Studies in the
BOOK OF ZECHARIAH
3. The Second Night Vision:
THE FOUR HORNS AND FOUR SMITHS
DESTRUCTION OF TYRANTS
In the last night vision the LORD revealed his presence in the midst of his people even in their deepest troubles; and with that presence the LORD confirmed his love for his people and declared his great anger for the nations that have treated Israel wickedly. The prophecy was clear enough: the LORD would destroy the enemies of his people. But how? How could a little country like Judah hope to overcome Persia, or any other ruthless world power for that matter? It has been the history of Israel that one super power after another has trampled her down. Just surviving seems miraculous enough. But seeing triumph over them?
This is the concern, then, of the second night vision, a vision of four horns and four smiths. Its message will be that the great powers that crushed and scattered Israel will themselves be destroyed; it is a symbolic presentation of the sweep of history.
I. The Four Horns (1:18, 19)
A. The Vision of the Horns (1:18)
This vision follows immediately on the first: "then I raised my eyes and looked." Still contemplating the meaning of the first vision, Zechariah was captivated by an immediate sequel. "Behold," which need not be translated, points to the object of his contemplative vision--there were four horns! The horns are animal horns, perhaps the ramís horn. The vision focuses on the horns because of their symbolism, but clearly the animal would have been connected--the horn would have no power without the beast using it.
One use of the ramís horn in the Old Testament was for marshaling the people, the blast of the animal horn functioning like the trumpet sound. But in biblical symbolism the horn represented power or strength.1 The image is drawn from the animal world in which the most powerful ram, the one with the biggest horns, would dominate the others. So the horn could refer to nations or countries or powerful individuals. Thus we read about the horn of Moab (Jer. 48:25), or the horns of the wicked (Ps. 75:10). Daniel saw the vision of the ten horns, ten kings, and one little horn, a unique Gentile king (Dan. 7:24; Rev. 17:12). Daniel also saw a ram with two horns; they represented the kingdoms of Media and Persia (Dan. 8:20). So in all these uses we find that the horn represents a Gentile king with his powerful kingdom.
Daniel and Zechariah both use the imagery in this way. To Daniel God revealed four powerful world empires as horned beasts (Dan. 7:7, 8). Likewise the four horns that Zechariah saw a few decades after Daniel represent four powerful world empires.
B. The Identity of the Horns (1:19)
Once again the prophet asked the interpreting angel about the meaning. His question, "What are these?" goes beyond the vision--they were horns. But what did they mean? And the answer was that these were the horns that had scattered Judah, Israel, and Jerusalem. The word (in the Qal) means "scattered"; but the prophet uses the derived form (Piel) with its active aspect "winnowed." The horns are the empires that have scattered the covenant people as one would winnow grain at the threshing floor so that the chaff would blow away. The super powers sifted the Jewish people, destroying some and scattering others, without any regard for them or their God.
Since the range of the night visions is the entirety of the "times of the Gentiles," we must identify the horns in that framework. The four horns, then, are the four great world empires that dominate history and up to the time of the establishment of the reign of the Messiah on earth. As the prophecy is studied in this light, it appears that their course has been run. For if we harmonize this with Daniel, the first great empire was Babylon, under the dominant rule of Nebuchadnezzar. That was how the times of the Gentiles started. That empire was replaced by Medo-Persia, when Cyrus conquered Babylon and allowed the Jews to return to their homeland. The third empire would be Macedonia-Greece (after the time of Zechariah). In time it would destroy the Persian empire and advance its reign across the whole known world. Finally, the Roman empire would replace the Greek empire and rule with an iron hand. In the fifth century A.D. the Roman empire divided into Eastern and Western empires before falling apart (as Daniel saw the image with feet of clay [Dan. 2]). However, since the Messiah in his glorious coming must destroy this last empire and all the previous empires it included, one must conclude that there will be a revival of the fourth power before that time.2 Daniel saw how the Messiah, one like the Son of Man, a rock cut out of the mountain without hands, would destroy the statue, the four empires (Dan. 2); and the destruction of these four beastly powers would be with the coming of the Son of Man--which Jesus said at his trial lay in the future. So the Holy Spirit who inspired Danielís visions now inspired Zechariahís along the same lines, except that at this point Zechariah does not refer to the coming of the LORD, only the four great powers.
Could the passage be referring to earlier empires that tried to destroy Israel--Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, and Persia? (that is, empires up to the time of the prophet and therefore known by him?). This is not likely, since all the night visions point to future events. And since the passage is prophetic, the form of the verb, which is usually given a past tense translation, is a prophetic perfect, describing the certainty of the future events in the past tense. In Zechariahís messages, the four horns is a vision of four successive Gentile powers that began with the Babylonian Captivity-- which Zechariah has already focused on in his call for repentance.
