On the twenty-fourth day of the eleventh month, the month of Shebat, in the second year of Darius, the word of the LORD came to the prophet Zechariah son of Berekiah, the son of Iddo. During the night I had a vision – and there before me was a man riding a red horse! He was standing among the myrtle trees in a ravine. Behind him were red, brown and white horses.
There are three prominent themes in the book of Zechariah.
i] The first is the need of the presence of the Lord of glory to be among his people. We are not a very beautiful or talented congregation. We don’t have wealth or power. We’re not particularly clever. In all those areas we have nothing whatsoever to offer the people of our town that they can’t get more easily and in abundance from other sources. All we have to offer them is the Lord Jesus Christ. Nothing else. This magnificent Lord of glory, the one Mediator between God and man, the Redeemer of all God’s elect, the great prophet who tells us who God is, and who we are, who teaches us how to live, what kind of husbands and wives we ought to be, the preacher of the Sermon on the Mount. He is the one man that mankind has had the privilege of looking at and hearing and touching who is as holy and loving as God himself. This is the one who came to give his life a ransom for many, to make atonement for our sins. Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. This is the one who now rules the kingdoms of the earth, in spite of their hostility to his influence. He has the whole wide world in his hands. He has you and me brothers in his hands. Not a hair can fall from our heads without his permission. He works all things after the counsel of his own will.
It was he who put into your mind the thought to come here today and hear about him. It is he who motivated you to actually apply that thought, get out of bed and have a cup of tea and come to church. You live and move and have your tea in him. This is the glory of our omnipotent Lord. This is the one we worship; this is the one we sing to; this is the one to whom we pray. There is nothing else worth getting excited about and talking about in comparison to him. We have only a brief service of an hour and a quarter together and we want to pack as much of the glory of our Lord as we can into these 75 minutes. Christ is our strength, our song and our salvation; no one else; nothing else; him alone manifesting his glory in our midst. It is not automatic; it is not ex opere operato. Every congregation must face the fearful possibility of the Lord Christ not being in the midst, of us having a mere form of godliness, or words of worshipping Christ without his present reality. I base that on Jesus words to the church at Laodcea in Revelation 3. It had become a lukewarm congregation, and a lukewarm congregation is a dying congregation because of the absence from the ordinances of worship of our Lord. Where was Christ in relations to the Laodicean church? He was outside. He was at the door knocking for admission. Unless he makes his glory known here, every time we gather in his name, then we meet in vain, and we worship in vain; we speak and act in vain in his absence. That is one great theme of Zechariah. The need of the presence of the Lord of glory among his people
ii] The second prominent theme in the book of Zechariah is the presence of real evil that we have to do battle with. We are in a fight, men and women, and it is not with flesh and blood like those heinous Islamists in Nairobi last week slaughtering scores of children, and women, and men in a shopping mall in the confidence that by shedding the blood of those folk they would go to paradise with the virgins waiting for them. By a massive eternal contrast we believe that we shall go to heaven through nobler blood of One who laid down his life that we might live. We have no other argument: we have no other plea; it is enough that Jesus died and that he died for us. We who believe that to be true love our enemies, do good to those who hate us, forgive them 70 times 7, and we overcome their evil with our good. We do not and will not fight against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. The weapons of our warfare are not rifles and hand grenades. They are spiritual weapons, principally the sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God, and our protection is not body armour but the shield of faith.
We also fight what the New Testament calls the ‘world,’ the system dominating every part of the world, which is organised very subtly and secretly but promotes the lie that you can live abundantly without the Son of God. As Christians we also have an internal fight on our hands with remaining sin, with the flesh, with that other law in the members of our body, and it battles against our spirits. So we have enemies without and enemies within and that is why our Lord tells us to watch and pray. That is the second prominent theme in this prophecy.
iii] The third theme in this book of Zechariah is the presence in the world of the people of God, under its many designations, the body of Christ, the mountain of the Lord, the city of God, the holy nation, the Zion community, his sister, his love, his bride, the branches in the vine, the joy of the whole earth, the church. This is the alternative society to what the world offers; it is the actual salt that stops the world putrefying. It is the light that delivers the world from darkness. That light must shine before men. Don’t put it under a bucket! Don’t let the salt that you are in your Christ-likeness lose its difference so that it stops giving a flavour to life, and stops the world’s rottenness, and stops stinging as it heals decay. Christ builds such churches everywhere the gospel of Christ is preached.
