There are major similarities between this vision and that of 1:7-17 as even a brief reading of the two passages will show us.
But, even though we might like to think that the symbolism will stay the same and that God will cause our understanding of the meaning to be unconfused with different imagery, we would be seriously deluded if we asserted that it is!
For, much though the passages do overlap, there are still some striking differences which cause each of the visions to necessarily stand on their own - and yet to still retain their dependence upon one another!
1:8 mentions horses (though if we read the text carefully, we will note that nowhere does the prophet actually say that he only sees four of them) while 6:2-3 mentions them but only in the context of the chariots which they pull. Instead of riders in 1:8, we witness chariots in 6:2 and no mention is ever made of any form of charioteer that may be controlling them. The colours, though similar, are quite different, Smith’s table being worthy of summation here as it shows very easily just how dissimilar the colours are:
Red - 1:8, 8, 6:2, Sorrel - 1:8, White - 1:8, 6:3, 6:6, Black - 6:3, 6:6, Dappled - 6:3, 6:6, Strong - 6:3, 6:6
In 1:8, we see the horses standing amongst the myrtle trees in the hollow, but in 6:1 they have come from out between two brass mountains presumably in mid-heaven rather than touching the ground. Again, in 1:11 they have returned from patrolling the earth but in 6:7 they are commissioned to begin patrolling the earth and are sent out. Again, ‘rest’ is a theme in both the passages and 1:11 speaks of a negative and self-satisfied rest which is upon the nations of the world while 6:8 speaks of a rest that God has caused Himself to experience because of what He has done in Babylon, the ‘north country’.
These similarities which are, rather, contrasts should not dissuade us from understanding both visions as two parts of one whole but they are significantly different to deserve individual comment. 6:1-8 can only be fully understood in contrast to 1:7-17 because of the visions and prophecies that have taken place inbetween the two - that is, God has shown Zechariah that He is concerned for the welfare of His people and that He will move on their behalf to establish them and stand between them and any danger that should come against them, vowing to restore their fortunes and to re-establish them as His special people throughout the earth (though the Gentiles are also pivotal in His plans).
It is only because God has proclaimed these things that 6:1-8 serves as a fitting outworking of His words and goes some way to answering what the original angel had complained about in the Lord’s hearing (1:12) and of which the returning patrol had made mention (1:11).
See the Context of Zech 1:18-21.
In 1:7-17, the earth had been described as being ‘at rest’ and we noted there that, though there is a rest which comes from God, the context here made us understand the phrase to mean ‘prosperous ease’ - that is, the nations of earth were unconcerned about the plight of the Lord’s people in Jerusalem and the difficulties that were confronting them.
Therefore, God proclaimed Himself (1:15) as being
‘...very angry with the nations that are at ease...’
Immediately after this first vision, the Lord made it plain to Zechariah that a time was soon coming when His judgment was to fall upon all the nations that were instrumental in judging Jerusalem and going beyond the bounds that He had laid upon them (1:15).
Therefore God spoke about the horns of the nations that had come against them which were soon to be flattened (1:21) and Babylon which would be laid waste by God Himself (2:9) while also going on to speak of the protection that He would give to His people (2:5).
But here, in 6:1-8, God pronounces that the time has come to pay back Babylon for all that it has done to His people (6:8).
In 1:7-17, God’s anger is made known but, in 6:1-8, it is satisfied.
In 1:7-17, God has highlighted the problem that resides within the nations but, here in 6:1-8, He sets about doing something about it.
There are a number of textual difficulties at various points in the passage (which I shall try to briefly deal with) and certain statements made which could mean many things (I shall not be taking any of the more extreme views!) but none of these confuse the overall meaning of the vision which appears to be straightforward.
The RSV begins (Zech 6:1) by translating
‘And again I lifted my eyes and saw, and behold, four chariots came out from between two mountains; and the mountains were mountains of bronze’
which needs a few comments. As in 5:1 where the RSV used the word ‘again’ as a literary device to make the English run better, so here. There is no indication in the Hebrew text that Zechariah notes that ‘again’ he lifts his eyes and sees a vision - he simply lifts his eyes.
