By Edward Dennett
This short message from Jehovah to the people, which is found in the first six verses, is the introduction to the whole book. In verse 1, the date with the genealogy of the prophet is given; and the reader will note the significant fact that, as in Haggai so here, the date is indicative of the times of the Gentiles. It was "in the eighth month, in the second year of Darius." Through the failure of the kingdom in man's hand, God had transferred His earthly throne from Jerusalem to Babylon, and to its successors. At this time, Babylon having fallen, Darius was the head of the Gentile monarchy, and hence the introduction of his name.
The commencement of this "word of the Lord" is abrupt and solemn; and it is designed to recall to the minds of the people Jehovah's past ways with their fathers, both as a warning and a ground of appeal. "The Lord hath been sore displeased with your fathers." (v. 2.) Did not the people know it? Was not their present mean condition, in contrast with the glory and prosperity of the past, an evidence of it? The fact that God's chosen people should have been carried away captive, and that they were only now permitted to return by the will of a Gentile monarch, was surely enough to awaken sad reflections as to the cause of their humiliation and sorrow. But it is easy, as we all know, to become habituated to our circumstances, and to ignore the Lord's hand in them, and thus to blame anything and everything, rather than ourselves. It is on this account that the prophet goes down to the root of things, and reminds them of their fathers' sin and the Lord's consequent displeasure.
The next verse contains a principle of the utmost importance. "Therefore say thou unto them, Thus saith the Lord of hosts; Turn ye unto me, saith the Lord of hosts, and I will turn unto you, saith the Lord of hosts." (v. 3.) "The gifts and calling of God are without repentance" (Rom. 11:29); and thus He never gives up the purposes of His grace whatever the practical condition of His people. Their sin may bring down His chastening hand upon them, but He does not break off His relationship with them on this account. As He Himself hath said, "I am the Lord, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed." (Mal. 3:6.) The unchanging character of His relationships in grace with His people lies, indeed, at the basis of all His dealings with them; and hence, because He is a faithful God, He can send such a message as this before us — "Turn ye unto me, and I will turn unto you." Being what He is, He could not sanction their transgressions and iniquities, and He thus reminds them that the condition of His presence with them, of His actings on their behalf, is that they turn unto Him. As James says, "Draw nigh to God, and He will draw nigh to you." (James 4:8; compare 2 Chronicles 15:2.) It is so now. The Lord can say that He will never leave nor forsake His people, that having loved His own that are in the world, He loves them unto the end, but, at the same time, He will never walk with them, or minister to them the consolations of His presence, in their backslidings and sins. The maintenance of dependence and obedience, of communion with Him, is the secret of all blessing. (Compare John 14:21-23.) The reader will remark the solemn sanctions appended to this exhortation. Three times are the words "The Lord of hosts" repeated, seeking in this way to reach the consciences of the people, and to remind them of the power and majesty of their covenant God.
The exhortation is based further upon the sad example of their fathers. The former prophets had cried unto them, in the name of the Lord of hosts, "Turn ye now from your evil ways, and from your evil doings: but they did not hear, nor hearken unto me, saith the Lord." (v. 4.) And what was the consequence? Have any of the Lord's people found the path of disobedience to be a path of safety or blessing? No; that were impossible; and Zechariah recalls the fact to the people's mind that, while their fathers and the prophets who had spoken to them the word of the Lord had passed off the scene, the word of God had not failed. "But my words and my statutes, which I commanded my servants the prophets, did they not take hold of [margin, overtake] your fathers? and they returned and said, Like as the Lord of hosts thought to do unto us, according to our ways, and according to our doings, so hath he dealt with us." (v. 6.) We thus learn that the word of God never returns to Him void, that it must accomplish that which He pleases; heaven and earth may pass away, but His word will never perish; it will infallibly execute the mission on which it is sent. Woe therefore to him who neglects it, who walks according to his own will instead of by the light which it affords; for sooner or later he will have to confess, as these fathers did, that the word was sure, and that, if its warnings were despised, its threatenings would surely be accomplished. (Compare Joshua 23:14-19.)
