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Lesson 3: God Our Strong Defender and Benefactor (Zechariah 1:18-2:13)

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When you look at the church of Jesus Christ, whether in history or in our own day, the very fact of its existence is a strong evidence of both God’s existence and the truth of Jesus’ words. He promised, “I will build My church; and the gates of Hades shall not overpower it” (Matt. 16:18).

Throughout its history, the church has been battered by storms of persecution without and scandalous weaknesses within. There have been times and places where evil tyrants tried to eliminate Christians and God’s Word from the face of the earth, but the tyrants died and the church and the Word live on. There have always been false teachers within the church, spreading destructive heresies that lead many astray. There have also been Christian leaders who have fallen into horrible sins, bringing shame to the name of Christ. The modern church in America is rife with false teaching and moral scandals. And yet God has a remnant that is faithful to Him in spite of all of the problems.

Not only the church, but also the existence of the Jewish people and their presence in the Promised Land, is a witness to God’s existence and the truth of His Word. About 4,000 years ago, God promised Abraham that He would make him into a great nation, and bless those who bless him and curse those who curse him (Gen. 12:1-3). Down through history, Israel as a people has been surrounded by fierce enemies whose aim was to wipe them off the face of the earth (Ps. 129:1-2).

The Holocaust under Hitler and the present Islamic terrorism both stem from intense hatred of the Jews. Millions of Muslims hate the United States and cheered when al-Qaeda hit our nation because the U.S. is friendly towards Israel. The entire Arab world is united in its desire to see the Jews expelled from the Promised Land and even eradicated as a people. Although they have not turned back to God, the Jews still exist and are in the Promised Land as a testimony to the truth of God and His promises! Scripture predicts a glorious future for the Jews (Rom. 11:25-27).

When you come to a text such as ours today, commentators tend to go in one of two directions. Either they spiritualize the promises to Israel here by applying them exclusively to the church; or, they apply them exclusively to Israel without mentioning any application to the church. I was pleased to find that Charles Spurgeon (“The Man with the Measuring Line,” sermon # 604, Ages Software) first acknowledges its application to the future of Israel before applying it to the church. I believe that these promises will yet be fulfilled for Israel as God’s chosen people. Verses 11 & 12 will be fulfilled literally when Jesus Christ returns to reign on David’s throne in Jerusalem.

At the same time, if we only applied it to Israel and not to God’s church today, we would miss some great promises that God gives to encourage us as His people. Please keep both of these applications in mind as we examine the second and third night visions to Zechariah. Together, they show that…

God will defend and bless His chosen people in His time.

The second vision (1:18-21) amplifies 1:15, where God expresses His anger toward the nations that had gone too far in punishing Israel for her sins. The third vision (2:1-13) amplifies 1:16-17, where God reassures His people of His compassion and future blessing for them, especially in sending them His Messiah.

Both visions assume God’s absolute sovereignty and right to cast off certain nations in order to establish His chosen people according to His purpose. If God were dependent on human will to accomplish His will, He could not assert what He is going to do in the terms that He uses here. He is very definite in His plans to defend and bless His people for His own glory.

But at the same time, these visions exhort God’s people to obedience as their responsibility. God does not accomplish His sovereign plan apart from the willing obedience of His people, but rather, through it. The Bible always affirms both God’s absolute sovereignty and human responsibility. So must we!

1. God defends His chosen people in His time by punishing the wicked who oppress them (1:18-21).

In this second vision, Zechariah sees four horns. The type of animal is not specified; it could have been a wild ox, a bull, a ram, a goat, or some combination of these. But it doesn’t matter, because the focus is on the horn, not on the animal. In biblical imagery, the horn symbolizes strength and power, especially of nations or of Gentile kings (Ps. 75:10; Jer. 48:15; Dan. 7:24; 8:3ff.). Zechariah asks the angel what these horns are and the angel answers, “These are the horns that have scattered Judah, Israel and Jerusalem.”

