Tonight we take the second and third of Zechariah’s night visions. As it has been three weeks since we considered the first of those visions, a brief review is in order. Zechariah in these visions is being given a message designed to encourage and sustain the faith of a small, defeated, and dispirited people who are tempted to think that the world has passed them by and that their faith in Yahweh has proved futile. In the first vision the prophet was told to tell them that they were in the mess they were in because they and their fathers had been unfaithful to the Lord. The Lord himself had punished Jerusalem. That was a fact they were tempted to forget because it reflected so poorly on themselves. But, appearances notwithstanding, the Lord had not forgotten his people. Even the larger world scene, with the Persian Empire ascendant and enjoying great wealth and peace, was in fact a canvas upon which the Lord was to paint the progress of his own kingdom and the future of his people. Yahweh loved Israel. That wasn’t going to change. Israel remained in the center of his plan for the world. That wasn’t going to change. God’s people would have to wait for developments — God’s plan takes more time than we wish it did — but meantime there was work for them to do and Zechariah was to spur them on to do it. The night visions are encouragement in all those ways.
We mentioned that the visions were arranged chiastically, in the form of an inverted parallelism, with the outer ones, the early ones and the later ones concentrating on the universal, worldwide perspective and the inner ones, the ones in the middle, concentrating on God’s people as the center of his plan. We are, therefore, in visions two and three, dealing with that larger, more universal perspective: God’s sovereign plan for the entire world.
In the previous vision the Lord’s intelligence operatives brought back reports regarding the world situation. All was at peace. That peace is about to be shattered. It is interesting, by the way, that in the Hebrew Bible chapter 1 ends at v. 17 and chapter 2 has 17 verses. So our 1:18-21 are 2:1-4 in the Hebrew Bible. Our division of chapters comes from the Latin Bible.
In the ancient world the “horn” was a symbol of military strength. It is a natural metaphor for animals use their horns in attack and the bigger the horn the stronger the animal. [Webb, 74] We’re used to the Texas Longhorn, these enormous steers with horns that stretch many feet out on each side of the animals head. Still today we view the great rack of a stag or a bull elk as a sign of his strength. Well in the ancient world the horn was a metaphor for strength for the same reason. For example, in Jeremiah 48:25 we read in a long account of the judgment of Moab, “The horn of Moab is cut off, and his arm is broken, declares the Lord.” That meant that Moab’s strength had been taken away; the nation had been rendered powerless. The number four is a symbol of totality that features frequently in Zechariah. There were either four horses or groups of horses in 1:8, four craftsmen in 1:20, four winds in 2:6, four chariots in 6:1, and here four horns.
So the horns represent the world powers that have abused and brutalized Israel through the years. The fact that both Judah and Israel are named either suggests that the Lord is thinking of Assyria and Babylon particularly — Assyria having destroyed Israel, the northern kingdom; Babylon having destroyed Judah, the southern kingdom –, or, as the following vision suggests, where only Jerusalem is named, he is reinforcing the idea that Judah is the continuation of Israel. Everything ever promised to Israel as twelve tribes will come to the descendants of Judah! [McComiskey, 1047-1048] And of course that is historical fact. What we today think of as Jews, are all descendants of the tribe of Judah. No Jew today can trace his or her lineage back to Zebulun or Naphtali, some of the ten northern tribes that were dispersed by the Assyrians never to be heard of again. But other smaller nations took advantage where they could, nations such as Edom and Moab who got their revenge when Israel was made helpless. Such events leave deep scars as we have learned all too well in the modern world in dealing with age-old animosities in Northern Ireland, the Balkans, and in the countries of Africa.
To be sure, such nations and empires were the Lord’s instruments of judgment — Israel was punished for her spiritual infidelity by the Assyrians and by the Babylonians — but that did not make these nations righteous. But we know from elsewhere in the Old Testament that this was a question that gnawed at the Jewish mind. “Who will hold the nations to account for what they have done?” There is so much left unfinished in God’s moral government of the world! [Webb, 75-76]
There are also four craftsmen to oppose these four horns. It is a striking image. “Craftsman” is a humble term. Craftsmen against horns? But, then, that is always the Lord’s way, isn’t it: “Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of Hosts,” the famous statement we will read in 4:6. The conquering hero will arrive not astride a war horse, but sitting on a little donkey, as we will read in 9:9.
