The date was February 15, 520 BC. The people had become disillusioned in the work of rebuilding the temple. They viewed the new temple under construction as a shabby replica of the former temple built during the reign of Solomon. To add insult to injury, the heathen temples in Babylon exceeded in every way the temple they were building in Jerusalem, in beauty, in craftsmanship, in the quality and value of the materials in the temple. The Jewish returnees asked themselves, why rebuild this temple, especially one so diminished in the eyes of the world?
Zechariah and his Jerusalem contemporary Haggai wrote to encourage the returnees to complete the work of rebuilding the temple, which they did by 516 BC. According to Zechariah, rebuilding the temple, no matter how it compared to the first temple, was a necessary step in bringing messianic deliverance to Israel and the world.
THE TEMPLE REBUILD PROJECT
The Babylonian armies under Nebuchadnezzar had destroyed the previous temple almost seventy years earlier in 586 BC. Solomon’s temple had stood for 400 years before being destroyed by the Babylonians. It was one of the marvels of the ancient world and was the pride of the Jewish nation.
The Jewish population of Jerusalem and Judah had been deported to Babylon and dispersed among the Babylonian provinces beginning in 605 BC. Some of the Jewish people escaped the Babylonian invasion and migrated south into Egypt to form Jewish communities in Egypt. The Jewish population had gone north and south after the Babylonian invasion. The Babylonians made Jerusalem and the surrounding areas of Judah off-limits to Jews in 586 BC. The once glorious temple of Israel was in ruins, and the city depopulated for the period of the seventy years captivity.
In 538 BC, approximately 50,000 Jews were permitted to return to Jerusalem by edict of the Persian king Cyrus the Great. The Persians were then ruling the territories of the Babylonians having defeated the Babylonians in the siege of Babylon (Da 5). The returnees were commissioned and partially funded by the Persian government to rebuild the city of Jerusalem and the Jewish temple. The Persians sponsored similar rebuilding projects in areas throughout the Persian domain. The Persians sought to unify their empire through goodwill gestures toward their subject nations. Rebuilding projects were one way that they secured the loyalty of subject nations. The returnees had been in Jerusalem for about eighteen years when Zechariah reported the visions in 520 BC.
THE MESSIANIC FAITH
According to Zechariah, rebuilding the temple, no matter how it compared to the first temple, was a necessary step in bringing messianic deliverance to Israel and the world. Zechariah wrote to show the process whereby the Messiah ascends to the throne to rule the nation of Israel and the nations of the world. Consequently, the messianic writings of Zechariah guided the faith of the people of Israel in the centuries leading up to the coming of the Messiah in the person of Jesus. The rebuilding of the temple and the reestablishment of the ritual and ceremonies prescribed in the Mosaic Covenant was an essential step in the messianic program of God.
The messianic expectations of Simeon and Anna in the temple at the time of the birth of Jesus are based, in part, in the writings of Zechariah. After the birth of Jesus, the newborn baby was brought to the temple by his parents to present him before the Lord and to offer a sacrifice in accord with the Mosaic Law. They met Anna who was in the temple “waiting for redemption [messianic deliverance] in Israel” (Lu 2:36-38). Simeon was also in the temple “waiting for the consolation [messianic deliverance] of Israel” (Lu 2:25-26). When Simeon saw the baby Jesus in the temple, he gave testimony to the messianic mission of Jesus. “For my eyes have seen your salvation [messianic deliverance] that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel” (Lu 2:30-32).
The Jewish people of Zechariah’s generation were strengthened for the task of building the temple in Jerusalem as they contemplated the messianic promises of God in the writings of Zechariah. The messianic message of Zechariah brought hope to God’s people in the five centuries before the coming of Jesus, the Messiah of Israel.
THE CHARIOT COMMISSION (6:1-5)
Zechariah saw four chariots suddenly exit a valley from between two mountains of bronze. The first chariot had red horses, the second chariot black horses, the third chariot had white horses, and the fourth chariot dappled horses. The horses are “strong” and vigorous and impatient to be underway. The attending angel explained to Zechariah that the chariots “are going out to the four winds of heaven” having received a commission from the Lord “to patrol the earth.”
