Zech 2:1-4 in Hebrew
Babylon came against Judah, the southern of the two Israelite Kingdoms (when Israel had already gone into exile), at least three times in the space of twenty years.
In 605BC (II Kings 23:36-24:4, II Chr 36:5-7, Daniel 1:1-4), Nebuchadnezzar came with his troops against Jerusalem and king Jehoiakim in the third year of his reign (Dan 1:1) and carried away some of the vessels of the Temple to Babylon (from where they returned under Cyrus’ decree - Ezra 1:7). Jehoiakim reigned for a further eight years in Jerusalem after the incident, even though the text reads at a glance as if he was deported to Babylon along with the items from the Temple (II Chr 36:6, Dan 1:2). But it need mean no more that, though Nebuchadnezzar had intended to take him there, his change of heart persuaded the king to allow him to remain in charge of the kingdom until his death in 597BC.
II Kings 24:3-4 comments that the siege came about
‘...at the command of the Lord, to remove them out of His sight, for the sins of Manasseh, according to all that he had done, and also for the innocent blood that he had shed...’
The following king, Jehoiachin, reigned just three months and ten days in Jerusalem before Nebuchadnezzar once again came against the land in 597BC (II Kings 24:10-17, II Chr 36:8-10), took him captive away to Babylon along with other members of his household (II Kings 24:12) and raided the treasures of both the Temple and the king’s house (II Kings 24:13, II Chr 36:10). There also appears to have been a very comprehensive exile of the entire population of Jerusalem at this time (II Kings 24:14) while Nebuchadnezzar installed his own king, Zedekiah, over those who were left in the city of Jerusalem (II Chr 36:10).
Zedekiah was no more than a vassal king, installed to make sure that the city and the surrounding area stayed faithful and gave tribute to the throne of Babylon, but Nebuchadnezzar chose the wrong man in Zedekiah who rebelled against both the rule of Babylonia (II Chr 36:13, II Kings 24:20) and the Word of the Lord through Jeremiah the prophet (II Chr 36:12) so that the empire once more came against the city and defeated it in 586BC.
When the military forces finally breached the defences, they burnt the Temple to the ground and broke down the defence walls of the city of Jerusalem to prevent it from being a future place of refuge or rebellion against the Babylonian Empire (II Chr 36:17-21).
II Chr 36:15-16 gives us a simple statement as to the reason - the southern kingdom of Judah had repeatedly been sent God’s servants who had called the nation to repent, but they had refused to be obedient to His commands until, ultimately, He sent Babylon against them in judgment. Of course, the exile of the people under Jehoiachin had been God’s judgment upon the land and Zedekiah was urged by God to obey the rule of Babylon and so obey God (Jer 27:8-22), but there was a secondary purpose in causing Judah to lay desolate - and that was to ensure that the land had ‘rest’ for all the years that the Israelites had failed to let it have rest from agriculture while they had been resident within the land (II Chr 36:21 - it is this date of 586BC that is normally cited by commentators who see the ‘seventy years’ as being literally fulfilled, the end date being 516BC when the Temple was finally completed under Zerubbabel and Jeshua, still a future event as we come to the passage in Zechariah under consideration).
Babylon, therefore, was God’s specially chosen instrument of judgment (Jer 51:20-23) but, when they defeated Judah on successive occasions, they showed no mercy and went far beyond the boundaries that God had assigned to them (Zech 1:16). Though God had raised them up to subdue and judge nations, they used their absolute power to commit atrocities which could not go unpunished by God Himself.
As a result of the two latter campaigns, large numbers of captives were brought into exile to Babylonia and the nation was scattered (II Kings 24:14-16 in 598BC and 25:11 in 587BC).
This vision is an expansion upon the word spoken to Zechariah in the previous vision where God stated (1:15) that
‘...I am very angry with the nations that are at ease, for while I was angry but a little (in the judgment upon His people through the victory of the Babylonian army) they furthered the disaster’
God had been angry with the nation of Israel/Judah (1:2) but, through the exiles’ repentance (1:6, 1:3), God’s anger had been propitiated and subsequently transferred to the nations who had gone beyond God’s commission to them (1:15 above).
