I looked up again – and there before me were four chariots coming out from between two mountains – mountains of bronze! The first chariot had red horses, the second black, the third white, and the fourth dappled–all of them powerful. I asked the angel who was speaking to me, ‘What are these, my lord?’ The angel answered me, ‘These are the four spirits of heaven, going out from standing in the presence of the Lord of the whole world. The one with the black horses is going towards the north country, the one with the white horses towards the west, and the one with the dappled horses towards the south.’ When the powerful horses went out, they were straining to go throughout the earth. And he said, ‘Go throughout the earth!’ So they went throughout the earth. Then he called to me, ‘Look, those going towards the north country have given my Spirit rest in the land of the north.’
I believe that going through these chapters of the visions in the book of Zechariah are bound to help us to understand other similar chapters in the Bible in such books as Daniel and Revelation. They are such fresh and striking images; they have the simplest of messages, and the vision before us today is again clear so that the children will understand it, and by the way, this is the seventh and final vision of Zechariah.
The prophet has seen other horsemen; in fact in this regard this last vision re-echoes the first one. In that vision Zechariah had seen the ugliness and godlessness of the nations of the world, and the concerns he had expressed then at the beginning were for God to arise and scatter his enemies. “Lord Almighty, how long will you withhold mercy from Jerusalem?” (Zech.1:12). That cry begins to be answered here. You can see that the first and seventh visions are the two book-ends that frame these seven visions.
Zechariah had watched imperial messengers on their galloping horses from his boyhood, and that would have been an exciting sight, the furious riders, serving the Emperor of Babylon, taking his messages and reports from Babylon to Israel at the furthest western extremities of his dominion and taking back to the Emperor official submissions about the peoples in this part of the empire. But these charioteers in our text were not messengers or civil servants or heralds bringing new decrees. These were men of war, fighting machines; think Ben Hur’s chariots, pulled by armoured war horses, clothed in different coloured liveries. How the enemy’s soldiers entering a battle would tremble when there came thundering towards them a line of a hundred chariots, each containing a spearsman and swordsman lunging and hacking at the enemy who’d been knocked off their feet and injured by the chariot and horse. These were the infantry of ancient times, almost impregnable, and trained in the arts of hand to hand combat, followed by thousands of foot soldiers screaming with blood lust. That is the picture we have to bear in mind, the arrival of the conquerors.
Of course we hate carnal weapons used in the name of religion. We despise those who stoop to encouraging the suicide bomber and the car bomb and launching holy wars, murder, shooting young girls who want an education, threats of capital punishment and long years of prison for Christians. Such hatred comes from hell. God bless the prisoner for Christ today! God keep him and use him today! Our weapons are not such devilish carnality. They are the shield of faith and the sword of Spirit which is the word of God. Here we are reminded that all who believe in the Lord will be engaged in a holy war and that ought to reflect itself in the seriousness of our worship. Our overwhelming affection is rejoicing, but we will temper that with a consciousness of our casualties, fatalities and lamentations for the martyrs. Personal tragedies are around us; the whole creation is groaning until today.
So we are reminding ourselves that Jesus has not invited us to a picnic but to a conflict, not to a jamboree but a fight, not to a playing field but a battle field. Regeneration has baptized us into battle. Scars are the price which every believer pays for his loyalty to his Lord. Yes there is peace with God, but there is a constant war with the beast that comes out of the sea with seven heads, in other words, wickedness is multifarious. One head could be atheism, another head could be the cults, another could be the older religions, another could be materialism, another could be modernism, and so on. So we are called to the strife and there is no escape; no winning without warfare; no opportunity without opposition; no victory without vigilance. We are not going to slip quietly through this life to enter heaven without a lot of fuss. We go to glory via a conflict and a cross. The gates of hell are fighting against us. Spurgeon claimed, “I have never won an inch of the way to heaven without fighting for it. In fact conflict is the principal feature of the Christian life this side of heaven.”
So Zechariah is shown four charioteers. What are we told about them?
- THEY WERE STABLED IN THE MOUNTAINS OF BRONZE.
What must it be like to come across mighty mountains made out of pure bronze and see the sun shining down on them? You would need to hide your eyes from that glory. Imagine that all you had seen before this were the granite dry mountains of the Middle East. That is all you thought existed. Grey, relentless, barren hills – the sight an atheist has of life without God. Then he is confronted with golden splendid mountains! What are they? They are the home of the Lord of all the earth; we are told that in verse 5. They are a symbol of the courts of heaven where our cosmic Lord sits in glory. We have this emphasis in these visions on pairs of objects, two olive trees, two seraphim and what is probably two myrtle trees, and that is a device that doubles the significance of these items, like a singer and his brother singer, the partnership of two strikers in a soccer team, a comedy duo – a lyricist and a composer. Both are needed. So two mountains of bronze.
