ZECHARIAH-SERIES NR 2
THE MAN ON THE RED HORSE – Zechariah 1: 7-17
Less than 50000 Jews returned to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon in the year BC 536 (Jewish calendar). The rebuilding of the temple started in BC 535, but after a few months the work stopped – mainly because of strong resistance from the inhabitants of the city – and in the year BC 520 the temple was still not restored.
That is the immediate reason why the Lord sent the prophets Zechariah and Haggai to the Jews – to encourage and motivate them to complete the rebuilding. Haggai mainly to encourage them to start and complete the physical building process, and Zechariah to spiritually encourage them.
In the year BC 520 (actually 519 according to the Jewish calendar) Zechariah one night saw 8 visions. The one following the other. Not dreams, but apocalyptic visions – he was therefore fully awake.
The purpose of these visions was to uplift the Lord’s people. Life back in Jerusalem was not moonlight and roses. It was not a glorious new Israel. They were poor and discouraged, and the country was lying in ruins. In addition they were surrounded by hostile pagan people. They were greatly in need of the Word of the Lord. This is where Haggai and Zechariah’s ministry fits in.
WHAT WAS THE FIRST VISION THAT ZECHARIAH SAW?
He saw a man on a red horse standing among myrtle trees in a deep ravine, and behind him were another three men riding on red, brown and white horses. Beside Zechariah there was an angel of God that was interpreting the vision for him.
The rider on the red horse is called “the angel/messenger of the Lord” – with a definite article. “Angel” means messenger. Everywhere in the OT where this particular figure appears, it is the Lord Jesus before his incarnation, before He was born at Bethlehem. Indeed, before Abraham was born, He is (John 8:58). Therefore it is Christ as He appeared during OT-times on certain occasions. He is always equal to God and yet also different from God. Of no ordinary angel has something like that ever been said. Not even nearly will an angel be placed equal to God in the Scriptures. But “THE Angel of the Lord” certainly! And yet He is also a Person different from God! Truly a mysterious person.
We see Him at various places in the OT. An example: In Judges 6:11-16 He appears to Gideon. The Angel/messenger of the Lord appears to Gideon, but then it is said that it is the LORD himself. But apart from Judges, we also see Him in several places in Genesis, as well as in Exodus and Joshua.
But why is the red horse standing among the myrtle trees in a ravine? It is difficult to say because the text does not give an explanation. One should keep in mind that the vision is shrouded in symbolism. The Lord’s people back in Jerusalem were surrounded by hostile-minded people – that is why they could not complete the rebuilding of the temple. These type of messages from God in the form of symbols had the purpose to encourage the Lord’s people without the enemy’s ability to understand it. The symbols had to conceal the message so that people for whom it was not meant, couldn’t misuse it. That is what we call apocalyptic literature. Apocalyptic (meaning: to disclose, to reveal) literature was a kind of literary genre that was used at that time (post-exile) to constrict the Lord’s Word to His people – particularly when they were in danger. The Lord’s words to the prophet Daniel were also partly in the form of the apocalyptic genre. In the NT it is of course found in Revelation.
It is interesting however that it is not necessary to have the right explanations of all the finer details to be able to understand the message. Even though we do not know exactly what the meaning is of the myrtle trees and the ravine, we can still easily know what the meaning of the vision is.
The same goes for Revelation. You may rack your brains over the meaning of much of the symbolism, but there is no need to struggle to understand the message. The message is clear, because it is what the Holy Spirit wants to communicate, and what He wants the church throughout all the ages to know.
Probably the myrtle trees are a symbol of the Lord’s nation Israel, and the ravine an indication of the people’s very difficult circumstances and humiliation.
From Nehemiah 8:15 we know that the Jews used myrtle branches to build their booths during the annual Feast of the Tabernacles. The leaves produce a pleasant fragrance when it is crushed. Yes, the enemies of the Jews in Jerusalem are opposing and oppressing them, but do not despair, good things are waiting in the future. That is what the myrtle trees are saying.
And why the horses? In apocalyptic literature horses can symbolize things like war, peace, death, disasters and God’s judgment. That is what we see in for example in the book of Revelation.
In this case it seems as if the horses are simply carrying messengers. The pre-incarnate Christ on the red horse is called “the Messenger (angel) of the Lord”, but it is clear that the other three riders are the Lord’s messengers (ordinary angels) who go out over the earth and return with their reports.
That certainly does not mean that God is not omniscient (all-knowing) and that He has to send out angels to do research and report back to Him about what is happening! Indeed not, it is the angels on the horses who symbolize/represent God’s omniscience and omnipotence and sovereignty. The three riders are an apocalyptic representation of God’s omniscience and might.
In other words: The pre-incarnate Christ is not literally sitting on a literared horse among literal myrtle trees and is literally giving the three angels, sitting upon three literal horses, the instruction to go and look what is happening on the earth.
It is apocalyptic figure of speech to communicate God’s Word, God’s message to Zechariah. Should the hostile inhabitants of Jerusalem hear it, it would make no sense to them. But the prophet explains it to the God’s people – for whom it is meant.
To recap: The Lord Jesus Christ – who at that stage had not yet been born at Bethlehem – comes to Zechariah in His OT personage, and says to him:
“ God is everywhere, He is omniscient, He is sovereign and He knows that there are nations – particularly the Persian Empire – who are at rest and in peace. Meaning that there is no political unrest and that they are experiencing a peaceful period. It is actually good news, but under these circumstances it is not good news. It is something I am concerned about, says the Lord. Because they do not know and realize that they are the objects of God’s wrath. They are falsely secure. Their downfall is on the way. They are the oppressors of God’s people – to their own advantage. But the Lord’s anger with His people is over after 70 years of their exile. He is very anxious about Jerusalem, He chooses that Jerusalem and the temple and the city would be rebuilt. At the moment it appears as if they are still under His wrath, but it is not so. Deliverance is at hand!”