Commentators differ on the identification of these four horns. Some say that the number four represents the four compass points, thus indicating that Israel is surrounded by hostile enemies, without any specific enemies in view. Others say that the four horns are either Assyria, Egypt, Babylon, and Medo-Persia (past and current oppressors of Israel) or Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome (Daniel 2, 7, in which case the last two powers were still future in Zechariah’s day). These last four are the four major powers that dominate the Jews during the times of the Gentiles.

Then the Lord shows Zechariah four craftsmen. The prophet asks, “What are these coming to do?” The Lord tells him that these four craftsmen have come to terrify and throw down the four horns that have scattered Judah.

What can we learn from this vision? First, we learn that God’s people should expect severe hardships and opposition simply because they are His people in this evil world. Whether it is the nation Israel or the church, the Bible is clear that God’s enemy will stir up opposition right up to the final victory of Christ. The Christian life is pictured as warfare, and as we know from the current war in Iraq, warfare is not a Sunday School picnic! We are commanded to put on the full armor of God so that we may be able to stand firm in the evil day (Eph. 6:10-20). Not only do we have to be ready to fight the enemy without, but also we must be ready to fight against the enemy within, “the fleshly lusts, which wage war against the soul” (1 Pet. 2:11).

Warfare requires a certain mindset. You don’t go into battle with a casual manner, thinking about other things. You gear up your mind for action (1 Pet. 1:13) and stay vigilant and focused so that you don’t get ambushed. Far too many Christians wander into the world as if they’re going to a Sunday School picnic rather than as if they are going into mortal combat. When trials or opposition hit, they are caught off guard and don’t handle it well. Expect enemy opposition if you are a part of God’s people!

Second, know that God will be the strong defender of His people and that He will punish the wicked in His time. For each horn, God raised up a craftsman to throw it down. In some cases, His people suffered for years before He brought the deliverer. It wasn’t always on their desired timetable! But the point is, He will defend His chosen people and punish the wicked in His time! While many of God’s faithful saints have died martyrs’ deaths, the cause of Jesus Christ will prevail. There is no doubt as to the final outcome. Therefore, we should commit ourselves to it fully.

But perhaps you still wonder, “Why does God permit this kind of strong opposition against His people?” There can be multiple reasons. One reason (this was true of Israel in Zechariah’s time) is, God uses opposition to chasten His people for their worldliness and unfaithfulness. The Babylonian captivity was directly linked to Israel’s many years of disobedience to God.

Another reason God allows opposition is to teach us that we cannot prevail in our own strength, so that we are forced to rely on God alone. We all are prone not to trust God fully until we are forced to do so. Powerful opposition drives us to the Lord for protection and defense. Coupled with this, God permits opposition to develop godly character qualities in His people. As the hymn, “How Firm a Foundation,” puts it, “The flames shall not hurt thee, I only design, thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.” So whatever the form of the opposition, remember that it will not ultimately prevail. God will judge all who oppose His people, and He will deliver and vindicate His people. But He does it in His time, not in our time!

2. God will bless His chosen people in His time as their defender and benefactor by sending His Messiah (2:1-13).

The vision is presented in 2:1-5 and applied in 2:6-13.

A. The vision presented (2:1-5).

In his third vision, Zechariah sees a man with a measuring line who is going out to measure Jerusalem. Many commentators think that this man is the angel of the Lord, but others view him as a man who is mistaken in his attempt to measure the city, in light of 2:4. Since the text does not identify him, we cannot be dogmatic. Another angel meets Zechariah’s interpreting angel and tells him to run and say to the young man (some understand this to be the man with the measuring line, but more likely, it is Zechariah), “Jerusalem will be inhabited without walls because of the multitude of men and cattle within it.”

Then a word from the Lord assures His people, “For I will be a wall of fire around her, and I will be the glory in her midst.” The wall of fire recalls the pillar of fire that God used to illumine and protect Israel from her enemies in the wilderness (Exod. 14:19-24). Also, shepherds would sometimes build a fire around their flock to protect them from wolves at night. The picture is that God will surround and defend His people from their enemies.

God also promises to be the glory in the midst of His people. The Shekinah glory had departed from the temple because of the people’s sin (Ezek. 10:18; 11:22, 23), but now it would return through the presence of the Lord Himself. This is a reference to the second coming of Christ and the New Jerusalem, which will have “no need of the sun or moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God has illumined it, and its lamp is the Lamb” (Rev. 21:23).

