2. The Rider in the Myrtle Trees
The series of visions comprising the first six chapters of Zechariah are very similar in style to those of the Book of Revelation, the outstanding difference being that whereas Revelation deals with the Church's conflict with evil during this present Age, Zechariah's visions include Israel and her conflict with evil during the times before Christ. Both reach to the same period—that of the Messianic Kingdom upon earth. The style of symbolism, based on Old Testament history and prophecy, is common to both and it is likely that Zechariah, like John on Patmos, saw these strange and picturesque tableaux in waking moments, closely attuned to the influence of the Holy Spirit and completely unconscious of the everyday world around him. Whether they appeared as optical views before his physical sight or were directly impressed upon his brain is of no consequence; in either case the understanding was conveyed to his mind so that to Zechariah it was as if he indeed stood and observed in a world where these things were real.
The first vision (chapters 1:8 to 2:13) showed him a man, riding a red horse, standing motionless in a grove of myrtle trees at the bottom of a deep valley. Behind the rider appeared others, also mounted on horses, denoted red, speckled and white. Zechariah enquires as to the identity of these riders, and an angel—the "revealing angel" who remains with the prophet throughout the visions—tells him that they are those whom the Lord has destined to wander through the earth. At this point the riders address a cry to their leader on the red horse complaining that in their wanderings they find that all other peoples in the earth are at ease and rest; they alone apparently are compelled to wander eternally. At this the leader on the red horse, who is now called "the Angel of Jehovah", raises his voice to God, desiring him that He will show mercy to Jerusalem and Judah, who have been under his displeasure for seventy years. The Lord replies with an assurance that the time has come for his displeasure to be lifted, for Jerusalem to be rebuilt, and prosperity come to Israel. At this point a pair of horned bulls appear on the scene and the prophet becomes aware of the menace of their four powerful horns. To his further enquiry the angel declares that these horns are the powers which have scattered Israel and Judah over the earth but their power is about to be broken. Behind the bulls come four craftsmen bearing the tools of their trade; these, said the angel, come to restrain and break the power of the horns and make possible fulfilment of the Divine promise.
The key to this rather strange imagery is contained in verse 12, where the Angel of Jehovah cries "O LORD of hosts, how long wilt thou not have mercy on Jerusalem and on the cities of Judah, against which thou hast had indignation these threescore and ten years?" This is obviously in reference to the Babylonian captivity recently ended, which was always described in terms of a punishment of seventy years. On this basis the subject of the vision is Israel at the time of the Restoration and this is the starting point of Zechariah's prophecies.
The mounted riders, sent by the Lord to "walk to an fro through the earth" (Zech.1:10) are symbols of the people of Israel, condemned to banishment, to be wanderers and exiles among all nations. The other nations of mankind, by contrast, "sitteth still, and is at rest" (1:11) in their homes, but Israel has no home. Because of past apostasies the Lord has dispersed Israel thus. Now the time has come for her to be regathered to her own land, symbolised by the myrtle trees in the deep valley. The myrtle, indigenous to Canaan, is used as a symbol of the Holy Land; in Zechariah's day Judah was not, as at other times, exalted to the tops of the mountains, but occupied a very subordinate position as a province of Persia, hence "in the valley" (A.V. "bottom" (1:8)). There were three groups of horses, distinguished by three colours. The Israelite riders are carried by the horses "to and fro through the earth"; evidently in the horses we are expected to see the hostile nations which conquered Israel and took the people into captivity. There were three such up to Zechariah's day, Assyria, Babylon and Persia. One group of horses was red, one "speckled", and one white. The rendering of "speckled" is open to question; the word only occurs once elsewhere, in Isa.16:8 where it is translated "principal plants". Ellicott suggests that "seruqqim" here is a corruption of "shechorim" which means black, and this supposition if accepted creates a harmony between these horses and those of the later vision in chapter 6, which lends support. On the assumption that this conclusion is justified there is a certain fitness in the colours. The red horses picture the Assyrian power, the first to exile Israel from the land and carry them away "through the earth"; red is the colour of blood and hence a symbol of war, and Assyria more than the others waged frightful and unrelenting war in the pursuit of its ends. The black horses picture Babylon, the next nation to enslave Israel. The Babylonians were not so outrageously cruel as the Assyrians; they waged war only for the attainment of their object and Israel's bondage to them was characterised more by the hopelessness of captivity in a strange land without hope of release. The blackness of death was a fitting symbol of Babylonian bondage. "By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion" (Psa.137:1 RSV). In contrast to that, the Persian rule which succeeded Babylon was one of tolerance and favour, opportunity for the exiles to return and rebuild their homeland. Hence the white horses fitly indicate Persia.
