Cut-away drawings are interesting, because they show you what’s “underneath” the exterior. Here’s one of the Millennium Falcon, the ship that made the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs:
This just isn’t the Millenium Falcon. The exterior is peeled away to reveal what lies beneath. You can even see Han Solo at the helm, ready to pilot the ship through an asteroid field to escape Imperial star destroyers:
In our passage, Zechariah 1:7-21, God is doing the same thing. He’s pulling back the “divine curtain.” He does this when He wants to comfort us, to give us perspective, to give us hope, to give us a glimpse of what’s going on beyond what we can see. And, when God does this, it’s always through extraordinary, mysterious and otherworldly visions.
In the vision from our passage, we encounter a mysterious Man With No Name, on a red horse. If we let Him, God will take us a few steps “behind the divine curtain” to see what message He has for us.
On 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,Zechariah 1:7
This is three months after Zechariah’s first message. When God speaks, He has a reason—what’s His reason? Something’s happening among God’s people to make this message necessary—what is it? That rebuke from Haggai 1:4 is a symptom, not the disease itself—what’s the disease?
We’ll only figure this out by reading what God has to say.
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.Zechariah 1:8
I once read a Lee Child novel in which a minor character, a pastor, explained to Jack Reacher that the Book of Revelation read like an acid trip. Even if Christians wouldn’t put it quite so crudely, some would share the same sentiments. Why? Because of genre confusion!
The writer of Hebrews tells “long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets,” (Heb 1:1). The Old Covenant shows us poetry, proverbs, narrative, prophecy … and a genre called “apocalyptic.”
When you find strange and otherworldly prophetic visions in scripture, then you’re probably looking at apocalyptic literature. This is a sub-genre of prophecy, and God uses it when He wants to peel back the divine curtain and show us something.
- What’s this genre look like? You usually have an angelic guide. Daniel, Ezekiel, Zechariah and John each have one. They need these guides because the visions are, well … confusing! You find “graphic visions filled with unexpected and often mysterious scenes of heaven and the future.” So, for example, you see John introduce a pregnant woman; “a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars,” (Rev 12:1). At the beginning of Ezekiel’s book, you see strange creatures, chariots, a vision of one like the Son of Man, jewels, fire … lots of odd things.
- What’s it’s message? It’s often about “distant judgment and restoration: The final solution for the problems of this age is in the age to come, when God will reign and be recognized as the LORD of all.” So, Daniel’s four beasts are slain by a stone that represents God’s kingdom (Dan 2). The Son of Man is crowned as King of the world, and His kingdom will never end. These are visions of a better future.
- Why does God use it? When people feel hopeless and they need an awesome “window” into the future as a vehicle for hope—it’s an encouragement to persevere!. So, God shows His people a vision of a newer, better, massive temple (Ezek 40-48). And, of course, you have visions all over Zechariah. A surveyor takes measurements for a future Jerusalem (Zech 2). One day, the high priest and a king will be united in one person (Zech 4). Sin, personified by a woman (cf. Rev 17-18), is sealed into a container and cast into darkness (Zech 5). One day, a King will come to bring a new and better covenant (Zech 9).
It’s not that Zechariah, Ezekiel, John (etc.) are trying to describe strange things within the limitations of their language and experience. It’s that God communicates hope by way of fantastic images and visions of an eternal future. And apocalyptic is the genre for it, just as poetry/song is the genre for love.
After all, you don’t write essays to the one you love. You write songs, you write poetry, you write verse. Can you imagine writing a five-paragraph essay, complete with a thesis statement, and presenting it to your fiance? Of course not! You write poems. You sing songs.
For hope to persevere through crisis … God uses apocalyptic. It makes truth come alive. It makes you experience the events. It uses dramatic images, not data. God wants the powerful, otherworldly imagery to move you to action and shape your values.
How do we interpret it?
- God’s people are usually in some sort of crisis.
- It’s about hope for the future—not chronological info about the future.
- It uses lots of non-literal, symbolic language to paint pictures.
- So, because the “big picture” is the point, not the details, you should be very humble when proposing interpretations!