Again, later on in chapter 14 we are shown a picture of the end of the world. The Lord is standing on the Mount of Olives at Jerusalem and it splits apart into two mountains and mighty omnipotent Jehovah stands so tall, with one foot on each mountain. Let me read to you from Zechariah 14 verses 2 and 3; “Then the LORD will go out and fight against those nations, as he fights in the day of battle. On that day his feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem, and the Mount of Olives will be split in two from east to west, forming a great valley, with half of the mountain moving north and half moving south.” So these mountains of bronze are mission control; they are the supreme headquarters of the command of the cosmos, from which God comes, by his servants to govern the world, to spread his kingdom, to build his church and to overcome his enemies. How invincibly strong is the Lord! How impregnable is his headquarters! This is the God who determined that in our town of Aberystwyth year after year his sovereign power and glory should be made known from this congregation to this part of his world. We exist under his protection. We survive by his power. We are more than conquerors through him who loved us. This vision tells us what God, our Father which art in heaven, does with his power. He reigns in intimidating glory.
- THESE CHARIOTS ARE ALL UNIQUE
“The first chariot had red horses, the second black, the third white, and the fourth dappled” (vv.2&3). One fear that some men have of becoming Christians is that thereby they will lose their identity. They will become like red Lego bricks. Sometimes you meet Christians who give the impression of great artificiality, that they are less than human in their own personal lives. Their personalities seem to have been blended into some bland religiosity, and they will lose all other innocent interests, gifts and hobbies. I say to you that that will not be, or if it starts to become like that for you then it is because of the weakness of the church you are attending, or that you have fallen into the hands of a cult, because every true Christian carries with him his own molecular structure, his own personhood in all its individuality. His personality has not been merged and lost in some grey standardised computerised religion. He possesses a variety of gifts over which he has the stewardship to develop and prosper them. He may not worship them; they must not become a snare in his life, but exercise them he must. Many Christians have ten talents; some have five; very few have only one. We are called upon to use the intelligence we have, and the ability to minister to others to honour and glorify God.
The Christian has his own human temperament. Paul tells us that there were days when he was ‘pressed down beyond measure.’ He wasn’t living on some great artificial high, or some ecstasy, bubbling and effervescing away with some ersatz kind of excitement. There were days when he felt low; he even despaired of life. His temperament hadn’t been over-ridden so as to destroy that side of his human personality. The apostle tells us that he had to learn in whatsoever state he was in to be contented. His peace of mind didn’t depend on his genetic inheritance or his personality. At his conversion he found it difficult to be contented. There is much evidence to suggest that Paul was a great bundle of energy. He found it tough to be patient. He had been an irritable man, but he had learned how to handle his temperament, he had learned to manage his discontentedness and control his impatience, and deal with his irritability and master it by the grace of God.
Again a Christian is a man with human affections. He loved his own people in a special way. He had a great burden for his fellow Jews. He could wish himself accursed from Christ if by that his fellow countrymen would know the living Lord. So we do not lose our ethnic, national, racial characteristics simply by becoming Christians
Again each Christian has his own bundle of natural weaknesses and problems. We all have inadequacies and when we become Christians we do not find that immediately they are replaced and renewed with a whole new range of talents. Men said about Paul after he had been a Christian for years, “His bodily presence is weak and his speech is contemptible.” He was no great orator like Peter. He did not have a dynamic and overwhelming presence. In those areas he was born weak and remained weak and there can come a time when we see God’s wisdom in granting us such weaknesses and leaving them in our lives. I often wonder how much we owe to our weaknesses, to the things that keep us dependent on God, hanging on to God and to his strength just to survive.
Again each Christian is different in his interests. I don’t think that the effect of becoming a Christian was that for him nothing matters afterwards but religion. I don’t think God wants us to become folk to whom nothing matters but religion. If you go all over the Scriptures you find the author of Job, and the author of Ecclesiastes, and Moses and Isaiah and the psalmists commenting on everything in God’s creation. They are interested in musical instruments, and mining, and beauty, and agriculture, and the climate, and commerce, and even matters military. They had a great vision of God’s creation and all those marvelous gifts God had given to men in creation. John Calvin was one of the great humanists of his own age, in other words he was a great classical scholar. Both Dr. Machen and Abraham Kuyper had a life-long love of mountains. John Murray returned to rearing sheep at the end of his life and Warfield was an expert on short horn cattle. There is the well known story of a man who was once asked if he had any brothers or sisters and he said, “Yes, I have two brothers. One is Christian minister and the other is a human being.”
