Night Visions: Horses Among the Myrtle Trees (Zechariah 1:7-21) July 14-15
Haggai's book ended on the 24th of the ninth month in Darius' second year. Zechariah's book resumes exactly two months later, on the 24th of the 11th month (1:7)—corresponding to mid-February of 519 B.C. Zechariah 1:7-6:15 records a sequence of eight visions (or seven, depending on how they are reckoned) that the prophet experienced that night followed by the symbolic crowning of the high priest Joshua, as we will later see. In this section, "Zechariah pursues the same end as Haggai, rebuilding the temple as the center of worship and world rule, and as a place of pilgrimage for the nations (8:20-23; Hag. 2:7-9)" (The Nelson Study Bible, note on Zechariah 1:7-6:15). Yet in going through these visions, we will likely find some of them to be among the most cryptic and enigmatic in the entire Bible.
The first vision (1:7-17) portrays a man on a red horse standing in a hollow or ravine among myrtle trees. "Myrtle is an evergreen tree that was once very common in the vicinity of Jerusalem (Neh. 8:15)" (note on Zechariah 1:8). The "man" is identified in verse 11 as "the Angel [malakh or 'messenger'] of the Lord." Many have viewed this phrase here as a reference to the preincarnate Christ, as it often is in the Old Testament. This is probably the case since the figure here is apparently the same as the Angel of the Lord in the fourth vision of the night who, as we will later see, is evidently divine (see 3:1-4).
The Expositor's Bible Commentary further notes: "In Revelation 6:4 the red horse (see also Zech 6:2) is associated with a sword, the instrument of war and death, which may also be the significance of the color here (cf. Isa 63:1-6).... In Nehemiah 8:15 [cited above] myrtle trees, which are evergreen, are associated with the Feast of Tabernacles for making booths; and in Isaiah 41:19 and 55:13 they are included in a description of messianic kingdom blessing. Perhaps, then, they speak of the hope and promise of the future, the restoration from Babylonian exile being but the initial stage in the progressive fulfillment of that promise. The trees are situated in a ravine. At the foot of the Mount of Olives are myrtle groves in the lowest part of the Kidron Valley. The ravine may picture Judah's lowly condition at the time; but, as suggested above, there is a ray of light or hope for the future. Behind the horseman were red, brown, and white horses—presumably [or, rather, possibly] with riders on them, since they report to the angel of the Lord in v. 11. These other riders or horses apparently represent angelic messengers (cf. v. 10). White horses are associated with vengeance and triumph (cf. Rev 19:11, 14 [and the conquest aspect of 6:2])" (note on Zechariah 1:8). It could be that the horses themselves represent angels, as they also may in Revelation 19:11 and verse 14 (compare Psalm 18:10). It may be that there were seven reconnoitering angels here in all who walk "to and fro throughout the earth" (Zechariah 1:11; compare 4:10). We will see the figure of horses of different colors again at the end of Zechariah's night visions in chapter 6, where they are "eager to walk to and fro throughout the earth" (verse 7)—in that case to deliver divine judgment on the nations.
The report the horses or horsemen give to the Angel of the Lord in chapter 1 is that all the earth is resting quietly (verse 9). This is not a description of the peaceful messianic Kingdom to come. Rather, we must view this report in light of the comment God makes in verse 15: "I am exceedingly angry with the nations at ease." This description fit the circumstances of the time this prophecy was given. Recall that the first two years of the reign of the Persian emperor Darius (522-520 B.C.) were wracked with turmoil, as he put down one rebellion after another as recorded in his famous inscription high on the Behistun (or Bisitun) cliffs in western Iran (see www.livius.org/be-bm/behistun/behistun01.html). But by the end of 520, he had established control throughout the empire.
So the Persian Empire was secure and Judah remained in a lowly, oppressed position. "The report of the horsemen must have disappointed God's chosen people because it told of rest and peace among the nations, when, instead, they were expecting the 'shaking of all nations' (Hag 2:6-9, 20-23) as the sign of returning favor and full blessing to Zion" (Expositor's, note on Zechariah 1:12).
In verse 12 the Angel of the Lord, again probably a reference to the Being who would later be born as Jesus Christ, intercedes with God on Judah's behalf (compare Hebrews 7:25). In response, God declares His zeal for Jerusalem and His anger with the nations. God had been "a little angry" or, probably better translated, "a little while angry" with His sinning people (see Expositor's, note on verses 13-15). But now His anger turns to the gentile powers. While He had used them to punish Israel and Judah, the personal motivation of the gentile nations in their assault on God's people was evil (verse 15). Given the end-time element to the prophecies of this section, we should recognize the peace and ease of the nations in verses 11 and 15 are probably mainly referring to a period in the last days—when the gentile powers seem triumphant, things seem quiet for a time and Israel and Judah are subjugated.