Now the wanderers have returned to the homeland. They stand among the myrtle trees, and with them is their princely champion, the Angel of Jehovah, himself riding a red horse. He also has come forth for war, but in his case it is war for the deliverance of the oppressed people. They have someone to plead their cause before God and to lead them unto victory. This is not the first time that the Old Testament hints at an other‑worldly power pledged to the defence and triumph of Israel. Joshua, contemplating his plans for the conquest of the Promised Land, was met by a celestial visitant, a soldier with drawn sword, who told him "as captain of the host of the LORD am I now come" (Josh.5:3‑14). In the days of Hezekiah the Angel of Jehovah appeared in the night and decimated the Assyrian army (2 Kings 19:35). In the last great conflict, said the revealing angel to Daniel, Michael the great prince will stand up to deliver Israel and bring the evil powers to an end (Dan.12:1) and Michael here is but a cover name for the Angel of Jehovah. His true identity is made known in the Book of Revelation, where in chapter 19 the Heavenly Rider appears to make short work of the armies of evil, and reveals his name; the Word of God! Here in Zechariah, then, the Angel of Jehovah is the Divine Logos, later to be personified on earth as Jesus Christ the Son of God, here pictured as superintending the regathering of Israel and the overthrow of Israel's enemies. In all of this there is a vivid fore‑view of a greater regathering and a greater overthrow when this same Divine Word, "this same Jesus", is revealed in the power of his Second Advent for the world's deliverance.
The Angel of Jehovah cried to the Lord for an end to Israel's exile and suffering; the answer came, not to him but to the revealing angel with a message for the prophet. "Thus saith the LORD of hosts; I am zealous for Jerusalem and for Zion with a great zeal" ("jealousy" in the O.T. has the meaning for which we now use the word "zeal") "...I am returned to Jerusalem with mercies:…my cities through prosperity shall yet be spread abroad; and the LORD shall yet comfort Zion, and shall yet choose Jerusalem" (ch.1:13‑17).
Here is the basic promise. The people shall be restored and Israel shall rise again. The national enthusiasm aroused by this message did indeed have the effect of creating a revived Jewish State, even though subject to Gentile rule, for a few centuries, but eventually the heavy hand of the oppressor came down upon them again. The promise had only a limited fulfilment, for the people were not yet ready for their high destiny.
"Then lifted I up mine eyes, and saw, and behold four horns" (ch.1:18). These were most likely representations of the horns of bulls, used so often in the Scriptures as metaphors for the idea of power or brute force, and by extension of ideas to denote, prophetically, earthly powers or kingdoms. Thus "the horn of Moab is cut off" (Jer.48:25) denoting the end of Moab as a nation; there are many similar instances. The angel explained the horns as symbolising the powers "which have scattered Judah, Israel, and Jerusalem" (ch.1:19). Immediately behind the horns came four "carpenters" (ch.1:20 A.V.). The Hebrew word means any craftsman or worker whether in wood, metal or stone; perhaps "craftsmen" is the happiest rendering since nothing is said as to whether they were carpenters, blacksmiths or stonemasons. Whereas the horns pictured the earthly powers which had desolated Israel, the craftsmen, said the angel, represented a further power which was to destroy the horns. "These are the horns which have scattered Judah, so that no man did lift up his head: but these" (the craftsmen) "are come to fray them, to cast out the horns of the Gentiles" (ch.1:21). This word "fray" is rendered by most modern translators to terrify or frighten; "fray" in modern English means to rub or file down or to wear away, but in medieval English and therefore in the A.V. it meant to terrify or affright, and is the root of our modern words "afraid" and "affray". It is tempting to think of the four horns finding reality in the four empires which held Israel in thrall, Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome, but in such case there would need to be found four individual powers to act as their conquerors. It might well be that since the number four is associated with the idea of universality as respects things on the earth—four winds of the earth, four corners, and so on—the idea here conveyed is that of the entire assembly of hostile nations at enmity with Israel helpless in the face of a new development, the appearance of a corps of craftsmen, of builders, who not only cannot be resisted but eventually strike terror into the hearts of the enemy. From this point of view the vision may well picture the commencement of a great development in the outworking purpose of God. Up to this time, the people of God have been helpless in the grip of their enemies. That grip has been loosened and there now appears a company of builders, of craftsmen, who are going to build the Temple of God and make it an architectural and artistic creation to the glory of God, and there is nothing the nations can do to stop it. And when that Temple is complete its builders will become a means in the Lord's hand to annihilate all evil. No wonder the enemies are terrified. The horns of evil are to be broken and scattered; the craftsmen, rejoicing in the edifice they have erected, will emerge triumphant.