That is precisely the point I am making here. That we are not called to subsume our lives into standardised religiosity. Christians are different; the horsemen were all evidently unique. Of course, as Christians may not select our own principles of conduct, how we are going to behave, or what doctrines we may choose or reject. Truth is given to us in the Bible by God and it is to be believed and acted upon. Doctrine and righteousness are the stuff of believing meditation. They are also the foundation of any energy and power we may possess. Do you notice that there was one thing all these horses of very different colours had in common? We are told that they were all powerful (v.3). We are also told that the chariots are also spirits, “These are the four spirits of heaven, going out from standing in the presence of the Lord of the whole world” (v.5). The power that the chariots run on is the Holy Spirit himself; it is heavenly energy, a gift from God, and the Lord will only bless the truth and the righteousness that is found here in the Bible. You will never meet a powerful modernist speaker, a man through whom many come to faith in Christ. He cannot be a denier of gospel truths and also be powerful. The evangel will destroy the error or the error will destroy the evangels. There cannot be both in one person. God honours his truth. There is one truth, and one ethic alone, but there is enormous variety in the congregations of Jesus Christ.
You know how Paul compares the people of God to a body. Not all the body is an eye or a nose or an ear. So it is with God’s servants. Compare Luther and Calvin; each was necessary for the work that each did, but each was very different from the other. Or think of the difference between the two leaders of the Great Awakening, John Wesley and George Whitefield. Or in Wales think of Daniel Rowland and Howell Harris, how different they were in their personalities and their gifts. Daniel Rowland could not have gone round Wales preaching in the open air and awakening men and women as Howell Harris did. Daniel Rowland stayed at home in Llangeitho for one long ministry. So, should you become a Christian today let me assure you that you are not going to lose your love, say, of mountain climbing or music or your ability to paint or play hockey, but rather you may find how that helps you to become a better servant of God. Your love of God will prevent you from becoming a slave to your passions. Christians are red, white, black and dappled and in the course of time we discover why God has made us and has gifted us as he did, and we can rejoice in that.
- THESE CHARIOTS GO OUT FROM THE PRESENCE OF THE LORD INTO THE WHOLE WORLD.
You can see how that is underlined in verses five and six, the black horses head north, the white go west, while the dappled turn to the south. In other words, there is no territory that is out of bounds. I do not know why the destination of the red horse going to the east isn’t mentioned. But what I do know is that there are no man-made boundaries that these horsemen may not cross. There are no ‘no-go areas’ that the Lord may not perforate. Wesley was criticized for preaching outside his own parish in other men’s parishes, and he told his critics that all the world was his parish. He would go anywhere to spread the kingdom of God. I was introduced to an Iranian this past week and he is constantly going back to Iran and preaching and teaching there – in other words going into a situation of very real danger, and he does so very carefully, but under the constraint of heaven. He has been brought into the liberty of gospel freedom and he longs that all his fellow Iranians should know this same Lord Jesus who can make us free indeed, who can break the chains that bind us to the past, can give us the promises of usefulness in this world and glory in the world to come.
You remember the great commissions that Jehovah Jesus gave to his disciples, that the voice that came to them from him who finally stood on the mountains of bronze said, “Go and make disciples of all nations.” He commanded repentance and forgiveness of sins to be preached in his name to all nations. He told them, “you will be my witnesses . . . to the ends of the earth.” Then he added, Lo!” and he got their attention. They were thinking of the cost, what lay ahead, leaving the land they knew and their families and loved one and preaching this message of the crucified and risen Son of God. “Lo!” he said . . . . “I am going to be with you always,” and so they would be able to do all things through his strength. They were not going forth with the limited sum of their own resources and abilities, but they would be supernaturally endowed with heavenly power. They would have illimitable access to an indwelling Saviour. What else can explain William Carey and the fifty years he spent in India, never once returning to England and dying in Calcutta? What else can explain the growth of the churches in Kenya and the more than forty years that Keith Underhill has spent there and the spread of the gospel to the most primitive areas which many urban Kenyans would rather forget existed. Little did the authorities in the East Indian Company when they reluctantly agreed that this cobbler and non-conformist preacher William Carey should be allowed to enter India and preach there, In fact they were allowing into the land a charioteer with powerful weapons that would go forth conquering in India! Little did the immigration officials in Kenya know that when they were letting in Keith Underhill they were opening the country not to one school teacher but to “the four spirits of heaven, going out from standing in the presence of the Lord of the whole world” (v.5), and that within forty years he would have encouraged the planning of fifty churches and be in charge of many schools among the Rendille tribe.
