The First Vision: A Man Among the Myrtles

7On the twenty-fourth day of the eleventh month, the month of Shebat, in the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Zechariah son of Berekiah, the son of Iddo.

8During 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.

9I asked, "What are these, my lord?"

The angel who was talking with me answered, "I will show you what they are."

10Then the man standing among the myrtle trees explained, "They are the ones the Lord has sent to go throughout the earth."

11And they reported to the angel of the Lord, who was standing among the myrtle trees, "We have gone throughout the earth and found the whole world at rest and in peace."

12Then the angel of the Lord said, "Lord Almighty, how long will you withhold mercy from Jerusalem and from the towns of Judah, which you have been angry with these seventy years?" 13So the Lord spoke kind and comforting words to the angel who talked with me.

14Then the angel who was speaking to me said, "Proclaim this word: This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘I am very jealous for Jerusalem and Zion, 15but I am very angry with the nations that feel secure. I was only a little angry, but they added to the calamity.’

16"Therefore, this is what the Lord says: ‘I will return to Jerusalem with mercy, and there my house will be rebuilt. And the measuring line will be stretched out over Jerusalem,’ declares the Lord Almighty.

17"Proclaim further: This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘My towns will again overflow with prosperity, and the Lord will again comfort Zion and choose Jerusalem.’"

The prophets Haggai and Zechariah prophesied to the remnant of the people of God who returned to Israel from the exile in Babylon to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. While Haggai’s prophecies were primarily practical exhortations to encourage the people to continue their physical work on the Temple, Zechariah’s prophecies were more spiritual in nature, with the purpose of restoring the spiritual fervor of the people. To accomplish this, most of the first half of Zechariah is devoted to a series of visions. They are a well-ordered sequence of connected visions which outline God’s future plan for Jerusalem, Israel, and the Israelites. Thus, the visions support and encourage the Israelites in their work of rebuilding the Temple by letting them know how their work fits in with the Master Plan of God.

Upon cursory reading, the meaning of the visions may seem obscure. The key to understanding the meaning of visions and dreams in the Bible is to interpret them as simply and straightforward as you can, and to compare Scripture with Scripture to find the meaning of symbols in the visions or dreams. Zechariah himself helps us in interpreting the visions that are shown to him, because he asks questions of the angel who is showing him the visions. The questions he asks are ones that most of us would ask, had we the opportunity. The answers he receives provide us with enough information to determine the main purpose of each vision.

"On the twenty-fourth day of the eleventh month, the month of Shebat, in the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Zechariah son of Berekiah, the son of Iddo. 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" (vss. 7–8). Zechariah received this "word of the Lord" three months after he received the first "word of the Lord" (see Zech. 1:1), and exactly two months after Haggai’s last word from the Lord (see Haggai 2:20). This was also exactly five months to the day after the remnant restarted work on the Temple of God (see Haggai 1:15). It is quite possible that, as each twenty-fourth day of a month would pass, the remnant would assay the progress they were making on the Temple. We have seen indications that they did compare their work to the former glory of the Temple (see Hag. 2:4). Such a comparison would certainly serve to frustrate the workers. So, it is appropriate that the Lord send a word of encouragement to the people on the twenty-fourth day of the month.

As mentioned, this "word of the Lord" given to Zechariah came in the form of eight visions. A vision is similar to a dream, with the difference that the receiver of the vision is in an awakened state. Also, the one experiencing the vision is more of a participant in the vision than a dreamer is. We will see that Zechariah interacts with the angels in the visions. God told the Israelites that one way He speaks to His prophets is through visions: "When a prophet of the Lord is among you, I reveal myself to him in visions, I speak to him in dreams" (Num. 12:6).

The physical details of Zechariah’s first vision are clear: "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" (vs. 8). The meaning of the vision, though, is not at first clear. So, Zechariah helps us understand the meaning by asking a question. Of the "red, brown and white horses", Zechariah asks an angel who was with him: "What are these, my lord?" (vs. 9). It is the man standing among the myrtle trees who answers Zechariah’s question: "Then the man standing among the myrtle trees explained, ‘They are the ones the Lord has sent to go throughout the earth.’ And they reported to the angel of the Lord, who was standing among the myrtle trees, ‘We have gone throughout the earth and found the whole world at rest and in peace’" (vss. 10–11). We learn much in this answer to Zechariah’s question. First, we learn the identity of the man among the myrtles. He is "the angel of the Lord." The "angel of the Lord" appears various places in the Old Testament in human form. And though he appears in human form, he is designated as God many places that he appears (read carefully Gen. 16:7–13; 22:11–12; Ex. 3:2–6; Judg. 6:14,22; Judg. 13:9–18,22). For this reason, many commentators, including myself, have concluded that the "angel of the Lord" is none other than Jesus Christ, the Messiah of Israel, who alone among the creatures is God and man. It is the "angel of the Lord" who answers Zechariah’s question, which seems to suggest that He is the source of the answers in the vision, and also the source of the vision itself.

We learn also from the answer to Zechariah’s question the mission of the "red, brown and white horses." The "angel of the Lord" sent them "to go throughout the earth" and report back to Him. The purpose of these messengers is not that we should learn that God needs messengers to tell Him what’s going on on earth, but that we should learn that God is "actively interested in the conditions of earth, especially as they relate to His earthly people, Israel" [Feinberg, 276]. God is not shut up in heaven and keeping to Himself. No. God is watching, indeed is concerned, moreover, is active in the affairs of the earth. He did not, as Creator, wind up the watch of the creation and let it run. No. He constantly directs and even intervenes in the events on the earth, and in the lives of His people. "So now, when Zechariah sees many runners, who have been sent by God to perambulate and to survey the earth, it may with greater certainty be learnt that nothing is carried on without design or by chance in the world, but that all things come before God" [Calvin, 35]. "Nowhere in the Old Testament is God portrayed as impassive, aloof, uninvolved with our world" [Baldwin, 99].

