The Biblical Illustrator
The Lord hath been sore displeased with your fathers
A call to repentance
The prophet being to carry comfortable tidings to this people, begins with the doctrine of repentance, inviting them not to obstruct their own mercy by impenitency; and to make way for this doctrine, he points out to them the greatness of God’s displeasure against their fathers for their sin, as might be seen in the horrible calamities that did come upon them, which might teach their children not to expect exemption if they followed their way.
1. A people are prepared and fitted for favourable manifestations of God by repentance, and mercies are sweetest and most comfortable unto penitents, therefore the Lord permits this doctrine to the following visions, as the only way to fit people for them, and make them truly comfortable to them.
2. No privilege bestowed on any people will exempt them from sharp corrections when they sin; for albeit the Jews were the only people of God at that time, yet “the Lord hath been sore displeased with your fathers,” which is also a warning to them.
3. Though the Lord do not chastise any of His chosen and regenerate people in pure wrath or beyond the bounds of moderation, yet His fatherly displeasure may be very hot and sad in its effects, and His displeasure against a visible Church, which hath abused mercy, very grievous, and therefore ought to be seriously laid to heart; therefore He calls them to consider how “the Lord hath been sore displeased, or had displeasure on displeasure.”
4. Albeit examples of God’s anger, especially when they are near, ought to be effectual documents to others, exciting to tremble and repent, yet such is the stupidity of men, that notwithstanding any such warnings, they will be ready to adventure on the same sins, which God hath so remarkably punished; therefore they need stirring up to see and make use of God’s anger against their fathers, the effects whereof were very visible to them. (George Hutcheson.)
The prophet’s exordium
Its object is to show the unchanging permanence of God’s Word, by contrasting it with the transitory nature of their fathers and the prophets, and it may thus be set forth more fully. Let the fate of your fathers be a warning to you that you avoid the disobedience to the word of Jehovah, which brought upon them evils so desolating. For where are they new? Once they ruled and worshipped here as you do. But where are they now? Some lie in slaughtered heaps, when the banner of Judah was trampled in the dust, and her bravest sons cut down like grass before the mower’s scythe, by the fierce cohorts of the Assyrian. Some lie buried in the ruins of the holy city, which they sought to defend from the spoiler. Some are sleeping by the flashing waters of the Euphrates, after weeping out a weary life beneath the willows that bend in the land of the stranger. Whilst some, in the feebleness of tottering age, have returned to lay their bones in the soil that is hallowed by the memories and hopes of Israel. And why has this been their mournful history? Because they refused to listen to the warnings of the prophets. Hence even the prophets themselves were taken away. They warned, and wept, and prayed, but met only with stoning, reviling, and hate. They toiled on to stay the coming judgments, but when their efforts were disregarded by the people, God in mercy took them away from the evil to come. Then the last barrier was removed, and the torrent of wrath came dire and pitiless in its rush of fury and swept them away in its flood. Now as your fathers and the prophets alike have passed away according to My word; as neither the wickedness of the one, nor the piety of the other, could arrest My threatened judgments, beware lest a like evil come upon you, that your prophets, being disregarded, be also withdrawn, and the judgments you are daring come upon you for your disobedience. This appropriate introduction was probably followed with exhortations to build the temple, and restore the worship of God, that are not recorded, as their interest was local and temporary. Inferences--
1. Whilst God is love, and whilst the preachers of the Gospel must preach this glorious truth, they must not conceal the fact that God is a consuming fire, and angry with the wicked every day. It is a sign of sickly piety when men are willing to hear nothing of the wrath of God against sin (Zechariah 1:1-2).
2. If men expect God to return to them in prosperity, they must return to Him in penitence. The flower averted from the sun must turn toward it, to catch, its genial smile (Zechariah 1:3).
3. What we have to do for God in life should be done quickly, for life is rapidly passing; to evil and good alike come the swift shadows of the sunset (Zechariah 1:5).
4. What a man sows, he shall also reap, and the seedlings of life on earth shall be harvested in heaven or in hell (Zechariah 1:6). (T. V. Moore, D. D.)
Turn ye unto Me . . . and I will turn unto you.
The Divine order of all true progress
The first step is at all times to turn to the Lord; the second follows, “turn you now from your evil ways, and from your evil doing.” The motive and the power to forsake evil must be found in himself. Once know Jesus and His love, experimentally, and you possess a motive for holiness, greater far than either heaven or earth can furnish. It is the expulsive power of a new affection. And yet, as in all advance, there is reciprocal action. The first step must ever be to Jesus. When the man is in Christ he possesses the power. But in turning away from evil, new light and life are thrown back upon the starting point. We see truth more clearly, and embrace it more earnestly. Thus there is growth in grace. To every step of faithfulness on our part the Lord adds new light; and this light is reflected in the face of Jesus Christ. He becomes more known, more loved; and this produces its effect in more likeness to Him. (T. Whitfield, M. A.)
The importance of repentance
I. The divine displeasure towards the impenitent men of the fast. “The Lord hath been sore displeased with your fathers.” “They had shown a mournfully strong and inveterate propensity to depart from God and from His ways. They had needed incessant repetitions of Divine admonitions, entreaties, promises, and threatenings; and manor a time all had proved unavailing. Jehovah bound them to Himself with ‘cords of love.’ But ‘they brake the bands asunder, and cast away the cords from them.’ They chose their own ways. They thus provoked Him to anger. Their fathers had by their sins brought that heavy seventy years’ judgment upon themselves.” Now the displeasure of God to sinners of the past is here referred to in order to induce the Jews to repent of the selfish negligence which they had evinced concerning the building of the temple (Haggai 4:5-7).
II. From God’s assurance of a welcome to all that truly repent. Proved--
1. By His invitation to the impenitent. “Come now let us reason together, saith the Lord,” etc. etc.
2. By the experience of mankind. Manasseh, David, Saul, Bunyan, and millions more returned to Him, and He not only received them, but rejoiced over them.
III. From the transitoriness of human life. By the “fathers” are meant those with whom God was displeased, An argument--
1. For the wicked to repent.
2. For faithfulness, and for persevering zeal.
For we shall all soon have finished our mission. (Homilist.)
Your fathers, where are they?
And the prophets, do they live forever?
The mortality of God’s instruments
1. The mortality of the instruments which God employs for carrying on His cause in the world. At the time these words were spoken, the patriarchs of antiquity, the seers of after times, the evangelical Isaiah, the plaintive Jeremiah, the vehement Ezekiel, all had been gathered to the tomb. There is no exemption from the stroke of mortality for the most valuable instruments of God’s service. Their death subserves the Divine purposes, and the interests of men, as well as their lives. The removal of ministers makes way for a greater variety of gifts and graces to be exercised in the ministry itself; and thus that irrepressible love of novelty which seems to be one of the instincts of our nature is provided for. How glorious does our Lord Jesus Christ appear, in carrying on His cause, not only in spite of, but in the very midst of, and even by, the ravages of death. It is a bright manifestation of His power, to work by such feeble, fallible, mortal creatures as we are; it is a still brighter display of His wisdom and power to make even their death subserve His cause. There is much in this view of our subject at once to encourage the timid and to repress the vain. Christ can do much with the weakest instrument; and He can do altogether without the strongest.
2. What there is, and how much, which, when these instruments are removed, survives the wreck of mortality, and perpetuates itself through the time to come. It was the proud boast of Horace, “I shall not all die, much of me will escape death”; and it has proved true. What remains of these men?
3. The means to be employed to carry on the work begun by our forefathers. Some fear the cause of missions will not live. Others think public attention will be diverted from the cause by the surpassingly great, various, and absorbing events of the times in which we live. It is a most remarkable, instructive, and impressive feature of the times that there is a conspicuous parallelism between political convulsion and social disorganisation on the one hand, and moral action and reformation on the other, between the destructive and the constructive forces, between the shaking and crumbling of the things that were ready to vanish away and the rising up of those things which cannot be shaken and are intended to remain. Shall we suffer this passing age to draw off our attention from the cause of Christian missions? That would be to lose our interest in the cause, when all things seem preparing the world for its full and final triumph.