But even though its ultimate fulfillment awaits the future, there is certainly an application for the church today. While elders are exhorted to guard the flock from predators (Acts 20:28-31), and we should do all that we can to obey that charge, the Lord Himself must be the defender of His church or it would have failed centuries ago! Concerning His glory in our midst, we will never experience now anything close to the glory of God’s presence that we will know when Jesus returns. But even so, we still should strive so to exalt Jesus Christ in His church that those who come among us will declare that God is certainly in our midst (1 Cor. 14:25).

Both promises are related to our obedience. If we want God to be a wall of fire around us and to be the glory in our midst, we must walk in holiness before Him each day, allowing His purifying fire to cleanse our hearts of all sin. We must be captivated with the beauty of His glory as we grow to know Him more and more.

B. The vision applied (2:6-13).

The vision is applied with three commands. The first (2:6-9), “Flee,” is given to the exiles who are still living in Babylon. The second (2:10-12), “Sing for joy,” is directed to the “daughter of Zion,” which refers to believing Jews who are looking for Messiah. The third (2:13), “Be silent before the Lord” is directed to all people (“flesh”) of the earth.

(1) Flee Babylon (2:6-9)!

Babylon was to the east of Jerusalem, but it is called the land of the north because the invaders followed the Euphrates River to the north and then swooped down on Jerusalem from that direction. God repeats the command twice to His people to emphasize the importance of it: Flee Babylon! Escape while you can!

This command took faith to obey. Babylon (or the Medo-Persian empire, which had conquered Babylon) was then prospering. It was the hub of the civilized world. Jobs, culture, comfort—Babylon had it all! But Jerusalem was a heap of rubble. There were no walls of defense. Hostile neighbors threatened every attempt to rebuild it. Yet God says to His people, “I’m going to bless Jerusalem and judge Babylon. So flee Babylon while you can!”

Then we come to verse 8, which one commentator (Joyce Baldwin, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries [IVP], p.109) calls “one of the most difficult verses in the book.” There are two interpretive problems: What does “after glory” mean? And, who is the “me” who is sent? Without going into all of the possibilities, I think that the “me” refers to Messiah, who is one in essence with the Lord of hosts, and yet distinguished as to person. Thus the Father sends the Son to restrain the nations that plunder His people (this is Calvin’s view, among others). The phrase “after glory” “describes the ministry of Messiah in which He vindicates and demonstrates the glory of God, particularly as He will punish Israel’s enemies and deliver and establish His own people in kingdom blessing” (Merrill Unger, Zechariah: Prophet of Messiah’s Glory [Zondervan], p. 49, italics his). Thus the first part of verse 8 explains why God’s people should flee Babylon: Because God will send His Messiah to vindicate His glory by conquering the worldly nations that have oppressed His people.

Then the Lord adds the reason why Messiah will do this: “For he who touches you, touches the apple of His eye.” This shows how much God loves and cares for His people! “The apple of His eye” refers to the pupil, which is probably the most sensitive part of your body. You guard your eye more than anything, because it is so important and so vulnerable. God says that His people are like that to Him. As John Calvin puts it, “the love of God towards the faithful is so tender that when they are hurt he burns with so much displeasure, as though one attempted to pierce his eyes” (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], on Zechariah, p. 71). Thus God’s love for His people is given as a strong motivation to flee Babylon.

The command to flee Babylon is of more than academic value to us. In the Scriptures, Babylon represents the world system as opposed to God. Even as God’s people, it’s easy to dwell there. It has many enticements: money, pleasure, status, the good life—and you can experience it all right now! The church, world missions, the kingdom of God—that’s all nice, but not nearly as enticing as what the world dangles in front of us. But the Bible clearly warns us, “Do not love the world, nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15). It’s a matter of God’s love! You will either love this evil world and all that it offers, or you will renounce the world because by faith in Christ, you are now the apple of God’s eye.

