Have you ever hurt someone so badly that you wondered if the relationship would survive? Have you ever wondered: will I get a second chance?
What about with God? Have you ever wondered how many second chances does God give us, before He gets fed up and won't have anything more to do with us? Have you ever been afraid that He's given up on you because of the way you have treated him?
Over these summer weeks we are working our way through the first part of the book of Zechariah and our passage today answers those questions. It's a wonderful message of grace and comfort.
However, as this is a book many of us will be unfamiliar with, let me begin with an introductory word on how it is organised. The book is named after its author. Zechariah was a prophet, which means he told people what God was saying about what was happening at that time and about the future.
A helpful way to consider the structure of Zechariah is to notice the dates he gives in the book. See below an outline of the book. He includes dates three times in the book.
On each date Zechariah received messages from God to pass on to his people. The first message from God was given on the 8th month, in the 2nd year of Darius. Darius was a Persian King who came to power in 522BC, so his second year would have been 520BC. The Persian New Year begins around 21 March in our calendar, so the 8th month would be around November or December.
We looked at this first message last week, and if you were not here can I encourage you to look up David Holloway's sermon on the church website? For those of you who were not here, verse 4 of chapter 1 is a good summary of God's message to them: 'return from your evil ways and from your evil deeds'. God says to them: ‘Come back to me and obey me! Then I will come back to you. And I will be your God and I will help you.’ The message both introduces and summarises the message of the whole book.
The second message from God was given 3 months later. On what must have been an eventful night, Zechariah received a vision from God. That vision had 8 parts and the rest of this sermon series will cover most of this section.
Each part is complete in itself. However, it is helpful to notice that the parts of the vision have a pattern – I’ve laid them out in the outline to help you see that. The first and eighth part have a lot of similar themes, as do the second and seventh and so on. This symmetric pattern is fairly common in the Old Testament and draws your attention to the middle of the vision. The main reason it's worth noticing this, is because it will help us to understand the meaning of the whole vision.
The third section is dated almost 2 years later. This last section of Zechariah is highly symbolic. It is heavily quoted in the gospel accounts of the crucifixion and themes from this section also reappear in the book of Revelation. Here God tells us, through Zechariah, that his future plans for his people are glorious. Those plans include the coming of God's Kingly messiah (who will be rejected but will ultimately rule over all). They contain promises that his scattered people will be gathered together again and that they will be judgement for their enemies. Our eyes are drawn to a glorious future day which is certain to come when the "Lord will be king over all the earth" (Zec 14:9).
So much for the structure of the book. We’ll begin at chapter 1 and verse 7:
"On the twenty-fourth day of the eleventh month, which is the month of Shebat, in the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, son of Iddo, saying, (1.7)
In order to understand the message Zechariah received from God we need to know what was going on in the lives of the people to whom these words were originally spoken. This is a timeline showing the key events we need to know about.
The black box in the middle shows when Zechariah received this message from God - you'll remember that was around 520BC, two years into Darius's reign.
On the left hand side I have listed the Persian Kings and the years of their reign.
Haggai is another prophet who was speaking at exactly the same time as Zechariah, and so he appears in the black box too.
The key issues of that time related to the traumatic events 67 years earlier in 587 (right at the top of the timeline). For years before that date the Israelites had been warned by God through prophets like Jeremiah that if they continued to disobey Him they would be punished, but they did not listen. In 587, Jerusalem and the temple were totally destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar, the King of Babylon and the people of Judah were captured and taken into exile. You can read about this in 2 Kings 25:1-21 & 2 Chronicles 36:15-21. We’ll take a look at the reading from 2 Chronicles 36:15:
“The LORD, the God of their fathers, sent persistently to them by his messengers, because he had compassion on his people and on his dwelling place. But they kept mocking the messengers of God, despising his words and scoffing at his prophets, until the wrath of the LORD rose against his people, until there was no remedy.
Therefore he brought up against them the king of the Chaldeans [another name for the King of Babylon], who killed their young men with the sword in the house of their sanctuary and had no compassion on young man or virgin, old man or aged. He gave them all into his hand. And all the vessels of the house of God, great and small, and the treasures of the house of the LORD, and the treasures of the king and of his princes, all these he brought to Babylon. And they burned the house of God [notice this phrase] and broke down the wall of Jerusalem and burned all its palaces with fire and destroyed all its precious vessels. He took into exile in Babylon those who had escaped from the sword, and they became servants to him and to his sons until the establishment of the kingdom of Persia… (2 Chron. 36.15-20)
It's hard for us to imagine how devastating this was! They lost all they had and maybe most devastating of all was the burning down and the destruction of the temple. The temple was a symbol of God’s presence with them and its destruction was a symbol of what had happened in their relationship with God. Maybe a little like deliberately destroying a wedding ring with all the messages that gives out about your relationship with the one who gave you the ring.
With the destruction of the temple, it appeared that God had abandoned his people - that this was the end of everything. The big question for God's people was - is there any hope for the future? Will this exile ever come to an end? Will the temple ever be rebuilt? Will our relationship with God ever be the same again?