4. We must unite appropriate and adequate means to our confidence of final success.
Lessons from the death of our fathers
The death of our fathers reminds us--
1. Of our own mortality.
2. Of our own obligations.
3. Of our fathers’ principles.
4. Of our prospects of reunion with them.
5. Of the grandeur of immortality. (G. Brooks.)
I. The law of human mortality and succession is full of suggestion. Death is the law of all life, vegetable and animal, as well as human. Had man not sinned, the mortality of his human body would probably have been the same. The death to which sin doomed man was spiritual, not fleshly death. He could scarcely have remained permanently in a world subject to the conditions of this. The death of the body is sorrowful enough, because of our human affections and sensibilities. The prophets die. Even their high vocation does not exempt them from the law of death. It may be that God would teach us that He can do His work without the best and greatest. Instead of Stephen God raises up Paul. A prophet’s work may seem indispensable to an age, yet he dies.
II. Is there not high benefit in the prophetical succession? If the wise and experienced die, they give place to the young and ardent, who, with fresh impulse and newer lights, enter into their wealth of wisdom. Else might the prophet become a stereotype. The wisest may outlive their wisdom, and the most useful their usefulness. Sometimes the greatest are the greatest hindrance. Every generation rises to higher and broader spiritual conception than its predecessor. Whether is the greater evil, the mistakes of impetuous youth, or the paralysis of incapable age; the zeal without knowledge of experience, or the knowledge without zeal of over caution; the Radical revolutionist, who would make all things new, or the Conservative revolutionist, who stands still in the stream of advancing thought and spirituality--the one too fast for his age, and the other too slow? Have we not a great law of compensation in the succession of God’s prophets, especially as the generations overlap each other, and the Church possesses both at the same time? (Henry Allon, D. D.)
On the instructions to be derived from recalling the memory of our fathers
It is a tribute which we owe to the memory of our earthly parents, to recall them occasionally to our thoughts. The hope of this was a source of consolation to them amidst the cares of life.
1. By meditating on the fate of our fathers, we are reminded that we too must die. It is a fortunate circumstance in the nature of man, that, though his Maker hath formed him a mortal being, the idea of his dissolution doth not continually haunt his mind.
2. We learn what are the objects that are most worthy of pursuit. The good which our fathers have done remains forever. It remains to embalm their memory, and to exalt their name.
3. We learn to imitate our fathers. The grave of a good man is a scene of much instruction and improvement.
4. We become reconciled to our own departure. The region beyond the grave is not a solitary land. There your fathers are, and thither every other friend shall follow you in due season. Therefore let your hearts be glad, let your glory rejoice, let your bodies also rest in hope. God will show you the path of life. (W. Moodie, D. D.)
“Your fathers, where are they?”
Primarily, these words were intended to carry along with them a warning import to those to whom they were originally addressed, as to the folly of following on in the footsteps of those of their ancestors who had been taken away from all connection with time in the midst of careless inconsideration. The prophet does not pronounce as to where the fathers were. He knew that their bodies were consigned to death’s dark domain, and reduced to inanimate matter. But where are their immortal spirits? The prophet leaves it as an open question, “Where are they?” We may have forebodings, but we are not the arbiters by whom any ease may be decided. It must be left in the hand of Him to whom alone the right belongs to pronounce, and who will “judge righteous judgment.” Think now of those of our fathers who lived and died in the faith of the Gospel.
1. They are not where they once were.
2. They are not where we are.
3. They are where they desired to be.
4. They are in the place for which they made preparation.
5. They are where they never would have been, but for the finished work of Christ, as their Representative and Substitute.
6. They are where they will be forever.
7. They are where they will be very glad to see us.
It may be added, and we shall be very glad to see them. (T. Adam.)
I. The people addressed. The visible Church, who lived in the typical land of promise, and under the Old Testament dispensation. It was declared or delivered, by the prophet from God, toward the close of the Babylonish captivity and exile. The “fathers” are represented as including those with whom the Lord had been sore displeased, and the people addressed are their descendants in the flesh, who inherited from their births their evil nature, were encompassed with their high privileges, and laden with their proportionate responsibilities. The “prophets” appear to signify those really sent of God, who spake His true Word, and no vision out of their own hearts.
II. The intention or object of the questions proposed. The inquiry is not after the existence of the absent “fathers.” It doth not touch the truth of the immortality of the souls of the prophets. It regards the mortal existence of both the fathers and the prophets on earth. The inquiry calls a fact to the recollection of the people addressed, which relates to their immediate or remote ancestors. “Where are they?” Not with you now, to influence you. The Church is suffering the loss of the benefit of their labours. The questions are put for the health and profit of the souls of the hearers, or for their greater condemnation, if they will not receive warning.
III. The permanent use of the record, as God speaks by it to us, and in our circumstances. We have been a highly favoured people, and we have long possessed manifold means and privileges, of a religious and spiritual nature; and in many cases, it is trusted, have, through distinguishing and sovereign grace, derived from the use of them profit unto eternal salvation. Let us make these inquiries matter of admonition for comfort and profit. (William Borrows, M. A.)
The invisible world
The difficulty of giving a sort of general reply to the question contained in the text, is much diminished by this particular fact, that the Scripture itself has assigned a fixed and determinate place in the world of spirits to the soul of every human being. Consider--
I. The case of those who have died without penitence and faith.
1. Those who have died without repentance are gone to a state in which the wicked are no longer the prosperous. In this world guilt is often successful, at least for a season.
2. The Impenitent and unbelieving are gone to a state in which they have no longer any hopes of escape, or means of approach to God.
3. Our impenitent fathers are gone into a state in which God is known only as the God of vengeance.
II. The case of those who have died penitent and believing.
1. They are no longer in a state of trial and affliction.
2. They are gone into a world where temptation never enters.
3. Where doubt and despondency never come.
4. Where their infirmities and corruptions cannot follow them. Application--
Improvement of death
I. Some general observations.
1. No distinction which men wear m society can possibly exempt them from the stroke of death.
2. Although our ancestors have departed this life, we are not altogether to entomb them in oblivion. Many reasons may be assigned why we should preserve them in recollection. To many of them we were bound by the ties of natural affection. To others we are allied by official connection. We have entered into their labours. The monuments of their industry lessen our toil.
3. Though these distinguished deceased have left this world, they are still in some state of conscious existence. Probably the souls of the departed enter at once either into bliss or woe.
II. The best improvement we can make of prominent persons’ deaths.
1. By a serious remembrance. Not merely of their persons, but of their characters, and the labours in which they were engaged during their mortal sojourn.
2. Diligent inquiry, as to whether we have reaped any solid advantage from the ministrations in which they were engaged; and as to the manner in which we treated the servants of God while they were fulfilling their course.
3. Imitation of their holy example. There is always a limitation we must put when speaking of human example: “so far as he followed Christ.”
4. Earnest prayer in connection with bereavements.
5. By preparation to follow the devoted servants of God to the place where they now dwell.
6. Cherishing a devout expectation of reunion with the departed servants of God, in a world of future glory and perfection. (J. Clayton.)
The death of the old
1. The first thing that the words suggest is obviously the great law, under which we receive and possess existence--that we must die; the law of mortality, under which we were born. We will not enter into the curious question, whether man would have died if he had not sinned. It is better to look at death in its moral and spiritual aspect. It is thus continually represented to us in Scripture. It is not a part of God’s plan; it is a thing engrafted upon His original constitution. Death is the shadow of sin. This great, black, dark substance, that we call sin, comes in between man and the bright light of God’s countenance, and casts its shadow over man. That shadow is death. Death is but the symptom of a spiritual disease; it is not so much the grand disease of our nature, as it is the symptom of a deeper-seated disease. And God applies His remedy to the core of the disorder. He redeems from sin.
