A Call to Renewal (Zechariah 1:1-6)
As Israel continues to pick up the scattered pieces of their homeland, God speaks through his prophet Zechariah and invites the nation to renew their covenant vows to him. He makes it clear that the exile was a direct result of the sins of their ancestors, but the return from exile presents a new opportunity for Israel to heed the warnings of God’s prophets and submit to God in obedience. Their forefathers failed to listen to the prophets, and their punishment was severe. The current generation has the opportunity to succeed where their predecessors have failed.
An important feature of these first 6 verses is the repetition of the phrase, “the Lord of Hosts”. The phrase is repeated a total of 5 times: three times in verse 3, one time in verse 4, and one time in verse 6. I have not found a great deal of scholarly opinions on the purpose of this repetition, but the fact that it is so prevalent leads me to believe that it should at least be accounted for. My immediate thought is that it establishes and reinforces Zechariah’s reminder that, despite how it may appear, God is not absent from Israel’s presence. Rather, God is working in Israel’s midst through his “hosts” – corporeal and divine agents that are under God’s sovereign command. The Lord reminds his people that he is moving through his prophets (such as Zechariah and Haggai), and (as we will see in Zechariah’s first vision) through his angelic envoys and heavenly beings. This theme is developed throughout the book as Zechariah encounters the fascinating intermingling – and, at times, the collision – of the spiritual and physical realms.
The Vision of the Horses (Zechariah 1:7-17)
Zechariah’s first vision begins a series of visions he experienced on “On the twenty-fourth day of the eleventh month, the month of Shebat, in the second year of Darius” (1:7), or February 15, 519 B.C. Two visions involving horses and horsemen (1:7-17 and 6:1-8) bookend Zechariah’s February 15th visions. In the first, Zechariah is shown a man mounted on a red horse. Behind the man stand red, white, and brown horses. Much speculation has been made about the significance of the colors, but their meaning is uncertain. It is probably not beneficial to get hung up on this detail. Zechariah is accompanied in his vision by an angelic interpreter – a tour guide of sorts who interprets the various images and symbols the prophet is shown. The man on the red horse tells Zechariah that these horses represent “the ones the LORD has sent to go throughout the earth” (v. 10). Suddenly, Zechariah notices that another angel, the famed ‘angel of the Lord’ is standing among the trees. The rider of the red horse reports to this angel: “We have gone throughout the earth and found the whole world at rest and in peace” (v. 11).
There are two things to note here before we move on. First, Zechariah’s first vision affirms that God is still present and active in the world, despite the present circumstances that would lead Israel to believe otherwise. While his holy presence is not visible in Jerusalem, per se, God has not turned his back on the world. His hosts are continually at work monitoring human affairs. Secondly, the heavenly horsemen report that the world is “at rest”. This is not the same idea as Sabbath rest (shabbat), which is an act of obedience to God. Rather, the word used here is shaqat, meaning peace, quiet, and tranquility. For Israel, this would have been a bizarre contradiction. That the pagan nations were at peace while only a remnant of God’s chosen nation remained (a subjugated and oppressed remnant, at that), was the precise opposite of God’s promise to restore his nation and rebuild his city.
Zechariah is then confronted with the reason for this contradiction: Israel is still suffering for their ancestral sin. In Jeremiah 25:11, God proclaimed that Israel would be subjugated for seventy years as punishment for their sins. Now, the angel of the Lord intercedes on Israel’s behalf and petitions God to put an end to this period of judgment.
A quick side-note on the angel of the Lord:
Some have understood the Old Testament’s “angel of the Lord” to be representative of the pre-incarnate Christ. We know that the angel of the Lord is certainly higher than others in the heavenly host; this angel has a level of access to God not shared by other divine beings, and permission to intercede on man’s behalf. However, I am typically more hesitant to make the assumption that the angel of the Lord is representative of Jesus in every case. But, as we will see, Zechariah’s visions are loaded with Messianic overtones, so the argument for the pre-incarnate Jesus as the angel of the Lord in this particular instance is not unfounded. We’ll come back to this in later chapters as we read on.
God responds favorably to the angel’s petition, and Zechariah receives a prophecy of good news: The Lord will return to Jerusalem, remove his wrath from Israel, and restore his favor upon the nation.
God Turns His Anger Toward Israel’s Oppressors (Zechariah 1:18-21)
Zechariah immediately receives another vision. This time, he sees four “horns” (Heb. qeren, as in the horns of an ox or a bull). Horns are a common biblical metaphor for military power, and it is relatively apparent that the four horns in Zechariah’s vision represent four world powers who are responsible for scattering and oppressing God’s people. As with the colors of the horses in the previous vision, the jury is out on the exact identity of the horns. Some scholars suggest that the four horns represent the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, and (looking to the future) the Greeks. Others argue that the four horns represent the enemy nations to the north, south, east, and west of Israel: Assyria, Egypt, Moab, and Philistia. Again, it isn’t exactly helpful to get lost in the weeds trying to identify them.
Zechariah is then shown four “craftsmen” (Heb. charash, as in carpenter, artisan, or fabricator) whom God will appoint to cut off the horns who have oppressed his people. These represent four nations through whom God will disturb the peace (c.f. verse 11) of Israel’s oppressors.
Summary of Zechariah 1
The severity of Israel’s sin is such that God’s people are oppressed, tormented, and suffering, while those who do evil run rampant and enjoy their spoils (c.f. Habakkuk 1:13-17). But God has not turned his back on his people, and he is not unaware of the state of the world. He has remembered his covenant with Israel, and his justice is coming. Zechariah 1 is a call for God’s people to see beyond their current suffering and place their faith in God’s promises.
Cover Image: Unknown artist, The Vision of Zechariah, about 1300, Tempera colors and gold leaf: 7.3 × 17.5 cm (2 7/8 × 6 7/8 in.), Ms. 35, leaf 2 (88.MS.125.2.recto). The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. 35, leaf 2