49 years later, in 538, Cyrus the King of Persia conquered Babylon. Cyrus's decree not only allows the exiles to return to Jerusalem but also offers to pay for the rebuilding of the temple out of government funds. Let’s read on in 2 Chr 36.22:
Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and also put it in writing: “Thus says Cyrus king of Persia, ‘The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem [notice the reference to the temple again], which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may the Lord his God be with him. Let him go up.’” (2 Chron. 26.22-23)
“Go up” is exactly what 50,000 exiles did, led by Zerubbabel (the governor) and Joshua (the high priest). Those two leaders feature highly in Zechariah, so keep an eye out for them. They rebuild the altar and laid the foundations of the second replacement temple but then they are forced to stop building, and become discouraged. For 18 years, they build private homes and work their farms but the temple and Jerusalem remain in ruins. And it is into that context that Zechariah speaks into and - together with Haggai - he urges the people to rebuild the temple.
The book of Ezra records the history of this period (called the Restoration) and it’s well worth sitting down and going through the references I’ve given you in the timeline when you get home. That will help you too see how poor and feeble those who had returned from Babylonian exile felt and how they desperately struggled to establish themselves in a ruined city under a foreign power.
Ezra also goes on to tell us what happens after the time of Zechariah and Haggai. Zerubbabel and Joshua eventually do lead the people in rebuilding the temple. As you can see from the timeline that happened in 516BC.
However Jerusalem itself and the city walls are not rebuilt till much later, under the leadership of Nehemiah from 445BC.
But it’s now high time we looked at the first part of the vision that Zechariah received and the first thing I want you to see is what Zechariah saw, and that is my first point:
1. A Vision of a Man and the Horses in the Trees (v8)
“I saw in the night, and behold, a man riding on a red horse! He was standing among the myrtle trees in the glen, and behind him were red, sorrel, and white horses." (1.8).
What Zechariah sees is simple enough. It is night time. He sees some trees in front of him. Those trees are in a valley. As far as I can see those things are descriptions to note but we’re not to spend hours trying to read meaning into them because the text doesn’t draw special attention to them. What Zechariah notices is a man sat on a red horse while the horse stood still. They were among the trees. Behind him were 3 groups of horses: 1 red, 1 sorrel (or chestnut as we’d call it) and 1 white. We don’t know how many of each, but more than one. They probably had riders on them too, but the one on the red horse is the only one mentioned and clearly is the leader.
What does all that mean? Good question! It’s what Zechariah asks too and that leads us quickly onto my second point:
2. The Meaning of the Vision: 'all the earth remains at rest' (v9-11)
We now meet another character in the vision. He’s an angel and he appears in lots of the other parts of the vision as well. I think it’s easiest to imagine him standing next to Zechariah because his job is to explain to Zechariah what he’s seeing in the vision. He is not the man on the red horse, who is in front of him. Look at v9:-
“Then I said, ‘What are these, my lord?’ The angel who talked with me said to me, ‘I will show you what they are.’ (1.9)
Zechariah turns to the angel next to him and asks him about the man and the horses in the trees in front of him.
He calls him lord, but don’t get confused. This is lord with a small letter l. It’s just another way of saying ‘sir’ and is what you call someone you respect. And Zechariah is right to respect him, because he at least knows what’s going on! Let’s read on, v10:
So the man who was standing among the myrtle trees answered, ‘These are they whom the Lord has sent to patrol the earth.’ And they answered the angel of the Lord who was standing among the myrtle trees, and said, ‘We have patrolled the earth, and behold, all the earth remains at rest.’ (1.10-11)
The man standing among the myrtle trees in v10 is same the man who was sitting on a red horse and standing in the trees in v8. He explains that the horses Zechariah could see belong to the Lord. Don't miss that this LORD is not Lord with a small letter l. This time the LORD is all in capital letters. What does that mean? Whenever the word LORD appears in capitals in the Old Testament it is translating the Hebrew word for the name of the one and only true God. The horses and their riders belong to the LORD and he has sent them to patrol the earth. God's intelligence service, if you like. Not that he needs it of course - he already know everything. But it's a powerful and vivid picture of the fact that God see and knows everything.
What happens next is that Zechariah is able to witness this heavenly army reporting back to their commanding officer what they saw when they travelled the whole world. Their leader is described as the 'angel of the Lord' and he is the one who was standing among the myrtle trees in v10 and also the man who was sitting on a red horse and standing in the trees in v8! What did they conclude: the earth remains at rest. It is quiet and peaceful, relaxing and at rest, secure. We'll come back to that again in a minute.
God's people of Zechariah's day were unsettled and uncertain. They were not sure what was happening to them and how God was working in their lives, in their nation, and in the world. They were worried that he's given up on them because of the way they had treated him. Their confusion had destroyed their confidence, so God sent Zechariah to show them that He had not abandoned His people.
