Alfred Place Baptist Church

1:18-21 Trashing the Menacing Horns

Then I looked up – and there before me were four horns! I asked the angel who was speaking to me, ‘What are these?’ He answered me, ‘These are the horns that scattered Judah, Israel and Jerusalem.’ Then the LORD showed me four craftsmen. I asked, ‘What are these coming to do?’ He answered, ‘These are the horns that scattered Judah so that no-one could raise his head, but the craftsmen have come to terrify them and throw down these horns of the nations who lifted up their horns against the land of Judah to scatter its people.’
Zechariah 1:18-21

Remember at this time, when the two prophets, Haggai and Zechariah, were exhorting and comforting the people of God, they were feeling terribly vulnerable. They’d been in captivity in Babylon for seventy years, and then under the new emperor, Cyrus, the people had been given permission to return from Babylon to Jerusalem, but they were still within the Babylonian empire. So all this time their activities were being monitored by Babylon, and also they were being harassed by the local tribes and small nations. The people virtually had no army; every man carried a weapon, but there was no fighting force to protect them. It was at such a time of weakness and worry that the events of this chapter. We are told that Zechariah looked up; his head had obviously been hanging down full of thought – I suppose that that was from all that in the last hours had filled his racing mind. He’d just had the first vision of the man on the red horse, and the nations utterly apathetic about God. Now, immediately, he’s given a second vision and it began with the approach of four menacing horns. The prophet asked the interpreting angel what in the world these were, and he was told that “These are the horns that scattered Judah, Israel and Jerusalem” (v.21). They had done their deadly work already over the past centuries but obviously they were still very active.

The vision seems to have been of four horns attached to mighty animals that were lifting up their horns (v.21) and pawing the ground ready to charge and kill and scatter the people of God. Do you realise what damage an animal could do with its horns? You know that a dairy farmer doesn’t mix in the same field a herd of horned cattle with those that have been de-horned. An angry bull is a fearful opponent. In what is referred to as the ‘Blessing of Moses’ in Deuteronomy chapter 33 Moses describes the various twelve tribes and he says of Joseph, “His horns are the horns of a wild ox” (Deut. 33:17). Beware of challenging Joseph! His horns are the horns of a wild ox, that is, he is a mean machine in battle. He can fight. He takes no survivors.

You have heard of the Running of the Bulls, the seven day festival in Pamplona, Spain, when about a dozen poor bulls are released to run through the streets and hundreds of men run for all their might from those advancing horns. It’s done in other places in Spain, but also in Portugal, Mexico, Peru, France and even Nevada. What foolishness and cruelty! But it indicates the respect men have for the horns of a bull. They run for their lives! So here, a few feet from Zechariah’s nose, mighty horns had come a’threatening. They were a symbol of naked aggression, a symbol understood by all of Judah. Bulls were semi-domesticated and everyone must have had a story of the danger of the family bull, and how there’d been occasions when they’d been forced to flee from its aggression during the rutting season.

The vision is a reminder of the deadly enemy facing the people of God. It was the ten tribes of Israel that had been the first to be scattered in 722 B.C., almost exactly 200 years earlier. They’d been taken into captivity by Assyria and they’d been dispersed to the four winds. They just disappeared off the face of the earth forever – there are many legends about those wandering Jewish tribes, that they might even have reached Wales . . . And then the remaining two tribes had survived for a couple of centuries until the horns struck again, and they had been taken to Babylon. That was almost 90 years earlier and many of the Jews remained there never to return. So they’d experienced the scattering – their own grandparents vividly remembering the grief and the long journey east to Babylon, and the initial hardships. The threat of further captivity and destruction was always there. It would never go away, and every godly believer prayed each Sabbath day that the people of God wouldn’t be scattered ever again, but half a millennium later in the year 70 A.D. they were finally taken captive and scattered for good with the end of Jerusalem as a holy city for ever. So Zechariah is given this scary vision of four beasts with their powerful horns and the horns stand for the hostile nations of the deep who would always be intent on rising out of the deep, their horns wet, shaking and lowering their heads and advancing to break up and scatter Judah and its people.