- Don’t try to identify every single detail; focus on the bigger picture—akin to impressionist art Take a look at this impressionist painting by Claude Monet:
In this picture, the details aren’t the point. It’s not about the ships, the sun, or what might be the city lost in the haze. It’s about the general impression. This is just a picture of a guy rowing his boat at sunset. It’d be a mistake to ask questions about the time of day, or about the names of the sailing ships in the harbor. It’s the same with apocalyptic literature.
What does all this have to do with the guy on the red horse? Well, you can tell it’s going to be “weird.” I’m showing you how to interpret the “weirdness!”
There’s a crisis. God wants to encourage us. Zechariah’s visions do that, in striking and mysterious ways.
So, what does Zechariah show us, here? He shows us the Man With No Name on a red horse. Behind him are three other horses.
Then I said, ‘What are these, my lord?’Zechariah 1:9
Good question! It’s our question, too! Zechariah asks his guide. Remember I told you the prophets usually have one, in this type of literature? Zechariah needs a guide because he’s consistently just as clueless as we are (and so is Daniel, and Ezekiel, and John). So, if you’re confused about this, you’re in good company!
The angel who talked with me said to me, ‘I will show you what they are.’Zechariah 1:9
It’s good to have a guide!
So the man who was standing among the myrtle trees answered,Zechariah 1:10
The Man With No Name hears Zechariah’s question and answers, and you can picture the guide gesturing to him to get Zechariah’s attention. But, Zechariah wasn’t talking to him—so why does the guy on the horse answer?
Because this isn’t like A Christmas Carol, where Scrooge can only see, but not interact with the vision. Zechariah can see, and can interact.
These are they whom the LORD has sent to patrol the earth.Zechariah 1:10
“These” are the three horsemen. The Man With No Name says, “Yahweh sent these guys out to patrol the whole earth!”
Who is this Man With No Name? Zechariah doesn’t know His name. The guy never tells us his name. But, he does differentiate Himself from Yahweh. We’ll have to wait to find out more.
Back to the three horsemen—why would they go out to patrol the earth? Patrol for what? It’s a reconnaissance—like imperial probe droids. These scouts have returned, and Zechariah parachutes in right when they’re about to make their report—what do they say?
And 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.’Zechariah 1:11
What kind of report is this? Good or bad? Well, because this is an apocalyptic genre, we can assume there is some kind of crisis going on, so the report likely isn’t positive at all—at least for Israel. But, the only way to find out is to see what the Man With No Name does with their report.
Then 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?’Zechariah 1:12
Before we answer the question we raised, we’re confronted with something else. Here is the first clue to the Man’s identity—He’s “the angel of the Lord.” Who is this angel of the Lord (LXX: ὁ ἄγγελος Κυρίου)? The bible tells us this particular angel:
- led the people from Egypt by fire and cloud (Ex 14:19),
- comforted Hagar in the wilderness (Gen 16:17),
- confronted Balaam and told him to prophesy to the Moabites (Num 21:22, 31f),
- promised Samson’s parents they’d have a son who’d rescue them from the Philistines (Judges 13),
- and was probably the commander of the Lord’s armies who meets Joshua outside Jericho (Josh 5:13-15)
As we look at one of these examples, we see the bible tells us He’s the angel who comforted Hagar (Gen 16:7), he refers to God in the third-person (Gen 16:11) but speaks as if He is God (Gen 16:10) and, after speaking to Him, Hagar thinks she’s seen God Himself (Gen 16:13). The Angel of the Lord, the Man With No Name, is Jesus.
Was the scout’s report good or bad? It was bad—He prays for His people immediately after hearing the report.
What’s so bad about the report? You can tell by what He prays. How long will you not have mercy? How long will you be so angry at your people? Why are our enemies happy and “at peace”?
The Man With No Name’s prayer tells us what the “crisis” is: “God doesn’t care!”
- Why do the Persians prosper?
- I thought God promised to curse His people’s enemies?
- Can we even trust God?
- Does He keep His word?
- Will He be angry forever?
- Does He have no mercy?
