Today (May 11, 2011) is the day, according to Italian pseudo-scientist Raffaele Bendandi, that a massive earthquake is going to strike Rome and wipe it off the face of the earth. He is famous in Italy for predicting the day of the massive quake of 1931, and though he died in 1979, he was said to predict this disaster in Rome. But May is going to be rough month all around because Harold Camping, leader of Family Radio, is dead certain that judgment day will be May 21, 2011 because it is exactly 7000 years after the flood of Noah.
These are basically massive prophetic predictions that cause most stable people to roll their eyes, and yet we should be careful. While the Bible does tell us that it is not for us to know the times and dates of the end times (see Acts 1.7), the Scriptures also tell us not to despise prophetic utterances (see 1 Thessalonians 5.20). False prophets aside, there are genuine prophets of God, called to proclaim a divine interpretation of history. They not only spoke about what was going to happen, but they also declared why it was going to happen.
Zechariah was one of those genuine prophets who spoke the word of the Lord, giving a divine meaning to historical events. Zechariah was among the fifty thousand or so Jews that returned to Jerusalem in 538 BC after Persia conquered Babylon. Babylon’s practice was to resettle conquered peoples, at least the leading citizens of influence, to prevent rebellion, and thousands of Jews were carried off to Babylon in a series of deportations that began in 609 BC. In contrast, the King of Persia allowed the conquered people to return to their homeland, and thousands of Jews made the migration back to their homeland. Zechariah was born in Babylon, but was now living among the rubble of Jerusalem. After the foundations of the Temple were laid in 536 BC, work had stopped due to opposition both within and without. The rebuilding project would be completed in 516 BC, partly because of the prophetic ministry of both Zechariah and Haggai.
One significant way that the Lord spoke to Zechariah was through a series of visions that he received on February 15, 519 BC. The first vision (Zechariah 1.7-17) announced the good news that the Lord had returned to Jerusalem with mercy, that He would again choose Jerusalem, and that He was angry with those who “furthered disaster” upon the Jewish people. In the brief second vision, the Lord dramatically adds to the first vision:
18And I lifted my eyes and saw, and behold, four horns! 19And I said to the angel who talked with me, “What are these?” And he said to me, “These are the horns that have scattered Judah, Israel, and Jerusalem.” 20Then the Lord showed me four craftsmen. 21And I said, “What are these coming to do?” He said, “These are the horns that scattered Judah, so that no one raised his head. And these have come to terrify them, to cast down the horns of the nations who lifted up their horns against the land of Judah to scatter it.” (Zechariah 1.18-21)
In some regards, the second vision adds little to the first, other than to specifically state that the Lord will cast down the horns of the nations who lifted up their horns against Judah.
“Horn” is a typical prophetic imagery for strength, usually the strength of a nation or of a particular king (see the visions of Daniel 7 and Revelation 17). The Jewish Targums (commentary on the prophets) translated “horns” as “kingdoms,” and many have seen a connection between Zechariah and Daniel 7. In Daniel, the four kingdoms spoken of in the vision of Daniel 2 and Daniel 7 are Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome. With the common visionary language, it is easy to see why many readers make this connection.
But in this vision of Zechariah, these “horns” have already scattered Judah (see Zechariah 1.21) whereas the vision of Daniel referred to nations that were not yet on the scene in the days of Zechariah, specifically Greece and Rome. Though Zechariah is definitely a messianic prophet and it would not be out of his ministry to speak of the nations that were yet to come, this vision seems to relate specifically to those nations who had scattered Judah in the exile of the 6th century BC. Perhaps the key to understanding this vision lies in the description of the “horns of the nations who lifted up their horns against the land of Judah to scatter it.” Assyria scattered Judah, and Babylon scattered Judah.
And now, the Lord raised up “four craftsmen” to cast down their horns. Those who see a parallel between the visions of Daniel and Zechariah interpret the four craftsmen as Persia, Greece, Rome, and ultimately the Messiah. However, it seems more likely that it refers to the nations that God used to cast down the nations that had scattered Judah up until this point in time, specifically, Egypt, Babylon, the Medes, and Persia. Perhaps, this is just an allusion to Persia alone. Regardless, the point seems to be that the Lord is orchestrating the process of bringing judgment upon the nations who had “furthered the disaster” upon Judah.
