Studies in the
BOOK OF ZECHARIAH
2. The First Night Vision:
THE RED HORSE RIDER AMONG
THE MYRTLE TREES
HOPE FOR TROUBLED ISRAEL
Following the introductory "sermon" on repentance, the first section of the prophecy is presented through Zechariah in a series of night visions (1:7--6:8). All of these visions have the same range of meaning, beginning with the immediate need of Israel for hope and comfort and renewal and extending to the coming of Messiah the King of Israel. As we study these visions, it will be clear that they were not fulfilled in the days of the prophet; they had an application to those days, but their intended meaning was Messianic--both the first and second comings.
I. The First Night Vision: The Red Horse Rider (1:7, 8)
The Setting for the Vision (1:7)
This series of messages from the night visions began shortly after the previous message on repentance, in the 24th day of the eleventh month of Darius’ second year, so February, 520 B.C. The 24th day was significant, for exactly five months earlier the work on the temple had been resumed after it had been stopped for years (see Hag. 1:14, 15; 2:18). And two months earlier on that date Haggai had rebuked the priests for impurity and the people for delaying the work (Hag. 2:10-17). At that time Haggai also received the revelation of the destruction of world powers by the greater Zerubbabel1--Messiah (Hag. 2:20). It was a significant day.
The Vision (1:8)
This was not a dream, for the prophet was awake and interacting with the interpreting angel; it was a vision that he received in the night. The prophet records what he saw--a red horse rider. This is clearly the focus of the dream because of the way it is introduced: "look [behold] a man." And the participle used indicates that the man was riding a red horse, or sitting astride the horse, and the horse was standing among the myrtle bushes in the glen. And behind the red-horse rider was a company of horsemen, although the text simply says that behind the rider were red, spotted and white horses (but their riders report to the red-horse rider). By this presentation, the focus is certainly on the red-horse rider, one of the several riders.
The prophet was troubled by the imagery, and so, according to verse 9, asked the angel, "What are these, my lord?" The angel, or better messenger-angel, was speaking with him, or more precisely "in him," indicating that there was a communication from the interpreting angel within the prophet. The red-horse rider was an angel in human form, but not merely an angel. He is the "Angel of the LORD" because according to verse 13 he is Yahweh.2 In the passage he is over the others, for they report to him.
What, then, is the significance of the color red? It usually speaks of both bloodshed and war in the Bible; and the prophecies of the Messiah present him as the one who on the basis of the redemption he bought with his blood at the first advent will come again to judge and make war at his second advent (see Rev. 19:11). It is the picture of the one coming up from Edom in crimsoned garments, marching in the greatness of his strength (Isa. 63:1-6).
The other riders in this vision are merely angels. They serve as scouts who will survey the scene and report to the red-horse rider, who is portrayed as the overseer and intercessor of Israel throughout their history or suffering and humility. But the other riders are portrayed in colors too (as the description of the horses implies): red, dappled and white. The red symbolizes war and bloodshed; it is the condition of the earth at the time of the coming of the Messiah to judge the nations. In other words, when the LORD comes to judge the world, the bloodshed of war will be filling the earth (Hag. 2:21, 22; Zech. 1:11,12). The dappled or tawny horse, perhaps a sorrel, that is, a mixture of red and white, indicates a mixture of judgment-war and mercy. And the white horse indicates peace or triumphant victory (see Rev. 6:2).
The vision locates the rider among the myrtle trees in a glen. The myrtle is a common indigenous plant that grows all over the land of Israel. It has dark green scented leaves, starlike flowers, and dark edible berries. The myrtle was used in the celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles (Lev. 23:33-44), a feast that looked back to the deliverance from Egypt and wilderness wandering and looked forward to the fulfillment of the promises in the land when Messiah comes. In the symbolism that we have here, the myrtle trees represent Israel, but more specifically, Israel at the time of the glorious Messianic reign to come. The prophet Isaiah foresaw it in abundance in the Messianic age, replacing the thorns and briers (see Isa. 41:19 and 55:13).
While the myrtle was a symbol of Israel in the glorious Messianic age to come, the setting here is in a deep glen, valley, or abyss. Until the deliverance comes, Israel would remain in a place of suffering and humiliation under Gentile powers, even if from time to them they seem to have some freedom and some independence.
II. The Interpretation (1:9-12)
A. The Explanation of the Vision (1:9-11).
The prophet did not know at first what the vision represented; and so he asked the interpreting angel, "What are these?" The answer? These are they that the LORD has sent to patrol the earth. The verb is the simple word "to walk," but in this spelling, "to walk to and fro," and so here the connotation is "reconnoiter." They were sent to make a careful military-like survey. Their survey was not limited to the current empire, but to the whole earth, because all the prophecies in the book will lead to the worldwide reign of the Messiah.
The initial report was troubling: ‘the whole earth is quiet and at rest." More literally, quiet should be "sitting down relaxedly." The whole earth was peacefully inhabited. The second verb, "be at rest," is used for people that are not harassed--e.g., they have respite from war. So the patrolling angels reported to the red-horse rider that the whole earth was peacefully inhabited and enjoying respite from war. This was troubling news because in their survey there was not a hint of God’s promise that before the reign of the Messiah God would shake the heavens and the earth and overthrow the wicked world empires before righteousness could reign in all the earth. In the vision there was no sign that the time for redemption was at hand.
B. The Symbolic Act (1:12).The angel then replied, "O LORD of armies, How long . . . ." The "how long" has now covered 2500 years, and we still ask "How long, O LORD?" There may be a state of Israel; but the Jews are still scattered in unbelief, and hated and despised in all the earth. And if there is any peace, it is shaky. How long before God would show mercy to the people in the land and end the threat of violence and hatred forever?
