In the chapter, Zechariah sees two visions. The first demonstrates God's compassion for Jerusalem and anger with the nations that have oppressed Israel. The second is a vision of empires that have scattered Israel, and of their coming judgment.
Zechariah began his ministry in 520 BC, in the second year of the reign of the Persian king, Darius I Hystaspes (this is not Darius the Mede who appears in Daniel 6). The book is dated with reference to a Gentile king because Israel had no king of its own. Jesus called this period of Israel's history 'the times of the Gentiles' in Luke 21:24 (see also Hosea 3:4-5). It ends with the second coming, when Jesus returns as Israel's king.

Historical background
The Jews had been exiled to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BC. In 539 BC, Cyrus the Persian conquered Babylon and in the same year issued a decree allowing the Jews to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple (Ezra 1:1-4). About 50,000 of the most zealous Jews responded and went. Many more stayed in Babylon. When they arrived after a five-month journey, they found Jerusalem in ruins and the temple a pile of rubble. In the first year, they rebuilt the altar and reinstituted the sacrificial system and religious festivals (Ezra 3:1-6). In the second year, they began to rebuild the temple (Ezra 3:7-13), but they quickly became discouraged in the face of opposition from the local Samaritan population (Ezra 4:1-5). The temple rebuilding ceased for about 16 years, and the people focussed instead on rebuilding their homes and making themselves comfortable. In 520 BC, after Haggai called them to repentance, they restarted the temple building project under the leadership of Zerubbabel the governor and Joshua the high priest. Zechariah's prophetic ministry began two months after Haggai started preaching. The temple was finished and rededicated in 516 BC (Ezra 6).

Zechariah's first message was a call to repentance (v1-6). They had already repented of neglecting the temple rebuilding (Haggai 1), but Zechariah called them to repent for having neglected the Mosaic covenant. His message from God was, "Turn to me…and I will turn to you". The people responded with a confession of their guilt (v6), recognising that God had punished them for their sins in accordance with the warnings in his word, (i.e. in Deuteronomy 28).

About 3 months later, all on a single night, Zechariah received a series of eight prophetic visions, as recorded from 1:7 to 6:8. These are apocalyptic in style, making heavy use of symbolism. The first two visions are recorded here in chapter 1.

Vision One (v8-17) - Man among the myrtle trees
Zechariah says in verse 8, "I was attentive that night and saw a man seated on a red horse that stood among some myrtle trees in the ravine. Behind him were red, sorrel, and white horses".

In verse 11 we see that this man is actually the 'angel of the Lord'. The angel of the Lord is the pre-incarnate Christ who appears many times throughout the Old Testament (e.g. Genesis 16:7-13; 31:11-13; Exodus 3:2-6 &14; 23:20-22, Numbers 22:22-35 and Judges 6:11-18). In some passages he appears distinct from God but is then described as if he is God.

Here in verse 12, the angel of the Lord asks God a question. This is like an Old Testament equivalent of Jesus speaking to God the Father. In Zechariah's vision, there is also a messenger angel (vs 9, 13 & 14). In addition, the other horses have angelic riders. Their role is to walk about on the earth, in other words, to patrol it (v10-11). They report that the earth is at rest and quiet. This implies that in 520 BC the world was enjoying a period of relative peace under Persian rule and there was no major conflict.

The meaning of the colours of the horses is not explained. In Zechariah's eighth vision (6:1-8) he sees four chariots led by red, white, black and spotted horses, but the meaning of the colours is not explained there either. In Revelation 6, John has a vision of four horses that are white, red, black and pale green. The red one represents bloodshed and war. It is not clear if it has this same meaning here in Zechariah.

The myrtle tree in a ravine (or valley) is symbolic of Israel's low and humble status at that point in time. The Angel of the Lord's question concerns how long it will be before God has compassion on Jerusalem (v12). In response, God speaks comforting words to the angelic messenger who then in turn tells Zechariah that God is very much moved (literally 'jealous') for Jerusalem, but is very displeased (angry) with the nations that are at rest but are taking his grace for granted (v14-15). God doesn't answer the question about timing, but simply communicates his heart for Israel and anger concerning the Gentile nations.

Had I been Zechariah, I might have understood from the vision that God was seated on his war-horse and ready to go to war against the surrounding nations in order to uphold Zion's cause and to judge the nations for their ingratitude and complacency towards him. In the end times, this is effectively what Jesus will do at the battle of Armageddon. Zechariah's day was not the right time for God to do that. However, in verses 16 to 17, God did promise that the temple and Jerusalem would be rebuilt, and that the cities (of Judah) would once again overflow with prosperity. God would comfort Zion and once again validate his choice of Jerusalem.

In practice, it would take the Jews about four years to complete the temple and they would rededicate it in 516 BC, seventy years after its destruction in 586 BC. This is one explanation for Jeremiah's seventy years of desolation (Jeremiah 25:11-12). It would take another seventy years after that for Jerusalem to be rebuilt. In 444 BC, King Artaxerxes of Persia granted Nehemiah authority to return to Jerusalem and to rebuild its walls (Nehemiah 2). And the Persian Empire would continue as the world's great superpower until its conquest by Alexander the Great in 333 BC. So although this vision was fulfilled to some extent in the years following, its ultimate fulfilment awaits the second coming of Jesus, the judgment of God's enemies, and the Millennial restoration of Jerusalem and its temple. The eschatological nature of Zechariah's visions becomes more apparent when we get to his third vision in the next chapter.