2. Apply remarks specially to the death of a very aged person. Note the amazing power of the principle of life in man. It is so wonderful to think that a human body, with its nice and delicate organisation, should go on sleeping and waking, toiling and working, without intercession and without rest, for ninety or a hundred years. What a thing it would be if any man constructed a piece of mechanism that should go on in that way! But the individual man, though he is a wonderful, complex machine, considered in himself, is only one little wheel in a greater and a larger structure, that is, the whole species; and the species--such is the wonderful power of life--death cannot touch. However we may talk about death, the power of vitality is greater; even in man, and in the present world, life is stronger than death. Another thought is, that though there be this wonderful power of vitality, old age in general is not in itself very desirable. In general, very great age is only an additional affliction put to the ordinary ills of life. Nature does a great deal, independent of religion, to bring men to be willing to die. But where there is religion, and a “good hope through grace,” and a trust in the Divine mercy, the language and feeling of a man often is, “I would not live alway.” The very aged man stands alone. He outlives his friends; and what is worse, he outlives the capacity of forming new attachments. The fact is, that second childhood is very much like the first. The child is interesting but to a few. The aged cannot very well sympathise with new hearts and new persons, new modes of thought and feeling. How different it is with God! Generation after generation cometh, and He has His fresh and young affection for every generation as it comes. And every generation may come to Him, and look up to Him, with the same cordiality and the same confidence as the first. The last thought is, that we are struck by the death of a very aged person being uncommon. We speak of it as extraordinary. It throws us back upon the general law, that men do not all die at one particular time. There is no day, no fixed date, up to which all men are to live, and beyond which none can survive. If a fixed date for each individual had been assigned, the punishment of sin would have been made unendurable. It is a most beneficent dispensation that there is no fixed date. But the price to pay is that we must be prepared to see death occur at all ages.
2. There are limits to human probation and the Divine forbearance. You will see this by referring to the context. Your fathers and the prophets are dead; their probation terminated. The agents and the objects of the Divine mercy equally die. There is something very affecting in this. Zechariah says, “Remember, you are living under the same law. Probation has limits; forbearance has limits.”
3. The power and perpetuity of God’s truth, in contrast with the mortality of man. This is seen by connecting the words that follow. The prophet lives in his utterances. A true thought is a Divine and immortal thing. What has come from the breast and bosom and mind of God, and has been uttered, lives, and there is power in it. Men change, their feelings change, their minds alter, their sensibilities and sympathies pass away; but the Gospel is fresh to every generation. The Word of God, in its substantial essence, continues, and is the life and food of the Church. (Thomas Binney.)
An inquiry after dead relations
By “fathers” is meant fathers of our flesh, the active instruments in the hand of God of our being, the secondary causes of our being. “Where are they?” Are they here? No. Are they anywhere? Yes. We know where their bodies are. Their souls are somewhere. “The prophets, do they live forever?” No.
Our mortal character
Not a year passes away, hardly a week or a day, without some striking monition of our uncertain tenure of earthly existence.
1. These inquiries of the text seem to furnish a strong intimation of the mortal character of our present existence. The prophet bade the Jews look back, and consider what had become of their fathers. The great and the good, the noble and the mighty, the teacher and the taught, the prophet and the people, have “gone the way of all the earth.” There is no exception of age or station, of occupation or condition, to this appointment of the Most High, in consequence of the transgressions of men. There is something painfully affecting in the ravages of death. The fact is painful and humbling, more especially as it is the undeniable proof of the fallen character of our race--of that native corruption which has descended from Adam, who, though created “in the likeness of God,” “begat a son in his own likeness,” and that a sinful and degraded one.
2. But is the contemplation of death only painful and humiliating? Is there not a light to irradiate the tomb? May we not regard the inquiries of the text as the language of faith and hope? Surely the dark valley will open into the brightness of eternal home. We “sorrow not” as those “who have no hope.” A glorious prospect is opened beyond the tomb. Those who have departed in the Lord are in His safe keeping. Our fathers are not taken away forever. They are only removed before us, and anticipate us in the enjoyment of the Lord’s presence. The hope of immortality has cheered many a believing soul amid the pains of life and the sufferings of death.
3. Looking back upon the Christian life of our fathers, we should follow their faith, and act up to their teaching, and pray that a double portion of their spirit may rest upon us. We are responsible for the teaching of Divine truth with which we have been blessed. (John S. Broad, M. A.)
But My words
The dying men and the undying Word
The text comes from the first of Zechariah’s prophecies.
In it he lays the foundation for all that he has subsequently to say. He points to the past, and summons up the august figures of the great pre-exilic prophets, and reminds his contemporaries that the words which they spoke had been verified in the experience of past generations. He declares that, though the hearers and the speakers of that prophetic Word had glided away into the vast unknown, the Word remained, lived still, and on his lips demanded the same obedience as it had vainly demanded from the generation that was past.
I. The mortal hearers and speakers of the abiding Word. A familiar theme. Look at it from the special angle, to bring into connection the eternal Word, and the transient vehicles and hearers of it. All the past hearers and speakers of the Word had that Word verified in their lives. Not one of them who, for the brief period of their earthly lives, came in contact with that Divine message, but realised, more or less consciously, the solemn truth of its promises and threatenings. Wherever they are now, their earthly relation to that Word is a determining factor in their condition. “Wherefore we should give the more earnest heed to the things that we have heard.”
II. The abiding Word which these hearers and speakers have had to do with. Just as reason requires some unalterable substratum below all the fleeting phenomena of the changeful creation,--a God who is the rock basis of all,--the staple to which all the links hang--so here we are driven back and back, by the very fact of the transiency of the transient, to grasp for a refuge and a stay, the permanency of the permanent. It is blessed for us when the lesson that the fleeting of all that can flee away, reads to us, is that, beneath it all, there is the Unchanging. Zechariah meant by the “Word of God” simply the prophetic utterances about the destiny and the punishment of the nation. We ought to mean by “the Word of God, which liveth and abideth forever,” not merely the written embodiment of it in this book, or that primarily, but the personal Word, the Incarnate Word, the everlasting Son of the Father. It is His perpetual existence rather than the continuous power of the truth which is the declaration of Himself, that is mighty for our strength and consolation when we think of the transient generations. Christ lives. Therefore we can front change and decay in all around calmly and triumphantly. Since we have this abiding Word, let us not dread changes, however startling and revolutionary. Jesus Christ does not change. There is a human element in the Church’s conception of Jesus Christ, and still more in their working out of the principles of the Gospel in institutions and forms, which partakes of the transiency of the men from whom they come.
III. The present generation and its relation to the abiding Word. Zechariah did not hesitate to put himself in line with the mighty forms of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Hosea. He, too, was a prophet. Some simple exhortations.
1. See to it that you accept that Word. Open not only your minds but your hearts to it. Hold it fast. In this time of unrest make sure of your grasp of the eternal central core of Christianity, Jesus Christ Himself, the Divine-human Saviour of the world. Accept Him, hold Him fast, trust to His guidance in present day questions. (A. Maclaren, D. D.)
The fleeting hearers and speakers and the undying Word
I. The passing away of hearers and speakers alike. All ingenious exposition of the words of text suggests that they are a brief dialogue, a kind of duel between the prophet and his hearers, in which the first question is his sword thrust at them, and the second is their return to him. In it they parry and return the prophet’s thrust. I prefer to regard the questions as continuous; the remonstrance of the prophet based upon the fact that hearers and speakers alike drift away into the unseen land, and are no more heard of. It is a very familiar and commonplace thought. Try to individualise the thought that is here. Reflect how surely, steadily, stealthily, constantly hearers and speakers of the immortal Word are drifting, drifting into the dark. Did you ever stand in some old cathedral, or ruined church, where for centuries the Word of God had been preached? And did there never come over you, with a strange rush of feeling, the thought, “Where are all the men and women that bowed their knees here, beneath the vanished roof of this place?”
