Alfred Place Baptist Church

1:8-13 The Peace of Apathy

During the night I had a vision – and there before me was a man riding 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.
Zechariah 1:8-13

The prophet Zechariah is quoted very often in the New Testament; just Isaiah is quoted more frequently. The writings of Zechariah are in fact referred to in over 70 places, a third of these in the four gospels. This penultimate book of the Old Testament is the largest of the twelve minor prophets, and so the Holy Spirit gave the prophet and his writings special significance and honour. It was written about eighteen years after the Jews were first given liberty to return from Babylon to Jerusalem. The first immigrants discovered the deserted, dead city and its temple all in ruins. It had to be rebuilt by a people who had walked there for over 500 miles across the Arabian desert. Did the children often ask, “When do we get there?” And when they got there it was no holiday camp but ruins inhabited by snakes and foxes; wells had to be dug and the local tribes were most unhappy that a few thousand Jews had turn up to reclaim and settle in their old place. So, as I said, eighteen years have passed since the first party arrived there, and now a growing inertia and disillusionment has fallen on them. So Zechariah (along with fellow preacher Haggai) were the two prophets sent by God to encourage and inspire the people to carry on in this mighty enterprise. Today we continue to overhear what messages the Holy Spirit gave to these people to motivate and revive them.

The God who speaks to the people through Zechariah is most often referred to as the ‘Lord of hosts,’ that is, the Lord of all the heavenly hosts, the innumerable company of angels and archangels, seraphim and cherubim. Jehovah is called ‘Lord of hosts’ fifty times in the prophecy of Zechariah, but the phrase is translated by the N.I.V. the ‘Lord Almighty’ (e.g. vv. 3, 4 & 6) but the translation the ‘Lord of hosts’ would have fitted in with this first vision where Zechariah sees a rider on a red horse and other horsemen with him. The horseman is the Son of God, and the other horsemen represent the heavenly hosts.

  1. THE INVOLVEMENT OF GOD.

“What are these horsemen?” asks Zecharaiah. They were not like the Persian state messengers he had known from a boy furiously riding to take messages from one provincial governor to another. They were more sedate and observant. An interpreting angel tells him the answer, but he does so through the leading horseman, the one who rides the red horse and stands among the myrtle trees alongside the great threatening deep. The Son of  God informs him, “They are the ones the Lord has sent to go throughout the earth” (v.10).  The nations of the world want to be independent of the Lord of hosts. They want to say with Pharaoh, “Who is the Lord that I should obey his voice?” They want to be left alone, so they say, but they’re fickle and greedy. When it suits them they’ll invade Judah at will and subjugate God’s people without fear, making them their slaves and lording it over their land. They’d done this supremely 88 years ago when they took the entire holy nation into exile in distant Babylon and terminated the dynasty of David.

So we are told that one day, when all the hosts of heaven gathered before the Lord to receive their orders, he chose some of the leading archangels and he said to them, “I want you to go throughout the whole earth and report to me on what is its condition. My Son, your Lord, will lead you,” and immediately the angels went off. We are very familiar with inspections of schools and old people’s homes and children’s homes and health and safety inspections of restaurants, and nations checking up on other nations who might possess weapons of mass destruction. University students have been known to inspect churches to judge the music and the preaching. So here is a scene in heaven where God is sending out inspectors. What do we have here?

i] An involved God. Men will say, “Where is God?” A bus passenger decided to sit next to my friend even though there were many empty seats. She sat down heavily and turned to my friend and her opening words were, “If I could meet God I’d wring his neck.” She had had some troubles which the God she didn’t know and serve should have forbidden. My friend was the very person to talk to her about the righteousness of God in all he does for us sinners. In our passage we are told that God is concerned to know what you do and say and think. “For the eyes of the LORD run to and fro throughout the whole earth to show himself strong in the behalf of them whose heart is perfect toward him.” (2 Chronicles 16:9, A.V.). Where is God? As near as the air that surrounds you; as close as gravity. Here we are told that he sends his ambassadors and asks for reports. I know it is an anthropomorphism, but the vivid picture is of an involved and omniscient God. What is happening in this town, in that home, in your life? What are you saying about him? Is Babylon and Egypt and Assyria submissive to the rule of their Creator whose power and godhead are visible in the world that he made and whose laws of right and wrong are built into our consciences? God is an involved God.