It takes faith to obey God on this matter. Right now, the world looks mighty appealing. The church looks pretty drab in comparison. But in the final chapters of Revelation, God reveals the outcome of Babylon compared to that of the church. Babylon and all her wealth are destroyed in one hour. The church rejoices over Babylon’s destruction and enjoys the marriage supper of the Lamb (see Revelation 18 & 19).

May I ask: Are you dwelling in Babylon or Jerusalem right now? Are you living for this world and what it offers, or are you seeking first God’s kingdom and righteousness? Are you storing up treasures on earth, or are you committed to building God’s temple in the Spirit? A sure-fire way to answer those questions is to examine where you spend your time and money. If you are committed to building God’s temple, you will spend significant amounts of time and money to further God’s work both here and around the world. To repeat the Lord’s appeal, “Escape, you who are living with the daughter of Babylon” (2:7).

(2) Sing for joy (2:10-12)!

The flow of thought here is repeated in Revelation 18:20, where after God’s judgment falls on Babylon, the saints are commanded to rejoice. In Zechariah, the focus of their joy is the coming of Messiah and the salvation of the nations, when God will possess Judah as His portion in the holy land (the only reference to “the holy land” in the Bible). In Zechariah 9:9, God’s people are told to rejoice over Messiah’s coming, but the reference is to His first coming, when He will be “humble and mounted on a donkey.” But here the focus is on Messiah’s second coming, when He will dwell literally in the midst of His people and the nations will find salvation in Him.

While there is no good reason to deny the literal future fulfillment of this promise in Christ’s millennial kingdom, we also should apply it to the church today. God’s purpose is to be glorified among the nations. He has called us to find our joy in Him and then to take that joy to the ends of the earth. We have His promise that His kingdom will prevail, in spite of the difficulties and setbacks that we may encounter as we seek to proclaim Christ to the nations. So heed the command to sing for joy and be glad over the promise of His coming. But don’t keep that joy to yourself. Take it to the nations through your prayers, your giving, and (in some cases) your going with the good news of Christ the Savior who has come and is coming again.

(3) Be silent before the Lord (2:13)!

The command to flee Babylon is given to God’s people dwelling in the world. The command to sing for joy is given to those who are daughters of Zion, who eagerly await the Lord’s coming to dwell among them. The command to be silent before the Lord is given to all flesh. It is saying, “In light of everything that has been said to this point, in light of the certainty of God’s future judgment of the nations and the establishing of Messiah’s kingdom, hush up, people! Be in awe, because God is aroused and about to act!”

The picture is that of a sleeping giant who is now aroused and ready to take care of his enemies. But it is only an apparent image, because “He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep” (Ps. 121:4). Even though God’s judgment is delayed and it seems to us as if He is sleeping, the day is certainly coming when He will be aroused to judge all flesh. Verse 13 is similar to Psalm 2:12, “Do homage to the Son, that He not become angry, and you perish in the way, for His wrath may soon be kindled. How blessed are all who take refuge in Him!” So it is a command to believers not to despair at God’s seeming delay of judgment and a command to unbelievers to make haste to submit to God before it is too late.

Conclusion

How you apply this message personally depends on where you are at. If you profess to know God, but are living with the daughter of Babylon, God’s word to you is, “Get out of there quickly!” “If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15)!

If you are dwelling in Jerusalem, but discouraged over the trials you are experiencing, God’s word to you is, “Sing for joy and be glad, for behold, I am coming and I will dwell in your midst” (Zech. 2:10). Rest in the promise that you are the apple of His eye and that He will judge those who harm you.

If you are not one of God’s people, His word to you is, “Submit your life to Jesus Christ now, before He comes in judgment and it is too late!” No matter how great your sins, He invites you to trust in Christ as your sin-bearer, to join yourself to the Lord and become one of His people.

Discussion Questions

  1. Why does God delay His judgment of the wicked so long? (See 2 Pet. 3:9 for starters.)
  2. What is “worldliness”? How can we evaluate ourselves on this and extricate ourselves from it?
  3. How does God’s guarding His people fit in with all of the persecution down through history?
  4. Trials don’t feel like God’s blessing! How do we know whether He is blessing us if not by the absence of trials?

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

Related Topics: Character of God, Christology, Prophecy/Revelation, Suffering, Trials, Persecution