Four Chariots

Series: Zechariah Part 1: The Coming Kingdom

Sermon by David Strain on Apr 13, 2014

Zechariah 6:1-8

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Take your Bibles, please, and turn with me in them to the Old Testament Scriptures and to the prophecy of Zechariah chapter 6.  Zechariah chapter 6 on page 795 in the church Bibles.  Before we read God’s Word let’s turn to Him in prayer.  Let us pray together.

Lord Jesus, there is no one else to whom we may turn.  You have the words of eternal life.  As the Scriptures are spread before us, would You send the Holy Spirit to us that we might hear in them Your voice and believe in the Gospel, might receive Your grace and live for Your glory.  In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.

Zechariah chapter 6, reading from verse 1:

“Again I lifted my eyes and saw, and behold, four chariots came out from between two mountains.  And the mountains were mountains of bronze.  The first chariot had red horses, the second black horses, the third white horses, and the fourth chariot dappled horses - all of them strong.  Then I answered and said to the angel who talked with me, ‘What are these, my lord?’  And the angel answered and said to me, ‘These are going out to the four winds of heaven, after presenting themselves before the Lord of all the earth.  The chariot with the black horses goes toward the north country, the white ones go after them, and the dappled ones go toward the south country.’  When the strong horses came out, they were impatient to go and patrol the earth.  And he said, ‘Go, patrol the earth.’  So they patrolled the earth.  Then he cried to me, ‘Behold, those who go toward the north country have set my Spirit at rest in the north country.’”

Amen, and we praise God that He has spoken to us in His own holy and inerrant Word.  May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.

Sustaining Faith amidst Constant, Unremitting Hardship

 

As we turn tonight to the last of the eight night visions that are given to the prophet Zechariah that comprised the first major section of his book, I want to remind you of the circumstances facing God’s people in the city of Jerusalem as it then was.  Picture the scene with me.  You’ve come back from exile in Babylon to a ruined city.  Resources are scare; you are tired and hungry.  There’s barely enough food to go around.  You’ve worked all winter to rebuild your own home amidst the rubble and now every muscle in your body aches.  When you go to bed at night you sleep the sleep of someone utterly spent.  When you wake up you already wake up weary.  Every time you leave the city to trade or do business you risk life and limb from the hostile settlers who’ve been evicted from their own lands and transplanted by the Babylonian overlords.  Then to your country, as part of Babylon’s strategy for controlling their empire, they are displaced persons.  And now that you’ve come back to the land they feel threatened by you and so they’re hostile.  You face opposition every time you go out and every time you come home you come back to the grim realities of thankless toil and relentless labor as you spend the bulk of every day clearing the wreckage and piling rocks and building walls.  At the center of the city atop the temple mount in a profound symbol of your loss and dereliction, all there is, is a gaping hole.  The one piece of real estate, the one building in the universe where Almighty God made His glory dwell when He met with His people in grace, that building is gone.  There’s a foundation slab, there’s an altar, and that is it.  A more dramatic emblem of the destitution of the people of God can hardly be imagined.  The great monument to Israel’s identity as the people of God has been wiped off the face of the earth.  You’ve come back from exile but to what?  Political and military insecurity, economic austerity, and brutal relentless manual labor.  How easy it must have been to lose hope.

The final vision of Zechariah’s eight night visions is designed, therefore, to generate hope when circumstances contradict it.  It’s designed to fuel faith when what you see threatens to shatter it.  It aims at begetting and sustaining believing obedience when everything in you and around you shrieks in your ear that you should give up and walk away.  We will all face crises and God’s Word has resources to help us in our crises when they come, to be sure, but that is not what this is.  This isn’t an acute and sudden trial.  This is a long, slow, chronic pain in the life of God’s people.  This isn’t about clinging to hope amidst crisis; this is about fighting for hope over the long years of life when there are no real grounds in your circumstances for having any hope at all.  How will God’s people rebuild?  How will they press on through the pain of protesting muscles and blisters and weariness and see the temple at last restored.  How will they fight off the paralysis of fear when enemies begin to taunt them and mock them and conspire against them?  How will they persevere on the path of obedience when that path does not take them through green pastures and quiet waters?  It takes them through a barren desert where there is no water.  It takes them up Mount Everest and it is a long, hard, and steep climb.  What resources are there for you when circumstances seem to hinder rather than help?  What will generate and sustain faith, tenaciously clinging to Christ, amidst constant, unremitting hardship?