That is the message of the vision in a nutshell. That is the message of the symbolism. That is what the Spirit is saying.
Even before Israel was taken into exile, the Lord had said through the prophet Jeremiah that it would happen and even how long it will last, namely 70 years (Jer 25:11).
At the time when Zechariah had this vision – the year BC 520 – the 70 year exile was long over. Because it began in BC 605 when Nebuchadnezzar entered Jerusalem the first of three times and took Jews into exile – Daniel was among the first of them. On the Jewish calendar however it was the year BC 604 because the Jewish calendar starts in September and not January. And the exile ended the year BC 537 when Cyrus decreed that the exiles were free to return to Jerusalem. On the Jewish calendar the year BC 536. That is 68 full years and 2 parts-of-years. But the Jews counted the parts of the year/ month/ day as full year/ month/ day. That is how the 70 years Jeremiah foretold was fulfilled. The 68 complete years and the 2 parts-of-years was from Jewish perspective 70 full years.
Now – the time when Zechariah saw the vision – the year BC 520 (519 Jewish calendar) – the exile had been ended for 15-16 years already. Jeremiah’s prophecy was fulfilled. But the Jews who had returned to Jerusalem, were still experiencing exile-conditions! They were still in bondage. Also spiritually. This is the crux of the matter. This is why Zechariah and Haggai was sent by the Lord. Because those conditions and circumstances were to be changed. The Lord was going lavish His grace upon His people.
In this vision one hears the exclamation and the intercession of the Angel of the Lord (pre-incarnated Christ) for the nation Israel. Just the same as the Lord Jesus still intercedes for His people – as Rom 8:34 teaches. Here He is asking God the Father: “HOW LONG will You withhold mercy from Jerusalem“?
And then God – the Almighty, the Lord of hosts – answers, and says: “The nations who are so peaceful and secure, are going to be punished. They are feeling a false security. They have oppressed my people and harmed them. Babylon also will be punished for adding to the calamity. Because I am deeply concerned about Jerusalem. Passionately concerned. I will have mercy on Jerusalem and the temple will be rebuilt. The city will be restored. My towns will again overflow with prosperity. I will again comfort Zion and choose Jerusalem.“
The people’s experience was that the Lord had forgotten and forsaken them because the enemy was still dominating them and their dreadful circumstances were still the same. Look, they could not even get the temple restored. God’s people suffer and unbelievers prosper. Why is that? Nobody knows. Perhaps it was proof that God’s anger was still burning against them – that is how they felt.
But in Zechariah’s first vision the Lord comes to assure them: No, you do not understand. God is very concerned about you. You are His chosen people. Out of you the Saviour will be born. The Lord is going to bless you and punish your enemies. It does not matter how prosperous the enemy looks at the moment, the Lord’s people are in the winning team.
This message is still valid today, and an encouragement to the Lord’s people.
But how was this prophetic Word really fulfilled and how did it become true?
Yes, we know that the temple was eventually rebuilt in BC 516. But for centuries afterward there was never any sign of the overflowing prosperity that is mentioned in this vision. In fact, it continued to be a struggle. It was as if the Jews could never be delivered from the SPIRITUAL exile they were caught in.
Zechariah’s vision ACTUALLY spoke 5 centuries into the future of the coming of the Lord Jesus. It was IN Christ, that God would come to His temple. Jesus eventually came to build the temple: the temple was His own body. And the temple is His body, His church that would come into being at Pentecost. John 1:14 > “The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us. We have seen His glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
The vision looks even further into the future. Up to the Comsummation of which Revelation 21-22 speaks. We know that the New Jerusalem will not have a temple, because Christ will be the temple and all the saved will share in it (Rev 21:22). The New Jerusalem will not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God will give it light and the Lamb will be its lamp.
The first vision of Zechariah therefore would be fulfilled three times, every time jumping centuries into the future. Fulfilment no 1: The immediate restoration of the temple in that present timeframe. Fulfilment no 2: Christ’s first coming to the world. Fulfilment no 3: Christ’s second coming to the world.
The Scriptures are amazingly the infallible Word of God.
There are personal questions that come to us out of this passage of Scripture. With urgency.
1 Are you still in Babylon in spiritual exile? Under the wrath of God? Perhaps you are experiencing peace and prosperity and are not aware of the danger you are in. Well, come to the realization and come out of exile and join the citizens of the New Jerusalem. By casting yourself upon the Lord Jesus.
2 Are you already a citizen of the New Jerusalem? Is Christ truly alive in you? Your life absolutely testify to that? But you are still struggling with besetting sin. You experience struggles? Well, LOOK and realize that you are privileged to leave the bondage of sin behind and turn to the Lord. He has already accomplished the deliverance.
3 The temple and Jerusalem that the Lord is busy building at present are all people from all the nations who are in Christ. God’s redeemed children are included in the building of this spiritual home. This is by the grace of God, it makes no matter how much it feels as if the enemy is pulling and pushing. Christ is interceding with the Father for everyone who belongs to Him. HE is building His true church, and nothing and nobody will prevent Him from doing so. The gates of hell will not overwhelm it.
Translated by Marthie Wilson