Such are the foundation principles with which Zechariah commences his prophetic mission; first, the condition of all blessing (v. 3); second, the evils of disobedience (v. 4); thirdly, the immutable character of the word of God, as unchangeable in its warnings as in its promises; and lastly, that God ever deals with His people, in His government, according to their ways and doings. And these principles are confined to no period, but obtain in and run through all dispensations, because they flow out from what God is in Himself in His unchanging and unchangeable character and nature.
More than three months elapsed, as will be seen from a comparison of the dates in verses 1 and 7, before the word of the Lord came again to Zechariah. His work was simple — to speak when He was commanded, and to be silent when he was without a divine message. Even the Lord Himself, coming to do the Father's will, took the same subject place; as He said, "I have not spoken of myself; but the Father which sent me, He gave me a commandment, what I should say, and what I should speak." (John 12:49; see also John 14:10) But since the Holy Ghost came, the direction, as for example, to Timothy, is "Preach the word; be instant in season, and out of season." (2 Tim. 4:2.) In all alike such a responsibility could only be met by the maintenance of a dependent spirit, and an opened ear. (See Isaiah 1. 4.)
It was an apocalyptic vision, in this case, vouchsafed to the prophet. He says, "I saw by night, and behold a man riding upon a red horse, and he stood among the myrtle trees that were in the bottom; and behind him were there red horses, speckled [margin, bay], and white." It is to be observed, as will be seen from verse 11, that the man on the red horse among the myrtle trees is the angel of the Lord. Angels are often spoken of as men. (See Luke 24:4 et passim.) Now a horse, to borrow the definition of another, is "the symbol of divine energy of government in the earth," and hence there will be, in some sort, a correspondence between the horse of the angel, and the three sets of horses standing behind him; and this fact will afford the key wherewith to unlock the mystery of the vision. As every reader of prophecy knows, when God committed the government of the earth, on removing His throne from Jerusalem, to Nebuchadnezzar, it was revealed that three kingdoms would succeed that of Babylon before the kingdom of Christ should be established. At the time of this prophetic vision Babylon had already been judged, and hence there were only these three to follow; viz., Persia, Greece, and Rome.1 It is very evident, therefore, that these three empires are represented by the red, speckled, and white horses. Another feature is to be noticed. The colour of the horse on which the angel sits is the same as that of the red horses; that is, the horses which represent the Persian empire. The reason of this may be found in the fact that, at this time, the throne of Persia was favourable to the restored remnant in Judea, as is seen from Ezra 6; and we learn now that the energy of government, acting at this moment through human hands on behalf of God's people, had its source in God Himself: that it was the angel on the red horse that directed, though unseen, the movements of the red horses of Persia's throne. This indeed is characteristic of God's government of the earth all through the period during which Lo-ammi (see Hosea 1) is written upon His people. Man acts, and apparently according to his own arbitrary will, doing as he pleases, but we gather, especially from the book of Esther, that "the king's heart is in the hand of the Lord, as the rivers of water: He turneth it whithersoever He will." (Prov. 21:1) How calmly, therefore, may God's people rest, in the consciousness of this, in the midst of the busy movements and political agitations of the world!