Also significant is the fact that this term “craftsman” is used of those — carpenters, metal workers, weavers, and so on — who made first the tabernacle, then the temple, and who, as we read in Ezra 3:7 were hired to begin repairs to the temple some eighteen years before this. The Lord said in the first vision that he would rebuild Jerusalem and that is what the craftsmen would do. And in so doing they would bring down the vaunted powers of the earth. The nations would be brought to heel by the building of the temple of God, the church! This is an OT and visionary way of saying what Jesus and Paul said in a more straightforward fashion: “I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” “God, make disciples of all nations.” “Jesus Christ is head over all things for the church.” And “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” and “the Lord’s power is made perfect in our weakness,” or “the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds,” or as ministers of life and death “we hold this treasure in earthen vessels.”
The identity of these craftsmen is left vague. Zechariah is not told who the craftsmen are or how they will terrify the nations. The point is that those who attack the people of God will find themselves eventually defeated.
The promise of the judgment of Israel’s enemies is itself a promise of restoration for the people of God. The sight of a man with a measuring line (we would say tape measure today; or perhaps surveying instruments) suggests that the rebuilding of the city is about to begin. The Lord has promised to restore the city, so this young man, with youthful enthusiasm is getting to work. But, as a matter of fact, this is not the time to rebuild the walls. That would not happen for another 75 years; not until Nehemiah arrived. Whether that fact is contemplated here is difficult to determine.
The picture is that of the angel who had been talking to Zechariah being himself dispatched by a second angel, presumably one of the others we met in the first vision, to talk to the young surveyor to tell him that the surveying work he is planning to do is unnecessary. The young man is thinking too small! The city can’t be rebuilt in the fashion of an ancient city with walls, such as Jerusalem had been, because the population is going to be so large, so constantly expanding, that no matter how large the city was made or how far apart the walls were placed the space would soon be too small.
The problem with an un-walled village, of course, was that it was unprotected. Not to worry! The Lord would be his people’s walls, and a wall not of stone but of fire. Perhaps you remember the image in Psalm 125:2:
“As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the Lord surrounds his people both now and for evermore.”
With this the vision ends and it is followed by three short oracles or prophetic deliverances. [Webb, 80]
Babylon had already been destroyed, but by this time it had come to be a symbol of the world in its hostility to God. Hence Babylon here and not Persia. That symbolism would continue into the New Testament, as you know, and feature in the book of Revelation, where Babylon becomes the name of the anti-God world state. In that first century context Babylon was Rome and all the great powers that would follow her. In that sense, America today is Babylon. To leave Babylon, then, was to break with the unbelieving world and make your way with the people of God. The final judgment of Babylon in this sense awaits the Great Day.
For the exiles who still remained in Babylon, who had not yet returned to Judah, time was a wasting. In view of what was to come, their place was with the people of God in the land of promise. They may have been spread to the four winds, but it is now time to return home. Strictly speaking, Babylon was more east than north of Judah, but the route from Babylon to Judah finished from north to south because a more direct route was blocked by the desert. [Duguid, 90]
That is one way to read the statement. However, there is a question as to whether the translation should be “to Zion” or simply “Zion.” There is no preposition in the Hebrew; it has to be supplied. If it should be read “Escape, Zion…” as many commentators think, it is confirmation of the fact that one did not have to live in Judah in order to be a true son or daughter of Israel. In that case there is no command here to return to the Promised Land. [McComiskey, 1058-1059] The Babylonian exile was the formal beginning of the situation that endures to this day, with many more Jews living somewhere else than the holy land than living within it. We call this Jewish population the diaspora, all those Jews who live someplace else rather than Israel but the diaspora was preparation for the situation of the Christian church which would inhabit the entire world and be found within every tongue, tribe and nation.
This is perhaps the most difficult verse in Zechariah to translate, but it makes sense if we understand that it is Zechariah himself who is actually speaking. One commentator suggests the following: “In pursuit of [his own] glory, [the Lord of hosts] sent me [Zechariah, with a message] concerning the nations that plundered you.” [Duguid, 91] Or as another puts the point: “God will manifest his glory among his people by vindicating himself in the eyes of the nations and erasing the false images they had of him by proving himself to be the one who controls their destinies.