The answer of Zechariah 6:1-8 may surprise you.  The answer of Zechariah 6:1-8 is the doctrine of God.  God will sustain you.  Knowing Him, who He is, what He is like is Zechariah’s answer to the crushing burdens of the people of God.  Nothing but God, in all the fullness of the Biblical presentation of His character and nature, nothing but God will help you persevere.  I want you to notice three things in particular for our preservation and perseverance about God here.  First in verses 1 to 5 we are taught about the rule of God.  The rule of God.  Then in 5 to 8 the reliability of God.  And finally in verse 8, the rest of God.  The rule, reliability, and rest of God.

I. The Rule of God

Think with me first of all about the rule of God in verses 1 to 5.  The prophet sees a vision of four chariots drawn by teams of various colored horses coming out from between two mountains.  And they are sent all over the world in every direction, verse 5, “by the Lord of all the earth.” The chariot, of course, was the most versatile and deadly weapon in the arsenal of the armies of the Ancient Near East, the enemies of God’s people.  There is, if you like, the Biblical equivalent of an F-15 fighter jet, agile and deadly and devastating in its effects.  It had been used with a terrible effect by the conquering Babylonians hoards.  And so Zechariah’s vision begins straight out of the starting blocks with unavoidable military overtones, only this time it’s not the Babylonians or the enemies of the people of God; it is the sovereign Lord of all the earth Himself who deploys the angelic troops of heaven in the prosecution of His purposes for His glory and our good in the world. 

God’s Presence and Strength in the Temple

But Zechariah links these hints of military conquest to another theme.  Remember that the central problem that Zechariah is writing to address is the need for God’s people to press on in the great work of finishing the rebuilding of the temple.  And that fact helps us understand the significance of these two bronze mountains between which the angelic chariots proceed.  According to 1 Kings chapter 7 and verse 13 and following the original temple built by Solomon had two massive bronze pillars prominently displayed on either side of the main entrance.  The name of the first pillar was Jakin, which means “He establishes” and the name of the other was Boaz, meaning “in Him there is strength.”  So if you were going up to worship in the temple in those days you would have had to pass between these two colossal bronze pillars and it would have been impossible for you to miss their message.  It is the Lord alone who establishes His people, Jachin, and the Lord is the source and fountainhead of His people’s strength, Boaz.  That was their message.    But those two pillars and the temple to which they were the gateway, as Zechariah is writing, they were now long gone.  The message of Solomon’s pillars has been silenced.  The people have been defeated.  They’ve been robbed of strength.  And they were living now almost as a pathetic parody of their former selves. 

God’s Presence and Strength Cosmically Amplified

But put these two aspects of the vision together - the military imagery and the illusions to the temple.  Can you see the prophet’s message for the people of God?  The Lord is saying to them, “The earthly temple with its pillars of bronze may be gone, but let Me draw aside the veil for you for a moment and show you the sanctuary of heaven where My throne is established.  Here are the gates of My sanctuary in glory, immense and immovable, in which Jachin and Boaz were the dimmest echoes.” And suddenly now towering over Zechariah are mountains of bronze, not pillars, mountains - vast and unassailable, their peaks lost from his view, demonstrating, visually, graphically, the very truth that Solomon’s bronze pillars could only proclaim.  Whatever the appearance, whatever the present contra indications, though Jerusalem should lie in utter ruins and the enemies of God’s people surround you on every side, Zechariah, understand, the Lord does indeed establish His people.  He remains their strength.  Nothing can ever shake that fact.  Nothing can ever shake that fact. And to prove it He deploys the chariots of heaven’s armies, coming out from His presence to do all His holy will in the world. 

