Saturday, February 03, 2024

Mining the Minors: Zechariah (3)

The phrase “the angel of the Lord” occurs 58 times in 19 Old Testament passages. Three of these passages are in Zechariah. The name appears to designate a unique being distinct from and possessing greater authority than other angels, one who identifies himself with deity and acts as if he were God.

We know the Lord Jesus was active on God’s behalf during the OT period. When we add to that John’s claim that no one has ever seen God, and that God has been (and continues to be) made known only through his Son, the Word, the logical conclusion is that the angel of the Lord was a visual manifestation of the preincarnate Christ.

More on that shortly.

I. Eight Visions and Explanations (continued)

1/ The Man on the Red Horse

Zechariah 1:7-8 — The Vision

“On the twenty-fourth day of the eleventh month, which is the month of Shebat, in the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, son of Iddo, saying, ‘I saw in the night, and behold, a man riding on a red horse! He was standing among the myrtle trees in the glen, and behind him were red, sorrel, and white horses.”

The Twenty-Fourth Day of the Eleventh Month

Zechariah’s first vision came five months to the day after the people of Judah began to rebuild the temple of the Lord in Jerusalem. The Hebrew calendar has thirty-day months, which makes the interval total 150 days, putting the first vision into early 519 BC on our own calendar. There may or may not be some significance to the length of the period between the two events, but the choice of the twenty-fourth day of the month strongly suggests the visions were in some way responsive to the obedience of God’s people to his word through Haggai.

This is often how the Lord works in our own lives: that there is a time lapse between obedience and seeing either encouragement or fruit from our work. In between, we can only go forward in faith.

A Man Riding a Red Horse

There’s a bit of shorthand going on in the Hebrew that probably doesn’t come through with clarity in our English translations. When it says the man riding the red horse was “standing”, I suspect the best way to picture it is that the horse was standing and the rider remained seated upon him. The point is that the horse was not galloping off in one direction or another, but at rest. Likewise, each of the horses behind the man surely also had their own angelic riders, though these are not mentioned explicitly.

The Hebrew word translated “red” appears elsewhere in the OT to describe the color of shed blood. It is also the color of the red heifer in Numbers, so the most accurate way to conceive it is probably a reddish brown. Commentators debate whether this is intended as a symbol of war, but we must also bear in mind that the man on the red horse was leading a group that included three different colors of horses, red as well as white and sorrel. Sorrel [śārōq, variously translated “reddish”, “tawny”, “bay” and even “a ruddy tinge over white”, which suggests mottling] is chestnut, at least according to Wikipedia. The Hebrew word translated “sorrel” appears only once in the entire OT, so it seems unlikely that Zechariah would have invested it with great spiritual significance, as he had no other scriptures with which to associate it. Further, if the color of the sorrel horses is not spiritually significant, it is unlikely the colors of the white and red horses convey spiritual details of any great importance. Other writers have suggested the color of the horse conveys the mood or purpose of the rider, but there is nothing in the text (or elsewhere) to support this theory.

Taken as a group, however, there may be a suggestion that the Lord uses servants of different types to accomplish his purposes. Certainly, there are levels of authority in play here. The riders of the other red, sorrel and white horses end up giving their report to the man riding the red horse, who will shortly be given an even more interesting name.

The Myrtle Trees

Some commentators see the myrtle trees as a symbol of Israel, and suggest the assigned task of this angelic group at the time Zechariah saw them was to patrol the nation rather than the known world of the day. It is hard to credit this as a viable explanation. Trees certainly symbolize Israel in the word of God, but they are always trees of certain limited types: the vine, the fig and the olive, respectively associated with Israel’s spiritual, national and religious privileges by some.

Here’s a likelier proposal. Isaiah, writing well over a century earlier, used the myrtle [hăḏas] to symbolize God’s blessing: “Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle.” Isaiah associated briars and thorns with God’s righteous judgment of Judah and Israel during their respective times of exile. Replacing these useless wilderness plants with the cypress and myrtle conveys the message that the time of God’s judgment is at least temporarily over. This is the most likely association Zechariah would have made when he saw the vision. It certainly fits the context better than arbitrarily limiting the angelic patrol to Israel, especially when the explanation we are about to hear from the angel who talked with Zechariah suggests the angels on horses had a much larger area of interest.

Reading the Symbols

Symbolism is complicated. On the one hand, there is no need to assert that spirit beings serving God by patrolling the earth require the equivalent of spirit-horses to get around. The horses Zechariah saw may merely depict the speed with which God surveys the planet, or serve as visual shorthand to make heavenly realities more comprehensible to a human being. Human armies sent out their patrols on horses. A vision of a heavenly counterpart to this earthly reality is easily understood.

On the other hand, the spiritual protectors of Israel are often associated with horses. Maybe Elisha and others saw horses because their spiritual equivalent was actually present. That said, there is no warrant to connect Zechariah’s angelic patrol of the earth with the so-called “four horsemen of the apocalypse” in Revelation. Their missions are/will be very different.