II. The contrast between the fleeting hearers and speakers and the abiding Word. There is nothing so transient as the words that are spoken by Christian teachers. Even where the Word takes root in men’s hearts, how swiftly the speaker of it passes and is forgotten. No workers so soon have their work covered with oblivion as preachers. In another way, too, the prophets fade and perish; inasmuch as new circumstances arise about which they know nothing; new phases of thought which antiquate their teachings; new difficulties in which their words have no counsel; new conflicts in which they can strike no blow. Yet, in all this mingled and fleeting human utterance, does there not lie an immortal and imperishable centre, even the Word of the living God? Much ingenuity is expended nowadays in trying to discriminate between the permanent and transient in Christian teaching. The enduring Word is that story of Christ’s incarnation, death for our sins, resurrection and ascension, which by the Gospel is preached unto you. Therefore we have to look beyond the dearest of human teachers, and those to whom we owe most. “They truly were not suffered to continue by reason of death,” but this Man (Christ) continueth ever our Friend, our Prophet, Priest, and King.
III. The witness of past generations to the immortal Word. They that heard and he that spake have passed into the silent land; but they passed not thither until they had found, in some measure, that both the warnings and the promises that had been uttered were God’s truth, and not man’s dreams. God’s Word has leaden feet, but steady, and slow, and certain, it overtakes the wrong-doer. Do you take care. The generations that are gone found that the Word of the Lord was true; and if you reject His Word, you too may, before you die, find out, what you will certainly find out when you are dead, that He speaks no vain things.
IV. The practical effects of these solemn thoughts. I want to urge upon my brethren in the ministry that they should, in all their utterances, try to realise that they are prophets, dying, with a message to dying men. There is a great deal of modern preaching clever, eloquent, cultured, ingenious, which seems to have utterly forgotten that it has got a message of forgiveness and of cleansing by the blood of Christ to proclaim to men. And how these thoughts should influence hearers! How you would listen if you knew that this was your last sermon! (A. Maclaren, D. D.)
The eternity of God’s Word contrasted with the mutability of man
When Zechariah wrote, the Jews had just returned from the Babylonish captivity, and already, in spite of that severe warning, they were going back into their old habits, and bringing upon themselves fresh displays of the wrath of God. Both judgments and mercies either leave us better or worse. They lead us to repentant watchfulness, or else harden our hearts into utter carelessness and wilful sin. We might naturally have expected that the lessons of a long captivity would have cured the Jewish people of their old disease, but sin is of too deep and treacherous a character for external circumstances to uproot it. The sin of idolatry had, indeed, been cast out, but the sins of luxury and pride, self-righteousness and dogmatism, worldliness and unbelief, had taken its place, and the forecast of their future possession of the Jewish mind appears as soon as the Jews returned from captivity. Haggai and Zechariah were commissioned by God to reprove the selfish and worldly spirit of the people. Here the prophet enforces his exhortation by two considerations.
1. The mutable nature of man, passive in the hands of God, and thoroughly dependent on God. It is the height of folly for man to oppose God, who has all power to punish sin. All men must die. The Word they bring is eternal as God is eternal, but they themselves must perish. Zechariah would say, “If such be the destiny of man, it is yours. Soon you must fade and fall. Turn ye from your fruitless and evil ways, and think not that ye can resist God.”
2. The warning is enforced by considerations drawn from the unchangeable nature of the Divine Word. The prophets had died, but the certainty and stability of their prophecies had been vindicated by an express fulfilment. For the Word of God is eternal and unchangeable. Are you then profiting by it as you ought? (Joseph Maskell.)
I saw by night
The night vision
The anointed One of God and His kingdom are the centre and axis about which the fiery wheel of all Zechariah’s revelations and imagery turns.
The vision in our text is both beautiful and consoling. Consider--
I. The time when it was seen.
1. The time. “By night.” Primarily he meant natural night, while men slept. At that season the Lord came to him, opening the prophet’s spiritual eyes, and causing to pass before him, like a pictured scene in bright and glowing colours, a sublime and cheering vision. The words “by night” may remind us of the circumstances of the time at which the vision was given. Apply the words, by way of accommodation, to the spiritual night of Christendom. For night in a spiritual sense is only dreadful when we are deprived of spiritual vision, when the eyes of the understanding are darkened. It is night, when with sufferings upon us, we do not recognise the hand that inflicts them. There is another kind of spiritual night more fearful still. David feared it when he said, “Hide not Thy face from me, lest I be like unto them that go down into the pit.” Yet even here there may be vision in the darkness, and this is a favour indeed.
II. What did the prophet behold? It was a precious vision. Afterwards he hears the explanation of it. The vision was fraught with consolation and promise. Zechariah beholds a man; that man is Christ, the Angel of the Covenant. The times of Zechariah needed a helper in the character of a man, and a “man of war”; for it was a season of war and tumults. Zechariah beholds Him upon a red horse. And Christ, like a man riding upon a horse, stands ready to fly with speed to the help and defence of His people. The prophet speaks of the myrtle trees. True believers are trees which Christ Himself has planted; trees of righteous ness, fast rooted in the ground of His merits, and thriving by the grace of His Holy Spirit. Such are all the children of God here on earth. The man among the myrtle trees “stood”; the Lord abides among His people. (F. W. Krumreacher, D. D.)
Behind Him were there red horses, speckled, and white--
Zechariah’s vision of the horses
I. The name of this parabolic vision. “The Word of the Lord.” Thought is invisible, and must be clothed in some form of words. God’s greatest thought about men was revealed to us by His Son in human flesh.
II. The time when the prophet received this “Word of the Lord.” “In the night.” God has often chosen the night season to reveal His mind to His servants. At night men are more free from impressions from the outside world. The darkness and stillness of night throw the mind in upon itself.
III. The meaning of the symbolic Word.
1. The “red horses” symbolise coming war.
2. White horses symbolise victory.
3. Speckled horses set forth the variety of the Divine dealings, of that mingling of mercy and judgment which had been intended to lift them up to a high level among the nations of the world.
The vision of horses
I understand that all these horses had riders. There were, then, a troop of horsemen; but the prophet says that one appeared as the chief leader, who was accompanied by others. These horsemen had returned from an expedition; for they had been sent to review the whole world and its different parts. He therefore says that they had returned from their journey, and also that the whole earth was quiet, that men enjoyed peace and tranquillity everywhere. It seemed a very unbecoming and strange thing that the faithful alone should be oppressed with adversities, while others lived in peace and enjoyed their pleasures. There follows at length an answer from God. I regard this as the object--that horsemen were presented to the prophet that he might know that God does not remain shut up in heaven, and neglect the affairs of men, but that He has, as it were, swift horses, so that He knows what things are everywhere carried on. The prophet here ascribes to God the character of a chief sovereign, who inquires respecting all the affairs of men. It is, indeed, certain that all things were fully known to Him before He created angels, but God assumes the character of man in order that He may more familiarly instruct us As God did not intend to exhibit in full light what He afterwards in due time taught, the vision appeared in the night. And to the same purpose is what he says respecting the angels, that they were in a dark or deep place, and that they were among the myrtles. Some think that their being in a deep place and thick shade designates the state of the people, being that of sorrow and of joy; for though quietness in part was restored to the people, yet much darkness and much perplexity remained in their affairs. There was one angel more eminent than the rest, and in this there is nothing unusual, for when God sends forth a company of angels, He gives the lead to some one. If we regard this angel as Christ, the idea is consistent with the common usage of Scripture, for Christ, we know, is the head of the angels. With regard to the different colours, the prophet, no doubt, understood that they designated the offices allotted to angels, as some convey God’s benefits, and others come armed with scourges and swords. The design of the vision is not doubtful; it is, that the Jews might be assured that the distresses which they at present endured would not be perpetual, that there was a hope of the temple and the city being rebuilt, because God had returned into favour with the people. The prophet teaches at the same time that the building of the temple was not to be expected, but as an instance of God’s gratuitous favour, and this doctrine ought also to be extended to the state of the Church at all times, for whence comes it that the Church remains safe in the world except that God indulges us according to His infinite goodness? (John Calvin.)