To a degree this vision had an application in the building of the Second Temple and the restoration of the Jewish State in the days of Zechariah, but only to a degree. Other horns were afterwards to appear with their threats of oppression; other builders come upon the scene to build an even greater and spiritual Temple. The symbols must surely find their full scope in the work of all God's servants, whether Old Testament Jew or New Testament Christian, labouring to build that edifice which will become the meeting place between God and man in the coming Age of blessing. The builders of times gone by, the builders of today, all will find that their combined life's labours have resulted in the weakening and final downfall of the horns of the nations. Had Israel in the days of the Restoration been all that was indicated, one solitary craftsman could have filled the picture; the fact that four craftsmen, as four horns, are seen, denotes that in them is included the entire, the universal, company of labourers for God in all ages, united together in one great work, the builders of the symbolic Temple of God and the elimination of all evil from among the nations.
All this was still in prospect. Jerusalem as yet was still in ruins and the prophet was painfully conscious that his people needed positive assurance of the future. That assurance was now given. Chapter 2 opens with a new character in the drama, a man carrying a "measuring line", more properly a surveyor's cord, for this man is a surveyor, come to measure out the ground and plan the new Jerusalem. This was the answer he gave to the prophet's enquiry. "To measure Jerusalem" he said "to see what is (to be) the breadth thereof, and…the length thereof" (ch.2:2). This is the first result of the promise given in chapter 1:16 "I am returned to Jerusalem with mercies:...saith the LORD of hosts, and a line shall be stretched forth upon Jerusalem". The city destroyed seventy years before by Nebuchadnezzar was to rise again.
But there is a new aspect to this restoration of the ancient city. Whilst the surveyor was getting on with his task, the revealing angel left Zechariah's side and "went forth" to meet "another angel" who was advancing towards him. It seems very likely that this "other angel" was in fact the Angel of Jehovah of chapter 1, for the words he speaks in the following verses and the position of authority he seems to occupy are hardly appropriate to anyone of lesser rank. He gives the revealing angel an instruction. "Run, speak to this young man" he says, referring to Zechariah, who was a silent observer "saying, Jerusalem shall be inhabited as towns without walls for the multitude of men and cattle therein" (ch.2:3‑4). These few words expand the scope of the prophecy at one step to include the glory of Israel at the end of this present Age. The expression "towns without walls" is exactly the same as the "unwalled villages" of Ezek.38:11. "Perazoth" denotes unfortified country villages, incapable of defence against an enemy. At only one time in history can Jerusalem be described by the epithet "perazoth" and that is when the inhabitants thereof have put their entire trust in God for deliverance from their foes. "For I, saith the LORD, will be unto her a wall of fire round about, and will be the glory in the midst of her" (ch.2:5). This is an expression definitely associated with Israel's final triumph. "The LORD shall be unto thee an everlasting light, and thy God thy glory" (Isa.60:19). "In that day shall this song be sung in the land of Judah; We have a strong city; salvation will God appoint for walls and bulwarks" (Isa.26:1). Verses 4 and 5 are clearly intended to extend the scope of the vision from the Restoration of Zechariah's own day to the greater and final restoration at the time that God comes in power for the salvation of men. To express the same thing in New Testament language, it is the time of our Lord's Second Advent and the establishment of his Millennial Kingdom.