“He that is in you is greater than he who is in the world” 

It’s Zechariah’s equivalent of 2 Kings 6:11-23.  You remember the story of Elisha when the king of Syria came to seize him and surrounded Elisha with his armies and his chariots and Elisha’s servant went out and saw the enemy hosts and is overcome with fear and reports it to Elisha who simply says to him, “Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.”  And then Elisha prays for his servant and his servant’s eyes are opened and he looks and sees the armies of the heavenly host in chariots blazing with fire, vastly outnumbering the enemies of God’s people.  The message of Zechariah’s vision really here is the same, isn’t it?  Take a look around you.  Look at the rubble and the ruin of your city.  Look at the long, hard road still ahead of you.  Look at your puny inadequate resources.  Look at the enemies on every side.  Take a good, hard look at your circumstances and then hear the Word of the Lord. “Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are greater than those who are with them.”  Or as the apostle John paraphrases that same sentiment, “He that is in you is greater than he who is in the world.”  The Lord reigns, is the point.  History belongs to Him.  The nations belong to Him and even your trials are His servants deployed, albeit in sorrow often enough in our lives, but deployed to accomplish His gracious design for your ultimate good and His ultimate glory.  Perhaps we need to pray that God would open our eyes as He did the servant of the prophet, Elisha and did the eyes of Zechariah at the beginning of this vision to see the truth behind the circumstances of our lives, to see the chariots of the Lord deployed in the defense and governance of all His creatures and all their actions and remember that those who are with us are more than those who are with them.  That He who is in us is greater than he who is in the world.  We have more resources than you can see if you have Jesus Christ.  The rule of God.

II. The Reliability of God

Then secondly think here about what we learn here about the reliability of God.  The rule of God; the reliability of God.  Look again at verses 5 to 8.  The angelic chariots and horses are sent out, in our translations it says, “to the four winds of heaven,” now.  According to that reading of the text, the interpreting angel who is assisting Zechariah in understanding what is going on, explains that the four chariots are each being sent in a different direction all across the globe to all four points of the compass to the four winds of heaven, emphasizing again the universal purview of the lordship of our God.  He reigns over all the earth. And that may well be the correct translation. 

Amending the Text?

However, in the next verse, verse 6, we immediately run into some difficulties.  Understanding verse 5 to refer to the four points of the compass has led some scholars to go so far as to amend the Hebrew text of verse 6 in order to make it fit their interpretation of verse 5.  So for example, if you are using the New International Version you will notice that verse 6 reads, “The one with the black horses is going toward the north country, the one with the white horses toward the west, and the one with the dappled horses toward the south.”  So you see, the translators have amended the Hebrew text very slightly but just enough to change the meaning in such a way that it suggests again the four directions of the compass.  The fatal flaw in that approach is that the red horses aren’t mentioned as going east as you would expect if all four points on the compass are what are in view.  The black go north, the white head west according to this reading, the dappled head south and the red should move to the east - right?  But the red horses aren’t mentioned at all.  Some people notice the unusual beginning in Hebrew of verse 6 and suggest that the reference to the red horses somehow has gotten lost in the process of translating the text.  And that is, of course, absolute and sheer speculation.  It’s an argument from silence groping for an explanation for details in the text that will make it fit within the parameters of our own logic. 

Look at the English Standard Version, the version in our pews.  It does translate the Hebrew text without emendation and it translates it like this.  “The chariot with the black horses goes toward the north country, the white ones go after them, and the dappled ones go toward the south country.”  The chariots are not sent in four different directions; they are deployed where they are needed.  The point isn’t that God sends them equally to each point of the compass, to each corner of the globe; the point rather is that He deploys them where in His wisdom He knows they need to be deployed and that means the explanatory words of verse 5 are probably better translated not, “these are going out to the four winds of heaven,” but more simply, “these that are going out are the four spirits of heaven,” that is to say that they are the four angelic forces commissioned to prosecute the Lord’s sovereign will.