Now these three realities are all present in the eighth verse of this opening chapter. “During the night I had a vision – and there before me was a man riding a red horse! He was standing among the myrtle trees in a ravine. Behind him were red, brown and white horses” (v.8). The rider of the red horse is the Son of God. The ‘ravine’ (as the N.I.V. translates it) is the satanic world, and the myrtle trees are the covenant people of God. And in the next verses the focus of Zechariah is turned to each one of these.
Let me say a little word about this particular literary genre . . . this style of writing in the Bible . . . it is called ‘apocalyptic.’ In the Old Testament you find it here and in parts of the book of Daniel. In the New Testament you meet it especially in the last book, the Revelation of John. Compare it to a brilliant cartoon movie, a little story, a set of images that present a certain basic truth, but we are not to make an allegory of it so that each number and colour and beast and figure symbolizes a truth or a person. That is what you find in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress; that is an allegory, Hill Difficulty, Doubting Castle, Giant Despair, Mr. Worldly Wiseman, Vanity Fair and so on. Zechariah is not like that. Here we find figurative language and we’re to concentrate on the central truths and the main points.
1. THE RIDER ON THE RED HORSE.
Now when we read the first chapter of the book of Revelation we are introduced to the apostle John on the Isle of Patmos and the first vision he gets, like Zechariah here, is of the figure of the Son of Man who is visiting the prison island lighting up that drab place with all the brilliance of heaven’s glory. He is immense; he is brighter than the light of the sun; his voice is like the sound of many waters and John falls before him as if he’d died with no life to stand upright. It is a revelation of the Son of God to John. And later in that book in chapter 19 Christ comes riding a great white horse and he is commanding other horsemen. He is leading the hosts of heaven conquering and to conquer. Then also in the books of psalms the Messiah comes riding on the clouds (Psa.68), or he rides on the angels (Psa.18) or he rides on the heavens themselves (Psa.68). He plants his footsteps in the sea and rides upon the storm.
So here is the revelation of the Son of God to Zechariah, and he is a very imposing figure, riding a great red stallion. There are other horsemen riding different coloured horses that accompany him, and they stand for the hosts of heaven that are ten thousand times ten thousand and thousands of thousands, and they add to the authority of their leader. This is not an equestrian exhibition. The circus has not come to town. This is not the trooping of the colour. These are more like four mounted police sent in to calm and bring order to a wild mob. Or they are the cavalry in action. Or you can think of this image like the genre of the Western film. Four armed horsemen ride steadily into a town, with one man leading and he give curt orders, and there is fear and concern. The shop-keepers close their shutters, and the sheriff sends for his deputies. The townsfolk feel awed and intimidated. The man without a name has come to their community with his gang. Here in Zechariah, and right at the beginning in the eighth verse he is confronted with four supernatural horsemen and they are traveling the world on a mission. Fear him ye saints! Hold him in awe. Let there be reverence when the man on the red horse appears for he is your God.
Notice that this figure on the red stallion is called the Angel of the Lord (v.11). While in verse 8 and in verse 10 he is called ‘the man.’ So this rider is also the Angel of the Lord and the Angel of the Lord is the man. What we have here is one of those pre-incarnate revelations of the coming Christ of God. They are called ‘theophanies’ but I like to call them ‘Christophanies’. The Lord Jesus was longing to come into the world and display his glory, and show his power, and preach his word, and seek and save those that are lost, but the appointed time hadn’t yet come, but he couldn’t stay away. So he appeared amongst his people from time to time from Genesis through Zechariah, to Adam first in the Garden and he spoke with him, and to Abraham as the messenger of the Lord whom Abraham also calls ‘Lord,’ but he is also in the form of a man. When Abraham first seems him and his companions he just sees a man. To Hagar and little Ishmael he appears as the Angel. Then this Christ appears to Joshua as an intimidating figure of a mighty warrior wielding a drawn sword just before the conquest of Jericho. Then he later appears to Samson’s parents as the Angel of the covenant who is God. This man who is the Angel of the Lord on the red horse is, I say, the messenger of the Lord, and the eternal Son of God, and he is uniquely glorious. He has the prerogatives of Jehovah and the attributes of Jehovah, and men speak to him with the same reverence that they give to Jehovah, and all that God can do these pre-incarnate appearances of Christ are also able to do.
Then you see that there is another angel who talks with Zechariah (vv. 9 &13 & 14). He is somewhat like the person of the Holy Spirit who interprets and makes clear to us the word that we are hearing. We need more than a preacher to grasp the message of the word. We need our minds to be opened. In Daniel chapter 8 there is also such an angel and he similarly explains things to Daniel, and again in the book of Revelation chapter 22 this same interpreting angel clarifies things for John. Here in Zechariah this man on the red horse, leading the other men, is also the Angel of the Lord and the Son of God, but accompanying them is another observing angel who makes thing clearer to the prophet.