Even though there was no answer given for this, the red-horse rider (the pre-incarnate Christ) remains in the midst of his people in their suffering and persecution.
He is still among the myrtle trees--Israel--even though he was angry with them for seventy years. We now know from the New Testament how he loves his own and how he prays for them.
III. The Message (1:13-17)
A. The LORD declares his love for Israel (1:14).
The word from the LORD comes back immediately: the LORD is exceedingly jealous for Jerusalem and Zion. These are figures of speech (metonymies), because he means the people in Jerusalem. And the LORD tells the angel to call this out immediately, a sign of the urgency. Jealousy in Hebrew is a burning passion to protect and safeguard something that is threatened. The word can have a negative sense, i.e., "jealous, envy." But here it is zeal. God is fully aware of the world’s persecution of Jewry. And he will soon rise and take vengeance on those who have tried to destroy his inheritance. Read Psalms 132:13, 14, 17, 18; and 78:67, 68).
B. The LORD declares his displeasure with the nations (1:15).
The anger of the LORD is expressed intensely with a cognate accusative: "with anger I am angry," and an adjective: "with great anger I am angry." The object of his anger in this passage is the nations who are at ease. God had punished the nations for their treatment of Israel in history, but those nations have abetted the anger because as the centuries have continued the Jews have suffered continuous hatred and atrocities and pogroms. It is easy for the nations at ease to say that the Jews have brought it on themselves--why?--because they were successful in banking and finance and medicine, or because they have kept to themselves over the years, or because they remained in unbelief and did not become Christianized? If those are the reasons, then every nation of the world is guilty of the same. But the Jews have been singled out for great hatred. And the world has tried to run them off, or annihilate them, but the red-horse rider is still in their midst. Yes, God has been disciplining his erring people Israel, but the point is that the Gentile leaders go far beyond what God had in mind for the discipline.
The nations are said to be living in carnal tranquility. Yes, they have ease and comfort, but it is not from God’s blessing because they are not obedient to God. The words used here are used elsewhere for pride and self-sufficiency.
One day the wrath of God will remove their false tranquility and reveal their wickedness. That judgment, as we shall see, will be the prelude to the Messianic reign on earth. It will be a judgment of individual people in these nations for their sins against Christ’s people, Israel (Joel 3:1-3, 17). The nations will be punished for their mistreatment of the Lord’s brothers (Matt. 25:31-46).
C. The LORD gives words of comfort (1:16, 17).
The declaration of the LORD is clear: he will return to Jerusalem with mercies, his house shall be rebuilt, and a line shall be stretched over the city. The cities will be prosperous, because the LORD will yet comfort Zion and choose Jerusalem.
The passage begins with "Therefore," which sums up the causal or foundational reason for this message of comfort--the red-horse rider in their midst. The central theological point of the declaration is, "I have returned" (again in prophecy the past tense is used for the certainty of a future event). He means he will surely return. Of course God is everywhere; but this means that his presence with all its glory and power will once again guide and govern his people Israel. This, of course, will happen at the coming of the LORD, as Jesus said in Matthew 23:38, 39). And when the LORD comes in glory, the nation will be purged of evil, and the land will be renovated as all things will be made new.
The reason for all this is that his return will be with mercies. He will appear with tender affection, that is, his love in action to extend pity, grace and favor. No, Israel does not deserve divine blessing--any more than we do. But God has made promises to return and renew Israel spiritually and physically, as part of the great transformations at the end of this sinful age.
The LORD also promises that the House will be rebuilt. This had great meaning for the immediate audience--they were trying to rebuild the temple. But when they finished, it was not as good as Solomon’s, and did not look like what Isaiah promised (Isa. 54). But it was built. And yet here the message is that it will happen as God intended it to happen (and that requires some clarification which we will see later) when the LORD comes to tabernacle among his people. See Isaiah 2:2, 3, for example.
The third promise is that great prosperity will characterize the holy city. The line stretched out is the measuring line. The imagery of the surveyor’s line suggests growth and prosperity. This too encouraged the current audience as they tried to rebuild the city from its ruins. But their moderate success was only a brief sign of the great restoration to come.
The fourth promise is for comfort. In spite of all appearances, the LORD will have mercy on Zion (meaning Israel). We shall see later how this will work as we study other prophecies of Zechariah as well as Romans 11. But as always, to have a share in the promised blessings requires faith in the coming Messiah, Jesus Christ. People may deny that Jesus is the LORD, but to get into the life to come they will have to acknowledge this truth.
Finally, the word is clear, the LORD will yet choose Jerusalem. Israel’s divine election will be vindicated at the second coming when believing Israel will see the fulfillment of all the promises. As Paul says, the gifts and callings of God for Israel are irrevocable.
Many people claim that these promises will not be fulfilled, that the Old Testament simply dissolves into the New Testament, that Israel sinned them away and now God has turned to the church. That reasoning is developed more from theological systems than from the careful acknowledgment of all that Scripture teaches; and down through church history it appears to be strengthened by anti-Semiticism. The simple fact is that God renewed all these promised when Israel was disobedient and unbelieving. God will fulfill his Word, in ways that we cannot even imagine. If God proves unfaithful to keep the promises he made to Israel, then on what basis does the Christian think that the promises made to him will be secure?
What this means is that believers today should hold fast to the promises of God in spite of the events of the world. They should know that hatred for Israel and for Christians will be judged by God. And they should spend their time helping the people around them see that carnal tranquility is deceiving, for the only lasting peace and security anyone can have is in Christ Jesus. His presence in the midst of his people, all his people, Jew and Gentile, means that he knows and understands all of their troubles, and he will someday make everything right--for those who come to faith in him.