Haggai 1:4 (“Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins?”) is the symptom, not the problem. People are asking themselves, “why should I go on, when God seems to have checked out?” It’s a fair question. They’ve endured sustained 16 years of local opposition. It’s easy and cheap to dismiss this as mere “disobedience.” 16 years ago it was 2005. That’s a long time to wait. It’s natural to suspect God has “checked out;” to suspect it implicitly even if you wouldn’t dare say so explicitly.
Have you ever felt the same way, as you survey your life? Do you feel the same way, right now? Is your life a mess? Is a crisis sapping your faith in God’s goodness? Are you wondering what God’s doing? Do you wonder if He cares? Wondering if He notices? Wondering if you should stay the course if God doesn’t care? Are you here physically, but “checked out” mentally and emotionally? Are you weary with unspoken frustrations about God’s goodness?
That’s the crisis that’s prompting God to peel the divine curtain back for Zechariah—so he can tell us what he sees! God is peeling that curtain back for us, too. For me, for you, for all of us. Because we need to be comforted, as well.
What does Zechariah see? What should we see? What’s behind the curtain? The vision isn’t finished yet, but we can already see this much:
- God hasn’t checked out—He’s arranged a reconnaissance patrol.
- God knows—He’s received a report from the scouts.
- Jesus prays for His people … and God hears Him!
What is God’s message through this vision?
And the LORD answered gracious and comforting words to the angel who talked with me.Zechariah 1:13
What does God say in His response? He speaks comforting words; God does care about our fears, hopes, dreams, terrors. He speaks gracious words; God does have mercy.
He wants us to know that He remembers, that He cares, that His Son prays for us, that He hasn’t abandoned us, and that He’ll fix this.
God wants us to know we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous One (1 Jn 2:1).
He wants you to know it, too.
So 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.Zechariah 1:14
God wants Zechariah to “cry out,” as if to say “this is what I want you to tell everybody!” God wants Zechariah to say this loudly.
- they’re upset—tell them this!
- they’re angry—tell them this!
- they think I’ve forgotten about them—tell them this!
- they think I deleted them like a bad smartphone app—tell them this!
- they feel worn down by unspoken weariness about my goodness—tell them this!
He wants Zechariah to tell the people that He’s “exceedingly jealous.” He does care. He promises He cares. He remembers His promises. No matter what it looks like—he cares about His people. If you’re one of His people, He cares about you.
And I am exceedingly angry with the nations that are at ease; for while I was angry but a little, they furthered the disaster.Zechariah 1:15
He’s angry at the “nations at ease;” those nations at peace from the scout’s report (Zech 1:11). Why is God angry? Because of His promise from Genesis 12 to curse His people’s enemies (Gen 12:3).
Therefore, 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.Zechariah 1:16
From the beginning, God’s desire has been to dwell among His people. It was that way in the beginning, for a short time. The tabernacle and then the temple were object lessons to show us, in part, He has a plan to fix that one day. Through those structures, as living parables, God shows Himself living with His people, among them. But, God left His people a long time ago (Ezek 8-10). He’s never physically returned. Jesus certainly went to the temple (Mal 3:1), but was rejected.
Even now, God hasn’t “returned” to Jerusalem and built a place to be physically with His people. His promise to Zechariah looks forward to eternity. The imagery of the measuring line brings to mind surveyors and grand re-building plans.
Cry 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 1:17
Again, God tells Zechariah to “cry out.” To tell the people about the hope for something better than the mess that is “now.”
And I lifted my eyes and saw, and behold, four horns!Zechariah 1:18
These horns are symbols of power—what do they mean?
And 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.”Zechariah 1:19
The horns are enemies in general, whoever they are, whenever they are. Four nations have not scattered Israel. These are not literal kingdoms.
Then the LORD showed me four craftsmen. And 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 1:20-21
These craftsmen are like a divine demolition crew. They’ve come to blast enemies off the face of the earth; to take the buildings down and leave nothing but rubble behind. Whoever His people’s enemies are, they’ll all be gone!
There are ups and downs in the Christian life. Zechariah is dealing with people whose lives are down. They’ve implicitly (but, perhaps not explicitly) “checked out.” Are you in the same place this morning?
This passage is about the angelic guide peeling back the divine curtain to show Zechariah that God does remember, and does have mercy, because Jesus is our advocate.