II. The Four Smiths (1:20, 21)
A. The Vision of the Smiths (1:20)
The LORD showed Zechariah four smiths. The prophet had seen the horns immediately when he looked up, but now the LORD has to reveal the smiths to him.
These smiths are technicians, people skilled in working with metal and stone, here working in metal. The smiths stood over against the four horns. They would be the means of destroying the four horns, or to put it another way, God has planned that there would be a corresponding power to every other power--those powers that crushed Israel would be crushed themselves by another power that would replace them, and that power would also be crushed and replaced, until the fourth smith which would not be crushed and replaced.
B. The Meaning of the Smiths (1:21)
The interpretation given to the prophet was that these four smiths would destroy the four horns. The four smiths were to terrify and cast down the four horns that oppressed Israel. The four horns had so severely oppressed Godís people that his people were not able to make the slightest move, not even lifting their heads. But the four smiths would terrify those oppressing nations, throwing them into a panic and destroying them. Those nations that lifted up their horns against Judah will be cast down by the smiths, crushed and winnowed. It is the only "language" that ruthless tyrants understand; they that live by the sword will die by the sword, for they will never respond to overtures of peace.
But who are the four smiths? Interpreters have for some time tried to identify those who were able to gain such power over the horns as individuals in history. But this is not that easy. In this passage the interpretation of the four horns would influence the interpretation of the four smiths. They too would be four powers used by God to cast down the horns. If we use Daniel again as a guide, three of the horns become smiths that destroy the horns and replace them. Persia was a smith that destroyed Babylonia; it then became a horn. Greece was a smith that destroyed Persia; it then became a horn. Rome was a smith that replaced Greece and became a horn, a cruel and ruthless horn. The last smith, however, would be Christ at his coming in glory--the stone cut out of the mountain in Daniel 2, or the Son of Man coming in the clouds in Daniel 7, for it would break in pieces and bring to an end all these kingdoms.
It is not that only the last smith is supernaturally enabled to destroy the fourth horn; God himself enabled all these smiths to bring judgment on the horns. It is a fundamental principle of the Old Testament that God uses nations to counterbalance and to judge other nations. Nebuchadnezzar was chosen by God to purge Israel of idolatry and sin (Jer. 25:9; 43:10). Cyrus the Great of Persia was anointed by God to destroy Babylon and set the Jews free (Isa. 44:28). Alexander the Great was similarly used by God to end the Persian reign (Zech. 9:3, 4). And the Roman empire was likewise in place under Godís sovereignty for a number of reasons, even though it was cruel and tyrannical. Ultimately the "man of sin" who will be allowed to deceive the nations and for a while torment the earth, will be destroyed by the Son of Man.
This brief night vision then simply gives a glimpse of the sweep of human history in which four powerful empires dominate the world, and Israel, the people of God. But since God is in the midst of his people, they will survive, even though they will suffer. In Godís wisdom, each world power will be removed and replaced by another, so that universal, eternal dominion would never go to corrupt human governments, whether empowered by Satan or night. They all tried; but they all fell and were replaced by another. And all the lesser threats in between, the terrorists and warrior nations that have tried to attain power, will be under the dominion of the great powers, especially the final form of the fourth horn. But they too will fall by the way when the Lord comes and crushes all these powers.
In the days of Zechariah, the people lived under the domination of Persia; two of the great horns were yet to come. The message of the prophet would be a comfort to the people: no matter who rules the world with great power, they will fall and be replaced by another, until in the end God places his king on the throne (Ps. 2). In other words, the affairs of the world are known by God; they are under his control as part of his plan for human history. Only faith in the sovereignty of God will give a sense of peace and security in a world run by super powers and afflicted with terrorists trying to overthrow them.
The promise of ultimate victory gives the people of God hope and encouragement. For Israel, there is hope, finally. But to share in that victory eternally, they have to come to faith in their Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ. And we Gentiles who have come to faith in him, not only have the sure word of God that all wickedness will be put down by the Lord of Glory, but also have the responsibility of calling people in the nations to faith so that they too can enter the glorious kingdom of righteousness that the Messiah will bring.
Otherwise, the crushing and winnowing of Godís judgment at the ingathering of the harvest is the only prospect for them. Jesus said that at the harvest the chaff will be burned up, but the good grain would be brought into the barn. The imagery was not lost on the Israelites, and it must not be lost on all of us who have been grafted into the New Covenant and given the divine commission to go into all the world and proclaim the good news--this the victory that overcomes the world, faith in Christ the Lord.