Saturday, March 23, 2024

Mining the Minors: Zechariah (10)

Sometimes the study of Bible prophecy presents no easy answers. The pieces just do not seem to fit. Efforts to make a particular vision or oracle map onto what we know of the past creates conflict with the established historical record. Efforts to make it map onto the future creates conflicts with scripture. Or maybe both.

What can I tell you? Despite best efforts, this is one of those days.

What I will do is try to lay out one by one the questions Zechariah’s final vision raises for expositors, and let you consider which of the current answers, if any, satisfies.

Four Horsemen

The so-called four horsemen of the apocalypse come from Revelation 6, in which the Lamb opens the first four of seven seals and sends out four horses and their riders into the world with authority to execute the judgments of God. The imagery in John’s vision echoes the final vision given to the prophet Zechariah, and may provide us with some tentative clues to its meaning.

In Zechariah’s vision, the angel interpreting for him provides no explanation for the colors of the horses. In Revelation, that is not the case. Either way, this is yet another difficult vision for which a host of interpretations exist.

I. Eight Visions and Explanations (continued)

8/ Four Chariots

Zechariah 6:1-3 – The Vision

“Again I lifted my eyes and saw, and behold, four chariots came out from between two mountains. And the mountains were mountains of bronze. The first chariot had red horses, the second black horses, the third white horses, and the fourth chariot dappled horses — all of them strong.”

A Horse of a Different Color

With one exception, John saw more or less the same color horses as Zechariah, and he interprets the significance of the colors for Christians of the first century. The white horse came out conquering without any indication of bloodshed. He is Victory. The bright red horse was permitted to take peace from the earth. He is War. The black horse is associated with increased food prices. He is Famine. The pale horse is simply named Death.

Zechariah was written 600 or so years before Revelation, but the possibility that the later vision provides the key to the meaning of the colors in the earlier one should not be rejected out of hand. The same Spirit of God is witnessing to future events and most commentators, for what it’s worth, assume a connection. Three of the four horses are a perfect color match. The last is not. So then, do the dappled horses of Zechariah correspond with the pale horse of Revelation?

Probably not. The Hebrew for “dappled” is bārōḏ, meaning speckled or mottled, whereas the Greek for “pale” is chlōros, which is kind of a sickly green. Whole essays have been written comparing the words, but Garrick V. Allen’s conclusion in one of the lengthiest of these is that “there is little evidence to suggest that John used Hebraizing revisions of the OG in this instance”. In other words, John was not trying to find a Greek word that would correspond one-for-one with the dappled horses of Zechariah. He almost surely saw a horse of a different color.

Seeking a Match

That’s unfortunate for scholars who are desperate to match all the horses of Zechariah and Revelation and come out with a total of exactly four. It really doesn’t work. In fact, the Hebrew word for “sorrel” in Zechariah 1’s vision is different from the Hebrew for “dappled” in Zechariah 6, so we really have six different-colored horses across the three visions rather than four, and only four of the six have angelic interpretations provided. Frankly, there is no reason to imagine that the spirit messengers depicted in these visions may serve only in four very specifically defined ways. For all we know, a dozen different colored horses might be required to fully represent all the possible judgments of God. Perhaps only a few of these colors are relevant to the point the Holy Spirit is making in any given vision.

That leaves us with no authoritative meaning for the dappled horses of Zechariah, but the question may well be moot; in Zechariah’s vision, they are traveling away from the focus of the vision in the “north country”. The best speculative answer I have read is that the dappled horses signify “a condition of partial peace and conflict”.

Sure. Why not.

Four Chariots with Strong Horses

We should probably also consider the differences between the horses described in Zechariah’s eighth vision from those described in his first, though there are certainly similarities (three of the four colors, the job of patrolling the earth).

The first vision had no chariots and no black horses. There was no warlike aspect to it. They simply reported that the world remained at rest. The eighth vision emphasizes the strength of the horses in a way the first does not. It appears the first group are passive messengers and the second group active agents, though they are probably angelic powers of the same spiritual class, if we can call it that.

The first vision found the earth at rest, Jerusalem being rebuilt, and the Lord’s anger with the nations accumulating. That peaceful vision, as we mentioned, fit well with the times in which it was given. This later vision, which probably came on the same night, can only be concerned with a different period, one that is probably later rather than earlier.

Mountains of Bronze

Brass, bronze and copper are all the same word in Hebrew [nᵊḥšeṯ]. The lustrous metal has many positive associations. The tabernacle and temple fixtures were made of it, as well as the pillars and the sea in Solomon’s temple. Ezekiel compares the cherub’s feet to burnished brass, and the man Daniel saw in chapter 10 had arms and legs like burnished bronze. In all these instances, brass or copper evoke the glories of heavenly things.

However, the word also has strongly negative associations. Ezekiel calls Israel “the dross of silver”, and compares the nation to the brass left over that is thrown into the furnace to be reheated. “The heavens over your head shall be brass” is actually a curse. Moreover, in Hebrew, brass is also a metaphor for filthiness, and Ezekiel also uses the word that way, just as if you call a woman “brazen” in English, it’s no compliment.

So then, there is no consistent symbolism attached to nᵊḥšeṯ that would allow for dogmatism about the intended meaning of the mountains of bronze in verse 1. I will note that the word Daniel uses for the metal of which the middle and thighs of the statue in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream were forged is the Aramaic version of this Hebrew word in Zechariah. The middle and thighs represented Medo-Persia, if you recall.