1. THE CHURCH FACES A CRUEL AND BEASTLY WORLD.

That is where Christians are today. Never forget those familiar biblical pictures of beasts advancing, intent on destroying the people of God. They are certainly in the New Testament, the great red dragon of Revelation – “the beast” – but the picture is here in the Old Testament too. There is the destructive leviathan of Psalm 74, and particularly in Daniel 7 and 8 (which occurred only 40 or so years earlier) we are introduced to the atheistic hegemonies threatening Judah. They are symbolized by various beasts, a ram with two horns, a goat which begins as a unicorn and then it has four horns one of which sprouts a little horn. Another beast has ten horns plus an eleventh, the little horn which symbolizes the anti-Christ. Later Daniel in Babylon is literally thrown to the beasts. From whence do these beasts come in Daniel’s visions? They all come from the great stormy deep, alongside the myrtle trees who symbolize the church – and the beasts with their horns are determined to scatter the flock. This second vision builds on and develops the first vision, and then it re-emerges later on in Zechariah – “Smite the shepherd – go for the shepherd – and the sheep will be scattered.”

Remember the words with which our Lord commissioned his apostles, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves” (Matt.10:16). I saw a nature film of a pack of wolves in Alaska stacking a herd of bison and relentlessly chasing them, stampeding them, and then attacking the baby bison cutting them away from the herd and leaping on them and bringing them down. Jesus uses that image. He was telling them that their work of teaching, praying, raising their children to know and fear the Lord, gathering men and women together for worship was all going to be done while at the same time contending with merciless beasts. It’s such a challenging and an odd picture. How can this word of Jesus inspire us to be bold and courageous and victorious? Think of the coach giving a pep talk to the rugby team before a derby game. He wants them to walk tall. He wants them to feel that they can walk all over their opponents. “Go and make mince meat of them, you fellers. Show them we’re not to be messed with.” There is nothing at all like that when Jesus says, “Boys I am sending you out like a group of lambs who’re going to be attacked by wolves.” Wouldn’t they feel that they were going, as the saying has it, “like lambs to the slaughter”?

Wolves like the taste of lambs. They lick their lips when they see them. The natural man likes an earnest, pure, young woman who is open to discussing privately with them ‘religion.’ “Come to my room and talk with me.” Take care! He could be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Our Saviour often warned his disciples that the world would treat them as it had treated him. The more like Jesus Christ they behaved and spoke so the antagonism of the world would be more focused upon them. They tore him apart on Golgotha; the Rock of Ages was cleft there by nails and hammers and spears. So they will hate you too if you live like him. “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and say all manner of evil against you.” How else do you expect wolves to behave; that is their bestial nature; how else would you think they’d behave? We are people don’t love the world nor the things that are in the world. We are salt sprinkled on the world’s putrefaction; we are light shining on the world’s gloom, and that difference and that work which we do makes us very unpopular, but on top of that we are lambs who are telling wolves how they ought to behave. We’re not suicide bombers. We’re not plotting with other lambs on destroying as many wolves as possible. Jesus says to us, “But love your enemies. Do good to them that despitefully use you.” That is the church’s vocation. Not many mighty, not many noble are in our ranks. Not many influential media people attend this church. Not any tough guys at all. We don’t have the ayatollahs in our midst; we are all lambs without exception. We’re not remotely near to being equal academically with the world. It’s the world that walks the corridors of power; we dare not try to ape it. There are not many politicians and millionaires and famous men and women amongst us; we are a flock of lambs because he became the Lamb of God, and in his weakness and obedience to God, dying on the cross for our sin he redeemed us conquering our sin, Satan, the world and death. We trust in him; we follow him; we would lay down our lives for him.