Unchangeable Reliability

Now I know I risk losing you in all of that, so dial back in, tune back in - why the lesson in textual criticism?  Because I really wanted you to see the irony of it all.  In a passage intended to teach us the utter dependability of divine sovereignty, the solid unshakeable resting place for the hopes and security of His people, in a passage seeking to drive home the reliability of God, can you see how stunningly ironic it is that anyone would amend the text of His Word to make it say what they think it should say rather than bowing before what it does say?  Zechariah 6 wants to teach us to trust God’s Word as unassailably reliable, to rest on His immutable promises, because the one who speaks here is unrelentingly faithful.  That is actually what this passage is inspired to teach us.  Instead with, unwitting perhaps but real irony, we change the text to fit the dictates of our best guesses and isn’t that really what we are so often tempted to do ourselves in life when we’re faced with the challenges of our own daily struggles and the perplexities of tomorrow and the day after and the day after that - not to take God’s Word at face value?  Not to trust the text but to argue with God?  I think Zechariah 6 reminds us that actually if we just submit to the text instead of arguing with the words we would find that far from endangering our own security the promises of God open to us the only path to lasting hope, the only path.  Whatever the insinuations to the contrary that the serpent may be whispering in your ear when difficult days come along, God really did say.  The serpent is whispering, “Did God really say?” isn’t he?  You can’t trust him.  “Don’t take His Word at face value.  It’s not really reliable.”  But you can trust His Word.  His promise are true and it is unchangeably reliable.

III. The Rest of God

So we’re reminded here about God’s rule and God’s reliability and finally notice God’s rest.  The four groups of colored horses.  I wonder if they ring a bell for you.  If you’ve been here at the beginning of our studies in the very first night vision you’ll remember that Zechariah saw a vision of different colored troops of horses.  Back in chapter 1 verses 7 through 17 he saw a similar vision.  In that instance the horses he saw were sent on a reconnaissance mission into the world, patrolling the earth, reporting the condition of the world back to the Lord.  The report comes in, verse 11, “the world remains at rest.”  It is the rest of the nations and it is met, verse 15 of chapter 1, with the exceeding anger of the Lord.  The quiet rest of the nations was a self-assured, self-reliant rest, an arrogant, overconfident resting in their own sufficiency and security.  But these are the nations that oppose the rule and the worship and the people of God and their rest was a great provocation to the Lord and so He promised in this opening vision His judgment upon them in due course.  That was Zechariah’s first vision.

And so now here in the final vision of the eight he sees once again four troops of colored horses, only now their mission is not reconnaissance; now it is action. These are chariots. These are weapons of war.  God is enforcing His justice and defending His people.  Two troops, black and white, are sent to the north, the direction from which the Assyrians and then the Babylonians descended upon God’s people.  Another troop is sent to the south.  The dappled horses toward Egypt - another ancient enemy of God’s people.  Here is the Lord, whose word, remember, is utterly reliable, keeping His promises made in the first vision here in the last vision.  He is following through, defending the returned exiles, and executing justice upon their oppressors so that now instead of it being the nations who are at rest, the false rest of imagined security and pride, now verse 8 it is God Himself, His own Spirit, who is at rest.  Justice is done.  His people protected.  His promises kept.  His Spirit at rest. 