But then as you go through the book of Zechariah you meet something very wonderful, full of grace. In chapter 9 you again meet this figure, the messenger of God, the messianic King and again he is riding forth, but there he is on the back of a donkey. Shiloh is the coming one who tethers his donkey to a vine. The righteous warrior is also meek and lowly of heart giving rest to men’s souls, and children sing his praises, and he doesn’t disdain them. The Lion of Judah is also the Lamb of God. The mounted Messiah is found in both chapter 1 and chapter 9 of Zechariah’s prophecy, the rider of the red horse and the rider of the donkey, and we are being shown Jesus our covenant Lord and Jesus our covenant Servant. He is prophesied here in his two states of humiliation and exalted majesty.
Zechariah the prophet would have seen from time to time since he was a boy, the Persian horsemen in the far-flung empire riding furiously along the roads that linked the main cities, executing their missions, sending messages to governors and generals and gathering information to report back to the capitol. Zechariah could tell from the uniforms they wore which lord they served.
The other horsemen Zechariah sees here accompanying the one riding the red horse (their leader) maybe actually be in groups, with different coloured horses or even cavalry regalia, Now this picture speaks of Christ appearing and all his holy angels with him (v.11). Remember the sight the Lord gives to frightened Gehazi, the servant of Elisha when they are being hunted for their lives by the king of Aram’s soldiers, that then the Lord opens the eyes of Gehazi and he sees the hills all around him and his master filled with horses and chariots of fire protecting Elisha. Those same horsemen and chariots had taken Elijah up to heaven. It is all a picture of the strength of God delighting in defending his people. They speak of an innumerable company of heavenly hosts. They are on horseback because they have far to travel: “They are the ones the Lord has sent to go throughout the earth” (v.10). This picture destroys all deistic views of God, in other words, deism claims that there is probably a God, but that he is not involved in the day to day running of the world. He started it all; he would wind up the cosmic clock, but he is not interested in how its wheels are turning, tick-tock-tick-tock. He’s put it there, but he’s on the other side of the universe. I am saying that that deistic view of a remote Creator cannot live with this picture of a Lord who comes to examine his world and hear the reports of his servants of what they have seen (v.11). God is involved in us now; he is interested in my words, in what we are thinking and doing, in what is going on here, in your hearts, in the dynamics of your relationship with himself and the word, and your relationships with the other people here. The great theme of verse three still applies to you: “Return to me, says the Lord Almighty, and I will return to you.” Have personal dealings with this Lord! So here is the earthly reminder of the heavenly glory of our Lord who is served day and night by his angel and arch angel, cherubim and seraphim. This God is not only the one who sends his angels to keep us, but he is the one who says, “I am with you always . . . nothing shall separate you from my love.”
- THE DEEP WHERE THE HORSEMAN STANDS (v.8).
There is no need to translate this word by ‘ravine’ as the N.I.V does, though it is much better than the E.S.V. translation, the ‘glen,’ or even the N.K.J. translation, the ‘hollow.’ Those are such quaint translations, like retirement homes in Inverness. The regular meaning of these three Hebrew consonants, mesula, elsewhere in the Bible is the ‘depths of the sea.’ The horseman is standing between or among the myrtle trees by ‘the deep.’ The horseman on the red horse is not intimidated by this black ocean with its cold threatening waters and unfathomable depths. He stands right alongside it unfearing, challenging it to try anything.
Let me tell you where this word occurs elsewhere in Scripture. For example in Exodus 15 the triumph song of the people of God after Pharaoh and his army were drowned in the depths of the Red Sea. You know the Scripture chorus based on the opening words; “I will sing unto the Lord for he has triumphed gloriously, the horse and rider thrown into the sea.” All the military might of Egypt was swallowed up in the depths at the word of Jehovah. “The deep waters have covered them; they sank to the depths like a stone” (Exodus 15:5).
Then again there is the deep at the very beginning of Genesis and the second verse, “And the earth was without form and void and darkness was upon the face of the deep.” It is the same word, and who is there moving over the face of the waters like a hovercraft, unintimidated by the darkness and the formless void? The Spirit of the living God. He is there just as in our text the Rider of the red horse is there right next to the deep. The Spirit of God is in control and soon the waters of the deep are subdued and flowing in four rivers and they are irrigating Eden, the paradise of God.
And again you meet the deep in the life of Noah. He speaks to the world for 120 years. He pleads to them the righteousness of God and their own lack of righteousness and they mock Noah. Finally God acts and he commands the waters of the deep to rise and flood the world.
