Lesson 2: When God Seems to Have Forgotten You (Zechariah 1:7-17)Related Media
If you have been a Christian for very long, you have had times when it seemed that God had forgotten you. You were seeking to please God with your life. You were not engaging in any known sin. And yet you had major trials. Your prayers seemed to bounce off the ceiling. God must have forgotten you!
To make matters worse, you noticed many pagans who seemed to be doing quite well. They had no regard for God or His ways. They were bragging openly about their sins. And yet they seemed to be enjoying everything that life has to offer.
I remember a time when I had dropped out of seminary with some frustration and was trying to figure out what the Lord wanted me to do with my life. I was in my mid-twenties, single, and very lonely. Most of my friends were married, but I had gone through two failed romances and had no prospects on the horizon.
I was living two blocks from the beach. My neighbor two doors down was a young man with blond hair that went well below his shoulders. I heard that he was a drug dealer. He had a beautiful girl friend living with him, who would come out in the morning in her bikini and hop on her bike to ride down to the beach. As I sat there alone, reading my Bible, I echoed the words of Asaph, who saw the prosperity of the wicked, but said of himself, “Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure, … for I have been stricken all day long, and chastened every morning” (Ps. 73:3, 13-14).
Your details may vary, but it’s the same plot: you’re trying to follow the Lord and have nothing but trials. Meanwhile, someone you know thumbs his nose at God and seems to be having a grand time. You wonder, “What’s going on? Has God forgotten me? Why do the wicked prosper and the godly suffer?”
The Jews to whom Zechariah ministered were struggling with that issue. They were a group of about 50,000 refugees who had returned from the Babylonian captivity to a war-devastated land. They were surrounded by aggressive neighbors who opposed their efforts to rebuild the temple and the city of Jerusalem. By faith they had responded to Haggai’s message and had begun to rebuild the temple. Two months later, God had raised up Zechariah with the message, “‘Return to Me,’ declares the Lord of hosts, ‘that I may return to you,’ says the Lord of hosts” (1:3).
Then, on the 24th day of the eleventh month, five months to the day from when the people had begun to rebuild (Hag. 1:14-15), the Lord revealed to Zechariah eight night visions to encourage His forlorn people. All eight visions (1:7-6:15) develop the same theme, which is stated in 1:14-17, that God remembers His chosen people and that He will punish the wicked and bless His people in His appointed time. As I said last week, you can remember the theme of Zechariah by remembering the Hebrew meaning of the three names in 1:1 (and 1:7): Zechariah means, “whom the Lord remembers.” Berechiah means, “the Lord blesses.” Iddo means, “at the appointed time.” Today we will look at the first night vision (1:7-17). Applied to us, the message is:
When it seems as if the wicked are at ease and the godly are forgotten, Christ encourages us with His powerful presence, His prayer for us, and His promises for our welfare.
The vision is described (1:7-8), explained (1:9-11), and applied (1:12-17). Before we look at its application for us, let me explain some of its features.
The vision is described as “the word of the Lord” to Zechariah (1:7), which points both to the origin and authority of the message. It comes from God Himself. Zechariah saw a man riding a red horse, standing in a ravine among some myrtle trees, with other horses (and riders implied) standing behind him. The rider on the red horse is clearly the prominent one. Verse 11 identifies him as “the angel of the Lord.” In the Old Testament, the angel of the Lord is Jesus Christ in preincarnate form (Gen. 16:7-13; implied in 18:1-33; 22:11-12; Exod. 3:2-6; Judges 6:14, 22; 13:9-18, 22). The other riders were lesser angels. There is another lesser angel who serves throughout the visions as the interpreting angel to Zechariah (1:13, 14, 19; 2:3; 4:1, 4-5; 5:10; 6:4; see E. W. Hengstenberg, Christology of the Old Testament [Kregel], pp. 267-269).
Commentators agree that the myrtle trees in the ravine symbolize God’s lowly people, the Jews. They are not stately cedars on a mountaintop, but humble myrtles in a ravine, under Gentile domination. The myrtle is an evergreen that can grow to about 30 feet. It exudes a fragrant aroma from its berries and leaves (when crushed), and from its flowers. Its branches were used in the Feast of Booths (Neh. 8:15). The horses symbolize God’s activity in governing the earth. The red horses point to war and bloodshed (Isa. 63:1-6; Rev. 6:4). The white horses symbolize victory (Rev. 6:2). The sorrel (light brown) or dappled (Hebrew meaning is uncertain) horses may refer to a mixture of judgment and mercy.