So this seems to me to be the emphasis of the Bible on the hostility that Christians will meet until Jesus returns. We are lambs facing beasts with their powerful horns, and wolves with their teeth and claws. Then let me ask you is this histrionics, or is it a true and accurate picture of the situation facing disciples of Jesus Christ today? Is this today’s world, men like horned beasts relentlessly attacking Christ’s followers as it’s foretold by prophets and apostles in the Scriptures? Are there wolves about intent on destroying Christ’s sheep? As I see it, the global position of Christianity today conforms exactly to that picture. Three quarters of the world’s 2.2 billion Christians — the expanding part — now live outside the largely tolerant West. An organization called the ‘Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life’ reports that Christians suffer more persecution than any other religious group. Between 2006 and 2010 Christians faced some form of discrimination in 139 nations, which is almost three-quarters of all the countries on earth. Again, according to the ‘International Society for Human Rights’, which is a secular organization based in Frankfurt, Germany, 80 per cent of all acts of religious discrimination in the world today are directed at Christians. Christians, statistically, are by far the most persecuted religious body on the planet.

According to the ‘Center for the Study of Global Christianity’ at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts, an average of 100,000 Christians have been killed each year for the past decade in what the centre calls a ‘situation of witness.’ In other words, here are believers who walk down the street on a Sunday and go to church. They publicly identify themselves with following Christ and the wolves see them and get them. That works out to 11 Christians killed somewhere in the world every hour, seven days a week and 365 days a year, for reasons related to their faith. By the time this service ends another fifteen or so Christians will have been killed. The four horns are active everywhere.

The global war on Christians remains the greatest story never told of the early 21st century. You remember what happened on September 22 when in a congregation of Christians in Pakistan 122 people were killed and 168 were injured. That is what the horns can do. How did that happen four weeks ago today? Two Islamic suicide bombers ran into the Anglican All Saints Church in Peshawar while the congregation was worshipping God. There were 125 children in the Sunday School, and the two men blew themselves to pieces and killed and injured more than 300 people. Who helped the injured Christians? Many Muslims in the houses and streets around the church. They came to the aid of their friends and neighbours cruelly murdered in an action of which they were deeply ashamed.

The world is witnessing a new generation of Christian martyrs. The carnage is occurring on such a vast scale that it represents the most dramatic Christian story of our time. In Baghdad, Islamic militants stormed the Syriac cathedral on 31 October 2010, killing the two ministers and leaving a total of 58 people dead. Of the 65 Christian churches in Baghdad, 40 have been bombed at least once since 2003. The effect of this campaign of violence and intimidation has been devastating for Christianity in the country. At the time of the first Gulf War in 1991, Iraq boasted a flourishing Christian population of at least 1.5 million. Today the high-end estimate for the number of Christians left is around 500,000, and realistically many believe it could be as low as 150,000. Most of these Iraqi Christians have gone into exile, but a staggering number have been killed. The horns are still scattering the people of God.

The facts are these, that wherever any strongly Islamic regime is in power, Christians suffer. It is an immutable rule. And the more Islamic the state, the harsher the treatment Christians receive. Since the Arab Spring, every upheaval or election in the Middle East has brought some brand of Islamist to power. In every case, Christians are threatened. Murders, kidnappings, intimidation and expulsions, impelled by a mixture of greed and fanaticism, have together reduced the old Christian community in Iraq to total ruin. The four horns are scattering the people of God. Many Iraqi refugees left to join the two million indigenous Christians of Syria, but now they now share their hosts’ lot — persecution by the western-supported, Islamist-dominated Syrian rebels. Large areas of opposition-held Syria are now under sharia law. Saudi judges have appeared to administer it. Non-Muslims are only tolerated if they pay the jizya, the tax imposed on infidels. Christian ministers are special targets. In Syria a Catholic priest, Father François Murad, was murdered last month. He wasn’t the first to die. A Syrian Orthodox priest, Father Fadi Haddad, was grabbed last December as he left his church to negotiate the release of a kidnapped parishioner. His body was found by the roadside, the eyes had been gouged out. The Greek Orthodox archbishop Paul Yazigi and the Syriac Orthodox archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim were seized near Aleppo in April, when trying to negotiate the release of kidnapped priests. They have not been discovered since. Both archbishops are now presumed dead. The wolves are active everywhere.