ii] A God of grace. God hasn’t given up on us. When for the first time we are told of God’s involvement observing his world it was at the time of Noah, and “God saw how great man’s wickedness on earth had become and every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time” (Gen.6:5). Nothing has changed since that time, and you might think that God would grieve that he’d ever made men and that he might even put mankind in his crucible and pour out his wrath on the whole world in holy indignation. Instead of that he is involved and interested in our lives, and he sends his Son and his angels to examine close up and report back to him what they see. It would be grace for him even to glance at us in our sin. The great Anne Steele (1717-1778) says in one of her hymns,

Great God, and will you condescend to cast a look below?

To this vile world your notice bend – these seats of sin and woe?”

Anne Steel expresses her amazement that this God not only sent his Son to consider the state of the world but a few years later he sent his Son to stay and live and die amongst us for thirty years to save creation.

iii] A yearning, saving God. He didn’t come to judge more severely and condemn the world; he didn’t come to blame – “Do you know what you are doing?” It was to save and to encourage his people that he came. His words are always what they are in this chapter, “Return to me and I will return to you . . . Turn from your evil ways and your evil practices” (vv.3&4). This is “the Lord who spoke kind and comforting words to the angel who talked with me” (v.13).

iv] A God of universal authority. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof, the world and they that dwell therein.” So these hosts of heaven are sent on this mission of cosmic surveillance. These riders on their colour horses are not like the men who came walking to Abraham’s home. Those three men had a very limited mission on foot to spend some hours with one patriarch, but the hosts that Zechariah saw are traversing the globe, and so they need to travel on horseback. They are ranging over the entire earth – that phrase ‘to be sent to go’ is found in verses 10 and 11 though that is not so clear in the N.I.V. It is the same word we find in Genesis 3 after the fall of man when our first parents hear the sound of the Lord on his mission to come towards them in the Garden (v.8). He is going to judge what they’ve done and they immediately go into hiding. They can’t bear to face him – much the same basic reason why thousands don’t come to hear the word of God preached and applied to them on Sundays. And so in the Old Testament this word translated ‘being sent to go’ frequently refers to God coming to judge. It is used of Samuel and the prophets, and also kings coming to the seat of judgment. It is even used of Satan in Job 1 and 2 scrutinizing men and on his mission to God says to him, “Job just serves you to keep getting the good things that you give him. Job is not interested simply in you.” So here we are shown an involved God, a God of grace, a God of universal authority.

  1. THE REPORT OF THE HORSEMEN.

So now there is a speeded up film, and so we are shown the horsemen returning and they report 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” (v.11). Perhaps you think that that is good, the whole world at rest and in peace, but this is the deep they are describing, the world that’s in rebellion against God, a world of defiant indifference to God, and it’s actually at rest about its own apathy. The prophet Isaiah has said that the godless world cannot be at peace; “the wicked are like the tossing sea, which cannot rest, whose waves cast up mire and mud. ‘There is no peace,’ says my God, ‘for the wicked’” (Isa. 57:20&21). Yet the world in rebellion against God has peace without God! God is the one who promises his rest to certain favoured people, to those who know him as their Shepherd. “He makes me to lie down in green pastures” says David. The Messiah says, “Come unto me all ye that labour and are heavy-laden and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). But what does Zechariah see? The people of God are weary, building the walls of Jerusalem with a trowel in one hand and a sword in another. They have not been at rest since they left Babylon. The ones who should have peace don’t have it, while those who should be restless and in turmoil are in fact at peace. What a topsy-turvey world this is. The Egyptians and Syrians weren’t agitated about the state of the Temple in Jerusalem and the poverty and struggles of the people of God. They weren’t sending money and supplies and workmen to strengthen the Jews in their crisis. They were at rest and peace.