And isn’t that in the end the greatest foundation for our own hope amidst seemingly impossible trials?  The serene rest of God who is unperturbed by them all, who works out His purposes in our trials and by our trials and upon our trials, who remains unsurprised in perfect rest at very new turn of His providence.  “Don’t be scared returned exiles, don’t give up dwellers in broken-down Jerusalem, don’t concede defeat you who face the scorn of the world.  The Spirit of God is at rest. His rule is effortless and unperturbed by the worst hostility of the nations.  ‘Before Him those nations are like a drop in the bucket,’” Isaiah 40 and verse 15.  “The one who sits in heaven laughs.  He holds them in derision.  He has set His king, His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, on Zion His own holy hill,” Psalm 2 verses 4 to 6, “and He will reign forever.”  That is the message of the book of Revelation, isn’t it?  Revelation builds largely on the material of these opening visions of the book of Zechariah.  And so in Revelation chapter 6, seven seals are opened, each of them describing a different facet of the judgment of God on a rebel world, each of them in terms of the coming of one of four different colored horses - white and red and black and a pale horse. 

The All-Powerful Defense of King Jesus

And when you get to Revelation 19:11, the rider on the white horse is identified in such language that should make the struggling, suffering people of God’s hearts sing and leap for joy amidst all our trials. Revelation 19:11, “Then I saw heaven opened and behold, a white horse.  The one sitting on it is called faithful and true and in righteousness he judges and makes war.  His eyes are like a flame of fire and on his head are many diadems and he has a name written that no one knows but himself.  He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood and the name by which he is called is ‘the Word of God’ and the armies of heaven arrayed in fine linen white and pure are following him on white horses.  From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations and he will rule them with a rod of iron.  He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty.  On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written:  King of Kings and Lord of Lords.” 

What Zechariah saw as a message of comfort and encouragement for his own suffering people amidst the rubble of Jerusalem becomes in the full unfolding of Biblical revelation a message of comfort for the whole people of God in every age.  Jesus Christ Himself rides forth to defend His people.  Jesus Christ Himself subdues the nations by the word of His mouth.  He is King of Kings and Lord of Lords.  And that is the great secret that changes everything for you if you are a Christian.  How do you keep going when people hate you?  You remember who sits on the white horse and rides forth to conquer.  How do you keep going tomorrow when you don’t know if you have strength enough for today?  You remember your Jesus is King and He has triumphed.  How do you fight on with your contest with sin and not sign a truce on any front?  You remember that whatever the spiritual forces that face you may be, the Lord’s Spirit is at rest.  They don’t faze Him even if they faze you.  He will defend you.  He will defend you and He will protect you and He will keep you by the power of God for salvation ready to be revealed at the last time.  He knows what you need and He knows that we need to remind ourselves that He reigns, that Jesus Christ is Lord.

An Evangelistic Call

And let me speak to you tonight if you are not a Christian.  I do want you to understand what this means for you.  If you will not have Jesus to save you and rescue you, you will have Him to judge you and condemn you.  He will fight against you with the word of His mouth and He will conquer you.  Oh that His victory might be the happy victory of grace in your heart here rather than the terrible victory of His wrath hereafter.  Kiss the Son lest He be angry and you perish in the way, for His wrath is quickly kindled.  Blessed are all who take refuge in Him.  Take refuge in Him.  Take refuge in Him.  The rule of God - the anchor and solid rock of our confidence.  The reliability of God - His Word and His promises are immovably true and sure.  And the rest of God - our hearts might be thrown into turmoil at life’s hard providences but our God remains at utter serene and omnipotent rest because His Son, our Jesus has conquered and He reigns over all things and governs sovereignty and graciously for the good of His people. 

May the Lord bless to us the ministry of His Word.  Let us pray together.

O our Father, we thank You for Jesus who sits on Your throne.  Help us to rest in His sovereignty amidst all our circumstances.  And we pray tonight for any here who are not believers in Jesus.  Please will You bring them to Him.  Please will You bring them to Him.  Save them.  Grant that His victory in their hearts might be present here - the happy victory of grace.  Spare them and deliver them from the terrible victory of eternal wrath that faces them apart from Jesus.  So hear us as we cry to You in Jesus’ name, amen.

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