Zechariah asks the interpreting angel what the vision means (1:9). The angel explains that the riders on the horses are those whom the Lord has sent to patrol the earth. As John Calvin points out (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], Zechariah, p. 35), God doesn’t need angels to inform Him as to the state of things on earth, but He employs this language in order to stoop to our weakness. When the Bible says that God Himself is our refuge, it does not add anything to say that His angels encamp around us (Ps. 34:7), or that He has an entire army of angels at His disposal. But it helps our weak faith to see that He is mighty over our enemy and his forces.
This vision of Christ and His angels in the midst of God’s oppressed people is given to encourage God’s people with the reality of His powerful presence with them, even in their trials. The angel of the Lord’s intercessory question (1:12) should encourage God’s people that He cares for them. And, the Lord’s gracious and comforting words about Israel’s future (1:12-17) are also given for encouragement. I will explain more details as we go through the text.
1. There are often times when it seems that the wicked are at ease and the godly are forgotten (1:8, 11).
When the patrol angels report that “all the earth is peaceful and quiet” (1:11), we need to understand it in terms of God’s promise through Haggai (2:6-7, 22) to shake and overthrow the powerful nations that dominated the world scene. When the Persian ruler Darius came to the throne, he faced numerous rebellions. A godly Jew may have thought, “This is it! Our oppressor will soon be overthrown!”
But according to an inscription and bas relief that has been found, Darius boasts that in 19 battles he had defeated nine rebel leaders and subdued all his enemies (cited by Kenneth Barker, Expositor’s Bible Commentary [Zondervan], 7:611-612). So Israel’s oppressor was boastfully at ease. The same Hebrew verb (“quiet”) is used both of Moab (Jer. 48:11) and Sodom (Ezek. 16:49) in negative ways to refer to the careless ease of the wicked. So the Jews were left wondering, “Did God forget about us? Doesn’t He know that the pagan empires are peaceful and quiet, while His chosen people are despised and downtrodden?”
That is a common picture throughout the Bible. For 400 years, God’s chosen people were slaves in Egypt while God waited for the iniquity of the Amorites to be filled up (Gen. 15:13, 16)! During the times of Christ, Israel had been under foreign domination for over four centuries. Then God judged the Jews for rejecting their Messiah and scattered them around the world for 19 centuries, culminating with the Holocaust. Only then, in 1948, did they again become a nation and begin to return to the holy land (Zech. 2:12 is the only reference to the “holy land” in the Bible).
When you get to the Book of Revelation, the picture is still that of God’s people being persecuted and oppressed, while the ungodly thrive right up to the eleventh hour (Rev. 6:9-11, with the same cry of “How long, O Lord”; 18:1-24). Right up to the end, it seems as if God has forgotten His chosen people and as if the wicked are literally getting away with murder. But in the bottom of the ninth, so to speak, God will hit a grand slam home run and win the game.
This consistent picture in Scripture and in our text should teach us three lessons. First, we should not be surprised when our personal experience is identical with God’s persecuted remnant in Scripture. As Hebrews 11 recounts the exploits of the great people of faith, don’t overlook the fact that all were not victorious in this life. Some “experienced mockings and scourgings, yes, also chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated” (Heb. 11:35-37). None of these received in this life what was promised. But they lived by faith in God’s promises, and so should we.
Second, don’t let the apparent ease and prosperity of the wicked deceive you. Like Asaph in Psalm 73:17-20, go into the sanctuary of God and consider their final end, how God will cast them down to destruction in a moment. Rather than being enticed by their temporal prosperity, we should urgently warn them of their impending eternal danger!