In the context of the destruction and exile of Jerusalem (see above for details), this vision is straightforward. God will recompense the nations that came against Jerusalem at the time of its judgment from God by removing the power (the ‘horns’ - see below) with which they are able to subdue the peoples that they come against. By the time Zechariah is given this vision, Babylon had already fallen to the Medes and Persians under king Cyrus (though the taking of the city was not an overthrow and annihilation of the city as might have been expected - the watercourse was diverted and the Median army entered the city on foot on the dried up water course. The people surrendered and large-scale destruction did not take place), but there remained a judgment to be visited upon the nations who had come against God’s people. Though God may use the ‘unrighteous’ to judge His people, they too cannot go unjudged for the acts and deeds which they commit.
That said, there are a few points that need to be looked at in a little greater detail:
‘Horns’ (Strongs Hebrew number 7161) are used figuratively in the Bible to denote both power and strength. Therefore, in I Kings 22:11, we read of the deceived prophet Zedekiah making for himself ‘horns of iron’ to emphasise the word he has ‘from the Lord’ and telling King Ahab that
‘With these you shall push the Syrians until they are destroyed’
Of course, he didn’t mean that literally he should use them to destroy the army that he was about to go out and fight along with Jehoshaphat, but the horn was what wild animals (though especially the wild ox) fought with, a symbol of their rank within the herd or flock and it was therefore a fitting symbol of aggression, status, power and strength even though it could be used to indicate other concepts.
Additionally, God through Ezekiel condemned his fellow Jews because (Ezek 34:21) they
‘...push with the side and shoulder, and thrust at all the weak with your horns, till you have scattered them abroad’
and, even more illuminating are the words of Moses when he says of Joseph (Deut 33:17) that
‘...his horns are the horns of a wild ox; with them he shall push the peoples, all of them, to the ends of the earth...’
To be spoken of as ‘using the horn’, therefore, meant that aggression which was potentially life-threatening was being shown. Smith notes that
‘When a wild ox or bull was captured or defeated, his horns would be cut off’
because the horns were the most deadly part of the animal which could fatally wound, in a split second, the unwary.
In Zechariah 1:18, 19 and 21, though, notice that the vision concerns the ‘horns’ not the ‘horn’ and the interpretation is that they belong to the ‘nations’ (1:21) similarly plural. Even in Zech 1:15 which we considered in the previous passage has the word ‘nations’ used yet only Babylon, one nation not a multitude of nations, had come up directly against Jerusalem.
However, there had been opportunist plunderers as recorded in Scripture elsewhere and it is these, along with the Babylonian nation (which had, incidentally, already fallen to the Medes and Persians under Cyrus in 539BC which was the reason for the Jews’ command to return around 20 years earlier - see the dateline in my Introduction), who were to have their power and rank removed from them. Therefore both ‘horn’ and ‘nation’ are found here in the plural.
These nations included Edom (Obadiah 10-14, Amos 1:11, Ezekiel 35:1-5 - condemned because they had no regard for the ‘brotherhood’ that existed between Jacob [Israel] and Esau [Edom]), Moab (Jer 48:2), Ammon (Jer 49:2) and, of course, Babylon (Jer 50:15, 50:28, 51:24).
Though I have mentioned four different nations here, no parallel is intended to be drawn with the statement in Zechariah’s vision that there were ‘four’ horns. The number ‘four’ could be taken to refer to either the ‘complete’/totality of the nations that plundered Judah and that they would be recompensed (Baldwin comments that ‘...four here represents the totality of opposition, just as it represents all directions in the eighth vision [6:1-8]...’), or taken to represent the four points of the compass, that the scattering was widespread or that the nations that scattered them were widespread in their location (Smith comments that ‘The number four probably corresponds to the four horsemen in the first vision [1:7-17] and the four chariots of the last [6:1-8], and indicates the totality of enemy nations in every direction that had oppressed Israel’).