What do we see here? That the absence of the Lord from the nations of the world is exactly what they desire, that God backs off and leaves them content to live without God. Do you understand that the sign of God’s presence with a people is non-peace? It is the disturbing of the rest of men who live without God. Let me illustrate this: you remember what happened when God sent Jonah to the city of Nineveh and he began to bring the word of God to them? Let’s read Jonah chapter three, verses four through ten: “On the first day, Jonah started into the city. He proclaimed: ‘Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.’ The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth [They were no longer at rest and peace]. When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. [He was no longer at rest and peace]. Then he issued a proclamation in Nineveh: ‘By the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let any man or beast, herd or flock, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.’ [Good-bye to indifference. Farewell rest and peace without God]. When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened.”

When the Lord is the glory that attends the ministry of his servants then there is a great awakening. Sinners leave Slumberland and forget the false peace of living without God. You remember the same thing happened in Jerusalem a few centuries later. There were many who had been glad that the problem of Jesus of Nazareth had been settled and they could get on living without his alarming language. He was dead and buried and they could forget about him and the one he referred to as his Father. But when they were in Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost his followers were filled with boldness and Peter spoke to these slumbering men. “‘God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear. For David did not ascend to heaven, and yet he said, “The Lord said to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.”’ Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.’ When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter replied, ‘Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off – for all whom the Lord our God will call.’ With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, ‘Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.’” Acts 2:32-40. No peace in the city of Jerusalem that day. There was the noise of preaching. There was the pain of people under conviction, cut to their hearts and crying out, “What shall we do?” The lives of 3,000 men and their families were turned around. The apostles were doing greater things than Jesus. There were baptisms and the whole city simply buzzed about one question, “Who is this Jesus of Nazareth?”

Or again when the apostles went to the Asia Minor and preached in Iconium again there was another great awakening in the city: “At Iconium Paul and Barnabas went as usual into the Jewish synagogue. There they spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Gentiles believed. But the Jews who refused to believe stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers. So Paul and Barnabas spent considerable time there, speaking boldly for the Lord, who confirmed the message of his grace by enabling them to do miraculous signs and wonders. The people of the city were divided; some sided with the Jews, others with the apostles. There was a plot afoot among the Gentiles and Jews, together with their leaders, to ill-treat them and stone them. But they found out about it and fled to the Lycaonian cities of Lystra and Derbe and to the surrounding country, where they continued to preach the good news” (Acts 14:1-7). Once again the very antithesis of a city being at rest and in peace. There is new faith; there is joy at the assurance of sins forgiven and guilt assuaged. There are miracles. Those who reject the good news are angry with the new disciples. There are plots afoot, and plans to persecute and stone Paul and Barnabas.

But what do we meet in our little town? Is the University staff room buzzing with the news that there is a congregation of Christians in their community that claim that God lives and that he is a holy and just God? He will judge the whole world, and we are all facing divine condemnation because all have sinned and come short of the glory of God. This congregation says that there is none righteous, no not one, and we are all lost men and women; we are on a broad road that leads to hell. But their preacher says that God has made wonderful provision for forgiveness and pardon by the sacrifice of the Lamb of God on Golgotha. Because he has died we can be forgiven, for in his death all the people of God also died to the dominion and punishment of sin. There is mercy to the very worst men who have ever lived who turn from their sin and put their faith in Christ the Son of God. That is what that group of men and women believe. In the University staff rooms professors are talking, saying, “Do you know that that is what that preacher says? What do you think of it?” “Ah, it’s a fairy tale . . . it’s all a myth . . . it’s just impossible . . . it’s a return to the dark ages . . . it’s fundamentalism . . . no intelligent thoughtful man can believe that today . . . he ought to know better than to say that sort of thing . . .” And the staff room returns to rest and peace, the subject of Jesus has been dealt with to be talked about again within those academic walls in another forty years’ time.