Vision Two (v18-21) - Four horns and four blacksmiths
In Jeremiah's second vision, he sees four horns, followed by four blacksmiths (or craftsmen). Animals use their horns in defence and attack. Metaphorically, horns represent rulers and their empires (Daniel 7:24). The angelic messenger tells Zechariah that the horns in this vision are those that have scattered Judah, Israel and Jerusalem, in other words the nation of Israel viewed in its entirety (v19). The blacksmiths have come to terrify Judah's enemies and cut off the horns (v21). The point of the metaphor is that a blacksmith's hammer would easily shatter a horn.

Which empires are in view here, and what is the significance of the number four? In the bible, the number four usually represents the whole world as represented by the four directions, north, east, south and west. If we understand that Zechariah's visions will ultimately see their fulfilment in the end times, then the four horns could represent all nations, in a general sense, that have ever oppressed and scattered the people of Israel throughout history, or will do so in the future, including Antichrist's empire. It may therefore be a mistake to try to equate them with four specific empires.

If you do attempt to relate them with four specific empires, one option is to equate them with the four empires envisioned in Daniel 2 and 7. These are Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and either the Roman Empire or the Islamic Empire. The identity of the fourth empire is debatable (see my page 'Timeline of Four Empires'). One problem with that option is that it leaves out Assyria which scattered the northern kingdom of Israel. Another problem is that it includes Persia. Although Persia was ruling over Israel in Zechariah's day, Persia actually had an important role in facilitating the return of the Jews to Israel, and even financed the rebuilding of the temple. Is it reasonable then to identify Persia as a horn that scattered Israel?

Another option might be to identify the four horns as Assyria, Babylon, Rome and the Islamic Empire. The Islamic Empire didn't scatter Israel, strictly speaking, since the Jews had already been exiled and scattered by the Romans before the rise of Islam. But Islam then ruled the land of Israel for nearly 1,200 years, and was the main obstacle to the Jews returning.

How then should we identify the four blacksmiths? Presumably some of these empires were both horns and blacksmiths. Babylon was the blacksmith that broke the horn of Assyria. Persia was the blacksmith that broke the horn of Babylon, and so on. Each blacksmith is the means of God's judgment against the horn that preceded it. In the end times, presumably Jesus is the blacksmith who breaks the horn of Antichrist's Empire.
Places: Israel, Judah, Jerusalem
Symbols: Four horses, Myrtle tree, Valley, Horns, Four blacksmiths or craftsmen
Tags: Jesus as the Angel of the Lord, Timeline of four empires, God jealous for Jerusalem
1 In the eighth month of Darius’ second year, the Lord’s message came to the prophet Zechariah, son of Berechiah son of Iddo:
2 The Lord was very angry with your ancestors.
3 Therefore say to the people: The Lord of Heaven’s Armies says, “Turn to me,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, “and I will turn to you,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies.
4 “Do not be like your ancestors, to whom the former prophets called out, saying, ‘This is what the Lord of Heaven’s Armies has said, “Turn now from your evil wickedness,”’ but they would by no means obey me,” says the Lord.
5 “As for your ancestors, where are they? And did the prophets live forever?
6 But have my words and statutes, which I commanded my servants the prophets, not outlived your fathers? Then they paid attention and confessed, ‘The Lord of Heaven’s Armies has indeed done what he said he would do to us, because of our sinful ways.’”

The Introduction to the Visions

7 On the twenty-fourth day of the eleventh month, the month Shebat, in Darius’ second year, the Lord’s message came to the prophet Zechariah son of Berechiah son of Iddo:

The Content of the First Vision

8 I was attentive that night and saw a man seated on a red horse that stood among some myrtle trees in the ravine. Behind him were red, sorrel, and white horses.

The Interpretation of the First Vision

9 Then I asked one nearby, “What are these, sir?” The angelic messenger who replied to me said, “I will show you what these are.”
10 Then the man standing among the myrtle trees spoke up and said, “These are the ones whom the Lord has sent to walk about on the earth.”
11 The riders then agreed with the angel of the Lord, who was standing among the myrtle trees, “We have been walking about on the earth, and now everything is at rest and quiet.”
12 The angel of the Lord then asked, “O Lord of Heaven’s Armies, how long before you have compassion on Jerusalem and the other cities of Judah which you have been so angry with for these seventy years?”
13 The Lord then addressed good, comforting words to the angelic messenger who was speaking to me.
14 Turning to me, the messenger then said, “Cry out that the Lord of Heaven’s Armies says, ‘I am very much moved for Jerusalem and for Zion.
15 But I am greatly displeased with the nations that take my grace for granted. I was a little displeased with them, but they have only made things worse for themselves.

The Oracle of Response

16 “‘Therefore,’ this is what the Lord has said, ‘I have become compassionate toward Jerusalem and will rebuild my temple in it,’ says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. ‘Once more a surveyor’s measuring line will be stretched out over Jerusalem.’
17 Speak up again with the message of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies: ‘My cities will once more overflow with prosperity, and once more the Lord will comfort Zion and validate his choice of Jerusalem.’”

Vision Two: The Four Horns

18 (2:1 ) Once again I looked and this time I saw four horns.
19 So I asked the angelic messenger who spoke with me, “What are these?” He replied, “These are the horns that have scattered Judah, Israel, and Jerusalem.”
20 Next the Lord showed me four blacksmiths.
21 I asked, “What are these going to do?” He answered, “These horns are the ones that have scattered Judah so that there is no one to be seen. But the blacksmiths have come to terrify Judah’s enemies and cut off the horns of the nations that have thrust themselves against the land of Judah in order to scatter its people.”