Third, when you don’t understand your circumstances, follow Zechariah’s example and ask God for clarification. The Lord was gracious to explain the meaning of things to the prophet so that he could comfort God’s people with the same comfort he experienced. With Asaph, if you’re losing the right perspective, take some sanctuary time and meet with God. His eternal perspective helps us get our bearings. Our text reveals three truths we need to remember when it seems as if the wicked are prospering and the godly are forgotten:
2. Christ encourages us with His powerful presence, His prayer for us, and His promises for our welfare.
A. Christ encourages us with His powerful presence (1:7-10).
The beautiful picture here is that of Christ in the midst of His people in their humiliation as their defender, surrounded by militant angels ready to do His bidding. Christ’s taking His place with His people in the myrtle grove in the ravine reminds me of the three faithful Hebrew men whom Nebuchadnezzar threw into the fiery furnace because they would not bow before his image (Daniel 3). When he looked into the furnace, he did not see three bound men, but four, “loosed and walking about in the midst of the fire without harm, and the appearance of the fourth [was] like a son of the gods” (Dan. 3:25). I believe that the Lord Jesus Christ personally went into the flames with His three faithful witnesses.
The picture of the angels on the war horses in Zechariah’s vision reminds me of the story in 2 Kings 6:8-23, where the king of Aram was upset because Elisha was telling the king of Israel his every move before he made it. So he foolishly sent his army to surround the city where Elisha lived. When Elisha’s servant went out to get the morning paper (that detail is not in the text), he ran back inside in alarm. Elisha calmed him by saying, “Do not fear, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” Then he prayed for God to open his servant’s eyes, and the servant saw that the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.
God doesn’t always open our eyes to see the unseen world, but Scripture assures us that His angels keep watch over His chosen people (Ps. 34:7; 91:11; Dan. 6:22). And not just His angels, but Jesus Christ Himself promised to be with us to the end of the age as we take His good news throughout the world (Matt. 28:20). When it seems as if the wicked are prospering and you are suffering, trust in God’s promise of His powerful presence with you in every circumstance and you will be encouraged.
B. Christ encourages us with His prayer for us (1:12).
Before Zechariah can even think of what to pray in light of the godless nations being at ease, the angel of the Lord (Christ) intercedes with the question that was undoubtedly in the prophet’s mind: “O Lord of hosts, how long will You have no compassion for Jerusalem and the cities of Judah, with which you have been indignant these seventy years?” Isn’t it beautiful that the Lord does not rebuke Zechariah for thinking, “How long?” but He even asks the question on his behalf! The nation certainly deserved God’s punishment for their many years of gross sin. But here is the Lord, taking His place with them in the ravine, pleading with the Father to have compassion on them!
What a beautiful picture of the abundant grace of our Lord! Even after we believed in Him for eternal life, we all have sinned so many times that we deserve any temporal punishment that He sends our way. Even the most godly Christians feel as if their prayer life is woefully inadequate. Who can say, “I pray as often and as faithfully as I should”?
But in spite of our many sins and shortcomings, the New Testament assures us, “Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies; who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us” (Rom. 8:33-34). As Paul goes on to ask, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” His resounding answer is, “No one!” Hallelujah!
Robert Murray McCheyne, the godly 19th century Scottish pastor, wrote, “If I could hear Christ praying for me in the next room, I would not fear a million enemies. Yet the distance makes no difference. He is praying for me!” Someone else has observed that it is a great blessing to have a godly father or mother who prays for you. But how much greater a blessing to have the Son of God, who knows your every need, praying for you! When it seems as if the wicked prosper and God has forgotten you, remember that Jesus is at the right hand of the Father, interceding for you!
Thus Christ encourages us with His powerful presence and with His prayers for us.
C. Christ encourages us with His promises for our welfare (1:13-17).
God rightfully could have said, “This people does not deserve My compassion. Let them suffer longer!” But instead, the Lord answered the angel’s plea with “gracious words, comforting words” (1:13), which are spelled out in 1:14-17, where He says three things.
(1) The Lord of hosts emphatically affirms His jealous love for His people (1:14).
Just as the Hebrew grammar in verse 2 emphasized the intensity of God’s anger with the Jews because of their sins, so here the grammar emphasizes God’s fierce jealousy for Jerusalem and Zion. The word “jealous” is put first in the sentence for emphasis. Also, the Hebrew uses the cognate accusative, “jealous I am with jealousy.” The Hebrew verb stem (Piel = intensive) means to burn or glow red in the face. As if that were not enough, the Lord adds the word “exceedingly”! So the overall idea is that God has some very strong feelings about His relationship with His chosen people!