Zechariah 6:4-8 – The Explanation

“Then I answered and said to the angel who talked with me, ‘What are these, my lord?’ And the angel answered and said to me, ‘These are going out to the four winds of heaven, after presenting themselves before the Lord of all the earth. The chariot with the black horses goes toward the north country, the white ones go after them, and the dappled ones go toward the south country.’ When the strong horses came out, they were impatient to go and patrol the earth. And he said, ‘Go, patrol the earth.’ So they patrolled the earth. Then he cried to me, ‘Behold, those who go toward the north country have set my Spirit at rest in the north country.’ ”

The Meaning of “North Country”

When I was a teenager excitedly reading Hal Lindsey, “north” for me could only be Gog and Magog, and that was modern day Russia, fer shure! Well, no. Not so much. Later, I learned to actually look these things up for myself. In prophecy and everywhere else, “north” is not a fixed location but a relative one; the same direction, of course, but perhaps a different landing spot. We always have to ask ourselves “North of what exactly?” Lots of things are north of Israel, and some are further north than others.

The Hebrew word translated “north” occurs 92 times in the OT prophetic scriptures and five times in Zechariah. When it’s not referring to Gog or Magog, the vast majority of the time, “north” refers to Babylon, as in Jeremiah 1. But not always. Jeremiah refers to many kings in the north, sometimes allied with Babylon, other times not. Then, in chapter 51, Jeremiah prophesies that Babylon itself will fall to destroyers “out of the north”. Historically and geographically, that’s the Persians, who were also north of Israel.

All to say, when you see “north” in prophecy, don’t automatically think any one thing. Even Mount Zion, after all, is “on the sides of the north”, right?

The Explanations of the Explanation

A short summary of prominent commentators’ views:

Too many to name: The four sets of horses are the four successive world empires of Daniel. Red is Babylon, black is Medo-Persia, white is Greece and dappled is Rome. No explanation is offered for the bronze mountains in most cases.

Benson, Jamieson-Fausset-Brown, Poole: The black horses are the Persian army marching into Chaldea; the dappled horses represent the Romans conquering Egypt.

Barnes, Gill: Same as the second, except the white horses are the Greeks conquering the Persians afterward.

Matthew Henry: The providences of God, both good and bad (war, bloodshed, peace, prosperity) proceed from his immovable counsels and decrees (the mountains of brass).

Keil and Delitzsch: The mountains of brass are Zion and the mount of Olives, and the Lord comes out of them to judge the nations through angelic proxies. The black horses carry famine into Babylon-Assyria, followed by the white horses of victory without battle (no red horses).

Precept Austin: Similar to Benson et al, except to note that Zechariah’s vision has “a near-term referent” (the overthrow of Babylon and subjugation of Egypt in Zechariah’s day) and “a far-future referent” (just prior to Christ’s millennial reign).

That pretty much covers the major ones.

An Attempt to Analyze

A few problems and considerations with the most commonly accepted interpretations:

  1. The fall of Babylon had taken place twenty years earlier, while many of the former Jewish exiles now hearing about Zechariah’s visions were still living there. That doesn’t mean Zechariah’s vision didn’t depict that conquest allegorically, but one questions why it might be so critically important to the Lord to communicate that truth to Judah by way of an illustration when the people to whom he wrote had already witnessed the real thing in progress. Every Jew present to hear Zechariah already knew Babylon was toast. They would not be in Jerusalem building the temple had Cyrus failed to get the job done.
  2. Any explanation that maps the four sets of horses onto world empires ruins the Revelation connection, which seems to be genuine. There, the horses represent spiritual agents dealing out divine judgments of various types, not successive world empires.
  3. Bringing the far-future Roman subjugation of Egypt into it seems worse than irrelevant.
  4. Henry’s general observations about providence, while intellectually and theologically satisfying, would have little informative value for the original audience, who probably understood this concept very well and didn’t need a prophet to tell them.
  5. There is no historical or biblical evidence famine played a significant role in either the fall of Babylon to the Medes (Belshazzar was feasting and the walled city was thought impenetrable) or in the fall of the Persian Empire to Greece (accomplished by Alexander the Great through a series of speedy, violent military moves). That would seem to make Keil and Delitzsch’s extremely thoughtful and detailed interpretation questionable.

In Summary

I like the idea of Precept Austin’s “far-future referent” better than any historical interpretation, but it really requires a rebuilt Babylon or a satisfactory non-literal equivalent. Still, a far-future referent has the thematic advantage of fitting nicely side by side with the vision of Christ during his millennial reign which immediately follows. There is surely some intended connection.

Let’s just say this last vision is sufficiently obscure that I will not be remotely dogmatic about my opinion. We should try to keep three big-picture points squarely in view. (1) The main emphasis of the vision is what’s happening in the north. (2) The horses of Zechariah 6 is are doing something on behalf of God rather than simply observing world events. He says they “have set my Spirit at rest in the north country”. That’s active. (3) The climactic point is that God’s Spirit will be set at rest by these events. That’s the main thing we should care about.

In short, the question of how to understand this last vision presents no quick and easy answers. I am not fully satisfied with any of the proposals I’ve seen, nor do I have a well developed alternative to offer.

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