The content of the message is perfectly easy to understand: “The one who troubles Israel is going to have to answer to the Lord of hosts!” The ESV has “apple of his eye.” The literal translation is “pupil of his eye” and the idea is not so much affection as sensitivity. We are all very protective of our eyes!
As is typically the case in history, the powerful are eventually brought down by the very people they had conquered and abused.
The idea is of the Lord coming to his people and taking his place among them is a feature of Biblical revelation from the beginning to the end. The King of Kings will dwell with his people and they with him. The blessing that God will bestow upon the Jews who faithfully undertake the rebuilding of the temple and the country is the near fulfillment of this promise; the incarnation and the Second Coming are the nearer and more distant but greater fulfillment of it. The Lord is with us always; but he was with us during the days of his sojourn in the world even more so and will be with us again still more wonderfully in the world to come.
So far from being despised by the nations, the nations will clamor to join themselves to Israel and they too will become the people of God. This development, of course, was long anticipated in the Old Testament — the promise to Abraham was that all the nations would be blessed through him — and in the NT we learn that it is being fulfilled in the worldwide evangelistic work of the church, the calling of God’s elect from every tongue, tribe, and nation on the earth. This will be a major theme of the later chapters of the prophecy.
The idea of Judah as the Lord’s inheritance is found elsewhere in the OT and speaks of the status that the people of God will have: the heirs of God himself!
When the Lord stirs and takes action, there is nothing mankind can do but remain silent and await his will. In other words, an urgent response is called for because God is on his way! [Webb, 80]
It is difficult for American Christians to put themselves in the position of people, and there have been a great many such people in the history of the world, who have lived their entire lives under foreign domination. We’ve lived as free citizens of what has been all our lives the most powerful nation on the earth. What is more, our country has until very recently been friendly to the Christian church. It wasn’t that many years ago that a Supreme Court Justice could say without fear of contradiction that the United States was a Christian country. Christian belief, though certainly not sincerely embraced by most Americans, was publicly respected and its practice was not only legally protected but almost actively encouraged. But it wasn’t going to last — it never does — and both will come to an end in time: both American hegemony and the cheerful acceptance of Christian conviction in the society as a whole.
Zechariah, in his day, reminded his countrymen that, at the time, Assyria had been confident that it would rule the world forever. It rode roughshod over a great many nations and seemed unstoppable. Or, it did until it wasn’t any more. The time came, much sooner than any Assyrian imagined it would that it was the Assyrians turn to suffer at the hands of a power greater than they. And the Babylonians thought the same about themselves when they climbed over many nations to the top of the heap; or so they did until they were themselves conquered by the Persians; and that is what the Persians thought until Alexander the Great arrived on their doorstep. And so it continued. That is what the Greeks thought until the Romans arrived; what the Spaniards thought until the English turned them into a second rate power; what the British thought until the Americans brushed them aside; what the Russians thought until the Soviet empire fell of its own weight. What is the theory here? That America of all the nations in the history of the world will remain on the top of the heap forever? We’re struggling to pay our own bills!
But all of this is important not because anyone really cares about Assyria or Babylon or Greece or Rome, or, for that matter, not because most of the world cares about American today. The rest of the world doesn’t care about us. The rise and fall of nations is important because it is the backdrop against which God deals with his people and the social and political context in which he builds his kingdom in the world. Nations comes and go, but the kingdom of God endures forever. Always has, always will.
It was, in fact, in Zechariah’s time as it has been ever since, that the fortunes of God’s people were in some ways shaped by the imperial world in which they lived, what nowadays we would be inclined to call our country and our culture. And yet that world — friendly or hostile as it might be — was only the environment in which individual Christians were to work out their salvation in fear and trembling and in which the church was to build up the saints and bear witness to the world. The calling is the same no matter the times and circumstances, but the circumstances can be made easier or more difficult by the social and political context.
The times of Zechariah were difficult for the faithful. They were living at the beck and call of foreign powers; it seemed that they were of no particular consequence to anyone. But the fact was that they were of great consequence. Greater than the Babylonians and the Persians put together. They were the people of God. They were the only kingdom in the world of that day that would exist in five hundred years, in a thousand, in two thousand, indeed as long as the world endures. The other kingdoms would come and go, and eventually, in the same way, this two hundred fifty year period of American hegemony will be interesting primarily to scholars and the poor students who have to learn World History in their classes at school. America’s history will prove eventually pretty much to be the same story that has been told over and over again. She will be forgotten. But what these believers did in the world eventually would be seen to have counted forever. The nations would come and go but the people of God endure forever and their work in the world counts forever.
