Zechariah 1: The Lord Returns to Jerusalem with Mercy

The Book Zechariah deals with the spiritual restoration of the people of Israel and their capital city, Jerusalem – not only in Zechariah’s time, but more specifically in the end-time after the coming of the Messiah. God’s judgements upon His enemies are also described, and it is clear that they are also the enemies of Israel.

“In the eighth month of the second year of Darius, the word of the LORD came to Zechariah…” (1:1). This verse reveals the time, divine source and human agent of the opening call to repentance. The specific day of the eighth month, which began October 27, 520 B.C., is significant as the Jewish prophet dates his prophecy according to the reign of a Gentile monarch. This was a reminder to all Zechariah’s hearers that the times of the Gentiles were in progress and that no descendant of David was sitting on the throne in Jerusalem. Furthermore, Zechariah was only the person who uttered this prophecy, and not its source, as the word of God came to him (cf. 2 Pet. 1:21). As a prophet, he was merely a servant and spokesman who was called and anointed to bring God’s word to the people.

Return to the Lord! (1:2-6)

A solemn warning is extended to Israel not to continue with the disobedience of their fathers as they were arousing the anger of the Lord, but rather to repent and make use of His offer of divine grace: “The LORD has been very angry with your fathers… Thus says the LORD of hosts: Return to Me, and I will return to you… Do not be like your fathers” (1:2-4). Whereas the sins of their forefathers gave rise to the desolation of the temple, the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian captivity of the nation, their own sins had resulted in delay in rebuilding the city and the temple, and in their enemies being successful in attacking and discouraging them. If they did not heartily repent they would forfeit the presence and blessings of the Lord and instead kindle His wrath upon them. He would then again withdraw from Israel and surrender them to their enemies.

The seriousness of the situation was emphasised by asking two questions, thereby calling attention to the brevity of human life and the need for timely response to God’s command to repent. “Your fathers, where are they?” (1:5). They were dead from sword, famine, pestilence, and natural causes, as predicted by the earlier prophets. “And the prophets, do they live for ever?” (1:5). The implied answer was “no.” Their ministries were also brief, so the opportunity for repentance which they offered should not be ignored.

The prerequisite for experiencing the blessings revealed by the prophets was a genuine and wholehearted turning to the Lord. They were not to be disobedient as were those of the former generation who were taken into exile as a result of God’s certain judgement.

The need for repentance is not only a key to receiving the remission of sins and the blessings of God upon the lives of the Israelites in the Old Testament, but equally applies to us in the New Testament. Paul said: ”God…commands all men everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30). Through repentance, a lost sinner turns to God in faith to obtain forgiveness of his/her sins, to be spiritually renewed by being born again, and to be endued by the power of the Holy Spirit to serve the Lord.

God pronounced the death penalty upon all sinners: “The soul who sins shall die” (Ezek. 18:4; cf. Rom. 6:23). For this reason, there is no remission of sin without the shedding of blood (Heb. 9:22; cf. Lev. 17:11). The Messiah, Jesus Christ, is the Lamb of God who shed His blood and died on the cross to make atonement for our sins (John 1:29; Rom. 3:25). Before the coming of Messiah, the Israelites had to sacrifice animals for their sins, which typologically pointed to the future sacrifice of the Messiah. But since the law was only a shadow of the good things to come, the Old Testament sacrifices had to be repeated over and over until the once for all sacrifice of the perfect Lamb of God (Heb. 10:1-18).

Under the Old Covenant it was nevertheless imperative to bring repetitive animal sacrifices as the sins of the people were provisionally forgiven, pending the coming and sacrifice of the Messiah. The law and its prescribed sacrifices were all fulfilled in the Messiah (Matt. 5:17). Paul said: “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom. 10:4). The continuation of Old Testament animal sacrifices in the court of the temple was imperative as it demanded repentance from the people, it emphasised the principle that there is no atonement without the shedding of blood, and therefore kept the Messianic hope of the people alive. Since it was impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins (Heb. 10:4), the faithful ones in Israel were awaiting the salvation which only the Lamb of God (the Messiah) could bring to them. Isaiah said: “He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed… The LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:5-6).

Before the Messiah came, the people of Israel had to maintain and observe the shadowy practices of the law. But in so doing, they embraced the promises of the coming Messiah and the future blessings that were in store for all believers. In the ages to come they will also, like us, glory in the Messiah (Zech. 12:10), in His atonement for the sins of the world (Rev. 5:9), in His victory over the forces of darkness (Heb. 2:14-15), and in His everlasting blessings for all believers (Heb. 11:13,39-40).

In the Old Testament, the neglecting of the temple service was always an indication of Israel’s spiritual backsliding as they stopped listening to the law which convicted them of sin, and consequently ceased with the confession of sins which always accompanied their sacrifices and prayers for blessing. They forgot the Lord and became involved with sin. Turning to God always implied the restoration of the temple service, the daily sacrifices, the reading of the law and the prophets, and a fresh commitment to honour and obey the Holy One of Israel, who is mighty to save.

That is the reason why rebuilding of the temple and the reinstitution of the temple service was so important to those Jews who returned from the Babylonian exile. Zechariah strongly encouraged them to dedicate themselves to this task. Part of his motivation was the promise of the Coming One who would fulfil all the animal sacrifices as He, Himself, would be pierced for their iniquities (12:10). He will be the High Priest and King of Jerusalem and of the whole world (14:9).

The red-horse rider among the myrtles (1:7-17)

In a single night, Zechariah saw a series of eight visions which were interpreted by an angel and which describe the future of Israel. It should be emphasised that these visions were received by Zechariah when he was wide awake – they were not dreams. He even became exhausted because of the visions and fell asleep, only to be wakened by the angel (4:1). In the visions, God’s blessings to Israel bridges the centuries from the rebuilding of the temple in Zechariah’s day to the restoration of the kingdom of Israel under the Messiah.

The red-horse rider among the myrtles is identified as the Angel of the Lord – that is an appearance of the pre-incarnate Messiah. The colour with which He is associated not only alludes to His blood but also to divine judgement and warfare (cf. Isa. 63:1-6). He was followed by a company of angelic riders on red, speckle (KJV) and white horses. Red symbolises war, bloodshed and judgement. A speckled horse (red with white spots) reveals a mission of judgement and mercy. White portrays cleansing and victory. The myrtle trees in the hollow (low-lying area, or ravine) symbolise the people of Israel in their humiliation, suffering and downtrodden state. This is typical of their position throughout the long period of the times of the Gentiles.

The angelic horsemen were sent to patrol the whole earth and to report their findings. They found the earth peacefully inhabited and at rest from war. This was not good news, because Zechariah knew that the restoration of Israel’s kingdom would be preceded by worldwide wars and the destructing of earthly kingdoms (Zech. 14:2), as also confirmed by Haggai (Hag. 2:21-22). At the time of Zechariah’s prophecies there was no sign of the nearness of Jerusalem’s final restoration and salvation. This situation explains the question in verse 12: “O LORD of hosts, how long will You not have mercy on Jerusalem…?”

It must have been comforting to Zechariah that the Lord Himself was in the hollow among the myrtle trees. He is still in the midst of His people during their suffering and rejection by the Gentiles, and will not forsake them but fully restore them according to His promises. From verses 13 to 17, words of comfort were spoken to Jerusalem. The Lord is zealous for Jerusalem (1:14), He has chosen them (3:2) and will not allow them to be plucked out of His hand. The Lord has spoken the following comforting words:

“I am returning to Jerusalem with mercy.” This was true in Zechariah’s time when the Lord helped Israel to restore Jerusalem and the temple after His glory had previously departed from the temple and the city (Ezek. 10:18-19; 11:22-23). However, this promise also refers to the time when the Messiah will return to Jerusalem permanently to rule from there during the millennium (cf. Isa. 2:1-4; Jer. 3:17). The holy presence of the Lord will fill the temple and the city (Ezek. 43:5; 48:35).

“My house shall be built in it.” This refers to the rebuilding of the temple in Zechariah’s time and also to the building of the final temple during the millennium (Ezek. 40–44).

“A surveyor’s line shall be stretched out over Jerusalem.” That refers to the building and expanding of Jerusalem, particularly during the millennium, when it will be the capital of the world where the Lord will be worshipped by all nations (Zech. 8:20-22; cf. Jer. 31:38-40; Acts 15:16-17).