On the basis of this promise God now calls his people back from captivity. Here there is an extension of prophetic view into future times, for at this moment the nation had already returned from Babylon and were engaged in the rebuilding of their national polity. But not all. There were more Jews remaining in Babylon than returned with Zerubbabel and Joshua. In the days of the Book of Esther, only thirty years later, they were to be found in every province of the Persian Empire, from Egypt in the west to India in the east. The vast majority of the Ten Tribes had not come back; they were still in the mountains of Assyria and Media, and most of them never did come back. Here in the prophecy the Lord is looking to a greater and still future Return and a correspondingly greater Restoration.
"Ho, ho, come forth, and flee from the land of the north, saith the LORD; for I have spread you abroad as the four winds of the heaven...Escape to Zion, you who dwell with the daughter of Babylon" (ch.2:6 A.V..7 R.S.V.). There is a two‑fold Return envisaged here. Those who still dwell with Babylon are bidden to escape to the homeland whilst yet there is time; those who have been scattered to the four winds of heaven, an expression indicating the widespread lands of all the earth, are called to take their flight homeward. As respects this latter injunction, at the time of the vision Israel had not yet been scattered, in that sense, to the four winds of heaven, so that here again we have a word which carries us forward in time to the day, to use the words of Jeremiah, when God will send for fishers and hunters to seek out his people from every part of the world and send them home (Jer.16:16). And the next two verses clinch the argument, for the Lord goes on to declare that He will shake his hand over the enslaving nations and they will become a spoil to Israel (ch.2:8‑9). That cannot be until the close of this world order. In no sense of the word did Persia in Zechariah's day become "a spoil" to Israel, nor have the powers of this world at any time since. Upon the contrary, before many centuries had passed Jerusalem entered that phase foretold by our Lord when He said that Jerusalem would be trodden down of the Gentiles until the Times of the Gentiles should be fulfilled.
The rest of the vision almost explains itself. "I come, and I will dwell in the midst of thee, saith the LORD" (ch.2:10). Words of tremendous import mirrored in John's visions of Revelation "the tabernacle (dwelling place) of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God...shall...be their God" (Rev.21:3), and if the Revelator's words in fact take in their scope, not Israel alone but all mankind, that does not destroy the analogy for both are true in point of time. The next verse in Zechariah demonstrates that. "And many nations shall be joined to the LORD in that day, and shall be my people: and I will dwell in the midst of thee, and thou shalt know that the LORD of hosts hath sent me unto thee (you)" (ch.2:11). Words such as these can only be true at the end of this Age when Heaven comes down to earth for the salvation of mankind. This entire vision, which begins its story with the return of a band of Jewish exiles to their ruined land in about the year 536 B.C. as riders upon red, black, white horses led by the Divine Lord on his red horse, closes with the greater return from all countries of the earth and at the end of this world‑Age, led still by that same Divine Lord. His name now, in this greater and more momentous context, is called the Word of God. He appears from the heavens, still mounted upon a steed for war, and of him it is said "in righteousness he doth judge and make war" (Rev.19:11). What wonder that this first of Zechariah's visions closes with the commanding words "Be silent, O all flesh, before the LORD: for he is raised up out of his holy habitation". (ch.2:13)
To be continued
Horses come in various colours. The modern thoroughbred horse is a mix between British mares and Arabian stallions. The Arabian horse comes from the region where Zechariah was writing from, Israel. The most common colours are:‑
Bay—the coats are tan‑coloured with black manes and tails
Chestnut—the coats are from red‑yellow to golden‑yellow with a mane and tail of a similar colour. If a horse is named say 'Red Fanfare' it is often a chestnut because of the reddish hue.
Brown—with a dark or brown coat with a brown mane and tail.
Grey—with a mix of black and white hairs in the coat and a black or grey mane and tail. Such horses often go white when they are old.
Roan—with a mix of red and white coat hairs, the mane and tail can be black or chestnut.
Palomino—golden yellow coat with a flaxen, straw‑coloured mane and tail.
All these colours can be with patches of white part from the white horse which is entirely white.