The two mountains out from which the chariots come are mountains of bronze which appear to be representative of the gateway to the courts of heaven - especially as, a little later (6:5), we are informed that they have just presented themselves ‘...before the Lord of all the earth’.
These ‘gates’ may be drawing the listener back to a consideration of the twin pillars (named Jachin and Boaz for whatever reason) that had been erected at the entrance to the vestibule of Solomon’s Temple (I Kings 7:13-22) as symbolising the entrance into the place where God dwelt - though it would have been unlikely that they would still have been present due to the successive plundering of the Temple by the Babylonian forces (II Kings 23:36-24:4, II Chr 36:5-7, Daniel 1:1-4, II Kings 24:13, II Chr 36:10).
Nevertheless, the symbolism of them being gates ties in well with the future statement that the chariots have just come from the Lord’s presence and this appears to be the best understanding. Where the meeting takes place, therefore, between Zechariah, the angel and the chariots, is outside the courts of Heaven, on earth.
Baldwin makes an interesting comment as to the time of day which she seems to have extracted from the scholars Frey, Horst and von Rad, pointing out the possibility that
‘...the first of the visions takes place in the evening [1:7-17], whereas the last comes at sunrise [6:1-8]. A new era is dawning for Judah and the world, for God’s purposes as set out in the visions are about to be fulfilled’
6:9-14 would therefore naturally follow on from sunrise (even though it is not recording an event as such but a command which, presumably, Zechariah carried out) and the entire series of visions which run from 1:7-6:14 would be seen to have occurred throughout the course of one night. The only problem is that the vision currently being discussed isn’t detailing a ‘new beginning’ for the nation of Israel but the conclusion and satisfying of the Lord’s anger against the nations that had come against the land of Israel.
The ‘four chariots’ represent four angels who are sent out to patrol the earth. Zech 6:5 actually reads that
‘...these are the four spirits of heaven going forth...’
as opposed to the RSV’s rendering which changes the meaning round to make it sound as if the chariots are going to the four corners of the earth. It is not necessary to conform these chariots and their horses (notice that at no time throughout this vision are they ever mentioned as having charioteers) to those presented to Zechariah in the first vision (1:7-17) and, has been previously shown, the colours, although similar, are not identical.
There is probably no significance intended, either, in the actual colours of the horses, even though, in Rev 6:1-8 in the NT, the colours do appear to have significance. If the colours in OT Israel were significant then we appear to have lost clues as to their interpretation. Some commentators see them as representing four world kingdoms roughly corresponding to the areas to which they were sent, but we can’t be certain even about that!
One other problem is the meaning of the Hebrew text in Zech 6:6 where the correct translation reads something like
‘The chariot with the black horses goes toward the north country, the white ones follow after them...’
even though the italicised words are translated by ‘go toward the west country’ by the RSV which adds one consonant to the text to arrive at the literal translation ‘towards the sea’ (which would mean ‘west’) but the emendation doesn’t appear warranted as the text makes perfect sense even though there are two possible meanings.
Either ‘follow after them’ means that the white horses follow the black ones in the same direction as they go or that they follow them with regard to time - that is, they are the next to set off after the black horses have gone. Whatever (and there’s not much to choose between the two), the RSV’s emendation obscures the meaning of the text which stands perfectly well as it reads.
If we follow the original text and take the first meaning as above, the chariots’ destinations are supportive of an interpretation which sees the chariots/horses as being indicative of world powers, two chariots being despatched to the north country (the black and white) because of the two kingdoms of Media and Persia which ruled there or that, because it represented the most powerful of the kingdoms of the earth at that time, two chariots are needed. The chariot despatched to the south would be representative of Egypt, still a notable military and political force in the ancient world, leaving the fourth chariot with no specific location but, presumably, headed east towards the lands of Edom, Ammon and Moab who opposed the fleeing exiles at the time of the Babylonian conquest (see on 1:18-21 where I noted that Edom [Obadiah 10-14, Amos 1:11, Ezekiel 35:1-5 - condemned because they had no regard for the ‘brotherhood’ that existed between Jacob and Esau] , Moab [Jer 48:2] and Ammon [Jer 49:2] had all taken part in a secondary persecution of the Jews at the time of the conquest).