India’s northeastern state of Orissa was the scene of the most violent anti-Christian pogrom of the early 21st century. In 2008, a series of riots ended with as many as 500 Christians killed, many hacked to death by machete-wielding Hindu radicals; thousands more were injured and at least 50,000 left homeless. Many Christians fled to hastily prepared displacement camps, where some languished for two years or more. An estimated 5,000 Christian homes, along with 350 churches and schools, were destroyed. A nun, Sister Meena Barwa, was raped during the mayhem, then marched naked and beaten. Police sympathetic to the radicals discouraged the nun from filing a report, and declined to arrest her attackers.

In Burma, members of the Chin and Karen ethnic groups, who are strongly Christian, are considered dissidents by the regime and routinely subjected to imprisonment, torture, forced labour, and murder. In October 2010, the Burmese military launched helicopter strikes in territories where the country’s Christians are concentrated. A Burmese Air Force source told reporters that the junta had declared these areas ‘black zones’, where military personnel were authorized to attack and kill Christian targets on sight. Though there are no precise counts, thousands of Burmese Christians are believed to have been killed in the offensive. The wolves are there merciless and cruel.

In Nigeria, the militant Islamic movement ‘Boko Haram’ is held responsible for almost 3,000 deaths since 2009, including 800 fatalities last year alone. The movement has made a speciality out of targeting Christians and their churches, and in some cases they seem determined to drive Christians out altogether from parts of the country. The wolves are there. In December 2011, local Boko Haram spokesmen announced that all Christians in the northern Yobe and Borno states had three days to get out, and followed up with a spate of church bombings on 5 and 6 January 2012, which left at least 26 Christians dead, as well as two separate shooting sprees in which eight more Christians died. In the aftermath, hundreds of Christians fled the area, and many are still displaced. Over Christmas last year, at least 15 Christians are believed to have had their throats cut by Boko Haram. The wolves are there.

North Korea is widely considered the most dangerous place in the world to be a Christian, where roughly a quarter of the country’s 200,000 to 400,000 Christians are believed to be living in forced labour camps for their refusal to join the national cult around founder Kim Il Sung. The anti-Christian animus is so strong that people with Christian grandparents are frozen out of the most important jobs – even though Kim Il Sung’s mother was a Presbyterian deaconess. Since the armistice of 1953 some 300,000 Christians in North Korea have disappeared and are presumed dead. The wolves are merciless everywhere and Korea’s Christians have to worship and evangelize and live in the midst of them. So here is vision of the four horns coming from every point of the compass, north, south, east and west and attacking the people of God.

2. GOD SENDS CRAFTSMEN TO TERRIFY AND THROWN DOWN THE HORNS.

What can I do in the face of what our brothers and sisters are suffering for Jesus’ name?

i] I can help put steel into their backbones by reminding them of the words of the Lord Jesus, “Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Rev. 2:10).

ii] The best help I can be to my persecuted brothers and sisters all over the world today is to live as Christlike a life as I possibly can here in this community, and for this particular church to be as holy and godly a fellowship as it can be.

iii] I am faithfully to intercede for them, asking the Lord that he protect and bless his suffering servants. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.

iv] If I am able to send creature comforts and financial support then I do that.

v] There is political action that I can take as a tax payer. I can write to the Pakistan Embassy and express my grave concern. I can plead for the rights of asylum for those who have fled for refuge to this country who would be badly treated if they returned. I can also approach our own Member of Parliament, and write to the Prime Minister, to the Newspapers and to the Queen.

vi] I am also under the obligation to overcome evil with good. One Pakistani Christian Aftab Gohar is today a preacher in Stirlingshire, Scotland. He is taking the service there right now as I’m speaking to you. His home church is All Saints in Peshawar where this recent atrocity occurred. In the suicide bombings his mother was killed, as also were his 11 year old nephew, 9 year old niece, two uncles, three cousins, and two close friends. Another niece will be paraplegic for the rest of her life. His sister was teaching next door in the Sunday School and so her life was spared. What is Aftab’s response? He offers those who sent the murderers his forgiveness, and he prays that they will develop some wisdom. “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” That is our response again, to overcome the evil done by the four horns with good.