The prophet enquires as to the meaning of the vision unfolded before his eyes. (v. 9.) "And the man that stood among the myrtle trees answered and said, These are they whom the Lord hath sent to walk to and fro through the earth." (v. 10) The reader may find instruction in comparing the expression in Revelation 5: "A Lamb … having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God sent forth into all the earth." (v. 6.) This fixes the interpretation of verse 10; for the Lamb "in the midst of the throne" has in this scene the government of the earth in His hands, although He has not yet taken it into possession. So here, the horses are they "whom the Lord has sent forth to walk to and fro through the earth" — the power of government, universal government, being deposited for the time in their hands. To him — to the angel of the Lord — they also give account of what they found in their mission: "We have walked to and fro through the earth, and, behold, all the earth sitteth still, and is at rest." (v. 11)
The meaning of this report is discovered by what follows. Jerusalem was lying desolate, and God's people were in captivity, and the nations, careless of the state of this despised people, and of the thoughts of God towards them, were at rest. Jehovah had used the Gentiles to inflict His chastisements upon His rebellious and apostate people, and had, as we have pointed out, committed the government of the earth into their hands; but, instead of holding it in responsibility to God, they exercised it for their own enrichment and aggrandisement, and for the oppression of the people over whom they had been permitted to triumph. He therefore says, "I am very sore displeased with the heathen that are at ease: for I was but a little displeased, and they helped forward the affliction." (v. 15; compare Isaiah 47:6; Jeremiah 50. 51) Man, as ever, cannot understand the thoughts of God.
On receiving the report as to the state of the earth2 "the angel of the Lord answered and said, 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?" (V. 12.) What a comment upon man! Heaven was occupied with Jerusalem and Judah, while man was occupied with his own interests, and seeking only his own ease and prosperity. And what a lesson for the believer! Vain is the help of man, but he can always turn to God. As we read in the psalm (margin), "Shall I lift up mine eyes unto the hills? Whence should my help come? My help cometh from the Lord, who made heaven and earth." (Psalm 121:1-2.) The answer came immediately, and it was couched in "good and comfortable words." (v. 13). It is to be observed that the angel bases his plea upon the fact that the indignation had endured for seventy years — the period spoken of by Jeremiah the prophet. (Jer. 25:11-12; see also Daniel 9:2.) The time therefore had come for the Lord to remember Jerusalem; and blessed is it for those who, like Daniel, have understanding of the Lord's mind, and can plead with Him, in communion with His own thoughts, on behalf of His people. But if any would enjoy this privilege they must set themselves, also like Daniel, to understand by books — the books of Scripture — what the will of the Lord is. (Cp. John 15:7.)
The answer of Jehovah of hosts is contained in verses 14-17. In the first place the Lord declares His unalterable love for Jerusalem. The angel thus said to the prophet, "Cry thou, saying, Thus saith the Lord of hosts, I am jealous for Jerusalem and for Zion with a great jealousy." True that He Himself had caused the beloved city to be desolated, that Nebuchadnezzar was His own rod wherewith He had chastised her; but He had dealt thus with her because of her sins, and because indeed of the place of nearness and blessing which she had enjoyed (see Isaiah 1), but now she had received of the Lord's hand double for all her sins, and He could again speak to her heart. (Isaiah 40) Thus it was that the pent-up fires of His zeal and jealousy could again break out on her behalf; the love, which the sin of His people had driven back into His heart, could once more pour itself forth in efforts for her reestablishment and prosperity. This was the one object Jehovah had at this time on the earth; and hence it was that He was sore displeased with the heathen that were at case. (v. 15.) God could not rest because of the state of Jerusalem and Zion; the heathen could be at ease, for they had profited by the sins and sorrows of God's people, and they had no desire for the restoration of a city which, in former days, had been the object of their fear and envy. They had no communion, therefore, with Jehovah's mind. He had been "but a little displeased," and they, wreaking their own revenge, had "helped forward the affliction," and had thus laid the foundation for their own judgment when Jehovah should interpose for the accomplishment of His counsels of grace concerning His people.
After bringing out the contrast in this way between His own mind and that of the heathen, and consequently between His present attitude towards Jerusalem and them, Jehovah announces His unalterable purposes for the full blessing of Jerusalem and Zion. "Therefore thus saith the Lord of hosts; I am returned to Jerusalem with mercies: my house shall be built in it, saith the Lord of hosts, and a line shall be stretched forth upon Jerusalem. Cry yet, saying, Thus saith the Lord of hosts; My cities through prosperity shall yet be spread abroad; and the Lord shall yet comfort Zion, and shall yet choose Jerusalem." (vv. 16, 17.)
