Question: "What are the meanings of the various visions in the book of Zechariah?"
Answer: In Zechariah 1:7–6:8, the prophet Zechariah receives eight visions in one busy night:
1. The horseman among the myrtle trees (1:7-17)
2. The four horns and four craftsmen (1:18-21)
3. The surveyor (2:1-13)
4. The vision of Joshua the high priest (3:1-10)
5. The golden lampstand and two olive trees (4:1-14)
6. The flying scroll (5:1-4)
7. The woman in the basket (5:5-11)
8. The four chariots (6:1-8)
Zechariah begins his book with a strong call for Israel to repent (1:1-6). This theme of repentance is developed more fully through the subsequent eight visions. In general, these visions speak of God’s plans for Israel and especially for Jerusalem and the temple. Another major theme is the coming of the future Messiah. The prophet also had a mission of encouraging the post-exilic Jews to continue their work to rebuild the temple.
Here is a brief look at each of these divine visions:
1. The horseman among the myrtle trees (1:7-17): Zechariah sees a man and horses among the trees. The man explains that they had gone throughout the whole earth and found peace. An angel then tells the prophet that God still loved Israel and would restore Jerusalem. Verse 17 summarizes: “This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘My towns will again overflow with prosperity, and the LORD will again comfort Zion and choose Jerusalem.’”
2. The four horns and four craftsmen (1:18-21): Zechariah is shown four horns and four craftsmen. The angel tells him that the horns are four kingdoms that opposed Israel (Assyria, Egypt, Babylon, and Medo-Persia) and the craftsmen are coming to “throw down these horns”; i.e., God would defeat Israel’s enemies.
3. The surveyor (2:1-13): Zechariah sees a man holding a measuring line. When the prophet asks the man where he is going, the man says he is going to measure the city of Jerusalem. This vision represents God’s promise that Jerusalem will be expanded and its people will one day live in safety as the Lord judges Israel’s enemies.
4. The vision of Joshua the high priest (3:1-10): Zechariah sees Joshua the high priest standing in filthy clothes; he is before the Angel of the Lord, and Satan stands to the side. Satan is rebuked, and Joshua is given rich, clean clothes. God Himself explains the vision: Joshua will be blessed in his service to the Lord. The vision is also symbolic of Israel’s restoration as God’s “priestly” nation (cf. Exodus 19:6). This vision of Joshua ends with a prediction of the ultimate high priest—the coming Messiah, symbolized by a Branch and an all-seeing Stone.
5. The golden lampstand and two olive trees (4:1-14): An angel shows Zechariah a golden lampstand being fed oil from two olive trees. The two olive trees are symbolic of Zerubbabel the governor of Judah and Joshua the high priest. The golden lampstand represents the temple and temple-worshiping community. God was making the point that He would once again work through His people to lay the foundation of the temple and finish the work.
6. The flying scroll (5:1-4): Zechariah sees a large scroll, written on both sides, flying over the whole land. This vision speaks of God’s judgment upon those who disobeyed His law.
7. The woman in the basket (5:5-11): The angel shows the prophet a basket that could hold an ephah (three-fifths of a bushel). On the basket is a lead cover. The angel opens the basket to reveal a woman sitting inside. The angel says, “This is the iniquity of the people throughout the land,” and seals the basket again with the heavy lid. Two other women appear with stork-like wings; they pick up the basket and carry it to Babylon. This strange vision pictures suppressed wickedness to be banished to Babylon where it would eventually be freed (cf. Revelation 17).
8. The four chariots (6:1-8): Zechariah sees four horses of different colors pulling four chariots. They quickly run through the entire earth, with the result that God’s Spirit has “rest.” This vision represents a judgment upon the enemies of Israel. After the judgment, God’s wrath will be appeased, and “rest” ensues. This final vision brings the series of visions full circle: the first vision had pictured these horses at the end of their mission. A similar vision of judgment, also using the imagery of horses, is found in Revelation 6:1-8.
The two middle visions, numbers 4 and 5, emphasize God’s blessing. As Israel returns to Jerusalem and rebuilds the temple, they will find God’s favor. The work will be accomplished, “‘not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the LORD Almighty” (4:6).
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