Longing For The Justice Of God
Hope In Hopeless Times; The Gospel According To Zechariah • Sermon • Submitted
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Then I raised my eyes and looked, and there were four horns.
Longing For The Justice Of God
When Zechariah lifts his eyes, he is startled to see four horns (v. 18). Throughout the Old Testament, and within the cultural world of the ancient Near East, horns symbolize the source of strength and power, especially royal power.
The symbol comes from the horns of animals, which was the source of their strength. The imagery was applied in royal contexts through the ceremony of anointing a new king by pouring oil from a horn on to the head (cf. 1 Sam. 16:1, 13; 1 Kings 1:39).
For instance, after Hannah has been granted a son, Samuel, who would become the “king-maker,” she offers a poetically rich prayer that begins and ends with the symbolism of a horn. (1 Sam. 2:1, 10)
Likewise, when one’s horn is cast down, it is a sign of defeat and disgrace, as when the Lord declares,1
1 Bryan R. Gregory, Longing for God in an Age of Discouragement: The Gospel according to Zechariah, ed. Tremper Longman III, The Gospel according to the Old Testament (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2010), 49.
I say to the boastful, “Do not boast,”
and to the wicked, “Do not lift up your horn;
do not lift up your horn on high,
or speak with haughty neck.”
All the horns of the wicked I will cut off,
but the horns of the righteous shall be lifted up.
(Ps. 75:4–5, 10
Though the bull symbolizes power, the bull’s horn epitomizes everything the bull represented, much as horns represent the trophy of the hunt.
For example, Deut 33:17 describes Joseph’s power: “In majesty he is like a firstborn bull; his horns are the horns of a wild ox.” In Ps 18:2 the psalmist praises the Lord declaring, “He is my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.”1
1 George L. Klein, Zechariah, vol. 21B, The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: B & H Publishing Group, 2008), 109.
The image of four horns is an image of royal or national strength and is the central feature of the vision. In only four verses, the Hebrew word for “horn(s)” (qrn) is used five times, which clearly focuses the revelation on the strength of the nations and how they have used their power.
As in the first vision, Zechariah needs help understanding the symbolism of what he is seeing (v. 19a). Once again, the “angel who was speaking with me” interprets the meaning for him.
He identifies the four horns as the nations that scattered Judah, Israel, and Jerusalem (v. 19b). Historically, Assyria scattered the northern tribes (“Israel”) into exile in 722/721 b.c., after a three year siege of Samaria (2 Kings 17:1–6).
A little over a century later, the southern tribes (“Judah”) fell to Babylon in 605 b.c., with Jerusalem and the temple being destroyed in 587/586 b.c. (2 Kings 24–25).
The verb used to express the scattering is vivid, denoting to winnow, separate, or scatter by means of the wind. Cf. Isaiah 41:16; Jeremiah 15:7; Ezekiel 5:2, 10.
Other smaller nations were guilty of violence as well. Edom gloated over the defeat of Judah and even captured fleeing Judeans during the conquest and turned them back over to Babylonian officers.
After many of the people were exiled, some Edomites moved into newly vacated Judean towns, looting the wealth and celebrating until they were drunk (Obad. 1:10–16).
Other parts of the land were lost to the expanding Phoenicians and Philistines (Obad. 1:19; Ezek. 26:2) as well as to Ammonites (Jer. 49:1).
Sometimes the four horns in Zechariah are assigned to specific nations by correlating them with the four parts of the statue in Daniel 2, the four beasts in Daniel 7, or the horns of Daniel 8, which portray the aggression of the nations.
But this is ill advised because Daniel refers to events that will happen several hundred years after Zechariah, whereas this vision is clearly referring to contemporary events.
The use of horns is simply drawing on a well-known motif for aggressive nations. The significance of the horns lies in there being four of them, not in identifying each horn with a particular empire.
Just as the four chariots in Zechariah 6 are connected to the four winds of heaven, thereby symbolizing the scope of the whole world, so something similarly comprehensive is likely in view here (Jer. 49:36; Ezek. 37:9).
The four horns probably “signify the totality of the hostile nations of the world.” It could mean Israel’s enemies surrounds them on all 4 geographical sides. (N,S,E,W)
Probably, if the horns are symbolic (representing any and all world powers), then the craftsmen are also symbolic.
It would be Zechariah’s way of saying that whatever the power raised against God’s people, God also has his power and representative to oppose it and throw it down.1
1 James Montgomery Boice, The Minor Prophets: An Expositional Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2002), 496.
Zechariah’s vision continues with the appearance of “the four craftsmen.” Significantly, Zechariah does not ask who these craftsmen are, a point modern interpreters should take to heart.
As was the case with the precise identification of the angelic interpreters in vision one, Zechariah’s message takes precedence over the characters in the account.
Moreover, one cannot determine why the prophet uses the imagery of a workman. While craftsmen typically use their strength and skill to build, they can also use those same abilities to destroy (Ezek 21:31).
In response to Zechariah’s question about what the craftsmen will do, the Lord first repeats what the four horns have done, then explains that the craftsmen have come to destroy the horns.
Consequently, all who arrogantly seek to persecute God’s people, and in so doing oppose the Lord himself, face ruin.
Or, perhaps the image is chosen because of their skill to fashion weapons of war for use against the nations (1 Sam. 13:19).
Whatever the reason, to correctly interpret the passage we must recognize that these are common craftsmen.
