NIGHT VISIONS Zechariah 1–6
“During the night I had a vision—and there before me was a man riding a red horse! He was standing among the myrtle trees in a ravine. Behind him were red, brown and white horses. I asked, ‘What are these, my lord?’ ”(Zech. 1:8–9)Much of Zechariah consists of visions which may seem hard to interpret. Yet each vision conveyed an important message to his community, and speaks to us today.
There were only some 50,000 Jews in the tiny province of Judea. They had been permitted to return to their ancient homeland when Cyrus of Persia overthrew the Babylonian Empire. They had been in Judea for nearly 20 years when Zechariah began to minister, and were stirred by religious enthusiasm to complete the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple. Despite their small numbers, they had great hopes. One day, according to God’s promises, Jerusalem would be the center of the world, the capital of the Messiah destined to establish a worldwide kingdom of righteousness and peace. Zechariah, in a series of night visions, encouraged this hope. But at the same time he warned the little community that there would be centuries of Gentile domination before that hope was realized. Zechariah, whose name means “the Lord remembers,” is rightly called the “prophet of hope.” No Old Testament prophet spoke more clearly of the coming Messiah, or of His kingdom. Kenneth L. Barker, in the Expositor’s Bible Commentary series, summarizes these twin themes. “Zechariah predicted Christ’s first coming in lowliness (6:12), his humanity (6:12), his rejection and betrayal for thirty pieces of silver (11:12–13), his being struck by the sword of the Lord (13:7), his deity (3:4; 13:7), his priesthood (6:13), his kingship (6:13; 9:9; 14:9, 16), his reign and second coming in glory (14:4), his building of the Lord’s temple (6:12–13), his reign (9:10, 14), and his establishment of enduring peace and prosperity (3:10; 9:9–10). “As for the apocalyptic and eschatological aspect, Zechariah predicted the final siege of Jerusalem (12:1–3; 14:1–2), the initial victory of Israel’s enemies (14:2), the Lord’s defense of Jerusalem (14:3–4), the judgment of the nations (12:9; 14:3), the topographical changes in Israel (14:4–5), the celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles in the messianic Kingdom Age (14:16–19), and the ultimate holiness of Jerusalem and her people (14:20–21).” Few Old Testament books, despite the obscurity of some of Zechariah’s visions, contain a clearer picture of Christ’s first coming or of events associated with that triumphant return that you and I look forward to today. Thus, for us too, Zechariah is the “prophet of hope.” The power of our sovereign God guarantees a salvation and a restoration destined to come to you and me also through God’s Messiah, Jesus Christ.
God called Zechariah (1:1–6), and gave him a series of eight visions concerning the restoration of Israel (vv. 7–17), the coming world powers (vv. 18–21), judgment of the nations (2:1–13), the coming Priest-King (3:1–10), present spiritual re- sources (4:1–14), the judgment of the guilty (5:1–4), cleansing from evil (vv. 5–11), God’s final victory (6:1–8), and ultimately concerning Messiah’s rule (vv. 9–15).
Understanding the Text
“Return to Me . . . and I will return to you” Zech. 1:1–4.
Zechariah, who later became head of a priestly family that returned from Babylon (cf. Neh. 11:4), began his ministry with a lesson from history. God had urged earlier generations to turn to Him and away from their “evil ways and . . . evil practices.” They had refused, and because they rejected the Lord, Israel and Judah had fallen. Zechariah warned his generation: “Do not be like your forefathers.” Note the association of turning to God and turning away from evil ways and evil practices. No one who had turned to the Lord would continue to practice evil. But also note the lesson Zechariah drew from history. Evil ways and practices have consequences. Someone has said that experience is the best teacher. But how much easier for us it is to learn this lesson from the experience of others rather than from our own! “How long will You withhold mercy?” Zech. 1:7–17 Though the first few verses of Zechariah look backward, the rest of the book looks ahead. We may be warned by lessons from the past. But we are motivated by bright prospects for the future. Zechariah’s first vision offers just such a hope. The riders of his vision had just scouted the nations, and found the world at peace. This itself was not good news, for the Gentile world powers had to be overthrown before Messiah’s kingdom could be established. However, the Angel of the Lord told Zechariah that the Lord was “very angry” with the nations. He would overthrow them, and “return to Jerusalem with mercy.” This first vision does not answer the question, “How long?” In essence, the Lord was saying that “when” was not His people’s concern. What He wanted them to know was that He would triumph. You and I are to build our lives on the certainty of God’s ultimate triumph, without being concerned about when. Christ may return in our lifetime. He may not. What gives us hope and motivates us to serve the Lord is not knowing when, but knowing that Christ’s coming will surely take place. In Zechariah 1:18–21 the four horns are world powers that will dominate Jerusalem, as in Daniel 7 and 8. The workman represents historic forces that operate to throw down each in turn, as history marches toward God’s grand conclusion. This vision does deal with the prophet’s question of “when?” It says, “Not soon, but certain!” “I Myself will be a wall of fire around it” Zech. 2:1–13. The third vision was of a man surveying the city of Jerusalem. The angel explained it to Zechariah. God would crush the nations that had plundered His people. The Holy City will need no wall of stone then, for God Himself will be “a wall of fire” that guards a people who are “the apple of His eye.” The prophet was even told of a great movement toward God that would sweep “many nations” into His fold. But Judah and Jerusalem would be His special portion. How amazing. When Zechariah spoke, Judea was a tiny district in one of 120 provinces in the vast Persian Empire. Yet one day Judah and her capital, Jerusalem, were destined to become the center of the world! What gave the exiles hope was not present blessings, for the Holy Land was then a barren and briar-filled