vii] Above all that we have to trust God, that he is seeing what is happening, and hearing the cry of his people, and that their cry, “How long?” means far more to him than to us. We must always remember that nothing that God’s enemies do comes as a surprise to him. We find ourselves in situations where we are hard pressed and threatened and can see no way out. There seems to us to be a total impasse, and then God says, “Let me show you this.” In this vision Zechariah sees God doing something new. He shows us the triumph of grace, omnipotence that saves and empowers and protects his people. Oh for eyes to see what God is doing. Zechariah sees the Lord intervening and raising up agents of righteousness, four craftsmen that appear and terrify the horned beasts and overwhelm them.

So who are these four smiths, these dragon slayers? They are the agents of the Messianic rider on the red horse; they are executing his orders and they are working his judgments. They are specialists; the name ‘craftsmen’, covers all kinds of trades like blacksmiths, gold and silver smiths, carpenters, stonemasons. They are certainly labourers and workmen; they are not scribes or philosophers and scholars. This is war and so God has raised up four specialists who  deal with the threat of horns. They are the magnificent four; the S.A.S., the anti-terrorist experts able to handle oppression and execute judgment on beast-like men and wolves, and they are exceeding skilful in destroying them. They are craftsmen of destruction. The picture would be well known in the civilizations of the time. There were stories told around camp fires at night in the Middle East, one, for example, was of a craftsman from heaven who made two clubs by which the god Baal overcame a rival god, Yamm. Old Testament believers heard these stories and they used phrases and concepts in them, purifying and elevating the warfare. They could even sing Psalm 18, the psalm of such a craftsman, “God has trained my hands for the battle” (Ps. 18:34). God has resources of vengeance by which he can vindicate his oppressed people. He raises up his workmen to rout the four horns.  We fight back against principalities and powers and the rulers of the darkness of this world. We put on our armour and we pick up the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, and with it we take on the enemy. We say rightly that the best form of defence is attack. We go out; we announce our meetings; we put advertisements in the local paper and we push invitations through the doors; we speak to people and urge them to consider the folly of following the horns. We have weapons that are mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds.

I have an old-fashioned and unpopular view of history, that one of the things that history is about is the great leaders whom God raises up to deal with oppression and bring liberty to churches and the nations of the world. I am thinking of men like Luther, and Bunyan, and George Washington, and Churchill, and Reagan, and Machen, and Lloyd-Jones. They all had to be strong, skilled craftsmen, experts in dealing with oppression. The world and the church will go on needing such people until the end of the time. We need such men today, though I see few of them speaking up and dealing with the anguish of the suffering church of Jesus Christ. We long to see those who are high in their tyranny being brought low.

Here Zechariah had been shown the oppressive, persecuting nations all around and they are at rest, arrogantly secure, building their empires and dreaming that they would last a thousand years (v.11). Then he is shown that they are not just at rest but aggressive, advancing to wipe out the people of God like four great horned animals on the attack. Then God does something new. He raises up these craftsmen so that the beasts and the wolves are filled with alarm. They retreat to their bunkers, or they themselves are scattered in a panic of terror. The Nazi leaders fled far from Germany to places like South America The lofty are indeed brought low; we read of Jeremiah rejoicing that “the horn of Moab is cut off” (Jer. 48:25). And in Amos chapter three the Lord speaks, “On the days that I visit the altars of Bethel with judgment, the horns of the altar will be cut off and fall to the ground” (Amos 3:14). The great mountains that are oppressing the children of God will be leveled into a plain. The Messiah has come to crush the serpent’s head.