What is easily lost in trying to understand the details of the vision is the big prophetic point: God will cut down the horns of the nations that cut down the horns of Judah. In other words, the Sovereign Creator and God Most High will destroy a nation, or four, as an act of His judgment because they furthered disaster. This means that God is actively orchestrating the events of history, raising up kingdoms and tearing them down to fulfill His divine, eternal plan. Lest we think that this is just a passing concept in a strange vision of Zechariah, we see this prophetic truth over and over again in Scripture. Consider the word of the Lord spoken the Jeremiah,
5Then the word of the Lord came to me: 6“O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter has done? declares the Lord. Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. 7If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, 8and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it. 9And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, 10and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will relent of the good that I had intended to do to it. 11Now, therefore, say to the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: ‘Thus says the Lord, behold, I am shaping disaster against you and devising a plan against you. Return, everyone from his evil way, and amend your ways and your deeds.’ (Jeremiah 1.5-11 ESV)
The word of the Lord clearly says that God can “pluck up and break down and destroy” any nation for its evil, a message repeated to the prophet Amos. In the first few chapters of Amos, the word of the Lord declares judgment against seven different nations, describing why the Lord is “breaking them down.” Consider the words against Gaza,
6Thus says the Lord: “For three transgressions of Gaza, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment, because they carried into exile a whole people to deliver them up to Edom. 7So I will send a fire upon the wall of Gaza, and it shall devour her strongholds. 8I will cut off the inhabitants from Ashdod, and him who holds the scepter from Ashkelon; I will turn my hand against Ekron, and the remnant of the Philistines shall perish,” says the Lord God. (Amos 1.6-8 ESV)
“The remnant of the Philistines shall perish,” a prophetic word that has come true. There is no remnant of the nation of Philistia left on the earth today, and Amos proclaimed the divine interpretation as to why this was to be. Or consider the word of the Lord spoken to the prophet Isaiah,
Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer, who formed you from the womb: “I am the Lord, who made all things, who alone stretched out the heavens, who spread out the earth by myself, 25 who frustrates the signs of liars and makes fools of diviners, who turns wise men back and makes their knowledge foolish, 26who confirms the word of his servant and fulfills the counsel of his messengers, who says of Jerusalem, ‘She shall be inhabited,’ and of the cities of Judah, ‘They shall be built, and I will raise up their ruins’; 27who says to the deep, ‘Be dry; I will dry up your rivers’; 28who says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd, and he shall fulfill all my purpose’; saying of Jerusalem, ‘She shall be built,’ and of the temple, ‘Your foundation shall be laid.’” (Isaiah 44.24-28 ESV)
According to this prophecy, The Lord is the one who works in history to rebuild Jerusalem and to use Cyrus, King of Persia, to fulfill His purpose.
The prophetic truth is simple: the Lord is orchestrating the events of history to fulfill His divine plan. And this orchestration extends to the tearing down and building up of nations, to the frustration of the plans of individual rulers, and even to the divine election of kings to fulfill His purpose (see Romans 9.17 for Paul’s application of this prophetic truth to Pharaoh).
While we have no problem accepting that Cyrus, Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, or Sennacherib (see 2 Kings 18) were pawns in the hand of a sovereign God who was tearing down and building up to fulfill His purpose, it might be more difficult to apply that same prophetic truth forward. God has not abdicated His sovereign throne. He is still the same orchestrating God that He was during the days of Zechariah. So, is God still in control of current history, tearing down and building up nations and leaders to fulfill His purpose?
Can you imagine how the prophet Isaiah would be received today if did to a sitting president what he did to the sitting king of Judah? The Lord told Isaiah to tell Hezekiah, King of Judah, to get his house in order for he was about to die (see 2 Kings 20.1). If any preacher today tried that, he would be ostracized from not only his country, but also his religious community. Of course, nobody liked the Old Testament prophets either for much the same reason. Consider the response to Amos when he prophesied the death of a king,
10Then Amaziah the priest of Bethel sent to Jeroboam king of Israel, saying, “Amos has conspired against you in the midst of the house of Israel. The land is not able to bear all his words. 11For thus Amos has said, “‘Jeroboam shall die by the sword, and Israel must go into exile away from his land.’” 12And Amaziah said to Amos, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, and eat bread there, and prophesy there, 13but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.” (Amos 7.10-13 ESV)
As in the days of Amos, we can accept that God would build up or tear down other nations for their evil ways, but the mere idea that God might tear down our nation is unthinkable.
While we debate things like national debt and immigration, we ought not to forget the words of the Old Testament prophets. The Lord tears down nations for “doing evil in His sight and for not listening to His voice” (see Jeremiah 1.10). We can debate whether or not we are a “Christian nation” until the sun goes down, but the proof is in the pudding, and the judgment of God will begin with the people of God (see 1 Peter 4.17). Forget the behavior of the pagans and unbelievers, what about the people who carry the name of Jesus? What about those who claim to be “Christians?” Do we have other gods before the Lord? Do we obey His commandments? Are we holy as He is holy?
If the Lord will tear down nations for refusing His voice and doing evil in His sight, and if He will depose kings for the same, can we expect no less for each of our own lives? May we hear the word of Jeremiah again, but with a personal twist,
5Then the word of the Lord came to me: 6“O Christians, can I not do with you as this potter has done? declares the Lord. Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O Christian. 7If at any time I declare concerning an individual, or family, or church, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, 8and if that person, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it. 9And if at any time I declare concerning a person, or family, or church that I will build and plant it, 10and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will relent of the good that I had intended to do to it. 11Now, therefore, say to the followers of Christ: ‘Thus says the Lord, behold, I am shaping disaster against you and devising a plan against you. Return, everyone from his evil way, and amend your ways and your deeds.’ (Jeremiah 1.5-11 my application)