The rider in the myrtle grove
By the myrtle grove is signified the covenant people, the nation of Israel, and by its being in a low place is indicated their then depressed and sad condition. In the Hebrew mind the idea of modest beauty and freshness was associated with the myrtle; and hence we find this introduced as symbolical of the Church under the reign of the Messiah, when “instead of the briar,”--the symbol of the world under the curse--“shall come up the myrtle tree.” The Jewish nation, though at that time in a state of depression and affliction, was fair in the sight of God, was destined to endure and flourish, and was ere long to be visited by Him in mercy and restored to prosperity. This is specially indicated here by the standing among the myrtle trees of the mounted rider. He is described as the Angel of Jehovah; no other than God manifest in human form; the same Being who, in the fulness of time, came to our world as the Angel of the Covenant. For the consolation and encouragement of the people, the prophet had to tell them that, depressed as was their condition, the Angel of the Lord, the Leader, the Protector, the Redeemer of Israel, was still in the midst of them. He was ready to ride forth in their defence, and to send judgment on their adversaries. This was indicated in the vision by His being mounted on a red horse, the symbol of war and bloodshed. The Angel of the Lord is with them also as their Intercessor with God. Hence He appears in this vision as making intercession for them, beseeching God to have pity on Jerusalem and the cities of Judah; and now that the time of chastisement was at an end, that He would be gracious to them, and grant them full restoration and establishment in their own land. And through Him also came the comforting answer to the people, In this vision the Angel of Jehovah speaks directly and immediately to the invisible God; but to the prophet He speaks through the angel interpreter. God declares His zeal for His people, His indignation against their enemies, and His determination to do good unto His people, and enrich them with His bounty. He is not an indifferent spectator of what happens to them. He watches over them with a constant jealousy, solicitous for their well being, and ready to resent all attempts to injure them. His own He will never forsake. When the deepest abyss of calamity seems to be reached by them, when the darkest hour of their sorrow throws its shadows over them, the Angel of the Lord, He who ever encamps round them that fear Him, will suddenly appear on their side, and will deliver them from all their enemies. (W. L. Alexander, D. D.)
The man among the myrtles
As the Jewish people are usually regarded by the prophet in their theocratic character, as the form in which the Church then existed, the general doctrines of these visions are applicable to the Church in every form in which she exists. Some of the doctrines as set forth in this vision are--
1. The Church is externally an humble and lowly thing, neglected, often despised by the gay and wicked world, a grove of myrtles, rather than the cedars of Lebanon (Zechariah 1:8).
2. She has, however, an unseen glory that the world knows not of; for Christ dwells in her midst, full of love, invested with all power, sending His angel messengers to do His work, and preparing everything for her final triumph (Zechariah 1:8-9).
3. The hour of darkest desolation to the Church, and of haughtiest triumph to her enemies, is often the very hour when God begins His work of judgment on the one and returning mercy on the other (Zechariah 1:11).
4. Christ intercedes for His people when they need it most, and His intercession is always prevalent (Zechariah 1:12-13).
5. God will have all our hearts, for He is jealous of sharing His glory with another (Zechariah 1:14).
6. God often uses instruments to chastise His people, which, when He has done with them, He breaks and casts into the fire (Zechariah 1:15).
7. The Church of God shall yet triumph over every obstacle and vanquish every foe (Zechariah 1:16).
8. The promises and threatenings of God, though slow, are sure. They have eternity for the range of their fulfilment (Zechariah 1:17).
9. The head of the Church is at once human and Divine. He is called here “a man” (Zechariah 1:8), and the “Angel of Jehovah” (Zechariah 1:12). But the Angel of Jehovah is a Divine Person--even Gesenius admits this, and the Babylonish Talmud declares that “this man is no other than the Holy One.” But if Divine and human, He must be God and man in one person. (T. V. Moore, D. D.)
The second vision
The next vision was full of comfort. As the little group of returned exiles looked nervously out on the mighty world, empires, which surrounded and threatened them, they were filled with alarm. How could they cope with them? There were Bishlam, Mithredath, Tabeel, and the rest of their companions, of the nations whom Nebuchadnezzar had settled in Samaria; Rehum the chancellor, and Shimshai the scribe, so ready in their use of the pen to exert influence on the great kings beyond the river, to make the work of temple building cease; and the reactionary influences at work in the far distant court, always adverse to the resuscitation of a subdued nation, like the Jews, which had given such proofs of inveterate independence. Beneath the irresistible pressure of these hostile forces the work of temple building had already ceased for fifteen years, and there was every fear that the new resolve to arise and build would meet with similar opposition and a similar fate. There was singular appropriateness, therefore, in the prophet’s vision “Then lifted I up mine eyes, and saw, and, behold, four horns.” In the language of a pastoral people like the Jews, the horn naturally represents the pride and power of the ravager and oppressor of the flock. The number “four” reminds us of the cardinal points of the compass, and indicates that, wherever the people turned, there were foes, which were sworn to resist their attempt to renew their national life. On the north, Chaldea, Assyria, and Samaria; on the south, Egypt and Arabia; on the west, Philistia; and on the east, Ammon and Moab. And it is probable that the Spirit of God looked beyond these to the four great Gentile monarchies, which have occupied, and still occupy, the “Times of the Gentiles,” and which were represented in the four metals of Daniel’s vision, or in the four great beasts, which one after another emerged from the sea. As yet Babylon and Medo-Persia alone had arisen; Greece and Rome, the latter including the kingdoms of modern Europe, were to come. We must not forget that God Himself gave these world-powers their authority. He says, in Isaiah, “I was wroth with My people; I profaned Mine inheritance, and gave them into thine hand” (Isaiah 47:6-7). And in Daniel He lifts the veil and shows that the world rulers represent not flesh and blood merely, but malign and mighty spirits that actuate and inspire them (Daniel 10:13-20). As long as God’s people are perfect in their loyalty and obedience towards Him, they need fear the power of no adversary whatsoever; but when there is a break in the holy connection which binds Him and them in an inviolable safety, it seems as though all the forces of evil are set free to bear down on and ravage them, until their chastisement is completed, and they return to their first love. If we were asked to name the four horns which are ravaging the Church in the present day, we should not hesitate to say that they are priestcraft, worldliness, Christian science, and spiritualism. In every life there are similar experiences. Sometimes, when we lift up our eyes, we find ourselves begirt with opposition and threatened by hostile powers. Think of the martyr host who have witnessed for God in every age, and who could reiterate the words of the greatest Sufferer of all. “Many bulls have compassed Me, strong bulls of Bashan have beset Me round about; they gape upon Me with their mouth as a ravening and a roaring lion.” Ignatius, who complains that his custodians were like “ten leopards, who only wax worse when they are kindly treated”; Blandina, the girl slave; Germanicus, the noble youth; the Waldenses, whose wrongs roused Cromwell’s wrath and Milton’s muse; the Netherlands, in their long conflict with Philip, when the leaders saw their homes covered again by the ocean from which their ancestors had redeemed them; Madame Guyon, beset by husband, mother-in-law, servants, and priests; Samuel Rutherford, and hundreds of his time, harried by the fiercest and most insatiable hate; William Tyndale, the celebrated translator of the English Bible; John G. Paton, beset with savages--these are specimens of a multitude, which no man can number, of every nation, and kindred, and people, who have seen the vision of the four horns. But there is something beyond; and surely it is not without significance that the prophet says, “The Lord showed me four carpenters” (or smiths, R.V.). We have no difficulty in descrying the sources of alarm for ourselves; but we need a Divine hand to reveal our assured deliverance. “And Elisha prayed and said, Lord, I pray Thee open his eyes, that he may see. And the Lord opened the eyes of the young man and he saw; and, behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha.” For Babylon, the “carpenter” was Cyrus; for Persia, Alexander; for Greece, the Roman; for Rome, the Gaul. Very different from each other, very ruthless and unsparing; but very well adapted for their work. Commenting on this passage, the late C.H. Spurgeon said: “He who wants to open an oyster must not use a razor; for some works there needs less of daintiness and more of force; providence does not find clerks, or architects, or gentlemen, to cut off horns, but carpenters. The work needs a man who, when he has work to do, puts his whole strength into it, and beats away with his hammer, or cuts through the wood that lies before him with might and main. Let us not fear for the cause of God; when the horns become too troublesome, the carpenters will be forthcoming to fray them.” Remember how in every age He has found His appropriate messenger. Athanasius frayed Arianism, and Augustine Manichaeism; Luther frayed the power of the pope in Germany, and rough Hugh Latimer in England; Wesley and Whitefield frayed the religious indifference of the last century. When Haldane went to Geneva, he frayed the scepticism which was destroying the Helvetian and Gallio Churches. The Lord knows where to find His servants, and when the pre destined hour strikes, there will stand the workman ready. Oh, child of God! there have been many horns engaged in scattering thee. Year after year they have wrought sad havoc in thy plans, and cost thee bitter tears. But thine Almighty Friend is greatly displeased that they have hurt thee more than His purposes of chastisement required, and He has resolved that they shall be frayed. (F. B. Meyer, B. A.)