Given all these things, we can speculate on some of the symbolism in the vision. For instance, we may speculate that the "myrtle trees" represent the nation of Israel, given that this word of the Lord is directed to Israel, and that the "angel of the Lord" is standing among the "myrtle trees". Myrtle trees are small and fragrant, thick and bushy trees. Some have noted that the myrtle tree is an appropriate symbol of Israel: not a cedar in its pride (Lebanon is the cedar), or an oak in its strength, but a myrtle: lowly, humble, "and exhaling its sweetest graces when bruised by the weight of affliction" [Moore, 46].

We may also speculate concerning the symbolism relating to the horses. The horses themselves suggest a military outfit with the ability to act quickly. There is also, most likely, symbolism in the color of the horses, particularly the "red horse" ridden by the angel of the Lord. In the book of Revelation, the red horse symbolized war and bloodshed (see Rev. 6:4). So here, the fact that the angel of the Lord is riding a red horse probably signifies that He is ready to make war on behalf of the nation of Israel. This is supported by the conversation that makes up the rest of the vision.

"Then the angel of the Lord said, ‘Lord Almighty, how long will you withhold mercy from Jerusalem and from the towns of Judah, which you have been angry with these seventy years?’ So the Lord spoke kind and comforting words to the angel who talked with me" (vss. 12–13). In reply, "the Lord spoke kind and comforting words to the angel who talked with [Zechariah]" (vs. 13). Why did the Lord reply to the angel speaking to Zechariah, rather than to the angel of the Lord? Because the angel of the Lord was speaking to the Lord Almighty what was on Zechariah’s heart. Zechariah and the people of Israel were wondering when God’s mercy would be poured out on Israel, when the glory of God would again be reflected in the glory of the nation of Israel. It didn’t seem right that the rest of the world was "at rest and in peace" (vs. 11), while the nation of Israel was in shambles. The "angel of the Lord" was interceding for Zechariah, mediating between God and man for Zechariah. This is certainly in keeping with the mission of Jesus Christ: mediator between God and man, interceding to the Father for us (see Rom. 8:34).

The angel speaking to Zechariah relayed the "comforting words" spoken by the Lord Almighty: "Proclaim this word: This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘I am very jealous for Jerusalem and Zion, but I am very angry with the nations that feel secure. I was only a little angry, but they added to the calamity.’ Therefore, this is what the Lord says: ‘I will return to Jerusalem with mercy, and there my house will be rebuilt. And the measuring line will be stretched out over Jerusalem,’ declares the Lord Almighty. Proclaim further: This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘My towns will again overflow with prosperity, and the Lord will again comfort Zion and choose Jerusalem.’" (vss. 14–17). God’s covenant relationship with Israel is like that of a husband with his wife. Israel had been unfaithful to God, chasing after idols. So God told the people, "I am very jealous for Jerusalem and Zion." However, God’s anger in jealousy for Israel was nothing compared to His anger against the nations that persecuted His people: "I am very jealous for Jerusalem and Zion, but I am very angry with the nations that feel secure. I was only a little angry, but they added to their calamity." Far from being pleased that the whole world is "at rest and in peace" (vs. 11), God was "very angry with the nations that feel secure." He was angry because they "feel secure" in their rebellion against Him.

God told the people of Israel (through Zechariah) about His anger against the nations because, from looking at external circumstances, God’s anger was not obvious. The nations were "at rest and in peace", while the remnant were struggling to build the Temple of God. The people needed this word from the Lord because people tend to conclude (incorrectly) that external circumstances mirror God’s favor. The peace enjoyed by the nations did not mean that God was pleased with them. The struggles faced by the remnant did not mean that God was displeased with them. God communicated to His people that He sees their affliction and that He sees the peace enjoyed by the nations, so that the people would not get discouraged, for God chose not to act right away to remedy the situation. God’s action would come later: "Therefore, this is what the Lord says: ‘I will return to Jerusalem with mercy, and there my house will be rebuilt. And the measuring line will be stretched out over Jerusalem,’ declares the Lord Almighty. Proclaim further: This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘My towns will again overflow with prosperity, and the Lord will again comfort Zion and choose Jerusalem’" (vss. 16–17). "It must [be noticed here], that God speaks only here, and is not going forth prepared to execute His vengeance: and it is a real and just trial of faith, when God bids us to depend on His word" [Calvin, 45]. Apparently, the remnant expected all of the promises in the prophecies of Isaiah and Jeremiah to be fulfilled at the end of the seventy years of exile. Zechariah’s vision, and word from the Lord, let them know that the fulfillment of those prophecies would come later.

This word from the Lord, though it challenged their faith, must have been heartening, for God promised that, not only the Temple (which they were working on), but the whole city, indeed, the whole nation of Israel would be rebuilt, and would prosper. We ourselves have seen this happen. The modern nation of Israel, though challenged with adversaries on all sides, prospers. And what of the nations who were "at rest and in peace" in Zechariah’s time? Where are they now? "Where are the great nations of antiquity who have lifted up their hands against the Jewish people? And in modern times the ancient word which He spoke to Abraham is still verifying itself in the experience of nations as of individuals: ‘I will bless them that bless thee, and him that curseth thee will I curse’ (Gen. 12:3)" [Baron, 37]. God is faithful to His promises. God is sovereign. His will shall be done. Praise be to the Lord!

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