Such a day of difficulty may soon be coming to us as it had come to Zechariah’s contemporaries so we find a challenge here. We find a question posed to us. Are we prepared? Our numbers are dwindling. I read not long ago that, no matter the rise of mega-churches, there is not a single county in the United States so far identified that has a larger church population than it did ten years ago! But still worse is the growing animosity toward Christian convictions. It is worse in Great Britain, so long a bastion of Christian influence; as bad or worse in Germany. It is already illegal in Germany to spank your children. But our American culture is following Europe in lockstep in developments like these. Our U.S. courts have said that it is illegal for a Christian photographer to refuse to sell his service to a gay couple wanting him to photograph their wedding ceremony or for a Christian florist to refuse to supply flowers for such a wedding. It may probably not be another nation that takes us out — as Judah by the Babylonians — but our own! Freedom of religion may soon mean for us only that we are free to think our private thoughts about God so long as we keep them to ourselves and don’t act on them.
The Prices, Jim and Paige, Florence and I have recently been up close and personal with some modern counterparts of the Jews of Zechariah’s day. Do you have any idea what it is like being a Christian in Russia today? We certainly don’t after a single week in St. Petersburg, but we have an inkling, having spoken to many of these pastors and their wives. Let me give you some idea of what it’s like to be a Christian in Russia today.
There is almost nothing in the way of a Christian social fabric. Indeed, in this respect the situation is far worse in Russia in the 21st century than it was in Judea in the 6th century B.C. The Jews had a deep and rich tradition of biblical teaching and spiritual life. They had the long history of revelation, from Moses to Jeremiah. They had prophets even then: Haggai and Zechariah. They knew very well the history of their covenant with Yahweh. They understood that their diminished circumstances were the direct result of their spiritual infidelity to the Lord. Not so in Russia. After three generations of communism — aggressive atheism and state power deployed to stamp out what religious tendencies remained in the culture and to destroy the power of the family as a counterweight to state power — the general population is virtually bereft of higher impulses.
But more than that there is very little to remember even if Russians were to remember their spiritual history. The Reformation missed them altogether. There never was a time in Russian history when the people or even a substantial portion of the people were powerfully and thoroughly evangelized in faithfulness to the biblical gospel. Until the communist era the population was virtually universally illiterate, only the wealthy and powerful knew how to read and write. This was never a people that read the Bible for themselves and learned to think as free men under the tutelage of the Word of God. It always was only such a Christian nation as superstition, ritualism, and unthinking conformity to the practices of the group could make it. Genuine evangelical faith and life were never found except in tiny enclaves within the great mass of the Russian people. There is no great tradition of Christian faith and life in Russian history if what is meant is faith and life as defined in the Bible.
The Russian Orthodox Church has a public presence and some of its influence can be positive in some ways, but the people as a whole are either irreligious altogether or superstitious as their ancestors were. Jim and I witnessed the kissing of icons in the magnificent St. Isaac’s cathedral in the center of St. Petersburg. The atheistic state may have fallen, but atheism, whether theoretical or practical, is alive and well in modern Russia. It remains the state religion if one can call it that. And superstition is its nearest competitor.
In some others places where these pastors live and work — in the former republics of the Soviet Union which are predominantly Muslim — the practice of the Christian faith is positively illegal. In the case of a young man in Jim’s and my classes, his Christian sister was arrested for promoting and leading a ladies’ gathering for Bible study and prayer. Having met in the woods, they suddenly found themselves surrounded by policemen with machine guns. She and several other Christian women were threatened with three months in prison unless they paid a substantial fine. No one wanted her to be subjected to even that amount of time to life in a Russian prison. They were able to raise the money from Christian friends in the United States and avoided prison but they have not ceased their gospel work and another such encounter with the state is a very real danger. That young man, doing gospel work in one of the former Soviet republics, wants to get married, has fallen in love with and proposed to a young Christian woman, and she wants to marry him, but her father is a Muslim and so far he has forbidden the match.