God’s government of the world
Amongst the various manners in which God revealed Himself to men of old, visions were perhaps the most frequent and impressive. He appears to the prophet in six distinct visions. The visions were marked by these four characteristics. They were
I. It is carried on in connection with mysterious agencies. What did the prophet see? “I saw by night, and behold a man riding upon a red horse, and He stood among the myrtle trees that were in the bottom: and behind Him were there red horses, speckled, and white.” Who are these? Unfallen angels and sainted men. These by millions stand near His throne, prompt to obey His behests. In relation to these agents two thoughts are suggested--
1. That they are under the command of a transcendent mind. Most expositors regard the man on the red horse, and who stood among the myrtle trees, as no less a personage than the Angel of the Covenant, the Great Messiah. This same man appeared to Abraham in the plains of Mature, to Jacob before his meeting with Esau, to Noses at the burning bush, to Joshua at Jericho, with the sword drawn in His hand. Here He is on the “red horse,” emblem of war. He is a great moral chieftain. Another thought suggested is--
2. That the whole world is their sphere of action. “These are they whom the Lord hath sent to walk to and fro through the earth.”
II. That it has not only difficulties, but an interpreter also. “Then said I, O my lord, what are these?”
1. The difficulties of God’s government. What are these? The prophet understood not these strange appearances; and in amazement he exclaims, What are these? What thoughtful man has not asked such a question as this concerning the Divine government over and over again? “What are these? What are these elements, forces, laws, existences, events? What are they? Are they messengers of mercy or justice? O my lord, what are these?” We are all moving in mystery.
2. The interpreter of God’s government. Who answered the question “The man that stood among the myrtle trees answered and said, These are they.” Some other creature, the angel that talked with them, was asked first; but the answer came not from him, but from the man, Christ Jesus. In Revelation 5:2, “a strong angel” is represented as crying with a loud voice concerning the mysteries of God’s government, inquiring who was able to “loose the seals”; but no one was found in heaven, in earth, or under the earth worthy to “open and read the book.” There was only One found. “It was the Lamb in the midst of the throne.” Christ is the only interpreter of God. He is the Logos.
III. That it is especially concerned in the interests of His people. His people are supposed to be here represented by the “myrtle trees.” The Jewish Church at this time was not like a forest of stately cedars, but a grove of myrtles, fragile and obscure.
1. These seem to be the centre of Divine operations on the earth. Now, in the myrtle trees is the “man riding upon a red horse.” And in the myrtle trees were the “red horses, speckled, and white,” the whole troop was there. The “myrtle trees” seemed to be the centre of all the agents. From it they started on their mission, and to it they returned. The true Church is the temple, the residence of God Himself.
2. The object of special intercession. “Then the Angel of the Lord answered and said, O Lord of hosts, how long wilt Thou not have mercy on Jerusalem, and on the cities of Judah, against which Thou hast had indignation these threescore and ten years?” The duration of their captivity in Babylon. Who is the angel that makes this appeal? It was He that “ever liveth to make intercession for us.” “If any man sin, he hath an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.”
3. The subjects of the Divine communication. “The Lord answered the angel that talked with me, with good words and comfortable words.” The prophet is here commissioned to proclaim--
I am jealous for Jerusalem
Mercy mingled with chastisement
“Jealousy is that particular uneasiness which arises in our minds from the fear that some rival may rob us of the affection of one whom we greatly love, or from suspicion that he has already done it.
” God’s jealousy, or zeal, denotes His distrust of His creatures, His eminent care of His people, and His readiness to punish such as injure them. He is peculiarly jealous for everything whereby He maketh Himself known. Comparatively speaking, God may be said to be but a little displeased with His people, whatever be the manner of His dealing with them in this world. Their afflictions are only temporary and of short duration. They are also designed for their profit, and overruled for promoting their best interests. And though the troubles that afflict the just be great and many in number, the Lord will deliver him out of them all. Let us take the comfort which the good words spoken to Israel are designed to yield, amid all the trials and afflictive dispensations of providence with which we may be visited in this life. You may be in darkness and in doubts, perplexed on every side, and encompassed with difficulties, but still you need not despair. The Lord is jealous for you with a great jealousy. Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning. (Matthew Fraser.)
I am returned to Jerusalem with mercies
Jerusalem and Zion are laid waste, it is true, but not in anger, so much as in chastising love.
God still loves them, and is jealous of any estrangement of their affections from Him, and when estranged He chastises them to bring them back. This was His object in using the heathen as instruments of chastisement, but the spirit in which they executed this office provoked His wrath. He designed only to inflict a slight chastisement, but they rioted in the sufferings of His people with wanton cruelty. They mocked their sorrows and taunted them with their abandonment. Hence God will punish these heathen, and will bestow mercy on His people, cause the temple to be built, the city to be enlarged, and prosperity to return to the land. (T. V. Moore, D. D.)
The Divine absence and return
1. God seems to absent Himself sometimes from those for whom He hath great blessings in store. By absenting Himself is meant only the withdrawing His countenance, or sunshine of His favour, when the clouds of adversity or trouble, either spiritual or temporal, sit uneasy on His chosen servants. At such times He seems to “hide His face from them.” Afflictions in this life are like eclipses of celestial bodies, the noblest planet never suffers any, for when we say the sun is eclipsed, it is we are more properly so, we want his cheerful light and influences, whilst he himself is not diminished one ray. The moon is sometimes really eclipsed, and labours under the want of a borrowed light. Thus Divinest constitutions never suffer. The lunar populace are more really affected by that obscurity which can never hurt a being, placed so near Divinity. But if such an one hath been obscured, then this proposition must be granted, that God Almighty doth sometimes seem to absent Himself from those whom He best loves. Joseph, David, and even the Son of God Himself, had more than an ordinary share of this world’s frowns. The reason for such experiences may respect--
2. Such absenting of Himself is but for a while, as seems best to His goodness and wisdom “I am returned” denotes the speediness and certainty of God’s returning with mercies. The fountain of honour can never be impoverished or impaired by making the first overtures of tenderness and reconciliation. He is in great haste for an accommodation; He condescends much to our infirmities. It is His nature and property to have mercy and forgive.
3. When He doth return it is with all the tenders of love and compassion. Not with forgiveness only, or any one species, but with all the instances of mercy. Nor doth it at all interfere with His constancy and justice, because it always supposes conditions performed; at least in His foreknowledge, that His mercy will move us to repentance. Upon winch account His mercy is sometimes termed His justice. His mercy never obstructs His justice, but all His attributes are one simple essence, and proceed in an eternal and unchangeable method. Learn that if the mercies of God toward us are so great, we ought to be tender and compassionate one towards another. (Samuel Prat, D. D.)
My cities through prosperity
Jehovah’s tender care of His living Church seems to be a prominent topic with the prophet Zechariah.
Amid all the visitations Zion has experienced from her God in consequence of her departures, His heart has been set upon her eternal interests, and He never can change His mind concerning her.