The term is used elsewhere in the Old Testament for jewelry engravers (Ex. 28:11), artisans for the temple furnishings (Ex. 35:35), metalworkers (Deut. 27:15), carpenters (2 Kings 12:11), and stonemasons (2 Sam. 5:11).
In other words, they are not from the politically elite, the militarily powerful, or the educationally advantaged.
They are not of the upper crust of society; they are patently ordinary figures. By the look of them, there is not much they can do to these powerful horns.
The blacksmiths’ coming terrifies the horns because their time is now up (v. 21b). What the blacksmiths do to them rings out with both actual and poetic justice.
When the nations lifted (hanos’im) their horn against the land of Judah, the result was that no man in Judah could lift (nasa’) his head because of the dishonor.
But now, just as the nations once lifted up their horn, so reciprocally the blacksmiths will hew them down.
As a result, the people will once again be able to lift up their heads, following the lead of the prophet who has already lifted (wa’esa’) his eyes to see a vision of this coming justice (v. 18).
The blacksmiths] are divine agents carrying out God’s will. They can represent, in the past, Babylon or Persia, which each brought to an end an ancient imperial power.
And they also can represent an unspecified future divine action against a world power.” That is precisely the point to catch.
The important thing is not to restrict the identity of the blacksmiths to a particular empire or guild, but to appreciate their function.
They are used by God to bring an end to the injustice so evident in the world and commonly seen in various world powers throughout history.
It might have been striking to Zechariah’s generation that this promise came without conditions attached.
Throughout Israel’s history prophets mediated promises to the people, but they were regularly qualified with conditions that they must meet.
But in this night vision the promise of God’s coming justice is unconditional; it is sure to come in due time. When this will take place is not revealed.
What the prophet and his generation need to know is not when it will happen, but that it will happen.
The vision serves to bolster their confidence in God and his commitment to justice despite the oppression and injustice they are experiencing.
Zechariah sees blacksmiths ready to break the horns of the nations responsible for scattering Judah.
This vision depicts the justice of God coming to bear on his enemies and his people in a surprising manner.
God’s justice comes into the world through unassuming, humble blacksmiths. As counterintuitive as it may seem, this is precisely how God topples the horns of injustice.
To varying degrees we have all experienced the frustration and outrage of injustice. Who has not felt the irritation of even relatively trivial acts of unfairness?
For instance, who has not sneered at the driver who zooms past everyone else caught in traffic by driving on the shoulder?
Some, however, know the more damaging kinds of injustice: losing one’s job to someone with clearly inferior qualifications due to nepotism or politicking;
watching an obviously guilty defendant acquitted over a minor technicality; seeing an abusive spouse take everything in a divorce settlement;
being victimized by social structures set up to allow the rich and powerful to accumulate more and more wealth and power at the expense of the poor and helpless;
or facing discrimination because of one’s race, gender, or age.
In 1996 alone, the toll of worldwide martyrs exceeded 100,000. Who will call the oppressors to account? Why do they seem to get away with it? When will the victims be vindicated? How will things be set right again?
In the face of such questions, Zechariah 1:18–21 offers hope, encouragement, and perspective as it looks forward to the day when God will intervene and establish justice.
God promises to hew down the horns of injustice through his appointed but humble blacksmiths.
The good news is that in Jesus of Nazareth that day has dawned. Through his humble and unassuming servant, God intervenes in an unjust world.
Early on in Jesus’ ministry, he walked into a synagogue in Nazareth, picked up the scroll of Isaiah and read,
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18–19 esv; quoting Isa. 61:1–2a).
He then rolled up the scroll, handed it back to the attendant, sat down and said, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” Luke 4:21 esv).
In other words, Jesus proclaimed from the outset of his ministry that he had come to overturn injustice.
With this as a ministry theme, Jesus surprised many when he did not establish justice through brute force.
“He did not repeat the story of which history has so many illustrations, the story of the victim of oppression who, in the name of justice, dethrones the oppressor and takes his seat on the same throne with the same instruments of oppression.”
Instead, he brought justice through gentleness and sacrifice.
His gentleness and sacrifice for the sake of justice came to its climax at the end of his life when he was personally crushed under the full weight of the world’s injustice on Calvary.
Though entirely without guilt or fault, he was convicted and crucified. The bringer of justice was victimized by the greatest injustice the world has ever seen.
But the injustice of the cross was vindicated by the resurrection.
It was a grand announcement that the time was up for the perpetrators of injustice. It declared that their days were numbered and that one day, on the last day, all things really will be set right and justice will prevail.
The perpetrators of injustice will face the judgment and justice of the unjustly crucified King of kings and Lord of lords; the systems of injustice will forever be dismantled and replaced with the righteous rule of the Lion of Judah (Acts 17:31; Rev. 19:11).
According to the New Testament, our response to this should be decidedly Christlike. We often fall into the trap of seeking justice by taking our turn on the throne of oppression.
We resort to manipulation, power plays, and heavy handed leveraging in order to accomplish what we want. We soothe our consciences with reassurances that the ends justify the means.
But Zechariah’s vision shows that God works out his justice in our world through unassuming blacksmiths.
As God’s great blacksmith, Jesus has shown in his ministry, death, and resurrection that God topples injustice through gentleness and sacrifice.
To us such a notion seems counterintuitive, but then again, the gospel always is.
In the image of Christ, we too are called to pursue justice in nonviolent ways, characterized by gentleness and a willingness to sacrifice.
As we prayerfully engage our world, we should work against injustice in whatever ways God gives us.
Today, we are his blacksmiths in the world and we join with Christ in the horn-toppling works of establishing justice wherever and however we can.