And in the National Library it is the same, a sense of shock when the subject is brought up that people should believe in the 21st century those old out of date fables. Then there’s a brief argument, an overwhelming sense of quiet disdain for these trouble-making fundamentalists and back to rest and peace. And it’s the same in the school staff-rooms as most of the teachers look pityingly at the God-squad. And what of the 8,000 students who never go to church on a Sunday? They are at peace and rest in their rejection of the living God too. And so are our neighbours and our families who live without God and who have no understanding of Jesus Christ. They forbid us to raise the subject of the gospel because it disturbs the peace of the family. “We don’t talk about religion in our house.” All of this sick continent of Europe is at peace. All who walk the corridors of power are at rest. The men and the women who have the media and the publishing houses in their pockets in every nation in Europe are all at peace without God and without the hope of salvation and forgiveness. That is what we have seen all around us throughout our lives and in all our travels, and it tallies with what the horsemen sent by God saw, those who’d gone throughout the earth looking for repentance and trust in Jehovah the Lord of hosts. They have found none. The nations in the great deep were all defiantly indifferent to the God of heaven, living their entire lives in hostile disregard for the honour of God’s name and for the plight of his people. Not a tremor registered on the seismograph of heaven. The great deep was calm and all the earth was at rest. The situation was such as to make the psalmist in Psalm 123 cry out, “Have mercy on us, O LORD, have mercy on us, for we have endured much contempt. We have endured much ridicule from the proud, much contempt from the arrogant.”

  1. THE ADVOCACY OF THE ANGEL.

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?’ (v.12). That is the response of trust, isn’t it? It was a pleasing response in the ears of God. The messenger of the Lord didn’t hear the bad news and cry, “Why? Why aren’t you doing something about this? Wake those nations up! Send a great revival! Encourage your people here with the news of world-wide turning to God. Send the latter day glory!” He knew that God had every right to permit the struggle to go on, and withhold mercy from Jerusalem and from the towns of Judah. The Lord Almighty had already spoken to the people and made that clear; “The LORD was very angry with your forefathers” (v.2). That was the note God struck at the beginning of this symphony of Zechariah. His own favoured and greatly blessed people had become a defiant and disobedient people. Just think how their kings had behaved, even the best of them. So the angel hears the report of the horsemen inspectors speaking to the Lord and the angel doesn’t say, “It’s not fair. We don’t understand . . . why are we disciples struggling day after day while the godless anti-Jehovahist nations all around us with their intolerable religions live in peace?” No, the Angel does not say that. He knows what they and their fathers had sown, and what a nation sows that also a nation reaps.

The angel simply asks, “How long?” Do you remember the same response by a mightier prophet than Zechariah, the prophet Isaiah? He also lived in days of indifference and hostility to the Lord, and one day he had a revelation of the living God that was overwhelming. He saw the Lord high and lifted up and the whole temple filled with his glory. He heard God ask, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” (Isa.6:8), and immediately Isaiah responds and volunteers, “Here am I. Send me!” And then he receives his commission from the Lord and that commission was the hardest word that ever a preacher heard at his ordination service. It was not a commission of hope and revival. His preaching was going to fall on deaf recalcitrant ears. His was not going to be an awakening ministry that would call the nation back to God in repentance. It was the toughest call that a believer could hear, for Jehovah told Isaiah what he was to say, and also how feeble would be the response. It was going to be a hardening ministry: “He said, ‘Go and tell this people: “Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving.” Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed” (Isa. 6:9&10). And what is Isaiah’s response? Does he protest? Does he say, “Why, Lord?” No. He doesn’t ask for another commission. He humbly asks God one thing, “For how long, O Lord?” (Isa. 6:11). It’s the very same response that the angel gives to the Lord in our text (v.12). “Lord Almighty how long?”

It is obvious that neither of these prophets wanted to receive such a word from God. Who would? We want a prophecy that we are gong to have a ministry of mighty blessings, of times of refreshing from the presence of the Lord, of great awakenings, of five or six spiritual harvests, of turning the nation back to truth and righteousness, not a commission that we will preach to a nation that simply sleeps in utter apathy at our sermons. Yet neither response from Isaiah or from Zechariah was a defiant refusal to do what God requested. They knew that they were facing a colossal tragedy and that there was a reason for it, that it was due to one thing, the people had had blessings, the law, the covenants, the sacrifices and the promises from God and they had demeaned them. Neither prophet demanded from God that God should justify himself for giving them such a ministry in hard times. Both men obeyed the word they had from God and went on preaching and writing even if they did so with heavy hearts. They could say what Paul later said, “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:8&9).