I. The claim which Jehovah lays to His Churches, “My cities.” They are associated, or organised bodies, not promiscuous multitudes. Distinguished they may be from each other by a variety of names, and a variety of circumstances; but God says to them all, “Ye are My cities.” They are all chartered cities. Their charter is unchanging, covenant love. It is written, signed, sealed, and preserved by their covenant God. What is the wording of the charter? “I will be their God, they shall be My people.” God’s Churches are classified. Separated from one another, not only in their peculiar localities, and their peculiar features of discipline, but in minor points of order and regulation. Each one should know and keep his proper position. And they are all consecrated cities, from the highest to the lowest. Cities are generally noted for their liberties and privileges. And so “if the Son make you free, you shall be free indeed.” Our privileges are most valuable and innumerable. These cities were all designed and also founded by Jehovah, and He rules over them all.
II. Their prosperity--which must come from Himself. “Shall yet be spread abroad.” The prosperity of a city is seen in its population, its commerce, and the healthiness of its air. A sign of prosperity in a Church is found in the number of spiritual births.
III. Their comfort. “The Lord shall yet comfort Zion.” Her tranquillity is preserved in spite of all that sin and Satan can do; and her honourable associations are kept up and maintained. That will be comfort for Zion.
IV. The grand first cause of all, electing love. The Lord “shall yet choose Jerusalem.” (Joseph Irons.)
Behold four horns
The mission of the Church’s enemies
Three things there are which this age of ours hath brought forth: malignant enemies, special instruments of their ruin, and great endeavours for reformation.
Accordingly here are three visions: a vision of four horns (Zechariah 1:18-19); a vision of four carpenters (Zechariah 1:20-21); a vision of a man with a measuring line in his hand (chap. 2. Verse 1). The description of the Church’s enemies under the vision of four horns.
1. Their number or multitude; they are four horns according to four parts of the world.
2. Their power and strength. The horn in Scripture denotes strength.
3. Their mischievous and malignant practice; “They scattered Judah, Israel, and Jerusalem.” In the second vision is the description of those special instruments that are raised up for their destruction, under the similitude of four carpenters or smiths. Their work is to scatter the horns, and to cast out the Gentiles. The third vision presents the endeavours for reformation, under the similitude of “a man with a measuring line in his hand”; which is described in two ways: from the instrument thereof, a man, an excellent man, possibly alluding to Zerubbabel the governor; and from the exactness thereof,--he doth work by line.
Attend to three doctrines.
1. When God intendeth any good and salvation to His Churches, He doth first suffer many potent, malicious enemies to rise against them. Was it not so with Israel when God intended to bring them out of Egypt? Then their taskmasters arose and doubled their work. This is God’s way still. But what reason is there that God should suffer His people to be thus handled, oppressed, scattered, by Cruel enemies? Good reason. So many enemies, so many schoolmasters. Our enemies are our observers, and their observation is our preservation. Hereby they are occasioned to honour God; they are weaned from the world; they are more useful in their places, and even beneficial to their enemies; they carry the truths of God into other parts; they receive a fuller and clearer testimony of their own graces; their enemies themselves are the more convinced; the saints are kept from, and cured of, divisions among themselves; hereby the servants of God may see and know by experience, that it is better to serve God than man; and the servants of God learn the right use of the rod, both in Church and State. Then let no man be stumbled or offended at God’s present proceedings in the world, as if they were very mysterious.
2. Though God suffers the enemies of His Church to be many and great, He will raise up proportionate strength against them. Three enemies there are by whom you are most molested, the flesh, the devil, the world. The flesh brings forth three great evils. Ignorance in the understanding; in opposition to that Jesus Christ is called our Prophet. Rebellion in the will; in opposition to that Jesus Christ is called our King. Guiltiness that arises from ignorance and rebellion; in opposition to that Jesus Christ is called our Priest. The devil, our second enemy, is armed with all weapons of hostility against us. Whatever terms or titles of strength and power there is in Satan, there is somewhat in Jesus Christ that answereth, yea, that over answereth all. The third enemy, the world; is described in Revelation 13:1. Our text speaks but of four horns, here are ten. So that, whatever your enemies are, there is strength enough in Jesus Christ to subdue their strength. Why is Christ thus furnished, but for His Church and people? He is the Lord-keeper of all our comforts; the Lord-treasurer of all our graces; and the great magazine of all our ammunition. The application of this doctrine looks two ways: to the saints by way of consolation and encouragement; to the carpenters God’s workmen, by way of direction and exhortation (W. Bridge, M. A.)
Horns and workmen
This second vision may be regarded as supplementary of the first. There the restoration of Judah was indicated generally; here some of the means by which that was to be effected are presented. Though enemies from all quarters, and on every side, might assail the people of God, the Lord, their protector, would raise up for them adequate defence, would bring into action powers sufficient to discomfit and cast down all their oppressors, however many or strong. What was thus showed for the comfort of the people of God in the old time is no less for the comfort and encouragement of the Church in all ages and places. “The sum of the whole is, though the Church may not be exempt from many troubles, yet the Lord has in His hand resources by which He can restrain all assaults of the wicked, however impetuously and violently they may be impelled against the Church.” The Angel of the Lord, the Divine Redeemer, abides forever with that Church which He has purchased with His own blood. And exalted as He is to the throne of His glory, and having all power in heaven and on earth, He can send forth at any time agencies by which the power of the Church’s enemies shall be broken, and all their forces routed. It behoves the Church, then, to have faith in her exalted head, and patiently to wait for Him. In due time He will interpose on her behalf when she is afflicted; He will scatter and discomfit all her adversaries, and will “cause her righteousness to go forth as brightness, and her salvation as a lamp that burneth.” (W. L. Alexander, D. D.)
The vision of the four horns
Some consider the four horns represent the four kingdoms of Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome. Others look on them as types of the whole of the enemies of Israel coming from the four quarters of the earth. The same general truths are taught in either case.
1. That while the world powers continue, and the Church of God lives in their midst, the latter will be subjected to opposition and persecution.
2. That whatever number of foes the Church may have, God will take care to provide her with an equal number of friends.
3. That though there will ever be conflict between God’s Church and her enemies, there will never be defeat but on one side. The strongest force must ultimately gain the day. We can account for the existence of the Church only from the fact that “God is in the midst of her.” (A London Minister.)
The purpose of this vision
I. For instruction. The progress of the wicked in their enmity against the Church, is but the prologue to the Church’s deliverance. First, the horns arise and play their part; and this brings on the hammermen to act their part.
II. For admonition: that God’s people be not offended, or dismayed, when they see things, go contrary to their deliverance. At such times let us calm ourselves--
1. With a consideration of the just aggravation of our own sins, our disunion and security that opened the door to let in the misery.
2. With the consideration of the character of the horns. It is the nature of a beast to do as they do, to push and scatter. A brute will be a brute. A devil will be a devil. But beasts are not made to rule over men. And the devil is the gaoler of the wicked, not our ruler.
3. As the constitution, so the complexion of the last times is indeed the worst; so no better is to be expected for a time, but, though the several hammers make at first but a confused noise, and the pieces of the building lie in the dust, yet, ere long, the new building is reared, and the Great Master of the house comes in and dwells among us in it.
III. For exhortation.
1. Let us not judge by sense, but by faith.
2. Judge not by present action, but by their productive tendency.
3. Judge not by the meanness of means, but by the might of the hand that useth them. (N. Homes.)
Destroyers and builders
The enemy came upon the laud, came upon the hills of Judah and of Israel, laid waste the city of Jerusalem, destroyed the temple, scattered the people, broke up their happy homes, and carried them into captivity. These are the horns of which the text speaks. Wise men were raised up, skilful workers, men willing and able to rebuild Jerusalem, restore the temple, and reestablish the worship of Jehovah there. These be the carpenters spoken of in the text. The first class is characterised by the fury of the beast, and the second by the wisdom and skill of the man.