What Zechariah is seeing, therefore, is not an identification of four nations which came upon Judah in judgment but a declaration of the completeness of God’s judgment upon all those nations who had been used by Him to judge His people but who had gone far beyond the boundaries with which God had drawn for them.
The same is true when we come to a consideration of the ‘four’ smiths mentioned in the same passage (the word used here for ‘smith’ is a general word meaning ‘workman’ but it is the context which gives it its specific meaning as here). The ‘four’ smiths are best understood in terms of ‘completeness’ or ‘totality’, that the vengeance that God will exercise over the nations who have oppressed His people will be complete, rather than attempt to give names to the four smiths such as the nations that God used to exercise judgment.
What God had promised in the Mosaic Law as a consequence of the nation’s disobedience had come to pass (Deut 4:27, 28:64). Judah found their right to exist as an individual entity removed by God and they were removed from God’s presence in Jerusalem and scattered throughout the nations (Zech 1:19, 21).
But, even though the Lord had poured out His anger in judgment upon His disobedient people, the nations had showed no respect for Divine compassion and went far beyond the bounds that God had set for them (Zech 1:15).
Therefore, God’s anger in vengeance rested upon them. It is only God who has that right to carry out to fulfilment vengeance whether by command or by direct intervention through some disaster or other (Deut 32:35, Rom 12:19, Heb 10:30, I Thess 4:6) and, a people who find themselves oppressed - especially if it is the Lord’s people - should never actively seek to fulfil their own feelings of anger which would naturally be directed towards their oppressors.
Even though oppressive regimes have sprung up throughout history, it is not for man to repay like for like (Rom 12:19-21, Mtw 5:38-42) even though we are obliged to refuse to do what is wrong and, perhaps, even suffer for it (I Peter 2:15, 4:14, 4:19).
God loves His people even when they disobey Him and have to be both disciplined and judged - so much so that He will speedily avenge them on their enemies, upon those who wound them or taunt them beyond the bounds that have been placed upon them.
The main result of the vision given to Zechariah here is that it went some way to deal with the nations’ fears concerning the position that they found themselves in. I have previously described (in 1:7-17) how the passage 1:7-6:15 can only be fully understood in the context of the nation who were continuing to rebuild the Temple, awaiting a word from King Darius in Babylon as to the fate of their building project (Ezra 5:3-6:15) but, also relevant to the vision here, is the original building venture which had been stopped because of the fear that the people had for the nations who were round about them (Ezra 3:3, 4:4-5), something that God addresses when the people begin to work once more on the Temple some 16 years later (Haggai 2:5).
Zechariah’s message addresses the problem of the nation’s fear of what might happen and, if they believe the word that is being spoken to them (as they were instructed to do in Zechariah’s first prophetic utterance at the start of his ministry to the Jews - Zech 1:4ff), they will find that their fears will subside, for God will render impotent the object of their fears through a direct intervention.
No matter that Darius is being petitioned to rule on the subject (Ezra 5:5-17); no matter that his governor has the military power to come against the returned exiles (Ezra 5:3); God will render their power impotent before the work that God has commanded them to perform.
Even though the Word is directed at the nations who scattered Judah, Israel and Jerusalem (Zech 1:19), the result of the announcement is to deal with the fear they have in the present which could hinder the work of God that is currently under way - that is, if the nation are willing to believe the word that is being spoken to them.
This vision is vitally important to counteract the fears that they already possessed as they waited for a returned word from king Darius, If, like their fathers, they refuse to heed the words of the prophets, fear would soon overtake them - as it had done 16 years previously - and the work would soon grind to a halt through the fear of reprisals from those peoples round about them.
But, as it was, they heeded the words of God, took them to heart and continued to prosper in their construction of the Temple.
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