waste. What gave the exiles hope was the vision of what the Holy Land would become. We too may find little cause for pride or confidence in our present situation. But when we look ahead, and remember God’s promises, we will overflow with confidence! What gives us hope is the vision of what we will be—as Christ continues His work in us, and when He comes again. “Men symbolic of things to come” Zech. 3:1–10. What must happen before the Holy City can experience the restoration Zechariah’s visions promise? The prophet was given another vision, in which the angel calls the actors “symbolic of things to come.” The vision was complicated, but its major thrust is clear. When Messiah comes, and renews the priesthood by taking up His own priestly ministry, God’s people will at last be secure. There are implications for us too in the symbolism. For any human being to know God’s peace, he or she must be cleansed by God and clothed in His righteousness (vv. 1–5). Then, as we walk in His ways, we will have assured access to the Lord and the power to live holy lives (vv. 6–8). “Seven channels to the light” Zech. 4:1–14. This fifth vision teaches dependence on God’s Spirit, the resource who enables us to live holy lives while we await the Promised One’s appearance. The vision was directed to Zerubbabel, the governor who was also of David’s line. Even though, in that “day of small things,” Judea seemed completely insignificant and powerless, the Lord reminded the governor that progress is made, “Not by might nor by power, but by My spirit” (v. 6). This is one of those Old Testament verses that we would each do well to remember. In all we do, we are to rely not on our own might or power, but on the Spirit of God. If we serve in His strength, nothing that we do for the Lord will be a “small thing.” God will use even the smallest in a great way. “This is the curse that is going out over the whole land” Zech. 5:1–4. The scroll that Zechariah saw was a rolled-up book, on which were written God’s commandments. These are called a curse because violation of the commands brings punishment. How is this a message of hope? Simply in that when the guilty are punished, the innocent in the community are safe. When those who do wrong go unpunished, soon no one is safe! Modern society can only be safe when its laws are rooted in God’s commands, and when those laws are enforced. “It is a measuring basket” Zech. 5:5–11. The earlier visions were explained to Zechariah, or their symbolism was clear. Now we come to visions that are more obscure. What is clear is that in this vision wickedness, personified as a woman, is carried away to Babylon. What a reversal. Earlier the people of Judah had been carried off to Babylon because of their wickedness. Now evil itself is taken away from God’s people and sent to Babylon. We today have a similar choice. We can either hold on to wickedness, and suffer terrible consequences. Or we can let the Lord bind the evil in our hearts, and isolate us from its power. The Holy Spirit can do in our hearts what Zechariah predicted He will one day do for His people, Israel. “The four spirits of heaven” Zech. 6:1–8. In his final vision Zechariah saw war chariots manned by heavenly warriors setting out in every direction. The pronouncement of rest (v. 8) suggests the final victory of God. “The man whose name is the Branch” Zech. 6:9–15. The visions over, Zechariah was told to make a silver and gold crown and to crown Joshua, the high priest, who represented the “Branch,” a common prophetic term for the coming Messiah. The crown is not a normal priest’s headdress, but a royal crown. The impact of this symbolic act is to affirm that the promises God has made to His people will be carried out—but only by the Messiah, who will unite in His own person the offices of Priest and King.
Not Soon, but Certain(Zech. 1)
“Can we go to the mall tonight, Mom?” Nine-year-old Sarah desperately wants to get a special folder to keep her school journal in. She only has 15 or 20 folders now, but you know how that goes. It’s the one she doesn’t have that’s special! But what fascinates me is the sense of urgency. “Let’s go find it. Now!” Her mom has promised they’ll look. But not now. Mom works all day, has to cart Sarah to music lessons, and had to go to school open house last night. Yes, they’ll go look for that folder. But Mom won’t make any commitments as to when. Sarah will have to be satisfied with a simple commitment. It may not be soon, but it is certain: They will look for her folder. I understand why Sarah’s not happy with the “not soon, but certain” answer. For a child, everything is urgent. Everything has to be “now”—except of course cleaning up her room, practicing the piano, or doing homework. Still, everything she wants has to be “now.” Zechariah 1 reminds us that God, like a good parent, tells us to be satisfied with “certain.” Even to be satisfied with “not soon, but certain.” The prophet began by reminding his audience of the disasters that struck their forefathers because of disobedience (vv. 2–4). God’s threatened judgment came. Not soon. But certain. Then God gave Zechariah two visions. After seeing the first, the prophet begged God to tell him, “How long will You withhold mercy from Jerusalem?” God didn’t answer at first, though He did make a binding promise. “I will return to Jerusalem with mercy.” God’s commitment to do good to His people is certain (vv. 7–17). But then God gave Zechariah another vision; a vision of a series of world powers that would arise to dominate the Holy City, and would only gradually be worn away. This was God’s answer to Zechariah’s question about when. “Not soon.” Zechariah had to be satisfied with that. God had promised. The promises would be fulfilled. It would not be soon. But it was certain. Sometimes you and I have to live with just this kind of answer to our prayers. “God, I’m hurting.” “God, I need help.” “God, work in my loved one’s life.” “God, meet our needs.” When an answer is delayed, we grow so impatient. Like little Sarah, we want what we think we need now! The next time you feel that kind of pressure, remember God’s message to Zechariah. His word to us is often the same. “Not soon. But certain.” If we focus on the “not soon” we will be agitated and distressed. But if we focus on the “but certain,” we will have peace.
Whatever your circumstance, God’s commitment to do you good is certain and sure.