Or again you meet the deep in the New Testament when Simon Peter has been fishing all night and has caught nothing. All that labour and toil for nothing, or for considerably less than nothing because when Peter started out he had clean whole nets but by the break of day they had been torn on the rocks on the sea bottom Peter was repairing his net when Jehovah Jesus came by and urged him to cast his net on the other side. Think of it, a rabbi telling a seasoned fisherman where to cast his net. Peter makes a mild objection, “We’ve toiled all night and caught nothing, nevertheless at thy word . . .” and he casts his net one more time into the deep and soon the nets are breaking from the haul of fishes, and he has to call for his companions to row alongside to fill their boat also with the fish. You remember Peter’s reaction that he falls at the feet of Jesus in the boat full of fish and cries, “Depart from me for I am a sinful man O Lord.” Why does he react like that? Because he knows everything about fish, yet he has never seen a catch like that in his entire life. Who is this man in the boat with him? It is Jehovah Jesus himself, the holy one, the Lord of the deep. He alone could summon the fish from every part of the Sea and cause them to swim into Peter’s net. He is the Master of ocean and earth and sky.
So here the rider and his men come and they stand right by the Deep and they are challenging it. They have nothing to fear in it for it is under the Rider’s sovereign control. It cannot drown Jonah when he is thrown into the deep. God has his way of preserving his servants. It cannot drown Peter if he keeps looking to Jesus and walks to him across the deep. It cannot drown Paul when the great Euroclydon storm threatens to send him to the bottom of the Mediterranean. None of the passengers on the ship are drowned. Paul has to bear witness to the Lord Jesus in Rome before Caesar. Are we not glad that there is no area of this world, no intimidating depths of darkness, over which our King does not reign?
So here is Zechariah and the people of God who were few compared to the might of Babylon, and there are local enemies not wanting the kingdom of God to be built, and great powerful nations threatening them, and to them rides this mighty warrior Messiah and he heads right up to the deep and he stands alongside it and it dare not touch him. “If God is for us, who can be against us?. . . Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? . . . For I am convinced . . . that neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Roms 8:31, 35, 39). That is the second lesson learned here.
- THE MYRTLE TREES THAT SURROUND THE HORSEMAN.
You see how the presence of these trees is emphasized by a triple reference. We are told in verse 8 that the horseman was standing among the myrtle trees, and then also in verse 10, and once again in verse 11. The horseman is able to move and ride right into the myrtle trees that are there at the side of the deep, but the myrtle trees can’t move from that spot. They grow there; they are fixed there, standing at the mouth of the satanic deep.
The myrtles represent us, the people of God of the old and new covenants. That is where God puts us. As C.T.Studd said,
“Some want to live within the sound of church or chapel bell;
I want to run a rescue shop within a yard of hell.”
And this is what we are like. We are not compared to the majestic cedar of Lebanon; we are not compared to the strong oak tree. We’re a little bush. In Daniel four the pagan king Nebuchadnezzar has a shattering vision. He says to Daniel, “I looked, and there before me stood a tree in the middle of the land. Its height was enormous. The tree grew large and strong and its top touched the sky; it was visible to the ends of the earth. Its leaves were beautiful, its fruit abundant, and on it was food for all. Under it the beasts of the field found shelter, and the birds of the air lived in its branches; from it every creature was fed” (Dan. 4:10-12) Then the king in his dream saw an angel of God speaking with a loud voice, “Cut down the tree!” and it was felled. What can that mean? The king asks Daniel and he reluctantly tells him, “The tree you saw, which grew large and strong, with its top touching the sky, visible to the whole earth, with beautiful leaves and abundant fruit, providing food for all, giving shelter to the beasts of the field, and having nesting places in its branches for the birds of the air – you, O king, are that tree! You have become great and strong; your greatness has grown until it reaches the sky, and your dominion extends to distant parts of the earth” (Dan. 4:20-22). Bold and mighty Nebuchadnezzar was to be greatly humbled. God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble. Do you think great things of yourself? Think them not. Think of the mighty men and movements over the centuries that have seemed immovable and everlasting like trees that stand for a thousand years. How would the church of Jesus Christ survive against such might cruel enemies? And yet one by one they were all felled, from the Roman Empire to Hitler’s Third Reich.
So we think of ourselves as myrtle trees, or a mustard seed, or a bruised reed, or a smoking flask, or a little flock surrounded by wolves! But myrtles provide an oasis in the dry arid lands of the Middle East. Many are the thorn bushes and dark green spiky leaved bushes in brown hard lands, and then after mile after mile of your journey you turn a corner and what a sight to cheer the eyes, a grove of myrtle trees with their soft, fragrant green leaves (especially when bruised) and delicate, white, star-like flowers. The sight speaks of fertility and luxuriance in a barren landscape, and especially so here on the threatening banks of the deep. The church is the body of Christ in the world. The church is fulness of him that fills all in all.