Others do not face dangers or obstacles of those kinds, but must make their way in what are still sometimes heart-breaking and discouraging circumstances. These are first generation Christians to the man and woman. They have no Christian parents and grandparents. They have few Christian friends in their cities or towns. There is no Christian society of which they are a part. Some of the pastors’ wives feel especially isolated. They haven’t a community of Christian friends such as we take for granted here. It was heaven itself for them to gather with their peers in St. Petersburg because at home they have nothing like that happy fellowship with like-minded women.
One pastor has a fifteen-year-old daughter who has no Christian peers, much less Christian friends. She is the only Christian in her school. Many of these parents are just now, for the first time, thinking about what they are going to have to do to provide an education for their children. The government schools — still schools of atheism or Islam — are a toxic environment for young Christians, but there are no established alternatives. Christian schools do not exist in most of these places — hardly even in a great city like St. Petersburg — and there are too few Christian children to attend them if they did. They are beginning to think seriously about home-schooling because it is legal in Russia and they literally have no alternative. But to homeschool your children when no one you know is doing it and you don’t know how to do it and when government bureaucrats may well make your life difficult as a result is a daunting prospect for a husband or a wife who has little or no education himself or herself.
These men are pioneers. More so by far than the returning exiles for whom Zechariah was given his visions. Few of them have even a high school education, much less college or university, whereas Zechariah’s contemporaries had a deep tradition of biblical learning. There is little in the way of public witness, few Christian books to hand to friends or neighbors, little in the way of a Christian presence on the radio or television. Our classes met in a Christian college in the city. It has something in the neighborhood of 300 students in a variety of undergraduate and graduate Bible programs. But it is virtually the only one of its kind in that immense country. The acting president of the institution was the only man we met on our trip who was born and raised in a Christian home. I asked him if most of his students were from Christian families, but they are primarily converts. I asked him if there were a Christian liberal arts college anywhere in Russia: a place where a Christian student might go to study history or biology or physics under Christian professors. There is not. The institutions we take for granted here do not exist in Russia and will have to be created out of whole cloth and that, you can be sure, will take a very large amount of blood, sweat, and tears from a small number of Christians who realize what the kingdom of God is going to need in coming years in that great land.
The churches are small, too poor to support even these committed men who work for very little as it is. One pastor and his wife declined to adopt the brother of the little girl that they had previously adopted simply because the family of three lives in a one room apartment. Heartbreaking!That is the believing church in Russia today. It exists, to be sure, but it is very small; in the language of Zechariah’s third vision, its craftsmen are few, and the job of building the temple of God in Russia seems impossibly difficult.
But slowly and step by step they are making progress. There is a seminary program. It is rudimentary, but better than what existed just a few years ago. There are churches being established here and there. People are coming to Christ, not in the numbers that were seen in the early 1990s, but in ones and twos. Christian families are growing. I looked over one Sunday morning in the worship service to a beautiful, young family, the parents probably in their mid to later thirties, their four children sitting with them. Children are being raised to love and serve the Lord. Young men are being trained for the ministry of the Word. And contact is being eagerly maintained with the church in the West not for reasons of dependency but because these Russian believers are very aware of how much they must learn and how quickly they must learn it.
So whether we are speaking of the situation of Zechariah’s contemporaries, of our own in America today, or that of believers in Russia, the message of these two night visions crackles with relevance. A message for our times! We may be living in a day of small things, in fact the things may become smaller and smaller as the days pass. But we are awaiting great things. We are to rejoice and sing in anticipation of what the Lord is about to do. The nations, cultures, political powers that are living in defiance of the Lord and his will would do well to keep silence, because when the Lord begins to move there will be nothing that they can do.
We have here the thought of Psalm 2:10-12:
“Now, therefore, O kings; be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth.
Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling.
Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.” [Duguid, 95]
And if that is true, and it is, then it is our privilege to contribute our little bit to the progress of that kingdom, so that when it comes in power and glory, we can say that we had a part in preparing for the day. “We cannot pray ‘Your kingdom come’ [as we do every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer] without at the same time being committed to keeping the ‘craft’, the ‘trade’ of gospel ministry [and the work of the church] at the very center of our life and vision, both as individuals and as the church. This is a summons to be good carpenters, masons, weavers in the building project of the Lord. May God make us good, hard-working, and skillful carpenters in his building project!” Because it will be craftsmen, builders of the temple, who will topple the kingdom of this world. [Webb, 79]