Everything is tranquil in Zechariah 1, the calm before the storm. The people knew that the Lord would overthrow the nations, but were disappointed in a lack of action. Zechariah received visions, explained to him by a heavenly being, that illuminated him with the overarching scheme of history. In this chapter, the prophet learned that the Lord will soon engage the final act: the ultimate defeat of the nations and gathering of his people.
The first 5 1/2 chapters of Zechariah (1:1-6:8) are written in a genre called “apocalyptic literature,” which posits that history is a series of eras that follow a scheme known only in the heavens. The Book of the Revelation of John in the New Testament is a well-known example of this genre, but the ancient world produced hundreds of such works, and many survived as “pseudepigrapha,” or works purported to be written by another author (eg, Apocalypse of Abraham, Apocalypse of Adam, Apocalypse of Moses).
In the first half of Zechariah, the apocalyptic genre reinforces that this last section of the Book of the XII describes the eschaton or last days. In Zephaniah, the eschatological people were called to gather; in Haggai, the eschatological temple was commanded to be built. In Zechariah, the angel interpreter (common in this genre) reveals to the prophet (and us, the readers, as “flies on the wall” of the heavenly discourse) the nature of history and the times he’s living in. Time and history have a clear structure, and Zechariah finds himself in the end of an era.
The Lord’s word is eternal
In spite of the people’s actions, the Lord proved that his word extends beyond them (vv. 1-6). This prophecy took place in year 2, month 8, which is the same time as the prophecies in Haggai 2, so during the building of the temple.
The Lord was angry with their fathers, but now the people had an opportunity to repent. In Hebrew “repent” comes from the root שוב shuv, which literally means “turn.” The Lord recommended that the people turn from how they had been doing things, and the Lord, for his part, would turn from how he has been doing things. When he was angry with and warned the fathers, the fathers did not change their ways. The consequences of conquest by countless enemies were well known to Zechariah’s contemporary audience. The fathers died, the prophets died, but the word of warning and of consequences remained. Those who knew about the events had to admit that the word came to pass, and the recipients and messengers of the word passed away. No one could deny that the Lord’s word determined their destiny.
The Lord comes with thunder — but it’s still quiet
The Lord promised to overturn the nations in the last day, so that the humble will come to the Lord–but the land is at peace (vv. 7-12). This prophecy took place in year 2, month 11, day 24, that is two months after Haggai’s last prophecies. Building the temple has been underway, but nothing has changed.
Zechariah engaged again with an angel to ask about a vision of horses sent by the Lord to roam the earth (vv. 8-12). The riders came to roam the earth, to walk throughout the earth. They reported that all the earth was tranquil, that there was no sign that the latest kingdom (Persian) was being overthrown.
With peace throughout the world, why did the angel cry for the Lord to show mercy to Jerusalem and Judah? It was too quiet! The Lord promised to show mercy by overturning the nations, yet they saw no sign of overturn.
In the next section (vv. 13-17) the angel explained that the Lord was still planning. The Lord loved Jerusalem and Zion, and was upset with the nations who added to the evil the Lord had planned. He was not yet ready to act, however. The Lord promised that the nations deserved punishment; while the Lord planned on punishing his people by means of the nations, the nations had taken it too far. The Lord then changed the subject from the nations to state that the temple will be rebuilt, his presence would be in it, and the land will abound (v. 16; see Haggai). The Lord would be favorable again towards them (v. 17). Even though the riders did not see any “action” in the arrival of the eschaton, the Lord affirmed that his plans were coming to fruition.
The next image illustrated the Lord’s intentions (vv. 18-21 [2:1-4 in the Hebrew Bible]). Often apocalyptic literature depicts future actions through animal metaphors. The Lord sent smiths to hew off the horns of the Gentile enemies. He planed to render them impotent for their violence towards Judah.
The last days were upon Israel. Their fathers did not take their opportunity when the prophets offered it to them. Zechariah’s audience knew the consequences. The Lord assured them that even thought they saw no evidence that the world order was changing, he had a plan: a temple with his presence and recompense on the nations. The people saw the final, apocalyptic storm coming–would they choose to brave the coming storm or seek shelter in the Lord?