Zechariah sees a rider on a “red” (more like reddish-brown) horse among myrtle trees in a “glen.” Behind this rider is an indefinite number of horses with a range of colors which reflect the variety of horses within the Persian Empire. Scouting is the only function given these horses (and their unidentified riders)—they “patrol the earth.” Their patrol reports that the “the whole earth remains at peace.”
This is imperial language; it is the langue of the Persian Empire. Scouts range throughout the earth and report back to the king on the status of the empire. The empire is at peace. The Persians have defeated Babylon and quelled recent rebellions (specifically one in 520 BCE). In 519 BCE the empire is at “peace.”
But Zechariah is not looking at an earthly imperial court. On the contrary, he sees an angelic council. The rider on the “red” horse is the “angel of the Lord.” He receives the report from the other riders. They report “peace.” The word means “settled” or “at rest” and is often used negatively (see Isaiah 30:7; Ezekiel 16:49; Jeremiah 48:11). This is not shalom. This peace is the result of the sins of the empire, and this imperial peace was accomplished through injustice and inhumanity. This kind of peace Yahweh will “shake” as Haggai promised (Haggai 1:21). God will judge the nations (Zechariah 1:18-21). The “peace” of the nations is not the shalom of the reign of God.
The angel of the Lord does not think the situation is one of shalom. After receiving the report, the angel intercedes for Judah and Jerusalem with a lament. “How long, O Lord of hosts, will you withhold mercy” from your people? Israel’s lament has continued for 70 years (605-536 which dates from the first deportation to the first return of the exiles, or 587-516 which dates from the destruction of the temple to its rebuilding, or perhaps it is simply a symbolic number for divine anger against a sanctuary). Here the angel speaks for the people and voices their pain before Yahweh.
The lament assumes that Yahweh determines the shalom of Jerusalem and not the Persian Emperor. Yahweh reigns over the earth, not the Emperor. God is sovereign over situation and thus the angel of Yahweh appeals to the one who can act in mercy toward Jerusalem. It does not lie within Persia’s hands.
Yahweh responds with mercy and zeal. God is both zealous for Jerusalem and angry with the nations. God is jealous–passionate zeal; God is committed to Israel. He will show mercy. He remembers his covenant, faithful love toward Jerusalem. At the same time Yahweh is angry with the nations because though the administered his justice they did it with “evil” (ra’ah)—they acted with malice, cruelty, and inhumanity. Their injustice angered Yahweh. God will show mercy to Israel and judge the nations.
God will renew the prosperity of Jerusalem. In fact, it will be a veritable urban explosion. The cities of Judah will overflow with people, prosperity and divine presence. The temple will be rebuilt. God will choose Jerusalem again and return in mercy to Judah. Post-exilic Judah felt abandoned but now Zechariah reassures them that God has chosen them.
Zechariah actually sees a new exodus. Myrtle trees are associated with the Feast of Tabernacles (Leviticus 23:44; Nehemiah 8:15)—one kind of wood used to make booths (tents) that represented Israel’s wilderness wandering. Moreover, the word for “glen” may refer to a pre-exilic garden in the Kidron valley (2 Kings 25:4; located between the two mountains mentioned later) but the word also has Exodus and Creation overtones. For example, it is the word for “depths” in Exodus 15:5 as well as the waters of Psalm 107:24. What God is about to do is not only a new exodus; it is also a new creation. God is going to do something so wondrous that the language of creation appropriately describes it.
But is the rebuilt temple of 516 the fulfillment of Zechariah’s vision? Certainly it is a provisional one that is immediate to Zechariah’s situation. However, reading Zechariah canonically, there is more. Second Temple Judaism thought they were still in exile as they lived under Roman oppression in the first century. The promises of the prophets, including Zechariah, had not yet been fully realized. Second Temple Judaism still waited for the reality that Zechariah sees here.
Some argue that the angel of Yahweh is a Christophany. Perhaps. It would not be in Zechariah’s mind, of course, but we do not expect the prophets to fully understand what they see. But more to the point is that the fulfillment is ultimately—thinking canonically—Christological.
God ultimately returns to the temple…in the flesh. God pours out the Spirit on the new temple of God…his people. Through incarnation and Spirit-outpouring God blesses the nations. God will come again to the earth to fully renew it and heal the nations in the new heaven and new earth, in the new Jerusalem.
But this is only the first of eight visions…..more to come.