You see the picture of the ultimate triumph of the one who sent the four craftsmen of destruction into the world in Revelation 19 and 20. The four horns of the beast, the rider on his horse and the angel are all there: “Then I saw the beast and the kings of the earth and their armies gathered together to make war against the rider on the horse and his army. But the beast was captured, and with him the false prophet who had performed the miraculous signs on his behalf. With these signs he had deluded those who had received the mark of the beast and worshipped his image. The two of them were thrown alive into the fiery lake of burning sulphur. The rest of them were killed with the sword that came out of the mouth of the rider on the horse, and all the birds gorged themselves on their flesh. And I saw an angel coming down out of heaven, having the key to the Abyss and holding in his hand a great chain. He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years. He threw him into the Abyss, and locked and sealed it over him, to keep him from deceiving the nations any more until the thousand years were ended. After that, he must be set free for a short time” (Rev. 19:19-20:3).

The Lord of the craftsmen has prevailed; he has cast Satan out of heaven. The beast is bound and thrown into the bottomless pit for a season. The world is not going to end in the desolation of the triumph of evil, even though now we see not all things put under Jesus’ feet. The Captain of our salvation goes forth conquering and to conquer and he sends us forth as lambs among wolves. Now if we depended on ourselves for protection then we’d be mutton chops. We don’t have the speed of a deer to flee from wolves. They can overtake us easily. We don’t have a leathery skin like a hippopotamus to protect us from their teeth and claws. We have no fangs, no burrows to hide in; we cannot spit poison, or roll ourselves into a spiky ball. We can’t climb trees and leap to safety from branch to branch; we have no wings to fly away from them. We are lambs and so we are totally vulnerable. Let us remember what we are, and so let us watch and pray. Remember the last words of Paul to the church in Ephesus before he set sail and left them? “I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock.” Our safety never lies in our individual skill. When a company of soldiers are on patrol in the Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan, each one of them is dependent on the other. They dare not act as if they were lone rangers seeking their own safety and devising their own rules. They are part of a body under leadership. That is part of our strength as Christians, in looking to one another, understanding one another, supporting one another and getting strength from another, honouring those in leadership, and finding help and giving help to one another.

But what is the main hope for lambs? It is in our powerful good Shepherd, and what a shepherd he is, utterly unafraid of wolves. It is his rod and his staff that comfort us. The youthful David killed a lion and a bear while protecting his father’s flock. How much mightier is great David’s greater Son! All authority in heaven and earth is his and we are safe in the work until our life’s work is over. Not a single shaft can fit till the God of love sees fit. We are safe in the arms of our Shepherd. He is more than a match for the biggest wolf pack in the world. He is omnipotent. Devils fear and fly from him. He loves his lambs so much that he will lay down his life to save them. The weakest, newest lamb is safely protected from the most ferocious wolf. Islam is terrified of the gospel church isn’t it? Look at the legislation and the penalties and punishments it has to use to prevent open assemblies of Christians, and the sales of books, and children and women’s work, and advertising and evangelism of any kind. It is scared stiff of what would happen if we were allowed to speak of the love and grace of Jesus Christ in lands dominated by the Ayatollahs. It prevents gospel broadcasting and televising and the world wide web because Islam cannot survive even in its ghettoes whenever the gospel comes not in word only but with power and the Holy Ghost and with much assurance. The Iranian Evangelical Church in London has 500 converted Muslims as its congregation. In our little church we personally know of three Muslims who have been converted here in the past couple of years, let alone the moderate and nominal Christians who have come to a living relationship with God.

Pay for the craftsmen who are even now at work. One named Jay, each Sunday afternoon, with his big Bible in one hand and little Koran in the other, stands on his aluminium ladder in Speakers’ Corner in London accompanied by a dozen of his friends who are scattered through the audience while policemen slowly walk around the crowd of largely Muslim men. Then Jay begins to speak, comparing the Koran’s teaching with the Bible, showing its inconsistencies and errors. There are those in the crowd who complain and shout, and then Christians near them turn and talk and defend the faith, and so long into the night the evangelism goes on in a free democracy. Our friend Hicham went there and told me he was a little overwhelmed at the encounter. He thought Jay was unique in what he was doing. He has been raised up by God and gifted by God, one of the craftsmen that God uses when the name of his Son is opposed and dishonoured. Hicham is another craftsman. So God will always vindicate his name and terrify the horns that threaten his people.

20th October 2013   GEOFF THOMAS