The full application of these magnificent promises could only be in the future when Messiah shall have returned and taken His kingdom. But they were given for the present comfort and encouragement of the poor and feeble remnant that had returned from Babylon. They might have well been despondent if occupied with their then circumstances; but man never sees as God seeth, nor thinks according to His thoughts. Jehovah therefore, reveals to this despised few all His heart, and all His counsels for their future prosperity and glory; and He thus gave them a mighty incentive to diligence and zeal, in building the house of their God; and He taught them, at the same time, that their return from Babylon, partial as it was, contained within itself the promise of the fulfilment of every word that He had spoken concerning His ancient people. Nay, more; there is a lesson in this message which God's people would do well to mark in every age. The importance of any work depends not, in anywise, upon its outward magnitude or display, but upon the thoughts of God about it. In all the earth, at this moment, there was nothing to be compared, in the eyes of God, with the work on which His people were now engaged at Jerusalem. And yet what was it to man? A poor and contemptible effort to rebuild a house for the celebration of their national rites and ceremonies! A movement of no account whatever in the busy political activities of the day — lying outside, as it did, of the sphere of the world's observation! But it was there — on that work — that the mind and heart of God were at that moment concentrated. Let this fact speak to our hearts as with a trumpet-tongue; for how often have we been tempted to love that which looms large in the eyes of the world, which commands the world's attention, instead of seeking to be in fellowship with the mind and heart of God, and to be identified with His aims and ends. "He that hath ears to hear, let him hear."
Upon this follows a vision for the confirmation of the faith of the prophet. "Then I lifted up mine eyes, and saw, and behold four horns" (v. 18); and the angel, in answer to his inquiry, said, "These are the horns which have scattered Judah, Israel, and Jerusalem." (v. 19) That is, the horns are symbolical of the several powers, or kingdoms, that had been used to punish, and to scatter, both Israel and Judah. It is not here the question as to what kingdoms they were, though they can be easily traced in Scripture; but the number four represents the whole of the powers, as four is often used for completeness on earth. Thereon Jehovah showed him four carpenters; and, in answer to the prophet, He spake, saying (after repeating the truth as to the horns), "These are come to fray them, to cast out the horns of the Gentiles, which lifted up their horn over the land of Judah to scatter" (v. 21.) The meaning of the carpenters is not given, only Jehovah assures the prophet, that as He used the four horns to scatter His people, so He will provide four instruments, at the proper moment, to fray (i.e., to terrify, or to drive them away with fear — see Psalm 48:4-6) them, and to cast out the Gentile powers who had served themselves in scattering His people. We thus learn that God still retains the government of the earth in His hands, and that the movements of nations, wars and conquests, are but the means whereby He accomplishes His own purposes in respect of His earthly people. The Gentile powers, or any given nation, may appear never to be so firmly established; but at the appointed moment the carpenters "come upon the scene, and they are frayed," "cast out," and their dominion is swept away.
1) We add some important words of another as to the judgment of Babylon: "The destruction of Babylon had a peculiar importance: first, because it was substituted by God Himself in place of His throne at Jerusalem; secondly, because it was the only Gentile power directly set up by Him, though all power be from Him. The others replaced Babylon providentially. Hence, at the destruction of Babylon, Jerusalem is restored — however partially it shows the principle — and the power which judges Babylon is the setter up of God's people again in the holy city. Babylon — its setting up, its rule, and its destruction — involved the whole of the direct dealings of God with the Gentiles, and with His people in power. All the rest came in merely as a prolonging, by-the-bye."
2) The horses "have the character of the providentially administering spirits of the empires rather than of the empires themselves;" and the reader will understand that the state of the earth, above referred to, was existent under Darius, the head of the Persian empire.