I. There are the destroyers--there is the power of the destroyer. The power opposed to God and His purpose is in Scripture often described under the symbol of a beast. The prophet Daniel saw four beasts coming forth in succession to do their destructive work. This symbol teaches us that the power opposed to God is from below, from the abyss. The persecutions that raged against the Church in other ages were eruptions from the bottomless pit, real boiling volcanic floods sent forth from the mouth of “that old serpent, called the devil and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world.” Such is infidelity, and the criticism which merely destroys, and the philosophy which ignores God. The power opposed to God and goodness is coarse, rude, vulgar--the power of a beast. What will a beast do if turned into a flower garden? So the power of evil is rude and coarse. Whenever men begin to sneer at religion, at faith, at holiness, at Christianity, that moment they become coarse. The deepest and subtlest wisdom, the wisdom that can create, the wisdom that can construct and build up, is not necessary for the destroyer’s work. The rude, clumsy power of the reasonless beast will answer for that purpose. The power of the destroyer is out of harmony with the nature of things. The beasts of Bible symbol are all monsters. Not one of them is harmonious or proportionate. Here is one--he has the body of a leopard to begin with, the feet of a bear, the hungry mouth of a lion; he has seven heads and ten horns, and on each of the heads in flaming letters is inscribed the name of blasphemy. What a dreadful apparition that must have been to St. John! The power of evil being out of harmony with the laws of nature, we can never fall into the order of God’s universe while we are moved by the power of evil.
II. The skilful workers. These men have a Divine vocation, and are inspired of God--endued of Him for their work. There are very many Divine vocations in this world. There is the preacher, the student of nature, the statesman, the teacher, private Christians. These belong to the class of true workers. And God’s purpose shall at last be realised; the work of the skilful ones shall prosper. Refer to the building of the first temple at Jerusalem. It was an idea early started, again and again lost sight of, but at last fully realised. There is an old saying, that in this world every man has believed in his best moments that there is a golden age which belongs to humanity. Man never believes in his present degradation; he believes that it was never intended the world should remain as it is. And I am glad there are so many brave Christian people in this great city who are determined by God’s grace to do all that they can to realise this ancient idea. The prophets saw it, and it kindled their souls into rapture. (Thomas Jones.)
Four horns and four carpenters
This vision presents to us (the) cause of right in the earth.
I. That the cause of right on the earth has strong antagonists. Here are four horns, four mighty powers, all of which are in dead hostility to the covenant people. They are represented as those who have “scattered Judah, so that no man did lift up his head.” The enemies of the true scatter and crush. Though Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome have long since passed away, the horns, or the mighty powers of evil, are still here, and are at work. What are they? Reigning materialism is a horn; practical atheism is a horn; intolerant superstition is a horn; and dominant selfishness is a horn.
II. That the cause of truth upon the earth has Divine defenders. Here are four carpenters, or smiths, who appear to “fray them, and to east out the horns of the Gentiles.” Mark, the defenders were--
And the Lord shewed me four carpenters
The counterbalancing of agencies
Evil agencies are counterbalanced by good--for there is a Divine providence always at work in this world.
The prophet saw “four horns,” representing the powers by which Judah had been scattered; but at the same time he saw “four carpenters,” the instruments raised up by God to accomplish a Divine work.
I. The world is made for the Church. Men read the history of nations without the slightest reference to the Church of the living God. They look at passing events and circumstances without believing that they are the development of a Divine providence at work in the world. It may be thought that the world was made for unfallen man. Was it not rather made to be the scene of man’s trial and probation? It is a fact that the world was mapped out with a peculiar reference to the locality and home of the Church. The world was made for Christ, and therefore for the Church. The world was made to be the school for unfallen intelligences. It was made to be the tabernacle of God.
II. The work going on in the world is in accordance with the Divine plan. There is a charm in history, since it not only annihilates the distances of time and space, but transports us to other scenes and periods. If you are a devout student of history you will see a Divine hand prescribing, the limits of conquest and the extent of a nation’s duration. There is, then, eternal order underlying the world’s disorder, and a Divine will subordinating all human wills. The great chapters of the world’s history have all been written beforehand. We have only seen parts of the plan, some of the first chapters--strange and startling.
III. The work of God in this world is under Divine supervision and angelic inspection. From some brief hints, it would appear as if the government of the world’s provinces had been, in some measure, intrusted to the management of angels in former times.
IV. Evil agencies are counterbalanced by good. In the natural world there are opposite forces, and laws that seem antagonistic, but these agencies are counterbalanced. We have darkness and light--we have night and day. All the forces in this world are adjusted by Divine wisdom, and thus the balance of the universe is preserved. There are opposite powers in the world. There is Satan, and there is Christ. “For this purpose was the Son of God manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil.” There is sin; and yet sin is counteracted by grace. There is flesh, and there is spirit. The one seems to be the adversary of the other. Is the law in our members always to bring us into captivity to sin? No. Flesh itself is to be transfigured, to be consecrated and hallowed. There is death in the world. All men die, though Christ has died; all men shall rise, because Christ has risen. Thus evil agencies are counterbalanced by good. If there are powers hostile to the Church and to us, there are powers that are directly “opposed to them, and that are at work for us, for said the prophet,” The Lord shewed me four carpenters. (H. J. Bevis.)
I. The truth exhibited in this vision.
1. The champions of the Church are as numerous as its assailants.
2. They are more powerful than its assailants.
3. They are seasonably provided.
II. The ground on which this truth rests. On the love, power, promises, and dispensations of God. (G. Brooks.)
“When God makes the prophet, He does not unmake the man.” Each sacred writer preserves his individuality. Character and circumstance leave their impress on the inspired productions. Zechariah was moulded by the peculiarities of the age in which he lived. He was raised up to incite the Jews’ zeal in building the temple. His mind overflowed with it. He could think of nothing else. Hence we cannot marvel that, when he prophesied, he used architectural figures. At one time he sees a “man with measuring line,” and anon he says, “The Lord shewed me four carpenters.”
1. God’s works are often unobserved. “The Lord shewed me.” The seer did not behold them at first. Only when Divine help was afforded did he become aware of them. Are there not thousands who resemble him? As regards nature it is so. “Eyes have they, and they see not.” What is true of creation is true with double emphasis and touching revelation. The Bible is dull and uninteresting to some. Others delight in it. Why the difference? The last have Divine teaching.
2. God’s works are creative. “Carpenters.” These are constructive agents. Building, not demolishing, is their proper work. In seeking our own spiritual and moral welfare, we cannot too often remember this important principle--the true method of destroying is by creating. Get good into your heart, and it will cast out evil.
3. God’s works are compensative. “Four.” Observe the number. It corresponds with the number of Israel’s foes. There is more of equality in men’s conditions than is often supposed. A grand law of compensation is in operation. “God hath set one thing over against the other.” As regards riches and poverty, adversity and prosperity, there is compensation. Everywhere evil is counterbalanced by good. Our mercies outweigh our miseries. (T. R. Stevenson.)
The four carpenters
The Hebrew word means workman in iron, brass, and stone, as well as wood. They are here the workmen of God. The horn is the instrument of power. The four horns are the symbols of persecutors, of violence and oppression, of the destroyers of the people and State. How were they to be crushed, put to fear, destroyed? That the prophet could never have found out for himself. The Lord showed him four carpenters. They were to fray (frighten) the horns. It would be heart breaking if there were nothing for us but to realise the evils we have brought on ourselves; if we were left only to all that we could see of our troubles. But there is a revelation for us, and an interpretation of the revelation too. The four horns were met by four carpenters. It was a declaration to Zechariah that there existed--ready to act out of the unseen world, whether by energising human means, or not--a system of counterpoises, and counter influences, and means of salvation, with Divine intentions concerning them, all of which were there, though man saw them not. God revealed the workers of the spirit world. Zechariah saw four horns; it was the human apprehending the terrible; and the terrible is not ignored by God; it is emphasised, it is explained. God puts their evil work against His people side by side with the work that He will do in their behalf. There was a matching of four against four. All evil meets its match in every part when God comes forth to work. If there be bad influences against you and yours, God can bring counter influences against them, and He can break the spell of evil already done. Why need you ever despair of restoration, of help, of salvation, be your cause never so low? The “Son of God has come that He might destroy the works of the devil.” (P. B. Power, M. A.)
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Zechariah 1". The Biblical Illustrator. https://beta.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25