Saturday, February 10, 2024

Mining the Minors: Zechariah (4)

The prophet Zedekiah once forged a pair of animal horns out of iron as an object lesson for the kings of Israel and Judah, who were contemplating going up to Ramoth-gilead to fight the king of Syria. It must have been quite a dramatic moment when he trotted out his artistic creation in front of the two Hebrew kings on their thrones before a gathering of 400 prophets, crying out, “With these you shall push the Syrians until they are destroyed.” Too bad Zedekiah was actually a false prophet regurgitating what he thought King Ahab wanted to hear.

All the same, his literal “forgery” gives us a little bit of insight into the meaning of the imagery in Zechariah’s second vision.

I. Eight Visions and Explanations (continued)

2/ Four Horns and Four Craftsmen

Zechariah 1:18-21 — A Vision and its Explanation

“And I lifted my eyes and saw, and behold, four horns! And I said to the angel who talked with me, ‘What are these?’ And he said to me, ‘These are the horns that have scattered Judah, Israel, and Jerusalem.’ Then the Lord showed me four craftsmen. And I said, ‘What are these coming to do?’ He said, ‘These are the horns that scattered Judah, so that no one raised his head. And these have come to terrify them, to cast down the horns of the nations who lifted up their horns against the land of Judah to scatter it.’ ”

Horns as Symbols of Strength

Horns have a variety of symbolic meanings in both the ancient world and in scripture, but the one in view here is strength or dominance. In Israel, the most common horned animals were goats, rams or oxen. Their horns were the weapons with which they overpowered their rivals. Concerning the tribes of Joseph, Moses prophesied that with their horns they would gore the peoples to the ends of the earth, implying brute force domination. There are numerous similar references to horns as symbols of power throughout the Old Testament.

In Daniel, horns also stand for kings or rulers and, by metonymy, sometimes also the nations over which they rule.

In interpreting Zechariah’s vision, the Lord identifies the four horns as those “that have scattered Judah, Israel and Jerusalem”.

Craftsmen as Symbols of Cunning

Who is scared of a craftsman? If the craftsman is skilled at war, almost anyone.

The word translated “craftsmen” refers to a variety of skilled professions including engravers, smiths, carpenters or stoneworkers. When applied to the art of war, a craftsman conquers through ingenuity rather than brute force. Several accounts suggest the Medes and Persians took Babylon through cleverness rather than pitched battle, and both the Greeks and Romans made names for themselves with the strategy and tactics of their commanders rather than through brutality and sheer numbers. They won with smaller, better armed, better trained, more efficient forces that were highly effective against greater numbers.

The Meaning of the Vision

The Lord seems to have been showing Zechariah that those who had scattered his people throughout the known world would receive their due in good time. Having terrified the people of God, these “horns” would themselves be terrified. Secondarily, the Lord seems to be signaling a change in the way wars would be fought and won. From this time on, victory in battle would go to the ingenious rather than to the powerful.

The question is whether we ought to take the horns and craftsmen personally or nationally. (The horn symbolism sometimes refers to individuals and sometimes to entire kingdoms.) If the former, the scatterers of God’s people include Tiglath-pileser III, Shalmaneser V, Sargon II and Nebuchadnezzar, all of whom deported Israelites or Judeans. If the latter, Assyria and Babylon both scattered Israel and Judah, as did Syria in earlier years (they raided Israel and took slaves, as in the story of Naaman) and possibly Egypt, where many Jewish exiles perished after the time of Jeremiah.

I tend to think entire kingdoms rather than specific rulers are probably in view here. All the individual rulers responsible for scattering Israel and Judah across the world were already long dead when Zechariah received his vision. Persia incorporated both Babylonia and Assyria as satrapies in 539 BC, twenty years before Zechariah had his visions, and both were absorbed yet again into the Macedonian Seleucid Empire in 313 BC. The people of God could rest assured these great empires that had scattered them would never be revived to scatter Israel again, but would continue to be “cast down”.

In both sets of identifications, I am trying to get to the number four, but that may not be necessary. We should also consider that the number four may be symbolic rather than literal. The use of what is sometimes called a mystic “number of completion” (four corners of the earth, four winds, four living creatures, four gospels) could simply be a way of indicating that all the agencies involved in scattering Judah, Israel and Jerusalem would get their comeuppance without exception. None would escape God’s judgment.

Getting Specific with the Horns and Craftsmen

When commentators try to get too specific about identifying the horns or the craftsmen, something about the interpretation they end up with usually does not work. For example, this writer identifies the four horns as Assyria, Babylon, Medo-Persia and Greece, and the four craftsmen as Babylon (which defeated Assyria), Medo-Persia (which defeated Babylon), Greece (which defeated Medo-Persia) and Rome (which defeated Greece).

This system has surface appeal in that it mimics the identification of the four great world empires in Daniel, but the factual problems with it are numerous. First, we are looking for a list of scatterers [zārâ, meaning to winnow, spread out or disperse], not merely a list of successive world empires or even a list of historic oppressors. There is no compelling reason to map the kingdoms represented by the horns onto the kingdoms of Daniel simply because there are four of them. Second, Persian kings authorized and financed the rebuilding of Jerusalem and ended the exile. To call them scatterers of God’s people is simply false. Their policy with many nations, not just Israel, was precisely the reverse. Third, Jerusalem changed hands seven times during the period of Greek dominance, but forced deportations were not Greek policy anymore than Persian. Judah even briefly became an independent state again after the Maccabean revolt. Fourth, Rome allowed Judah to continue to exist as part of the empire until AD70. They gave Israel both a place and a nation. Fifth, the relationship of all three later powers to Judah and Jerusalem was established by conquering their conquerors, not through singling out the Jews to oppress. Sixth, this system makes three of its four empires both horns and craftsmen, which seems like a conflation.

Numerous other systems of identification have been proposed by a variety of commentators, but all the systems that insist on precisely four scatterers or precisely four craftsmen that cast them down fail at one point or more.

Fulfillment of the Vision

Because this vision concerns the judgment of nations/empires for a historical diaspora that had already taken place in the time of Zechariah, I tend to think the prophecy of their “casting down” has already been fulfilled. All the nations or empires that could conceivably be charged with scattering God’s people across the world have already received their comeuppance, and have lost their power and dominance on the world stage, if not their historical significance. Through one agency or another, their “horns” have been cast down, though Israel has yet to be regathered, which becomes the subject of Zechariah’s next vision.

God is not mocked. Men reap what they sow, as do the nations of the world.

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