4. THESE CHARIOTS WERE SO EAGER TO FIGHT THIS HOLY WAR THAT THEY WERE STRAINING TO GO FOR IT.
Don’t you see that clearly in the 7th verse? “When the powerful horses went out, they were straining to go throughout the earth.” What a picture of a hunting animal, straining under some restraint, a age or a lead, and pawing the ground with its hooves, longing to get out with its fellow steeds and be involved in fighting for the Lord, aching to be given the command by their Master to go. God did not tantalise them but seeing their eagerness and rewarding it with a call from heaven, “he said, ‘Go throughout the earth!’ So they went throughout the earth.” What is the mark of a man called to be a preacher of the gospel? It is a strong and growing desire to do this work. Many waters cannot quench the call. What is the mark of a man who will stay for fifty years pastoring one single congregation? It is his overwhelming desire each coming Sunday and Tuesday to bring the big word of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ to all who still desire to hear him. I returned from the USA on Thursday at 3.25 in the railway station here and by 6 p.m.. I was in my study doing what I had not been able to do in America, prepare the message of the Word of God for today. What will keep a man like our brother in Kenya through disappointments and complaints and a mini-rebellion? It is the love of Jesus Christ constraining him to go on fighting the good fight of faith in Africa for his beloved name. Powerful horses . . . straining to go through the world – would that we saw many more of them in our day. Men of earnestness, and I understand that enthusiasm has to be tempered by true theology and given credibility by holy living.
- THESE CHARIOTS’ LABOURS ARE NOTED AND REWARDED FROM HEAVEN.
It is not that God winds us up and presses the ‘Start’ button and then he goes off to look after other things on the other side of the Milky Way, spectating at us as we work away. The Lord said in his commissioning the disciples to go into the world, “and lo I am with you always even to the end of the age.” He is with us, and he helps us, and he blesses us. He notices what we have done, that the servant with five talents has made five talents more, and the servants with three talents has made three talents more. So here we are told that the angels speaking to Zechariah said to him, “Look, those going towards the north country have given my Spirit rest in the land of the north” (v.8). The Holy Spirit was no longer deeply grieved in that evil place where his servants had been persecuted and killed. A mighty servant of God like Jonah had gone to the capital of an evil empire and preached, engaged in this holy war and Nineveh was changed, repenting in dust cloth and ashes. The tide of militant unbelief had been driven back and the Messiah’s people had prospered. Corinth had been a wicked city but one day Paul went there full of the Spirit of God to preach Christ and him crucified to them. The chariot of God entered town and the apostle soon could say, “Thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him” (2 Cors. 2:14). Where before there had been carnality and pain and restless fears there was now peace. The Spirit was no longer being quenched in that place to the degree he’d been defied and hated. They were having times of refreshing from God’s presence, the fragrance of the knowledge of God’s blessed Son was there, and, of course, God had noticed this transformation of grace.
Shouldn’t that fact further motivate us in our work for the Lord, to give pleasure to our God by spreading the word of his Son? Don’t you find that this fact is neglected? Whenever a sermon provides a motive for obedience, it’s almost exclusively thankfulness for what Christ has done. And certainly that is a wonderful and foundational motivation. But is it the exclusive motivation?
The New Testament writings suggest it is not. For those who faithfully endure persecution, Jesus makes it clear, “Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven” (Luke 6:23). Paul states it plainly, “But each will receive his own reward according to his own labour” (1 Corinthians 3:8). The author of Hebrews even reminds us that Moses was motivated by rewards, “He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward” (Hebrews 11:26).
But if divine recognition and delight is clearly presented as a motivation in the Christian life, why don’t we hear more about such a reward? I need to preach on it more, and speak to you more about heaven and make it real to you. Let’s be deeply aware that our obedience matters. While we are rightly told that only Christ’s obedience can secure our justification and that he has kept the law perfectly for us, our own obedience can’t be neglected. No doubt, the downplaying of Christian obedience is borne out of good motives—some think Christ is glorified the most when we disparage our own obedience. Our good works are just “filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6), we are reminded.
But, this whole line of thought misses the distinction between an unbeliever’s attempts at law-keeping and what a regenerated believer does in thankfulness to God for a free redemption. Granted, neither can merit salvation or justification. Both fall woefully short of God’s perfect standards. But that does not mean that the believer’s obedience doesn’t matter. God is pleased with it because it is done through Jesus Christ – even though it is imperfect.
You see the obedience of these chariots in this passage. The angel speaks to the horses, “ ‘Go throughout the earth!’” And we are told, “So they went throughout the earth” (v.7). Instant obedience, and then you see how this sixth chapter ends, with the reward from heaven of more help given to the people of God in building the temple of the Lord and the final sentence, “This will happen if you diligently obey the Lord your God” (v.15). God notices and rewards obedience.
Trust and obey for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus but to trust and obey.
26th January 2014 GEOFF THOMAS