Many of you know that tough words came to you at one time or another in your lives, and Isaiah and Zechariah give to us three very simple monosyllables which show us how we are to respond. The doctor tells us that the baby has leukemia, and we say, “How long, Lord?” The diagnosis of our husband is that he has incurable dementia, and we say, “How long, Lord?” We discover that the lumps are malignant and that they are only secondaries, and we say, “How long, Lord?” A North Korean pastor is arrested for holding a forbidden meeting in his home. He stands in the dock waiting for the certain sentence of years in a prison camp of unspeakable conditions away from his wife and children. Who will protect them? His one thought is, “How long, Lord?” The church votes that a preacher must vacate the pastorate and leave the manse, and he says, “How long, Lord?” In other words, we know that we deserve nothing from God, but that he has blessed us richly throughout our lives. Then when he permits some loss of devastating proportions to come into our lives we can respond as Job responded at the loss of his family, and the loss of his possessions and the loss of his health. We read, “Then Job fell to the ground in worship and said: ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall depart. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised.’ In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing.” (Job 1:20-22).

In other words what we see here is the commitment of Zechariah, and Isaiah, and Job to receiving and doing the will of God. That is what they wanted above everything else in life, so that when they discovered something was the will of God then they said, “It is the Lord who gave and the Lord who took away and I bless his name.” You will remember that the Lord Christ was given a cup to drink, and it was full of intense suffering, so that he asked for the possibility of another cup, but then he added these words, “Nevertheless not my will but thine be done.”

Then you remember what happened. His loving Father in heaven beckoned to an angel to go to him, “Go and comfort your Lord. You will find him prostrate and bloodied in the Garden of Gethsemane. Cheer him!” We know that he did that, but we don’t know how he did so, whether he covered his eyes with two of his wings, and covered his feet with two of his wings, and with two of his wings he flew, and he cried to Jesus as he lay broken and prostrate on the grass, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory,” or whether he bowed before him and said, “Your Father has sent me to tell you that you are his beloved Son in whom he is well pleased.” But we know that the angel comforted our Lord, and that strengthened by the angel’s comfort he stood erect again and saw the soldiers coming to arrest him and went across to the sleeping trio of dejected disciples commanding them to arise, and he faced his enemies composed and at peace.

So it was here with Zechariah. The Lord heard the angel’s response, “Lord Almighty, how long will you withhold mercy from Jerusalem” and the Lord encouraged the angel because we are told this, “So the Lord spoke kind and comforting words to the angel who talked with me” (v.13). Could it have been this same angel who had learned how to comfort by being comforted by his Lord who was sent to that same Lord in Gethsemane to comfort him? This great God who in the beginning created the heavens and the earth, our loving heavenly Father through Jesus our Saviour, the one who said let there be light and there was light, the one who tells us that he had been very angry with our defiant and unbelieving fathers, he is not silent. He is the wonderful counsellor who speaks. God can say the most kind and helpful words to us whenever we say to him, “How long, Lord? How long will I have him or her? How long will I have to preach into hostility and resistance? I will take it. I’ll do it because you have promised me that I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” and our Lord is so kind. The one who allowed the fallen woman to come so close and wash his feet and anoint him with precious perfume, the one who told the dying thief that that day he would be with him in paradise, the one who was moved with compassion for the crowds seeing them as sheep without a shepherd – he can speak such kind and comforting words to us. We hear a sermon and the message is the Lord’s word for us. We read the Bible and a phrase comes powerfully to us. The Lord Jesus draws near us, and we find the words of the hymn about him to be spot on, “He soothes our sorrows, heals our wounds and drives away our fears.”

6th October 2013             GEOFF THOMAS