The two bronze mountains convey the idea of strength and invincibility. In the vision, the two mountains and the valley are in Jerusalem and not in heaven. The Jerusalem reference point emphasized the role of the earthly city Jerusalem in the messianic program of God.
The four chariots patrol the whole earth in all directions. The military-like patrols scout the territories belonging to the Lord. In this case, it is the entire earth in all directions from Jerusalem, Jerusalem being the governing city. The four chariots are the eyes and the ears of the Lord as they patrol the planet. They monitor the activities of the world in all directions from Jerusalem. They ensure that the rule of the Lord is carried out in a timely fashion.
THE CHARIOT CAMPAIGN (6:6-8)
The second chariot with the black horses traveled to territories to the north of Jerusalem into the North Country. The third chariot with the white horses followed the second chariot to the lands to the north. The fourth chariot with the dappled horses patrolled the territories to the south of Jerusalem. The direction toward which the first chariot with the red horses patrolled is not revealed. Two chariots go north. One chariot goes south. The course of the other chariot is not explained in the vision. The attending angel announced, “Behold, those who go toward the North Country have set my Spirit at rest in the north country.”
Many of the post-exilic Jews did not return to Israel after the Babylonian captivity. Large concentrations of Jews continued to live in Jewish communities outside the land of Israel throughout the Persian Empire to the north and east of Jerusalem and in Egypt to the south. The vision of the four chariots emphasized the role of the diaspora Jewish communities in preserving the messianic testimony among the Gentiles. Apparently, those Jewish people remaining in exile remained under the watchful eye of the Lord as represented in the vision of the four chariots.
THE STORY OF ESTHER
The story of Esther is an example of the providence of God in preserving the Jewish people who remained outside the territorial boundaries of Israel. Esther became queen in Persia in 478 BC about forty years after the visions of Zechariah. Esther was a Jewish who lived outside the land of Israel in the territories of Persia.
Haman in his speech to King Ahasuerus described the Jewish “people [as] scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom” (Esther 3:8). Haman further noted the devotion that the Jews had to observe “their laws” and that the Jewish laws “are different from those of every other people” (Esther 3:8). Haman noted that Jewish communities existed at that time throughout the Persian Empire and remained free from assimilation into the pagan culture of Persia.
The messianic promises and hope were kept alive in the teachings and testimony of the Jews of the diaspora. The preservation of the Jewish communities in Persia to the north was necessary for the messianic plan of God and the focus of the vision of the four chariots in Zechariah 6:1-8.
THE WISE MEN FROM THE EAST
The journey of the wise men to Jerusalem from the east (probably Babylon) to seek “he who is born king of the Jews” (Mt 2:1) is a consequence of the messianic testimony of the Jews of the Babylonian diaspora. The chariots patrolling in the North Country were there to ensure the preservation of the Jewish people and the continuance of the messianic message of Zechariah and the other writing prophets, like Isaiah, Daniel, Ezekiel. “Behold, those who go toward the North Country have set my Spirit at rest in the North Country” (Ze 6:8)
THE ETHIOPIAN EUNUCH FROM THE SOUTH
An angel directed Philip to go to the Egypt-to-Jerusalem highway to meet the man who was returning to his Ethiopian homeland. “There was an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure. He had come to Jerusalem to worship” (Acts 8:27). The man was riding in a chariot headed back to Ethiopia from whence he had come when Philip approached the chariot. The Ethiopian eunuch was reading a messianic passage in Isaiah 53:7-8. Philip explained to the man that Jesus was the Messiah. The man believed in Jesus and requested baptism.
The preservation of the Jewish people and their messianic testimony while living in the lands of the Gentiles was the mission of the four chariots sent by God from Jerusalem to patrol the earth. The Jewish people of Zechariah’s generation were strengthened for the task of building the temple in Jerusalem as they contemplated the messianic promises of God in the writings of Zechariah. The messianic messages reported by Zechariah kept hope alive for the Jewish people of the diaspora in the centuries that led up to the coming of Christ. The Persian Empire to the north of Jerusalem and the land of Egypt to the south received the messianic message of Zechariah through the influence of the Jewish communities in those countries. The temple in Jerusalem was the messianic pivot point in the centuries leading up to the coming of Jesus as the Messiah of Israel.
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ga 4:4–5.