Calvin (p. 44) says that the picture is of God as a husband fighting for his own wife. He then applies it by saying that we should not think that God is indifferent when He delays and defers His aid, just because He doesn’t act as quickly as we may want Him to. He says, “We may therefore be fully persuaded, that even when God withholds his aid, he is not otherwise affected towards us than the best of fathers towards his own children.” The only reason for His delay is that “it is not always expedient for us to be delivered soon from our troubles” (pp. 44-45). Thus the Lord encourages us by His fiercely jealous love for us as His chosen people.
(2) The Lord asserts His fierce anger towards the nations that oppressed His people (1:15).
God used the pagan nations to bring judgment on His sinning people, but the nations went too far. When God says that He was “only a little angry,” He may be referring to the time of His anger towards His people, not to its intensity (1:2; so Unger, p. 31). Or, as Calvin interprets it, God’s “little anger” refers to His anger toward His elect, whereas His fierce anger (1:2, plus Ezek. 14:14) refers to His anger toward the unbelieving among Israel.
It is a mystery of the interplay between God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility how God can direct pagan nations to punish His sinning people, and then hold those nations accountable for going too far in their cruelty. Since the second vision (1:18-21) elaborates on God’s judgment on the nations, I will say no more here, except that Scripture assures us that no wicked person or nation will escape God’s certain judgment. That truth should encourage us when we feel as if the ungodly are prospering in spite of their persecuting God’s people.
(3) The Lord reaffirms His compassion for His people and His promises for their future blessing (1:16-17).
God promises that His house (which they were working on) would be built and a measuring line would be stretched over Jerusalem, not for judgment (2 Kings 21:13), but for rebuilding. The cities of Israel would again overflow with prosperity. And the Lord reaffirms His comfort for Zion and His choice of Jerusalem.
While these promises were partially fulfilled in Zechariah’s era, the ultimate fulfillment still awaits the return of Christ and the establishing of His millennial kingdom. It’s interesting that Charles Simeon, writing in the early 1800’s, affirmed that the Jews would return to the land, even though this event was over a century away (Expository Outlines on the Whole Bible [Zondervan], 10:440-441). This part of God’s reply is amplified in the third vision (2:1-13).
Even though the Jews still have not experienced the fulfillment of all of these promises some 2,500 years later, they are still true. God gave them to this discouraged people to encourage them with His compassion, comfort, and choice of them as His people. His encouraging words apply to us as well. We may die without seeing the fulfillment of His promises, but they still are true. As we trust Him, we will experience His compassion and love in the midst of our trials. He has not forgotten His chosen people!
A Jewish fable tells of a rabbi who went on a journey with the prophet Elijah. At nightfall, they came to the cottage of a poor man and his wife, whose only earthly treasure was a cow. The man and his wife welcomed the strangers, fed them their best food, and put them to bed in their own bed, while the hosts lay down before the kitchen fire. But in the morning the poor man’s cow was dead.
The next evening the rabbi and Elijah came to the house of a wealthy merchant. He treated them coldly, fed them bread and water, and put them to bed in a cow shed. In the morning, Elijah thanked him for what he had done and sent for a mason to repair one of the rich man’s walls, which was falling down, as a return for his kindness.
The rabbi could not keep his silence. He asked the prophet to explain the treatment of the two hosts. The prophet replied, “In regards to the poor man, it had been decreed that his wife would die that night, but in reward for his kindness, God took the cow instead of his wife. In regards to the rich miser, I repaired his wall because a chest of gold was concealed near the place, and if the miser had repaired it himself, he would have discovered the treasure.” The moral of the tale was: Do not say to the Lord, “What are You doing?” But say in your heart, “Must not the Lord of all do rightly?” We don’t always see the big picture as God does!
When it seems as if the wicked are at ease and you are forgotten, be encouraged by Christ’s powerful presence, His prayer for you, and His promises for your welfare.
- According to 1 Peter 5:8-10, when are we especially susceptible to Satan’s attacks? How can we be on guard?
- When we suffer at the hands of wicked people, our feelings are often dominant. How can we put faith ahead of feelings?
- Is it wrong to desire God’s punishment on the wicked? How do we apply the imprecatory Psalms (10, 109, 137, etc.)?
- A person asks, “How can I know that I am one of God’s chosen people?” Your answer?
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2003, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation