The Old Testament prophet Zechariah has been called the most messianic and eschatological writer of the entire Old Testament, meaning that he spoke more about the first coming of the Messiah and the second coming of the Messiah than any other writer or prophet in the Old Testament. While the immediate ministry context of the prophet coincides with the ministry of Haggai who encouraged the Jews who returned to Jerusalem from the Babylonian exile to finish rebuilding the Temple, there is more going on in this prophetic book than just a call to rebuild the Second Temple.
On February 15, 519 BC, Zechariah received eight “night visions,” amazing visions where God revealed the purpose and future of Israel to the prophet. The first of these visions is found in Zechariah 1.7-17:
7On the twenty-fourth day of the eleventh month, which is the month of Shebat, in the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, son of Iddo, saying, 8“I saw in the night, and behold, a man riding on a red horse! He was standing among the myrtle trees in the glen, and behind him were red, sorrel, and white horses. 9Then I said, ‘What are these, my lord?’ The angel who talked with me said to me, ‘I will show you what they are.’ 10So the man who was standing among the myrtle trees answered, ‘These are they whom the Lord has sent to patrol the earth.’ 11And they answered the angel of the Lord who was standing among the myrtle trees, and said, ‘We have patrolled the earth, and behold, all the earth remains at rest.’ 12Then the angel of the Lord said, ‘O Lord of hosts, how long will you have no mercy on Jerusalem and the cities of Judah, against which you have been angry these seventy years?’ 13And the Lord answered gracious and comforting words to the angel who talked with me. 14So the angel who talked with me said to me, ‘Cry out, Thus says the Lord of hosts: I am exceedingly jealous for Jerusalem and for Zion. 15And I am exceedingly angry with the nations that are at ease; for while I was angry but a little, they furthered the disaster. 16Therefore, thus says the Lord, I have returned to Jerusalem with mercy; my house shall be built in it, declares the Lord of hosts, and the measuring line shall be stretched out over Jerusalem. 17Cry out again, Thus says the Lord of hosts: My cities shall again overflow with prosperity, and the Lord will again comfort Zion and again choose Jerusalem.’” (Zechariah 1.7-17 ESV)
Making the connection between the “second year of Darius” and the “24th day of the eleventh month” allows scholars to date this night vision to February 15, 519 BC. The word of the Lord came to the prophet as a vision, and he saw a man riding on a red horse, standing among the myrtle trees in the glen. In John’s vision, recorded in the book of Revelation, the rider of the red horse “was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people should slay one another, and he was given a great sword” (Revelation 6.4). In a similar vein, the rider of this horse will remove the peace from those who have furthered the disaster upon Judah. However, the rider of this horse is the Angel of the Lord, a reference most often used in the Old Testament to mean the pre-incarnate Christ (see Genesis 16.11-14 or Judges 6.11-14 for just two of the many appearances of the Angel of the Lord in the Old Testament narrative).
The Angel of the Lord on the red horse was surrounded by other horses, presumably with other riders, all of whom who reported to the rider of the red horse. These horses were red, sorrel (a light bright chestnut horse often with white mane and tail), and white. The riders of these horses had been sent to patrol the earth, and they reported to the Angel of the Lord that “all the earth remains at rest.”
Then, in an amazing demonstration of intercession and mediation (see 1 Timothy 2.5 and Hebrews 7.25 for the intercessory ministry of the Second Person of the Triune God), the Angel of the Lord intercedes on behalf of Jerusalem and Judah to YHWH of Hosts. YHWH answered with gracious and comforting words, but spoke them to the angel which was speaking to Zechariah. Then the angel spoke the word of YHWH to Zechariah saying,
I am exceedingly jealous for Jerusalem and for Zion. And I am exceedingly angry with the nations that are at ease; for while I was angry but a little, they furthered the disaster… I have returned to Jerusalem with mercy; my house shall be built in it, and the measuring line shall be stretched out over Jerusalem…My cities shall again overflow with prosperity, and the Lord will again comfort Zion and again choose Jerusalem. (Zechariah 1.14-17 selected).
This vision must have been soul restoring words to the captives who had returned to a destroyed Jerusalem. Though the foundations of the temple were laid in 536 BC, opposition within and without stopped their efforts. Through the encouraging visions of Zechariah and through the prophetic ministry of Haggai, the people renewed themselves to the task and the Temple was rebuilt in 516 BC, four years after the night visions of Zechariah. While Haggai was giving them the proverbial and prophetic “kick in the pants,” Zechariah was encouraging the people with the wonderful words that the Lord’s anger over Jerusalem was over, that the Lord was returning to Jerusalem with mercy, that His house shall be built, that the cities will overflow with prosperity, and that the Lord will again choose Jerusalem. God’s wrath had turned to mercy; let the people rejoice!
But in the declaration of mercy upon Judah, we should not miss the judgment of God upon “the nations that are at ease.” The prophetic message of the Old Testament is fairly clear that the Lord raised up the nation of Babylon as an instrument of His discipline (see Jeremiah 21.10). The Lord gave Judah over to Nebuchadnezzar because they disobeyed the Lord and worshipped other gods.
But Babylon went beyond the “little anger” of the Lord and “furthered the disaster.” Several times in history, the Lord has used one nation to punish another. He used the Philistia, Assyria, and Babylon to discipline the children of Israel. But as often the case with sinful mankind, when the Lord removes His protection and allows one nation to capture another, the conquering nation fails to stay within the limits of the “little anger” of the Lord. Instead, the conquering nation “furthered the disaster.” And this always aroused the anger of a Just and Holy God. Consider the following prophetic passages about those who furthered the disaster:
- I will repay Babylon and all the inhabitants of Chaldea before your very eyes for all the evil that they have done in Zion, declares the Lord. (Jeremiah 51.24 ESV)
- Ah, Assyria, the rod of my anger; the staff in their hands is my fury! 6Against a godless nation I send him, and against the people of my wrath I command him, to take spoil and seize plunder, and to tread them down like the mire of the streets. 7But he does not so intend, and his heart does not so think; but it is in his heart to destroy, and to cut off nations not a few; 8for he says: “Are not my commanders all kings? 9Is not Calno like Carchemish? Is not Hamath like Arpad? Is not Samaria like Damascus? 10As my hand has reached to the kingdoms of the idols, whose carved images were greater than those of Jerusalem and Samaria, 11shall I not do to Jerusalem and her idols as I have done to Samaria and her images?” 12When the Lord has finished all his work on Mount Zion and on Jerusalem, he will punish the speech of the arrogant heart of the king of Assyria and the boastful look in his eyes. 13For he says: “By the strength of my hand I have done it, and by my wisdom, for I have understanding; I remove the boundaries of peoples, and plunder their treasures; like a bull I bring down those who sit on thrones. 14My hand has found like a nest the wealth of the peoples; and as one gathers eggs that have been forsaken, so I have gathered all the earth; and there was none that moved a wing or opened the mouth or chirped.” 15Shall the axe boast over him who hews with it, or the saw magnify itself against him who wields it? As if a rod should wield him who lifts it, or as if a staff should lift him who is not wood! 16Therefore the Lord God of hosts will send wasting sickness among his stout warriors, and under his glory a burning will be kindled, like the burning of fire. 17The light of Israel will become a fire, and his Holy One a flame, and it will burn and devour his thorns and briers in one day. 18The glory of his forest and of his fruitful land the Lord will destroy, both soul and body, and it will be as when a sick man wastes away. 19The remnant of the trees of his forest will be so few that a child can write them down. (Isaiah 10.5-19 ESV)
- I was angry with my people; I profaned my heritage; I gave them into your hand; you showed them no mercy; on the aged you made your yoke exceedingly heavy. 7You said, “I shall be mistress forever,” so that you did not lay these things to heart or remember their end. 8Now therefore hear this, you lover of pleasures, who sit securely, who say in your heart, “I am, and there is no one besides me; I shall not sit as a widow or know the loss of children”: 9These two things shall come to you in a moment, in one day; the loss of children and widowhood shall come upon you in full measure, in spite of your many sorceries and the great power of your enchantments. 10You felt secure in your wickedness, you said, “No one sees me”; your wisdom and your knowledge led you astray, and you said in your heart, “I am, and there is no one besides me.” 11But evil shall come upon you, which you will not know how to charm away; disaster shall fall upon you, for which you will not be able to atone; and ruin shall come upon you suddenly, of which you know nothing. (Isaiah 47.5-11 ESV)
- Because of the violence done to your brother Jacob, shame shall cover you, and you shall be cut off forever. 11On the day that you stood aloof, on the day that strangers carried off his wealth and foreigners entered his gates and cast lots for Jerusalem, you were like one of them. 12But do not gloat over the day of your brother in the day of his misfortune; do not rejoice over the people of Judah in the day of their ruin; do not boast in the day of distress. 13Do not enter the gate of my people in the day of their calamity; do not gloat over his disaster in the day of his calamity; do not loot his wealth in the day of his calamity. 14Do not stand at the crossroads to cut off his fugitives; do not hand over his survivors in the day of distress. (Obadiah 1.10-16 ESV)
The Lord is a Just God, giving to governments the power of the sword to carry out the wrath of God on the wrongdoer (see Romans 13.4). But there is an amazing trust given to an instrument of God’s justice. Human history validates the temptation for the ax to boast over the One who wields it (see Isaiah 10.15), for the conqueror to show no mercy, and for the instrument of justice to gloat over the disaster of their enemies. The justice of God will not be abused by the wicked for their personal gain.
And in the timing of the Lord, I am reading the prophetic words of Zechariah about those who “furthered disaster” instead of limiting themselves to the “little anger” of the Lord on the morning after our President has announced to the nation that Usama Bin Laden was killed by American military forces on May 1, 2011 in Pakistan. As soon as the news hit, people rushed to the streets in Washington DC and in Times Square to celebrate the death of Public Enemy #1. Outside the White House, the crowds were chanting “USA, USA!” and it seems that we have finally found something that Democrats and Republicans can agree on.
But as a follower of Christ, there ought to be a catch in our spirit about all of this. Without a doubt, Bin Laden was a wrongdoer who needed to be brought to justice. But may the ax never rise above the One who wields it. We have been told not to gloat over the calamity of our enemies. To be the agent of God’s wrath is a humbling and fearful calling. The death of Bin Laden was a dreadful and necessary reality of a broken world, but there is a sadness to a soul who will spend eternity in hell because of their unbelief in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Consider the words of YHWH,
As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; (Ezekiel 33.11 ESV)
If the Lord takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, then surely the ax head should not either. The way of wisdom is clear, “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles” (Proverbs 24.17 ESV).
May the USA be devoted to the righteous use of force as an instrument of God’s wrath to punish the wrongdoer, and may we have the wisdom to not “further disaster,” and may we have the humility to not “rejoice when our enemy falls.” Our future depends upon it.