What is God doing, here? His aim is to assure His people to not be bitter with God or think He’s forgotten about His people—He hasn’t. So, when you feel bitter or angry with God at injustice in your life, know that Jesus prays for you.
How do we specifically apply this truth to become more like Christ? This is what I suggest. Whenever you doubt God, peel back that same divine curtain in your mind and repeat to yourself, “I can go on, because Jesus prays for me!”
You may be asking yourself, just like Zechariah’s folks did:
- does God care about my heartache?
- does God remember me?
- does God notice my struggles?
- does God keep His promises?
Well, when God peels back that curtain for Zechariah, he shows us Jesus translating those thoughts from your heart and mind and asking them for you—”O LORD of hosts, how long will you have no mercy?” (Zech 1:12).
God responds and says to Zechariah: “Cry out, Thus says the LORD of hosts: I am exceedingly jealous for Jerusalem and for Zion,” (Zech 1:14). He’s telling Zechariah (and us, too) “shout it on the rooftops, put it in CAPS, bold, underline, buy television airtime, launch social media campaigns—do whatever you gotta do to tell them, “I know, I care, and I’ll fix it!”
So, again, whenever you doubt God, I suggest you peel back that divine curtain in your mind, and repeat to yourself, “I can go on, because Jesus prays for me!”
 Lee Child, Nothing to Lose (New York: Dell, 2009), 435.
 D. Brent Sandy and Martin G. Abegg, Jr., “Apocalyptic,” in Cracking Old Testament Codes: A Guide to Interpreting Literary Genres of the Old Testament, ed. D. Brent Sandy and Ronald L. Geise (Nashville: B&H, 1995), 185.
 Ronald Giese, “Literary Forms of the Old Testament,” in Ibid, p. 22.
 “… in apocalyptic the coming judgment is written to encourage the saints who are caught up in the crises of living in an evil world; they are encouraged to persevere and not give up hope, for God is truly in control and will “soon” intervene into world events in the person of the Son of Man,” (Ibid).
“When faced with severe adversity such as the Jews experienced at the hands of the Assyrians or Babylonians or Syrians (or the Nazis), the response of many was to call on God for salvation. When relief failed to come, patience became thin and doubts about God’s control and mercy arose. People understandably lost sight of the bigger picture of how God might be at work in the affairs of this world and became preoccupied with the immediacy of their own misfortunes.
Largely in response to this kind of crisis, apocalyptic literature gives its readers a roller-coaster ride through the heavens and into the future. There are thrills as those faced with crisis get a glimpse beyond the problems of the present. The heavenly journeys and descriptions of activities and creatures in the domain of heaven—all so unlike anything known on this earth—help the persecuted put their own misfortunes in perspective,” (D. Brent Sandy and Martin G. Abegg, Jr., “Apocalyptic,” in Ibid., p. 186).
 D. Brent Sandy and Martin G. Abegg, Jr., “Apocalyptic,” in Ibid., p. 177.
 Ibid, pp. 187-189.
 The genre is “a literary shock treatment of bold and graphic images to take our attention away from the problems we currently face and give us hope,” (Ibid, p. 188).
 “Apocalyptic tends to be impressionistic, more like an abstract painting which communicates an overall impression. If you stand too close to the painting trying to examine the detail of the artist’s work, you fail to grasp what the picture is intended to present,” (Ibid, p. 189).
 See a good overview of this issue in (1) “Angel of the Lord,” in Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, ed. Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988), 90, and (2) Elke B. Speliopoulos and Douglas Mangum, “Angel of Yahweh,” in Lexham Bible Dictionary, ed. John D. Barry et al. (Bellingham: Lexham Press, 2016).
Millard Erickson sums it up nicely when he writes, “There are three major interpretations of ‘the angel of the Lord:’ (1) he is merely an angel with a special commission; (2) he is God himself temporarily visible in a humanlike form; (3) he is the Logos, a temporary preincarnate visit by the Second Person of the Trinity. While none of these interpretations is fully satisfactory, in light of the clear statements of identity, either the second or the third seems more adequate than the first,” (Christian Theology, 3rd ed. [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013; Kindle ed.], p. 413; KL 9090).