The purpose of the chariots is to ‘patrol the earth’ (Zech 6:7) but the ones (referring probably to the horses rather than the chariots though, if the latter, it would indicate that both the black and white horsed chariots went to this location) sent towards the north country fulfil a purpose (Zech 6:8) in that they
‘...have set My Spirit at rest...’
Firstly, in my comments on 2:6-13, I showed that, even though Babylon lay due east of Canaan, their attacks upon the land always came from the north as the army couldn’t and wouldn’t be forced to march across the barren and imposing desert which lay between them. While individual travellers and small groups may have made it through a marked ancient trade route which ran through Tadmor, it would have been virtually impossible for an army of any great size to successfully reach Israel and still be as strong and as fit for battle as when they set out.
Therefore, they travelled first north-west before turning due south on the main routeway to approach the land from a northerly direction.
In the first vision of the series (Zech 1:7-17), the patrol made up of horses has returned from its patrol of the earth (1:10) and they bring back a report to the Lord that the inhabitants are reclining in idleness (‘prosperous ease’) and are unconcerned for God’s work (1:11). God’s anger is rightly directed towards those nations (1:15) but God reserves special mention for Babylon (2:6-9) as being an object of His wrath.
Here, in 6:8, that word has been fulfilled - God’s anger has been satisfied (Ezek 5:13, 16:42, 24:13). As Babylon plundered, so Babylon is seen as being plundered - as that kingdom has done to others, so has it been done back in return (Jer 50:15).
The conclusion of these eight visions (though one further prophetic word is yet to come in 6:9-15) sees God triumphant over His and Israel’s enemies, in control of even His enemies’ destiny. Only the Word, the purpose of God, will stand forever (Is 40:6-8, 23-24) - nations will rise and fall, rulers gain power and be overthrown, but only the counsel of God shall stand the test of time. God’s enemies will, in the end, bow down to His will (Ps 2), a secure and steadfast assurance for all His people who see evil prosper everywhere around them.
In a future time, God will satisfy His anger and bring all men to account for their actions (Rev 6:16-17, 20:12) - that is, all those who have not availed themselves of the propitiatory work of Christ (see my notes on Propitiation here).
The conclusion of the ages is also the concluding act of YHWH to end His people’s shame of exile.
In previous visions, the judgment to be poured out upon God’s enemies was projected into the future, at a time that was indeterminable from the words given to Zechariah. Here, though, the beginning of the action against their enemies is taking place and the angel who talked with Zechariah is as bold as to say that the judgment has already taken place (6:8 - though this is a prophetic way of showing the certainty of the event so described).
Though the returned exiles had begun the work of rebuilding the Temple, they would still have been acutely aware of the dangers that lay around them and of the threat that Babylon posed to their own welfare and to the success of their building work.
Here, though, God is beginning the judgment of the nations so that they need not fear what might happen. Haggai was also given such a vision and proclaimed to the people (Haggai 2:21-22 - the word was actually given specifically to Zerubbabel but, no doubt, in the hearing of the people) that
‘I am about to shake the heavens and the earth, and to overthrow the throne of kingdoms; I am about to destroy the strength of the kingdoms of the nations, and overthrow the chariots and their riders; and the horses and their riders shall go down, every one by the sword of his fellow’
Both prophets were in agreement, then, that God was about to effect a radical change in the set up of the kingdoms of the earth, an overhaul of the structure and power of the elite nations due to the misappropriation of their resources for their own self-interest and due to their attitude and lack of concern for the ways and people of God.
The returned exiles, therefore, should rest content in knowing that the new start God has given them will go unhindered and unopposed by their previous enemies who will soon have their strength removed from them.
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