“The Lord will again comfort Zion, and will again choose Jerusalem.” When the Messiah comes again He will fulfil His gracious promises to Israel and Jerusalem (cf. Isa. 12:1; 62:6-7; Rom. 11:26-29). During Zechariah’s time, the Jews were comforted to a limited degree only. It is evident that the Lord’s full blessing and comfort will bestowed upon them after they have concluded a New Covenant with God through the Messiah (cf. Jer. 31:31-37; Heb. 8:10-12; Ezek. 36:22-38).

The four horns and the four craftsmen (1:18-21)

This second vision shows God’s judgement on the nations that afflict Israel. Horns are generally symbolic of power and usually refer to Gentile kings (cf. Dan. 7:24; Rev. 17:12). The kingdoms in question were hostile towards Israel, hence the statement: “These are the horns that scattered Judah” (1:21). The four craftsmen are powers raised up by God to destroy the nations (depicted here as horns) that fought against Israel.

The four horns may refer to all Israel’s enemies from the four corners of the earth, or, more likely, to the four beasts described in Daniel 7, which fulfil the same role as the one attributed to the four horns. These four beasts represent the Babylonian, Medo-Persian, Greek and Roman Empires that fought, oppressed and dispersed Israel during the times of the Gentiles. Those who reject this interpretation usually say that the last two kingdoms were not known in Zechariah’s time as the people of that time were only acquainted with the Babylonian and Medo-Persian empires – the remaining two were still future. However, we know that the night visions were not confined to the time of Zechariah but apply to the entire period of the times of the Gentiles.

The four craftsmen that were seen after the horns are successive powers that were used by God to destroy those powers that acted against Israel. We know that the Medo-Persians destroyed the Babylonians. After being a craftsman used of God they became a horn themselves, fighting against the kingdom and people of God. Likewise, the Greek Empire was used to defeat the Medo-Persians, while the Roman Empire terminated the Greek Empire. The Roman Empire broke up into two divisions (Eastern and Western) and was not replaced by another world empire. In the end-time, the restored Roman Empire, which will also represent a revival of all the ancient Gentile powers, will be headed by the Antichrist and destroyed by the Messiah when He comes back to restore Israel’s kingdom (Zech. 14:2,12-13; Rev. 19:19-21).

We are also given an indication of how severely these nations persecuted the Jews. They “scattered Judah, so that no one could lift up his head” (1:21). The lifting up of your head indicates a measure of strength and courage. The dispersed Jews had no strength during the times of the Gentiles and were completely subjected by various Gentile powers.

The fact that Israel, after so many years, are back in their land, in control of Jerusalem, and also have the ability to defend themselves against their enemies, is a sure sign that the times of the Gentiles is drawing to a close and that the coming of the Messiah is at hand. However, since Israel still need to repent and become reconciled to God through the Messiah, their problems are far from over. The worst is still coming in the tribulation period under the false messiah.

When the Messiah was rejected by Israel during His first coming, He clearly indicated to them that they were on a course that will ultimately lead to the concluding of a covenant with the false messiah (John 5:43). When he erects an image of himself in the rebuilt temple in Jerusalem, the false messiah (Antichrist) will try to annihilate all the Jews who will have broken their covenant with him. Jesus said: “Therefore when you see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place… then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains… For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be. And if those day had not been shortened, no flesh would be saved; but for the elect’s sake [Israel] those days will be shortened” (Matt. 24:15,16,21,22).

Zechariah describes this unparalleled, end-time hostility towards Israel (12:2-3), and also the fact that two-thirds of all Jews will die in the fiery trials of the tribulation period (13:8). However, God will not only use the Gentiles to afflict and judge Israel because of their continued unbelief – He will also judge the nations because they were always full of hatred towards Israel and used every opportunity to persecute and scatter them (Joel 3:2; cf. Gen. 12:3).

When will Israel and the nations heed the serious and oft repeated call to repentance? God only saves, comforts and blesses those people who truly turn to Him with their whole heart. Those who refuse to do so are living in rebellion against Him and consequently remain the objects of His wrath: “How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?” (Heb. 2:3). Unsaved people must know that it is indeed a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Heb. 10:31). He is either your Saviour or your Judge – you have the choice. “Turn now from your evil ways and your evil deeds. But they did not hear nor heed Me, says the LORD” (Zech. 1:4).