So the church is being compared to a grove of myrtles with the Son of God in her midst. We immediately think of Eden, the paradise of God with the Lord walking in the midst in the cool of the day with our first parents. There is the fragrance and beauty of the Garden which has come out of the proto-earth that once was without form, and void, with darkness covering its face, and then God had spoken into the chaos and had said, “Let there be light . . . let there be vegetation . . .” and order and beauty, fruitfulness and fragrance came where once there had been disorder and ugly darkness. The dark deep was transformed into the rivers of Eden and they watered the trees of life. From the very beginning trees picture paradise for us, two special trees are there, and then an abundance of trees are all around. And in Revelation 22 is the picture of heaven, and paradise restored, and there’s the river of life and trees that line each side of it whose leaves are for the healing of the nations. The myrtle trees with the rider on the red horse in their midst point to the tree of life in the Garden, and that is a type of Christ in the midst of his people. The myrtles are a symbol of everlasting life, the redemptive work of our Lord that delivers men from the prison of the dark deep, where once they lived dark years, fast bound in sin and nature’s night.
Then you remember how Moses was called by God from a bush that burned with the heat and fire of God, but the bush was not consumed even though the glory flame had descended on it. That burning bush was the presence of God. The angel of the Lord spoke out of the midst of that bush to Moses and planned the redemption of the people of God. Then you find throughout the narrative of children of Israel on their exodus journey out of Egypt to the promised land that there are places they come across like Elim in the wilderness, with twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees, a foretaste of the land that was flowing with milk and honey and an abundance of vegetation. The Tabernacle, designed by God in its every detail, is full of woods and the carvings of fruits. Paradise is going to be restored. That is the message, and a foretaste of it will always be found in this world in the kingdom of God, men and women who are as different in their values from the world as the myrtle is different from the cedar of Lebanon or as salt is different from putrefaction. They are people whose desire is the glory of God, who would love their neighbours as themselves, who have been justified by faith and have peace with God and rejoice in hope of his glory, who have been blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies in Christ. Christians are the myrtle trees of the world, as well as the vine, and the fruitful fig-trees of the world.
And where do you find these myrtle trees? Just one place, in the wilderness of this world where they’ve been delivered from the deep of ungodliness and unrighteousness. The gates of hell and the blackness of the deep threaten constantly, but they cannot prevail against the tiniest shrub of myrtles. And into the midst of the myrtles ride the four horsemen, their champions and their protectors, delighting in defending them. On one side of them is the wilderness and on the other the deep, but that is where the myrtles grow and in their midst is the Commander of the hosts of heaven. His presence declares victory over the forces of lawlessness and opposition to God, transformation from a wilderness existence to paradise. Like the burning bush the myrtle trees are illuminated with the presence of the divine glory. The horsemen stand there declaring by their presence, “God is faithful to the covenant he has made with Abraham and his seed. Immanuel is coming.”
The Lord Jesus when he appears to John in the wilderness of the prison island of Patmos, surrounded by the deep. John also sees the sign of the burning bush, in other words, the transformed glorified Christ comes and stands there alongside him on that barren outcrop and speaks to him out of his flaming glory. He stands among the seven lamps, burning but not consumed, and they are symbols of the congregations of God’s people, tested and persecuted, but not destroyed. Each of the seven churches is known by God and visited by the Lord, and assured that it is bound for glory. The Angel of the burning bush, the Angel-man rider in the midst of the myrtles, the glorified Christ in the midst of the lampstands – he points to how great our privilege is and our hope today. Jesus Christ in our hearts; Jesus Christ in our midst as we gather in his name; Jesus Christ in his word speaking to us. That is all our glory as a church.
We may wish our providence to be different. We may long that we were not having to live in the wilderness of this world, in a society everywhere characterized by the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life. We long for more of the glory and power of Jesus in our midst. But he is here; let us never ignore or forget his presence, his voice speaking to us, his spiritual work in our hearts as he comes and blesses us all. He prepares a feast for us each Lord’s Day, but that feast is spread in the presence of our enemies. We can cry, “Lord overcome the deep; turn this wilderness into a fruitful field and destroy all our enemies.” But the Lord says, “I will give you a feast, but it will be in the presence of your enemies – the threatening deep – and so it must always be until the day dawn when we eat together at the marriage feast of the Lamb your bridegroom and my dear Son.”
29th September 2013 GEOFF THOMAS