Heart of the Story. Zechariah was a Jewish prophet when the Jewish exiles returned to Jerusalem from Persia. God gave Zechariah a vision which was a parable. The parable identified that the Jews would no longer be the mighty cedar of Lebanon.
In about August 520 BC God spoke through the Jewish prophet Haggai. God told the Jews to finish building the temple. Haggai identified that the drought in Judea was the result of God’s temple remaining in ruins. Although returned Jews built their own homes, they didn’t build God’s home. Two months after God’s message to Haggai, Zechariah started to receive messages from God. Zechariah’s prophecy mirrored that of Haggai, i.e., rebuild the temple; but, Zachariah’s message included that the Jews repent and serve the Lord. Zechariah was God’s prophet for the next fifty years (520-480 BC).
In the first year of his ministry, Zechariah received eight visions from God in one night. They were visions, not dreams; Zechariah was fully awake. In the first vision, Zechariah saw a man riding a red horse standing among myrtle trees in a ravine. Prophets were God’s voice on earth; Zechariah carefully recorded the dialogue in this parable. True prophets spoke or recorded exactly what God said, rather than paraphrasing or interpreting God’s message. This message must have stunned the returned Jews. Zechariah recorded:
During the night I had a vision, and there before me was a man mounted on a red horse. He was standing among the myrtle trees in a ravine. Behind him were red, brown and white horses.
I asked, “What are these, my lord?”
The angel who was talking with me answered, “I will show you what they are.”
Then the man standing among the myrtle trees explained, “They are the ones the Lord has sent to go throughout the earth.” And they reported to the angel of the Lord who was standing among the myrtle trees,
“We have gone throughout the earth and found the whole world at rest and in peace.”
Then the angel of the Lord said, “Lord Almighty, how long will you Withhold mercy from Jerusalem and from the towns of Judah, which you have been angry with these seventy years?”
So the Lord spoke kind and comforting words to the angel who talked with me.
Then the angel who was speaking to me said, “Proclaim this word: This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘I am very jealous for Jerusalem and Zion, and I am very angry with the nations that feel secure. I was only a little angry, but they went too far with the punishment.’
“Therefore this is what the Lord says: ‘I will return to Jerusalem with mercy, and there my house will be rebuilt. And the measuring line will be stretched out over Jerusalem,’ declares the Lord Almighty.
“Proclaim further: This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘My towns will again overflow with prosperity, and the Lord will again comfort Zion and choose Jerusalem.’ ” — Zechariah 1:8-17 NIV
A Change in Status
At this time in Israelite history, Judah was no longer an independent kingdom; Jerusalem had been razed by the Babylonians. God’s temple was in ruins. The glory of David and Solomon was over. Judah was a small province in the outback of the expansive Persian Empire. Zechariah’s message made it clear that going forward Judah would be controlled by foreign nations, e.g., Persia, Greece, Rome, Turkey, and Great Britain.
The type of tree and setting of the parable of the man among the myrtle trees had meaning for Zechariah and his Jewish hearers. The Jews weren’t symbolized as the mighty cedar of Lebanon that grew on the sides and tops of mountains. Rather, they were depicted as a myrtle tree in a ravine. A ravine is a narrow steep-sided valley, a low place. The myrtle trees in the ravine represented Israel under Gentile subjection, in this case the Persian Empire.
Despite a significant reduction in status, Zechariah’s parable is a message of hope and encouragement to the post-exile Jews. The world, in this case the Persian Empire, was at peace. God comforted the angel who was distressed about the state of the lives of the post-exile Jews. God promised that the Babylonian-Persian Empire would be held accountable for their brutal treatment of his people when Judah and Jerusalem were conquered. Further, God promised that he would return to Jerusalem and Zion with mercy and the temple would be rebuilt.
Reflection: If you were a post-exile Jews living in Jerusalem, how would you respond to Zechariah’s parable of the man among the myrtle tree? Would you have been encouraged or discouraged? Would you have considered killing the messenger?
Copyright: September 9, 2015: Carolyn A. Roth