Zechariah 1:9-17 — The Explanation

“Then I said, “What are these, my lord?” The angel who talked with me said to me, “I will show you what they are.” So the man who was standing among the myrtle trees answered, “These are they whom the Lord has sent to patrol the earth.” And they answered the angel of the Lord who was standing among the myrtle trees, and said, “We have patrolled the earth, and behold, all the earth remains at rest.” Then the angel of the Lord said, “O Lord of hosts, how long will you have no mercy on Jerusalem and the cities of Judah, against which you have been angry these seventy years?” And the Lord answered gracious and comforting words to the angel who talked with me. So the angel who talked with me said to me, “Cry out, Thus says the Lord of hosts: I am exceedingly jealous for Jerusalem and for Zion. And I am exceedingly angry with the nations that are at ease; for while I was angry but a little, they furthered the disaster. Therefore, thus says the Lord, I have returned to Jerusalem with mercy; my house shall be built in it, declares the Lord of hosts, and the measuring line shall be stretched out over Jerusalem. Cry out again, Thus says the Lord of hosts: My cities shall again overflow with prosperity, and the Lord will again comfort Zion and again choose Jerusalem.” ’ ”

Earth Patrol

The red, sorrel and white horses Zechariah saw remind us of two important truths: (1) the Lord is always watching; and (2) the Lord loves to delegate.

The first truth is well established in scripture, concerning the lives of individuals as well as larger groups. There was Hagar, who called the angel of the Lord “a god of seeing”. Hanani the seer told King Asa, “The eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth.” This can be a potential danger, as the Lord takes note of unfaithfulness as well as obedience to his word, but it can also be a tremendous comfort to those whose hearts are blameless toward God, as he keeps track of their whereabouts and circumstances in order to give “strong support” to them.

The second truth is also well established. God loves to delegate, and he loves when his servants willingly participate in his work, whether angelic or human. God is omnipresent; he can go anywhere at any time, from the womb to the grave. He doesn’t need to send angels out on patrol, and yet he chooses to involve them in his business. Micaiah’s heavenly council is a great illustration of this principle at work. God could have struck Ahab down personally, but he used the plan of a lying spirit and the agency of a random Syrian arrow to do the job.

The Earth at Rest

Zechariah saw the riders of the colored horses give their report to their leader. They announced, “All the earth remains at rest.” Historically speaking, this seems to have been the case at that point in the reign of Darius, not just in the tiny province of Judah but throughout the entire Persian Empire. Constable quotes Barker as saying, “Darius boasted that in nineteen battles he had defeated nine rebel leaders and had subdued all his enemies. So the empire was again virtually quiet by 520 B.C.” There were no notable conflicts to bring to the Lord’s attention. From the standpoint of Bible history, we have only the books of Ezra and Nehemiah to describe this period. Neither book references any battles or tensions. It was a period of peace throughout the known world. The book of Esther is set approximately thirty years later, and Persian control of their empire in that time seems to have remained absolute. For a while at least, the earth remained at rest.

Upon receiving their report, the man standing among the myrtle trees has a question for the God of heaven. He asks, “O Lord of hosts, how long will you have no mercy on Jerusalem and the cities of Judah, against which you have been angry these seventy years?” The Lord answers him graciously, though we are not told precisely what he says. This man, also called the angel of the Lord, dares to interpret the words of God for Zechariah, instructing him to “cry out” a message to his people. This is a message in which God expresses his zeal for Zion and his anger with the nations who are at peace when his own nation has yet to find rest. (At this point, the walls of Jerusalem had yet to be built, and Judah’s enemies troubled it repeatedly.)

The Angel of the Lord

At various times in the passage, Zechariah calls the man on the red horse “the man who was standing among the myrtle trees”, “the angel of the Lord who was standing among the myrtle trees” and “the angel of the Lord”. His appearance was human, but Zechariah would have understood the meaning of “the angel of the Lord” when he used it. With sixteen previous Old Testament references to inform his insight into the term, he surely recognized the angel of the Lord as divine. He then paints for us a picture of the deliberations within the godhead concerning the fate of God’s people. In this vision, we see the preincarnate Christ exercising authority (v11, 14, 17), appealing on behalf of Jerusalem and the cities of Judah (v12) and interpreting the words of God for Zechariah (v14-17).

Zechariah could not have understood he was seeing a preview of the intercessory ministry of the Lord Jesus, but the message he received from the angel of the Lord for Judah as a result was full of hope, mercy, comfort, the promise of future prosperity and the assurance the temple would indeed be rebuilt.

The Message for the Nations

The message for the nations was not so positive: “I am exceedingly angry with the nations that are at ease; for while I was angry but a little, they furthered the disaster.” The natural question here is What did the nations do to further the disasters that would befall them?

Perhaps the way they treated God’s people inflamed the Lord’s anger. That was certainly the case with Babylon. Isaiah writes, “I gave [my people] into your hand; you showed them no mercy; on the aged you made your yoke exceedingly heavy.”

God’s anger with Assyria had a difference cause, as described in Isaiah 10: “Shall the axe boast over him who hews with it, or the saw magnify itself against him who wields it?” The axe and saw in question represented the king of Assyria. The wielder was God. In this case, it was Assyria’s arrogance that called down God’s judgment on the empire. Assyria said, “By the strength of my hand … I remove the boundaries of peoples, and plunder their treasures”, not understanding that it was God who had raised them up to fulfill his purposes.

Zechariah is writing prior to the attempted genocide of the Jews approved by the Persian sovereign and thwarted by the invisible hand of God through Esther, but Persia too would have its day of judgment, like all the other nations and empires God used as instruments of discipline.

And of course dispensational Christians anticipate a future gathering of nations at ease against the people of God in a coming day. It will not end any differently than it did for the nations of Zechariah’s day.

No comments :

Post a Comment