The Persian rulers would have used horsemen to patrol their vast empire and keep an eye on it. The horses here speak of another King and a different Kingdom and declare the truth that God is watching and keeping the world under control at all times. As it says in Prov. 15:3, "The eyes of the Lord are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good."
How comforting this is for God's people! We are not alone. Though the rulers of the world were not watching out for the people of God, the Lord of hosts was. God sees and he knows exactly what is going on and he is in total control. He is the Lord of Lords and the King of Kings. Nothing escapes his vision or understanding. This must be a special encouragement for Christians facing persecution. Though it seems like God has forgotten, he has not.
Psalm 123 puts wonderfully into words how we are to respond to this truth: we are to lift up our eyes to him who is enthroned in the heavens.
3. Good News for God's people: Your Lord is Coming Back. (v12-17)
The earth remains at rest. They are quiet and peaceful. They are relaxing and at rest. They feel secure. This includes the nations that destroyed Israel and Judah. The enemies of God’s people are prospering and self-confidently secure while the people of God are depressed and downtrodden. Jerusalem was still in ruins and without walls and the temple was not yet rebuilt. All the world was doing well, it would seem, apart from God's people.
They seem happy and are getting on just fine without God. In fact they seem to be doing much better than God's people.
That is so similar today - the church in the UK seems so small and insignificant. We can feel like we are losing the battle and the world around us seems to be doing so much better and getting on just fine without God. How much more might that seem to be the case for our brothers and sisters across the globe- such as those in Egypt and Syria - who are being severely tested at the moment.
All of this was not Good News, which explains the reaction of the Angel of the Lord to the report that the earth remains at rest, which we see in v12:
Then the angel of the Lord said, ‘O Lord of hosts, how long will you have no mercy on Jerusalem and the cities of Judah, against which you have been angry these seventy years?’ (1.12)
How normal and natural -and OK- to ask to times like this: what is going on, Lord? Why are your people being treated like this? Can't you see what is happening to us? Don't you care?
And again, how natural it is to assume that because things are not going well, God must be angry with us. Have we blown it? Is he fed up with us and won't have anything more to do with us? has he given up on us because of the way we have treated him?
What would you expect God to say to this? Look at v13:
And the Lord answered gracious and comforting words to the angel who talked with me. (1.13)
In later chapters we will see that God's people will be encouraged to take faith-filled action. But this is where God start, with a wonderful reassurance of his love and forgiveness. He is no longer angry with them. His patience has not run out. He will keep his promise to them. He is a God of mercy. That is the gracious and comforting word.
So the angel who talked with me said to me, ‘Cry out, Thus says the Lord of hosts: I am exceedingly jealous for Jerusalem and for Zion. And I am exceedingly angry with the nations that are at ease; for while I was angry but a little, they furthered the disaster. (1.14-15)
This brings home to us a very important lesson. Physical security doesn’t equal pleasing God. All the earth was at rest and that is exactly why God was not just angry, but exceedingly angry with them. They face his future judgment for their arrogant confidence that they can live their lives without God. Jesus reminds us of exactly the same lesson in Matthew 24:37-39. In the days of Noah, people were also 'at rest' - they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage...until the flood came and swept them all away.
God's people are those who no longer live as if God doesn't matter. The lesson for God's people is that they are not to read from their difficult circumstance that God was against them. He was not against them. Rather he was for them because he is the God of unnumbered second chances and whatever happens he WILL keep his promises to his people - not because they were faithful, but because He is faithful. They are no longer the objects of God's anger, but of his mercy. Their Lord had come back to them. He reassures them of this in the following verses:-
Therefore, thus says the Lord, I have returned to Jerusalem with mercy; my house shall be built in it, declares the Lord of hosts, and the measuring line shall be stretched out over Jerusalem. Cry out again, Thus says the Lord of hosts: My cities shall again overflow with prosperity, and the Lord will again comfort Zion and again choose Jerusalem.’” (1.16-17)
In those verses we find 5 promises from God for his people:
1. He will have pity on them and return to his people in Jerusalem with mercy. Their Lord was coming back.
2. They will rebuild his temple. God is with them.
3. They will rebuild Jerusalem again. The measuring line was string. Builders used a measuring line to work out where to build.
4. Jerusalem and the cities of Judah will be full of good things.
5. The Lord will again comfort his people.
Most significant of all is that his house will be rebuilt. Once again there will be a physical symbol of the presence of God with his people. But it was only to be a symbol. We must look to what the temple was pointing forwards to. That second temple was destroyed in AD70 and many Jews are still waiting for the third temple to be build. But they miss the fact that the temple points forward to Jesus. The Jesus who was to be called Immanuel, which means God with us.
Jesus came and he lived a sinless life and died on a cross to take on himself the punishment from God that we all deserved for living as if he did not exist. Jesus rose from death and if we trust in him we are no longer the objects of Gods anger, but of his mercy.
So have you ever wondered how many second chances does God give us, before He gets fed up and won't have anything more to do with us? Have you ever been afraid that He's given up on you because of the way you have treated him?
Well wonder no more. Return to me, says the Lord of hosts, and I will return to you.