple is being carried out to the four winds by Spirit-empowered believers who are sharing the faith, raising their children to love and serve the Lord, and building up the house of God by teaching, by works of love and charity, by the fellowship of the saints that models a new kind of community to the world, and by public witness to the works of God in Christ, those already accomplished and those yet to be accomplished? And every day, day after day, the kingdom grows. Some days in some places, such as Jerusalem in the late 6th century B.C, the kingdom seems small and inconsequential, even appears to be shrinking. In other times and places it seems to be carrying all before it. Such is the mystery of the Spirit’s ways: he blows where he wills and when he wills. But always the kingdom is growing and always because the Spirit is making use of believers to bring about his purposes in the world. That is the message contained in the night visions of Zechariah.
The distance between the head and the heart, someone has said, is the greatest distance in the world. You may know something to be true, but it doesn’t feel true. It is hard to practice that truth in your life because it feels so far removed from reality as you observe and experience it. That was the problem Zechariah’s contemporaries had to overcome. A great vision of future triumph was given them, but it seemed an impossibly long way off to be a powerful motivation for the sacrifice and hard-work that rebuilding the temple would require of them. It is precisely taking the truth concerning the distant future to heart and living according to it in the present that the Bible calls living by faith.
As one wise man has written:
“Belief, however strong, cannot be the same as sight; and from a Christ whom we cannot see we are to that extent separated, just as a blind man is cut off from the world to which he nevertheless belongs…” [Plummer, ICC 2 Cor., 151]
That’s the hard truth of the matter. We can’t see the consummation. We can’t see the enemies of God being vanquished on every hand. We can’t see the great procession of just men made perfect making their way into the heavenly country. All we can see, often, are the ruins, the setbacks, the trials and tribulations, interrupted thankfully but only occasionally by some progress in rebuilding the temple, a temple not nearly as impressive as the one Solomon had built and adorned with gold.
There is no alternative for us but to take the great, sweeping truth that Zechariah’s visions have communicated and begin to practice it, begin to live in the light of it, and do our small bit for the kingdom of God while we can, in the sure and certain hope that God will bless it and use it in his great plan for mankind. And we have no excuse because the Branch has already appeared and the Spirit has already been sent to the four winds and the world has already been changed dramatically, powerfully, permanently as a result.
I happened to be listening to Ravi Zacharias on the radio in the car the other day and heard him talk about Father Joseph Damien of Molokai. I’d heard that story many times of course, as, no doubt, some of you have. Molokai in the 19th century was the leper colony of the Hawaiian Islands. Damien volunteered to serve the people there and was sent to do so even though the chances of his contracting the disease were thought to be very high. He provided what care he could for the lepers medically by bathing their ulcers, by reforming their diet, by insisting on exercise, by insisting on proper sanitation, and by sprucing up the village and its homes. He helped them spiritually by evangelizing the people doomed to live and die in what was at first a dark, hopeless place far removed from the rest of the world. Over time his ministry transformed that once desperate, dirty, and hard-hearted population into a community of productive, kind, happy, and mostly Christian people. One day, while preparing to bathe, he accidently put his foot into scalding water; water so hot that it blistered his skin. He had felt nothing and realized at that moment that he too had contracted the disease. He had always addressed his congregation on Sunday as “Brothers and sisters.” That next Sunday he began, “My fellow lepers…” He would die on Molokai, some five years later, at 49 years of age.
What is that the story of? We are inclined to view it as an example of a great love, of self-sacrifice in the cause of the gospel, of a ministry that was both of word and deed. And so it was; wonderfully so. But we should first think of it in larger terms, the terms we find everywhere in the Bible and we find concentrated and powerfully revealed in visionary ways in the first six chapters of Zechariah. Father Damien’s ministry before it was anything else was the building of the temple of God. It was taking the truth of the eventual triumph of the kingdom of God and living by it and according to it. He was going to those who were far off and enlisting them in the crew that would build the temple of God; he was enrolling craftsmen in the company of Christian workers just as we read in v. 15. It was the anticipation of the final conquest of the world by the kingdom of God, as it is whenever the grace of God penetrates the darkness of this world and proves itself the power of salvation. We are moving forward to the end.
Do you want to know what your greatest problem and mine is? Do you want to know what the great problem of American Christianity, is in our time? I can imagine that you might think first of any number of things, but they would not be your greatest problem or mine or the problem of American Christianity. No; our greatest problem is that we are functional atheists too much of the time. We have divided our ordinary life from the realities of heaven and the future. We have somehow allowed ourselves to think that we can understand something; we can do something really productive without considering its relation to heaven and the future consummation of the plan of God for the world. We allow our days and nights to pass without a constant reckoning with heaven and the future. But nothing means anything apart from that! In fact we misunderstand everything apart from that. And to the extent you think and act without reckoning with that other world and that future day, you are thinking and acting as if it did not exist and were not coming. That is unbelief and the chief reason for the weakness of our lives and the weakness of the church in the world and the chief reason why you and I should be praying everyday: “Lord I believe; help my unbelief.”
I have been reading slowly through C.S. Lewis’ letters to his life-long friend Arthur Greeves. And in one of those letters Lewis explained to Greeves, in reply to the recommendation of a book that Greeves had made to him in a previous letter, why he had lost interest in a certain kind of science fiction, books about distant planets and solar systems, though, as a young man he had loved such books, especially those written by H.G. Wells. But now, he told his friend, “It seems like having new bits of curtain described to one, when one is all agog for hints of what lies behind the curtain.”  Well, that’s your problem and mine. We are all agog about the curtain while quite forgetting what lies behind the curtain, which is the meaning of everything in our life, and the life of everyone else.
None of us needs to be intimidated by our circumstances, whatever they are. We are on the winning side and everything we faithfully do contributes in some way to the eventual victory. Think of those days and what you are going to think about the life you led, and how you are going to want to have lived your life when the great day dawns.
Take heed of the promises of these visions, so many of which have already come to pass, and imagine the day of final victory when all the enemies of the Lord lie in the dust at his feet. And then remember this:
“…this shall come to pass, if you will diligently obey the voice of the Lord your God.”
Do you remember how the book of Daniel ends? “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” Alright, there is the distinction, the great division, between those who are saved and those who are not. But it goes on. “And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.” [Dan. 12:2-3]
It’s all here: God’s grace, our calling, the final triumph, and our duty to live now, in the present, in expectation of that future day, and determined to contribute to it. Zechariah’s night visions.