God promises that He will yet show mercy to Jerusalem, the stretching of the surveyor's line of verse 16 demonstrating God's intent of rebuilding the temple and the Jewish capital.
Considering this prophecy in the light of what we've already seen from Haggai and what is yet to follow in Zechariah, it seems that God building His house in verse 16 applied on one level to the temple reconstruction in the time of those prophets, on another level to the building of the spiritual temple, the Church (which would begin in Jerusalem and be referred to as spiritual Jerusalem and Zion), and then on another level to the millennial Jerusalem and temple and beyond. Note the mention of cities again expanding and prospering in verse 17, clearly pointing to the physical, national application of the prophecy. Besides simply referring to Judah's ancient return, this surely represents—considering the evident end-time focus in the series of visions here—the future restoration of all Israel.
Commentator Charles Feinberg gives a good summary of the first vision: "The distinctive features of comfort for Israel in this first vision are: (1) the presence of the Angel of [Yhwh] in the midst of degraded and depressed Israel; (2) His loving and yearning intercession for them; (3) the promises of future blessings. We may say, then, that the import of the vision is this: although Israel is not yet in her promised position, God is mindful of her, providing the means of His judgment on the persecuting nations, and reserving glory and prosperity for Israel in the benevolent and beneficent reign of the Messiah. The series of visions carry us through God's dealings with Israel from the time of their chastisement by God under the Gentile powers until they are restored to their land with their rebuilt city and temple under their Messiah King. The first vision gives the general theme of the whole series; the others add the details...When the world was busy with its own affairs, God's eyes and the heart of the Messiah were upon the lowly estate of Israel and upon the temple in Jerusalem" (quoted in Expositor's, note on verses 16-17).
The same commentator also proposes that the first vision sets the stage for those that follow. "All eight visions form a unit, and the first is the key to all of them" (Feinberg, The Minor Prophets, 1952, p. 275).
Four Horns and Four Skilled Workmen (Zechariah 1:7-21)
Having in mind the above view, that the first vision is the key to the other visions of the night, Zechariah's second vision (verses 18-21) is understood to be an amplification of God's wrath on the nations at ease in verses 11 and 15.
Zechariah sees four horns "that have scattered Judah, Israel, and Jerusalem" (verse 19) followed by four craftsmen or workmen who come to terrify and cast out the horns (verses 20-21). The symbol of horns is a common one in Scripture. Based on these being the implements with which many animals fight, horns symbolize the power and strength of nations or their rulers (see Daniel 7:7-8, 24). As for the craftsmen, "the Hebrew word is used for any skilled workman in wood, metal, or stone" (p. 278). Some render the word as "smiths." Here we have an image of those who smite with the hammer, grind down, break into pieces, plunge into fire, reshape what is usable and throw away what is not. In essence, they are workers skilled in destruction.
Who exactly the four horns are is not entirely clear. They seem to be described as having scattered (past tense) the people of Israel and Judah, which would seem to point to events that had already happened. However, the Hebrew verb could also be translated scatter (present tense, see Expositor's, note on Zechariah 1:18-19), which could point to scatterings yet to happen.
The horns are most commonly identified either as (from a solely past-tense perspective) Egypt, Assyria, Babylon and Persia or (from a past-to-future perspective) as identical with the four empires of Daniel 2 and 7—Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome. One problem with the first interpretation is that it does not continue to the time of Israel's ultimate restoration in the messianic age, in line with the rest of the visions in this section. One problem with the second interpretation is that it leaves out the nation that scattered the northern kingdom of Israel—Assyria (see again verse 19). Another problem with both interpretations is that the Persians did not scatter the people of Judah (see verse 21). Neither did the Greeks, even during the Seleucid persecutions.
All this being so, a more likely interpretation of the four horns would seem to be: 1) ancient Assyria, which deported Israel and part of Judah; 2) ancient Babylon, which deported Judah; 3) ancient Rome, which would later deport the Jews of Judea; 4) the end-time revival of all these empires in the same power bloc, which will deport both Israelites and Jews from their homelands. The four smiths who remove these horns would then be: 1) ancient Babylon, conqueror of Assyria; 2) ancient Persia, conqueror of ancient Babylon; 3) the Gothic hordes who would bring down the Roman Empire; 4) the Messiah, who will ultimately defeat the end-time Roman-Babylonian-Assyrian power bloc.
In the end, God tells us in Psalm 75:10, "All the horns of the wicked I will also cut off, but the horns of the righteous shall be exalted."